RALEIGH — The North Carolina Republican Party, despite retaining majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, have lost their supermajorities after 2018’s elections. Before 2010’s sweep by the N.C. GOP, the party had not controlled both chambers since Reconstruction. This eight-year period, from 2011 when the Republican supermajorities were sworn in to 2019 when the next class of legislators will take their seats, was marked by major changes in how the state was run — changes that Republicans are proud of and that Democrats view as an extreme departure from the way they led the state for the previous century.
When Republicans took control in 2011, North Carolina, like the entire country, was dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis and resulting Great Recession. North Carolina was hit especially hard, with double-digit unemployment rates through all of 2010. The state government had frozen teacher pay, accumulated $2.7 billion in debt on unemployment insurance to the federal government, had state budget deficits over $2.5 billion, allowed Medicaid shortfalls of more than $2 billion, and created tax rates for both individuals and corporations that Republicans believe were driving away business and stifling growth.
“It was amazing, the way we found it and the condition of the state economically,” said former Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherford) to the North State Journal. Hager was elected in 2010 when the GOP took over and later became House majority leader. “Opening the books on what the Democrats had been up to for the last century was a whole lot worse than I think anyone could have imagined.”
Because the Republicans had not had a chance to control the state since the 1800s, there were elements of virtually every area of governance that party leaders wanted to remake. Hager said it was an exciting time to be present as these discussions were taking place on how to reform North Carolina’s government.
“It was like starting from a clean sheet of paper in a lot of areas, creating something that was uniquely ours,” Hager told the NSJ. “It was very entrepreneurial, like starting a new business. And I have to brag on now-Sen. (Thom) Tillis — as our House speaker at that time, he was a fantastic leader.”
On the other side of the aisle though, Democrats were seeing much of what they had fought for over the past century being undone. After losing the Executive Mansion in the 2012 elections, the left was feeling even more locked out of the halls of power, and in April of 2013, a large protest movement — called Moral Mondays — was formed to channel much of this frustration.
As Republicans reformed tax rates, made budgets that cut funding for Democratic priorities and applied their conservative principles to hot-button cultural issues, the protests grew and arrests were common at the state legislative complex.
Among the largest controversies during this period was House Bill 2, a 2016 House bill that largely intended to undo a sexual orientation and gender identity-focused ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council. Proponents asserted that as a “Dillon’s Rule” state, municipalities were only permitted to regulate things that the state government had given them jurisdiction over, and responsibility over discrimination law had not been transferred from the state to the local authorities.
A nationwide boycott was then organized by LGBT groups, and major companies and figures began to announce their opposition to the bill and their unwillingness to do business in North Carolina until it was repealed. The controversy was largely pacified after a compromise bill was passed in 2017 that was sold as returning the state to the precontroversy status quo.
Republicans look at this period from the beginning of 2011 to the end of 2018 as a time when major positive changes were made that set the state on a path toward economic growth and fiscal stability. A recent series of press releases by legislative leadership, titled “N.C. Success Story,” contains a long list of what they point to as proof of their positive impact.
The list includes individual income tax rates going from 7.75 percent to 5.25 percent; corporate income tax rates dropping from 6.9 percent to 2.5 percent; billions in budget deficits that have been turned to a $400 million budget surplus; teachers having received five straight pay raises adding up to 19 percent on average; North Carolina’s place at or near the top of lists of economic growth, opportunity and fiscal health; the Medicaid shortfall being turned into a surplus of more than $2 billion; and the unemployment insurance debt having been paid back in full with a $3.1 billion reserve now in its place.
Democrats frame these years differently, saying, for example, that the teacher raises were not nearly what they should have been. They also argue the budget cuts and tax decreases have not come without harm to the state’s most needy.
The new N.C. legislature, still containing a Republican majority in both chambers despite the loss of their supermajorities, will be sworn in January of 2019.