The GOP's false narrative

Published March 2, 2023

By Thomas Mills

Republicans have a narrative about how they saved North Carolina. To hear them tell it, North Carolina was a spiraling hellhole of bloated government and over-regulation that kept businesses from moving here and taxes too high. In reality, everything that’s made North Carolina one of the most desirable states in the nation was built by 50 years of Democratic and moderate Republican rule. 

Republicans have been crowing as magazines like Site Selection name North Carolina a top-state for business, but we had that designation going back into the 1990s when Democrats were firmly in control of the state. 

In fact, while North Carolina’s business climate has stayed strong over the past decade, we’ve lost in other areas. In decades of the 1990s and 2000s, North Carolina was the sixth fastest growing state in the nation. Since 2011, when Republicans took control of state government, we’ve dropped to 14th fastest growing state. In addition, our GDP was lower over the past decade than it was in 1990s or 2000s. 

From the 1960s to 2010, North Carolina emerged as a leader in the South, both in terms of economic development and education. We were steadily attracting businesses and people to the state and our state university and community college systems were among the best in the nation. In a Brookings Institute study in 2000, the think tank said, “A very important part of what draws these people—almost one million from 1990 to 1998—and the businesses for which they work, is the state’s quality of life. ‘Quality of life’ is a hard thing to quantify precisely. It encompasses everything from schools to the environment to jobs to the cost of living to the number of symphony orchestras, colleges and universities, and recreational opportunities.”

Democrats and moderate Republicans like Jim Martin and Harold Brubaker, who served as Speaker when the GOP controlled the House chamber after 1994, built the infrastructure that created this “quality of life” factor. They made investments in our schools and university systems. They reached a balance that protected the environment while allowing economic development. They kept taxes moderate and progressive. The economy soared while we remained an affordable state. 

Those ill-defined measures of quality of life are what the current GOP leadership has in its crosshairs. They don’t believe that good schools, a healthy environment, or, God forbid, symphony orchestras, attract people and businesses. They’ve set about slashing our investments in those attractions while focusing only on cutting taxes for the wealthy and  corporations. 

It took over thirty years to build the infrastructure and quality of life factors that set off the boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Republicans are systematically dismantling it. We’re just starting to see the damage. The slower economic and population growth are likely due to the negative perception much of the country has of the state. We probably won’t know the full extent of damage for another ten years or so.

After a decade of policies like Amendment 1 and HB2 and the controversies that have rocked our once-vaunted university system, North Carolina is in a slow slide. We will never know how many companies took a pass on North Carolina because they believe it is less welcoming to their employees. We won’t know for another decade or so how many researchers and top professors decided against coming to North Carolina universities because of the meddling of state legislators. 

Now, with a huge surplus, the GOP legislature is moving forward with more tax cuts at the same time our schools can’t find enough teachers or staff to serve our children. Those corporations aren’t moving into poorer, rural counties where schools are struggling the most. They are coming into the Triangle, the Triad, and Charlotte. The counties that make up those regions subsidize poor teacher pay with local taxes paid by their wealthier residents. Counties like Greene, Anson, Gates, and Surry can’t afford to offer subsidies for their teachers. 

How do people like Representative Chris Humphrey who represents Greene County or Representative Mark Brody who represents Anson vote for tax cuts that deny resources to their schools while encouraging economic development in wealthier areas? Do they just see their constituents as rubes the way Donald Trump sees his supporters? Or are they so ideologically blind that they can’t see that their voting against their districts’ interests? Or are they just too dumb to know better? It’s a hell of question. 

One thing, though, is obvious. Republicans have bought into a false narrative about saving the state. They took over a state that was on a solid foundation because of the people who ran it for the 50 years prior to their victory in 2020. Since then, they’ve eroded our quality of life, slowed our economic growth, and discouraged people from moving to the state. Now, they want to further shift the tax burden from the wealthy to working class. They will shift money from struggling counties while encouraging growth in wealthier ones. And the people who represent those poorer counties are along for the ride.