The Legislature’s Back in Session. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. | North Carolina | Indy Week
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The Legislature’s Back in Session. Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. 

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After one special session to fix their own screw-up (gerrymandering) and another to screw up everything else (House Bill 2), the state's lawmakers will reconvene for their short session Monday. The short session is, in theory, a way for legislators to pass local bills and adjust the previous year's budget. As we've seen in past years, however, anything is fair game, and the short sessions are becoming less and less short. Two years ago, the short session stretched until August 20. Lawmakers used the extra time to lift the state's ban on fracking and criminalize whistleblowing on oil and gas companies.

On legislators' minds this year will be the budget, the ongoing fallout over HB 2, a looming general election in which Republicans might lose both their supermajority in the House and the Governor's Mansion, and a whole host of issues they might use to cement North Carolina's reputation as a place where right-wing fanfic gets turned into state law.

Here's what's on the docket for the springtime circus.

HB 2

Despite the nationwide firestorm that followed the March 23 special session, Republican leaders have little interest in repealing or even tweaking House Bill 2—much to the chagrin of the increasingly embattled Governor McCrory, we imagine.

That's not to say Democrats won't try: Representative Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, who voted for HB 2 but later penned a mea culpa in The Fayetteville Observer, will introduce a bill allowing local antidiscrimination ordinances like the one Charlotte had and HB 2 overruled, while Representative Darren Jackson of Raleigh is going for full repeal.

"I'm somewhat hopeful," Jackson says. "People are ashamed and upset that we're trying to demonize a subset of our population. The more this debate goes on, the more people are starting to realize that."

But barring an economic catastrophe that forces their hand—it's possible: last week, the Center for American Progress estimated that HB 2 could put at risk a half-billion dollars in economic activity—the Republicans aren't likely to abandon their base-stoking anti-LGBTQ ways anytime soon.

"I would obviously like for all of it to be repealed," says Representative Duane Hall, D-Wake, "but there's little chance of that happening."

There's a better chance that the part of the law that stripped workers of the ability to file discrimination claims in state court will be revisited. Governor McCrory called for this provision's repeal last week, and Hall will introduce a bill to do just that. NC Justice executive director Rick Glazier, a former legislator, says there are "indications" that the GOP leadership may be willing to play ball.

There may be a silver lining to this mess: given that it's an election year and the state Republicans have already been pilloried over their attack on LGBTQ rights, the legislature may be less apt to pass additional measures to, for instance, further erode abortion rights.

Then again, maybe not: "There are several big-name legislators known for social issues, like Representative Skip Stam, who are in their last session," Hall says. "So they said they expect it to be a short session, but I can't imagine them not wanting to do something."

The Budget

Over the past few weeks, McCrory has been traversing the state touting his budget priorities, including a 5 percent across-the-board raise for teachers, $30 million in new funding for people suffering from mental-health and substance-abuse disorders, and $8.6 million for expanding programs related to children's welfare.

But if past is prologue, what McCrory wants and what the legislature will give him are two very different things.

Last's year budget gave teachers a one-time bonus in lieu of a raise and killed the Durham-Orange County light rail project, but there's hope that this year might be better. House Speaker Tim Moore has already indicated that teachers will get raises, although they'll probably be closer to the 2 percent the House tried to grant last year (before being shut down by the Senate) than McCrory's 5 percent or the 10 percent hike that Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson pitched in January.

Representative Jackson says he also expects raises for most state employees, too. "Just [two weeks ago], the judicial branch submitted a request for four percent raises for the judiciary and judiciary personnel," he says. "With this being an election year, I do expect there to be raises; it's just a question of how much."

The House and Senate's priorities are a little murkier; one bill that could be revived would funnel money from public schools to charter schools. In September, House rules committee chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, said that legislation would be "studied extensively" ahead of the short session and that Republicans would "maybe try to revamp the entire way we fund" schools.

About light rail, whose state funding was spiked behind closed doors during an eleventh-hour budget conference: officials in Durham and Chapel Hill remain hopeful. After all, the House has already repealed the cap on light-rail funding.

