Here at three takeaways from the 2019-20 session of General Assembly, which ended in November and will resume Jan. 14.
Politics over policy and common courtesy
I remember the days when members dined together, had meaningful personal conversations, attended community events in each other’s districts, knew each other’s families, respected other opinions, and supported efforts that moved North Carolina forward, regardless of who got the credit. Attacks were made on ideas and issues, not against people. Yes, they used to like each other. Although the hours were long, the issues complicated and contentious, the legislature was a place for civil discussion and respect for tradition and each other. What has happened?
Ugly political one-upmanship has taken over our manners and made us forget what’s important. The Washington brand of name–calling, divisive politics has invaded the halls on Jones Street and the drawing room of the governor’s mansion. Campaign operatives have replaced policy advisers. In the partisan race to get ahead, the people of North Carolina are left behind.
The governor’s folks respond to efforts to raise teacher pay with “is that a joke?” They call the legislature kidnappers. The legislature makes allegations the governor has committed crimes. Arm–twisting and threats have replaced compromise and duty to constituents. Insults and accusations dominate debate, replacing courtesy and respect. Yelling and trolling is communication now. Intellectual integrity and honesty are replaced with fake news and sound bites.
Governing is no longer about moving North Carolina moving forward; it’s all gloves-off, white knuckle, in your face politics. Where did deliberation, debate, and common goals go?
It’s a sacrifice to serve
This has been one of the longest, hardest, and most contentious legislative sessions in memory, starting in January and finally adjourning after 10 long months. Haggard and tired legislators returned to their districts. But not for long. They were called back almost immediately to comply with a court order to re-draw congressional districts. More political accusations and grandstanding, with one party deciding ahead of time that no matter what the other did, it was wrong, demanding that gerrymandered districts be gerrymandered in their favor. They’ll return Jan. 14 to consider who knows what for how long. Leadership doesn’t “intend” for the January session to take them into the short session, which begins in May.
Legislators’ obligations don’t end when they leave Raleigh. Lawmakers will help with never–ending constituent concerns and requests, obligations in their districts, meetings with local officials and other business. Unless they’re retired or independently wealthy, they have to make a living. Rank–and–file legislators are paid $13,000 a year, plus a small per diem and travel expense. Leadership doesn’t make a lot more.
Town halls and public forums give them an opportunity to defend their votes and explain their positions on important issues, as well as open them up to heckling, accusations of dubious activities, and getting yelled at by strangers, often over things for which they have no control. Spouses and kids get yelled at, too.
They’ll spend time with friends and family, making up for missed birthday and anniversary celebrations, the vacations missed or cut short, and the soccer games and dance recitals that went on without them.
Soon they’ll have to decide if they want to sign on for another stint. Filing for the 2020-21 session begins Dec 2. Another run means another campaign with fundraisers, town halls, debates, media interviews, BBQs, responding to constituents — almost every day and most evenings, weekends, and late nights included.
Legislators say it’s an honor to serve. Sacrifice is a better word.
If at first you don’t succeed, sue
With Republicans holding the majority, Democrats have turned to the courts when they can’t get their priorities addressed in the legislature. Whether it’s overturning the constitutional voter ID requirement passed by a large majority of voters, legislative and congressional maps or capping the income tax, the courts are taking a larger role in determining what’s constitutionally defined as legislative authority. As the line blurs between the three branches of government — and if the courts can usurp what the General Assembly has done— the legislature loses relevancy, voters’ choice is diluted, and the separation of powers that keeps state government in check no longer works. Policies put in place through legislation by a duly elected representative body of 170 members can be erased with one court order.
How do we find good people to engage in a contentious political environment to make large personal and professional sacrifices with a commitment to enact good government policies that can be overturned by an activist judge?
It starts with an understanding of what the founders intended, a belief good policy makes good politics, commitment that we can make our state better and knowing where to find rock solid, data-driven resources. The John Locke Foundation offers an education program to all legislative candidates, beginning with filing and extending through the election of 2020, with in-depth policy briefings and resources to make running for office less about politics and more about truth, freedom, and the future of North Carolina.
Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation.