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Paul T. O’Connor: N.C. GOP officials keep boxing in Democrats

RALEIGH – You have to give credit to state Republicans: They’re pretty clever.

They keep finding simple issues to drive their voters to the polls while putting Democrats on the defensive, like an income tax cap.

If the House approves SB 75, voters will decide in November 2018 whether they want the state constitution to cap personal income taxes at 5.5 percent, down from 10 percent.

Over the last six years, Republicans flattened the personal income tax structure and set the single rate at 5.499 percent, the highest it could be should their constitutional amendment pass. It’s understandable that they want to make those changes permanent.

There’s a political angle also.

Look ahead to the fall of 2018, and GOP prospects are negative for at least five reasons.

In the normal political cycle, the sitting president’s party loses seats in off-year elections.

President Donald Trump is historically unpopular after two months in office and he has fired up the Democratic base.

Republicans must defend whatever happens to the Affordable Care Act. None of the currently discussed options looks like a winner at the polls.

Republicans will be embroiled in a civil war among factions of conservatives, conservatives and conservatives come the May 2018 primaries.

Legislative Republicans might be running in new districts ordered by the federal courts.

It behooves Republicans, therefore, to find a single, easily defined issue, like a tax cap, to drive turnout.

Republicans will say: “We cut your taxes. Don’t let Democrats raise them if they ever get back in office.”

That message is simple, puts Democrats on the defensive, and typical of such Republican gambits, forces Democrats into lengthy rebuttals.

Democrats: “They didn’t cut taxes; they just shifted taxes to help the rich and they could still raise the sales tax or take away deductions you use, or they could add things to the sales tax, and we need the money for the next recession and to pay our teachers more.”

Republicans: “We cut your taxes. We don’t want to raise them. Democrats want to raise them.”

Democrats: “But it may rain. We might need to raise taxes to deal with hurricane relief.”

Republicans: “We’ve built the biggest Rainy Day Fund in state history, even though Gov. Roy Cooper opposed it.”

At every turn, on this one at least, it looks like Democrats are boxed in.

Then the question becomes: Will the opportunity to cap one’s income taxes be enough to get angry conservatives to the polls, especially those conservatives who lose in the intraparty squabbles over Obamacare, or have a favorite candidate lose in the spring primaries?

The betting here is that it will be enough. Nothing fires up the conservative base like the threat to raise taxes. (Republicans will, of course, say that Democrats are planning to raise taxes.)

Of course, there’s that old saying about the best-laid plans. But what could go wrong?

That’s likely what Republicans were asking last year when they launched their too clever bathroom bill gambit. Republicans would be for protecting women and girls while Democrats would have to defend “perverts” in the ladies room.

We all know how that turned out. There was no evidence of “perverts” in the bathroom, and we lost both jobs and home court advantage in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

Paul T. O’Connor writes columns for the Capitol Press Association and has covered state government.

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