In battling Republican lawmakers over the budget, Gov. Bev Perdue has emerged as a mighty opponent | News Feature | Indy Week
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In battling Republican lawmakers over the budget, Gov. Bev Perdue has emerged as a mighty opponent 

She can dish it out—and she can take it

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In better times, progressives might've howled. But locked in mortal combat with the Republicans, most Democrats rallied to the governor's side. The "penny tax," as virtually all of her allies refer to it, is virtually invisible to the voters, Democrats say, as if that's a good thing.

Plus, they add, it's not a new tax—unlike, say, the progressives' dream of applying the sales tax to such white-collar goodies as legal bills, landscaping services and other purchases that escape taxation now. (Buy a mower, it's taxed. Pay a mower, it isn't.)

In short, the penny tax may not be good policy, but it's good politics as far as most Democrats are concerned—and right now, the Democrats are in desperate need of a political victory.

Then too, any philosophical differences within the Democrats' ranks paled in the face of the frontal assault launched by the new Republican legislators. They blew into Raleigh waving bills to, among other things, repeal the Racial Justice Act; prohibit the state from accepting federal funds for rail-transit projects; allow an unlimited number of charter schools—but, to the detriment of low-income kids, don't require transportation or lunch; limit early voting; slow Election Day voting with a time-consuming photo ID requirement aimed at suppressing the Democratic vote; and force women to pay for an ultrasound exam and wait 24 hours before exercising their legal right to terminate a pregnancy. The quintessential Republican bill would allow gun owners to take a concealed weapon into a bar.

No right-wing Republican cause was neglected. Gay bashers were rewarded with a proposed amendment to the state constitution, the Defense of Marriage Amendment (DOMA) seeking to elevate anti-gay discrimination in North Carolina from mere law to a constitutional requirement. The DOMA would ban gay marriages or civil unions and could be on the 2012 election ballot.

Republicans then quickly went to work on the budget, demanding more severe cuts to education than Perdue had proposed. To keep their campaign promise of not raising or extending any taxes, they had to cut the education budgets, which account for about 60 percent of state spending; GOP leaders were trying to balance their spending plan without even Perdue's three-quarter-cent tax.

Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis took charge, promoting a plan to eliminate at least 20,000 jobs—including 13,000 teacher assistants in grades K–12—from public schools, community colleges and the UNC system. Additional job losses from cuts to Medicaid and other programs would push the number of lost jobs north of 30,000, the governor's office said.

"Why would they do this now, when more than ever we need educated workers to attract good companies and good jobs?" Perdue shot back in a column published in The Fayetteville Observer.

The Republicans' answer came straight out of tea party economics. Far from sparking economic growth, they said, every dollar spent in the public sector—and every public job—is a dollar and a job subtracted from the private economy.

Cutting 20,000 jobs from the schools and universities? The money saved would create 20,000 private-sector jobs, Republican leaders said. And it's private enterprise that grows the economy, not the public sector—not even the public schools.

With the battle lines drawn, Perdue began to veto bills. Her poll numbers went up. She threatened vetoes. Her poll numbers went up again.

Before Democratic audiences, Perdue said she wouldn't tolerate the Voter ID bill and that the Republicans better change it. Her audiences cheered. Through House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, she threatened to veto the charter-school bill as written. Democratic legislators cheered.

Republican political strategist Carter Wrenn, once Jesse Helms' right-hand man, recognized the phenomenon immediately. For two years, he wrote on the Talking Politics blog he shares with Democrat Gary Pearce, Perdue had been battling "problems"—faceless abstractions like deficits, unemployment and recessions—and she had been losing at every turn. "But now she's face-to-face with a new enemy: Republicans," Wrenn wrote. "And things are looking a lot better. Republicans are a lot easier to whip than 'problems.'"

In the last 10 days, a poll taken for the conservative Civitas Institute in Raleigh put Perdue's job approval rating at 46 percent (with 41 percent disapproval), "an uptick," conceded Civitas President Francis De Luca. Another survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Perdue gaining on Republican Pat McCrory in a hypothetical rematch of their 2008 election contest. She trailed 46-39, her best showing since she beat him. PPP's Tom Jensen attributed her rise to dispirited Democrats coming home and independent voters turning away from the GOP.

"The biggest beneficiary of the growing unpopularity of North Carolina's legislative Republicans?" Jensen said. "It might be Gov. Bev Perdue."

By declaring the battle of the budget, the Republicans handed Perdue a political gift: the chance to reassemble, after a rough two years in office, the old North Carolina Democratic coalition of public school teachers, university leaders, corporate executives and the African-American community that saw Jim Hunt through four terms as governor with a mantra that good schools equal economic growth equals more higher-paying jobs.

