Colin Campbell: Sleepy legislative session so far in Raleigh
RALEIGH — You might have forgotten the state legislature has now been in session for more than two months.
After all, no one has been arrested at a protest. Very little legislation has attracted big headlines, and only a couple proposals have prompted heated floor debates and party-line votes. In two months, only six bills have been sent to Gov. Roy Cooper, and he’s signed all of them into law without much fanfare.
It’s been a sleepy session so far, and people who are drawn to political theatrics have turned their attention to North Carolina’s many non-legislative scandals. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers are slacking off and instead training for the upcoming legislative basketball game (which is a real thing, but I digress).
As of April 5, a total of 1,298 bills had been filed. The House has passed 82 of its bills so far, while the Senate has passed 47 of its own proposals. Dozens more are currently being vetted by legislative committees.
But most of those proposals aren’t dominating the news. With Republicans’ veto-proof majority gone, Gov. Roy Cooper serves as a firewall against controversial partisan proposals. Legislators in both parties know this, and they’re taking a pragmatic approach so far — following the old saying that “politics is the art of the possible.”
The legislature’s most conservative Republicans have filed their usual proposals for fewer restrictions on guns and more restrictions on abortion. Liberal Democrats have again filed their bills to raise the minimum wage and reduce private school vouchers. But none of those measures appear to be going anywhere.
Instead, the legislature’s pragmatists are working across party lines to make small steps that both parties can support. Democrats and Republicans are sponsoring bills together, creating strange bedfellows.
Rep. Susan Fisher, a liberal Asheville Democrat, joined forces with Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus and a leader on education issues, to seek a ban on corporal punishment in public schools. Sixteen pro-spanking Republicans opposed the measure, but it passed the House.
Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, teamed up with Republican Sens. Harry Brown and Deanna Ballard to propose excused school absences for children whose parents are deploying to a war zone — allowing much-needed family time for parents before they spend months overseas.
Those bills are part of several themes that have emerged for this year’s session. A number of lawmakers have proposed legislation to help out military, police and first responders with college scholarships, tax breaks and other perks.
Law enforcement also gets a boost from this year’s big crop of “get slightly tougher on crime” bills, with several measures to impose stiffer penalties on people who assault police. That theme also includes a Senate proposal for tougher punishments for opioid dealers who break into pharmacies to steal pills. And a few legislators want to create new crimes, such as the House’s “get off my lawn” bill that would make it illegal to leave grass clippings in the street.
Another key theme of this session is education. The House has a boatload of bills, some with near-unanimous support, to reduce standardized tests, tweak school performance grades and give school boards more flexibility to set their calendars.
The Senate has brought together Democrats and Republicans to propose a new financial literacy course for high school students. Both chambers and the governor are eager to increase funding to replace and renovate aging school facilities, disagreeing only on how to do so.
That school construction issue is one of several that could bring the legislature back to battle mode. The other hot topic will be healthcare, as Democrats — and at least some House Republicans — push for Medicaid expansion over the objections of Senate leaders, who have other ideas for improving healthcare.
All of that will come to a head in the budget process in the coming months, as the Senate, House and governor will inevitably fight over how to spend your tax dollars. When that happens, we’ll have to hope that the bipartisan friendships forged over feel-good legislation in the session’s early days can help produce compromises.
Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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