The General Assembly's crossover deadline—the date by which legislation that doesn't involve taxes or spending has to clear one chamber to be considered by the other—is now in the rear view. It's as good a time as any to take stock of the first half of the 2015 legislative session, which for the most part has offered up a grab bag of the seemingly nuts: Efforts to roll back environmental protections and sops to industry? Check. The erosion of abortion rights? Bet your ass. Attempts to override local governments for purely partisan ends? Sure, why not. Attacks on academic freedom? Of course. Guns on school campuses? Hell yeah.
The INDY has spilled considerable ink documenting these legislative cancers. But this fact may be the most disconcerting of all: There are, if you look closely enough, hints of light on the bleak horizon—smart, progressive ideas that would reverse the worst elements of the last few years or advance the state into the 21st century. But these days they usually languish in obscurity, because such is the nature of Jones Street.
They deserve mention nonetheless. And so, without further ado, we present 10 bills that, in a better alternate universe, passed easily, but didn't in the here and now.
Idea: Restore the Earned Income Tax Credit
Primary Sponsors: Garland E. Pierce, D-Hoke, Richmond, Robeson and Scotland; Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg; Larry D. Hall, D-Durham
Filed: Jan. 28
Last Action: Referred to the Committee on Finance, Feb. 2
In 2013, as part of a tax-reform package—a thinly veiled handout to the state's wealthy—lawmakers eliminated the state's EITC, a targeted credit claimed by nearly 1 million of North Carolina's poorest residents the year before it was axed. Each of those residents saw their tax bills dip by an average of $109, according to the N.C. Budget & Tax Center. HB 27 would reinstate that credit, albeit at a lower rate than before.
Idea: Restore tiered tax rates
Primay Sponsors: Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford; Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford; Verla Insko, D-Orange; Paul Luebke, D-Durham
Filed: April 2
Last Action: Referred to Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations, April 6
Thanks to those tax cuts, the state's budget won't be able to keep up with the its needs. (Related: In Gov. McCrory's budget proposal, the University of North Carolina system would take a 2 percent hit.) HB 549 would reestablish a tiered tax system, meaning that people who earn more than $1 million would pay a 7.75 percent tax—as opposed to the current 5.75 percent rate—on money they earned over that $1 million threshold. That tax increase would bring in $379.6 million in fiscal year 2015–2016, according to a state analysis. To
Brockman, it's a matter of fairness: "We really are looking at regressive taxes," he says of the status quo. "... I think that's wrong on a moral level."
Idea: Raise the minimum wage
Primary Sponsors: Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Pitt and Wilson; Hall; Susan C. Fisher, D-Buncombe; Carla D. Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg
Filed: March 12
Last Action: Referred to the House Judiciary I Committee, March 16
North Carolina is one of just 21 states that have not raised its minimum hourly wage higher than the federal limit, $7.25. Farmer-Butterfield and company's bill would ask voters to amend the N.C. constitution to raise the state's minimum wage to $8.80, and then adjust that wage for inflation every year thereafter. "I want to see the people have an opportunity to vote," says Farmer-Butterfield. "People have not had a raise for many years. I'm trying to make sure working families have what they need to support their families."
Idea: Give workers paid sick time
Primary Sponsors: Fisher; Farmer-Butterfield; Hall; Luebke
Filed: March 17
Last Action: Referred to the Committee on Children, Youth and Families, March 18
Let's say you work at a restaurant, in and around customers and food. Let's say you're paid hourly, and your livelihood depends on you working a certain number of hours a week. And let's say you get sick, which means you should stay home, which means you probably won't get paid. So instead you suck it up, go into work and cough all over everything. HB 270 would alleviate that conundrum for the 45 percent of North Carolina private-sector workers who are not entitled to paid sick leave by mandating that employers provide their employees with one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked—up to four days a year for small businesses, seven days for larger ones. It would also allow workers to use their sick time to care for an immediate family member or recover from domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Idea: Protect public employees from discrimination
Primary Sponsors: Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe; Erica Smith-Ingram, D-eight counties in Northeast N.C.
