"It's going to take us a little time to recover from 100 years of disaster. But guess what? We're going to go ahead and we're going to show you how to do it. You're welcome to join us, or you can cry about it."
- Republican state Sen. Bob Rucho, Feb. 3, 2011
"This budget is your budget, and you're going to accept responsibility for it. We're going to make sure of it. I once again say to you I hope you're right, because we have got to recover from this recession or we are going to be looking like a third world country before too long."
- Democratic state Sen. Martin Nesbitt, June 1, 2011
When politics descend into hyperbole, the people lose.
But that seems to be the way things are going during this session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
Sen. Rucho, a key Republican leader in the Senate, set the bar high back in February. Sen. Nesbitt, the Democratic Minority Leader, was the first person I heard compare the state budget to the Titanic. Interestingly, he did it within minutes of complaining that Republicans hadn't given him time to actually read that budget.
The governor called the GOP's budget, which passed this weekend, a charade. State School Board Chairman Bill Harrison said it will do "irreparable harm" to the state.
Speaker of the House Thom Tillis told this weekend's state GOP convention that NCAE staffers, who lobby for teachers, "don't care about kids, they don't care about classrooms, they only care about their jobs and their pensions."
What are the chances, do you figure, that they care about all those things?
When leaders say ridiculous things, they pander to our lazier sides. They reinforce the sad notion that only the largest headlines matter, and they make it that much more difficult for people to get at the truth. And with a densely written state budget, spanning dozens of complicated programs implemented by thousands of people and subject to hundreds of federal mandates, let me assure you, it's hard enough already.
When we lapse into hyperbole the debate so often degenerates into stunts and insults. Gay rights activists burst onto the House floor shouting slogans. We get the NAACP's state president shouting at legislators from the House gallery. House Rules Chairman Stephen LaRoque calls the state NAACP a racist organization, run by cowards and thugs.
None of that seems productive. I wish they were my only examples.
Last week, in a stooge-esque mishap, House Republicans left the microphones on during a private causus meeting, broadcasting it throughout the legislative building and on the Internet. They called the governor incompetent and joked that only state Rep. David Lewis should talk about a particularly sticky portion of the budget bill, because he can "obfuscate" really well.
That means to lie, and to get away with it.
Meanwhile Democrats, struggling with being in the minority for the first time, make it sound like they're the only answer to any given problem. Their deep concern over North Carolina's very future just five months after the GOP took control of the Legislature remind me of the far-right's hand wringing over President Barack Obama and his socialist conspiracy to destroy the United States of America.
If your country, or your state, is so fragile that politicians can bring it down within a few years, you didn't have much to start with.
The thing is, both sides make good arguments over the very real philosophical disagreements that separate them, and that's particularly true of Democrats when it comes to the budget. But they're painting over these arguments with bloated catch phrases.
State environmental regulators will find themselves stymied in this budget, in the name of being more business-friendly. Public Safety cuts, including the complete elimination of the state's drug court, may be worth seriously worrying about (see sidebar).
The Medicaid budget seems to lay out a number of questionable savings goals, backstopped by potential eliminations in services provided the state's poor and elderly (paragraph 5).
In the education budget, Nesbitt said Republicans are "throwing in the seed corn" to fill budget holes. That is, they're making changes that will be very hard to recover from because they pull out the underpinnings important state programs. He pointed to the state's teaching fellows program, which offers bright students college scholarships if they'll become teachers.
"It has led to a dramatic improvement in the quality of people going into teaching." Nesbitt said. "We just abolished that. Those kinds of things fundamentally kill your program. When you send those kinds of messages out there, nobody's going to want to be a teacher."
That makes sense. And it comes through a lot clearer if people aren't distracted because you're telling them North Carolina's about to hit an iceberg and sink to the bottom of the ocean. When people hear stuff like that, eventually they tune it all out. And overstating your concerns just makes them easier for the other side to dismiss.
So, as The Charlotte Observer said Sunday, "everyone put the verbal guns down and take a deep breath. The budget that state legislators passed Saturday is neither the job-creating miracle legislative leaders claim nor the near-criminal attack on children that Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue suggests."
Don't try to scare people. Don't try to brush away legitimate concerns. Don't try to win. Just tell the truth.