And the session begins
The N. C. General Assembly gets back to work today for its short session – and as always that should make for interesting times in Raleigh.
Last year’s session was dispiriting, especially to many of us in Durham and Chapel Hill. It was clear the electorate here had been out of sync with the mood statewide in the past two rounds of legislative elections. What we witnessed was retreat or reversal on a host of issues important to many in this area. Our legislative delegation was generally marginalized and its members found themselves scrapping for small victories amid a sea of corrosive legislation.
There are some slivers of hope the short session will be a bit less harsh. Pay increases for teachers and other state employees are high on Gov. Pat McCrory’s agenda, and that may signal, too, a toning down of the rhetoric – and policy changes – so dismissive of teachers in the past two sessions.
But harsh budget realities will make the salary increases a heavy lift, at best. With revenue shortfalls as the backdrop and with the governor and others staked out on the pay issue, there’s danger to other important programs. Legislators may be tempted to carve even further into the university system’s already eviscerated budget, or to divert money from pre-kindergarten programs to find the salary money.
There’s also some hope the legislature will be a bit less eager to jettison more environmental regulations after Duke Energy’s coal-ash spill into the Dan River. The legislature almost certainly will have to weigh in on who pays for the cleanup there and of Duke’s other coal-ash pits. There will be considerable pressure to let Duke assess its customers. Making its investors pay the prices seems a far more equitable outcome.
In some other areas, we’d like to hope the legislative majority will undo some of the past session’s harm. We see little likelihood, unfortunately, that the legislature will revisit its rejection of Medicaid expansion or back off from its many initiatives to diminish the ability of towns and cities to manage their own affairs.
With state house and state senate seats on the November ballot, election-year politics are sure to figure into the debates and maneuvering on Jones Street. But with nearly half of the legislators unopposed and more facing mostly token opposition in carefully drawn safe districts, the election may cast less of a shadow than in those nostalgic days when there were more real contests.
One last point – those in the legislature that want to curtail the public’s right to know the public business will waste no time. One of the first bills slated for a vote – today, for heaven’s sake – would exempt Guilford and Mecklenburg counties from publishing public notices in local newspapers. They would be permitted to post them only on their own, government-managed websites.
That’s been a bad idea in every iteration in recent years, and we hope the legislative majority will continue to stand for putting public notices where the public will see them.