Filed: March 26
Last Action: Referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations, March 30
It's perfectly legal in many parts of North Carolina for an employer to fire someone for being gay. While six cities around the state, including Raleigh, have enacted workplace-antidiscrimination laws for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals—only one, Greensboro, has extended such policies to housing and public accommodations as well—there are no statewide protections. In a session dominated by now-aborted talk of "religious freedom," SB 612 would nudge us in the right direction by adding sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to antidiscrimination protections for state and local government employees.
It’s legal in many parts of North Carolina for an employer to fire someone for being gay.
Idea: Use tiered utility rates to encourage energy conservation
Primary Sponsors: Mike Woodard, D-Durham, Person and Caswell; Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham and Orange; Van Duyn
Filed: March 25
Last Action: Referred to the Committee on Finance, March 30
This isn't a new idea—it's been introduced in the last several sessions—but it still ranks among the Senate's most ambitious and innovative bills. In short, SB 483 directs the N.C. Utilities Commission to reduce the state's energy consumption by between 40 and 60 percent over the next decade. To achieve this goal, the commission would enact tiered utility-rate levels, meaning the more energy you use, the higher the utility rate. (Low-income renters would be exempted, and utility rates for industrial properties would be set on a case-by-case basis.) Smart, right? So why hasn't it happened? Politics and power, Woodard says: "I think the big users have the ability to say we don't want to pay more. It is a mindset these folks who are big energy users have."
Idea: Let the terminally ill smoke pot
Primary Sponsors: Kelly M. Alexander, Jr., D-Mecklenburg; Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg; Harrison; Cunningham
Filed: March 19
Last Action: Referred to the Judiciary I Committee, March 23
When a broader medical-marijuana initiative died in committee earlier this session, advocates still had hope for HB 317, which would permit people under hospice care to partake if a doctor determines that doing so will alleviate their symptoms. That hope hasn't been borne out.
Idea: Allow school health clinics to provide contraception
Primary Sponsors: Woodard; Floyd McKissick Jr., D-Durham and Granville
Filed: March 25
Last Action: Referred to Committee on Rules and Operations, March 26
The state presently bans anyone from handing out contraception on school property, under the theory that if you don't hand out rubbers, kids will keep it in their pants. (Except for the 11,178 15- to-19-year-old girls in North Carolina who got pregnant in 2013, according to the Abstinence Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina.) SB 484 would change that, permitting school-based health centers to pass out contraceptives. Woodard says it was originally targeted to two specific high schools in Durham, as teen-pregnancy rates in Durham County well exceed the state and national average, and county commissioners asked the state for help. Because of the ways these clinics are funded, however, it had to be a statewide bill. It hasn't gained any traction.
Idea: Stop trying juvenile misdemeanor offenders as adults
Primary Sponsors: Marilyn Avila, R-Wake; Farmer-Butterfield; Duane Hall, D-Wake; Jonathan C. Jordan, R-Ashe and Watuga
Filed: March 30
Last Action: Referred to Judiciary II Committee, March 31
Of all the bills on this list, this one was thought to have the best shot: It has Republican cosponsors, including the Deputy Majority Leader. But that hasn't helped HB 399, which would prohibit prosecutors from charging 16- and 17-year-olds who commit misdemeanors as adults.
Idea: Take federal money and expand Medicaid
Primary Sponsors: Insko; Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg; Gale Adcock, D-Wake; Joe Sam Queen, D-Hayward, Jackson and Swain
Filed: March 23
Last Action: Referred to the Committee on Health, March 24
This is the biggest no-brainer of them all: As part of the Affordable Care Act, the federal government provides states with almost all of the money needed to expand Medicaid coverage to those earning 133 percent of the poverty line. The General Assembly, in its reflexive hatred of all things Obamacare, has passed, leaving in the cold some 500,000 people who make too much to qualify for Medicaid as-is but not enough to qualify for subsidies on the health care exchange.
This bill would rectify that political obscenity, allotting $13.5 million to Medicaid coverage over the next two years in exchange for about $40 million from the feds. The next year the state would pony up $95 million and get back more than $2.4 billion. Oh, and because of the expansion, we can cut budgets directed toward mental health, AIDS prevention and inmate care.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Where good ideas go to die"