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June 13, 2013 5:44 PM Making Hay While the Sun Shines

By Ed Kilgore

I initially missed the fine snapshot of contemporary politics in North Carolina by Chris Komm and Sue Sturgins that TAP published last week. But I heartily recommend it not just as a quick primer on how the Tar Heel State began to rival Kansas and Texas as a conservative policy lab, but on why Republicans in a politically competitive state might defy the conventional wisdom that suggests a survival strategy of sticking closely to the ideological center.

If you’re not familiar with the story of how conservative businessman-turned-political-boss, Art Pope (who sort of combines the features of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, and Grover Norquist) engineered a Republican takeover of North Carolina, you can read it in the TAP piece (for more background, read Jane Mayer’s scary profile of Pope in the New Yorker back in 2011). A classic man-with-a-plan, Pope is now serving as budget director for the state’s new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and is implementing a strategy that is all the more urgent because North Carolina is indeed a purple state likely to turn bluer in the immediate future:

Recognizing that this conservative moment might not last long, Republican legislators are moving swiftly. Despite the headlines, the most notorious bills—like the resolution to establish a state religion or the measure to outlaw public nipple displays—have been nonstarters. But the core of Pope’s agenda is going ahead. Every lawmaker in North Carolina knows that agenda: Scale back taxes, especially for businesses and the wealthy; slice away at the social safety net; and reverse the state’s focus on public schools as an engine for social and economic progress.
In February, lawmakers decreased maximum weekly unemployment benefits from $535 to $350 and shortened the period in which workers can receive them—an especially harsh measure given that unemployment in North Carolina is the nation’s fifth highest at 9.2 percent. North Carolina is one of 15 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would have covered about 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians with the federal government picking up the tab. Now Governor McCrory is pushing to privatize management of the state Medicaid program, which would funnel North Carolina tax dollars to out-of-state managed-care companies while raising costs and reducing access to care.
Taxes became more regressive when lawmakers voted to end the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which was claimed in 2011 by more than 900,000 low-income, working North Carolinians. Senate Republicans are now considering a bill to cut the state’s corporate income tax from the highest to the lowest in the Southeast, which would be low indeed….
Republicans have also set their sights on gutting environmental laws, proposing to repeal the state’s renewable-energy standard, speed the way for fracking, and allow offshore drilling for oil and gas. The party is also taking aim at the historic centerpiece of North Carolina progressivism: public education, which has long been a target of Pope’s network. Last session, cuts to schools eliminated more than 4,300 teaching jobs. This time, one Republican bill would shift $90 million of public-school funding to private schools through vouchers. Another would eliminate teacher tenure. A proposal to shutter at least one UNC campus is on hold, following a public outcry.

And because Republicans would like if at all possible to extend their regime even if they are losing public support, Tar Heel Republicans are also aggressively promoting the “war on voting” with poll-access restrictions galore, and gerrymandering ruthlessly.

There’s a very active backlash developing in the many progressive precincts of the state, but that is simply making Pope’s legions more audacious. The broader lesson nationally is that you can’t count on creating Republican “moderation” simply by keeping politics competitive and hoping the GOP will “move to the center.” In some cases, conservatives will simply dedicate themselves to making hay while the sun shines.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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