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Why 2 good N.C. bills just joined 1 bad abortion bill

Mecklenburg Sen. Jeff Jackson, here speaking to District 37 voters, is unhappy today about what’s happened to two bipartisan sex crime bills he filed.
Mecklenburg Sen. Jeff Jackson, here speaking to District 37 voters, is unhappy today about what’s happened to two bipartisan sex crime bills he filed. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Some particularly ugly sausage got made today in Raleigh.

It involved two good bills filed back in March by Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Mecklenburg Democrat.

One bill, SB418, would close a loophole in N.C. statutory rape laws by making those laws applicable in cases where victims are 15 years old and younger. The laws currently apply only to victims 13, 14 and 15 years old.

The other bill, SB590, would add sex offenders convicted on the federal level or in other states to those who aren’t allowed on premises that include playgrounds.

The bills are, in Jackson’s words, “low-hanging fruit.” They are tough on crime. They don’t cost the state additional money. In turn, they have broad bipartisan support.

So when Jackson noticed that both bills hadn’t really moved forward in the Senate, he started asking his Republican colleagues why.

One, he says, told him rather cryptically: “There might be another vehicle for those.”

Another, more pointedly, said: “I’m really sorry for what’s about to happen.”

On Wednesday, Jackson’s fears were confirmed. The bills have both been added to the House abortion bill that would, among other things, extend the mandatory waiting period for abortions to 72 hours.

Why add two good bills on sex crimes to one bad and unrelated bill on abortion? Because now, when Democrats vote against the abortion bill, they’ll also be voting against tighter rules on sex offenders and statutory rapists. You can imagine the TV ads the next time one of those Democrats faces a Republican election challenge.

That might not have much impact in North Carolina’s many gerrymandered, non-competitive districts, but it could be particularly effective in a statewide race, such as when a Democrat runs for Roy Cooper’s soon-to-be-vacant attorney general seat.

Jackson tried to get his bills stripped from the abortion bill in a committee meeting later, but he failed. He isn’t sure who decided to do this to his bills – we’ve called Republican Sen. Warren Daniel, who co-chairs the Judiciary committee that’s hosting the House abortion bill. Given the response Jackson has received from rank-and-file Republicans, he’s pretty sure it’s something that came from Republican leadership.

And while the cynics among us might shrug this off as just another Wednesday in Raleigh – no matter who’s in charge – Jackson says the political maneuvering comes with a cost. Most of the rank-and-file are trying to find ways to get work done in a hyper-partisan atmosphere. Maneuvers like this (and others like Sen. Bob Rucho’s phantom voice vote) only serve to poison the well.

Ultimately, Jackson says: “It’s about building an atmosphere of trust instead of building an atmosphere of distrust.”

That’s true not only for lawmakers, but for the rest of us watching them grind it out. Peter St. Onge

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