North Carolina: Threatening Fifty Years of Progress in Ten Months

He was a soft-spoken man. And when he stepped to the microphone that January afternoon, no one in his audience could have foreseen how his words would galvanize a country, nor imagine their lasting meaning fifty years in the future.

It was January 18, 1963, and North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford's call for racial equality on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation captivated the nation, or, in some cases, jolted it. Sanford's vision that "North Carolina will attempt to provide leadership for the kind of understanding America needs today" was as brave as it was prescient. No southern governor had ever proclaimed with such clarity the role his state could play in building a new South.

From Terry Sanford's vision, and the work of progressive leaders such as Governor Jim Hunt, grew a renowned public university system, acclaimed early childhood education, a vibrant high-tech economy, a national center of finance, a world-class tourism destination and a reputation for innovation that attracted waves of new residents and businesses large and small.

North Carolina's journey has not always been easy. Our empty textile mills and furniture factories are reminders of the challenges we still face in moving from the old economy to the new. But from the barrier islands of our coast to the Smoky Mountains in our west, North Carolina has prospered and grown over these past fifty years with a commitment to opportunity for all.

But historical periods have a habit of both ending and repeating themselves. Today, the emphasis on economic growth, public education and innovative change that has distinguished North Carolina for fifty years has reached a sudden end. For the first time since Reconstruction, North Carolina has a General Assembly and governorship controlled by the extreme factions of the Republican Party, and their legislative super majority means their power is unchecked. In ten short months, they have set out to deliberately and systematically undo fifty years of progress. It's as if the Tea Party created its own playground of extremist fantasies.

Tax giveaways for the top 1 percent instead of real tax breaks for working North Carolina families. An end to childcare tax credits. Election law changes that make it harder for North Carolinians to register and vote. Overcrowded classrooms for public school teachers and layoffs for teacher assistants to fund private school voucher programs. University and community college funding slashed, leading to an exodus of talented faculty. A gutting of unemployment benefits when our economy is barely getting back on its feet. And a refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars that would expand healthcare for working people, as well as for seniors in nursing homes and assisted living.

This is not the North Carolina that any of us recognize. The harrowing economic times we live in require steadiness, innovative thought and a redoubling of commitment to bedrock principles like public education that have brought our state this far, not more pain inflicted on the middle class and those struggling to stay in it.

We need a commitment to responsible and strategic investments in public education from pre-kindergarten through higher education. Raising teacher pay, rewarding good teachers and restoring their assistants, and investing in higher education are priorities that will help students now. And in the longer term, it will strengthen our economy.

By accepting federal Medicaid funding -- which North Carolina is paying for regardless -- we would not only offer health care and long-term care for 500,000 North Carolinians, it would create tens of thousands of new jobs in our state and add billions to our struggling economy.

A fair tax code with targeted tax breaks aimed at the middle class will bring back our people's confidence that North Carolina's state government understands the challenges of these economic times. And job creation initiatives that rely on public/private partnerships and help businesses of every size are vital.

But what may be even more important is the effect those policies have on a state's self- image and what it shows to the rest of the world. North Carolina has had much success for fifty years, not just because we were on the leading edge of change in the American south, but also because we embraced this change as a natural part of our state's heritage and history.

It's why the events of the last 10 months are so devastating to our state. The damage that has been done to North Carolina cannot be understated. But as Terry Sanford said in that speech fifty years ago, "North Carolina is not going to be left behind." He was right then and he's right today. North Carolina is better than this. We must turn this around and move forward. As North Carolinians have seen and experienced this year, the alternative is unacceptable.

Roy Cooper

Attorney General of North Carolina