Uh-oh – it’s the legislature, again

By: - August 1, 2017 12:44 pm

Better get used to it. The N.C. General Assembly, after an all-too-brief adjournment during July, is about to reopen for business in its marble and masonry maze on Raleigh’s Jones Street.

Given this legislature’s track record so far, the big question would seem to be: How much more damage will unfold as majority Republicans seek to carve their narrow-minded agenda even more deeply into the state’s civic bedrock?

Legislative sessions held during odd-numbered years – the so-called long sessions that typically begin in late January – have varied widely in length. Sometimes lawmakers have wrapped things up soon after completing a new budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Sometimes budgeting dilemmas and other challenges have kept them at work into the fall.

The schedule laid down for this year is a different animal. After completing a budget in June – and overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto – the House and Senate closed up shop on June 30. However, they agreed they would return to Raleigh on Aug. 3 to deal with a specified list of issues. And then they’d come back again on Sept. 6 to tackle another to-do list. They might even return again no later than Nov. 15.

Top legislative Republicans already have indicated they won’t be happy until they’ve turned Cooper — the state’s duly elected chief executive — into a relative figurehead. They’ll have plenty of leeway during these upcoming sessions to try to advance that goal while extending their own influence throughout state government.

Drawing boards

As it happens, one major item of unfinished business is something the Republicans would rather not have to deal with. They’re under federal court orders to redraw House and Senate election districts because of a pattern of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.

If the once-a-decade redistricting process were conducted on a nonpartisan basis, perhaps relying upon the recommendations of an independent commission, the quality of state-level democracy in North Carolina would stand to improve by leaps and bounds.

But Republicans (using past Democratic gerrymanders as an excuse, although the Democrats were amateurs by comparison) have been like old snapping turtles in their determination to hold tight to districts giving them an unfair edge.

We can expect them to use every stratagem their lawyers and computer-wielding consultants can come up with to try to find that sweet spot where districts are still drawn to their party’s advantage, but not so brazenly as to prompt further rebukes from the courts. What a lovely process – in which the goal is not to make sure every citizen’s vote counts equally and all voices are heard at the polls, but to game the system to enhance a party’s control.

Plaintiffs who successfully challenged the racial gerrymandering of legislative districts have pressed the courts to follow through by ordering new maps to be drawn in time for special elections this fall. They even question whether actions by an unconstitutionally chosen legislature are valid. Lawmakers, in a classic display of passive aggression, want to drag things out before drawing any new lines. Their schedule gives them the option of considering new maps during their November window. (Editor’s note: In a court ruling issued late yesterday, judges denied plaintiffs’ request for a special 2017 election but gave lawmakers until September 1 to come up with constitutional maps. Click here for more details.)

Racial gerrymandering isn’t fair to African-Americans who see the influence of their votes diminished as they’re packed into a handful of Democratic-leaning districts. Further intervention by the courts – sooner, not later — remains the best bet to rescue our legislative elections from the depths of cynical farce to which they’ve sunk.

Facing the overriders

The legislature’s majority has been relentless in its efforts to limit Cooper’s prerogatives as chief executive, especially as they pertain to appointments and lines of authority. His five vetoes issued prior to June 30 were smacked aside. His lawsuits claiming infringement on executive powers – the effort to marginalize him began shortly after he defeated Republican Gov. Pat McCrory last fall — have been fought tooth and nail.

Three vetoes Cooper issued during July will be ripe for legislative action during August. If Republican discipline holds, the bills are good as gold, given the party’s margins of control and the weak requirement for an override (three-fifths of the members of each chamber present and voting). But it’s not inconceivable that some of the governor’s objections might strike a sufficient chord.

The bills are:

HB 576, which requires the state to approve “aerosolization” to get rid of liquid leachate – i.e., drainage — from lined municipal solid waste landfills and allows such approval for unlined landfills. In other words, the nasty stuff would be sprayed into the air. Cooper sensibly criticized the bill for short-circuiting scientific assessments of safe disposal methods.

HB 511, which eases the rules for “game nights” operated by charities. The governor said he perceived a risk that the activities could be infiltrated by illegal video poker. His long service as attorney general gives him credibility on the issue.

HB 205, which includes an effort to weaken the rules mandating publication of legal notices in printed newspapers. Supporters tout the savings to local governments if they can put the notices on their websites and avoid print, but news organizations view the change as economic punishment for coverage and commentary that has put legislators on the spot. The bill’s scope was narrowed so that the rules changes apply only in Guilford County, but Cooper doesn’t buy it. “Legislation that enacts retribution on the media,” he said in his veto message, “threatens a free and open press, which is fundamental to our democracy.”

So, here we have a governor standing up for more careful environmental oversight, stricter anti-gambling rules and a news industry able to perform its duties as envisioned under the Constitution. These are positions that jibe with the Council of Churches’ emphasis on environmental justice, social justice and the need for elected officials to be held accountable for their actions.

Protection for whom?

Another top Council priority has been increasing fair, honest access to the polls for all citizens qualified to vote. Sadly, the legislature under Republican rule has sought to limit that access via stringent photo I.D. requirements and other barriers; its obvious goal has been to suppress the vote among people more likely to support Democratic candidates.

Federal judges again have recognized this abuse of power for what it is. But legislators could well be saying among themselves that if at first they haven’t succeeded, they should just keep trying. Their ground rules for the pending sessions could allow them to revisit the whole subject of who is allowed to vote and when. If they do, there’s precious little chance that the aim would be to make voting more convenient and thus to make elections more small-d democratic.

The legislature’s signature achievement – a dubious one, to be sure – during the past few years has been to slash taxes in ways that chiefly benefit high-income earners. The effect has been to deprive the state of revenues supporting programs and services that benefit all North Carolinians, but in many cases especially the disadvantaged.

Not that some Republicans have been satisfied to carry out their changes via tax-cut statutes and annual budgets alone. They’ve sought to lock lower income tax rates, plus limits on spending growth, into the state constitution.

Two years ago the so-called Taxpayer Protection Act was approved by the Senate along party lines but fell into committee limbo in the House. Now, advocates for fair and adequate taxation are concerned that the upcoming September session may feature a move to revive that bill or something similar.

It has to be hoped that any such effort would again meet enough resistance to spare the state from a step whose long-term impacts could border on the disastrous. That such a constitutional change would have to be approved in a referendum offers little comfort.

Rites of spring

Once the dust settles over the next four months, we’ll have the 2018 “short session” to look forward to. It’s set to commence on May 16.

Speaking of constitutional changes, a highlight, or more accurately a lowlight, next spring could be an effort to put North Carolina among the states calling for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. That’s a favorite cause of conservatives who decry what they see as abuses of federal power. A pro-convention measure passed the Senate in April and remains before the House after a close call. (Rules for the upcoming sessions make it unlikely to emerge then.)

There is an orderly way to amend the Constitution and a disorderly way. Especially given the anti-government fervor that President Trump stokes so zealously, a runaway convention could propose amendments shaking our democratic system to its roots. When the time comes, North Carolina’s legislators, whatever their party loyalties, would do well to give this misbegotten movement the widest possible berth.

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Steve Ford
Steve Ford

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, wrote this commentary for the North Carolina Council of Churches, which was first to publish it at www.ncchurches.org.