Why Sen. Berger's opening speech missed the mark
In an anxious time, a rosy picture of North Carolina doesn't quite resonate
As Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger struck the gavel on the opening day of the long session, he painted a rosy picture of North Carolina and his party’s work to transform it.
“Over the last 12 years and following the simple formula of lower taxes, less regulation, and a commitment to quality education, our state has flourished,” he told the chamber, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “North Carolina regularly ranks as a top state for business and jobs. We continue to recruit and attract a wide variety of employers and entrepreneurs to the state.”
The job now, he said, is to build on that success — continuing to lower taxes, repeal regulations and invest in infrastructure.
He’s right, of course. But he’s also dead wrong.
Before we start in, it’s important to recognize how things were in North Carolina before the GOP took control of the General Assembly. In his speech, Berger noted that the state faced a recession-induced $2.5 billion deficit and had laid off hundreds of teachers and government workers. Today, North Carolina has built up a multi-billion-dollar reserve fund that will help the state weather the next economic downturn, whether that comes in 2023 or later down the line.
The state’s personal income tax rate stood at 7.75% on families earning $60,000 or more, one of the highest tax burdens in the country. This year, it will be 4.75%, allowing workers to keep significantly more money in their pockets.
New charter schools were essentially banned, due to a cap of 100 set by the Democratic majority. Now charter schools are flourishing across the state, giving parents more choices in education. Low-income parents also have access to scholarship programs that allow their children to attend a high-quality charter school.
The state is undoubtedly better. And yet.
Berger’s sanguine demeanor feels out of place in today’s North Carolina. Two out of three North Carolinians believe the country is on the wrong track, and that’s the most optimistic data point in recent months. Another two-thirds believe the state's education system needs changes, even major ones.
It’s an anxious time in America and in North Carolina. Families worry about inflation eating up their paychecks, illegal drugs poisoning their communities, hollowed-out job markets limiting their prospects, incompetent bureaucrats who fail to deliver basic government services, and opaque school systems pursuing their own ideologies while failing to teach students reading and math.
The state isn’t crying out for lower taxes and less regulation, though we’re happy to have them. We’re looking for leaders who will stand athwart the national morass and carve out an oasis of sanity and success.
This is the appeal of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who just won re-election by historic margins in a state that was even more purple than North Carolina only a few years ago. He casts himself as a foil against Washington not just for his own future political aspirations, but also because it’s what his constituents want. This approach is summed up well in DeSantis’s second inaugural address delivered earlier this month. It’s short and worth the read. A selection:
“Over the past few years, as so many states in our country grinded their citizens down, we in Florida lifted our people up. When other states consigned their people’s freedom to the dustbin, Florida stood strongly as freedom’s linchpin.
When the world lost its mind – when common sense suddenly became an uncommon virtue – Florida was a refuge of sanity, a citadel of freedom for our fellow Americans and even for people around the world.”
How? Tax cuts and regulation reductions, to be sure. But also by standing up to corporate interests, battling radical ideology in schools and opposing national mandates, among numerous other legislative victories.
To be fair to Berger, a governor has a much stronger position to deliver a message like this than even a powerful state Senate president. But the state as a whole is looking for leadership that recognizes the zeitgeist and responds to it.
This is Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s path to the Executive Mansion. If he can stay focused on the issues that matter, project competence and promise results, he has a chance to win — and take the mantle of the state’s most powerful Republican from Phil Berger.
5 things of note
General Assembly crafting abortion bill that can overcome veto
As the General Assembly begins its work, legislative leaders have sent out a test balloon on the type of abortion bill currently in the works. The details are scarce, but the framework appears clear: A limit set at 13 weeks, with exceptions.
The bill doesn’t go nearly as far as pro-life constituents would like, but it would protect unborn babies significantly earlier than the current law that sets the abortion cut-off at 20 weeks.
It also has a very good chance of overcoming Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. A relatively moderate abortion bill like that would be extremely likely to get a rural, moderate, religious Democrat like Rep. Michael Wray or Rep. Garland Pierce to cross party lines and vote to override the veto.
