Now that the dust from the seemingly endless 2015 session of the North Carolina legislature has finally started to settle, many people – even regular observers – may find it difficult to remember all that took place. Part of the problem, of course, was the sheer length of the session. After nine months in Raleigh, it started to feel as if lawmakers had been in session forever. Add to this the fact that this was the fifth consecutive session in which hard right conservatives dominated state policymaking and there’s no doubt that a sense of numbness had started to afflict a lot of caring and thinking people.
One of the most troubling byproducts of the past nine months is the narrative that’s emerged in some circles that 2015 wasn’t actually all that bad. Owing in part to the friendlier face offered up by House Speaker Tim Moore, who sometimes eschewed the confrontational, our-way-or-the-highway approach favored by state senate leaders and his predecessor Thom Tillis, some progressives – especially single issue advocates who may have succeeded in preserving a specific program or defeating an especially regressive proposal – have spoken in almost cheerful tones about 2015.
A moment’s reflection on the bigger picture, however, ought to remind these folks (and anyone who cares to pay attention) that 2015 was, on the whole, another dreadful year for state policy in North Carolina. Though state leaders did not completely privatize the public schools, repeal the state corporate and personal income taxes or abolish all environmental protection laws, they took large new steps in those directions. Moreover, these were just a few of the numerous regressive new laws that will continue to make North Carolina a drabber, shabbier and more divided state going forward.
Here are some of the lowest lowlights of 2015:
#1 – Failing to expand and privatizing Medicaid – Once again, by failing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, state lawmakers missed the boat on the single most important and beneficial policy step they could have taken. This failure to act assures that hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians will remain without health insurance and that thousands will die unnecessarily each year as a result.
What’s more, in a late-session maneuver, legislators ignored the pleas of a conservative GOP expert and plunged ahead with a privatization scheme for the state’s award-winning nonprofit Medicaid system (Community Care North Carolina). The “reform” plan will turn Medicaid over to giant for-profit insurance companies who will be sure to slash benefits and coverage for people in need.
#2 – Regressive tax changes – State leaders enacted yet another package of regressive, trickledown tax changes. This one will cost the state as much as $1 billion per year in lost revenue by 2019 while actually raising taxes slightly on the poorest 20% of North Carolinians. The package expands the sales tax to services used by average families while slashing income taxes in a way that favors the rich and profitable corporations.
#3 – A state budget that fails to invest what’s necessary – This year’s state budget spends less (as a percentage of total state personal income) on core public services than any state budget since the mid-1970’s. As a result state employees will yet again receive no meaningful raise and scores of essential services will be underfunded – including K-12, higher education and pre-K, health care, affordable housing and community economic development, mental health, environmental protection, the courts and corrections and many other critical areas. The budget also expands the state’s unaccountable private school voucher program.
#4 – Wrongfully targeting immigrant communities and the hungry – Lawmakers approved a bill during the waning days of session (House Bill 318) that destructively targets immigrants and threatens public health and safety by prohibiting government officials —with the exception of law enforcement officers in some narrow cases—from accepting certain documents to determine a person’s actual identity or residency.
The same bill would also cut off as many as 105,000 people from food assistance (something that’s already as little as $30 per week) by imposing a statewide work requirement on recipients – even in parts of the state in which there are literally no jobs to be had. (Note: At press time, Gov. McCrory had not yet signed this measure into law.)
#5 – Wreaking havoc on the natural environment – Another end-of-session measure (a so-called “regulatory reform” package) would gut dozens of important environmental protection laws and regulations by, among other things, allowing polluters to self-report any violations and thereby avoid punishment. This bill will also worsen flooding of the kind seen in recent weeks by allowing developers to bulldoze “intermittent streams” that help carry away runoff during major rain events. (As with #4, Gov. McCrory had not yet signed this measure into law at press time.)
Meanwhile, tax credits that had helped spur the development of the state’s fast-growing solar energy industry were eliminated and funding for mass transit in the Triangle region was cut off.
#6 – Further restricting women’s reproductive health and freedom – Way back in June, state leaders approved a new attack on the reproductive health and freedom of women that will mandate a new and intrusive 72 hour waiting period for abortion services. Lawmakers also acted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and further limit the availability of sex education and pregnancy prevention.
#7 – Reviving the death penalty – Despite still more revelations of wrongful murder convictions and exonerations in the state’s flawed criminal justice system, leaders approved a new law that seeks to revive the death penalty and speed up executions. The new law exempts the Department of Public Safety from rulemaking requirements when executions are involved, eases restrictions on and keeps secret the types of drugs used for lethal injections and allows medical professionals other than doctors to monitor executions.
#8 – Promoting second class citizenship for the LGBTQ community and other disfavored groups – It seems like a long time ago, but state leaders kicked off 2015 this past winter and spring by passing a bill that allows state officials to refuse to do their duty in the provision of marriage licenses because of their “religious” objections. This law allows sworn officers of the state to refuse to marry people with a constitutional right to marry – be they same-sex couples, interracial couples or couples of different religions. Legislators casually overrode a gubernatorial veto to make the bill law in June.
#9 – Protecting incumbents from challengers – In keeping with their ongoing effort to alter state election laws in their favor, legislators passed an incumbent protection law that moves the May primary to March. This will force potential challengers (who already face the uphill battle of running in gerrymandered districts) to file for election by this December – almost a full year before the November 2016 general election.
#10 – Stopping local governments from regulating fracking – In the waning hours of the session, lawmakers approved a provision tucked into a “technical corrections” bill that forbids local governments from passing rules to regulate fracking in their communities. Many lawmakers – even conservative Republicans whose districts will be directly affected – were not even told of the provision. Needless to say, the public was left out completely.
#11 – Inviting corruption – One of the worst new laws of 2015 will allow legislative leaders to establish their own political slush funds to which lobbyists and other special interests can contribute unlimited funds – even while the legislature is in session. What could go wrong?
#12 – Enacting dangerous new laws that will promote the spread of guns – House Bill 562 – which Gov. McCrory signed into law in August – contains numerous provisions that undermine safety at schools and other public places and that weaken the efforts of local governments and individual property owners to minimize the threats posed by firearms in our communities. Among other things, it actually makes it very easy for people to purchase silencers for firearms – something that will help criminals and place even more innocent people at risk who make use of public lands that may be near areas used by hunters.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research for N.C. Policy Watch