With the deadline to submit legislation approaching, Republican lawmakers bombarded the State Capitol with new policies during the past week.
No max class sizes (Senate Bill 516)
Thirty kindergarteners in one classroom? Sure, why not? This bill would eliminate the cap on the number of students in classrooms for kindergarten through the fourth grade.
Lifting classroom maximums would allow school districts to lay off teachers during lean budget times. Accordingly, Democrats lifted the cap for grades 4–12 when the recession hit and the first round of budget cuts came down from the state.
The current cap is 24 students per elementary school classroom.
As the economy has improved, one could argue that the caps should be reinstated, instead of extended to kindergarten classrooms.
Rather than admit the bill is designed to help school systems deal with continued budget reductions, the bill's stated purpose is to give local school districts "maximum flexibility" to "maximize student achievement." Uh-huh.
Charter schools (SB 337)
No education required: This bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Moore, would mean teachers don't need to be licensed or even have a college degree to teach core subjects at a charter school. (For more on this: "Background checks for poor people, just not teachers")
The madness doesn't stop there, though. The bill would make criminal background checks for teachers optional. Private companies looking to profit from taxpayer-funded charter schools could hire whomever they wanted to run the schools.
A separate governing authority for charter schools would also be created under the proposed law. The charter school board would not have to answer to the State Board of Education, which potentially sets up a legal conflict—one governing body for charter schools and another for public schools, even though both receive taxpayer dollars.
Presumably, Republicans would also be able to appoint each of the members to the new charter school board. They would have a head start executing their charter school agenda, while bypassing the state school board, which is still home to some Democratic appointees.
No firearms for undocumented immigrants (House Bill 465) A federal law already makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to carry any type of gun, but new legislation would also codify the crime into state law.
Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Moore, says he introduced the bill because when the feds decide not to prosecute people for possession of a gun, state law enforcement has no recourse. The bill would also make possessing a gun a Class I felony for undocumented immigrants, which is grounds for automatic deportation. Although McNeill says the bill's intent is not deportation, immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth calls the proposed change a "clear example of immigrant bashing."
Healthy Marriage Act (SB 518) Sen. Austin Allran (R-Catawba) understands the moral decay that's gradually infecting our state. Never fear: He has written a law that will get us back on the path to a virtuous society.
His plan: Make it harder to get a divorce. North Carolina ranks somewhere near the middle nationwide for divorce rates, but that's not good enough for Allran. His bill would extend the separation period for a divorce from one year to two years, and require counseling for each person. (For more: "Some facts about the Healthy Marriage Act")
Shorten early voting period (HB 451) If you can't beat 'em, don't let 'em vote. That seems to be the strategy behind a house bill filed by Rep. Edgar Starnes (R-Caldwell) that would cut early voting time in half and end same-day voter registration.
Early voting and same-day registration benefited Republicans and Democrats in the 2012 general elections, but Democrats turned out more early voters and completed more same-day registrations.
However, the new legislation would expand people's ability to vote by absentee ballot—a measure that favored Republicans, according to statistics compiled by Democracy NC.
The bill also eliminates Sunday voting, a practice that African-American communities capitalized on with "Souls to the Polls" efforts. (For more: "Screw the voters and squash their souls")
Wind Energy Permitting (HB 484) This bill is vague on specifics, which has environmental groups unsure where to stand. They say it's unclear whether the new legislation would streamline the permitting process for wind farms or make developing them more difficult.
It is clear that North Carolina military bases would be more involved throughout the permitting process and that the ultimate authority to grant a permit would rest with North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Leaving the bill's language vague could allow DENR to halt the development of a wind farm. Combine this bill with the planned repeal of the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and the support for offshore drilling and fracking, and it's easy to see the GOP's environmental agenda: fossil fuels over clean energy. (For more: "Renewable energy standards and tax credits could be repealed")
Fast track environmental permitting (HB 480) The particulars of this bill are equally vague, but newly installed DENR Secretary John Skvarla has advocated for easing the permitting process. Sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, this bill would create a fast-track permitting process for environmental projects.
The bill would also allow DENR to establish new criteria for storm water runoff and erosion, which could be more lax than the state's current standard. Runoff and erosion are leading causes of pollution in North Carolina's rivers, lakes and streams. Easing the restrictions could benefit developers as they move around a lot of dirt when building shopping malls and subdivisions.
AND NOW THE GOOD
Health Insurance (HB 247) Republicans are attempting to put a leash on insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. The proposed legislation would outlaw "most favored nation" clauses, which obligate hospitals to give BCBS a better rate than its competitors. Ultimately, the measure could drive down health care costs.
Medical bills easier to understand (SB 473) This bill attempts to solve the mystery of hospital bills. It would attempt to stop double-billing, as well as provide an easy-to-understand cost breakdown. It comes as the result of a News & Observer investigation from last year, which showed that complicated billing was leading to patients being overcharged.
School safety bill (HB 452) This bill, thankfully, has nothing to do with guns. But it would provide $34 million over two years to improve school safety. While the money would go toward classroom panic buttons and school resource officers in elementary schools, it would also add $10 million for school counselors.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Red meat."