Grades for a roller-coaster week in Raleigh

By: - June 5, 2015 9:03 am

Grade FWell, that was quite an up and down week in the North Carolina public policy arena.

One minute, caring and thinking people were feeling encouraged and hopeful that common sense and relative moderation were mounting a serious comeback in the capital city. The next, they were pounding their computer screens in frustration at the worse-than-ever surge of regressive legislation and the alternately dishonest and vacuous explanations proffered by bill sponsors and Governor McCrory.

So, what to make of the rapid-fire developments and the muddled policy picture that we confront at week’s end? Here’s a thumbnail review of five issues that dominated the news, where they stand and what to make of the Governor’s and General Assembly’s brief and mostly ineffective feints toward the middle:

McCrory breaks campaign pledge once again over new abortion restrictions – If there was a worst moment of the week it came on Wednesday evening when Governor McCrory once again showed his blunt 2012 campaign pledge to oppose any further restrictions on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion to be – as his hometown newspaper described it – a lie.

The moment of clarity came shortly after the General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that imposes multiple new requirements designed by anti-abortion crusaders that will interfere in women’s health decisions – most notably a new 72 hour waiting period requirement that only four other states have in place. As NC Policy Watch contributor Chavi Koneru of NARAL Pro-Choice NC wrote on The Progressive Pulse blog:

“The Governor’s expression of satisfaction makes it clear that he has no comprehension of the dangerous effects of a waiting period. Not only do they have no medical benefit and will do nothing to protect women’s health, but in fact waiting can have a negative impact on women, both physically and emotionally. Not to mention, that imposing a waiting period on women implies that they are overly emotional and incapable of making life-impacting decisions without being forced to have extra time to think about it. It is insulting that McCrory and the legislators who voted for the bill believe that North Carolina women are too irrational to make decisions about their own bodies without government hand-holding.”

As is so often the case with the Governor, his explanation for the blatant flip flop was at once maddeningly shallow and insulting. McCrory claimed that he hadn’t realized until just recently that women could, at least theoretically, start the waiting period clock running by making a phone call to their health care provider and that this alleviated his concerns. Uh, excuse us Governor, but: a) the phone provision was already on the books for the flawed and illogical 24 hour waiting period, b) as a practical matter, it is of no value to most women – the vast majority of whom do not approach seeking an abortion as if it is some sort of game show contest and c) the bill has other objectionable restrictions on reproductive freedom. Grade: F-minus.

The bill to excuse anti-LGBT marriage discrimination advances – Last week, in one of the high points of his governorship, McCrory vetoed the so-called “religious freedom” bill that would allow magistrates, registers of deeds and assistant registers of deeds to refuse to perform an important job duty (i.e. marrying people) when they have a “sincerely held religious objection” to doing so. The Governor even showed a little combativeness the day afterwards as he promised more vetoes and talked a little trash to legislators.

Unfortunately, the new (and brief) tough guy act on the anti-LGBT equality proposal had little discernible effect down the street at the legislature. The Senate promptly overrode his veto on Monday and the House placed the measure on its calendar shortly thereafter. And while, at this moment, the House seems to be looking at a thin margin on its override vote, there’s been little evidence that this has much to do with lobbying by the Governor. The bill currently appears as Item #1 on the calendar for this coming Monday night. Grade: C-minus.

“Ag gag” bill becomes law – Veto #2 from the Governor came last Friday when, again to his credit, he rejected the flawed proposal to silence workers who would obtain and publicize damaging information about their employers. As was explained in this post back in April, the so-called “ag gag” bill had some legitimate objectives and included some important protections for would be whistleblowers. Unfortunately, as was also explained, it also opens the door to many very troubling scenarios and raises some important free speech issues.

Sadly, as with the marriage bill, the Governor’s veto had very little effect at the General Assembly as both houses dispensed with it quickly by comfortable margins on Wednesday. Let’s hope that the promise of some sponsors to continue to look for ways to improve the new law before it takes full effect next January were genuine and bear fruit before the General Assembly adjourns this summer. Grade: D.

Gun law liberalization moves closer to approval – Yet another debate to feature large measures of duplicitous, fear-for-your-state nonsense mixed in which occasional moments of surprising rationality from conservative voices was the one that accompanied the controversial bill to dramatically reduce North Carolina’s already weak gun control laws.

Most controversial in the bill is a provision to phase out the state’s successful pistol permitting system, which provides background checks for the approximately 40 percent of gun sales that happen through private sellers. The bill was opposed by the state’s association of sheriffs (whose members administer the permit system) – a fact that raised the over-the-top ire of the National Rifle Association. An NRA spokesperson even purported to tell the House committee hearing the bill that it (the NRA) had polled the state’s sheriffs and found them at odds with their own association – a contention a Sheriff’s Association representative powerfully refuted. Not surprisingly, there was no word from the NRA spokesman on whether members of his group had been polled on the positions he was espousing.

The bill ultimately passed the committee by a 14-13 vote over the strong opposition of veteran lawmaker Leo Daughtry (himself a one-time GOP House Majority Leader) and the almost whispered, but better-than-nothing, opposition of a lobbyist for the Governor. At last check, House leaders were looking for the votes to pass the bill on the floor, though some rumors hold that the pistol permit repeal could be removed to save the bill’s numerous other troubling provisions. Grade: D.

A long overdue pardon – Finally, in what may well serve as an apt conclusion to a week full of sobering developments that featured occasional, but fleeting, glimmers of moderation and hope, the Governor issued absurdly overdue pardons to two innocent and mentally-challenged men who had several decades of their lives stolen by the state of North Carolina.

The pardons — the requests for which McCrory had promised (but failed to deliver) a speedy review last September — will allow Henry McCollum and Leon Brown to obtain compensation from the state for the more than 30 years they were wrongfully imprisoned. McCollum, it should also be noted, was actually sentenced to death for the murder he did not commit. He was also frequently used as the butt of campaign ads by conservative politicians and cited by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as someone who deserved to die.

Not surprisingly and frustratingly, after issuing the belated pardons, the Governor gave no sign that he had gleaned any particular lesson from the tragedy. Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who represented the men through their exoneration, called on the governor to “to take the next step and halt all executions officially.”

Unfortunately, however, as with the other issues on which he weighed in this week, McCrory showed little grasp of his opportunity (or what it takes) to lead, move the General Assembly, shape public opinion or make his supposed penchant for moderation and “stepping on toes” anything more than just talk. Grade: C-minus.

Going forward

As the Senate prepares to slash the already inadequate House version of the budget in the week to come, hope springs eternal that moderate forces are finding their political sea legs. Based on the outcomes of this past week, however, such hopes seem likely to amount to little more than wishful thinking.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.