Governing by illusion

The political contest in North Carolina is no longer between Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats have been vanquished, undone by their disorganization and lack of conviction and gerrymandered into irrelevance.

Now the contest is between Republicans and reality. And, for now, reality is losing.

That doesn’t mean reality will be overcome. It means an illusion is prevailing while the state’s true condition deteriorates.

The central illusion is that cutting taxes and state spending will spur the economy and improve the lives of North Carolinians of all incomes. GOP leaders trumpet the state’s job growth and shrinking unemployment rate as indicators of how their policies are having an effect.

The economy is improving, yes, but it is being lifted by a national recovery, not by cutting off unemployment benefits or lowering taxes on the wealthy and profitable corporations.

It’s true that jobs have come back since the onset of the recession. The state had 1.2 percent more jobs at the end of 2014 than it did when the recession began in December 2007. But that job growth has not kept up with the state’s population increase.

The main effect of Republican tax cuts has been to starve a state budget already lean from years of recession-induced austerity. State revenues are expected to be at least $200 million below projections this fiscal year and possibly more than $1 billion below what the state would have collected had taxes not been “reformed.” Republicans argue that $200 million isn’t much given the state’s $21 billion budget. But it’s a lot when the budget is shrinking and the state is growing.

Tightening government spending while the economy is trying to come back has stymied the recovery in North Carolina. Last year, public sector payrolls shrank, led by a 3.8 percent drop in the state government workforce. How can the state’s government be shedding jobs as its population is growing? It does so by ignoring the state’s needs.

Last week, North Carolina business leaders called for the state to increase spending on transportation by billions of dollars, even as revenue from the state’s gas tax is dropping sharply. How will that need be met? There is no General Assembly proposal for repairing the state’s infrastructure anymore than there is a plan for advancing its schools or lifting more of the poor out of poverty.

North Carolina hasn’t just stopped moving forward, it has stopped keeping up. It’s sliding backward, losing ground. And its people are, too.

What’s so discouraging about this reversal is that it’s unacknowledged by those responsible. As the General Assembly returned to session this month, Republican leaders showed not a whit of concern about the revenue shortfall or a doubt about their scorched-earth approach to state funding or any sign of listening to those who say the state should do more.

Sometimes it feels as if North Carolina is not so much being governed by conservative Republicans as being occupied by them. There is no listening, no negotiating, no adjustment in response to experience. There is simply a sense of, “We won – things are as we say they are, or soon will be.”

Republicans control the state. But they can’t dictate reality. It will express itself, and ultimately it can’t be denied. Look at Kansas, where a drop in tax revenue has forced Gov. Sam Brownback to acknowledge that deep tax and spending cuts have left the state short of meeting its needs.

The same will happen in North Carolina. The question is, how much damage will be done before Republicans are forced to look past their illusions and see the real state of North Carolina?