Weekly Briefing

Government by sound bite

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State lawmakers are not allowing facts or genuine debate to get in the way of their 2013 agenda

Democratic governance is almost always messy and complicated. When it’s working right, the lawmaking process includes thorough fact finding, broad stakeholder participation, lengthy debates, the acknowledgement of gray areas, numerous amendments, and, frequently, lots of compromise.

And perhaps, most importantly, it features a significant degree of intelligence and integrity in the women and men who craft and champion new laws. These leaders must be informed and intelligent enough to genuinely grasp with some depth the substance of the laws they are writing or amending and secure enough in their own skin to be able to handle criticism and participate in genuine, productive debate.

Over the decades, North Carolina’s commitment to this kind of good governance has ebbed and flowed under both Democrats and Republicans. Often it has been a function of how closely divided state government was, but not always.

Thus far in 2013, however, North Carolina’s elected leaders are most assuredly not delivering this kind of good governance. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming majorities enjoyed by ideological conservatives or maybe it’s just the leadership styles of the current folks in charge, but whatever the reason, lawmakers are delivering what can be best described as “government by sound-bite.”

The examples of this distressing state of affairs are almost too numerous to list, but consider just two from recent days:

Saying “no” to Medicaid expansion

No recent policy discussion better exemplifies the current allergy to reasoned, democratic governance than the one that has taken place around the decision to decline a federally-funded expansion of Medicaid for more than a half-million poor people. Yesterday, the General Assembly gave final approval to the proposal and sent it on to Governor McCrory who says he will sign it into law.

But the reasons behind the decision literally make no sense. At their core, they boil down to the extremist, Tea Party-bred “argument” that President Obama is a “socialist” who is somehow motivated by a desire to take away people’s “freedom.”

When opponents of the legislation were even allowed to be heard and voice their powerful arguments (e.g. the expansion would be fully-funded by the federal government for three years and then 90% thereafter; the expansion would save thousands of lives; taxes paid by North Carolinians will flow to other states if North Carolina does not claim its share) they were simply ignored or responded to with nonsensical sound-bites that sounded as if they had been designed for right-wing talk radio.

Like Governor McCrory, lawmakers claimed that Medicaid is “broken” and that it would therefore be irresponsible to expand it. But this sound-bite flies in the face of the statements of McCrory’s own appointees that the system will be “fixed” (if it ever really needed it) in a matter of months and that it already has costs under control better than most states.

The other main sound-bite – that North Carolina shouldn’t rely on the federal government lest the feds change their mind – was so patently absurd that one can almost sense the embarrassment in the voices of the people who voice it.

It got so ridiculous during the final debate yesterday that Republican members – clearly uneasy with the growing list of GOP governors to embrace Medicaid expansion – basically just clammed up. As Adam Searing of the N.C. Health Access Coalition reported on The Progressive Pulse yesterday:

[Opponents] like Senator Josh Stein dominated the discussion. [Supporters] left their craziest and most disproven arguments at home and most were very, very quiet. I didn’t interpret this as strategy on a final vote, but rather as dread. They knew they were too far committed to vote against this crazy train, but as more and more of their fellow Republicans in other states are making the opposite decision before their very eyes, the thought of having to justify rejection of all these billions of dollars and, fundamentally, life itself to the folks back home was no doubt a sobering thought.”

Fracking nonsense

The refusal to expand Medicaid wasn’t the only topic on Jones Street this week that seemed to be immune to rational debate. The Senate also rushed through a measure designed to bring the controversial oil and gas drilling process known as fracking to the state as quickly as possible.

If ever there was a controversy that calls for a “go slow” approach in this era in which our natural environment grows ever-more fragile, this would seem to be it. Fracking poses potentially enormous risks to our already-strained water supply, the viability of farm land, our transportation infrastructure, and even the long-term human habitability of the regions in which it is used. Add to this the enormously complex issues regarding land and mineral rights it raises (a matter that would seem especially relevant to conservatives who fret about things like eminent domain) and it’s hard to conceive of a way in which it makes sense to rush to judgment.

And yet, none of these concerns seemed to matter to the conservative leaders of the Senate as they rushed to implement a “drill baby drill” energy policy.

According to Senator Buck Newton, the fracking proposal is a “jobs bill.” He even went so far to claim that North Carolina’s relatively small and unproven natural gas deposits could produce “thousands of jobs.” Newton argued with a straight face that if the state had moved ahead several years ago with such legislation, thousands of jobs would have been in place during the recent recession and that the state’s unemployment rate, state budget deficit and overall economy would have been in much better shape.

This is, in a word, flapdoodle. As this column from last April made clear, no one seriously believes that North Carolina has the kind of gas reserves that would make such development possible or profitable – especially given the depressed price of natural gas in recent years. Regardless of how one feels about fracking, it is simply dishonest to pretend that it could have been some kind of magic bullet that would have transformed North Carolina into North Dakota.

Just two among many

There have, of course, been numerous other examples in recent weeks of this brand of shoddy and fatuous lawmaking. Whether legislators are claiming we must do away with the state earned income tax credit for poor working families because of “fraud” (the EITC has essentially the same rate of overpayment as other tax credits targeted at businesses and the wealthy) or racing through legislation to fire each member of the state Utilities Commission and several other boards because “that’s what the party in power does” (the radical change is actually unprecedented in modern North Carolina) sound-bite governance has been the norm rather than the exception in 2013.

And, sadly, barring some unforeseen development, there is little indication that lawmakers will abandon this disturbing and destructive path anytime soon.