Four years ago, North Carolina was thought to be in transition, a Southern state turning blue in President Obama’s “new America.” But at the close of its legislative session last Friday, the Tar Heel State showed its true hue: deep red.
Since the state’s legislative session began in January, lawmakers have blocked a Medicaid expansion under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, reduced access to federal unemployment benefits, cut the corporate tax rate, trimmed public-education funding, passed a bill that allows concealed weapons in bars and restaurants, tackled welfare reform, proposed a ban on Shari‘a, restricted access to abortion and enacted stricter voting laws.
It had been over a century since the GOP held both the legislature and governor’s mansion in the moderate state, but after Republicans seized control of both houses of the general assembly in 2010, drew redistricting maps that will help solidify their control on local and federal levels over the next several years, and elected the first Republican governor since 1988 last November, state lawmakers were poised to push forward with their new, conservative agenda.
And so they have.
Over the next 30 days, Governor Pat McCrory will see 60 bills come across his desk, after what has been one of the most dramatic shifts in the political leanings of a state during one legislative session in recent history. The governor has been openly critical of a few bills; he plans to veto a proposal to drug-test welfare recipients and opposes another requiring employers to verify the immigration status of their workers.
But overall, the governor said Friday he has been pleased with the legislative session. “We’ve had more reform in this state government in the past six months than we’ve seen in the past 30 years,” McCrory said at a press conference.
Republicans across the state agree.
“What they’ve done this year is enact landmark legislation and advance freedom and chances for economic prosperity,” said Francis DeLuca, president of Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank in North Carolina. “These are fundamental reforms that we’ve needed for a while.”
While change has undoubtedly come, Democrats argue it has arrived at the expense of North Carolinians, many of whom have been expressing disapproval for the measures since the session began.
The most outspoken backlash against the policies has come in the form of Moral Monday demonstrations where protesters have been gathering at the capitol in Raleigh since April 29. More than 900 people have been arrested and thousands have gathered, led by local religious leaders, to express their distaste for the state’s markedly conservative agenda.
After the legislative session ended Friday, the protesters gathered for a Mass Moral Monday March to the state capitol where they held an Interfaith Social Justice Rally.
Republican leaders have written off the protests, going so far as to call them “Moron Monday” rallies for “aged hippies” in op-ed columns in local newspapers.
Despite being shrugged off by Republicans, the backlash against decisionmaking in the legislature is growing, according to a recent poll. A July survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based polling firm, found that 49% of voters disapprove of the governor’s performance and 56% of voters disapprove of the general assembly’s performance. The governor’s approval rating is down 15 points from June, but the general assembly’s rating has not changed over the past month, according to Public Policy Polling.
“People are disgusted by what the Republican leadership has been doing to North Carolina,” North Carolina senate minority whip Josh Stein tells TIME. “There’s a real culture shock here — North Carolinians are inherently moderate people. We focus on the fundamentals,” Stein says. “They’re focusing on an extreme agenda that’s damaging to the state.”
Among the most controversial pieces of legislation are two bills that passed through the house and senate just days before the session came to a close.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the state legislature passed a sweeping voting bill that reduces early voting by a week, requires voters to present photo identification at the polls, ends an early-registration program and nixes same-day voter registration. Critics say those policies will depress turnout from voters who typically lean democratic.
After failing to attach new restrictions on abortion to a bill that prohibits the application of “foreign law,” aimed at the specter of Islamic Shari‘a, state lawmakers added the language to a bill on motorcycle safety. (The legislation was lampooned by the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union as the “#motorcyclevagina bill.”) As a result of the legislation, those with government-administered insurance plans will not have abortions covered, except in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in danger. The Department of Health and Human Services is also authorized to apply the same standards it would to ambulatory surgical centers to abortion clinics, though they are not required to meet the standards.
McCrory signed the abortion bill on Monday, though he vowed he wouldn’t sign any restrictive women’s-health bills when campaigning in 2012. He also stated he plans to sign the voting bill.
While stricter voting laws and abortion restrictions are not uncommon in states with Republican-controlled legislatures, Sarah Preston, policy director for ACLU-NC, says North Carolina lawmakers are taking these measures to different levels. “North Carolina is pursuing extreme versions,” Preston says. “They’ve gone beyond what other states are doing.”
However, states like Florida and Texas, where Republicans have controlled the state legislature for over a decade, have been pursuing legislation like those proposed in North Carolina for some time.
In Florida, where Republicans have controlled the state legislature for nearly a decade, voters experienced long lines and excessive wait times at polling places in November 2012, a result of early-voting restrictions put in place by Governor Rick Scott. (Early voting was restored in February.)
Two weeks ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a law that puts a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and requires abortion clinics to operate under the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers (a similar provision was taken out of the final version of the North Carolina abortion law).
“I can’t think of any individual policy or proposal in North Carolina that is unprecedented,” said Tom Carsey, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “What’s surprising is the number of things that have happened in such a short period of time.”