In changing weather, states go their separate ways

By Tom Baxter

State governments are the laboratories of democracy, they say, and last week test tubes were bubbling to overflowing on both coasts.

The bitter partisan struggle over the recount in the North Carolina governor’s race, which went on for nearly a month, was largely overshadowed outside the Tar Heel State by Donald Trump’s victory. It was only after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory conceded to Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper that North Carolina burst into a national story.

North Carolina Gov.-elect Roy Cooper (left) and California Gov. Jerry Brown preside over states that underscore the growing divide among states and the federal government.

North Carolina Gov.-elect Roy Cooper (left) and California Gov. Jerry Brown preside over states that underscore the growing divide among states and the federal government.

Taking advantage of a special session for disaster relief, the Republican legislature called another special session and pushed through legislation severely limiting the incoming governor’s powers, changing the rules for the state election boards and making state Supreme Court races once again partisan rather than non-partisan. Cooper has vowed to take the matter to court.

As Democrats across the country seethed, Republican officials in North Carolina laughed off the outrage, ticking off examples — of which there are many — of what Democrats had done to them in the past. But Republican legislator David Lewis captured something of the existential way in which his party has reacted to Cooper’s victory.

Republican legislators, Lewis said as the session began,  would “work to establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state.”

North Carolina voted for Trump and reelected Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. Republicans have a better than 2-1 majority in the state House and a solid majority in the state Senate. Yet their anxiety over relevance was enough to bring down national attention on themselves again, even as they prepare to repeal the so-called bathroom bill next week.

This is much different from the way things have gone in Louisiana, where Democrat John Bel Edwards was elected governor last year, facing a Republican legislature. The governor and the legislature have wrestled over the state budget, as they always have, and pointed fingers at each other, as they always do. But nobody’s suing anybody, and there haven’t been the kind of demonstrations at the state house in Baton Rouge that there were in Raleigh last week. There’s a tradition in Louisiana that the legislature never uses its prerogative to attempt to override a governor’s veto. This year that tradition was observed.

This deserves restating, because it buries so many old stereotypes. At this point in the 21st Century, state government in Louisiana is being conducted in a calmer, more business-like and efficient way than state government in North Carolina.

All this might seem to have little to do with last week’s developments in California, but let’s go back to the special session which the legislature used as a springboard to another one. It was called so the state could add $200 million to the $300 million already appropriated by the feds for recovery from Hurricane Matthew and the recent wildfires which devastated the mountains.

North Carolina sticks out in the Atlantic like a stubborn jaw, but in the face of mounting environmental costs, its legislature four years ago passed a bill forbidding coastal communities from using projections of rising sea levels in their long-range planning.

At the other end of the spectrum, California Gov. Jerry Brown last week sounded his most defiant note so far in defiance of any attempts by the Trump administration to cut back on climate research. There have been reports the new administration wants NASA to abandon its satellites reporting changes on the earth’s surface and focus on deep-space exploration.

“If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite,” Brown said in a speech to the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco,

This isn’t a new thought for Brown, who got the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” back in the 70s after suggesting a state-sponsored satellite. But his challenge is, nevertheless, one of the most serious developments in federal-state relations in years. California probably won’t be launching its own spacecraft any time soon, but the thing is, it could.

Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by about 2.8 million votes, but that only tells part of the election story. She won California by 4.3 million votes. Trump won the rest of the country by about 1.7 million votes. That’s how out of synch with the rest of the country its biggest and richest state suddenly finds itself.

“We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight,” Brown said last week, to a cheering crowd.

Maybe the Trump administration won’t go as far to turn back climate research as reported, and maybe Californians will prove less than eager to revolt. But in Brown’s words there are faint reverberations of what could, at some vague point in the future, turn into something much more serious.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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