Watching the N.C. General Assembly's 2011-12 session thus far has been like sitting through a civics lesson on steroids.
There’s been the high drama of the Republican Party's complete takeover of the Statehouse for the first time since 1870; the crisis of looming budget deficits in the wake of a national economic tidal wave; the top-level friction of gubernatorial vetoes of both the state budget and controversial legislation; and earnest disagreement over procedure and policy — now on high boil as the proposed state redistricting maps are released.
I’ve been tracking this session's legislation for Mountain Xpress, focusing on the impact on Western North Carolina. This has included monitoring individual WNC legislators — the initiatives they’ve sponsored, the legislation they’ve helped (or failed to help) along.
In the course of all this, however, certain generalizations about the overall process and demeanor in the Statehouse have continued to nag at me. One development I find particularly perplexing has been the generous introduction of what I would term boilerplate legislation: bills whose language and focus were generated outside of North Carolina. These so-called "model bills," which are being introduced in state legislatures nationwide, can be traced to think tanks or other sources with a nonlocal agenda.
The bills don’t seem to stem from the particular needs of this state, nor from the minds of individual legislators seeking to represent the needs of their constituents. And ironically, given these bills’ generic nature, there’s an odd sort of reverse federalism afoot in the attempt to achieve such uniform legislation on a state-by-state basis.
North Carolina's legislative season began, for example, with a generically anti-federal proposal titled the N.C. Health Care Protection Act. The second bill out of the gate, its mission was to blunt the mandates of the federal Affordable Care Act. It passed both houses but was vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, North Carolina was one of 43 states with proposed legislation to restrict or oppose health-care mandates.
In the same vein was HB 301, which proposed a study committee on an alternative currency for North Carolina in case the Federal Reserve System breaks down. In the past two years, similar legislation has been introduced in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Idaho, New Hampshire, Vermont, Missouri, Montana, Washington and Utah (where gold and silver coins are now legal tender).
Another model bill that cropped up this session was HB 241, an attempt to exempt from federal regulation firearms and ammunition manufactured and maintained instate. Known nationally as "firearms freedom acts" or "10th Amendment" laws, they were proposed in some 23 states, including Kentucky, West Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Arizona and Texas, according to the website http://firearmsfreedomact.com.
The North Carolina bill didn’t make it out of committee by the crossover deadline, so it’s theoretically dead for the remainder of this session.
Voter-related legislation was another prime topic. “Restore Confidence in Government,” requiring voters to show a photo ID, put North Carolina in league with Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, Kansas and Wisconsin. This bill, too, was vetoed by the governor, but state legislators will have a chance to override the veto when they re-convene later this month.
Another national-model issue is restricting early voting: SB 47 calls for shortening the state's early-voting period and eliminating same-day registration, among other changes. Georgia and Florida recently passed similar legislation, and at this writing, an Ohio bill was on its way to the governor’s desk.
The General Assembly passed the controversial Abortion-Woman's Right to Know Act requiring a pre-abortion ultrasound procedure, but it was vetoed by the governor (an override vote is possible this month). Charlie Christ, then the governor of Florida, vetoed a similar bill last year, but his successor, Rick Scott, has since signed the requirement into law. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 18 states now have some form of ultrasound regulation for abortion providers.
Tort reform has been yet another hot topic for national legislation. This session's Tort Reform for Citizens and Business (HB 542), addressing proof of medical expenses and the awarding of attorney fees, was passed and signed by the governor. The more sweeping Medical Liability Reforms (SB 33), dealing with malpractice claims, was vetoed, but it too is subject to an override later this summer.
Other model bills were also introduced, though some of them went nowhere. But given the abundant high-profile examples, one could begin to wonder if this Legislature has subscribed to an agenda dictated from beyond our borders. At the same time, Western North Carolina residents may wonder why our region's delegation produced so few collaborative bills this session.
Like other areas of the state, WNC is a microcosm with specific needs. Are they being appropriately addressed in Raleigh, or are state lawmakers arrogantly placing nationally generated political agendas above local concerns and local consensus?
I don't have the answers to those questions. But time — and future elections — will probably tell.
— Nelda Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.