Austerity And Its Discontents: North Carolina Follows On The Heels Of Wisconsin

While the story of North Carolina and its public assistance cuts has yet to be written, Wisconsin could offer an image of what is to come.
By @MMichaelsMPN |
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    Three hundred North Carolinians have been arrested in peaceful “Moral Monday” demonstrations outside the statehouse in Raleigh. Protesters believe Republican-led proposals will hurt millions of poor and middle-class citizens, including a proposal to cut unemployment benefits for 170,000 residents.

    Despite the mass crackdowns on demonstrators, the protests have increased steadily each week, swelling to 4,000 on Monday in the largest “Moral Monday” demonstration since they began six weeks ago.

    By pushing an austerity budget, the GOP could be sending North Carolina down the same path as Wisconsin, which fell to 49th in an economic outlook ranking under similar economic policies as those enacted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). Those policies were touted as a pro-business solution to put residents back to work — but unless Walker turns things around quickly, he is poised to fall short of his promise to create 250,000 new jobs.

    North Carolina legislators are poised to reject both federally-funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation for 170,000 laid-off workers and federal funds to expand Medicaid to cover 500,000 North Carolinians without health insurance. This is in addition to cuts to pre-K education that would bar 30,000 children from the program as well as a shift of $90 million from public education to voucher schools.


    Moral Monday

    “Outsiders are coming in and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin,” said North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R), blaming the protesters for causing disruptions to the legislative process.

    “[Protesters] are going to come in and try to change the subject. And I’m not going to let them. I’m going to concentrate on the economy, education and government efficiency,” McCrory said.

    It’s strikingly familiar to the arguments employed by Walker during the height of February 2011 protests in Wisconsin, when 100,000 union members protested so-called “right to work” laws and cuts to public sector benefits.

    Although unions have not played a significant role in the North Carolina protests, some commentators agree with McCrory that North Carolina is the new Wisconsin.

    “North Carolina is the new Wisconsin, but not for the reasons McCrory alleges. Like in Wisconsin, a homegrown grassroots resistance movement has emerged — and grown rapidly — to challenge the drastic right-wing agenda unveiled by Republicans in the state,” writes Ari Berman of the Nation.

    The ongoing peaceful demonstrations have been met with mass arrests, including 151 during last Monday’s protest. That demonstration, organized by a faith-based coalition, drew more than 1,000 people

    “When far-right extremists took over the Grand Old Party and turned it into a joyless, humorless, mean-spirited vehicle to line the pockets of the super-rich, we already had experience bringing people to Jones Street, where the state capitol is located, and advocating for the poor and vulnerable,” Reverend William J. Barber, a protest leader, wrote in a recent op-ed.

    He went on: “It is not surprising, then, that a couple of months ago, when we called for moral witnesses based on Gandhi and Dr King’s brilliant examples of nonviolent direct action, we had 17 ministers and other leaders answer the call and participate in the first inaugural ‘Moral Monday.’”

    The protests stem from proposals to reduce or eliminate benefits that would affect millions of residents across the Tar Heel State, including plans to slash the payroll tax credit for over 900,000 poor and working citizens, as well as cuts to state unemployment benefits.


    The Koch brothers agenda

    How exactly did North Carolina get the point where these proposals were even on the table?

    The common denominator behind business friendly austerity agendas in both Wisconsin and North Carolina could be energy magnates and right-wing financiers David and Charles Koch and allied conservatives who seek to use their wealth to influence the legislative process.

    “Just like the Koch brothers backed Scott Walker, the Koch’s billionaire ally and close associate Art Pope funded North Carolina’s Republican takeover in 2010 and 2012. (Only McCrory went a step further and actually named Pope to his inner circle as deputy budget director),” writes Berman.

    “Pope is, for all intents and purposes, North Carolina’s third, lesser known, Koch brother. In fact, he’s attended the Koch Brothers’ planning summits and considers himself their close ally,”  writes Washington Post opinion writer Katrina vanden Heuvel.

    Pope’s organizations spent $2.2 million on 22 state races in 2010, and another $2 million in 2012.

    Backing Republican candidates has become a major pursuit for the Koch brothers in recent years. According to the Center for American Progress, the Koch brothers have given $85 million to right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups over the past decade and a half. They have also spent $5.2 million to support candidates and ballot measures in 34 states since 2003. Their next foray could be into newspapers — LA Weekly reported in March that the Koch brothers have expressed interest in a $600 million acquisition of Tribune newspapers.

    Even if they don’t pass all austerity measures, The Nation reports that Republicans have their eyes set on a set of voter suppression laws that could make it more difficult for young residents, ex-felons and people living in poorer communities to vote.

    Toward this end, elected officials are pushing for voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, ending the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons and even banning “incompetent” voters from the polls.

    “In case you’ve been waiting to see the much-anticipated ‘Screw the Voter Act of 2013’ it was filed today by Rep. Edgar Starnes, NC House Majority Leader,” wrote Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan research organization, when House Bill 451 was introduced in March. “It creates new barriers to early voting, which will put more pressure on Election Day and cause longer lines, more hassles and more mistakes.”


    The path of Wisconsin

    Are there upsides to any of these measures? McCrory vowed to protect small businesses from “continued over-taxation” while promising to “ensure our citizens’ unemployment safety net is secure and financially sound for future generations, and help provide an economic climate that allows job creators to start hiring again.”

    While the story of North Carolina has yet to be written, Wisconsin could offer an image of what is to come if legislators decide to go through with their set of austerity measures.

    Despite Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s promise to revitalize a stagnant economy by creating 250,000 new jobs, Wisconsin is in a state of economic decline. According to recent economic reports, the Badger State has trailed the national pace of private-sector job creation for 26 consecutive months — almost exactly the length of time Walker has been in office.

    “Every week come new details showing Wisconsin as a back-of-the-pack state for jobs and income,” writes Jack Norman, a consultant for the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, an organization dedicated to “researching key state economic policies.” The report draws heavily from the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Norman’s findings follow an article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week that found private sector wages in Wisconsin have fallen 2 percent annually, roughly twice the national average. Additionally, average wages in Wisconsin had the 45th-worst ranking out of 50 states.

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