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In My Opinion

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Legislative session was a squabble-fest

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.
GOPPOWER08.NE.062012.CCS
Chris Seward - cseward@newsobserver.com
FILE - Republicans, including Senate leader Phil Berger, left, and House Speaker Thom Tillis, have been at odds this session.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the N.C. legislature comes to the end of its long short session in a squabble over how and when to end it. It hasn’t mattered much that the Republicans are in charge of everything – the state House and Senate and the governor’s office. GOP infighting and House vs. Senate power plays – along with a little muscle-flexing or attempts at it by Gov. Pat McCrory and his staff – have been constant backdrops during the session that began May 14.

In the plaintive words of Rodney King, paraphrased: Can’t they all just get along? Or at least agree to close down the shop and get out of town? And save us taxpayers the $50,000 a day it typically costs for them to be in session?

Democratic lawmakers have been little more than bystanders as the dramas have unfolded. Said Sen. Mike Woodard of Durham: “We are just caught in a legislative tug-of-war with these two chambers ... Some days it feels like junior high school student council.”

Woodard might be giving them too much credit. Some of it has felt like kindergarten class. Remember a month ago when Senate and House budget negotiators quarreled over who was in charge, and Senate leaders petulantly packed up and left a meeting because members of the public – school superintendents – were being allowed to speak?

Some Republicans were more than ready for legislators to call it quits. Said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell: “I think it’s clear to everyone out there that it’s time for us to come home. We’ve exceeded our stay in Raleigh.”

GOP leaders have touted they can be much more efficient in governing than their Democratic counterparts.

It doesn’t look like it.

Late Thursday both chambers were holding voting sessions to resolve the adjournment impasse. So, by the time you read this, lawmakers could be headed home.

They could have been headed home much earlier though if they had not wasted time on dunder-headed, punitive ideological nonsense like stripping the Attorney General’s office of control of the State Bureau of Investigation in order to slap down Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper who plans to run for governor in 2016. Or fixating on ways to weaken local urban governments through limiting their taxing authority and taking control of their assets, e.g., their ongoing battle to have a regional commission run the Charlotte Douglas Airport and their attempt to have a regional authority take over Asheville’s water system.

The legislature and the governor got religion on giving educators a pay raise. With N.C. teacher pay stuck near the bottom of national rankings, election-year polling showed lawmakers’ and McCrory’s clear vulnerability with voters on the issue. Competing bills from the House, Senate and the governor kept policymakers wrangling for several weeks before their recess two weeks ago. Obstinance at last gave way to a compromise (included in the budget bill McCrory signed) that amounted to a 7 percent average wage boost for teachers but the fine print showed veteran teachers got a lot less and new teachers a lot more – and the raise may still come at the expense of slashing the ranks of teacher assistants when lawmakers had promised it would not. Additionally, money for the raises depends on a boost in lottery proceeds, something that had been roundly lambasted earlier.

Two other contentious issues stymied final adjournment the last few week – Medicaid reforms and the state’s response to Duke Energy’s massive coal ash spill last February. Both chambers agreed to adjourn without addressing the Medicaid issue with a plan to take it up in a scheduled Nov. 17 session. The Senate’s plan moved the coal ash issue to Nov. 17 as well.

Again, legislators could have made better use of their time and crafted a coal ash plan much sooner. After all, the spill and its effects have been known for more than six months, and problems with Duke’s coal ash ponds have been known for years. With Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis vowing before the session began that passing a coal ash bill would be a top priority and McCrory chiming in with his own plan before the session began, this impasse has been more than frustrating.

Republicans have engaged in more infighting over coal ash. A couple of weeks ago, Senate leaders called out House Republicans, including Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte, for reportedly pushing tougher language that demands Duke clean up ash ponds that posed the most direct threat to the groundwater, something Duke has been resisting.

Duke should clean up those ponds, and ratepayers should not be made to pay the cost; Duke’s shareholders should pick up the tab.

Lawmakers, that one’s not so hard. You should have reached resolution on it much earlier, and saved yourselves and us a childish squabble over when to adjourn.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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