It’s time to end the 2013 legislative session
You know the folks running the North Carolina General Assembly have run out of steam (and pretty much any last semblance of intellectual legitimacy) when the only excuse/explanation they can muster for the current political morass in Raleigh is: “The Democrats did it too.”
Yet that is exactly where we are and what we are hearing these days as the 2013 legislative session plows ahead into the dog days of summer without any end in sight. Here it is July 11– more than six months since the session first convened back in the depths of winter and two weeks after the end of the fiscal year – and still, the session days continue to run on in a seemingly endless procession. There’s been no definitive action on the state budget, no end to committee meetings and, indeed, no end to the unveiling of new bills!
Weren’t the end of divided government and the advent of one party rule supposed to forestall this kind of perpetual stalemate? Wasn’t North Carolina to be treated to a new era of “efficiency” and “competence” in which the levers of state would “run like a business?”
If you listened to our current leaders back in their days in the minority, you would have thought so. Here’s current Senate President Pro Tem and then-Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger slamming budget negotiations between House and Senate leaders in a 2009 News & Observer story — and mind you, this was during a period of profound budget crisis in which the Great Recession was pummeling the state’s economy and tax revenues in unprecedented fashion:
“Senate Republican leader Sen. Phil Berger said it’s another example of Democrats’ incompetence that the state doesn’t have a budget 14 days into the fiscal year.
‘For the average person, when they have a deadline and they need to get something done, they are held accountable,’ said Berger, an Eden Republican, at the weekly Republican news conference.”
And here’s Governor McCrory at his January inaugural speech:
“We will find efficiencies and work together as a government, collaborating and sharing resources across departments and agencies. We will institute the highest ethical standards for all who serve in government. Through our actions, you will know that we understand this is your government.
My cabinet is already working to identify these efficiencies and find ways to collaborate, share resources and be more effective.
As mayor of Charlotte, I emphasized teamwork, and we got things done. A team effort and a philosophy to succeed is what we are bringing to state government.”
Of course, it would be one thing if it was merely finishing the new state budget that stood between lawmakers and adjournment. But, as we’ve learned in terrifically disturbing fashion in recent days, it’s a heck of a lot more than just the budget that has the current state leadership moving in slow motion. Six months into the session, these folks are still unveiling completely new proposed laws (and even constitutional amendments!) in enormously important, complex and controversial areas like reproductive rights, voting rights, eminent domain and environmental protection.
Now it‘s true that past Democratic-controlled legislatures passed their share of last minute legislation down through the years. And to the extent legislative processes were bypassed and public oversight limited, it was wrong in those days as well. As someone from a local conservative group reminded me during a joint TV appearance yesterday, the passage of the state lottery back in the last decade stands out as an especially ghastly example.
But as honest veterans of Jones Street must also attest, the last minute shenanigans of past General Assemblies look trifling in comparison to this year’s late-session grabs. Sure, all of the eleventh hour special favors and overgrown “technical corrections” amendments were examples of lousy backroom governance, but at least those legislatures weren’t, by and large, attempting to alter some of the most fundamental aspects of the relationship between citizens and their government in the waning days of their sessions.
Today, we seem to have the worst of both worlds: Huge and reactionary policy changes of the hard right combined with the muddled and meandering process of the Democratic old guard.
No end in sight?
Events of recent days haven’t helped much in moving the session along. In addition to the raft of hugely controversial new bills, this past week also brought us a big, new and potentially problematic political development in the soap opera that is the Republican contest over the U.S. Senate nomination in 2014.
It turns out that national GOP bigwigs have begun to have second thoughts about the viability of House Speaker Thom Tillis’ candidacy and have started to cast their gaze elsewhere – including the east side of the Legislative Building where Berger continues to do his best impressions of both Jesse Helms and Hamlet. Clearly, this does not bode well for a swift end to the session given that the two legislative leaders have already been locked in a battle of egos and ambition for years. If a Berger Senate candidacy gains any steam at all, the session may well go past Labor Day.
Add to this the fact that Tillis is facing challenges to his authority from a restive GOP caucus that already views him as a lame duck and that Governor McCrory continues to demonstrate about as much ability to lead and make things happen on Jones Street as he would if he were still Mayor of Charlotte, and it’s easy to get pretty pessimistic.
Add a little fringe far right fanaticism to the brew and Thanksgiving starts to look like a possibility.
So what’s next? Is there any hope that state leaders will come to their senses and cut their (and our) losses by ending the session soon?
Though McCrory went to the trouble of dismissing it in a statement, yesterday’s lead editorial in the New York Times (“The Decline of North Carolina”) continues what has become a growing drumbeat of negative national media attention for the state. This is not surprising. As the editorial noted:
“North Carolina was once considered a beacon of farsightedness in the South, an exception in a region of poor education, intolerance and tightfistedness. In a few short months, Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.”
Conservatives may profess to embrace the criticism, but they know that the corporate class is starting to take note and, in the words of Commerce Secretary, wondering “what the heck is going on?”
The hard political reality is that McCrory came to office and has based his career on the notion that he is a moderate bridge builder and loyal corporate water carrier – not a hard line conservative crusader. Any hope he harbors for a political career beyond his current job (and what new governor doesn’t have them?) are gravely endangered if he develops a national reputation as a far right ideologue.
Let’s hope this reality is enough to push the Governor and his de facto lead lobbyist to force the session to a swift conclusion. If not, the divergent coalition of interests behind the mushrooming Moral Monday protests may finally unite behind a single powerful message:
Legislators go home!
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