Paul O'Conner: It’s been 10 years, but problems have not changed much

By Paul O'Conner

Syndicated columnist

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RALEIGH — I woke up Wednesday feeling a bit like Bobby Ewing in the old “Dallas” TV episode in which producers explained his yearlong absence by saying the previous season had all been a dream.

In my grogginess, I wondered if I’d really stopped writing this column 10 years ago only to come back that day — or had I just dreamed that.

There’s some evidence of time passing: My hair and mustache are gone, but around state government it’s the “same old, same old,” right down to the legislative pressroom’s filthy carpet.

For those who don’t know me, I wrote this Raleigh column from 1982 until 2004. Now I’m back and, unlike Rip Van Winkle’s return to his New York village, I don’t see that much change.

Oh, sure, the politicians are a different brand, Republican rather than Democrat, but three of the state’s biggest problems from 2004 remain the same today.

The first is an ineffective, almost removed governor, who is not the state’s most powerful politician. In 2004, it was Mike Easley who was more interested in his woodworking than governing, and Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who was the real power.

Today, Pat McCrory projects even less effectiveness than Easley did, and Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has the strongest hand. McCrory’s having trouble with his hirelings, state computers and Moral Monday protesters. And his signature legislative initiative last session involved puppy mills — and legislators sat on that bill.

Now maybe watching Jim Hunt and Jim Martin for 21 years gave me the wrong impression of what a governor does: Propose important initiatives, push them into law and work 18 hour days to put constant public pressure on the legislature to fulfill the Jim agenda.

(By the way, was Beverly Perdue really governor, or was that just part of my bad dream?)

The second thing that hasn’t changed is how legislative leaders grip power. Basnight didn’t pay much heed to Republicans. Berger doesn’t pay much heed to Democrats. And now Berger appears intent on holding the Senate reins for as long as Basnight, who led the Senate for nine terms. But they share the belief that a legislative leader should be congenial with a minority party while squashing it.

Put these two together and North Carolina has a government driven by a few legislators chosen from safe districts and the statewide voice of the people reduced to a ceremonial role.

Then there’s the structural deficit that Republican critics of the Democratic leadership after the 2001-02 economic downturn found so alarming. We still have such a deficit. It produced a $455 million revenue shortfall and is likely to grow. Structural deficits grow because they are based on the wrong tax plan for the day’s economy. Unfortunately, our GOP leadership is married to this tax structure.

My guess: They’ll “solve” the shortfall with something Martin called “negative reserves” back in 1990. That means they’ll run a deficit.

Lordy, it is going to be a fun six weeks.