As the 2017 General Assembly session draws to a close, reporters, pundits and partisans will all soon be putting their session wrap-ups together, reminding us all of what has happened in the last six months at the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
It would be a mistake to start the review in January when the session formally convened. This session really started a month before that, in December, when Republicans adjourned a special session called for hurricane relief and immediately convened another one — with no notice or warning — to take power away from newly elected Gov. Roy Cooper who would be sworn into office a few weeks later.
Much of the legislation passed in that unprecedented session is still tied up in the courts and the fallout from it — and the subsequent additional power grabs by legislative leaders when the General Assembly reconvened in January — has come to define this unusual political year in North Carolina.
It is as if the Republicans who run the House and Senate have not yet accepted the fact that voters elected Cooper and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein last November.
The House and Senate both voted this week to override Cooper’s veto of their budget and blasted his opposition to their plan as somehow breaking promises he made to the voters.
The sadly predictable and anemic budget underfunds education, gives more tax breaks to corporations and millionaires and includes a host of devastating provisions, like one ending state funding of legal services for low-income families.
Teachers, state workers and state retirees all get smaller raises than they deserve, especially in a year with a budget surplus, and the budget ends retirement health care benefits for workers who are hired beginning in 2021.
Then there are the stunning cuts, almost a million dollars from Cooper’s office and $10 million from the Department of Justice that Stein was elected to lead that will force him to lay off 123 attorneys who work to keep the people of North Carolina safe.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the cuts were made because he didn’t like the way Stein was doing his job.
Cooper had no choice but to veto the inadequate and spiteful budget, even if the override was also inevitable.
While legislative leaders were slashing budgets in departments that Democrats run and cutting the UNC School of Law by $500,000 because some liberals work there, they were giving more funding and authority to newly elected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, who spends of lot of his time avoiding reporters who are understandably curious about his positions on controversial education issues.
The budget singled out a few employees at DPI for dismissal because they had the gall to volunteer for the campaign of Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson. The budget also fired the primary staff person of the State Board of Education because legislative leaders are angry with the board, even though it is run by Republicans, because board members are opposed to turning over more power to Johnson.
None of these decisions had anything to with saving money, they were vengeful political acts not financial ones. Not only did Johnson receive funding for 10 new positions, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest received a new position for his office, too, and a protection detail for himself and his family.
Then there’s the nonchalance of House and Senate leaders to the unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that the legislative districts they drew in 2011 are unconstitutional because they pack African-American voters into a handful of districts to minimize their power and increase the power of Republicans elsewhere in the state.
Gov. Cooper called on lawmakers to convene a concurrent special session to redraw the districts but legislative leaders brazenly refused and are now asking the courts to give them more time, the ultimate goal to have yet another election with illegally gerrymandered districts drawn to consolidate their power.
Then there is the assault on the courts, shrinking the size of the N.C. Court of Appeals to try to prevent Cooper from appointing judges to replace ones who retire. Lower court races were made partisan against the advice of most people involved in the criminal justice system.
Then this past week, Rep. Justin Burr floated a scheme to redraw judicial and prosecutorial districts in an obvious attempt to elect more Republicans. There wasn’t time to pass it, but it is likely to be considered in a coming special session.
There were a few noteworthy achievements this year, most notably ending the practice of trying 16- and 17-year-olds who commit crimes as adults and the passage of legislation to improve the state’s expunction laws to allow people who make mistakes to move on with their lives.
But overall, forward-looking legislation was few and far between this session. Legislative leaders were more interested in power and revenge. Far-Right ideology was on display, too, but this year it came with an even more bitter edge — with a little old-fashioned corruption thrown in for good measure.
The budget included a giveaway to a chemical company represented by a former Republican House Speaker and $100 million in spending in projects that were added to the budget at the last minute to reward allies of the leadership and feather the nests of their own districts.
It was the perfect ending to a session that did not feature any vision or plan for the future of the state, just spite and payback and anger from legislative leaders, all in the shadow of the President they support who has made an art form out of bullying and intimidation and has the historically low approval ratings to show for it.
There is talk of several special sessions to come to this fall, one to redraw legislative districts and consider Burr’s partisan attack on the courts, and one to consider a raft of constitutional amendments.
Legislative leaders can read the polls. They know that people in North Carolina are not happy with their ideological rampages and power grabs and they may try to cement some of their worst ideas in the constitution to make it harder to reverse them.
Maybe that is the silver lining in this gloomy, blustery and bitterly partisan session: that the folks in charge can see the writing on the wall. Their days may be numbered. People have had enough.
Chris Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.