Commentary

Christensen: 5 troubling ideas for NC democracy

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 25, 2013 

Let us put aside the major issues that divide North Carolina politics – taxes, the size of government, public vs. private education, abortion, guns, funding for the University of North Carolina system, Medicaid, health care, even voter ID.

Off the table for this morning. We’re not going to talk about them.

There are some ideas being seriously discussed in the legislature that should trouble most citizens – Democrats, Republicans and independents, liberals and conservatives, and those who fall in the middle.

Here are five citizenship questions that affect the quality of democracy in North Carolina.

Investigators losing their independence: The Senate has proposed in its budget to move all but six of 423 agents of the State Bureau of Investigation from the independently-elected Attorney General’s Office to Department of Public Safety, which is part of the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory. The governor says this is a bad idea, and with good reason. So do the sheriffs’ association and the police chiefs’ association. The SBI has been involved in investigations of past Democratic Govs. Bev Perdue, Mike Easley, House Speaker Jim Black and Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps. If the SBI is under the control of a governor – any governor – how hard would it investigate the wrongdoings in its own administration? This is a recipe for corruption.

Judges being compromised: Few citizens want their case heard before a judge whose campaign has been bankrolled by special interests. That is why North Carolina became the first state in the country to adopt a system of public financing for high court judges in 2002. McCrory and some in the legislature are pushing to end the law, because they don’t like the concept. The law has loopholes, which we saw last year when third-party interest groups poured $2.5 million into the state to elect Justice Paul Newby to the Supreme Court. But that was a special case, involving redistricting. The law has mainly meant that high court judges are now not beholden to big business, big labor or trial lawyers. Most people think that is a good thing. The program costs peanuts and is voluntary – you pay only if you check it off on your tax return.

Political cronyism returning: Over the years, North Carolina, like other states, has sought to move away from political hirings and more toward professionalism in its state work force. The number of political hirings – those exempt from the civil service protections of the State Personnel Act – had declined to 400 under Perdue. The legislature has increased it to 1,000 this year, and McCrory wants to up that to 1,500. Even more troubling, McCrory is pushing to rewrite the State Personnel Act in a way that – according to a number of experts I talked to – would essentially strip away the civil service protections for all 90,000 state workers. The politicization of the state government work force is a disaster waiting to happen. If McCrory doesn’t abuse it, wait until the Democrats get back in power and they begin firing all the Republicans that will have been hired. This is not the direction we want to go.

Covering up political hijinks: We have learned about a lot of political shenanigans over the years through employee grievance hearings held by the Administrative Office of Hearings. You may remember some of those head-slapping stories – a drunken state trooper having sex with another’s trooper’s wife in the back of a car, a DOT employee fired after being caught sleeping five times on the job, or the trooper who showed a state credit union teller a photograph doctored to show an enlarged penis, to name a few.

These stories may have contributed to Perdue’s political unpopularity. But under McCrory’s proposed rewrite of the state personnel laws, the grievance hearings would not be public, making it likely that many of the embarrassing incidents that occur during his administration will be swept under the rug. One way to maintain your popularity is to cover up the dirt.

Making citizenship harder: Voting should be easy not hard. But lawmakers are considering making it harder to vote – customer service in reverse – and I’m not talking about voter ID. They are seriously considering shortening the highly popular early voting period, ending Sunday voting and ending same-day registration. Can you imagine Belk deciding to cut back their hours during the week, to once again close on Sunday, and force their customers to wait in lines? Unthinkable. But the legislature is dreaming up ways to make it harder for their constituents – a move that will almost certainly lead to longer voting lines. I am not making this up.

The Republicans came into office as reformers promising a broom to clean up the mess left by the Democrats. As my mom liked to say, the proof is in the pudding.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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