Party politics and the loss of political courage
Has the emergence of strong two-party politics robbed North Carolina of the wellspring of political courage that set the state apart in the 20th century?
Retired director of the Institute of Government John Sanders got me thinking about this question the other day. Sanders said that he was worried that partisan politics might keep today’s North Carolina government from taking the kind of bold, progressive actions that pushed the state ahead during the last century.
Several years ago in this column I made a list of 20th Century defining events in North Carolina history.
Several of the events that made my list involved the assumption by the central state government of additional responsibilities. Bold action by the governor and the legislature were necessary in each case.
1. The creation of the State Highway Commission in 1921 under ‘Good Roads’ Gov. Cameron Morrison. Under Morrison’s leadership the legislature took over responsibility for county roads systems and authorized $50 million in bonded indebtedness to finance construction of new highways. Walter Turner’s recent Paving Tobacco Road tells this story in detail.
2. In 1931 during the administration of Gov. O. Max Gardner, the consolidation of the campuses of North Carolina State, Women’s College, and the University of North Carolina under one governing board and president, leading ultimately to the unified administration of all public higher education under the UNC system beginning in 1971.
3. Also during the administration of Gov. Garner, the state’s assumed primary responsibility for the funding of public schools with the passage of the School Machinery Act in 1931. Before this reorganization, virtually all funding for public schools came from local sources.
4. The state’s community college system began in 1957 under Gov. Luther Hodges with the passage of Community College Act and the appropriation of funds for a statewide system of industrial education centers.
Looking back at these initiatives, it is easy to see how critical they were to North Carolina’s progress. But at the time they were adopted, they were radical departures from settled ways of doing the public’s business ‘— and they involved substantial new financial commitments for state government.
John Sanders has me worried whether any of the initiatives have gotten off the ground in today’s political environment.
During most of the last century, Democratic control of state government was a given. Although there were plenty of differing opinions, there was no solid, organized, automatic opposition group.
John Sanders’ comments to me suggested that such bold initiatives were possible, in part, because the North Carolina governor and legislators were not involved in constant partisan bickering ‘— and they did not have to worry about losing control of state government to an opposing political party.
Bold initiatives cost money as well as overturning established ways of doing things. Nowadays, any proposal to spend a substantial sum of money for any initiative is probably dead in the water. When the Democrats have a slim majority, as they do in the current General Assembly, they know that any increase in taxes, no matter how meritorious the purpose, could lead to the defeat of enough of their legislators to mean the turnover of power to the other side.
When the Republicans have a majority and take control, the ‘no tax increase’ pledge taken by most of their legislators makes it impossible to address any state challenge that involves significant increases in resources.
If two-party competition did not have the state in a ‘no-response’ bind, what are the challenges that a forward-looking governor and legislature might feel compelled to face?
There is no shortage of possibilities. First of all, the Leandro case requires that the state face up to the constitutional mandate to provide sound public school educational opportunities throughout the state. Meeting this requirement would mean a reaffirmation of the state’s 1931 commitment ‘— and significant increased expenditures.
Others would point out the last chance for the state to protect a sizeable amount of undeveloped land, to protect water quality and the environment.
Economic development experts point out the need to expand opportunities for education and training opportunities beyond high school if future North Carolinians are to compete in the global economy.
There are lots of challenges. John Sanders has me worrying about whether our state still has the political wherewithal to meet any of them.