Exile on Jones Street: Worst-case scenarios

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by Kirk Ross

After a long march into the building and dozens of breakout session on voting rights and organizing, the Moral Monday movement made its last stand at the General Assembly, gathering once again around the fountain in the space between the chambers to hear from the 15 people who’d decided to be arrested.

Standing in front of the brass doors to the Senate, they held red sashes with phrases like “Clean Water,” “Restore EITC” and “Expand Medicaid.”

They were taken away one by one, the last of a group of 1,000 to be arrested over the two years. Too noisy. Too disruptive.

Behind the brass doors the Senate engaged in limited debate over a mostly local assortment of bills — deannexing parts of the towns of Watha and Shalotte and approving a modification in the distribution of Southport’s occupancy tax.

This, as the chant goes, was what democracy looked like in North Carolina on the first legislative day of the summer of 2014: 1,500 people scattered through the legislative building voicing their grievances and vowing to organize for the fall elections, while those elected to represent them worked through a calendar strewn with score-settling in parochial squabbles and favors to the well connected.

Elsewhere, the machine of government churned on in its trademark herky-jerky style. With the House and Senate negotiators working through the budget and bumping up against the end of the fiscal year next Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory decided to step in and order state agencies to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Rather than work through what is likely to happen or set an across-the-board percentage cut as most of his predecessors have done, the governor opted to require each agency to review the House and Senate versions and to use whichever one has the deepest reduction. He also instructed departments to start termination procedures for anyone in a job slated for elimination on either list. We all know the governor wants to be relevant in the budget process, but that’s insane.

There are vastly different numbers and approaches in education and Medicaid between the two versions. At a finer-grain level, there are whole programs that are fully funded in one version and completely eliminated in others. The Senate, for instance, wants to shut down the Wright School in Durham that works with children with severe emotional and behavioral difficulties who can’t get help in their communities, the only facility of its kind in the state. To make the families and staff of the place go through a worst-case exercise seems particularly cruel.

The governor did say that the worst-case planning wouldn’t apply to teaching assistants slated for termination under the Senate budget. Undoubtably, all 7,400 of them are breathing easier and feeling real secure about the future.

Whether House and Senate leaders will bow under the weight of this crude tool is unlikely, but they’re on pace to head off the governor, whose plan would kick in on July 1.

On Monday night, while the protesters chanted and sang outside, the Senate leadership announced that all committee meetings are scheduled to end Thursday. The calendars between now and then are loaded with local bills and technical tweaks. A few looming environmental issues, including the final versions of coal-ash legislation and a couple of provision-heavy regulatory overhaul bills are being worked out. Throughout the legislative complex the phrase, “Is this something that can wait for 2015?” is common currency.

This session is winding down and the citizen legislature is preparing to make its exit. The hive mind here in Raleigh says things can wait until next year, until after the election. Because unless something drastic happens, like a lot of unexpected voting, most of the players will be back and most of what they’ve been up to for the last two years will grind on. Because, for now at least, this is what democracy looks like.