Citizen Green: The players change, the game is the same

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

In politics, you play the hand that’s dealt you. Sen. Kay Hagan, a former banker whose children attended Greensboro Day School, has become an economic populist by necessity.

Her opponent for US Senate is a legislative leader whose party bestowed lavish favors on the rich and she’s running in a mid-term election that depends on turning out her party base. So she’s talking about the needs of ordinary folk and painting her opponent as a friend to oligarch.

Hagan hammered relentlessly at decisions to cut taxes for the wealthy while cutting off long-term unemployment benefits and failing to expand Medicaid under state House Speaker Thom Tillis’ leadership in the first US Senate debate on Sept. 3.

But Tillis made a retort to Hagan’s charge that, uncomfortable as it may be for her progressive supporters to hear, happens to be true.

“These tax cuts for the rich that Kay’s talking about are largely the things that she’s using in her ads attacking me,” Tillis said. “As a matter of fact, Kay’s ads have gotten so negative she’s really attacking herself. She’s attacking a policy that she supported as a state senator.”

Hagan positioned herself as a business centrist in her 2008 election, unseating Republican Elizabeth Dole largely by exploiting a popular perception that the sitting senator was more preoccupied with being a Washington player than coming home to visit her constituents back in North Carolina. Among Hagan’s qualifications for the job was her experience as a senior budget writer in the state Senate. The left-leaning NC Budget & Tax Center faulted the Senate in the summer of 2007 for a budget that cut taxes for the rich while underfunding programs to help working people.

In contrast to the budgets put forward by Gov. Mike Easley and the House that year, the center reported that the Senate was proposing to allow a provision maintaining the income-tax bracket for top earners at 8 percent to expire at a cost of about $300 million in lost recurring revenue.

The report went on to say: “The Senate invests less to educate disadvantaged students, to insure children, and to build affordable housing and does not include any targeted tax reductions for low- and moderate-income working families.”

Prior to the Great Recession, the state coffers were flush, and the Democratic-controlled legislature at the time could have maintained the tax rate for top earners while making significant investments to help working people, or held the surplus in savings to offset some of the devastating cuts that were to come.

Granted, the tax cut for top earners under the state budget crafted by Hagan — 0.25 percent — is modest compared to the whacking accomplished more recently by the Republicans. Tillis and his Republican allies are responsible for a tax plan that replaces the progressive three-tiered system of 7.75, 7 and 6 percent with a single state income-tax bracket of 5.8 percent.

For many of us, whether Hagan returns to Washington or Tillis goes in her place, the machinations of the federal government are distant and abstract. But we feel the pain emanating out of Raleigh.

The same NC Budget & Tax Center that assailed Hagan’s proposed 2008 budget has recently released a report analyzing the impact of the 2015 budget adopted by Republican lawmakers. It’s not pretty.

The report argues that lawmakers neglected to make investments in education, economic development and health and human services, “hampering the recovery of struggling communities and failing to build a foundation for an economy that works for all.”

The center estimates that the tax plan could cost the state $1.1 billion by June 2015, while state funding remains $1.5 billion below pre-recession levels in 2008.

Public schools are underfunded, while funding for instructional supplies is 50 percent lower than before the Great Recession. The fact that students are forced share outdated textbooks is widely acknowledged among local education leaders, even those who share the same party affiliation as the legislative leaders in Raleigh. “There are books in our classrooms; you can’t really say there are no books in our classrooms,” Lori Goins Clark, a Republican candidate for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, told conservative voters at luncheon last week. “Granted, you can say that they are old.”

Guilford County voters will vote in November on whether to approve a 1/4-cent sales tax to replace funding stripped by the state to maintain teacher pay, retain teaching assistants, and buy classroom supplies and technology.

It gets worse: Cuts to the University of North Carolina system and community colleges while tuition creeps up. Cuts to hospitals that “could mean more providers refuse to see Medicaid patients.” Cuts to programs that deliver meals and provide transportation to doctor appointments for seniors. Reductions in childcare subsidies that “could put children at risk by forcing parents who cannot afford higher costs to choose between leaving their children in unsafe conditions or missing work and potentially losing a job.”

Considering the imbalance of power in Raleigh, our Democratic representatives currently wield almost no influence over the lawmaking process. The best we can hope for is that Republican voters will start to get fed up with the pain their representatives are inflicting on them.

Will a true champion of the people please stand up?