Five quick takes as the legislative session passes its symbolic midpoint

Five quick takes as the legislative session passes its symbolic midpoint

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

North Carolina lawmakers sped past their self-imposed crossover deadline last week – the date by which many bills must pass at least one house to remain alive for the session. Here are five quick takes on where things stand:

#1 – GOP bulldozer downsized to a Bobcat – Traditionally, and especially during the last several years of conservative rule, the crossover deadline has served as an excuse/opportunity for legislative leaders to push through scores of controversial proposals during a series of marathon sessions that have often stretched into the wee hours of the night. This year, things were different.

Owing in part to the desire of some Republican leaders to attend a national conservative gathering in Asheville and, in part, to the demise of GOP supermajorities (a fact that has served to place a modest check on the Right’s ambitions), crossover passed in much quieter fashion this year. Instead of pulling “all-nighters” and bulldozing through a mountain of bills, lawmakers called it quits early, having advanced a somewhat less imposing pile.

#2 – A nonetheless long list of horribles – Lawmakers may have limited the rush of last minute crossover legislation this year, but sadly, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of badly flawed proposals among the 400-plus bills that made it through. Among the most worrisome:

  • The “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” – an absurdly misnamed piece of anti-reproductive freedom propaganda that, as the Governor said in his veto message, purports to “criminalize doctors and other healthcare providers for a practice that simply does not exist.” The bill awaits a veto override vote in the House.
  • A proposal to require local sheriffs to cooperate with ICE – Designed specifically as retribution against newly elected sheriffs who promised in their 2018 campaigns to stop devoting local resources to immigration enforcement, this bill passed the House and now awaits action in the Senate.
  • The education privatization agenda – Lawmakers have advanced several proposals (both as standalone bills and in the budget) that would expand and further deregulate private school vouchers and charter schools – including so-called “virtual” charter schools.
  • A new giveaway to Duke Energy – Senators approved a controversial bill that would allow Duke to petition the Utilities Commission for a multi-year rate plan, instead of having to request a rate hike hearing more often.

#3 – A badly flawed budget bill – The House passed its version of a new state budget the week before last – just in time to stick it to state teachers who had come to Raleigh to lobby for better support for education. Not only is the budget bill chockful of problematic “special provisions” (i.e. non-budget law changes simply appended on like ornaments to a Christmas tree), it comes up well short on the basic mission of adequately funding core state services. As the N.C. Budget & Tax Center observed:

The House budget is another missed opportunity to invest in our priorities that support the education of our children, the well-being of our families, and the safety and opportunity in our communities. House leaders did not fully address our state’s upside-down tax code; instead, they adopted another round of tax cuts that will primarily benefit businesses of high net worth. The result is a continuation of the decades-long trend of decreasing investments in North Carolina as a share of our economy.”

#4 – One especially notable bright spot – State Senators of both parties deserve credit for advancing the Second Chance Act – a remarkably forward-thinking bill that would dramatically upgrade and modernize state laws governing the expunction of old criminal records.

#5 – Three egregious omissions – There were dozens of good ideas that lawmakers utterly ignored or affirmatively buried prior to the crossover deadline, including a proposal to protect victims of sexual assault, a bill that would have dramatically improved legislative processes and enhanced transparency, and proposals to substantially raise the state minimum wage and guarantee paid sick days to workers. If, however, one were forced to select the three most glaring and destructive omissions thus far in the 2019 session, it would be hard to top:

  • the ongoing failure to close the state’s yawning health insurance gap by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act – a change that would save hundreds (if not thousands) of lives per year;
  • the failure to advance (or even consider) redistricting reform legislation that would cure the state’s outrageously gerrymandered political maps; and
  • the demise of numerous proposals (like so-called “red flag” proposals) that would help curb gun violence and, in particular, reduce the prospect of mass shootings by mentally disturbed people.

The bottom line: The crossover deadline serves as more of a guidepost than a hard and fast roadblock and the 2019 session is far from over. That said, the time for Republican leaders to seriously engage with Gov. Cooper and Democratic lawmakers and negotiate more bipartisan legislation solutions – solutions like the Second Chance Act – is quickly (and sadly) ebbing away.