Exile on Jones street: Flower power

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

It’s astonishment time here in the state capital, that special time of year when there blooms the most colorful legislation.

As the season progresses into the heart of the legislative session we’ll see flower the kind of big, freakish government stories that draw oohs and aahhs nationwide.

But right now in the cool of the early months come the wildflowers, the local acts, parochial fixes and legislator pet peeves that pop up almost without notice.

As I am compiling this column, the Senate’s Redistricting Committee is getting ready for the second day of public hearings on bills that would shake up the voting districts in major urban areas of the state. Like Trudy Wade’s effort in Greensboro, Sen. Chad Barefoot’s attempt to redraw the lines in Wake County is being pitched as some kind of voter empowerment bill. The veil over both bills is so thin that their blemishes are plainly visible.

This is about power, pure and simple. Barefoot, who squeaked out a win in one of the toughest legislative races of the last cycle, is paying back the voters who swept his GOP friends on the Wake County Commission out of office. There aren’t many other ways to explain how three Democratic incumbents ended up in the same district under his plan.

The power to do these kinds of things is basically unchecked. Decades ago, when the legislature finally granted the governor the veto, they did not extend that power to redistricting legislation.

And since nearly every line drawn in the state is moveable by the collective will of the 170 cartographers of the General Assembly, they can redraw about anything they want right down to school walk zones and the location of bus stops.

The latest bills are a reminder that this legislature, born of redistricting, is now addicted to it and that individual legislators will use the almost unlimited power of the legislative branch to redraw whatever lines they can to gain partisan advantage.

As a recent News & Observer article noted, we have seen a little more bipartisan behavior in the House this year. But when it comes to drawing lines, both legislative chambers are still in partisan lockdown.

It’s important to remember that the local lines affect much more than the local races. When the districts become less and less competitive due to lines crafted to favor incumbents or particular parties, they drive down turnout. It’s a different form of suppression, but there’s no doubt that either making the districts out of reach or a slam-dunk makes people stay home more than an election in which a district could go either way.

It’s hard to measure, but this kind of rigging has an effect on statewide races as well.

The wildflower pace picks up later this month as the deadlines approach. Further compressing the schedule is a backlog in work built up during the snow days that shut down committee work and caucus conferences for nearly two weeks.

Local bills are among the first to face drafting and filing deadlines in any session. For this session local bills must be introduced in the House by April 1 and the Senate by March 11.

And while they are important to specific towns, counties or legislative districts they are not must-dos for the vast majority of the honorables. That further exacerbates the top-down nature of the place and during crunch time you can guess whose priorities get the fast track and how under the heat of deadlines, the fate of a local act can be used to twist arms, reward friends and punish the indolent who dare vote the wrong way.