The General Assembly has adjourned its 2013 session after a final cascade of disappointing and disturbing bills that now await review by Gov. Pat McCrory. Among the bills approved are ones that will make it less convenient for many citizens to vote and that weaken regulatory oversight of the environment.
There was at least one bright spot, as the House rejected a last-minute push by the Senate to speed up the environmentally risky natural gas extraction process known as fracking. But on the whole, legislators succeeded in putting the crowning touches on a session devoted to a conservative agenda the likes of which modern North Carolina has never before seen.
On center stage this past week was the Voter Identification and Verification Act, which requires voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot. During hours of debate in the Senate and House, critics charged that the new law will be the strictest in the nation in terms of the kinds of ID that will be acceptable. They said the effect will be to hold down the vote among people who are less likely to have the necessary ID cards – often poorer people, minorities or students. Those are groups whose votes tend to lean Democratic.
The legislature’s majority Republicans denied partisan motives and said they were trying to deter voter fraud. Nobody condones fraud, but North Carolina has seen very few credible allegations of fraud by means of voter impersonation, which also happens to be a felony.
The bill started out in the House as a fairly straightforward voter ID measure. But the Senate, waiting until the session was on the home stretch, added a raft of other election law changes.
Early voting, which drew more than half of the state’s voters last year, will be cut from 17 days to 10 (although under a Democratic-sponsored amendment counties will have to keep early voting sites open for the same total number of hours). Opponents still protested that the shorter period will lead to longer lines at polling places and discourage some people from voting. Certainly the trend will be toward diminished opportunities to vote – worrisome when our democratic system is supposed to fully reflect the will of the people.
Another provision added in the Senate will zap North Carolina’s program under which candidates for our two highest courts can receive modest public subsidies to meet campaign expenses – an effort to avoid the potential conflict when those candidates accept contributions from lawyers and other interested parties.
The limit on individual contributions in all state and local races will be raised from an already high $4,000 per election to $5,000, indexed for inflation. Some corporate contributions will be made harder to track. And no longer will young people be able to pre-register to vote before they turn 18.
When the bill returned to the House for concurrence with the Senate’s many additions, opponents fought bravely. But a long debate on the night of July 25 ended with House Bill 589 being approved 73-41 along straight party lines, and Gov. McCrory the next day said he would sign it. The only suspense involves whether the U.S. Justice Department might challenge the law under the federal Voting Rights Act – as those who lost the legislative battle surely hope it will do.
Environment: coming up short
From the perspective of people who see a duty to protect North Carolina’s water, air and open space – and who think that protection helps sustain the state’s attractiveness as a place to live and work — the legislature’s record on environmental issues this session was mostly poor.
A sprawling regulatory “reform” bill cobbled together by senators in the session’s waning days loosens the rules for landfills, both in their siting and operation. (Perhaps the damage could have been worse, because the final language in House Bill 74 seems to back away from an earlier plan that would have allowed a giant landfill close to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge near the Virginia border; Virginia officials objected mightily.)
Storage sites for toxic coal ash, a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, also would be treated more leniently – a change that critics said could endanger Charlotte’s water supply because of a Duke Energy coal ash facility along the Catawba River. The House, in one of its last votes before adjourning on July 26, gave final approval to the bill’s Senate version by a vote of 63-34.
Caution and common sense did prevail when the House balked at a Senate move to change the state’s fracking law. That law was enacted after months of contention and amid pledges by House members that rules to regulate the controversial gas extraction process would be in place before drilling permits were issued. Senate Bill 127, with fracking language attached in the session’s final days, seemed to waffle on that pledge. When it became clear that the House wasn’t likely to go along, Senate sponsors had the bill sent back to a committee.
The legislative session, which began in January, was the first in decades in which Republican majorities in both chambers operated in tandem with a Republican governor. That combination yielded a tax-cut package that will reduce state revenues by a projected $524 million over the next two years and $2.4 billion over the next five.
The GOP hope is that lower taxes for individuals and companies will stimulate the creation of jobs in a state where unemployment remains high. But the downside is that a revenue crunch means less money to spend on vital government services, especially education, where the budget sent to McCrory would impose cuts at all levels – cuts that come on top of others in recent years as the recession caused tax collections to tank.
Protesters at the weekly “Moral Monday” events have decried what they see as legislative callousness toward the needs of ordinary North Carolinians, especially minorities and women. Cuts to education have been central to their complaints, as has the push to enact voter ID. With the voter ID bill now approved and sent to McCrory, the July 29 edition of Moral Monday will not lack for inspiration.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate