Ten Issues to Watch during Crossover Week
By Rob Schofield
At the risk of committing a double faux pas in a progressive opinion weekly (#1, employing a sports metaphor and #2, employing a sports metaphor from a traditionally exclusive and often reactionary sport like golf) this is “cut” week at the General Assembly. In most big golf tournaments, players compete during the first couple of days of the event to see who will survive to play the weekend. After play concludes on Friday, a sizable group of competitors with poorer scores is lopped off and the field is winnowed to the group that will compete for the title on Sunday.
So it is (at least sort of) at the General Assembly. Each year, thousands of legislative proposals are introduced by lawmakers during the early days of the session. Those measures not requiring an appropriation or a tax law change must compete to win approval from at least one house by a certain specified date known as “crossover deadline” or face the prospect of “not making the cut.” (Taxing and spending proposals are generally exempt from this rule).
This year in Raleigh, the crossover deadline has, after a couple of extensions, been set for this Thursday, the 24th. Get your bill approved by the House or the Senate by Thursday and live to fight on. Fail to do so and it’s “wait ‘til next year.” During the next four days, hundreds of legislative proposals will compete for the attention of lawmakers as they endure scores of committee meetings and several long “floor” sessions in an effort to consider as many proposals as possible. Here are ten important pending issues to which observers ought to pay attention this week:
#1 – Mental Health and Chemical Dependency Parity – As reported in this space on multiple occasions, the purpose of parity legislation is to eliminate the discrimination currently practiced in North Carolina against individuals with mental illness, chemical dependency and addictive disorders. The bill would require North Carolina health insurance plans to cover necessary treatment of mental illness and the disease of addiction. Opponents in the health insurance lobby are opposing the bill and seeking to advance a “compromise” that would eliminate proposed coverage for chemical dependency and significantly limit mental health coverage. Right now, they seem to be succeeding.
#2 – Death Penalty Reform – Reform advocates have secured the introduction of several bills this year that seek to reform North Carolina’s flawed system of capital punishment. Most appear to be subject to the crossover deadline. These include:
- A proposed moratorium bill;
- A proposal to require a “proportionality review” to assure that defendants are not sentenced to death while others in identical situations are sentenced to lesser sentences;
- A bill to prohibit the execution of persons with severe mental disabilities.
- The North Carolina Racial Justice Act – a proposal to assure that no one is executed because of the effect of racial considerations;
- A bill to prohibit the execution of persons convicted of murder merely by virtue of having participated in a crime that results in a murder;
- A bill to ban the execution of those convicted of murders they committed as children.
Each of the bills, except perhaps the last, faces an uphill fight.
#3 – Comprehensive Sex Education – After too many years of telling kids only part of the story, lawmakers are considering legislation that would pair the promotion of abstinence with the provision of accurate, detailed information about human reproduction in the state’s public school sex education curriculum. The bill attempts to respond to the reality that nearly two-thirds of the state’s high school seniors have had sexual intercourse, that North Carolina has one of the nation’s highest pregnancy rates among 15 to 19 year olds and that an overwhelming percentage of parents support sexuality education. Unfortunately for proponents, the bill has raised the hackles of the self-appointed arbiters of morality on the far right and must overcome determined opposition in order to make the crossover deadline.
#4 – Juvenile Justice Reform – By far the most important bill in the juvenile justice field this year is the proposal to raise the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult. Currently, North Carolina is one of just a tiny handful of states that treats 16 and 17 year-olds as adults. This means that, today, a child born as recently as 1991 is presumed to have the same capacity for distinguishing between right and wrong and the same maturity for controlling his or her impulses as a full-fledged adult. The proposed reform legislation would implement the recommendation of the state Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission to treat 16 and 17-year-olds as minors, but allow a judge or district attorney the right to refer teenage children accused of committing felonies to the adult system on a case-by-case basis. The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing today.
#5 – Ethics and Lobbying Reforms – After last year’s groundbreaking efforts, 2007 has been a bit of a disappointment for those committed to lobbying and ethics reform as lawmakers have done relatively little to continue the work. Lawmakers have, however, introduced legislation that would give effect to two of the key agenda items of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform. These bills would: 1) open up Ethics Commission proceedings to the public and prohibit lobbyists from soliciting campaign contributions, and 2) limit the role of political parties in campaign fundraising. At this point, neither bill seems likely to win approval prior to the crossover deadline.
#6 – School Violence Prevention – Lawmakers are considering two bills this week that tackle the problem of violence in the public schools – both as perpetrated by students and adults. As reported last week, the first measure would target student on student bullying and harassment by directing local officials to adopt new policies to ban such behavior. The second measure would, once and for all, bring schools in line with the 90 year-old policy and practice of the state prison system by banning the use of corporal punishment.
As with the sex education bill, both proposals are opposed by the by the far right (the former because it mentions “sexual orientation” in a list of children commonly targeted for bullying and harassment and the latter because beating children is a “traditional family value.”)
#7 – Mortgage Foreclosure Notice for Tenants – One of the groups most lost in the shuffle in the recent explosion of mortgage foreclosures in North Carolina has been the state’s huge population of residential tenants. Current law permits those who buy property at foreclosure sales to evict tenants renting from the former owner from their homes with just 10 days’ notice. A measure approved by the House Judiciary II Committee last week and slated far a vote on the House floor this week would require tenants to be notified of the foreclosure process much earlier.
#8 – Migrant Housing Conditions – In the year 2007, North Carolina’s migrant housing code continues to allow living conditions for migrant farmworkers that resemble the Third World. After intensive negotiations amongst a variety of public and private interest groups, members of the Senate appear poised to pass a bill that would make significant improvements to standards and Department of Labor inspections. Unfortunately, the bill has been held up thus far by anti-immigration forces who are attempting to use the bill for purposes unrelated to its original goals. The fate of the bill is uncertain at this point.
#9 – School Suspension Improvements – One small part of the effort to chip away at North Carolina’s unacceptable dropout rate is a proposal that would improve the process surrounding the suspension and expulsion of students. Under a bill recently approved by the House Education Committee, students given short-term suspensions would have the right to take text books home with them, to inquire about homework assignments, and to take major exams missed during the suspension. The bill would also improve the notice provided to parents about longer term suspensions and expulsions. The measure has been referred to the House Judiciary II Committee.
#10 – Care for Victims of Sexual Assault – Today is Women’s Advocacy Day at the General Assembly and hundreds of citizen advocates will be gathering to push an ambitious agenda. One measure on the list would require every hospital and urgent care facility in the state to offer “compassionate” emergency care to victims of sexual assault – including the provision of emergency contraception pills. Though research confirms the statistical benefit of such care in preventing unwanted pregnancy, many such facilities in North Carolina do not make it available. Both versions of the bill currently resides in the House and Senate Health Committees.