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N.C. lawmakers lust after PAC dollars

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Having finally passed a budget (only three months late!), the Legislature would seemingly be content to speed toward a merciful adjournment. Not so. The closing days of the year's long session—a very long session indeed—produced a flurry of legislative and political machinations that we'll be unpacking for weeks to come.

Perhaps the most ominous, at least if you care about having a functional democracy, is a provision tucked into H.B. 373—which moves next year's primary dates to March 15—that seems to be a thinly veiled Republican attack on the Republican state party and its new leader, Hassan Harnett, who won his position in June without the support of Gov. Pat McCrory or top GOP officials.

Under this provision, which passed easily in the Senate but barely cleared the House last week, the Legislature's party leaders would be allowed to set up what are called affiliated party committees, fund-raising machines that would parallel the state parties' fund-raising machines and, like them, be able to raise unlimited PAC money.

The motivation, of course, is control: Party leaders want to be able to accrue and direct campaign funds where they want them. And while state parties typically avoid primary fights, these committees would have no such restrictions. As Harnett reportedly emailed Republican voters in an effort to stop the bill, "Caucus leadership will be able to spend this money, however they see fit, unbound by the party rules traditional party leaders are constrained by."

In practical terms, that means legislative leaders will have the leverage to keep their members on a very short leash.

Harnett and the state GOP aren't commenting. It's also unclear at press time whether McCrory will sign the bill. For now, though, state Dems are happy to gloat about the other guys being in disarray: "This bill was passed by a Republican legislature, will be signed by a Republican Governor, and seems intended to impact dysfunction within the Republican Party headquarters," N.C. Democratic Party executive director Kimberly Reynolds crowed in a statement last week.

But the ramifications go well beyond an inter-party squabbling, says Bob Hall, executive director of the watchdog group Democracy N.C.

"This reinforces the Speaker [of the state House] and the [Senate] president pro tem's ability to pressure lobbyists to give them money," Hall says. "It just expands the number of ways that special interest money—the people looking for a quid pro quo or pay-to-play can use that."

If there is an upside, Hall adds, it's that these committees will have to abide by the same disclosure rules as political parties.

The 11th hour also saw moves to ban so-called sanctuary cities—including Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro—from limiting enforcement of immigration laws, further restrict the state's food stamps program and divert more dollars to charter schools for services they don't actually provide.

And then, on Monday night, came another legislative power play: Lawmakers stuffed language into Senate Bill 279—an already-bad-enough bill instructing schools to teach seventh graders to abstain from sex until they're in a heterosexual marriage—preempting local fair housing, living wage or fair employment laws. The bill now also limits local governments' ability to enact antidiscrimination ordinances. Naturally, this was aimed at sexual orientation protections, but according to gay-rights advocates, it would have the unintended consequence of nullifying entire civil rights ordinances. The modified bill was placed on the House's calendar for Tuesday.

Take a deep breath, everyone. It's almost over.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The gavel can't come soon enough"

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