Commentary

Kirk Ross: We must be ready the next time

July 26, 2013 

Kirk Ross

COURTESY OF KIRK ROSS

There was no way this legislative session was not going to end with a chaotic flurry of bills stuffed full of whatever could be spliced and stuffed into various omnibus packages and slammed through.

There was a lot of bullying, recriminations and, as is the theme this year, arrests of people who have feel they have no other way to express their outrage.

The end-of-session tactics led to some truly twisted monstrosities — from the combination motorcycle safety and abortion restrictions bill to the massive rewrite of the state’s environmental rules cobbled together from a half-dozen pieces of legislation that failed to pass earlier this year.

The session has transformed the state in ways we’ll only really understand when the next local budget cycle rolls around and cities, counties and school systems start matching what was done in Raleigh with needs to be met at home.

It was clear as the changes were pushed through that in many cases the sponsors of the bills weren’t really sure what the consequences of their actions would be, only that they needed to act. That’s dangerous, especially when you’re talking about eliminating safeguards for public health or reducing assistance to people who are struggling.

The agenda we’ve seen was the same dogmatic denial of the role of government we’ve seen in Congress. But in D.C. there are still some checks on that agenda. Here, it runs wild. Small wonder that others are pointing to North Carolina and saying, “Don’t let this happen here.”

The General Assembly isn’t up for election for another 73 weeks. There’s little doubt the 2014 cycle with be an all-out battle. It’s about time. We’ve all learned a little about what happens when you sit out elections that don’t have the presidential race at the top of the ticket.

In the meantime, there are local races on the ballot this year, more than any in recent past. It is critical for those up for election to explain to voters not just where they stand on the actions of the Legislature, but what they’re going to do about it.

Too often local officials get away with expressing frustration and promising to lobby the local legislative delegation for this issue or that. This year, expect to hear a lot of candidates say they are outraged, but ultimately powerless when it comes to what Raleigh does. That is unacceptable.

If you want to lead a town or a school system in this era you need a plan for dealing with the agenda of the state’s far-right power structure and its consequences. And you owe the voters at least a glimpse of what that plan is, because that slash-and-burn agenda is not going to stop just because the session has ended. And next year, there are already indications that even more changes are in store for cities and towns and public education.

You may have heard about what the Legislature has done to Asheville’s water system and Charlotte’s airport and how the two cities are now suing the state. These may have come across as parochial battles, but they should be clear warnings to anyone in local government.

In Asheville, for instance, the Legislature not only mandated the city turn over its water system to a regional authority, but also eliminated its extra-territorial jurisdiction. The author of that legislation, who is chairman of a couple of key committees in the House, indicated that next year he will push for the end of ETJs statewide.

That would have a huge impact in Orange and Chatham counties and voters deserve to know what our local leaders would do if it happened.

And with the Legislature looking to wipe out any local ordinances and policies on a whole host of issues including climate change, living wage and energy efficiency, candidates need to demonstrate they understand they can’t do these things in a vacuum.

We like to think of ourselves here as a little liberal oasis, a blue dot in a sea of red. That sounds nice, but in these times, it’s terribly naive.

We are not an autonomous zone. And as this session has shown, we better be prepared for the next round in Raleigh.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com

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