The scenario was familiar as the N.C. General Assembly engaged in another frantic and exhausting push to complete a legislative session. Mission accomplished? Well, that depends on how you look at it.
Formal adjournment was delayed, awaiting Gov. Roy Cooper’s response to several bills, as the House and Senate wrapped up most of their business in the wee hours of June 26. Action was then set to resume in early September — another move shifting what’s nominally a part-time legislature toward full-time and making it that much harder for people who aren’t wealthy, retired or self-employed to serve.
But what made the session so sadly typical was the emergence of cobbled together and poorly considered bills rammed past bleary-eyed lawmakers as it drew to a close.
A provision in one bill – a bill so inconspicuous that it drew just a single “no” vote on its way to final passage – understandably pushed a hot button among people who’ve lost patience with police departments’ excessive use of force. Calling on Cooper to use his veto, protestors blocked a street outside the Executive Mansion, then Capital Boulevard, and saw several among their group arrested.
Following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and all the others challenging us to proclaim that, yes, Black Lives Matter, law enforcement agencies in a defensive crouch might seek to reduce accountability rather than enhance it. That is, if they refused to reckon with the ugly truth of needless brutality inflicted especially against people of color.
There’s no clear evidence that any such cynical motive was behind language on death investigations that found its way into Senate Bill 168, otherwise a non-controversial measure doling out grants within the Department of Health and Human Services and making other routine statutory tweaks.
But certainly the language runs against the tide calling for greater public scrutiny of such official investigations with the aim of deterring abuses – or when necessary, of punishing the abusers.
No show, no tell
A police department now can withhold from the public its investigatory records concerning deaths in which officers were involved. Findings may be released – for example, if it’s decided that an officer should be charged. But there’s an element of “trust us” that for good reason leaves many uncomfortable.
A window into such investigations has been available when a case comes under the purview of the state medical examiner’s office. Records of that office are public. S.B. 168 would close the window, however, by stipulating that records not already deemed public would remain confidential in the medical examiner’s custody.
Chief Medical Examiner Michelle Aurelius told The News & Observer of Raleigh that the provision at issue “reassures our [law-enforcement] partners that once they provide us with information and records that they continue to be protected when they’re in our custody.” That’s a step backward for transparency however it’s sliced.
Further, it suggests that police departments have been reluctant to give the medical examiner information for that office’s own investigation — not helpful in determining, for instance, the precise cause of someone’s death and how an officer may have caused it.
When S.B. 168 first cleared the Senate last year, it dealt with a wholly different subject – the use of cannabis extract for epilepsy treatment. But late last month, a House committee used the notorious technique called “gut and amend” to replace the original text. The new version, including the death records measure, then was fast-tracked through both chambers in the last week of June.
Final House action came at 12 minutes to midnight on June 25 as the chamber voted 109-1 to approve a conference committee report. Democratic Rep. Allison Dahle of Raleigh was the dissenter. She told The N&O she objected to the way the bill was rewritten and rammed through. “Midnight is no time to govern,” she said.
As if to prove her point, it wasn’t long afterward as complaints arose that House Majority Leader John Bell, Republican of Wayne County, said the bill would be “revisited.” Cooper, saying he thought the public records clamp-down was problematic, nevertheless confirmed it had been included at his administration’s request — and Republicans made it clear the administration would have to ask for it to be changed. A legislative fix might be what it takes to get the governor out of an awkward spot, since he seemed reluctant to issue a veto despite protestors’ demands.
The legislature in some respects rose to the challenges posed by the pandemic – for example, strengthening the state’s ability to conduct a safe, orderly election in the fall, and parceling out funds to shore up government operations and provide economic relief.
Meat processors received some of that relief, in recognition of the industry’s importance here and of the need to sustain food supplies. Yet workers in that industry couldn’t be blamed for asking, “What are we? Chopped liver?”
H.B. 1201 aimed to give smaller processors $17 million to help cope with the demands of operating under the coronavirus cloud. Democratic Rep. Rachel Hunt of Charlotte proposed an amendment with a package of worker protection requirements. She no doubt was aware that, as The N&O has reported, North Carolina has had more COVID-19 outbreaks at meat plants than any other state, with more than 2,000 employees affected.
The amendment failed on June 23 by a tie vote. Then the whole bill stalled out, with the grant money scaled back to $10 million and tucked into another all-purpose relief bill, H.B. 1023. Worker safety was glossed over. Protecting some of the people who do the hard, dangerous work of cutting and packaging our meat on crowded production lines turned out to be more than the legislature could stomach.
Not surprisingly, the legislative session was thoroughly colored by the crisis of the pandemic. There were instances of statesmanship, when lawmakers worked across the aisle to address threats to the public well-being.
At the same time, long-standing partisan tensions between Republican legislative leaders and the Democratic governor – tensions that have played out in power struggles and in stark differences over policy – remained in play. Republican legislators notably stood firm in their opposition to expanding Medicaid – an even more heartless and irrational position while poor people disproportionately suffer from the virus.
The upcoming election, with Cooper seeking a second term against Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, was very much on the radar. Forest led the charge in trying to paint Cooper’s cautious and science-based anti-virus regimen as some kind of tyranny – channeling the same kind of obstinately anti-science sentiment trafficked by President Trump.
Various bills were passed by Forest’s Republican allies seeking to force a faster re-opening of risk-prone segments of the economy such as bars and gyms. Cooper wisely turned them aside with his veto stamp. North Carolina is still battling the pandemic menace, but so far it has avoided the infection surges now bedeviling some other southern states. Which suggests the governor has had the right idea.
With a new budget year beginning on July 1, legislators and Cooper alike will have to swallow some bitter medicine. The pandemic has ravaged state revenues, meaning that programs and services also will have to take a hit. That process is just getting under way. Of course, Republicans could rescind some of their misguided tax cuts, but raising taxes when so many people and companies are struggling isn’t likely to be atop anyone’s to-do list.
So far, the pandemic’s lessons for North Carolina’s elected leaders might boil down this way: Don’t abuse the machinery of government or let it fall into disrepair, because there will come times when it must operate in crisis mode. Political opportunism and cynical gamesmanship just become sand in the gears.