Point of View

NC lawmakers are sacrificing those in need on the altar of ‘states’ rights’

February 14, 2013 

When segregationists blocked access to public buildings and civic participation, they always tried to import noble purpose to their actions by crying, “States’ rights!”

Now, the new leadership of North Carolina has dusted off that old emotional, vaguely patriotic call. They’re using it to stir a few with imagined defiance and distract as many as possible with supposed constitutional purpose behind some very bad and hurtful decisions.

The General Assembly is poised to reject more than $700 million in federal unemployment insurance money this year. That federal appropriation would not increase the state’s debt and would directly help veterans returning from Afghanistan and tens of thousands of civilians wounded by this economy.

These funds would also give a much-needed boost to local businesses as they passed almost immediately from 166,000 unemployed workers to local cash registers.

But in the name of “states’ rights,” legislators are also voting to deny health insurance to half a million low-income neighbors and billions of dollars of payments to health care providers just because the program is directed and paid for by the federal government.

But no state prerogative is under siege. North Carolina has every right to turn back any federal money its leaders choose. “States’ rights” is just an excuse for when you can’t talk about the real reason: They are sacrificing the well-being of millions of North Carolinians on the altar of extremist ideology and partisan fealty.

One legislator told Washington: “Stay out of our business.” Presumably that demand will be suspended if a hurricane strikes and what’s at stake is federal aid to help beach houses and not veterans and struggling families.

Gov. Pat McCrory represents all of us and must choose to do so now. He alone stands between federal help for at least 650,000 vulnerable adults and legislative leaders who presume his blind loyalty to them. No early announcement that he intends to sign whatever measure is passed voids his responsibility to understand the final bill and look into the eyes on the faces that now turn to him.

Only he can protect them, through his office and the constitutional expectation of separation of powers.

Our governor has a choice to make. He can either turn and lead ordinary citizens into the legislative process and demand that they be heard, or he can turn away from them and instead defend the people who have thus far excluded their concerns.

Which way will McCrory turn?

Harry Payne is senior counsel for policy and law at the N.C. Justice Center. He is a former state labor commissioner and former chairman of the Employment Security Commission.

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