Legislative News by Nelda Holder –
NC’s New Congressional Districts
With election year 2020 breathing down their necks, a three-judge panel has approved a newly drawn (per their order) map of congressional districts for the state of North Carolina.
Basically everyone admits the map is not perfect. But the pending campaign primary season is upon us, and the panel decided that half—or three-quarters?—of a loaf would just have to do.
Simply put, North Carolina has operated its elections for the past decade under gerrymandered maps that have provided an unquestionable advantage to the state’s Republican Party. (“Gerrymander” means precisely that: drawing political districts specifically advantageous to one party.) And a ruling earlier this fall by the US Supreme Court placed the “gerrymander” accusation squarely in the hands of state courts and constitutions. (See our October 11 column, “Homeward Bound.”)
The same three-judge panel from the earlier ruling, regarding state legislative districts, handled the congressional district question, ordering new districts because the “constitutional rights of North Carolina citizens are infringed” when district lines are drawn to purposely favor one party over another.
But instead of the intense public-legislative process that answered the judges’ instructions then, the short time frame before candidate filing deadlines for the congressional races in 2020 meant that time was running out. Presented with maps that knocked the 10-3 Republican/Democratic split in the districts down to an assumed 8-5, the judicial panel (consisting of two Democrats and one Republican) unanimously agreed to proceed with the proposed maps because of the time constraints, not because they found them to create the best solution.
The new congressional districts will be in effect in the 2020 primary, and there are important changes for Asheville and Buncombe County, currently split between the 10th and 11th Districts. The new 11th District will include all of Buncombe, as well as the entirety of 15 other western counties (Avery, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Swain, Transylvania, Yancey) and half of Rutherford County.
Looking at this another way
As of November 2019, the state of North Carolina had 2,498,693 registered Democrats (36.7% of registered voters), 2,041,536 registered Republicans (30.0%), and 2,225,823 Unaffiliated voters (32.7%). (In addition, there were 39,244 Libertarians, 2,578 Constitution Party registrants, and 1,870 Greens). Those statistics alone are persuasive regarding the partisan nature of the former districts. And they are instructive as to the court’s scrutiny, as expressed in that October column—and which bears repeating: Constitutional constraints, the panel found, apply to the General Assembly and include “equal protection under law” for all people, including “free elections.”
Left in the lurch
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the Republican-led General Assembly’s proposed budget was not resolved when our elected officials left the chambers. The impasse, primarily centered around education spending and the expansion of Medicaid/health funding, saw pieces and chunks resolved through individual bills that Cooper either signed or vetoed. But the lack of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches—blame whom you will—left the state’s educational system and a medically challenged population in the lurch.
Even bipartisan legislation took a hit this session, specifically “The Second Chance Act” (SB 562/HB 874). Exhibiting generosity of spirit, it would have been a wonderful gift to the state—and, indeed, it passed the Senate unanimously. But despite majority support in the House, it stalled in committee and was left on the shelf.
The bill would have affected millions (yes, “millions”) of people, as explained in the November 21 Charlotte Observer in an editorial written by Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries.
The idea was to automatically expunge particular criminal records and ease the ability to petition for other particular expunctions in order to remove barriers to such fundamentals as work and housing for individuals who have completed their sentences and are trying to create a better life. (Such records would still be treated as a prior conviction if the individual re-offends.)
Given the numbers of people this could affect, and given the overall attempt at fairness and rehabilitation, it seems appropriate to give a shout out to the diverse coalition supporting this bill, including Americans for Prosperity, Koch Industries, NAACP, the ACLU of North Carolina, the American Conservative Union, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the NC Justice Center, and the state Conference of District Attorneys.
Keep your eye on this initiative. Let me quote Holden again: “It’s another step in the right direction toward a criminal justice system that is ultimately more equitable, more economical, and more just. Each of us is more than the worst thing we have done.”
A healthy win/lose
There was considerable public/watchdog alarm regarding this session’s SB 559, which started out as an act to permit bond financing for utilities dealing with certain storm recovery costs, with a “part B” that would have authorized the Utilities Commission to set multi-year rates (up to three years). It was noted, loudly, that the second part of that legislation would have replaced the current yearly “justification” of any increase in rates.
In the end, SB 559 turned into half a loaf. Utilities will get to avail themselves of the financing tool of issuing bonds when dealing with the expenses of storm recovery. But although the Senate was willing to approve rate-setting power for the utilities, there was not majority support in the House (and there was, supposedly, a likely gubernatorial veto around the corner).
The customary opportunity to examine rate proposals on a yearly basis will remain for citizens and public watchdogs and lobbyists and the members of the Utilities Commission for the time being.
Home(s) for the holidays
Since 1891, the NC Executive Mansion (the “people’s house”) has been home to some 30 governors and families. The Holiday Open House tradition at the Victorian-style mansion, located at 200 North Blount Street in Raleigh, NC, takes place on December 12 (6-9 p.m.), December 13 (10-5), December 14 (10-5), and December 15 (1-4). If you happen to be traveling to/through Raleigh during these dates, you might want to stop in.
Meanwhile, the upcoming short session in 2020 presents an opportunity for debate, for compromise, for addressing glaring needs in the state responsibly. Maybe when you wish your local representative “Merry Christmas” while they’re back in their home districts, you could remind them that Santa’s watching what they do.
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts.