With its self-imposed April 30 “crossover” deadline, the General Assembly can sidetrack bills that haven’t gained enough support to make them worth fussing with during the remainder of the legislative session.
A bill that makes the deadline by gaining approval in either the state House or Senate stays alive – for better, or as happens too often these days with Republican conservatives in charge, for worse.
So, with the crossover dust now settling, North Carolinians have a clearer sense of what this year’s legislative damage toll might include. Some lowlights:
- Weakening the State Environmental Policy Act, which acts as a safeguard against environmentally harmful public projects.
- Making it harder for localities to control water pollution with requirements for development-free buffers along streams.
- Allowing former hog farms that have been idle to resume operations without upgrading pollution-prone waste disposal methods.
- Limiting doctors’ ability to monitor or warn of risky behavior by gun owners.
- Scrapping the requirement that a doctor be present to help ensure that executions go smoothly.
All of those proposals are still in the legislative mix. If there’s a pattern, perhaps it could be described as business wins, the environment loses and the public’s safety and well-being get tossed. Then, throw in an unseemly rush to reopen the state’s death chamber, unused since 2006 amid growing doubts about capital punishment. With all that in play, no wonder our legislators again are feeling the heat from the Moral Monday coalition that has stood tall against misguided conservative policies over the last two years. Yes, more arrests for civil disobedience are part of the picture.
Out of balance
The State Environmental Policy Act, known as SEPA, dates from 1971, when a new environmental consciousness was taking hold in a country choking on its own smog and waste. The law requires the adverse impact of projects involving a significant public expense to be assessed, ways to mitigate those impacts to be identified and alternative actions to be considered. House Bill 795 would make the law apply only to projects costing at least $10 million and affecting at least five acres, while continuing to make exceptions for many kinds of facilities such as power plants. It also would narrow the kinds of impacts that would have to be evaluated.
Lew Ebert, head of the NC Chamber, the state’s main business lobbying group, writes that SEPA “unnecessarily slows down business projects and inhibits job creation and capital investment.” Of course there needs to be a balance between business activity and environmental protection, but this bill would tilt that balance away from the overall public interest in clean air and water.
Ditto for HB 760, a package of so-called regulatory reforms. One “reform” takes aim at the stream buffer requirements imposed by some farsighted localities in an effort to minimize polluted runoff. Under the bill, those buffers – unpopular with developers — couldn’t be wider than the state minimum of 50 feet without a special OK from the Environmental Management Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor (and whose ranks were purged of Democratic holdovers by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory). So good luck with that.
The bill also would make an end run around the state’s efforts to get hog farms to install better means of waste treatment than the primitive lagoon-and-sprayfield method that has caused trouble over the years due to runoff, leaks and spills. New farms, including sites not used for at least four years, are supposed to use upgraded technologies. The bill would exempt farms reopened after being idle for up to five years – a missed opportunity to make the state’s powerful hog industry a little cleaner.
Lock and load
The legislature continues to pander to the state’s gun rights advocates, seemingly looking for every chance to weaken regulations that balance people’s right to bear arms with a due regard for public safety. HB 562 stands as the latest example.
One might think health care providers would be a first line of defense against an unstable individual who has access to firearms and who might be tempted to use them to harm someone. Under a section of the bill called “Preserving Firearms Privacy for Patients,” doctors would not be allowed to ask patients, when filling out a questionnaire, about their firearms access or use unless the patient had been judged to be mentally incompetent.
Similarly, a doctor or other provider would not be able to report to government authorities what a patient revealed verbally about his or her conduct regarding firearms.
The bill says that “health care providers do not need to know whether a patient lawfully possesses or uses firearms and ammunition unless the patient (i) specifically exhibits symptoms of illness or injury that the health care provider could reasonably attribute to the possession or use of firearms and ammunition or (ii) has expressed a desire to harm self or others.”
A sponsor, Republican Rep. George Cleveland of Jacksonville, told The News & Observer of Raleigh that he’d been questioned about gun possession, “and my response is that’s none of your damn business.” He went on, “There’s no medical reason for any doctor who’s treating you for ingrown toenails to know whether you have weapons or not.”
Maybe that’s the case – but what about the psychiatrist or psychologist treating someone for depression or anger management? What if the patient has never quite gotten around to articulating his thoughts about harming someone else? Health professionals should be encouraged to exercise their good judgment in these matters, not threatened with fines and disciplinary action for putting two and two together.
Perhaps because common sense was about to carry the day, the bill on April 29 had to be thrown a lifeline by House leaders. Instead of watching it go down, they attached a small appropriation – making it a “money bill” that’s exempt from the crossover rules. Expect to see it on the House calendar soon.
Rushing to execute
Many of the legislature’s majority Republicans are determined to put North Carolina back on the list of state’s where an inmate on death row can realistically anticipate being executed. That’s not now the case, owing to a tangle of legal challenges, and it chafes the eye-for-an-eye contingent no end.
Still, the unofficial death penalty moratorium in effect for nearly nine years encompasses a time during which the public has become more keenly aware of the penalty’s drawbacks. Death sentences have been vacated because of courtroom errors. In a few instances, condemned men have been exonerated and released.
Most inmates on death row have indeed committed terrible crimes and should be dealt with accordingly. But when an imperfect system can result in a punishment that’s both extreme and irreversible, that punishment can properly be regarded as obsolete.
Making matters worse is the recent record of executions by lethal injection that have not gone as planned. Inmates in some cases have suffered unnecessarily, arguably breaching the constitutional ban on punishments that are cruel and unusual.
The possibility that an execution could go awry underlies the North Carolina requirement for a doctor to be present. But that requirement has put the state at odds with the medical profession, which understandably frowns on letting doctors help put people to death. HB 774, sponsored by Republican Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, would finesse that reluctance by allowing executions to proceed if another health care worker such as a physician’s assistant, nurse or paramedic were on hand. (A doctor still would have to examine the body and certify the inmate’s death.)
Helping to die?
Whether intended to or not, the bill insults the ethics that pertain, or should pertain, in those other health care fields. The rationale that any medical professional who helps insert an I.V. carrying lethal drugs is simply trying to ensure that a condemned inmate dies peacefully and in accord with the law is hard to square with shared obligations to sustain life.
A legislature in the grip of conservative orthodoxy has proven in many cases to be hardened to the concerns of progressive groups such as the Council of Churches, which want to see our state’s policies geared to advance the causes of justice in all its forms. In particular, the Council and its allies want the interests of the state’s ordinary residents and its disadvantaged to be given at least as much weight as the interests of the powerful.
If the set of bills we’ve been discussing advances toward final passage, that will be even more evidence that our legislators have a flawed vision of how best to serve the public. But there are weeks to go until this legislative session winds up – time for people dedicated to a clean environment, reasonable gun rules and an end to executions to make sure their voices are heard.