What legislators should do this week (and what they’ll probably do instead)

What legislators should do this week (and what they’ll probably do instead)

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

The North Carolina General Assembly has returned to Raleigh this week for yet another convening. Contrary, however, to some previous erroneous references, this will not be—at least technically—a “special” session like the three that convened in July, August and October. Rather, lawmakers will merely reconvene the regular 2017-18 session that left off at the end of June.

Of course, whatever formal label one attaches to this week’s proceedings is mostly a matter of semantics. The bottom line is that the Republican supermajorities have called themselves back into lawmaking mode and are free—at least from a legal perspective—to pass pretty much anything they want.

The scuttlebutt in the state capital as to what they will actually do is—aptly enough for a legislature that specializes in operating behind closed doors with little-to-no sunlight or public input—all over the map. It’s known that Republican leaders are intent on passing legislation that would flesh out the vague constitutional amendment on voter ID that they managed to get voters to approve earlier this month, but beyond that, the agenda is mostly a matter of rumors.

Here are some possible scenarios—from the most hopeful to the most pessimistic.

Best possible scenario (chance of occurring: less than 1%) – Cowed by public opinion and the fear that still more bad publicity for a group whose support in the polls ranks somewhere in the single digits will put them on the road to a full-blown electoral defeat in 2020, Republican leaders opt to do the right thing. They defer final action on voter ID legislation until the 2019 session that convenes in January. Then, they commit to negotiating a comprehensive compromise bill with Gov. Cooper and Democratic leaders that will feature an expansive view of the kinds of photo ID that will be deemed acceptable and a well-funded state program to provide free ID’s to all North Carolinians who need them. After that, lawmakers appropriate additional funds to address hurricane relief issues and adjourn for the year.

Best possible semi-realistic scenario (chance of occurring: maybe 15%) – Leery of still more bad publicity and public protests, GOP leaders decide to make it a quick session. After paying lip service to receiving public input by holding relatively brief and poorly publicized public hearings, they pass a restrictive voter ID law along the lines of the proposal unveiled last week that is incrementally improved over the 2013 voter suppression law. Lawmakers then turn their attention to appropriating Hurricane Florence relief dollars and depart Raleigh in relatively short order. After a few days of so-called “skeletal sessions,” members return in early December to override Cooper’s veto of the voter ID bill, say their final farewells and head home until January.

Most likely scenario (chance of occurring: better than 60%) – Sticking stubbornly to their pattern of recent years, GOP leaders opt for one last, lame duck supermajority fling. In addition to ramming through a restrictive voter ID law over strong objections and promised lawsuits from civil rights organizations, legislators push through several other new laws. Topping the list: yet another series of runs at remaking the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement (nee Board of Elections) as well as several other boards and commissions like the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and Rural Infrastructure Authority for which courts have rejected past legislative overhauls. Other likely items on the agenda: bills to deal with economic development (i.e. corporate subsidies/giveaways), gubernatorial and legislative appointments, and some kind of additional hurricane relief.

Worst case scenario (chance of occurring: perhaps 20-25%) – GOP leaders decide to throw all caution and decency to the wind and, in addition to all of the items listed in Scenario #3, move to pass a host of other egregious power grabs à la their rump 2016 blitzkrieg. Among the possibilities:

  • A new, last-ditch redistricting bill that seeks, once again, to consolidate Republican power by double-bunking disfavored Democrats;
  • Legislation to implement two other constitutional amendments dealing with crime victims’ rights and hunting and fishing laws;
  • New efforts to protect the job of current state elections chief (and spouse of a prominent GOP lawyer) Kim Westbrook Strach;
  • New efforts to seize power from the Governor by moving executive agencies (the Industrial Commission? the Department of Commerce?) away from the control of Gov. Cooper and assigning them to Republican officials like the Insurance Commissioner and the Lt. Governor; and
  • Yet another effort to seize authority to appoint and/or rig the election of judges.

The bottom line: While inklings of hope remain, it appears extremely likely that the final days of the 2017-18 Republican supermajority will look an awful lot like the past several years. That means extreme partisanship, new laws crafted in secret and passed rapidly with limited-to-zero meaningful process and another missed opportunity to address the real crises that confront our state.

In other words, 2019 can’t come soon enough.