The 2018 Session of the General Assembly will begin at noon on May 16 and should wrap up around June 30. This is a “Short Session” year, as is every even-numbered year.
What’s in store this year? Current rumblings indicate that this year’s session will have a very limited agenda, possibly doing not much more than updating the state’s budget and placing some constitutional amendments on November’s ballot. Below are a few of my thoughts about what might get done, and what might not.
Education funding is always high on the priority list, and this year there will be massive teacher mobilization to put direct pressure on legislators. Last year’s budget made a commitment to raise teacher salaries by another 5 percent this year, and it will be interesting to see if Republicans respond to pressure by increasing that even more. There are also other real needs for increasing education funding, including addressing capital needs to meet a new class size cap, adding funding for textbooks and digital materials, and fixing a broken principal pay scale. Governor Cooper has proposed spending $130 million on school safety and mental health, but I am skeptical about whether Republican budget writers will provide anywhere close to that amount. I am sad to say that I do not think there will be any new money for helping the 400+ chronically low performing schools in North Carolina.
Another top issue is likely to be addressing the environmental crisis of chemical contaminants in the Cape Fear River, Jordan Lake and other locations. Protecting the safety of our drinking water should be a top priority, but almost a year after learning of the GenX chemical spill, Republican legislative leaders have failed to put forth any meaningful action. Governor Cooper has requested $14.5 Million for the Department of Environmental Quality, a department that has had 70 water quality staff cut by Republican budgets since 2013.
I do believe that there will be some additional money budgeted for mental health needs, but I do not think that the General Assembly will make any move towards the expansion of Medicaid. And that’s a shame, because accepting Federal Medicaid dollars could result in providing health care for 400,000 North Carolinians and adding 43,000 health care jobs.
Beyond the budget, I expect that the big piece of legislative business this year will be placing several constitutional amendments on the November ballot. Three amendments have been widely rumored, all designed toturn out Republican voters in an election year that looks like it is swinging towards Democrats.
The first, and least controversial, amendment would enshrine into our constitution “the right to hunt and fish.” Given that this right is not even under question, it is clear that the amendment is designed to turn out pro-gun voters.
An amendment that should not surprise any political watcher will be an amendment to require Voter ID. The NC Supreme Court struck down a previous law that required Voter ID, so Republicans are trying a route the Supreme Court cannot block. Although most voters can easily produce an ID, the requirement would likely have a strongly disproportionate effect on decreasing voting among voters who are poor, elderly, or people of color. In a society where far too few people exercise their right to vote, I do not know why we would want to make it even harder for them to do so.
Perhaps the most dangerous amendment proposed is one that would cap the state’s income tax at 5.5 percent or lower. The danger of doing this is that should the state ever be in a place of economic crisis or natural disaster where we need massive public investments, the only way to raise that money would be through increasing sales or property taxes. Those taxes would place an unfair burden on working people who can least afford it. This would especially devastate rural communities that cannot raise large amounts of money without massive property tax hikes.
Finally, there may be some legislation passed that continues Republican efforts to gerrymander our court system to their liking. I do not have any firm predictions about what they will propose, but I feel quite certain that they are not done with their efforts to meddle with the justice system.
As I have done in past years, I am likely to support bipartisan legislation that supports the common good. Unfortunately, I believe that most of the Republican agenda that gets pushed this year will be things that I cannot support. I hope that one day we have a legislature where members of both parties can work together in creating something as important as the state’s budget and a single-party majority cannot put constitutional amendments onto the ballot.
Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50, covering portions of Orange and Durham Counties. He can be contacted at email@example.com.