North Carolina’s state lawmakers wrapped up the legislative short session on schedule and made it home in time for Fourth of July celebrations. Give the Republican leadership credit for applying their less-is-more theory to one subject in which it is welcome – the length of sessions.
After that, credit gets harder to allocate. Facing an election year, Republican lawmakers finally doled out a few dollars to the neglected ranks of teachers, state employees and state retirees. Raising pay and cost of living allowances is basic maintenance for most legislatures in a stable economy, but this one treats tending to its fiscal responsibilities as if it were an act of munificence or a historic investment in education. So be it. At least slight increases are coming to current and retired state employees.
The Republican leadership was unable to control its nervous twitch to cut taxes despite aching needs for expanded state services. Faced with complaints that previous tax cuts have favored the wealthy, lawmakers raised the state’s standard tax deduction by $1,000 for single filers and $2,000 for married couples. Most taxpayers will save a few dollars per week, a savings that’s likely to be eaten up by the expansion of the sales tax to include a range of services, including car repairs. This is the so-called middle-income tax cut that would be better called a mirage.
On coal ash disposal, the legislature agreed to cap leaky storage ponds at half of the state’s power plants and provide municipal drinking water to nearby residents who are on wells. That closure plan – which will go forward with no scientific assessment of the risks of leaving the coal ash in place – will save Duke Energy millions of dollars in cleanup costs. Seven remaining sites are slated for full excavation under previous legislation and court settlements involving three sites.
On the other big issue – an issue of the legislature’s creation, HB2 – lawmakers tweaked the law to allow workplace discrimination lawsuits to be filed in state courts but failed to repeal the anti-LGBT law that has cost the state millions of dollars in lost business and stained the state’s reputation.
Some of the best news out of this session was what the legislature couldn’t muster the votes to pass. A proposal for a constitutional amendment capping the state’s income tax at 5.5 percent failed as did an attempt to curtail wind farming in Eastern North Carolina.
The legislature is gone until January of 2017, but the damage of what has been done will continue. Now it’s time for campaigning and elections. It’s time for North Carolinians to decide whether they want more legislative sessions like this one and those of recent years, or whether it’s time for North Carolina to get back to being a light and a leader again.