The lows and highs of the 2016 legislative session

The lows and highs of the 2016 legislative session

XGR_Sign2-400The N.C. General Assembly’s 2016 regular session, which drew to a sudden close on July 1, will be remembered as much for what didn’t happen as for what did – sometimes for the worse and occasionally for the better.

Even with Republicans firmly in charge of both the House and Senate, there was plenty of friction between the two chambers over both policy and procedure. Two cases in point:

  • The state Senate pushed for an amendment to the state constitution that essentially would keep income tax rates from being raised above the current level. That level already reflects tax cuts costing the state in excess of $1 billion a year. The proposal never made it to the House floor, perhaps because House leaders recognized the folly of limiting revenue options available to future legislatures in the face of many budget needs, both known and unknown. The House also was entitled to resent the Senate’s tactic of demanding approval of proposals that the House hadn’t had a chance to thoroughly consider.
  • The House flagged another misguided Senate measure aimed at tightening the civic screws on undocumented immigrants. Instead of promoting cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies, the bill would have forced police officers and sheriff’s deputies to serve as de facto immigration agents. That does nothing to enhance public safety, and the House wisely let the proposal die.

Meanwhile, the infamous law known as House Bill 2, enacted during a recklessly staged special session earlier this year and quickly marking North Carolina as a place where the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are under attack, was left largely unchanged despite widespread calls for its repeal. One objectionable provision was fixed, but the law’s critics were left to trust that it will meet its downfall in the federal courts – where the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection hopefully still matters.

On the whole there was less drama as legislators complied with their duty to enact an updated, balanced budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Indeed, that was the day when the $22.3 billion budget  – a House-Senate compromise that increases spending slightly – received its final House approval and was sent to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

That the legislative deadline was met posed a contrast to some recent years when disagreements between the two chambers took extra weeks to resolve.

Yes, there were sticking points, but in the end the budget even drew some Democratic support – presumably on the theory that from a progressive standpoint, it could have been worse. Most significantly, veteran public school teachers will enjoy respectable and decidedly overdue raises. If conservative legislators were motivated by the heat of an election year, hoping to defuse criticism of a teacher pay structure that has lagged toward the bottom of national rankings, then at least to that extent the system worked.

No Medicaid for them

The budget includes modest increases for some social services such as early childhood education and child care. But many needs in those areas remain unmet, just as they do when it comes to health care for lower-income people who fall into the so-called Medicaid gap.

Legislators who were worried about long-term costs again declined to expand North Carolina’s Medicaid program to serve those people, who earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but too little to qualify for subsidized care under the federal Affordable Care Act. So upwards of 300,000 residents must continue to do without the kind of health care most of us take for granted – a huge obstacle to their success in the workplace and, for many, a sentence to plain misery.

Our critique of the legislature’s tax policies is a familiar one, but the effect of those policies becomes stark in light of the budget’s shrinkage from pre-recession levels. One reckoning, by the N.C. Justice Center, puts spending as a percentage of the state’s personal income on track to be the lowest in 45 years. A few incidental election-year boosts are well and good – but given the scale of North Carolina’s public investment needs, coupled with several years of belt-tightening, there’s really not much to cheer.

That’s especially the case with tax cuts primarily geared to benefit higher-end earners, who no longer face a top rate reflecting their greater ability to pay. The income tax instead has been flattened so that the rate is the same for everyone – 5.75 percent, slated to drop to 5.499 percent next year.

Meanwhile, lower-income residents bear the brunt of a shift toward greater reliance on the sales tax, which has been expanded to cover various services such as car repairs. Legislators did include in the budget an increase in the standard deduction, which will save many of those residents with modest incomes a few dollars on their taxes. But for taxpayers with higher incomes, the overall portfolio of changes has been nothing but good news.

As hard as it is for the state to summon the revenue it needs, the budget bends over backwards to expand public support for private schools – a favorite cause of conservatives who want to make it easier for families to opt out of traditional public school systems.

