If 2011 goes down in North Carolina’s history books for anything, it won’t be for its amount of civil discourse. Leading up to a budget balancing finale, this legislative session has been pockmarked by a variety of jousting and posturing episodes between the GOP-controlled legislature and Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue, with the media greedily cashing in on every political standoff. And as far as the public relations war is concerned, the victor has yet to be determined. With Republicans in the General Assembly tasked with the unenviable challenge of reconciling a $2.4 billion budget hole, it was Perdue’s war to lose—and surprisingly, she just might have.
Starting this year with declining approval ratings and the first GOP takeover of the General Assembly in over a century, it was clear that now was the time for Perdue to play hardball. After shedding the perfunctory mantras of cooperation and bipartisanship early in the legislative session, the governor leaped headfirst into the partisan fray. Early on, she vetoed five GOP-crafted bills, including a bill directing North Carolina to engage in the national lawsuit against Obamacare. It was in the budget, however, that Perdue saw a chance to distinguish herself from the GOP and bolster her numbers against the ominous indicators of a possible rematch against Pat McCrory in 2012.
Perdue recognized in the impending budget cuts that the classroom would be her golden goose – the situation perhaps even lending itself for her to join the ranks of Jim Hunt and Charles Aycock as yet another “Education Governor” of North Carolina. With her budget’s inclusion of an extension of a ¾ of a cent temporary sales tax, Perdue’s budget was able to provide more education funding than the GOP, who were meanwhile bound by campaign promises of no new taxes. Perdue intended to launch a media campaign on protecting education and plant her flag on any classroom funding discrepancies between the GOP budget and her own. Her problem was, rather ironically, she won.
2011 was a different game for the GOP altogether. While the budget provided an opportunity for Perdue to wage a war of grandstanding, the GOP treated budget balancing more as an exercise in damage control. With repeated disclaimers made by Republicans directing the blame towards the minority party for the state’s current fiscal woes, Republican legislators put forth a budget that mitigated the impact on government services, especially those pertaining to education. Seasoned Republicans like Senator Richard Stevens (Wake) lamented the burden of balancing such a budget, claiming this budget was the most challenging in his 30 years in government.
Perhaps detecting early on that a fight with the governor was imminent, the GOP did back flips to ensure that they protected public education funding. They went so far as to spend more on funding teachers to reduce class sizes and restoring funding for Teaching Assistants that was previously cut out of the House budget. The GOP’s budget’s total amount spent on public schools ended up differing by half of one percent from Perdue’s proposal, leaving a negligible difference of impact on education.
As legislative Republicans increased funding for public education, the crucial hour arrived for Perdue to take credit for their decision to increase previously proposed funding levels by $300 million. Instead, as the GOP shifted towards the center, Perdue’s rhetoric remained extreme, characterizing Republican efforts to reduce classroom sizes as a “charade.” “Don’t let them fool you, they are not protecting the classroom,” Perdue told reporters. Meanwhile, the lack of substance in Perdue’s arguments was causing her own party to crack under her feet. With the increase of education funding and several other bits of horse trading, Republican legislators shored up the support of five House Democrats who voted to pass the final budget and pledged their support to overturn Perdue’s veto.
Perdue’s last ditch effort to win popular support came Friday afternoon as the General Assembly prepared to pass their budget, including the extension of unemployment benefits for 47,000 North Carolinians that have been held up for the past seven weeks due to a political impasse between Perdue and Republican legislators. She used the occasion to preemptively issue an Executive Order reinstating the exact same unemployment benefits, taking full credit for actions simultaneously proceeding through the legislature. In doing so, she rewrote the law, forcing Republicans to choose between fighting her overreach of power in making a popular decision—or letting the governor take credit for restoring unemployment benefits. Republican leadership indicated that they would not fight Perdue’s action.
Perdue had a clear window to agree with GOP lawmakers when they supported education funding at levels resembling her proposed budget. However, in the process of her political theatrics, her party gave up on her—leaving her searching for some semblance of political victory to rally around. In one final push, the governor pursued potentially extralegal means by rewriting a funding formula for unemployment benefits to boost public opinion, and attempt to ensnare Republicans in an unpopular battle to uphold the law.
While Republicans have balked at the political trap Perdue created, it remains to be seen whether she can take credit for restoring unemployment benefits. Even if this occurs, Perdue will continue to be dogged by a broken Democratic Party and an embarrassing amount of irrelevance in the budget writing process which doesn’t bode well for the approval ratings she so desperately wanted.