We stood outside a packed committee room where someone’s rights were on the line. Again.
The vote went the way everyone expected, but the faces of the people filing out of the hearing room were still grim. The faces on both sides, for this is grim work all around.
We spilled out into the greater hallway, victorious legislators, infuriated ones, half the press corps, the ACLU, EqualityNC, Southern Baptists, unitarians, all of us herded out by a Sergeant at Arms in a bright green and yellow plaid jack and an even brighter orange tie. He seemed to be the only person enjoying himself.
A few minutes later and just a few hundred yards away roughly two dozen people with mouths taped shut with black tape stood at the steps of the old Capital Building, not far from where the governor keeps his office. A row of very quiet people, all dressed in blue and black standing side by side looking down Fayetteville Street. Most were young, but there were a handful of elders and two little girls down by the end. One was dressed in a cow suit. She and her sister stood close to their mom, who held a big sign with a picture of a dead chicken. The sign and others like it implored the governor to veto a bill that would make it tougher for whistleblowers at big agriculture operations.
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If you’ve been following along these past few years, this all might seem like just another day in Raleigh, but it’s not the way this session was supposed to go. Not the script that was pitched at least.
A couple of months ago the Speaker of the North Carolina House stood in the legislature’s press room and talked about a focus on jobs and the need for Republicans to show they can govern. The social issues agenda has been delivered as promised, he said, and there was no need for more. “We’re done.” he said. Standing next to him was the Senate leader, who conspicuously did not nod or indicate agreement.
This week you can see that the conservative social agenda is hardly done or really even slowing down. There was forward movement on a 72-hour waiting period for abortion, the longest in the country, and a religious recusal bill for magistrates who want to opt out of marrying same sex couples.
There’ve been few weeks at the legislature as infused with religious references and professions of faith. Nothing against either, but the abundance of it stood out. Even an omnibus hunting bill got caught up in the fervor as the effect of a provision allowing Sunday hunting on the proper observation of the Sabbath was passionately debated.
For many, these are serious issues, but you have to wonder if that’s what most voters have in mind when they think of legislating.
This week may have been a hiccup or simply someone’s time to reward a loyal constituency, but it comes as there’s real division and uncertainty over the way forward on much bigger issues.
We’re now five months into the session and Medicaid, taxes, economic incentives and education policies on vouchers and charter school expansion remain question marks.
To compress proposals for all these issues into the budget-driven home stretch of the session puts legislators and the rest of us at a disadvantage. One of the bright spots of this session has been far fewer straight-party-line votes and many more amendments to bills across party and even ideological lines. Such things take more time and deliberation to work out, but they’ve proven to be worth it.
For a while there, it even started to looked like governing.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org