The 2020 General Assembly in a nutshell: profits over people

The 2020 General Assembly in a nutshell: profits over people

- in Top Story, Weekly Briefing

It’s never safe to predict what the current leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly will do when it comes to scheduling gatherings in Raleigh, but if the end of the 2020 legislative session really is nigh at it appears, the past several weeks will have served as a fitting conclusion to a decade of conservative Republican rule.

At a moment of profound crisis, on subject after subject, legislative leaders emphasized the demands of corporate lobbyists over the needs of average North Carolina residents; the desires of the wealthy over the needs of the poor; profits over people.

The chief symbol for this destructive pattern was, of course, the response to the health pandemic. Time and again, GOP leaders opted to ignore science and the imperative of protecting human life and well-being of vulnerable people to abet the cause of promoting short-term profits.

Rather than heeding the virtually unanimous guidance of public health officials, the legislature repeatedly took up and passed bills that sought to force the reopening of bars and gyms, amusement parks and even “gaming establishments.” Some of the bills were even pushed through late last week – at almost the very moment at which states like Texas, Florida and Arizona were reversing course after having foolishly plowed ahead with the premature reopening of such establishments.

Of course, the bitter irony of the misguided push to reopen prematurely is that – as with so many other shortsighted policy choices of recent years – such a move is actually a recipe to do more economic harm than good. As we’re learning from other nations that followed a different and more disciplined path, it would have been much better for North Carolina (and the U.S. as a whole) to have immediately imposed an even more thorough societal shutdown and cushioned the pain with a much more robust set of social safety net benefits.

Had the state, for example, taken much more extensive action to provide loans and direct assistance to small businesses harmed by forced closures, the pressure to expedite reopening would have been much less intense. This would have been significantly easier to accomplish had state lawmakers not repeatedly slashed state taxes in recent years and refused to consider new sources of revenue in the present crisis.

Unfortunately, because of the failure of legislative leaders to think beyond slashing taxes and regulations to help business and the economy, North Carolina now finds itself in a dreadful pickle in which there is a little prospect of getting the virus under control or the economy fully functioning anytime soon.

And so it went this session with respect to a long list of topics in which small and narrow-minded thinking kept state policy focused on the near-term profits and bank accounts of vested interests at the expense of the common good. The list is long:

  • the failure to expand Medicaid at a moment in which the last thing the state needs is for hundreds of thousands of people to be fearful of seeking medical care;
  • the failure to reconstruct and upgrade the state’s eviscerated unemployment insurance system;
  • the failure to boost the state’s threadbare and inadequate system of childcare and pre-K;
  • the failure to pass a bond to fund school construction or to provide adequate compensation to teachers and other public school personnel;
  • the enactment of legislation to further limit public oversight of hog farms.

This distressing situation might have hit its nadir, though, when the leadership of the Senate caved into the demands of the predatory “debt settlement” industry – a group of out-of-state firms that regularly use misleading and aggressive advertising to entice desperate consumers into new and expensive schemes with the supposed goal of reducing their credit card debt. The Attorney General’s office reports that it has helped nearly 8,000 victims who have been ripped off by these firms over the last decade.

Under a carefully crafted pro-consumer bill that passed the House and was moving through the Senate with little fanfare, lawmakers would have enacted some basic protections to insulate vulnerable North Carolinians from such schemes.

Unfortunately, in a classic case of “pay-to-play” politics at their worst, the industry retained a fleet of nearly a dozen well-connected lobbyists (nine brought on in the session’s final six weeks) and it seems to have done the trick. Despite the support of an array of consumer and in-state business groups, and having passed three Senate committees without a dissenting vote, Senate leaders suddenly and mysteriously refused to bring the bill up for a floor vote in what appear to have been the session’s waning hours. The bill is now, by all indications, dead until 2021.

The bottom line: If, as some pundits and pollsters have forecast, 2020 proves to be the swan song the General Assembly’s conservative Republican majorities, it’s quite clear they will have gone out in style.

This story has been updated to delete a reference criticizing legislation that altered the disclosure of some records related to securities investigations. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office told Policy Watch subsequent to publication that the Secretary of State sought the legislation in response to national efforts related to protecting consumers and abetting the state’s work on with federal investigators. we hope to report in greater detail on this subject in the near future. 

Disclosure: The North Carolina Justice Center, parent organization of NC Policy Watch, lobbied in favor of the stymied debt settlement legislation.