Historic legislative session begins

Jan. 28, 2013 @ 04:31 PM

The North Carolina General Assembly returns to Raleigh Wednesday to get down to serious business.

The legislators convened briefly earlier this month to elect leadership, a move designed to help the session get off to a fast start. This week, they will begin filing and debating bills – and caucusing in the lobbies and on the floor to negotiate the finer points of bills and compromises.

This session promises to be busy– and historic. For the first time since the late 19th century, Republicans control both houses of the legislature, and the governor’s mansion.  And while the state Supreme Court is officially nonpartisan, a majority of its members are registered as Republicans.

Not surprisingly, the prospect of a steamroller for long-held Republican priorities has Democrats and progressives deeply worried. And there are some issues on which the foregone conclusion are troubling.

On voter identification, for example, the solution to a virtually nonexistent problem almost certainly will be a requirement for photo IDs at the polling places that is likely to make voting far more difficult for some and a greater nuisance for almost everyone.

And the state seems poised to dismiss the opportunity of adding nearly half a million North Carolinians to Medicaid rolls, even though in initial years the federal government will pick up the tab under the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare.

In other areas, the legislature is likely to tackle some long-festering issues on which thoughtful debate and some nonpartisan consensus might yield positive results.

Politicians and advocates at every point on the political spectrum have known for years that our tax system, rooted in an earlier era when manufacturing dominated our economy, is inefficient and unfair.

Both Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders are determined this is the moment of opportunity to finally effect changes. Some, such as broadening the base on which sales tax is collected, will receive wide support. Some reduction in corporate and personal income taxes is inevitable, and an argument can be made that our state’s competitive position will be improved by judicious adjustments there.

Pitfalls lie, however, in the prospect of overzealous shifting of the revenue burden from taxes on income to those on consumption.  There have been encouraging signs of caution from budget chief Art Pope on that point in recent days, and the prospect exists for a balanced, equitable and long-overdue adjustment to our taxing system.

One thing is fairly certain for the next two years, at least: Durham’s uniformly Democratic delegation will be relegated to the back benches.  We have skillful and thoughtful legislators who will make the most of whatever limited leverage they have, but for the most part priorities they advance will get little traction.

The legislature expects to go home in June. The next four months should be lively theater on Jones Street.