After three decades of near-anonymity as a state legislator and lieutenant governor, Perdue for the first time has established a clear public profile for herself. She's pro-education, she smiles easily and is comfortable being in charge. And she's pro-business, with all the plusses that conveys—and the limitations that she's yet to overcome.

Launching her Education Works campaign, Perdue has been in boardrooms and classrooms, at rallies with the NCAE (the teachers association) and in prayer meetings with the NAACP. Most of all, she's campaigned in the media—including the social media.

This is a governor who is easy to find, who likes answering questions, knows the minutiae of government cold and seemingly remembers by name thousands of people. If you don't ask the right question, she'll ask it herself and tweet (@ncgovoffice) the correct answer to you.

In school after school, Perdue talks about how education is "woven into the fabric of who we are in North Carolina" and that the job now is to improve schools, not "go backwards."

These visits often seem improvised and are announced to the press on short notice. Such was the case when Perdue sped across town from the state Capitol one day in early May and burst through the front door of Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School, which has special science and technology classes.

Perdue wrapped her arms around Principal Beulah Wright, then headed upstairs to visit Michelle Greshock's earth science class. Greshock didn't need much prompting before telling the governor that her labs already feel the impact of budget cutting. Fewer teachers means that some of her classes have too many students performing a lot of hands-on work with potentially dangerous chemicals, she said. So instead of doing science with her students, she's too often left to talk about doing science instead, which isn't as effective.

Perdue turned to the reporters trailing along. "I didn't put her up to this," she quipped before turning serious. "This is the real world all of these students are going to face," Perdue said. "I don't believe there is a voter in North Carolina who would say, if you see this copper penny, I would rather keep it in my pocket than help keep a good teacher in my child or grandchild's classroom," Perdue said. "I don't believe that."

Her talk about the penny prompted the question, as she raced down the hall to another class, of whether Perdue wished that she'd put the full 1-cent sales tax in her budget rather than just three-quarters of a penny—a difference worth $300 million a year to state revenues.

No, she said, pausing to confide in the questioner. When she put forward the three-quarter-cent plan, she said, she thought it was so reasonable the Republicans would agree to it on the spot. With a little smile, she added, "I guess I was naïve."

Not naïve, certainly, but as Rob Schofield, research director of NC Policy Watch, says, it looks like Perdue set the budget bar too low. Her request for $19.9 billion was where a compromise should have come out, he said.

The problem is, North Carolina's business leaders are pro-education, but they are not pro-taxes, nor are they early adopters of public investments—in transit services, housing and other initiatives that the state needs.

But hewing close to the pro-business line, Perdue is hemmed in on anything that isn't about education.

Her dilemma was apparent Friday when Perdue sent three of her cabinet secretaries into a press conference to say that their departments should get more money from the Republicans. Even if the GOP's budget met Perdue's budget, putting $700 billion more into education and matching her $19.9 billion total, it would still leave Medicaid funding woefully short, for example, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources terribly short-staffed.

Meanwhile, the Republicans' budget is loaded with anti-environment policy riders directing DENR to go easy enforcing the clean water and clean air laws. They add up, environmentalists say, to a return of the old Hardison Amendments, named for a crusty pro-bidness Democrat from the '80s, which for years barred DENR from enacting any regulation unless federal law required it.

Environmentalists are watching to see if Perdue uses her newfound clout to take on the Republicans over the "Hardison" riders and a raft of other anti-enforcement measures moving through the General Assembly. "She faces a lot of very difficult policy decisions before the end of the session," says Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.

The Indy talked with a dozen progressive leaders and legislators about Perdue's performance in office. Almost all gave her good grades, considering the terrible economy she's been up against and the lack of state revenues.

Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, says Perdue has supported his organization's work for gay rights. He hopes she'll campaign against DOMA when the time comes.

Paige Johnson, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Central N.C., calls Perdue strong on women's issues, including reproductive choice, and she believes the governor will veto the bill that would force women to be "educated" about abortions before having one (Democrats call it "The Women Are Stupid Act").

Still, some progressives expressed concern that Perdue may never break out of the pro-business box to fight for environmental and economic justice that goes beyond good schools.

Pete MacDowell, past president of the Progressive Democrats of N.C. and not a Perdue fan, hopes that the governor will meet the Republicans head-on and raise the Democratic flag in favor of needed public investments of all kinds.

As the budget fight stands, Perdue herself can hardly lose. Either the Republicans add to school spending, and she claims victory, or they don't, and she goes into the 2012 elections with a winning issue.

But if her only issue is schools, MacDowell says, it will be tacit evidence that the Republicans were right about shrinking the rest of the public sector and letting those who need government's help fend for themselves.

Perdue's choice, he says, is between leading the Democratic Party back to power in the state, or being "the last Democrat standing as North Carolina goes Republican."

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