RALEIGH, N.C. — Backed by throngs of chanting supporters, dozens of liberal demonstrators are subjecting themselves to arrest each Monday at the state legislature here to protest a flurry of bills that could transform North Carolina into a model of conservative governance.
The state’s hard turn to the right comes less than five years after people took to the streets here to celebrate the 2008 victory of Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to capture the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The win prompted Obama’s supporters to crow about the growing influence of progressive and minority voters not only in North Carolina but across the South.
But that euphoria is now a distant memory. Since the recession hit, North Carolina has been saddled with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. The bad times helped prepare the way for a carefully executed strategy, with big financial support from a major conservative activist, that helped the GOP win control of both chambers of the state General Assembly in 2010.
Those victories were capped last year when Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor, giving the party control of all levers of state government for the first time since 1870.
The victories were aided by the strong financial support of Art Pope, a multimillionaire who spent heavily in support of the state’s GOP candidates. The Institute for Southern Studies, a North Carolina-based research organization, said Pope’s advocacy network spent $2.2 million on 22 legislative races, winning 18. Overall, conservative organizations largely supported by Pope accounted for three-fourths of the outside money spent in North Carolina legislative races in 2010, according to the institute.
One of McCrory’s first acts after being elected governor was to install Pope, a former legislator, as the state budget chief. (The governor’s office declined to make Pope available for an interview.) And now, GOP lawmakers are moving swiftly to enact a long list of legislation they say is largely aimed at limiting government debt and snapping the state’s economy out of a years-long malaise.
Legislators have slashed jobless benefits. They have also repealed a tax credit that supplemented the wages of low-income people, while moving to eliminate the estate tax. They have voted against expanding Medicaid to comply with the 2010 federal health-care law. The expansion would have added 500,000 poor North Carolinians to the Medicaid rolls.
“Before considering Medicaid expansion, we must reform the current system to make sure people currently enrolled receive the services they need and more taxpayer dollars are not put at risk,” McCrory said in a written statement after signing a bill blocking the expansion.
Lawmakers are also considering proposals to reduce and flatten income tax rates while expanding the sales tax, perhaps to even include groceries and prescription drugs — which some advocates see as a first step toward eliminating the state income tax.
“North Carolina is a high-income-tax state, and we’re suffering the consequences,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R). “Our unemployment rate is the fifth worst in the country, and our high tax rates are hindering economic growth and pushing jobs to our neighbors.”
There are also measures pending to require drug testing for low-income people applying for job training and welfare benefits.
Other GOP-controlled legislatures have passed or considered similar measures in the wake of the recession. Florida, Missouri and Michigan are among the states that have slashed jobless benefits. Texas, Louisiana and Wisconsin are among at least 15 states not participating in the Medicaid expansion called for in the Affordable Care Act. And West Virginia, Kansas and Texas are among the states where legislators have proposed bills requiring drug testing for welfare recipients.
The North Carolina House has passed a law requiring voters to have a government-issued identification card, and legislators are considering bills to roll back the state’s law allowing same-day voter registration and to sharply limit early voting — measures that supporters of the current law say were integral to the high turnout of minority voters in the past several elections.
“I don’t know that there is a state that has as many regressive policies on tap,” said Penda Hair, co-director of Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights group that is considering a lawsuit challenging changes to the state’s voting laws.
Liberals may be up in arms, but North Carolina conservatives are applauding the new direction of the General Assembly. After the state Senate unveiled its tax reform plan this month, the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity released a poll that it said showed widespread support across the state. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the state tax code is in need of reform, and nearly half backed moving to totally eliminate the personal income tax within four years.
“The poll results show a clear desire for bold tax relief and reform that gets North Carolina back in the game for jobs and business,” said Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity in North Carolina.
The legislative effort has mobilized liberals who see North Carolina as a laboratory for conservative ideas propelled nationwide by the money of a handful of key patrons. They note that many of the initiatives being pursued by legislators here have long been championed by a network of conservative organizations supported by Pope and billionaire activists Charles and David Koch, including Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“Most of the laws that take us backwards do not come out of Congress but out of state legislatures,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. “Conservative forces here have gone all out to implement these policies and to lock in their power by changing the voting laws.”
In an effort that resurrects some of the tactics of the civil rights movement, Barber has led a growing, multiracial campaign of civil disobedience intended to draw attention to the changes being pursued by legislators.
This past week, more than 600 demonstrators, some waving placards and singing freedom songs, gathered outside the North Carolina Legislative Building for the fourth “Moral Mondays” protest.
With the crowd behind them, 57 protesters walked inside the building and stood in front of the large brass doors leading to the Senate chamber. The demonstrators — pastors, students, college professors and senior citizens among them — were arrested and led away in plastic handcuffs. They joined a group of more than 100 North Carolina residents who had been arrested and jailed in three previous protests.
“This leadership wants to make our state a place of deeper stratification and inequality,” Barber said.
In the coming weeks, Barber plans to move the protests from the doorstep of the legislature to the home districts of the lawmakers through a series of 25 town meetings.
But, as it stands, there is very little opponents can do to alter the will of the governing majority — something many of the protesters acknowledge.
“My hope is two-pronged,” said Derick Smith, an instructor at North Carolina A&T University who was arrested several weeks ago during a protest. “You want to bring attention to what’s happening. And you’ve got to hope that the governor will listen and back away from some of the more divisive provisions.”