The General Assembly’s latest mashup legislation is an example of government at its worst
In the complex world of modern politics, it’s easy to imagine scenarios in which difficult compromises must be made. Sometimes, the circumstances are such that there simply isn’t any way for elected leaders to proceed without making multiple accommodations to multiple parties.
Hence, among other things, the distasteful but sometimes necessary phenomenon of the so-called “Christmas Tree” bill that is packed with all kinds of disparate provisions that have only one thing in common: they’re necessary to secure the votes of enough lawmakers to get essential underlying provisions passed into law. Such bills may often go too far and be fraught with problems, but at least they’re typically driven by a spirit of pragmatism and negotiation.
This week, the North Carolina General Assembly will pass major legislation that is chockful of numerous disparate provisions. Unfortunately, it’s anything but a negotiated package of Christmas gifts. Rather, it is more like a jumbled mashup of dirty and destructive Halloween tricks that will be inflicted upon the people of North Carolina – all in the service of political cynicism at its worst.
The class size “fix”
As you’ve probably heard, the bill in question emerged out of thin air (i.e. from behind the closed doors of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s and House Speaker Tim Moore’s offices) just last week. After months of urgent pleas from the state’s public education community, legislative leaders announced that they would deign to address the question of the unfunded K-3 class size mandate that lawmakers had inflicted on the state two years ago and that had been scheduled to take full effect in the 2018-19 school year.
The class size “fix” contained in the bill is far from perfect. As veteran education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom explained in a detailed and informative post  last week, the provision is helpful, but there are several ways in which it could be improved.
What’s more, while the bill includes welcome language to shrink the state Pre-K waiting list, it funds this initiative with “one-time” money taken from reserves that will be hard to replicate in the 2018-19 budget – especially given the hundreds of millions of dollars in new state tax cuts taking effect this year.
All that said, the real story in last week’s omnibus bill involves the other unrelated provisions that lawmakers pasted in. You see, rather than simply passing a simple and straightforward measure that would address the class size crisis – something for which there was an urgent need and overwhelming bipartisan support – Berger and Moore chose to load the bill down with controversial and counter-productive add-ons that have absolutely nothing to do with public education.
As Policy Watch reported last Friday  after the bill was unveiled on Thursday:
“If there was a single most controversial aspect to yesterday’s meeting and discussion, however, it was the decision to combine so many disparate subjects into a single, omnibus bill – a move that was clearly designed by Republicans to box the Governor and Democratic legislators into a difficult political position. While the bill includes a “fix” for the widely unpopular K-3 class size mandate – a provision that Democrats (and many Republicans) have long demanded – it also includes several provisions that will clearly be unacceptable to Cooper and the Democrats. This includes provisions that seek to direct the disposition of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation fund (something Cooper has claimed as his prerogative) and a redo of the legislature’s previous effort to combine the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission into a single agency. A recent ruling from the state Supreme Court struck down lawmakers’ previous merger efforts as unconstitutional.”
It is as if the legislative leaders could, quite literally, not help themselves. Faced with the opportunity to pass a popular and necessary law change – something that would have passed unanimously – they instead opted to load it down and hold schools hostage with hyper-partisan provisions that are designed to divide, score partisan points and all but assure more costly litigation.
This is not responsible governance; it is governance by tantrum and political vendetta. It is the kind of governance one would expect from vengeful college boys concocting the takeover of a fraternity.
And, of course, such an assessment doesn’t even take into account the utter lack of process that accompanied the development and passage of the legislation. Once again, as has become their default procedure these days for anything remotely important , legislative leaders constructed the legislation in secret and then sprung it on rank and file members, the news media, the advocacy community and the public at-large as a fait accompli .
What’s more, because the omnibus legislation was fashioned as a conference committee report, amendments were not allowed under the rules of the Senate (which rammed the measure through on Friday) and will not be allowed today when the House takes it up.
To its credit and as is its wont, the Cooper administration has kept its cool thus far. Spokesperson Sadie Weiner issued a statement in which she said “It’s clear that the legislature finally bowed to public pressure on class size and expanding Pre-K, which is positive for our students, but it’s unfortunate that it has been lumped in with political shenanigans.” Privately, though, one suspects that administration officials must feel sick and tired of the unrelenting bad behavior they have been forced to endure from lawmakers.
More shenanigans to come
Sadly, but not surprisingly, it seems unlikely that there will be any letup in the legislature’s in-your-face approach to lawmaking. Last week, state Senate leaders even reverted to hostile, bomb throwing tactics vis a vis their Republican counterparts in the House. As Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg explained last Friday , the Senate’s new, out-of-the-blue proposal on addressing the GenX water pollution crisis constitutes yet another effort to elevate political score settling over problem solving.
A weekend editorial in the Fayetteville Observer  was especially scathing. It described the Senate’s proposal to essentially freeze the Department of Environmental Quality out of the clean-up while funneling an appropriation to a former Berger staffer who once fought environmental regulation and who now has been ensconced at UNC Chapel Hill this way:
“This constitutes political fraud on a grand scale and is the most blatant statement we’ve yet seen from the Senate and its powerful leader that they have no real interest in protecting the health and safety of their constituents. The Senate GenX bill makes it clear that Berger and the rest of his Senate leadership are out to protect the interests of big business — and big contributors — and that they really don’t see any problem with the dumping of dangerous wastes into rivers, streams and groundwater that are the source of drinking water for millions of North Carolina residents.”
There is no word at this point on what the House might do with the Senate’s new GenX broadside.
The bottom line
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of arch-conservative politicians and advocates in this state and around the country who, despite their strong – even passionate – beliefs and ideologies, do not act like the men and women who currently run the North Carolina General Assembly and, in particular, the state Senate.
These leaders understand that successful government is often as much about the process as it is about the laws that are passed and the rules that are adopted. They also understand that all leaders must surrender power eventually and that, as the old saying goes, pursuing “eye for an eye” justice can leave all parties blind. Unfortunately, right now in North Carolina, such leaders are in extremely short supply.