Exile on Jones Street: Doing the time warp, again

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

A few years ago it started dawning on the keen observers of public policy — professional and otherwise — that we weren’t so much heading into uncharted waters, but retracing our route through various hazards we’d already sailed past.

It was our turn as a state for a remedial moment, heading back to work through a checklist of ideological items we’d managed to steer clear of, like the marriage amendment, aggressive abortion restrictions, rollbacks of benefits and the repeal — the repeal — of the Racial Justice Act.

The turn-back-the-clock analogy may be a little too easy but it works in that in order to adopt these new/old ideas policy makers had to adopt a backward-thinking view.

Some of it was pure political cynicism, like the Amendment One push, that served as both a sop to social conservatives and bigots, and also a GOTV exercise.

Some of the dial-back was astounding.

To vote for a clinic-closing abortion-restrictions bill and for defunding Planned Parenthood you had to believe that making it harder for women to get access to reproductive health care would somehow be a benefit, ignoring not just recent findings, but a few centuries of research to the contrary.

Whenever new leadership rolls into Raleigh, you expect change. What I think wasn’t expected, especially to folks left of center, was that so many core accomplishments and legally settled policies would have to be re-argued.

This may have been a natural result of people who had been out of power for most of their careers suddenly having grasp of the reins. But there was a quick decision to press the case that the people had voted not just to throw out the old Democratic power brokers but for a whole new philosophy of government.

What’s most stunning is not the depth of specific potential changes in the more hotly debated issues, but the breadth of change throughout state government. Progressive policies are being undone at all levels no matter how well they’re achieving their mission.

And the pace of changes doesn’t show any sign of slowing. Now, as the political appointees to boards and commissions and new staffers roam the halls, the pace is actually starting to pick up, much of it in the more opaque layers of government that don’t get reported on much.

Even in the areas that are in broad daylight and well covered there is so much in the works that it is hard to keep up with the changes, let alone game out the consequences.

This week, for instance, the UNC Board of Governors is looking at a plan to cap financial aid, a move that would dry up scholarships statewide. It would drop nearly $20 million annually in money for the Carolina Covenant at UNC-Chapel Hill. The covenant, as you may recall, was set up as a promise to this state’s middle- and low-income families that during a time of rising tuition their children could still afford to go to a state university.

With tuition hikes showing little sign of a change in trajectory, it’s hard not to see that as a broken promise. It’s called a covenant after all, but apparently even those are fair game under the new paradigm.

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The experience convinced me that part of the puzzle of how to keep doing journalism in these times is to ask your readers and the people who believe in what you’re doing to get involved every now and again.

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