After the whirlwind: A preliminary damage report on the 2015 legislative session

After the whirlwind: A preliminary damage report on the 2015 legislative session

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The senators and representatives who make up North Carolina’s General Assembly let their 2015 session run on far longer than it should have. Let’s be glad that the curtain has come down. There’s been enough damage.

But as if our illustrious lawmakers wanted to give us the worst of both worlds, the session’s climactic phase featured a chaotic stagger toward the finish line that allowed major bills to be ramrodded through in a helter-skelter process that made a mockery of sober decision-making.

In other cases significant proposals were simply pushed aside (sometimes, it’s true, for the better). A session that began in late January ended with a 4 a.m. adjournment on Sept. 30 and legislators reeling with exhaustion. They’d had enough.

The list is long, but here are a few of the disappointing steps taken by a Republican-controlled legislature that seemed preoccupied with scaling back state government’s reach, as well as with comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted:

  • Extended the sales tax to cover services such as car repairs, a burden on many families.
  • Continued to cut the personal income tax, benefiting upper-income residents especially and depriving the state of even more revenue.
  • Cracked down on undocumented immigrants by restricting the kinds of IDs they can use and forbidding cities from adopting so-called sanctuary status.
  • Tightened eligibility rules for food stamps.
  • Gave magistrates permission to opt out of performing same-sex marriages if they objected on religious grounds.
  • Moved to restart capital punishment by lowering legal obstacles.
  • Weakened a number of environmental regulations.
  • Moved to privatize the state’s Medicaid program, over the protests of many patient advocates.

There were a few bright spots amid the gloom. Legislators agreed to put a $2 billion bond issue on the ballot, with the proceeds to be used for higher education buildings, parks and water supply projects. That was a responsible bit of lawmaking.

Another was tinged with irony, with the softening of a 2013 law that, starting next year, requires voters to show photo IDs at the polls. The requirement is still there, but voters who cite a reasonable excuse for not having a photo ID will be able to cast a provisional ballot. The change, clearly intended to defuse a legal challenge, improves a law that was unnecessary in the first place.

Budget battleground

Republicans may have been large and in charge, but a broad split between the party’s especially conservative wing, which controls the Senate, and a somewhat more pragmatic group of leaders in the House extended the session to a length not seen in years. Nowhere was the split more evident than when the two chambers took their respective whacks at drawing up a new state budget.

The House was mindful that revenues for the fiscal year that ended June 30 were up $400 million beyond projections amid an improving economy. It wanted to move cautiously toward reinvesting in state programs that had been slashed in the face of tax cuts and recession-driven revenue drops.

The Senate preferred to keep the pedal down on tax cuts and divert “surplus” revenue into a so-called rainy day fund. Reserves of that sort are useful, but if budget items that meet real needs in the here and now have to be sacrificed so the state can put more money under the mattress, then the tradeoff is unfortunate. That’s essentially what the Senate would have done. For example, its spending plan would have axed the jobs of some 5,000 elementary school teacher assistants. The House wouldn’t buy it.

Nor were the chambers’ disputes just about how much to spend, what to spend it on and how to raise the money. The Senate’s opening volley was a budget document packed with policy provisions that by all rights deserved to be considered separately – the Medicaid overhaul, for instance.

The upshot: Instead of agreeing to a budget by July 1, the ostensible deadline, leaders of the two chambers haggled on for weeks. Their talks took place in private, the better to shield voters’ sensitive eyes from the gory details.

In the end, some of the policy measures, including Medicaid, were repackaged as standalone bills, and a spending deal was struck – closer to the Senate’s target than the House’s. The teacher assistants were kept on board, but other programs paid the price. And teachers themselves saw only paltry raises focused on newer hires. North Carolina continues with average teacher salaries among the lowest in the country.

Legislators were given precious little time to mull the details as their leaders hustled the compromise budget through both chambers in less than a week. Well, by then it was mid-September, after all, and no one had the stomach (or the clout) to keep the debate going.

Painful for patients?

Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that covers health care for children in poor families, the disabled and some impoverished adults, has been targeted by conservatives as too expensive and too unpredictable in its costs. The fact that North Carolina Medicaid compares well with its peers in national rankings hasn’t deterred Republican legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory from moving toward a system by which providers – including private managed care companies – will assume the risk of any cost overruns.

Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, a top House budget-writer and a specialist in human services funding, tried to convince his colleagues that privatizing could end up shortchanging care in the pursuit of profits. It was a valiant effort, but it didn’t work.

Meanwhile, Republican opposition to expanding Medicaid so that it would cover upwards of 300,000 North Carolinians who don’t qualify for subsidized coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act – so-called Obamacare – remained entrenched.

McCrory, who earlier this year indicated he might support expansion under some circumstances, didn’t dare broach the subject when Medicaid restructuring was on the table in the session’s closing days. So much for that chance for him to show some leadership.

