My guilty pleasure these days is the North Carolina legislature. The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Orange County have nothing on state lawmakers for entertainment value. Take for instance, the petulant walkout of N.C. Senate Republicans on Wednesday.
It was a bit surreal watching the honorables pack their belongings and sashay OK, walk out of a committee hearing because gasp! nonlegislators (i.e., the public who pays their salaries) had been invited to speak on the issue before them. It was kinda like watching Housewife Nene walk out on Kenya after another contrived wrong on TV.
The bewildered looks on the faces of some of those nonlegislators school superintendents who had come to speak about the education issues that were the subject of the public budget negotiations between the House and Senate were priceless.
So was the back-and-forth from chief negotiators of both chambers. Said Sen. Harry Brown to Rep. Nelson Dollar, both Republicans: This isnt your committee meeting. You decided you would be the rule-maker of this committee. The Senate isnt going to allow that to happen.
Dollar responded that the inclusion of witnesses would not violate the conference committee rules the House and Senate had agreed to because the rules didnt specifically address that issue.
We are controlling our hour, said Dollar, calling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison as the first witness.
Well, I think this meetings adjourned, Brown said angrily, prompting his conferees to leave.
When the senators returned, they found a Christmas wreath on the podium, Christmas stockings on the chairs of Senate negotiators and lumps of coal on those of House negotiators. This was all in apparent reference to a House members warning that a compromise could be as far off as Christmas. Pass the popcorn, please.
In the meantime, Morrison had made a pitch for lawmakers not to cut teacher assistants, which is part of the Senates plan to help pay for an 11 percent raise for teachers. He said such cuts would cost hundreds of jobs and hurt schools abilities to meet new student literacy requirements.
The senators didnt get to hear that or other public comments. They may not have wanted to. Many lawmakers have said teacher assistants are a waste of money. Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger has reinforced that notion, saying studies show them to be of little value to student achievement. An author of one study he quotes said that was wrong. Getting rid of TAs is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve, said Ron Webster of the University of London.
Berger now says hes willing to reconsider cuts to teacher assistants. Midday Thursday, the Senate offered a plan that allows more than $171 million for the House to earmark toward Medicaid and teacher assistants. Given that the Senate hoped to gain more than $230 million from cutting teacher assistants, that proposal comes up laughably short of meeting either of those needs.
Senate negotiators dont seem bothered by deep cuts to Medicaid. No surprise there. The Senate budget had already called for changing eligibility guidelines that would toss thousands of disabled and elderly people from the Medicaid rolls.
On Wednesday, Sen. Neal Hunt and Dollar jousted over Hunts reference to Medicaid as welfare. Dollar responded that Medicaid money is spent on mental health, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease.
I dont see those things as welfare. I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way.
For his part, Gov. Pat McCrory is acting like the adult among N.C. pols. He said he was extremely disappointed that members of the Senate walked out on superintendents and teachers. I dont think thats the appropriate way to have dialogue with our educators. We need to listen to them, not walk out on them.
Rewind. Is this the same governor who a year ago substituted an exchange of cookies for a conversation with protesters over his stands on womens issues, particularly his reneging on a pledge not to support further restrictions on access to abortion?
Yes, it is. Good for him.
Listening to the public shouldnt be that hard for politicians. Every election season, those running for office at least pretend to. The better time to do so is when shaping public policy.
MCT Information Services
Fannie Flono is a columnist for the Charlotte Observer.