The conventional wisdom in Raleigh before state lawmakers came back to town this week was that this General Assembly session would be less contentious than the last two, that leaders of the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate wanted to see how their “reforms” passed in the last four years were working before embarking on a new round of major initiatives.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and new House Speaker Tim Moore reinforced that view at their news conference two weeks ago. They restated their misguided opposition to Medicaid expansion but on other issues, they were less certain and neither Moore nor Berger mentioned any big new ideological crusades planned for this session.
That tone was much different than the sentiment at opening day news events of recent years. Maybe this actually would be a calmer, gentler session focused on jobs and the budget and possible modifications to major legislation passed in the last two sessions, as damaging as that agenda has been to the state.
One senator’s newsletter to constituents mentioned job growth as the session’s top priority along with a push to end the bitter partisanship in Raleigh. There was an almost olive branch in the air.
Then the House and Senate reconvened Wednesday. The first bill filed in the Senate wasn’t introduced by a rank and file member; it came from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger himself, a clear signal that it would be a top priority for the session.
But it wasn’t legislation about creating jobs, or improving education, or even adjusting the tax code. It was a bill that would let magistrates and registers of deeds refuse to marry gay couples who now have the legal right to get married.
The most powerful person in the Senate apparently believes the first thing state lawmakers should do this year is allow public officials to discriminate against citizens of the state because of a “sincerely held religious belief,” though it’s not clear who gets to decide what is sincere and what limits, if any, are on the permissible discrimination.
What if a magistrate doesn’t believe in interracial marriage or that people who have been divorced shouldn’t be allowed to marry? Can they deny services to those people too?
The second bill filed in the Senate came from Senator Ralph Hise, the chair of the powerful Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee. But his proposal had nothing to do with the budget for human services or mental health or Medicaid.
It was a bill that would stop the State Employees Association of North Carolina from using payroll deduction to collect membership dues from their members. The group opposed Hise in the Republican primary last spring.
Hise apparently thinks that the first thing lawmakers should do this session is to punish the association that did not support him for reelection.
That means that allowing discrimination in the name of religious freedom and political revenge are top priorities for Senate leaders, or at least they were this week.
As the Senate session was winding down, Minority Leader Dan Blue rose to talk about his hopes for the session, asking Senate leaders to stay away from divisive social issues and live up to their commitment to focus on jobs and the economy.
That was too much for Senator Tom Apodaca, the powerful chair of the Senate Rules Committee and Berger’s top lieutenant. Apodaca rudely interrupted Blue’s remarks with a motion that the Senate adjourn for the day.
So much for the calmer, gentler General Assembly. There wasn’t an olive branch in site. And not much talk about jobs either.