For an example of the damage an unchecked majority can do when it moves in lockstep, consider the last 30 or so hours of the recent session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
During the homestretch in Raleigh, the Legislature gutted racial justice legislation, defunded Planned Parenthood again, thumbed its nose at forced sterilization survivors and climate-change science, doled out dozens of anti-regulatory favors and not only fast-tracked fracking, but also packed a new board to oversee it with people very friendly to the oil and gas industry.
Throughout the marathon, the House and Senate checked in and out as deals were cut. Few outside the negotiations knew what was coming and when. Some legislation touched base in a brief committee meeting, but many bills and amendments just hit the floor.
There was a fighting spirit within the opposition, but also a weariness. For two years, keeping enough votes available to sustain a veto has been the only card Democrats held. Over time, defections from the minority to the majority became more prevalent. As the session wound down, all Democratic leaders could do was get on the record how little review was conducted on legislation to be approved. In the end, Democrats even waived rules that would have required another grueling after-midnight vote.
At the heart of the Republican tour de force were House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who may face each other in the 2014 U.S. Senate primary. In dealing with the governor, the GOP, led by Tillis and Berger, presented a united front, but a lot was going on below the surface.
One disagreement that spilled into the open was the Senate's objection to a compromise Tillis had blessed for compensating the victims of the state's eugenics program. That funding was eliminated in the final round of negotiations, as was $600,000 for elections, which would have allowed the state to reap a $4 million federal match under the Help America Vote Act.
The GOP blamed news of an additional $80 million deficit projected for Medicaid for the need to trim back, but they cherrypicked what was cut. They fought like mad to stop a cap on a small-business tax break, allowing even high-earning lawyers, medical practices and lobbying firms access to the loophole and driving its cost to an estimated $336 million.
The session even had a Hollywood ending. Democratic Rep. Susi Hamilton of New Hanover County, thought to be a safe anti-fracking vote, voted to override Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of S820, which clears the way for fracking. Shortly thereafter, a one-year extension of a $60 million film industry tax credit was tucked into a budget adjustment bill brimming with similar favors. It was a move gravied with irony as the extension was for the very tax break the GOP successfully pummeled Democrats over in the 2010 election.
Hamilton's vote cost her dearly. The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters even rescinded her award for being an environmental "Rising Star." But her vote would not have been so important had Rep. Becky Carney not hit the wrong button, inadvertently voting for the override. Tillis refused to allow Carney to change her vote— as he'd done in dozens of cases prior, and thus commenced the state's fracking era.
What was done and undone in the 2011–2012 session was not just bad policy; it defied logic, the law of the land and science in varying combinations.
The last long debate of the session was a nasty hour-long attack on the impact of climate change on our coastline. The updated bill still included a four-year moratorium on using the most modern thinking about sea level rise. Supporters said the move was a backlash against coastal environmental protections and regulations. To make the case that coastal development should be unfettered, GOP legislators dragged a panel of the state's top scientists, including internationally recognized experts on coastline geology, through the mud, calling their work a "fantasy" and "non-science."
The leadership also proved tenacious in punishing its enemies.
To circumvent a previous attempt to defund Planned Parenthood that was shot down by the courts, the Legislature prohibited county health departments from using outside contractors to provide women's health services for low-income clients. That sends nearly $400,000 that would have gone to Planned Parenthood to county health departments, many of which are already reeling from budget cuts and in no position to take over the programs.
The move might boost the enthusiasm of socially conservative voters, but the funds could not legally be used for abortion services anyway, adding another hurdle for vulnerable people to access women's and infants' health care.
The session is over but the legislative agenda is not. If you're unhappy with the current direction, don't get your hopes up that the fall elections will change the political climate.
The Republican-friendly redistricting of 2011 serves as a potent firewall against Democrats retaking the Legislature. Enough seats are in play that margins in both chambers will tighten, more so in the House than Senate. Unless the presidential race spurs turnout at or above the 2008 level, there's little chance of a significant shift in the General Assembly's balance of power.
And should Pat McCrory take the governor's mansion, the ability of Democrats to sustain vetoes becomes moot. One of the few wins of the session was the lack of votes to override Perdue's veto last year of a Voter ID bill. As governor, McCrory, an enthusiastic supporter of Voter ID legislation, would no doubt sign a new bill.
A recent study showed that a majority of Americans think there is a disconnect between the rhetoric of the far right and how it governs once in office. The 2011–2012 General Assembly proved that difference to be slim. Nor is there a lot of daylight between North Carolina and states we consider to be ultra-conservative outliers.
Another session or two like the last one and we'll have the same fracking rules as Pennsylvania, the anti-science approach of Texas, the anti-choice policies of South Dakota, the immigration enforcement of greater Phoenix, the voucher-driven flight of education dollars of Louisiana and university and K–12 funding that makes Mississippi a shining example of public support for learning.
This article appeared in print with the headline "We know what you did this summer."