General Assembly Short Session Preview
The 2018 Session of the General Assembly will begin at noon on May 16 and should wrap up around June 30. This is a “Short Session” year, as is every even-numbered year.
What’s in store this year? Current rumblings indicate that this year’s session will have a very limited agenda, with the two big items being updating the state’s budget and placing constitutional amendments on November’s ballot. Below are a few of my thoughts about what might get done, and what might not.
Education funding is always high on the legislature’s priority list, and this year there will be massive teacher mobilization to put direct pressure on legislators to increase funding. Last year’s budget made a commitment to raise teacher salaries by 6% this year, and it will be interesting to see if Republicans respond to pressure from constituents by increasing that even more. There are also other pressing reasons to increase education funding, including addressing capital needs to meet a new K-3 class size cap, adding funding for textbooks and digital materials, and fixing a broken principal pay scale. Governor Cooper has proposed spending $130 million on school safety and mental health, but I am skeptical about whether Republican budget writers will provide anywhere close to that amount. I am also sad to say that I do not think there will be any new money put toward helping the 400+ chronically low-performing schools in North Carolina.
I do believe that there will be some additional money budgeted for mental health needs, but I do not think that the General Assembly will make any move toward the expansion of Medicaid. And that’s a shame, because accepting Federal Medicaid dollars could result in providing health care for 600,000 North Carolinians and adding 43,000 health care jobs. Another top issue will likely be addressing the environmental crisis of chemical contaminants in the Cape Fear River, Jordan Lake and other water supplies. Protecting the safety of our drinking water should be a top priority, but almost a year after learning of the GenX chemical discharge, Republican legislative leaders have failed to take any meaningful action. Governor Cooper has requested $14.5 million for the Department of Environmental Quality, a department that has had 70 water quality staff members cut by Republicans since 2013.
Beyond the budget, I expect that the big piece of legislative business this year will be placing several constitutional amendments on the November ballot. Three amendments have been widely rumored, all designed to turn out Republican voters in an election year that looks like it is swinging toward Democrats.
The first, and least controversial, amendment would enshrine into our constitution “the right to hunt and fish.” Given that this right is not even under question, it is clear that the amendment is designed to turn out pro-gun voters.
An amendment that should not surprise any follower of politics will be one to require Voter ID. The NC Supreme Court struck down a previous law that required Voter ID, so Republicans are trying a route the Supreme Court cannot block. Although most voters can easily produce an ID, the requirement would likely have a strongly disproportionate effect on decreasing voting among voters who are poor, elderly, or people of color. In a society where far too few people exercise their right to vote, I do not know why we would want to make it even harder for anyone to do so.
Perhaps the most dangerous amendment proposed is one that would cap the state’s income tax at 5.5% or lower. The danger of doing this is that should the state ever face economic crisis or natural disaster where we need massive public investment, the only way to raise that money would be through increasing sales or property taxes. Those taxes are regressive and would place an unfair burden on the working people who can least afford it. This would especially devastate rural communities that cannot raise large amounts of money without massive property tax hikes.
Finally, there may be some legislation passed that continues Republican efforts to gerrymander our court system to their liking. I do not have any firm predictions about what they will propose, but I feel quite certain that they are not done with their efforts to meddle with the justice system.
As I have done in past years, I am likely to support bipartisan legislation that promotes the common good. Unfortunately, I believe the Republican agenda for this session will most likely consist of things that I cannot support. I hope that one day we will have a legislature in which members of both parties can work together to create something as important as the state’s budget, and a single-party supermajority cannot place constitutional amendments onto the ballot.
This post was originally printed in the News of Orange on May 9, 2018.