Lt. Gov. Robinson calls for North Carolina to be “destination state for life”
Headlining the North Carolina March for Life on Saturday, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson said that North Carolina should become a “destination state for life” rather than abortion, according to The News & Observer.
Since the Dobbs decision turned control over abortion back to the states, North Carolina has emerged as the Southeastern state with among the most permissive abortion laws. Already, evidence has emerged showing that women have begun traveling to North Carolina from out-of-state to end their unborn children’s lives, encouraged by Gov. Roy Cooper.
Robinson said that North Carolina should lead the way not by passing the most strict abortion bill, but by giving mothers the support they need and ensuring that children can grow up in an environment where they can succeed.
The state “can be a leader in the charge to stand up for life and to ensure people don’t go to the abortion clinics — not because there’s a law — but simply because they don’t want to. Because North Carolina is a place that makes life worth living, and life worth giving,” he said, according to the N&O.
Charlotte must rethink mass transit plan
The city of Charlotte wants to spend some $13 billion on mass transit within its borders, primarily focused on building new light rail lines, but also creating new bike lanes and bus routes. To do so, city leaders would like General Assembly approval for a sales tax increase. House Speaker Tim Moore said this week that the idea is basically dead on arrival. Rather than focus on creating new ways to get around, Moore said, the city should instead make it easier to drive.
He’s not wrong, of course. Charlotte has squandered basically all of the goodwill it had on transportation issues when it sunk hundreds of millions of dollars on a streetcar project with terrible service and virtually no ridership. For years, the city has viewed mass transit as an economic development project, rather than a piece of critical infrastructure.
Charlotte leaders need to completely rethink how they approach transit and how they talk about it. To have any chance of buy-in from the state, it needs to be focused on easing congestion and making it easier to get around within the region. Yes, that means highways, too. A serious mass transit plan should include a plan to eliminate backups on I-85 and I-77 — and a compelling rationale for why Charlotte matters to the rest of the state. A good start could be to offer to pony up for new free lanes on I-77 south of Charlotte.
Josh Stein, headline hunter
Gov. Roy Cooper built his name as state attorney general by virtue of longevity and fundraising. He spent 16 years in the post before ultimately running for governor.
Current Attorney General Josh Stein has less than half of that tenure — and he’s taking a distinctly modern approach to building his name ID. He’s headline hunting, tailoring his priorities to the news cycle to garner positive press coverage from quick-hitting, click-bait newsrooms. At least that’s what it seems like, based on priorities outlined by Axios Charlotte. TikTok and Taylor Swift are at the top of the list.
House changes to rules to allow for quicker veto override votes
Get ready for some drama in the new legislative session. The state House is adopting a rule change that will allow the Speaker to call for a veto override vote without prior notice, meaning you could conceivably get an override vote when a Democrat or two are absent for the day. Before, the House had to wait two days after providing notice of an override vote.
It’s a politically risky move. Gov. Cooper and the media will certainly raise a major ruckus if such a vote comes to pass, eroding goodwill among swing voters. But it’s not a bad thing to have in your back pocket to enact critically important legislation that will ultimately be of value to the state.
2 good ideas from another state
Iowa's universal school choice bill. In her "Condition of the State" speech this week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced a bill that would create education savings accounts for families who choose to send their children to private school. The state of Iowa would contribute $7,598 to these accounts — the amount of per-pupil spending in traditional public schools. If passed, the new education savings accounts would be phased in over three years, with low-income families getting first access.
Ohio’s universal license recognition law. At the start of the year, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law legislation that makes it dramatically easier for plumbers, electricians, cosmetologists and other licensed professionals to get clearance to work in Ohio after moving from out of state. If you’ve had a valid license for a year or more and have no outstanding criminal complaints, you can get your new Ohio license immediately. After all, as the Wall Street Journal editorial put it, “moving to Ohio doesn’t make you a bad plumber.” At least nine other states already have similar laws, but North Carolina hasn’t seriously considered one.
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