So began the heartfelt lament of Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange) late last Friday afternoon as the veteran representative—a rare lawmaker of deep intellect and genuine compassion for the less fortunate in our society—rose to address yet another backroom deal on a matter of complexity and importance that would make life appreciably worse for mentally ill prisoners.
Some cynical wags in the Capital Press Corps sought to make cheap fun of Insko’s choice of words to commence a speech on the floor of the House, but her opening words were, in fact, wholly appropriate.
For many of those who spend their days immersed in the day-to-day goings on at the North Carolina General Assembly, it’s easy to lose sight of just how far things have fallen in what is supposed to be a great deliberative body. Whether you’re a lawmaker, a lobbyist or a journalist, the action sometimes comes at such a fast and furious pace—particularly near the end of the legislative session—that it’s easy to forget what day it is, much less keep in mind the remarkable fact that dozens of new laws are being made for 10 million people.
Take a step back from the trees, however, and really examine and contemplate the character of the lawmaking “forest” that has come to be in downtown Raleigh, and it quickly becomes apparent that the current situation is neither “normal” nor acceptable.
Never has this reality been more clearly on display than during the recent waning days (or, what we think are the waning days, anyway – no one ever knows for sure) of the 2018 legislative session. Time and again last week, in fealty to an artificial and never fully disclosed deadline, legislative leaders summoned new and hugely controversial proposed laws out of thin air, conducted rapid-fire kangaroo committee meetings to bless them, and then waved the detritus briefly in front of glassy-eyed rank and file members for quick, often dazed approval.
The list of rubbish to be accorded this red carpet treatment was a long and dirty one and included, among many other things:
- A transparently partisan bit of legal scalpel wielding that would alter early voting laws in order to target and discourage participation by minority voters;
- A new and rewritten version of what ought to have been labeled “The Polluting Corporate Industrial Hog Factory Relief Act”;
- An 18-page compilation of giveaways to favored special interests bearing the laugh-out-loud title “Regulatory Relief Act of 2018”;
- A bill to gerrymander the judicial districts of roughly a third of the state’s population;
- A “technical corrections” bill that included numerous new and dramatic changes to a wide array of policies;
- A special giveaway to landlords upset by a recent court ruling; and
- The aforementioned bill to enhance penalties on mentally ill prison inmates.
And of course, all of these measures come on top of a budget that was written in secret and prevented by rule from being amended, and that starves schools, the environment and countless other essential state services in order to give tax cuts to millionaires. It was only due to the pluck and dedication of some nonprofit consumer advocates that this week’s list didn’t also include proposals to undermine the signature achievement of the Affordable Care Act by effectively doing away with the bar on discrimination against people with preexisting conditions, and further deregulate the already predatory rent-to-own industry.
The spectacle grew so dark during the debate over the hog legislation on Thursday night that Rep. John Blust, an arch conservative Republican from Guilford County, took to the floor for a 13 minute speech to blast his fellow GOP’ers for the session’s abysmal lack of process.
“An iron curtain has descended on this legislature, and it just will not let go. A few people call all the shots, and their will governs, and I know the members cannot afford to go against it,” he said.
But wait, it gets worse. Word from the Legislative Building is that the Republican wrecking crew is saving the coup de grace for this week: a bevy of constitutional amendments on voter ID, a new income tax cap and, perhaps, multiple other items, which it plans to push through and directly onto the November ballot (the Governor has no authority to veto constitutional amendments).
Some rumors even hold that legislators are actively considering combining several disparate amendments into a single bill in order to cow wavering Republicans.
The bottom line: cynical Legislative Building insiders may dismiss the 2018 session machinations as “business as usual,” but they are wrong. The people running the General Assembly in 2018 are slowly but steadily chipping away at the foundations of democratic government.
Shame on all of us who remain speechless.