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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The legislative Magic 8 ball: Outlook not so good

Posted by on Tue, Jan 25, 2011 at 4:24 PM

If I've learned one thing covering state legislatures the past few years, it's that you really can't tell what these folks are going to do when they get together.

I saw it for many years in Georgia, where I worked for The Macon Telegraph and covered three legislative sessions. I saw it a bit last year when I came to North Carolina and covered the short session as a freelancer, as I will do this year for The Independent Weekly and at least one other newspaper.

There are just too many moving parts—120 House members, 50 senators, tons of lobbyists, the governor. And with so much turnover in the GOP takeover of the House and Senate, I'd wager that even the new Republican leadership isn't entirely sure what to expect from some members— those swept into office by an anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat and, in some cases, pro-tea party movement.

All you really know before the legislative session opens tomorrow is that Republicans are going to cut a massive amount of money out of the state budget, and approve a few other things they've been talking about for months. Everything else is reading tea leaves, which I'll try to do below based on meetings with the governor, the incoming speaker of the house, the incoming senate president pro tem, various other high-ranking legislators and outside politicos with far more North Carolina history under their belts than I do.

But I think a line from Kurt Vonnegut, which I believe he lifted from the punch line of an old joke, is appropriate. "Keep your hat on. We could wind up miles from here.”

The Education Budget: Class sizes will increase because teachers will be laid off. There will probably also be cuts to local and state-level administrations, but there's just not enough money there to move the needle much. There are other ways to cut $3.7 billion out of a $19 billion budget, but not many, because education is 60 percent of that budget. Attempts will be made to protect K—12, and particularly K—3, which the governor has said she hopes to "hold harmless." But there are no promises to do that from Republican leaders, who've said they're not sure that's even a realistic expectation. It will also be interesting to see how this plays out at the university level. University jobs pay well, and North Carolina's universities are a real source of pride. But when everyone's ox is getting gored, it's human nature for folks to start turning their attention to the folks who make the most money. The bottom line there is that tuition is likely to rise for universities and community colleges.

Social Services: State Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, and one of three co-chairs for the Senate's budget writing Appropriations Committee, said Monday that North Carolina funds a plethora of health and other services for the poor that aren't required by the federal government. "Maybe that's appropriate," he said, but the key word seemed to be "maybe." Look for the committee to go over the health and human services carefully, and for some services to end.

State employees: Look for layoffs, though no one can say how many. Salary cuts could be used to avoid some firings, as could furloughs. But both Gov. Bev Perdue and GOP legislative leaders have said they don't like furloughs. Plus if you're looking to remake state government, as the GOP promised to do before the November elections, you don't do that by just giving people unpaid vacation days. You do it by eliminating their jobs.


The schedule:
North Carolina's General Assembly goes into session Wednesday and wraps up ... at some point this year. The budget is supposed to be done by June 30, though, because that's the end of the fiscal year. Several Republican leaders have said they hope to be done with the whole session by then, but that's no guarantee. Legislators have to redraw House and Senate districts across the state this year, based on new census numbers. And though state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg and the committee chairman working on maps for the Senate, has said his goal is to be done by June 1, drawing these maps is a long and difficult process. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said Monday that the legislature doesn't even have the census data yet that it needs to draw the maps.

Voter ID: Look for a bill requiring picture I.D. at the polls to move quickly. Republican leaders have said this repeatedly. It's hard to say whether the governor will sign the bill, but given the political climate, there's a good chance she will. If she does, it will be quickly tied up in the courts, with Democrats arguing that all photo I.D. does is disenfranchise senior citizens and the poor, who are less likely to have drivers licenses. Georgia's been fighting this issue in court for years now.

Gay marriage: Same-sex marriage is already unsanctioned in North Carolina, but why should that stop a push to write the ban into the state constitution? Look for some initial fanfare over a gay marriage amendment, but not final passage, at least until next year. Constitutional amendments have to be voted on in statewide referendums, and my guess is GOP leaders will want to use that referendum to juice turnout in 2012, when the governor's race and the presidency will be decided. Worth wondering: Constitutional amendments don't require the governor's signature, they go straight to the voters. But will Perdue be able to avoid taking a stand on this issue?

Other social issues: You're a right-wing Republican. You're party hasn't held real power in the N.C. legislature since just after the Civil War, and now it runs the show. What would you do? Expand concealed carry rights? Pass a law that sets up a challenge to Roe vs. Wade? Tell brown-skinned people they better keep their papers on them, a la Arizona? It's a solid bet that there will be a push to do all three, but you shouldn't assume they'll get a lot of traction. It's clear that, at least publicly, the Republican leadership structure is more interested in cutting spending than they are advancing social issues. And, though they may not admit it, they're cognizant of how important the middle was in last year's elections. They don't want to alienate those voters, and that's one of the reasons Charlotte's Thom Tillis is the new speaker of the house, and not Wake County's Skip Stam, who's more fiery on social issues. Of course, when the NRA, N.C. Right to Life and other organizations put on the full-court press and threaten to work against the re-election of those who stand in their way— and believe me, they will — it's going to be hard to say no.

A bit more on abortion: There was a shift in the pro-life strategy in Georgia last year, and you might keep an eye out for it here. Georgia Right to Life pushed very hard last year for legislation that would make it illegal to coerce a woman to have an abortion based on the child's race. The group pointed out that abortion rates are much higher among minorities. It put up billboards and outright accused Planned Parenthood of plotting genocide against black babies. But the key to the bill was tying abortion to race. If you deal specifically with race in the law, you deal with a protected class of citizens. That sets up a court challenge that could go all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn Roe vs. Wade, pro-life advocates said. The bill failed to pass in Georgia because the race language was stripped out, banning only coerced abortions regardless of race. Since that wouldn't have advanced the fight against Roe vs. Wade, Right to Life pulled its support for the bill.

Taxes: The push will begin, at least, to overhaul North Carolina's tax system. Several Republican leaders, including Rucho, who is also the new co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, have said they want to lower business taxes, despite North Carolina's frequent ranking at or near the top of business-friendly state lists. That would likely be paired with an expansion of what you pay sales taxes on, though just what this will look like probably won't be decided this year.

Cuts, Berger and others have said, are the first priority. Beyond that, Republicans and the governor have repeatedly promised no new taxes. Temporary tax increases slated to expire June 30 are also expected to lapse. But there's some wiggle room when it comes to "no new taxes." Fees are not technically taxes. Neither is college tuition. And a push to regulate, instead of banning, Sweepstakes games and other video gambling, seems to be gaining momentum. Plus, there's no telling what will happen once everyone starts to realize just what the state would have to lose to cut $3.7 billion out of a $19 billion budget in one year.

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