Timber harvest on Estes Drive in Chapel Hill
Not long ago in North Carolina, news of a Republican-sponsored bill like SB367 would have been met like a terminal diagnosis. Democrats would have vowed to fight it, and editorial boards would have shaken their heads, but everyone would have known that there was nothing they could do. The bill, bad as it might be, was going to happen.
Make no mistake, SB367 is a bad bill. The legislation, which was introduced last month, would block cities and towns from passing new ordinances that protect trees from developers. The bill wouldn’t kill ordinances in cities like Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh that already have sanctioned by the legislature, but any city or town that wants to craft a new ordinance would have to go through the General Assembly. Also, any tree ordinance not covered by an existing local act would be voided.
Cities have these ordinances for a reason — they protect tree canopies and prevent the environmental and aesthetic degradation of clear-cutting trees for new projects and neighborhoods. Tree regulations also help cities manage and avoid problems with water runoff. Such decisions should be left to local officials, who understand what’s best for their cities and towns better than lawmakers in Raleigh.
In the past, Republicans might have waved those considerations away, but the dynamics of the General Assembly have changed. Thanks to a wave election for Democrats last November, Republicans no longer have a super majority in the N.C. House or N.C. Senate, and that might be felt most acutely with bills like SB367. The path of the trees legislation is far different than the one it would have taken a year ago. If it passes, Gov. Roy Cooper will likely veto (as he would have before), and he’ll have some pointed words about Republicans doing the bidding of developers. But now, because those Republicans have lost their super majority, they have an uphill climb to override the governor’s veto.
That means Republican leaders face a different kind of calculation these days. Do they use their political capital to pass SB367, only to give the governor a veto and legislative win? Or do they save that exercise for times when a Cooper veto is better politically for the GOP, such as on a Born Alive abortion bill? SB367 is likely not that kind of bill. Although it’s backed by powerful builder and Realtor organizations, it’s a toxic example of state Republicans meddling in local government affairs.
In fact, it’s possible the bill might never make it out of committee, because Republican leaders know this losing battle isn’t worth the fight. That’s why the 2018 election was good for North Carolina. Eliminating super-majorities provides a natural buffer against extreme legislation. It forces the majority party to at least consider the minority party and, in the best of circumstances, work together to find compromise that’s palatable to all.
No one is claiming that there’s hand-holding across the aisle in Raleigh these days. But there’s certainly less partisan fireworks, and there’s a bit more conversation between the two parties on the front end of legislation. That’s an improvement from Republicans just doing what they want and how they want, knowing Democrats could do little about it. For now, at least, bad legislating isn’t terminal in North Carolina.