Not a joke, unfortunately

Not a joke, unfortunately

- in Weekly Briefing

The “top ten” list from the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2011 session

Last fall, NC Policy Watch released a series of special reports that detailed many of the regressive initiatives that were likely to gain traction if ideologues on the far right assumed power in 2011. Now, eight months later, state lawmakers have adjourned the 2011 session of the General Assembly – at least for a few weeks – and the damage they managed to inflict in just 87 official legislative days makes clear just how sadly prescient some of those essays were.

Like an outbreak of spring tornadoes or summer hurricanes that weather forecasters could predict but do nothing about, we saw the storms coming and felt their fury. Now we are reduced to tolling and cataloguing the damage.

Though a comprehensive list would be much, much longer and include a thorough review of the terribly flawed state budget along with items that only advanced through one house of the General Assembly (like the moves to repeal the Racial Justice Act and expand predatory lending), here is a preliminary look at ten of the worst results from the past few months:

#10 – Environmental havoc – Lawmakers passed a bevy of bills at the request of polluters and other corporate special interests. A classic case in point is Senate Bill 781, the so-called “Regulatory Reform Act of 2011.” The bill would eviscerate state administrative rulemaking – the process whereby elected officials delegate details to agency professionals. Under the terms of the bill, agency experts would now be powerless to act in scores of situations unless very specifically directed to do so by elected officials. Add to this a number of other bills that would weaken billboard regulations, add harmful hardened structures to North Carolina beaches and generally weaken environmental protections and you’ve got a recipe for a dirtier, less healthy and less sustainable state.

#9 – Privatizing our public schools – As detailed in this space on numerous occasions, conservative lawmakers aggressively advanced the far right’s cherished objective of marginalizing and privatizing public education. In addition to slashing essential funding that will further demoralize (and lower confidence in) the public schools, conservatives pushed through specific bills to introduce school vouchers and dramatically expand  the state’s unproven experiment with charter schools.

#8 – Further demonizing immigrants – While the worst hater bills like those modeled on Arizona’s disastrous “show us your papers” law did not win final passage, legislators did pass a bill that would erect new roadblocks to employment for citizens and non-citizens alike. House Bill 36 would require every employer of 25 or more people to use the federal government’s troubled and frequently inaccurate “E-Verify” system. This system has been shown in repeated studies to have a high error rate – both with respect to missing undocumented job applicants and wrongfully flagging citizens.

#7 – Expanding the spread and use of guns – Anxious to kowtow to the powerful gun lobby, conservative lawmakers pushed through a bill that includes 12 pages worth of new changes to liberalize state firearm laws. Among the most notable provisions: changes to state law that would encourage home and vehicle owners to shoot those who they believe to be intruders and an expansion of the places to which gun owners with “concealed carry” permits may take firearms – including public parks.

#6 – Denying affordable loans to needy community college students – In one of the more mean-spirited actions of the session, lawmakers passed a bill that would have allowed the state’s community colleges to deny students access to low interest federal loans. When Governor Perdue vetoed the bill, lawmakers responded by passing a series of bills they cast as “local bills” – each of which purports to opt out a handful community colleges. Under the constitution, the Governor cannot veto local bills. It remains to be seen as to whether legislators will get away with this sleight of hand.

#5 – Punishing workers – Most people are aware of the month-and-half long “hostage crisis” that legislators instigated during April and May in which deserving unemployed workers were denied essential benefits for weeks in order to abet the Republicans’ budget negotiating strategy. Fewer people, however, are aware of a potentially devastating bill sent to Governor Perdue during the waning days of session that would transfer the state Employment Security Commission (the social insurance agency charged with distributing unemployment insurance benefits) to the Department of Commerce (the state’s business development agency). Worker advocates are extremely concerned about the ramifications of placing worker benefits under the control of an agency whose primary mission is to recruit new employers to the state.

#4 – Attacking the privacy rights and reproductive freedom of women – It’s hard to know where to begin when listing the objectionable aspects of the offensively mislabeled “Woman’s Right to Know Act,” but at the heart of the matter is the absurd notion that the state of North Carolina would presume to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship of adult women accessing constitutionally protected health care by mandating a “waiting period” and what amounts to an anti-abortion lecture. Add to this the new ban on funding for Planned Parenthood and the establishment of the ridiculous “choose life” (but no “pro-choice”) license plates and you’ve got a terrible session for women’s health and reproductive freedom.

#3 – Suppressing voter participation – This was one of the top priorities of legislative Republicans in 2011 and now appears likely to be a topic for the special session set to convene next month. At present, the main bill at issue is the so-called “voter ID bill” – a proposal to require all North Carolina voters to show a piece of government-issued photo identification every time they vote. The bill is a huge waste of money and, if not successfully vetoed, is sure to suppress voter turnout – especially amongst poor, elderly and minority voters.

Republicans also unveiled another, even more ambitious elections law rewrite in the closing hours of the 2011 session that now appears likely to be considered during the July special session. This measure would, among other things, repeal same-day voter registration, ban straight-ticket voting, shorten the early-voting period by a week, ban early voting on Sundays, repeal publicly-financed elections for three statewide offices, and create a new type of account for political parties to accept corporate money.

#2 – Ruinous tax giveaways – At the heart of much of the damage inflicted during the session was the majority’s rigid and nonsensical push to cut state taxes at a time of severe budget shortfalls and in which a large majority of the public opposed the idea. Though marketed as being about “right-sizing” government, the decisions to let temporary taxes expire before the economy had fully rebounded (and to cut other taxes even further) will assure that many essential public services will be set back decades. All of this was, of course, topped off by an amazingly cynical last minute giveaway to giant multinational corporations that will allow them to dodge North Carolina taxes even more effectively than they already have been.

#1- Passing the worst budget in decades – This was, of course, the seminal “achievement” of the 2011 legislative session. At a moment in time in which circumstances and public opinion demanded cooperation to craft a budget that would preserve decades of painstaking progress in education, environmental protection, social services, criminal justice and dozens of other areas, legislative leaders opted instead for a radically reactionary slash and burn approach. It was a fateful decision, the negative effects of which will be felt for years to come.

Going forward

Some of the proposals listed above still await gubernatorial review and, with any luck, a successful veto. On the whole, however, there’s no denying the fact that the first half of 2011 has been a dark and stormy time for the state of North Carolina. It will take a lot of determined work from caring and thoughtful people to bring about fairer skies anytime soon.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.