Another bill that landed on the governor’s desk during the final flurry of lawmaking understandably prompted civil rights and immigrant advocates to call for a veto. McCrory reaffirmed his opposition to the “sanctuary” policy adopted by immigrant-friendly counties and municipalities, whereby law enforcement officers are instructed not to ask people about their immigration status.

“I don’t believe anyone should give sanctuary in any part of our state and nation to people who break our laws, especially drug traffickers, human traffickers and violent criminals,” McCrory declared. It’s both sad and frustrating that he would conflate the undocumented – the vast majority of whom are simply trying to climb the economic ladder through hard work — with the criminal in that fashion.

No welcome there

House Bill 318 also would deny official recognition to ID cards issued by foreign consulates, a needless hardship on immigrants who rely on those IDs as they go about their business. No wonder the Rev. William Barber, head of the N.C. NAACP, blasted the law as “anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-Hispanic.”

He could have added that the kind of policies represented by this bill embody some of the worst hypocrisy of which our society is capable. Are we really prepared to do without the labor of immigrants who pitch in to help perform so many of our necessary and worthwhile tasks? And yes, there’s also that admonition to welcome the stranger in our midst – an admonition that’s at the core of Christianity but that often seems to be swept under the rug.

The same bill, trumping its own mean-spiritedness, makes it harder for unemployed or underemployed people who happen to be “able-bodied” to qualify for food stamps. Currently, the state can seek waivers from federal food stamp rules, allowing it to extend benefits in areas where joblessness is high. That’s a reasonable adaptation of the social safety net.

Yet some legislators have made no secret of their contempt for the unemployed, whose main problem they seem to believe is laziness. Now we have a bill that seeks to leverage hunger as a prod to go get a job – as if the economic doldrums still besetting large parts of North Carolina were just a figment of the imagination.

McCrory did attempt a veto in June when another ideology-inspired bill crossed his desk. That was the move to exempt magistrates from performing marriages if they claimed their religious beliefs would be offended.

Not only did proponents of same-sex marriage object, but so did people who think that public servants should not be able to pick and choose whom they serve. The governor to his credit put himself in that camp, but his veto was thrown back at him – by a large margin in the Senate, narrowly in the House.

He could also have taken a principled stance when the legislature sent him a bill intended to clear roadblocks in the state’s use of the death penalty. Several other states have wisely decided that capital punishment is not worth the public expense or the risk of error, a view that is gaining traction among conservatives. North Carolina, for now, looks to be moving in the other direction.

A heavy load

Some of the session’s most troubling bills were advanced on the strength of a tactic nicknamed “gut and amend” that twists standard legislative protocol into a pretzel.

A foremost example was House Bill 765. When it cleared the House in April, it was a single page having to do with rules for trucks hauling gravel. By the time the Senate was done with it, the bill had become a 58-page grab-bag of changes to the state’s environmental and other kinds of regulations – mostly designed to make life easier for the business community. Final passage, after a “compromise” with the House, was among the last actions before adjournment.

With a veto, McCrory could make a point not only about the importance of maintaining strong anti-pollution rules but also about abuse of the legislative process. Fortunately, legislators spared the governor from having to make a veto decision on two other misguided bills – the Taxpayer Protection Act, which would have put an unnecessary and potentially harmful cap on state spending, and a gun rights bill that would have done away with the system whereby sheriffs issue pistol permits.

The so-called protection act cleared the Senate but was derailed, for now, in the House. (It and all other bills that cleared one chamber during this session remain alive for the legislative session to be held in the spring.) The gun bill was enacted, but the pistol permitting system was retained. Do we need any more reminders of the importance of rigorous gun law enforcement?

Boundaries and ballots

Two related issues that have dogged state politics since the Republican takeover that began in 2011 are voting district boundaries and rules for elections. Legislators redrew boundaries to favor Republican candidates, prompting legal complaints that the new plans discriminated against racial minorities by packing them into certain districts.

That court case is ongoing, as are lawsuits alleging that minorities’ voting rights have been suppressed by a shortening of early voting periods, an end to same-day registration and the requirement for photo ID. When legislators back in June eased up on the ID rule, it was a clear victory for voting rights advocates, among whose ranks the Council of Churches is proud to stand. But their objections and challenges remain to be settled.

When most legislators hold seats so secure because of gerrymandering that viable opposition at the polls is a rarity, it’s difficult to hold them accountable even for egregious acts of misgovernance. The same is true when segments of the electorate who might be inclined to support progressive candidates have more than their share of trouble casting ballots because of rules that work against them.

As the months go by before the General Assembly reconvenes, there’s no telling how these court dramas will play out. But this much is certain: The outcomes could affect the course of North Carolina’s public policies far into the future. The courts, we must hope, will insist on a level of fairness that our legislature has not.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.