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3 takes on the N.C. legislative session

STONGE SIG
THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER -
Taylor Batten, Fannie Flono, Peter St. Onge

Batten: Only a beginning on crucial issues

There were two must-dos when the legislature convened in May: Raise teacher pay and clean up the state’s coal ash mess. In both cases, lawmakers doused the immediate fire but left dangerous embers burning.

The two topics could not be ignored. Teacher pay fared worse in North Carolina over the past decade than in any other state, dropping our ranking to 46th. And when a Duke Energy pipe burst and spewed 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, the summer agenda in Raleigh was set.

Still, with this bunch, you can’t assume that even the most-dire needs will be addressed. So I give them credit for passing the state’s largest teacher raise in many years and forging a coal ash plan that will close all of Duke’s ash ponds.

Yet serious shortcomings weaken each piece of legislation. The teacher pay raise gives a nice boost to early-career teachers but does next to nothing for those who have dedicated their lives to the profession. In Mecklenburg, the raises will be as high as 18.5 percent for some – but as low as 0.3 percent for others. And the package was paid for with a Frankenstein-like mix of sources – the lottery, and other education cuts – that hurts the state and is probably unsustainable.

As for Duke, the giant utility faces serious coal ash regulation for the first time, but is shedding no tears. The law forces Duke to excavate ash at only four of its 14 N.C. coal-fired power plants. Some of the other ponds can just be capped and forgotten. And guess who’s likely to pay for the $10 billion cleanup? Duke can begin seeking rate hikes on customers to cover the tab just months from now.

The legislature took some first steps on the state’s two most crucial issues. I suppose it would have been naïve to hope for more.

Flono: Transparency needs to be real

In this last month of the N.C. legislature’s short session, as lawmakers were lumbering toward adjournment, they approved a bill to require candidates seeking office to file their campaign finance reports electronically starting in 2017. That’s a good piece of legislation that will make election campaigns more transparent. But the way lawmakers got it done, late at night and out of the public eye, only highlights the troubling lack of transparency that’s a constant with this legislature.

Yes, Democrats also were guilty of shutting the public out and making policy in secret when they were in charge. But Republicans pledged something different. What we got was something worse. Last year’s long session was dogged by bills being introduced with little notice and at odd times to get around public input. Over this summer’s session, controversial bills just popped up – like one that declared a regional airport commmission lawmakers mandated last year to run the Charlotte Douglas airport an agency of the city. In another dead-of-night move, lawmakers snuck in substantive changes to predatory lending and other laws, dubbing them “technical corrections.”

Early in the session, in May, lawmakers sought other ways to mute public input and oversight. To thwart public protests of their actions, they passed rules to limit public access to the legislative building where they met. One lawmaker even tried to prevent the media from recording committee meetings, declaring recording devices had to be registered. After protests that the meetings were public and such an edict was illegal, the lawmaker rescinded that wrong-headed move.

When lawmakers return to work in January for the long session, they should make transparency and openness a reality, not just political rhetoric.

St. Onge: A troubling bill; a surprising no

As the session careened toward a close this month, Republicans in Raleigh introduced last-minute budgets, launched surprise legislation, ignored rules and stomped on protocol. Democrats objected to the legislators gone wild, to no avail.

In other words, same as always – no matter which party is in charge.

But this year, in one unexpected moment, the party with power checked itself, for the better of everyone.

It happened with H1224, an economic incentives bill that also would have limited how counties, including Mecklenburg, could raise sales taxes. The bill had turned into zombie legislation – dead and alive and dead again – before Senate Republicans revived it once more by linking it to two other bills. One was a much needed fix that helped school districts pay teacher assistants, but that bill contained language saying it would die unless H1224 passed.

It's not rare to pair unrelated issues in the same bill - either to poison or propel it to passage. But linking the fate of separate bills is something House members couldn't remember happening before. House Republicans spoke out against the legislative extortion, then ultimately killed it.

Yes, some of those protesting Republicans also were opposed to the economic incentives in H1224. Others didn't like penalizing larger N.C. counties by limiting their ability to raise sales taxes. So we shouldn't anoint all who voted nay as procedural heroes.

But some Republicans simply didn't like how H1224 abused the legislative process, and they stood up to Republican leadership – including House Speaker Thom Tillis – and rejected the bill. It was a startling defeat of cynical legislating. If only that were the same as always.

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