The legislature heads home – now what?

July 5, 2022 6:00 am

The North Carolina General Assembly brought its 2022 “short session” to a close last week. Well, at least, it kinda, sorta did.

Unlike in decades gone by in which the legislature generally adjourned in early summer, not to return until the following year, the current leadership on Jones Street prefers to keep the state’s supposedly part-time lawmakers yo-yoing back and forth to the state capital. And so it is that the adjournment resolution approved by both houses last week calls for senators and representatives to return to Raleigh for a series of  mini-sessions that will take up at least part of each of the six months remaining in the year.

As for what legislators will do during those half dozen forays back into the Legislative Building, the resolution lists a number of possibilities, including consideration of gubernatorial vetoes, so-called “conference reports” on bills that have been at issue between the two houses, and rather ominously, “any bills relating to election laws.” Those who have followed the General Assembly in recent years are well aware that resolutions like this serve more as guideposts than hard and fast restrictions.

As a practical matter, lawmakers will consider whatever Republican leaders want to consider and think they have the votes to pass. And this could be bad news, good news, or both.

Among the most worrisome possibilities is that leaders will once again renew their decade-long commitment to partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression. Buoyed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s deeply disturbing announcement last week that it will consider their frightening argument that state courts should be powerless to review the election law decisions of state legislatures, it seems at least plausible that Republican leaders will try at some point to pass some new limits on voting, and perhaps, even try to rearrange the state’s congressional district maps to provide House Speaker Tim Moore with his long-coveted congressional district.

In the “hope springs eternal” department, it seems there remains at least a chance that the legislature could revisit Medicaid expansion in order to, at long last, close the state’s yawning health insurance coverage gap. While Senate and House Republicans remained at loggerheads at last report on the specifics of what should and should not be included in such legislation, it’s clear that they continue to inch, ever so slowly and painfully, in the right direction on this front. And now that the majority of lawmakers are on record as having endorsed some version of this widely popular concept, it’s hard to imagine that it will remain stuck in suspended animation for too much longer.

Sadly, however, on most other important fronts, the prospects for meaningful progress look distressingly slim.

Despite incremental headway in Washington in which North Carolina’s GOP senators played an important role, passage of meaningful gun safety laws – even a modest “red flag” bill of the kind specifically promoted by Sens. Tillis and Burr – seems all but impossible.

And medical marijuana – another issue on which many Republican lawmakers have experienced a welcome epiphany of late – also appears stalled for the foreseeable future.

And then, of course, there is the overarching issue of state spending on core public services and structures. While Republican legislative leaders did, at almost the last minute, push through a new, secretly crafted budget bill, the proposal comes up woefully short in numerous ways.

First and foremost, despite the presence of a multi-billion-dollar reserve, the proposal fails yet again to comply with longstanding court directives in the Leandro case to adequately fund the state’s public schools. As veteran education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom detailed last week, the budget proposal’s much-ballyhooed teacher pay raises are actually more akin to cuts when one adjusts for inflation. The same is true for supposed pay increases for state employees.

And while it’s true that the measure, for once, includes no new regressive tax cuts that would further shift the responsibility for funding government away from rich individuals and large, profitable corporations, and onto low- and moderate-income households, this is only because multiple cuts of such an ilk were already scheduled by previous legislative action – cuts that will reduce state revenues by $1.5 billion in 2023.

Now add to this that the budget bill is packed with pork spending on dozens of highly questionable items ($15 million for the ACC?!), and does little, if anything, to aid families struggling to recover from the pandemic recession, and the proposal looks maddeningly familiar.

The bottom line: Even with the modest check on their power that’s provided by a Democratic governor whose vetoes they cannot currently override, North Carolina Republican lawmakers show few signs of backing off from the aggressive right-wing agenda that’s marked their 11-plus years in power. And with a mid-term election looming that favors the party not in control of the White House, the chief policy question for the year’s second half appears to be whether North Carolinians will see more of the same or the prelude to something even more darkly ambitious.

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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.