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Verner: Shocking behavior in the legislature

As this edition of the N.C. General Assembly draws to a close, I wonder if people grasp the horrible implications of what just transpired in Raleigh.
The state budget has been downsized, albeit by a modest amount. A temporary sales tax scheduled to expire has actually been allowed to expire. Some taxes have been lowered for small businesses. Annexation reform went through. The stateís regulatory framework has been remodeled and reduced. The cap on charter schools is history. Public schools will have to make do with less, as will universities and community colleges. For the first time in state history, a governor vetoed a budget, and that veto failed to stick.
In other words, the Republicans who gained majorities in the legislature last November have done what some feared. They fulfilled their campaign promises, or at least a significant portion thereof. With a few lapses (more on that later), they behaved like … well, like they said they would behave.
Politicians keeping their promises? This is not what weíve come to expect in the read-my-lips, end-of-big-government, I-was-for-it-before-I-was-against-it era of pretty promises and dismal results. We no more expect politicians to keep their promises to voters than we expect them to keep their wedding vows. According to a recent survey by the World Economic Forum, the level of public trust in politicians is higher in Azerbaijan and Botswana than in the United States. And that was before the indictment of John Edwards.
What happened in Raleigh shakes our perception of political reality. It roils the layers of cynicism and doubt that have accrued over the years like the choking silt of a muddy river. Itís as if we looked out the window and saw levitating swine, or opened the door to discover that the regal figure handing us a check really was a Nigerian prince, and it cleared the bank with ease.
The temptation, of course, is to view kept promises only in terms of how we perceive the consequences. In theory, at least, most of us like the idea of low taxes and streamlined government. However, if your job is among the 13,000 public education positions expected to fall under the ax, you wonít like these promises. If youíre worried about the rollback of environmental protections or the future of the stateís early-childhood programs, you probably wonít like them, either. Ditto for those worried about abortion rights, unfettered access to the ballot box and a number of other issues.
But what weíre talking about here is truth in packaging, not the contents of the box itself.
Perhaps Iím reading too much into one session. It marked Republicansí return to legislative power for the first time in a century. When youíve been on the sidelines for 100 years, you tend to get rusty on the rules of the game. Such as: Be vague about your intentions. Refuse to be pinned down. Go for the sound bite rather than the bold decision. Favor obfuscation over candor. Govern with one eye on the polls and the other on the next election cycle.
As mentioned earlier, there were some lapses suggesting this session may in fact be an aberration, and things will soon revert to form.
While taking shears to the state budget, House Speaker Thom Tillis handed out $30,000 a person raises to his staff. Rather than cutting the staff budget below the level of his predecessor (Democrat Joe Hackney), as promised, Tillis increased it.
In a closed meeting where a microphone was inadvertently left on, House Leader Skip Stam was overheard saying that Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County should be the partyís point man on redistricting because he was their best ěobfuscator.î (As if redistricting were not already as inscrutable as divining the future from chicken entrails.)
After promising increased transparency, Republicans fought to roll back recent legislation that expanded public access to personnel actions involving government employees. They also introduced a bill that would have taken the ěpublicî out of public notices by allowing governments to forgo publishing them in community newspapers.
So perhaps thereís hope this session was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, like the return of Haleyís Comet or the birth of a white buffalo. For an electorate long accustomed to wink-and-a-nod electioneering, a sudden shift to campaign clarity and substantive follow-through might be too traumatic a shock to bear. Heaven forbid we might feel compelled to start paying attention when politicians open their mouths.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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