Political climate change?

Published February 18, 2014

By Rob Schofield

by Rob Schofield, NC Policy Watch, February 18, 2014.

It’s been several months since the North Carolina General Assembly adjourned the 2013 long session last July and there’s no mistaking the altered vibe that now pervades the state capital.

When legislators left town last summer there was an almost tangible sense of unapologetic and self-righteous fury still hanging in the air. Having just passed into law a long list of aggressively hard right proposals, one could almost hear conservative pols and their pals muttering under their breath (or sometimes out loud): “Take that, all you liberal government lovers! And get used to it too, because we’re just getting started!”

Today, for a variety of reasons – the repeated flubs of the McCrory administration, the U.S. Senate candidacy of one of the session’s chief architects and, most recently, the unavoidable facts on the ground (or, as the case may be, in the water) – the political atmosphere is far less triumphant. In venue after venue, the state’s conservative leaders have adopted a more conciliatory approach – at least in tone, if not in substance.

Consider the following recent examples:

A teacher pay raise proposal – After months of being pilloried for their repeated, painful and unnecessary assaults on public education, state leaders announced a plan last week to bump up the salaries of newer teachers and to alter their 2013 plan to deny extra pay to teachers with masters’ degrees.

Backing down from an unconstitutional abortion law– Just months after having blatantly reneged on a campaign promise by signing a far reaching proposal to limit reproductive freedom for women, Gov. McCrory urged Attorney General Roy Cooper not to appeal a federal court ruling striking down one of its key provisions (a recommendation that Cooper perversely declined to follow).

Contriteness at DHHS- After months in the limelight for her repeated incidents of bluster and blunder, State DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos seems intent on cutting her losses and softening her image – whether by allowing her high-priced communications wunderkind Ricky Diaz to depart, appearing at legislative hearings to endure mild criticism or admitting a need to improve performance.

Slowdown in Commerce privatization– Not that long ago, the state Commerce Secretary seemed intent on barging a head with a controversial plan to privatize her agency’s already controversial industrial recruitment mission whether state legislators formally endorsed it or not. Now the plan is on hold till at least the fall.

Snow and ash

If there’s an area of policy that best symbolizes the effort to present a kinder and gentler state leadership of late, however, it’s the environment. In 2013, state leaders couldn’t undermine state protections for the natural environment fast enough. All the talk was of skeptically reviewing and/or eliminating regulations, expanding fossil fuel exploitation and making polluters and potential polluters the main “customers” of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

What a difference a couple of disasters and few bouts with extreme weather can make. Today, less than two months into 2014, both the Governor and state legislative leaders are singing a notably different tune – one that’s, on the surface at least – not easily distinguishable from the message advanced by the business Democrats who ran North Carolina for most of the past two decades.

Just months after guiding the Senate through an aggressive and unprecedented environmental rollback, Sen. Tom Apodaca, the chair of the body’s powerful Rules Committee announced that he would personally sponsor legislation to force Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash dumps. This announcement came close on the heels of a joint appearance by both Senate leader Phil Berger and Gov. McCrory at the site of the Dan River disaster to publicly proclaim the need for swift action by Duke. And, of course, yesterday, the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission took extensive testimony from officials and advocates about both the coal ash disaster and a recent sewage spill in Haw River near Burlington.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, McCrory went on national television to discuss, among other things, the state’s recent bouts with extreme weather. In an interview with CBS reporter Bob Schieffer, the following exchange took place:

Schieffer: “Governor, a couple of years ago, you made a remark that caught a lot of people’s attention. You said that global warming is ‘in God’s hands.’ After what you’ve – going through this thing, do you still feel that way? Is there something we ought to be doing about it in the meantime?”

McCrory: “I think someone took a chop off the total sentence there. I will say this: I feel that there’s always been climate change. The debate is, really, how much of it is man-made and how much will it cost to have any impact on climate change. My main argument is, let’s clean up the environment, and as mayor and now as governor, I’m spending my time cleaning our air, cleaning our water, cleaning the ground. I think that’s where the argument should be on both the left and the right, and if that has an impact on climate change, good. But I think that’s where the real argument should be, is doing what we can to clean up our environment. We also have to look for cost-effective ways to do it because, as governor, we’re walking that fine line of keeping our environment clean but also continuing economic recovery and making sure things like power are affordable for the consumer.”

For what it’s worth here is McCrory’s direct quote from a 2008 radio interview:

“I believe in cleaning the environment. I don’t get caught up in the ‘global warming’ debate because I frankly think some things are out of our hands. It’s in God’s hands, and frankly, the world has been warming for a long time.”

Real change or just covering their tracks?

The question that arises with respect to all of these recent statements and actions, of course, is whether they represent a meaningful shift or mere political puffery. Are state leaders actually serious about tempering their policies or are they just trying to blunt criticism?

The guess here is that it’s a mixed bag. Clearly, each of the altered stances listed above are badly flawed. The teacher pay proposal is absurdly inadequate. The abortion switch had no effect. Aldona Wos’ mostly disastrous tenure at DHHS continues uninterrupted. The Commerce privatization delay is just that – a delay.

And the environment? Well, the proof there will be in the pudding. Right now, it’s far too early to tell whether conservative leaders have genuinely been impacted enough by the Duke disaster to be inclined to force real sacrifice by the energy giant or if we’re simply witnesses to a cynical pose.

Similarly, while it’s heartening to hear the Governor say he wants to clean the air, water and ground, his refusal to publicly acknowledge the scientific reality of human-induced climate change (or to even tell the truth about his previous public statements on the matter) is not terribly encouraging.

Still, for all of the enormous shortcomings of their actions, even the recent micro-steps of conservative leaders give testament to one very important reality: these men (and they are all men) believe that they needed to do something. Each of them understands that the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians wants real action to raise teacher pay, preserve reproductive freedom, rein in DHHS abuses, reform corporate giveaways and preserve the environment (and that advocates and activists for those causes are not going to let up).

Right-wing think tanks that stoked so much of last year’s reactionary frenzy, however, remain unrepentant and committed to pushing the envelope still further in 2014. They hope and expect that the recent switch in tone will be enough to relieve the pressure and assuage an easily distracted public.

Let’s hope they are wrong and that progressive activists – having seen the cracks in the right-wing machine that a combination of their advocacy and recent events has brought about — will redouble their efforts.

The future climates of both the political and physical worlds likely depend on it.