Columns » Exile on Jones Street

Beware the bright shiny objects of the General Assembly

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At a little after 10 a.m. a couple of Thursdays ago, the press room on the ground floor of the Legislative Building started to fill with suits and cameras in anticipation of the roll out by House leaders of voter ID legislation.

The buzz in the room, however, was not about the introduction of the as-yet-unseen measure, but rather two bills just introduced in the other chamber by first-term GOP Sen. Bill Cook, whose district covers the far northeastern corner of the state.

Cook's bills—Election Law Changes (S666) and Equalize Voter Legislation (S667)—shortened the early voting period, slashed the number of early voting locations, eliminated same-day registration and targeted voting by college students by dropping the state's dependent tax exemption for their parents if they vote on campus rather than back at home. Most, if not all of the provisions in the bills are flat-out unconstitutional, run afoul of federal courts or violate the Voting Rights Act.

The over-the-top nature of Cook's bills—they're going nowhere—and several other similarly crude measures have pissed off members of the House who have been crafting a "court proof" voter ID bill.

House Elections Committee Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, was asked at one point during the press conference about the connection between the voter ID effort and the flurry of other election-related legislation. "What I would encourage the public to do is to follow the bills that are actually being heard [in committee] and not the bills that are being filed for the point of being filed," he said.

You may disagree with Lewis on voter ID and a few dozen other matters, but he is spot-on about the need to sift wheat from chaff at this point in the session.

There are bills and there are laws and they are not the same thing.

Keep that in mind as you try to digest the sausage coming out of Raleigh. Some of the proposals that have drawn the most outrage have already been sent to committees to die. Some will expire in early May when the crossover deadline hits; then, any bill that hasn't been passed by one chamber can't be taken up for the rest of the session.

The introduction of ideological and illogical measures is common practice on Jones Street. It's done to get a point across, stake out a position or add a bullet point to a campaign mailer. And since these bills rarely re-emerge after they're introduced, they're not all that labor intensive. They are, however, tremendously distracting. Call it the mackerel effect.

I don't know if you've ever fished for mackerel, but it's pretty easy to pick up. When the mackerel are running, you take a shiny metal spoon with a hook on it and cast it in the water.

It's a decent metaphor for the viral interaction of social media and outrageous legislation. After last year's international ridicule over the anti-science sea-level rise debate, critics of our Legislature's lurch to the right have been primed to jump on further examples of legislators-gone-wild. Consider the swift rejections from around the country earlier this month of a bill saying that as a "sovereign state" North Carolina has a right to establish a religion: It was not the first such free-wheeling interpretation of the Constitution this session, but it sure made for good copy.

That is until the House leadership, evidently not as enamored of the sovereignty of the states as the bill's sponsors, pronounced it DOA. There was hardly time to mourn its passing before another shiny object hit the water, as first-term House member Michele Pressnell, R-Burnsville, announced that she has a hard time telling the difference between Islamic prayer and terrorism.

Back benchers with a penchant for nonsense should be held accountable. Cook, it should be noted, won his race by just 21 votes in a recount and, like Pressnell, owes his victory to a flood of last-minute contributions from big donors.

The problem with the way Raleigh operates is how fast comedy can turn to tragedy. Even though some first-termers are taking heat now, if they stick around long enough they'll rise in seniority. Perhaps someday some of their nonsense will get passed.

The late Sen. Jim Forrester introduced outlandish bills when the GOP was in the minority. He once offered legislation ordering a roundup of all undocumented immigrants in North Carolina to be placed on the state's school bus fleet to transport them to the Mexican border. Years later, when the GOP took over and Forrester became a powerful committee chairman, he wrote the bill that put Amendment 1 on the ballot.

The 2013 session has proved a near endless mill of demagoguery, churning out bill after bill with triumphant titles sprinkled with words like "freedom" and "fairness" while the lines below sow the opposite.

It is tempting to use the more preposterous measures for talking points or to gin up outrage, but as Lewis suggested it might be better to concentrate on the ones more likely to clear both chambers and be signed by the governor. There's no shortage of preposterous ideas in that batch as well. The only difference is that one day they'll be law.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Holy mackerel."

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