North Carolina’s General Assembly has muddled through many undistinguished moments since conservative Republicans took charge four years ago. Now, with an ongoing cascade of wrongheaded decisions, it’s adding to that disappointing and even destructive list.
Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican but one who wants to be seen as more of a moderate, relatively speaking, tried to save lawmakers from themselves by issuing two high-profile vetoes.
The result? In one case, House and Senate members dismissed his concerns as if he’d been – gasp – a Democrat. They overrode McCrory’s veto of House Bill 405, which targets people who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance, practically before the ink on his veto announcement was dry.
That by no means was the only lowlight of the past few days. In fact, the only semi-bright spot, and you have to strain to see it, was that House leaders delayed another override attempt, on Senate Bill 2, because they weren’t sure they yet had enough support to get over the bar. Once arms are sufficiently twisted and the nose-count adds up, if it does, then the vote is likely to be called lickety-split.
The Senate had no problem overriding the governor’s veto of S.B. 2, sponsored by that chamber’s most powerful figure, President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden. This bill, one of the legislature’s more misguided forays of recent years, would let magistrates refuse, on religious grounds, to conduct same-sex weddings.
Perhaps the pool of folks to be inconvenienced by such a provision is small. But the principles at stake are huge. Gay and lesbian people who wanted to marry could be denied their right to equal treatment under law. Moreover, public officials would be able to decide which of their official duties to perform, solely on the basis of their claim to a “sincerely held religious objection.” That could open the door to all manner of discrimination – on the grounds of professed beliefs that by their nature are beyond testing or challenge.
Americans of course are entitled to believe what they want to believe and to freely practice their religion, if they have one. But when public officials detect a conflict between their duties and their religious views, the solution is not to shirk those duties. It’s to go work someplace else. House members who side with McCrory in helping to sustain his veto will show a proper respect for the separation of church and state.
Don’t look, don’t tell
H.B. 405, now enshrined as state law, was cooked up to shield big-time meat producers and processors from the prying eyes, and cameras, of animal-welfare activists. It’s not unheard of for someone acting in league with an animal-rights group to get hired at a factory farm or packing plant, with the intent of probing for the kind of abuses we’ve heard about – for instance, animals confined under cruel conditions or, at the slaughterhouse, scalded alive.
The bill lets a company sue someone who defies workplace rules in seeking to document such abuse. Could there be a clearer sign that the company had things it wanted to hide?
Opposition arose not only from the animal-rights sector, but also from advocates for vulnerable people living in places such as nursing homes. They worry that a staffer who comes across instances of elder abuse wouldn’t be able to go public with his or her findings.
Sponsors – while arguing unpersuasively that legitimate whistleblowers would still be protected – had to concede that the bill was imperfect. Yet for their purposes, it was close enough. So McCrory’s objection, that honest employees would be deterred from reporting criminal activity, was blown off by Republican backers.
Veteran Democratic Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham did make the point that the law could impede investigative reporting, which has helped uncover some of the unsavory and environmentally risky practices associated with industrial-scale livestock operations.
Sponsors, however, seemed to suggest that getting rid of those pesky reporters, or preventing well-meaning employees from turning over evidence to the media, was what this was all about. Let’s hope our state’s news organizations don’t let this challenge to their public-service mission go by without a fight.
The legislature’s coolness toward environmental regulation was on display when the House and Senate approved a compromise version of House Bill 795, which waters down the long-standing State Environmental Policy Act. While the “compromise” lessened the damage that an earlier Senate version would have done, it’s bad enough. McCrory should give it a hard, skeptical look.
The 1971 Act requires environmental impact assessments when significant amounts of public money are spent on a project. It also gives localities the authority to require those assessments on major private projects such as shopping centers. Steps to minimize environmental damage must be identified.
H.B. 795 raises the thresholds at which those requirements kick in. It’s all in the name of spurring the economy and adding jobs, but the regulatory balance that has helped protect North Carolina’s natural resources, attractiveness and quality of life is placed increasingly at risk.
Showdown with sheriffs
It could turn out that House Bill 562 represents a bridge too far for the state’s hyper-aggressive gun-rights activists. But as things stand, the bill won approval from a key House committee on June 3 when Republican Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, Rules Committee chair, broke a tie. It’s scheduled for a June 8 floor vote, with the N.C. Sheriffs Association joining gun control advocates in pressing for its defeat.
The bill would phase out the state’s pistol permit system, which is administered by sheriffs, in favor of criminal background checks under the national “instant” system. Critics say this will eliminate a valuable level of scrutiny that helps keep handguns from falling into dangerous hands. There’s no obvious reason to take sheriffs out of the equation – other than that some must be doing their jobs too well, in the view of gun enthusiasts and their legislative allies.
Those legislators and their aides also would gain the right to carry concealed weapons in and around the House and Senate chambers – although it’s hard to understand why anyone thinks that would serve a useful purpose. Certainly these folks don’t need to be carrying guns to boost their self-esteem!
McCrory’s private reaction to the final passage on June 3 of House Bill 465 must have been less than enthusiastic, since it again highlighted his memorable 2012 campaign pledge not to support additional limits on abortion. Still, despite a tripling of the required pre-abortion waiting period from 24 to 72 hours and other tightening of the rules, the governor announced that he’d sign the bill. The pro-choice pushback was intense, but he must have figured that the political cost of a veto would have been worse.
The main legislative spotlight now shifts toward the Senate’s crafting of a budget. Senators are expected to take a more conservative approach than did the House in its budget version, with less spending and a continued emphasis on tax cuts.
Again, McCrory will be caught up in the pushing and shoving. Whether he’ll try to put a stamp on the outcome that shores up his appeal as a moderate will be another clue as to his re-election strategy, and whether he succeeds will perhaps help to gauge his chances.