More flawed, “our way or the highway” governance at the General Assembly

More flawed, “our way or the highway” governance at the General Assembly

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House Speaker Tim Moore (L) and Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger (R)

Substance and process both sorely lacking in COVID relief bill

The North Carolina General Assembly passed what its leaders described as a COVID-19 relief package yesterday. The legislation, which bears the short title “Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0” represents an attempt to address some of the problems resulting from the health pandemic, in part by allocating $1 billion in federal relief that the state has been banking for several months.

And while the legislation is not without redeeming components (like holding local school districts harmless for enrollment drops, allocating funds to increase poll worker pay and buy more personal protective equipment), it suffers from two large and overriding shortcomings that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the machinations of Republican legislative leaders in recent years:

  • It fails to acknowledge the poverty and inequality that plague the state or target the funds where suffering is greatest;
  • It was crafted behind closed doors as a partisan document and passed without real transparency or input from the state’s governor or his party.

The substance

There are many ways in which the legislation fails in directing funding where it’s most needed. But if there’s a “signature” error of the legislation, it’s the so-called “Extra Credit Grant Program” that would send one-time checks for $335 to all families in the state with children.

As N.C. Budget & Tax Center analyst Leila Pedersen explained yesterday, such a program would be enormously wasteful and inefficient.

First, the program would spend almost 80% ($440 million of the remaining $552 million in the state’s coronavirus relief funds) on a single, one-time outlay.

And while relief to families in need is certainly not a bad idea, the “Extra Credit” program would distribute funds to thousands upon thousands of wealthy families who are faring just fine during the pandemic. Indeed, $124 million or 26% of the funds would flow to households comfortably ensconced in the state’s wealthiest 20% — households with annual average incomes of $240,000.

What’s more, because the program would rely on the state tax system to distribute the funds, it will exclude as many as 460,000 families who make too little already to pay state income taxes. These are precisely the struggling households that any worthwhile relief program would be targeting for extra assistance, not excluding.

And while the legislation makes this enormous outlay to subsidize the well-off, it ignores several other desperate state needs:

  • failing to repair the state’s stingiest-in-the-nation unemployment insurance system; instead, the bill merely tosses another $50 per week at those lucky enough to remain on the state’s fast-dwindling UI rolls;
  • failing to close the state’s massive and metastasizing health insurance coverage gap by expanding Medicaid;
  • failing to fund the myriad needs in our long-neglected public schools, even as it would expand the state’s discriminatory and unaccountable school voucher program and its ineffective experiment with so-called “virtual charter schools”;
  • failing to provide adequate funding to help struggling businesses; and
  • failing to provide meaningful aid to families in need of assistance with child care, food and rent.

Add to these shortcomings the fact that the bill was crafted as a kind of “Christmas tree” on which lawmakers hung numerous pet initiatives wholly unrelated to the pandemic and the picture looks that much darker. For example, why does a pandemic relief bill need to expand the authority of the conservative-dominated UNC Board of Governors to hire its own lawyers rather than relying upon the office of the Attorney General?

The process

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which many of the worthy priorities listed above were included or, at the least, seriously debated in crafting the legislation. Especially in a moment of profound and unprecedented crisis like the present, such “unity governance” seems eminently reasonable to expect.

That, however, would have required an open and transparent process in which views other than those held by the legislature’s conservative Republican leadership were entertained; in which the governor of the state was treated as a partner rather than merely as a political adversary; and in which legislation was actually drafted in the sunlight rather than simply prepackaged in secret and sprung on the public shortly before it was debated and passed.

And as the last two years of destructive stalemate and win-at-all-costs political maneuvering by Republican legislative leaders on Jones Street have made plain, that’s not how these people roll.

As state Sen. Wiley Nickel of Wake County explained in a release he distributed at the conclusion of the 24-or-so-hour legislative session:

This bill was written behind closed doors by a party that represents less than half of the voters. It fails to expand Medicaid, does virtually nothing for unemployed workers, leaves our teachers behind and is littered with pork for Republican districts.

The Republicans decided they didn’t want Democratic input on this bill and it shows.”

At the end of yesterday’s session, legislative leaders cockily adjourned until January, apparently confident that Gov. Cooper will not veto the bill given the urgency of some of the needs it addresses.

Their calculation may be correct.

Cooper is an honorable man with a record of not letting his ego get in the way of incremental progress – even if it comes at the price of bad process and some bad new law.

But if this badly flawed and half-baked bill is the final act of the 2019-2020 General Assembly (and perhaps, a decade of conservative legislative leadership) it’s clear they will have both gone out in style.