Paul T. O’Connor: GOP state lawmakers dismantle local control

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 28, 2017

RALEIGH — Let’s look back six years to the beginning of this Republican legislative era and ask: Has the GOP done what we, or at least I, expected?

On tax changes: Yes. Republicans returned the sales tax to 6.75 percent, flattened the progressive income tax to one bracket, significantly cut taxes on upper income for the affluent and threw a little relief to the rest of us, and then they expanded coverage of the sales tax to include services.

On government regulation: Yes, they curtailed it, especially in the environmental area.

On redistricting: Yes, they drew legislative and congressional districts, maybe unconstitutionally, that gave their party huge advantages in every election since.

On social issues: Yes, they tried to tighten laws regarding abortion clinics, constitutionally banned same-sex marriage ban and fabricated a crisis regarding bathrooms.

On education: Yes, they expanded charter schools, cut the UNC budget, denied teacher raises for a number of years and cut teacher assistants. Then they raised teacher pay before the last election.

In all of these areas, North Carolinians got what they voted for in the decisive 2010 election, the Republican version of less government, except when it comes to social issues when we got more government.

There is one category of Republican behavior, however, that defies expectations.

On local government: No.

For the nearly 40 years I covered the legislature, it has been Republican dogma that local government governs best. Republican legislators have chanted this local government mantra time and again. Yet, in the years since 2011, Republicans have bludgeoned local control.

They tried to strip Asheville of its water system and Charlotte of its airport. They meddled in the county commission and school board districts of who knows how many counties.

In 2014, they took away local government’s authority to charge a franchise tax, seriously damaging some town budgets.

The legislature’s battles with the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Associations of County Commissioners have been long, nasty affairs, often involving local grievances and petty intraparty squabbles. The whole HB2 mess began, remember, with the legislature’s decision to undo the Charlotte council’s action.

A bill filed last week epitomizes the heavy-handed, “we’re in control so shut up” attitude of too many Republican legislators. Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, filed a local bill repealing Orange County’s authority to charge impact fees on new developments.

Stevens does not represent Orange, nor did she discuss her bill with Orange representatives, according to news stories. She just decided to meddle in the budget of another county because she could.

This is a grotesque and rare violation of legislative etiquette. If passed, and that is by no means certain, the bill would have significant repercussions for Orange County’s school budget and would likely lead to a local property tax increase. All of that would have been perpetrated against the will of locally elected officials and local voters.

But Republicans are in charge, they have the votes, and they have shown time and again that they are ready to do whatever they damned well please.

We got what we expected from a Republican legislature except when it comes to local governance, a concept the GOP has abandoned.

A personal note: For the third time in my career, I’m signing off from the Capitol Press Association this week. Mark Binker, a gifted journalist far younger than I, is the new editor and columnist. My thanks go to all of my readers and editors. Writing a column is about as much fun as anyone can have at work.