North Carolina Legislature in the spotlight as it swings to the right

In the wake of controversial bills and the weekly “Moral Monday” protests, the Legislature has received extensive coverage from both local and national media outlets, much of which has been anything but positive.

Photo by: James Clayton

Over the years, the people of North Carolina have elected some of the most progressive governors in the South, particularly Luther Hodges, Sr., Terry Sanford, and Jim Hunt.  North Carolinians have also elected moderate governors from the Republican party, particularly James Holshouser, Jim Martin, and the recently-elected Pat McCrory.  This leadership aided in the development of the state’s reputation of being more moderate when compared to the neighboring Southern conservative states.  Adding to this reputation in the 2008 Presidential election, North Carolina received national attention when it voted Democrat for the first time in twenty-four years.

However, the nation’s perception of the Tar Heel state has changed drastically as of late, with the national media largely placing blame on the Republican control of the executive and legislative branches, a control the party has for the first time in over 100 years.  As evidenced by the biting editorial published in the New York Times last week, it appears to much of the national media that “Republicans have begun to dismantle a reputation that took years to build.”  While an article in The Atlantic gives an overview of ten issues that have caused the national media to question what is going on in the General Assembly, some legislation is getting more attention than others.

Fifty-five percent of voters are unhappy with the legislation, compared to only twenty-nine percent in favor.

Last week, CBS Evening News aired a segment covering new cuts to unemployment benefits.  North Carolina has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country and is now the only state that has lost long-term federal benefits, due to lawmakers’ decision to use unemployment benefit funds to repay $2.5 billion owed to Washington.  As of July 1, federal unemployment benefits ended for 70,000 residents and another 100,000 will lose their benefits in a few months.  Those still receiving benefits have had their payments cut by a third, to a maximum of $350 weekly from $535, and the length of time they can receive benefits reduced from twenty-six weeks to twelve weeks.  These cuts do not meet the minimum requirements to qualify to receive federal unemployment.  Fifty-five percent (pdf) of voters are unhappy with the legislation, compared to only twenty-nine percent in favor.

“Voters don’t like the process that led to it and they’re starting to really take it out on Pat McCrory.”

Even more controversial in the national and local media are the abortion regulations that have developed during this session.  House Bill 695, one of the most contentious pieces of legislation, is in part a measure designed to bar recognition of Sharia law in family courts.  The Senate committee considering the bill tacked on abortion-related measures that would require abortion clinic standards be “similar” to those of ambulatory surgical centers, and require doctors to be present when abortion-inducing drugs are taken.  These additions occurred on the eve of a long holiday weekend.  A tactic that received a good deal of national media attention, and led many to speculate that North Carolina was mimicking the state legislature in Texas, which appeared to employ the tactic of attempting to secretly pass abortion regulations.

Similarly, Senate Bill 353 would require abortion clinic standards be “applicable” to ambulatory surgical centers and require doctors to be present only for the first dose of an abortion-inducing drug; subsequent doses could be taken at home.  Governor McCrory said he would sign the bill regulating abortion clinics in the state, after the House passed a version that would give state health officials some leeway in writing the regulations.  Eighty percent of voters disapprove of how the bill was proposed because it was attached to motorcycle safety legislation.  “The abortion bill seems to be the final straw for a lot of voters when it comes to the Republicans in state government,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling.  “Voters don’t like the process that led to it and they’re starting to really take it out on Pat McCrory.”

 “I have stepped on toes in my first six months in office of the right and the left and the media.  Maybe that means I’m doing something right.”

It was unexpected by the media and others for Governor McCrory to be leading this much of a dramatic shift to the far ideological right.  When contending for the 2008 gubernatorial nomination, McCrory earned the reputation of being the more moderate candidate from his fourteen years as mayor of Charlotte.  For the first time, McCrory has a net-negative approval rating (pdf), seeing a fifteen-point decline in the last month.  According to the PPP poll, only forty percent of voters approve of the governor’s job performance, and forty-nine percent disapprove.  Much of this disapproval reflected in the poll is attributed to being a byproduct of the media coverage surrounding bills passed by the General Assembly that focus on controversial topics, like the abortion-related bills.

Governor McCrory has responded to the backlash he has received in North Carolina and nationally.  On July 12th, The New York Times published McCrory’s letter to the editor in response to the Times’ editorial disapproving of the Republican-dominated North Carolina government.  The letter conveyed that the legislature is not reversing years of progress, but rather is leading North Carolina on a “powerful comeback” through “pragmatic problem-solving.”  Additionally, in an interview with CNN, McCrory said, “Frankly it’s pragmatic, systematic change that’s going to make North Carolina more competitive…I have stepped on toes in my first six months in office of the right and the left and the media.  Maybe that means I’m doing something right.”

McCrory is not the only leader in North Carolina that is feeling media pressure.  House Speaker Thom Tillis has been the subject of headlines of his own after commencing fundraising for his bid to be the Republican nominee in the 2014 United States Senate race.  State law bars legislators from raising money from lobbyists during the legislative session, but the ban does not apply to federal candidates; thus Tillis has gained attention in the media for his recent absences from legislative sessions to attend fundraising events.  Attention similar to that Kay Hagan received when running for the Senate in 2008 while a state Senator.

When Tillis announced his Senate bid, he said he would “raise money at the appropriate time” and he did not “intend to campaign heavily and actively” until after the session ended.  In response to Tillis’ absences, The Charlotte Observer editorial board called for his resignation as House Speaker: “He has shown he can’t give his undivided attention to the N.C. House and the U.S. Senate at the same time. He should give up his Speaker’s gavel, resign from his House seat and give his full energy to his Senate bid, unencumbered by such distractions as running the state.”

With all the controversy surrounding the legislature, bills that will have a positive impact fall to the wayside.

In light of its moderate reputation, much of North Carolina remains conservative.   It should come as no surprise that these reforms are unpopular with media outlets that commonly are seen as having a more liberal worldview.  With all the controversy in the media surrounding the legislature, bills that will have a positive impact fall to the wayside.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal on July 19 praised the tax reform bill, which drastically changed North Carolina’s eighty-year-old tax code.  The plan slashed the state personal income tax rate to 5.75% from 7.75% by 2015, cut the corporate tax to 5% from 6.9%, and eliminated the state estate tax in hopes of jump-starting economic growth and job creation.  The expected changes to the tax code were especially praised by Grover Norquist, largely seen as the leading Republican on taxes, who has said that “North Carolina Republicans should only hope their situation plays out similarly to what transpired in the Badger State” in response to the criticism levied in The Atlantic that North Carolina is this year’s Wisconsin.

Another positive is House Bill 44, also known as the digital learning bill.  This legislation with almost unanimous support was signed into law (pdf) in March and will introduce more electronic and online learning to North Carolina’s public schools, bringing them into the 21st century.

It is the nature of our nation’s two-party political system that there will always be a particular group that is unhappy with a particular outcome.  Hopefully the leaders of North Carolina can find more ways to compromise to produce the more moderate legislation the nation, and national media, has come to expect and prevent future negative media coverage.

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About Amanda Cairns, Senior Staff Writer (11 Articles)
Amanda Cairns is a May 2014 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Pleasantville, New York. Amanda is a 2011 graduate of Elon University, where she majored in Political Science with minors in Business Administration and International Studies. Following graduation, Amanda came directly to Campbell in the fall of 2011. Amanda spent the summer of 2012 as a law clerk at Clawson & Staubes, LLC and the summer of 2013 as a legal intern at Duke Energy Progress, Inc.
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