"The Senate has to take it up," says Representative Graig Meyer, D-Durham and Orange. " ... My guess is that the Senate leadership will use it as a bargaining chip in the final budget negotiations."

Civil Liberties

The state ACLU has a couple of things on its radar.

The first is body-camera legislation. As municipalities consider police body cams, they must grapple with several pertinent questions: Who gets to see the footage, and under what circumstances? Are they public records or part of an officer's personnel file, which puts them off-limits? How should cities square citizens' right to privacy with the need for police accountability?

Last week, a legislative committee proposed language that would essentially leave it to local governments to decide whether and how body-cam footage will be released.

Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the N.C. ACLU, says that while the proposal clarifies that footage is not part of an officer's personnel record, it gives local law enforcement agencies "wide discretion to withhold or release [footage] based on a series of factors that end up weighing in favor of withholding."

The legislation, she adds, "doesn't allow for a clear path to public access of recordings that the public should indeed have access to, including recordings involving use of force and any incident that results in a formal complaint."

Without transparency, you don't get accountability.

Another bill the ACLU is watching would make student assaults on teachers felonies rather than the highest level of misdemeanor, which they are now. Since "assault" is vaguely defined, Birdsong says, situations that do not involve any physical contact or injury could be deemed felonies.

"It's something we're worried about because it exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline and impacts disproportionately kids of color and kids with disabilities," Birdsong says. She points out that, in North Carolina, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are treated as adults in the criminal justice system, meaning a kid's youthful indiscretion could become part of his or her permanent record.

"The bill is not responding to any rise in these kinds of incidents in schools," Birdsong says. "It's just an idea from a legislator that we don't think is a good one." The bill's sponsor, Senator Jerry Tillman, R-Moore and Randolph, did not return the INDY's messages by press time.

The Environment

Environmentalists are watching several proposals with trepidation, says Cassie Gavin, director of government relations for the N.C. Sierra Club.

First, there's a measure that would freeze the state's Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards. REPS ensure that a portion of electricity sold by North Carolina's three investor-owned utilities comes from renewable sources.

Currently the state is on track to have 12.5 percent of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2021, but this proposal would freeze that percentage at 6 percent until 2018, with no requirements thereafter.

This idea stalled in the House last year. But then it was stuffed into a so-called regulatory reform bill, which passed the House and is now headed for the Senate. That means it is very much alive.

Lawmakers could stuff other bad ideas into the regulatory reform bill, too.

For example, the Environmental Review Commission heard a proposal last week to allow people to throw their old television sets into already overflowing landfills rather than recycle them. Another proposal would remove the Department of Environmental Quality's authority to regulate stormwater runoff—which contains nutrients that pollute lakes and rivers—into some bodies of water.

"The less stormwater management you do, the more nutrients you get flowing into waterways," says Gavin. "... It's called regulatory reform, but it's more like regulatory repeal, because every regulatory reform bill just takes away more requirements focused on environmental regulations."

That regulatory reform bill could also see the reappearance of developer-friendly legislation that rolls back the buffer rules that protect the state's rivers, streams, and other waterways.

Public Records & Free Speech

Stam, a powerful Wake County Republican, submitted a draft bill to the Committee on Education Strategies and Practices in March that would remove teacher pay from public records. North Carolina currently ranks near the bottom of the country in teacher pay, an inconvenient fact that Stam, who is retiring after this session, apparently decided was better to just hide.

"One of the real problems for differentiated pay or merit pay or whatever you want to call it is frankly envy and jealousy," Stam explained during a committee hearing last month. "People don't like the idea that other people will know what your salary is."

In other words, knowledge is power, and Stam doesn't want teachers to have any of it.

In addition, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest's campus "free speech" bill will also likely be introduced this session. That act would ban "disruptions"—i.e., protests—of public meetings or events, which have increased since Margaret Spellings became president of the UNC system.

"Our universities must be a place where there is free trade in the marketplace of ideas," Forest said in a statement, which must be news to protesters who, under Forest's bill, would face expulsion for exercising their free speech rights.

This article appeared in print with the headline "What Will They Screw Up Next?"

Additional reporting by David Hudnall.

  • What will they screw up next?

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