Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kirk Ross: Something wild and woolly this way comes

By Kirk Ross

If you thought the latter half of 2015 was bizarre, hang on. The action in 2016, will be early, often and just as flummoxing.

The General Assembly helped to guarantee that this year when it changed the state primary from the first week in May to the second week in March. It was a move that has a lot of consequences beyond just where North Carolina falls in the cascade of presidential primaries.

The shift pushed the filing period back to this December and compressed the timeline for challengers to decide to run, as well as their fundraising options.

Predictably, the result helped incumbents and the legislative leadership by keeping the number of contested races low. In all, candidates in 41 in the 120 state House races and 13 candidates in the 50 Senate races are running unopposed. Depending on write-ins and resignations, another 20 or so will be over after the primary. This in a year that saw a wave of retirements among both veteran legislators and younger members who found the demands of the lengthy sessions too great.

The number of uncontested or barely contested races are not too far out of line with previous years, but given the state’s anti-incumbent fervor and the General Assembly’s low favorability the fast-tracked primary schedule clearly had an impact.

Still, it’s obvious that the biggest weight holding back what should be a far more evenly split and competitive refreshment of the legislature are the heavily gerrymandered districts, whose effects grow even more pronounced with each update of census data.

Drilled down, the most recent updates continue to show increases in population in urban districts and decreases in rural ones, a divergence that’s exacerbated political tensions in a state where growth is concentrated along the interstates while power transits the blue highways.

“Rural v. urban” isn’t just some theoretical discussion. Given the sweeping powers of the legislature, it can have serious implications such as the near-loss of hard-won public transit funding in the last session.

Expect those battles and others to quickly resurface as the legislature gears up for an election year session.

The primary change has also had an impact beyond the election schedule as key timetables for legislation have been fast forwarded as well. With the legislature scheduled to resume in April rather than late May, committees that shape proposals in the short session plan to start up after the first of the year. They include special panels set up to dole out billions for transportation and infrastructure projects and policy committees drafting legislation based on dozens of recently commissioned studies that presage shifts in policy on a host of environmental, education and health care issues.

There are so many studies that after the adjournment in October of one of the longest sessions in decades, departments had to quickly pivot to prepping reports for legislative review to meet the accelerated deadlines.

When the honorables return to Raleigh in April, they’ll be faced with a mountain of policy decisions in addition to readjusting the budget. Those on both sides of the aisle will have just experienced the heat of the primary races and by then the unrelenting ad wars should be well under way.

The divide in both chambers won’t just be partisan, especially in the House where a open leadership struggle and local political feuds are fueling a fractious atmosphere.

We saw at the end of the last session with bogged-down budget talks and late session bills on legislation, abortion and guns what happens when the legislature gets caught up in scoring political points and polarizing internal fights.

That was just a hint of what’s coming next year. And coming fast.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at kmr@rossalmanac.com 

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