The so-called Opportunity Scholarship program, which is aimed at children in lower-income families, is set to grow by $10 million per year for 10 years until a reserve fund reaches the not-inconsiderable sum of $144.8 million. (How the current legislature can make that future financial commitment seems like a fair question.) While some students may benefit, the program also siphons off money that could be used to support the schools that most North Carolina youngsters attend. So from the perspective of public school advocates, including the Council, expanding the program looks to be an unfortunate choice.

H.B. 2 – still with us

When legislators convened on April 25, they were feeling the full brunt of a national backlash to their enactment a month earlier of H.B. 2 – the law requiring transgender persons to use public restrooms matching the gender indicated on their birth certificate. As if that demeaning and unnecessary provision weren’t bad enough, the law also bars local governments from enacting their own measures intended to protect the rights of LGBT folks in public accommodations and the workplace. It even prohibits them from setting a local minimum wage or other workplace conditions.

Many companies as well as high-profile performers have declared their opposition to the law, in keeping with their support of inclusivity and respect for individual rights without regard to gender identity or sexual orientation. But in the end, calls to repeal or revise H.B. 2 fell on deaf ears.

There was one exception: With Gov. McCrory among the proponents, the law was changed so that people who believe they have been discriminated against by employers once again can bring lawsuits in state court. However, the law continues to withhold anti-discrimination protections for LGBT persons. The change may have been a victory for those who want to see North Carolina’s laws rooted in concepts of fairness and individual liberty – but as victories go, this was a small one.

Tangled lines, laws

H.B. 2 was hatched during a special legislative session in March. As it happens, that was the second special session of 2016. The first was convened in February, after federal judges declared that the legislature had drawn the state’s congressional districts so that they involved an unconstitutional exercise in gerrymandering. The district map was reworked, with dramatic consequences (a prominent Republican incumbent, Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn, was defeated in a primary by another incumbent, Rep. George Holding of Raleigh).

In fact, the General Assembly still has not been able to shake an assortment of legal challenges to its redistricting plans and to various election law changes that critics say are designed to suppress the votes of minorities and the working poor – not so coincidentally, voters who tend to lean Democratic.

The latest twist came hours before the regular session’s July 1 adjournment, when a federal appeals court turned thumbs down on the legislature’s attempt to reconfigure Wake County commissioner and school board districts. The reason: gerrymandering transparently intended to help Republicans retake control from boards now in Democratic hands. It’s not the judges’ fault that Wake’s local election schedule now is up in the air, to the confusion of candidates and residents alike.

Not on our watch

But let’s end on a positive note. This session was not unusual in seeing the Senate take the lead in pushing a strongly conservative agenda, only to encounter resistance from the somewhat more moderately conservative House. That resistance proved fatal in the case of two bills strongly opposed by the Council of Churches and other progressive advocates – the aforementioned income tax cap and the anti-immigrant measure known as H.B. 100.

Senate leaders had called for an even more stringent “Taxpayer Protection Act” that, after a referendum, would have written a 5 percent income tax ceiling into the state constitution along with limits on spending growth. They settled for a 5.5 percent cap and large, mandatory contributions to a savings reserve. It didn’t take an advanced economics degree to understand how even these measures would hamper the state’s ability to meet ongoing needs and to respond to emergencies. When the House declined to act, the tax cap was left behind on the platform as the train left the station.

Ditto for the noxious H.B. 100, which dripped hostility toward the hard-working immigrants who have become such mainstays of our communities. Localities would have been punished with the loss of state funds for schools and roads if they failed to try to ferret out immigrants in this country without official permission.

The Council is mindful that undocumented immigration raises troublesome issues, and those who abuse their presence with acts of criminal violence of course must be dealt with.

But it’s entirely reasonable for our communities to decide that public safety for all their otherwise law-abiding residents should be their priority, as opposed to trying to enforce unrealistic and inhumane federal immigration laws. When House members decided to let H.B. 100 wither, they helped sustain ideals of tolerance of which North Carolina – despite some recent lapses – should be proud.

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