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July 15, 2024 7:24 am

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Opinion | The 2023 Legislative Session: Out of the Starting Gate — Sideways

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By Steve Ford, NC Policy Watch

We weren’t expecting it to be pretty – “it” being the launch of the N.C. General Assembly’s new session, with freshly emboldened conservatives eager to flex their muscles.

The reality, one month after things got under way, hasn’t failed to disappoint.

Two themes stand out: 1) Efforts to further entrench the legislature’s majority Republicans in their positions of power, even at the expense of what are supposed to be state government’s independent and coequal executive and judicial branches, and 2) Efforts to magnify and exploit hot-button cultural issues such as firearms access and public schools’ approach toward sexual orientation and gender identity.

In fact, public education – an enterprise that conservatives often try to depict as an example of government at its worst, even after they’ve bent over backwards to undermine it – has become sort of a common denominator.

Take, for starters, the proposal in House Bill 17 to elect members of the State Board of Education from individual districts.

This change – which would require amending the state constitution – would sap the governor’s oversight of the state’s public schools, now exercised largely via his or her appointment of 11 members of the 13-member board, subject to legislative confirmation.

It would make it harder for the governor – responsible for the state’s overall well-being in so many respects and answerable to every voter – to pursue his or her vision of how public education should be carried out. Gov. Roy Cooper and his Democratic predecessors have regularly clashed with conservative legislators in trying to increase education spending and support for teachers. So it’s no mystery what the effect of downgrading the governor’s role could be.

Divide and conquer

The new plan would have board members elected from districts equaling the number of the state’s U.S. House members, now 14. Legislators would draw the district lines. Clearly, the easy path would simply be to repurpose the current congressional districts – which Republican legislators again are maneuvering to gerrymander in their favor. One could easily imagine the same fate for the education board.

The board’s role doesn’t extend to financing of the public education system — a duty assigned principally to the legislature through its budgeting power. But it figures in many education policy decisions involving curricula, teacher qualifications and pay, graduation requirements and so forth.

These happen to be some of the areas where conservatives are pushing back against what they depict as a too-liberal, “woke” education establishment. Out of that pushback come not only protests against the decisions of local school administrators – sometimes even with threats of violence – but also legislation such as Senate Bill 49, the so-called Parents’ Bill of Rights. It passed the Senate on Feb. 7 by a party-line vote and is pending in the House.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger.

It’s a lucky student whose parents are supportive and well-informed collaborators in helping their child succeed in school. S.B. 49 encourages that kind of collaboration – while implying that educators themselves resist it or have different goals.

Believe it or not, the implication goes so far as to suggest that school personnel lure students into identifying as gay or lesbian, or of the opposite gender, through curriculum choices or conversations not disclosed to parents. The bill thus acts to drive a wedge between some parents and educators – a wedge based on exaggerated, unfair suspicion and indeed prejudice. And it fuels the kind of animosity toward public schools that helps conservatives continue to scrimp on funding to such an extent that North Carolina ranks toward the bottom in per-pupil spending.

Friends on the court

Last November’s elections were marked by Republican gains in both the state House and Senate as well as in the appellate courts. The GOP now is on the cusp – lacking just one House seat – of veto-proof majorities in each legislative chamber. On the state Supreme Court, conservative Republicans hold a 5-2 margin, representing a flip from the previous 4-3 Democratic edge.

That turnabout already has had big consequences. The court’s majority bloc after taking office in January was quick to grant requests by legislative Republicans to revisit two key, recent decisions made by Democratic justices over GOP objections.

One of those decisions had disallowed congressional and state Senate district maps resulting from the latest decennial census, finding that they embodied partisan gerrymandering so extreme as to violate the state constitution. The other had blocked the legislature’s latest attempt to enact a photo ID requirement for voting on grounds that it was racially discriminatory – a definite constitutional no-no.

The high court under Democratic sway took a forthrightly expansive view of North Carolinians’ constitutional rights, including the right to participate in free and fair elections, while affirming the judiciary’s authority to block legislative infringement of those rights.

By contrast, Republican justices seem more than happy to defer to their ideological allies in the legislature. The lengths to which they might go to overturn decisions reached mere months ago haven’t yet been determined, but the signals are plain.

The likely upshot is that partisan gerrymandering will be found to be an issue that the constitution can’t be read as addressing and that therefore is immune to judicial intervention. And the result will be even tighter holds on power by Republican congressional and legislative delegations.

In fact, a new congressional map expected to be drawn this year – if it restores the kind of pro-GOP imbalance that was rejected by the previous Supreme Court – could be significant in protecting the narrow Republican majority in Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s U.S. House. So the policy consequences could be formidable.

Also in sync with conservative justices, Republican legislators continue to resist the former court majority’s efforts to enforce more state support for public schools in line with rulings in the landmark Leandro case.

Sounding a familiar note, the conservative argument is that the courts can have no role in stipulating how state money is spent because that is the legislature’s sole prerogative. Never mind, they seem to say, that Leandro rulings going back almost 30 years have found that many students are being deprived of the “sound basic” education they are constitutionally entitled to receive.

Medicaid mirage?

If there’s been any notable instance during the current session when the legislature’s Republican leaders have acted clearly in the public interest, it’s been in their movement finally toward support of expanding the state’s Medicaid program.

It’s taken them years to come around, finding excuse after excuse to avoid agreeing that an option first put forward under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act would be beneficial. But the estimated 600,000 North Carolinians who would gain health coverage, along with the struggling hospitals that would receive a revenue boost, might be willing to say better late than never.

Still, there’s a hang-up that so far has kept this from becoming a done deal. Although the House on Feb. 16 overwhelmingly approved House Bill 76 expanding Medicaid, top senators want to tie it to a loosening of rules meant to control expenditures on costly new health facilities. Whether the so-called Certificate of Need rules do more harm than good is a question perhaps worth debating. But it would border on tragic if Medicaid expansion foundered because of disagreement over this side issue. Far better to address it separately.

The 2023 session is only a month old but as we’ve seen, the tone has been set. Republicans are eager to put their veto override chances to the test, and some of the bills they’re teeing up could prove good candidates to draw a few Democrats across the partisan divide.

It might not be easy for a Democrat from a conservative-leaning district to stand against the  incendiary emotions kindled by the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The same could be said about Senate Bill 41, which would make it easier to buy a handgun by scrapping the state’s pistol permit system – just what we need, a critic could say, amid a rising tide of firearms violence and deaths. S.B. 41 has cleared the Senate, and a similar bill, House Bill 50, cleared the House on Feb. 22.

The N.C. Council of Churches has been among the leading advocates of stronger firearms regulations as a way to make our communities safer. That’s in keeping with the principle that we should try to uphold the well-being of our fellow citizens even if it might mean putting a lower priority on our own personal conveniences and desires. S.B. 41– which also would allow handguns on school property used for religious purposes — won’t be the only bill this year that draws opposition from within the Council, but at this point it’s a ready target.

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