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Eight errors and omissions of the 2019 legislative session

[1]Well, that appears to be a wrap.

The 2019 legislative session that commenced way back in January and dragged on in desultory fashion for months past its usual adjournment date finally petered out a couple of weeks back. Now, barring some new and unforeseen holiday season power grab – something that’s always a possibility for legislative leaders who maintain only a passing interest in quaint concepts like notice, public input and process – the honorables have absented themselves from the state capital until mid-January.

Interestingly, for all the damage that lawmakers have inflicted on the state since far right majorities took power almost nine years ago – to the fairness and adequacy of the state tax system, to the systems of public and higher education, to the natural environment, to the courts and prisons, to the causes of racial and LGBTQ equality and reproductive freedom –  this past session is probably best remembered for what legislative leaders failed to do.

Confronted with an energetic and popular Democratic governor, resurgent legislative minorities that sought a real role in lawmaking and a voting population that cried out for compromise and common ground, Republican leaders did what most bullies do when they find themselves no longer the unchallenged masters of the playground – they took the ball and went home.

Here are eight of the important legislative proposals that Republican leaders left hanging or simply ignored in 2019:

An adequate and comprehensive state budget – This is, of course, the elephant in the room of the failed 2019 session. Rather than sit down like adults and negotiate a compromise with Gov. Cooper and Democratic legislative leaders, GOP leaders simply opted not to pass a new state budget. And while the state will continue to list along under the previous budget with some minor adjustments, the decision raises serious concerns for the future

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported last Friday [2], the lack of a budget leaves all manner of important gaps in the state’s K-12 education system. Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Service put it this way in a November statement [3]:

Although the state ended fiscal 2019 with a budgetary surplus of nearly $900 million, the lack of agreement on budget priorities amid a time of economic expansion and healthy revenue growth does not augur [bode] well for budgeting and strong governance during times of economic and revenue stagnation or declines.”

Medicaid expansion – This is elephant Number 1A. The failure to expand Medicaid like 37 other states [4] leaves hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily uninsured, costs thousands of North Carolinians their health (and even their lives) and robs the state of billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs. The ongoing blockade – particularly in the state Senate – remains an enormous scandal.

The Economic Security Act of 2019 This common sense measure [5] includes several provisions that are also found in various forms in individual bills – including increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour in phases over five years, mandating equal pay for equal work, requiring paid sick leave and family medical leave, increasing the tipped minimum wage, ending the pernicious problem of employer wage theft, requiring fair chance hiring for people with criminal records, repealing public employee collective bargaining restriction; reenacting the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, along with tax credits for child care and certain employment-related expenses.

Establishing a nonpartisan redistricting process – There were multiple versions of this idea introduced during the 2019 session and while some were superior to others (the idea of a truly independent commission [6] easily bests the idea of turning the process over to legislative staff), the fact that no proposal received so much as a hearing was a travesty.

Restoring nonpartisan judicial elections and public financing for judicial campaigns This measure [7] would repair one of the biggest mistakes of the past decade – namely, politicizing the state judiciary and making it even more vulnerable than necessary to the influence of big money.

The Second Chance Act – This bipartisan measure provides for an array of long-sought changes [8] that would make it easier for individuals who’ve turned their lives around to seek expunction of old criminal records. Unfortunately, despite strong support from right and left and a unanimous “yes” vote in the Senate, it remains held up by House leaders for mysterious reasons.

In-state tuition equity This bill [9] would follow the lead of several other states in assuring that immigrant youth who graduate from North Carolina high schools are eligible for in-state tuition when they are admitted to UNC system schools and North Carolina community colleges.

Ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment – The new Democratic-led legislature in Virginia may still beat North Carolina to it, but it’s long past time [10] for a 38th state to provide final ratification of the amendment that would guarantee equal rights to American women.

The above list is, of course, only a partial one. Nine years of legislative bullying have served to bottle up a lot of long overdue ideas. If, however, voters use the 2020 election to tell legislators to play ball, all (plus several more) ought to find their way to the top of the state policy agenda in 2021.