These closing weeks, or days, of the General Assembly’s session are sometimes known as the silly season, when weirdness is the watchword at the maze-like Legislative Building on Raleigh’s Jones Street. But all too often, the results are more scary than funny.
OK, scary is a loaded term that has to be viewed within the context of policies that one either likes or dislikes. Do they support public education? Do they encourage effective health care? Do they promote efficient land use and the conservation of natural resources? If not, they’re scary.
The current legislative session is nine months old, and during that span plenty of bills have come along that, on closer inspection, didn’t hold water. At least they didn’t hold water in the eyes of House and Senate majorities. That’s the way the democratic process is supposed to work: Put an idea up for review and debate, and in due time vote it up or down.
The legislature has rules and guidelines meant to keep that process running in orderly fashion. Those rules have some built-in flexibility, and there are occasional work-arounds, sometimes appropriately so. But the spirit of careful, deliberate, fair-minded lawmaking can take a real bruising when a session winds down amid the hectic push to adjourn.
The beginning of this session’s end came with final passage of a new state budget – 11 weeks late and, as those of us who oppose conservatives’ reckless tax-cutting would say, many dollars short.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed the budget, which runs through next June 30, into law on Sept. 18. If he had delayed just a day, the Republican-controlled legislature would have needed to pass another continuing resolution to keep state government in business – prolonging the overall budget debate and extending the drawn-out session even further.
McCrory had been on record as opposing the budget’s broadening of the sales tax to include certain services, such as car repairs – a shift enabling still more cuts in the income tax but putting a heavier tax burden on the middle class and working poor. It was a major change that could well have led him to issue a veto.
Off the rails
But with the clock ticking, he went with the flow, claiming victory on some other contested budget items. Definitely not among them was a provision that hadn’t been included in either the House’s or the Senate’s original budget version. McCrory called the surprise cap on state spending for light rail projects – tucked into the 429-page final budget by unnamed negotiators who wouldn’t own up to what they’d done — a big mistake. He signed anyway.
The $500,000 spending cap would mean curtains for the proposed Durham-Chapel Hill light rail line, on which the state already was planning to spend $138 million over the next 10 years. The project had passed muster under a system of analysis backed by McCrory and intended to compare the merits of different transportation investments. Federal and local revenues also would come into play.
Light rail, whether in the Triangle or elsewhere, certainly should proceed only after thorough study and consideration of alternatives. But that’s precisely what the McCrory administration had done. What’s more, Durham and Orange County taxpayers had agreed to tax themselves to help fund the project.
With all that in mind, it took a large dose of presumptuousness for legislators to decide, in secret and with no public input, that this project needed to be zapped. Now, there’s a move to rescind the cap – with some Republican legislators saying they’re on board. For those who support a wider array of cost-efficient transit options as boosting access to jobs and helping improve the environment via energy conservation, an about-face would be welcome. Even if it amounts to another weird twist at session’s end.
When it cleared the House unanimously back in April, House Bill 539 was straightforward. It would have given school boards the option of letting non-school groups use school playgrounds – a reasonable exercise of local discretion.
Then members of the Senate Finance Committee got hold of the bill. They stripped out the playground language and sent it in another direction entirely, using it to try to channel more money to charter schools.
This maneuver came out of the blue on Sept. 21, catching advocates of traditional public schools off-guard. Their understandable objection is that the charter schools’ gain would be the traditional schools’ loss. That would mean slimmer rations for the schools that most North Carolina students attend – an outcome the Council of Churches and other supporters of public education serving all students would see as unfortunate.
The bill is scheduled for Senate floor action on Sept. 28. If approved, it would return to the House – but members there would vote only whether to accept or reject Senate changes. Rejection would mean the bill would go to a secretive conference committee to work out a “compromise.”
What’s to compromise, when the Senate’s “gut and amend” tactic threw the House’s original playground language out the window?
This shapes up as another instance of the Senate trying to force the House’s hand on an issue rooted in skepticism toward broad-based public schools, whose mission is to educate every child who comes through the doors.
The Senate has pushed to expand the program whereby some students can claim a scholarship subsidizing private school tuition. It has led the way on tax cuts hamstringing the state’s ability to give teachers decent raises. And now it wants to use what amounts to a last-minute ambush to shift money from regular schools to charters. Certainly it’s violating the spirit of orderly, well-considered lawmaking, if not the letter of the rules.
Patients and profits
Completion of the budget cleared the way for another major issue to take center stage — an overhaul of the state’s Medicaid program. The result was panned by many patient advocates, especially care providers, as a sellout to for-profit managed care companies that now will be able to bid for contracts giving them a slice of the state’s business.
This was another conference committee effort, melding different versions of House Bill 372. The Senate had pushed to privatize Medicaid, which serves poor children, the disabled and some low-income adults. The House was OK with moving toward a model that would give providers more incentive to control costs, but it didn’t want to bring in commercial operators. The bill signed on Sept. 24 by Gov. McCrory represents a hybrid of the two approaches.
Republicans have complained about the Medicaid program’s costs – although its supposed overruns actually signal a failure to budget for it adequately. National comparisons show that North Carolina’s costs have been toward the low end of the range.
Perhaps switching away from a fee-for-service model will make costs more predictable, as backers contend. The rub, however, could be that cost control translates into less care. The organization under which Medicaid has operated in recent years, Community Care of North Carolina, has been well-regarded for both effectiveness and efficiency.
The Medicaid overhaul can be described as another grand attempt to fix something that isn’t clearly broken. And it stops short of fixing something that is broken – the state’s failure to expand Medicaid to cover up to half-a-million low-income people who don’t qualify for health insurance premium subsidies under the federal Affordable Care Act, but who typically can’t afford insurance on the open market.
That’s a lingering wound to North Carolina’s body politic and a personal disaster for many of our most vulnerable residents. A remedy, even if came during the legislature’s rush toward the finish line, would show that even the silly season can serve a purpose.