If you were hoping the state legislature, chastened by the backlash over House Bill 2, might opt for a quiet short session focused on budget tweaks and eschewing hot-button issues, you're probably pretty disappointed right now.
Instead, over the last two months, lawmakers found new and sundry ways to move the state backward in areas like public education, police accountability, and the environment. And they once again failed to expand Medicaid, which means a quarter million people in this state have to go without health care so Republicans can beat their chests about the evils of Obamacare, and declined to repeal HB 2, which means the state's reputation remains a shambles.
There were a few silver linings—mainly things lawmakers could have done but mercifully didn't (see sidebar), but also a budget that pays teachers and state workers somewhat better and, thanks to an improving economy, avoids the kinds of draconian cuts that have characterized the Republicans' previous budgets. On balance, however, our perilous march away from the moderate modernism that defined state politics for a half century and set North Carolina apart from the rest of the Deep South continues unabated, and the state's future looks bleaker than it did two months ago.
So, with this year's short session having wrapped on Saturday—following an intense final week of lawmaking—let's take stock of what they did and how they hosed you. Remember, all of these guys are up for reelection November 8.
1. HB 2 Still Exists
While lawmakers tinkered on the edges—namely, reversing a provision blocking people from suing in state court over workplace-discrimination claims—the bulk of HB 2 remains intact. That's not entirely surprising, given how much political capital Republicans have spent defending the law.
But last week, a draft bill championed by moderate Republicans was leaked to a Charlotte TV station. The legislation, apparently designed to appease the NBA and keep the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte, would have required transgender people to register with the state and, if they had undergone gender-affirmation surgery, receive a "certificate of sex reassignment."
That "fix" died a quick but certain death. Soon after the proposal surfaced, both Equality NC and the N.C. Values Coalition denounced it, meaning it had little constituency on the right or left. And when the NBA said the revision wasn't sufficient, that put a nail in the coffin.
Lawmakers did tweak one section of HB 2 in the session's waning days, restoring workers' ability to sue in state court over discrimination claims. But this wasn't the part of HB 2 that had generated lawsuits and corporate denunciations. And so the damage to the state's economy—estimated in May at between $77 million and $201 million—persists.
"They obviously failed to address the concerns that business and entertainers have been raising, so it's going to hurt the economy," says Sarah Preston, the state ACLU's policy director. "But of greater importance is that LGBTQ people are left without protections. We already knew trans people were in danger of violence, and they've done nothing to address that."
And even that one small change to HB 2 came with a caveat. While victims of discrimination can now sue in state court, they'll have to do so quickly; the statute of limitations has been reduced from three years to just one. Also, the state's Human Relations Commission—whose members are appointed by the governor—will hear discrimination claims before they go to court, though the HRC's powers are limited and employees can still sue even if the HRC decides there's no basis for their claims, says UNC law professor Jeffrey Hirsch.
Here's the kicker: last year, the legislature set aside $8 million to defend its various actions in court. After HB 2, that wasn't enough. So last week the legislature pumped another $500,000 into the defense fund—and raided the state's Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund to do so. Good thing North Carolina isn't known for hurricanes.
2. The War on Public Schools Continues
As the session concluded, lawmakers passed a bill that would turn over a handful of struggling schools to charter operators, an idea that has failed miserably in Tennessee. If Governor McCrory signs the bill, five low-achieving elementary schools will be placed under the control of private charters, which may or may not be for-profit.
The bill's advocates, including Democratic representative Cecil Brockman, point out that many of the students in those failing schools are African-Americans. They argue that achievement school districts will have more flexibility, less bureaucracy, and thus get better results.
Opponents counter that those schools are failing primarily because of the cuts public education has taken in recent years. And as former state education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom noted in a letter to lawmakers in May, Tennessee's pilot program didn't come close to the intended results: five of its six ASD schools still rank in the bottom 2.5 percent of schools across the state. In addition, whereas Tennessee provided $50 million for its ASD schools, North Carolina allocated none, so these schools will get no extra help.
Lawmakers, however, haven't been shy about funding the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for students to attend private, often parochial schools that have little oversight and produce, at best, mixed results—all while funneling taxpayer dollars to overtly religious organizations that sometimes openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and further undercutting resource-starved public schools.
Led by Senator Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, the legislature tucked into the budget an additional $10 million for the voucher program every year until 2027, boosting the fund to almost $145 million—$145 million that won't be going to boost teacher pay. Lawmakers did throw teachers a bone, though, providing them with an average 4.7 percent raise, which should help North Carolina crawl out of the national teacher-pay basement.
Coincidentally, this is an election year.
3. So Much for Police Accountability
In March, Charlotte's police chief blocked the release of body-camera footage that allegedly showed an officer beating a man. Then the chief ruled that the officer's actions were justifiable, even as YouTube footage taken by witnesses suggested otherwise.
This incident gets to a central issue in police accountability: As more and more cities adopt police-worn body cameras—both Raleigh and Durham are actively considering body cams—who gets to see what they record?
This year, the legislature offered its answer: police departments have complete control. People who are seen on or heard in either body-cam or dashboard-cam footage will, in most cases, be permitted to review the tape—though this, too, is subject to police discretion—but they can't make copies or show it to the public.
Others, including journalists, wouldn't have access unless a judge signs off. And there's a catch-22: the judge is only allowed to release video that's been discussed in court, but since litigants wouldn't be permitted to see the footage before going to court, discussing what's actually on the recording would prove difficult.
Moreover, if judges want to release footage, they need to notify the local district attorney and the officer involved and give them the chance to testify; this right is not afforded to alleged victims of police brutality.
The bill, proposed by Republican representatives and former law enforcement officials John Faircloth and Allen McNeill, passed with broad support and little debate in both the House and Senate. How did that happen? Lawmakers sweetened the deal for civil libertarians by attaching a provision decriminalizing needle-exchange programs for drug addicts.
So at least something good came out of it.
"The attachment of this body-camera bill to the needle-exchange program was an interesting procedural maneuver," says the ACLU's Preston. "We do support the needle exchange, but the body-camera portion did little to address accountability concerns and undermined the benefit that body cameras have."
4. Don't Drink the Water
In May, the Department of Environmental Quality ordered Duke Energy to clean up its thirty-two coal ash ponds—one of those ponds dumped nearly forty thousand tons of toxic sludge into the the Dan River in February 2014—labeling eight ponds "high risk" (which means they have to be cleaned up by 2020) and the others "intermediate risk" (cleanup by 2024).
But Duke said it was worried about the schedule. Under state law, the cleanup of "low-risk" sites could be delayed until 2029, but the DEQ had decided that no Duke sites were low risk. So the McCrory administration—Governor McCrory, it's worth noting, is a former Duke executive—asked the legislature for permission to review those site classifications in eighteen months.
On the session's last day, lawmakers obliged the governor and then some: the bill, should McCrory sign it, will force the DEQ to reclassify sites as low risk if Duke provides the pond's neighbors with a clean water source—leaking coal ash can pollute groundwater supplies—and fixes dams in rivers near its coal-powered plants. Just as important, the bill also allows Duke to dry out intermediate-risk sites and cap them instead of excavating them, which will save the utility giant as much as $8 billion, according to Duke estimates.
The legislature also helped out developers upstream of Jordan Lake, which provides drinking water to more than three hundred thousand people in Wake and Chatham counties. For years now, runoff from developments has been polluting the lake with nutrients that feed algae, but lawmakers haven't been keen on new regulations to curtail the pollution.
Their first solution, SolarBees—solar-powered water mixers that were supposed to eliminate the pollutants—fell flat. In May, regulators pulled the plug.
But lawmakers also delayed implementation of the Jordan Lake rules, passed by a Democratic-led legislature in 2008 to address the problem, until October 2019. That means municipalities and developers can once again delay making expensive but necessary sewer-system upgrades.
On the plus side: after considerable ridicule, a proposal to spend $500,000 studying whether freshwater mussels could succeed where SolarBees failed went nowhere.
5. The Poor Pay More
After including auto repairs and other services in the state's sales tax, lawmakers expanded it even further this session. The new taxes will generate $22 million in extra revenue. To offset this hike, the legislature raised the standard deduction on income taxes. Republicans say that this was intended to save the middle class money, but the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal staff found that families making between $10,000 and $30,000 would only save about $60 a year.
Considering how many services are subject to the sales tax now, it's likely those people will end up doling out more money to the state.
"Part of the reason for the harmful inequity in North Carolina's tax system is that the lower a household's income, the greater share of that income goes to buy things, meaning the share of income paid in sales taxes goes up," N.C. Budget & Tax Center analyst Cedric Johnson said in an April report. "In general, people who make less money have less to save, so much more of what they earn goes to purchases. The wealthy, on the other hand, are able to save or invest a large share of their income, which is not subject to sales tax."
Indeed, a 2015 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showed that the bottom 80 percent of the state's wage earners pay about 9 percent of their income in taxes, while the top 1 percent pays just 5.3 percent of their incomes in taxes. The more the sales tax is expanded and the income tax is reduced, the more that gap will grow.
This article appeared in print with the headline "5 Ways the Legislature Screwed You"