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They were mad as heck, and booed legislators

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

“Crowd at #cltforum is incredibly enthusiastic. Which is a nice way of saying a little crazy. Specifically, the woman hissing behind me.”

That was a tweet near the start of an open-to-all-comers forum Wednesday night where a jam-packed audience at Central Piedmont Community College’s Pease Auditorium demanded answers from N.C. lawmakers about controversial moves they made during the recent General Assembly session.

Incredibly enthusiastic was a nice way of putting what went on. Throw that image of buttoned-down, courteous Charlotte out the window. This crowd was mad, and it wasn’t afraid to show it – sometimes uncomfortably so for me – with loud booing and frequent guffaws at the responses coming from Republican legislators who defended their work.

As their words got drowned out in the raucous jeers, the lawmakers might want to pause and remember their feeling of frustration. It is the kind of frustration residents across the state have been feeling – frustration manifested in the weeks of Moral Monday protests – over not being heard by lawmakers or being shutdown as legislators pushed through an extremely conservative agenda over the objections of many North Carolinians.

A Public Policy Polling survey this month underscores the growing dissatisfaction N.C. residents have with the actions of the GOP-controlled legislature. Fifty-six percent of residents disapprove of the job Republicans are doing running state government; just 35 percent approve. Fifty-one percent say it is a “bad thing” that Republicans have complete control of N.C. government (Republicans control both the state House and Senate, and Republican Pat McCrory is governor); 38 percent say it is a “good thing.” And just 24 percent approved of the job the General Assembly did; 54 percent disapproved.

Judging by the responses of Republican leaders on Wednesday’s panel, that message of disapproval isn’t getting through. Some on the panel pinned dissatisfaction with legislative actions on people reading the newspapers too much.

That may have been a joking – or not – slam at this newspaper, which cosponsored the forum, but it was the kind of dismissive comment that is all too common with this legislature. Instead of defending the status quo, and blaming the newspaper for providing needed transparency and information about the legislature’s actions, lawmakers could have and should have at least promised to do better in listening and hearing the concerns of all constituents. They still can.

Wednesday’s forum was enlightening on some fronts. We learned that some GOP lawmakers are having second thoughts on some measures. A change in compensation for teachers “accidentally eliminated” extra pay for teachers already enrolled in a master’s degree program, Rep. Bill Brawley said. He said he would work on getting that changed so the move does not apply to people already getting master’s degrees.

Also, election law changes that eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds may get a second look. Rep. Ruth Samuelson said there was disagreement among lawmakers about that change.

But the forum also was dismaying in some ways. It was disconcerting to hear Brawley loosely lob an unsubstantiated incendiary charge that the Charlotte city council “laundered” tourism money – a criminal act if true – to support lawmakers’ moves to take the Charlotte Douglas airport from the city and put control in the hands of a regional commission.

It was also disconcerting to hear Samuelson explain how lawmakers tried not to make it burdensome for voters using mail-in absentee ballots to prove their identity – even though it is with mail-in ballots where fraud actually is a nationwide problem. The law, she said, requires signatures of a couple of witnesses on the form to verify the voter’s identity for mail-in ballots. It doesn’t even require the person to attach a copy of a photo ID, while in-person voting will not only require a photo ID but specific government approved IDs.

It was not lost on some that mail-in ballots lean Republican and in-person voter ID changes disproportionately affect voters who lean Democrat.

This forum highlighted the kind of public dissatisfaction many N.C. residents are expressing statewide about the troubling and draconian social, education, economic and election changes the GOP lawmakers made this year. Less heckling and booing will be helpful to the serious discussion of these issues – and the needed push to reverse course.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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