A refresher course on what passed in 2013, what’s happened since and why you should care about the legislative session that starts next week
North Carolina lawmakers return to Raleigh next week for the 2014 “short session,” and for lots of caring and thinking people, the chief reaction to this sobering reality is: “Good lord. Already?!”
Indeed, for many who suffered through the torment of the 2013 long session, the notion that legislators will be back in the state capital on May 14 to begin rolling back more of what’s left of the progress of the 20th Century is enough to bring on a severe case of fear and loathing and even post-traumatic stress. For others, contemplating a renewal of the fight brings on a more practical challenge: “Now wait a minute, I’ve blocked a lot of this out” goes the thought process. “There were so many battles — what exactly did they pass? What actually got implemented? What comes next?”
Crafting a helpful and concise response to these two very different reactions is no simple matter, but it would probably be best to begin with a brief refresher course on some of the most notable “accomplishments” of the 2013 session (and where they stand now). We’ll get to the “why things aren’t hopeless” reminders in a minute.
A dreadful list
There’s no way in this space to list all of the bad ideas that worked their way through the legislative process and into the state statute books last session, but here (with a nod to the very helpful list generated last fall by the good people at Democracy NC) are several and, where apt, an update on the current situation:
A back to the 70′s state budget law — Click here to read all the grisly details on the cuts to (and underfunding of) education, health care, affordable housing, environmental protection, minority economic development programs, drug courts and dozens of other core public structures, as well as the enactment of a regressive and fiscally irresponsible tax plan — something already taking its toll on the 2014-15 state budget.
School vouchers — Among other things, the budget introduced a new school voucher program that would direct tax money to unaccountable private and religious schools. A state Superior Court judge has enjoined the program and voucher supporters have appealed that ruling. Some lawmakers may also attempt to enact a “fix” to address the constitutional problems identified in the lawsuit during the upcoming session.
Rigging state voting and election laws — As voting expert Bob Hall explained yesterday in this column, not all of the voter suppression tactics enacted into law in last year’s aptly-dubbed “monster voting law” have taken full effect yet. Moreover, multiple state and federal court challenges remain pending. If and when all of the provisions are implemented, however, there should be no mistake about the intent or the potentially ruinous reach of the law. In a related matter, the state’s gerrymandered political map — an effort of the 2011 General Assembly — remains in effect even as a court challenge remains pending before the state Supreme Court. Efforts to enact nonpartisan redistricting remain stalled.
Teacher “tenure” repealed — Lawmakers passed a law that revokes the right of public school teachers not to be fired without some good cause. The law is the subject of litigation and protests from local boards of education but remains essentially on track for now.
The repeal of the state Earned Income Tax Credit — Lawmakers made North Carolina the first state to ever repeal the state EITC — a proven tool for rewarding work and reducing the taxes of low-income people. Absent a reversal, the recent tax filing season was the last one during which families will have been able to claim the credit.
Rejecting a federally-funded expansion of Medicaid made available by the Affordable Care Act — One of the session’s most destructive acts, this decision continues to wreak havoc on the lives of a half-million uninsured people and the state economy as a whole.
Harshest-in-the-nation cuts to unemployment insurance — This decision caused an immediate, disastrous and sudden cut-off in already inadequate insurance benefits to tens of thousands of unemployed workers and their families and dramatically reduced benefits and eligibility going forward.
Consumer loan rate hikes — At a time of record low interest rates, lawmakers gave the profitable consumer finance industry authority to jack up already outrageous rates on small consumer loans. Loan rate hikes followed as soon as the law went into effect.
Firearms deregulation — Among other things, a new law expands “concealed carry” to permit loaded weapons to be carried into restaurants, bars and parks. What could go wrong?
Racial Justice Act repealed — Lawmakers repealed a hard-won law that had attempted to address the widespread and undeniable problem of racial bias in the application of the death penalty. Now, sadly, the question being litigated is whether the repeal can be made, in effect, retroactive so that those on death row who had sought protection under the law can no longer do so.
New abortion clinic restrictions — Last summer, Gov. McCrory infamously broke his pledge to oppose any new restrictions on a woman’s right to obtain abortion services by approving legislation that threatened to shutter virtually all of the facilities in the state at which abortions could be obtained. As of this point, however, McCrory and his team have yet to promulgate the rules that would give effect to the new law.
The omnibus deregulation law — Among the most potentially destructive of last year’s numerous “Christmas Tree” bills for the corporate lobbying corps was a new law that undoes (both immediately and gradually) scores of important state regulations — especially in the field of environmental protection. For better or worse, the recent Duke coal ash disaster may help to blunt some of the worst near term impacts of this effort. Legislation to address the status of existing coal ash “ponds” is a likely topic of the short session.
Other destructive new laws — Among the many other regressive byproducts of the 2013 session that are now law:
• A new mandate that students receive medically inaccurate health lessons about reproduction and the impact of abortions,
• a new expansion of (and loosening of regulations on) charter schools,
• repeal of rules to clean up the dangerously polluted Jordan Lake,
• a law to expedite the introduction of the environmentally destructive practice of fracking,
• a new law to loosen coastal protections and elevate the near-term rights of some beachfront property owners over the long-term interest of the public, and
• the so-called “star-chamber” law that limits independent oversight of behavior by judges and shrouds it in secrecy.
Keeping the faith
In contemplating such a long and regressive list, it would be easy (and sane) to be discouraged. What’s more, there’s likely more to come — whether it’s returning to square one on K-12 standards by repealing the “Common Core” or creating still more health care “haves” and “have nots” by repealing state “certificate-of-need” laws that work to prevent all high-tech facilities from gravitating to wealthy and populous areas of the state.
That said; there remain numerous reasons for progressives to stay engaged in the fight — not the least of which is the fact that conservative leaders have clearly overplayed their hand and lurched so far to the right that they are rapidly alienating the majority of North Carolinians. Demographic changes, polling results and the ever-growing protest movements across the state all point in this direction. North Carolina may be taking a temporary walk in the wilderness, but we are not Mississippi or South Carolina. The population is simply too large, too smart, too modern and too diverse for the current wild pendulum swing to last.
If you’d like to be a part of upcoming efforts to begin to drag policy debates somewhere closer to the ideological center, here are two events on the upcoming calendar that merit your attention and participation:
Next Wednesday, May 14, demonstrators will welcome lawmakers back to Raleigh with an old-fashioned “pots-and-spoons” protest outside the General Assembly at 10:00 a.m. Click here for more information.
And last but not least, be sure to check out the return of Moral Mondays on May 19. Click here for more information.
Hope to see ya’ there!
Rob Schofield is director of Research and Policy Development for North Carolina Policy Watch.