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The Legislature's disgraceful first two weeks

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Don't blink. North Carolina's legislative session started in earnest less than two weeks ago, and conservatives in Raleigh have been very busy.

A nipple ban proposed by Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, and Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, would make it illegal for a woman to bare any part of her nipple in public. The rule wouldn't apply to breastfeeding, and it allows the legality of strip clubs to be decided on a county-by-county basis. [See "When nipples are outlawed, only outlaws will have nipples."]

However, Republicans haven't been able to conceal more substantive changes that could damage North Carolinians' ability to put food on the table and to receive medical care and could undermine the democratic process itself.

Unemployment cuts

The house passed a bill that will reduce the maximum benefit allowance from $500 to $350 per week. It will also cut the number of weeks an unemployed person can receive benefits from 26 weeks to 20. That bill is now moving through the Senate.

The cuts may also have unintended consequences. U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris issued a statement Monday saying the proposed law would cut off North Carolina from $780 million in federal funds and affect 170,000 people.

"This was rushed through so there could be no public awareness of it," says Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham. "The bill would not take effect until July 1, so why are we rushing it through?"

A spokesperson for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, says the bill has been months in the making and cited two meetings during which public comment was allowed on the bill.

[For more on this topic, see "GOP, N.C. Chamber hatch plan to reduce unemployment benefits, pay state debt" and "Where is McCrory on a bill to cut unemployment benefits?"]

Block Obamacare

The Affordable Care Act would extend Medicaid (government health insurance for poor people) to 500,000 North Carolinians who currently don't qualify—at essentially no cost to the state. Nonetheless, Senate and House Republicans have said they don't want the money.

The bill to block the expansion is en route to the House with the backing of Gov. Pat McCrory. [See "N.C. GOP relying on specious claims to get Medicaid bill closer to passage."]

The great purge

The most surprising bill to come out of the Legislature would oust the members of several commissions, as well as sack 12 special superior court judges. The purges would affect the Utilities Commission (which can approve or deny utility companies' rate increase requests) and the Coastal Resources Commission (which regulates coastal development) as well as several others. [See "Gov. McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee, holds the keys to the Utilities Commission" and "Politics, not science, will influence legislation."]

"There was an election," said Sen. Jerry Tilmann, a Republican representing Moore and Randolph counties, when the clean-slate bill came up for debate. "Whether you like it or not, you've got a new team in place. And they deserve their players. I don't care what board or commission it is."

Tilmann's logic suggests that a new governor should appoint new commission members after each election. Fair enough. But, that's not what the proposed bill accomplishes. It would fire all the sitting members and allow McCrory to appoint new ones.

Right-to-work amendment

North Carolina is already a right-to-work state. But legislators want to hold a referendum that would enshrine anti-union laws in the state constitution. While that legislation was moving through the House, a tongue-in-cheek bill known as "The Opossum Right-to-Work Act" was introduced in the Senate.

The bill would allow Clay Logan, a country store owner in the mountains, to trap a possum and use it for his traditional New Year's Eve celebration. Until an animal rights group intervened last year, Logan had lowered a possum from a pole each year in a clear box at midnight. The new legislation would reaffirm Logan's right to terrify a possum. [See this week's editorial cartoon.]

Fracking

Yes, it's back. Senate Bill 76 would allow gas drilling permits to be issued as early as 2015. It also authorizes McCrory to form a compact with the governors of Virginia and South Carolina to advocate for offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters, including sensitive areas off Cape Hatteras and Wrightsville Beach.

[For more on this topic, see "Sen. Rucho's fast track to fracking," "A flack's guide to fracking," "Commission to consider disclosure of fracking chemicals" and "EPA: Lots left to do on fracking study."

Voter ID, tax changes and education reform

These are just a few more of the changes expected to be coming soon. [See "Republicans delay Perdue's Board of Education nominations to make way for McCrory."] Many Democrats at the Legislature—and perhaps some Republicans too—are wondering if the GOP display of power will backfire.

"One Republican told me, 'We've got the power and we've got the numbers, but if we don't use it judiciously, we won't last long,'" said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democrat from Durham.

"They've got absolute power and there are people on the fringe who want to use that power," Michaux added. "We have to hope saner heads prevail."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Absolute power."

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