Exhausted legislators finally saw the closing gavel and heard the fat lady sing the “sine die,” followed quickly by the Hallelujah chorus striking up the perennial tune, “There has to be a better way to run a state.”
Republicans sang that song when Democrats ran things. Now the GOP is in control and more than a few of them are scratching their heads, wondering why things aren’t noticeably different. This short session that began with promise turned into another disappointment that lasted too long, was too contentious and satisfied too few. Fresh off a 2013 session that saw the most dramatic change in state government any can remember legislative leaders came to Raleigh in mid-May boasting they could tweak the budget, give teachers a pay hike, fix the coal ash crisis, reform Medicaid and be adjourned in time for the start of the new fiscal budget year July 1st.
There have only been six times that has happened since 1981. This year’s contentious battles and partisan gamesmanship prolonged a budget agreement until the end of July. Teachers got a pay raise but with a lot of collateral damage. Medicaid reform became so convoluted that even those favoring it were unwilling to attempt to pass a bill this session. The last minute agreement to the coal ash bill is at best a start and leaves many unanswered questions. And the traditional relationship strains between the House and Senate escalated to unbridled animosity.
With the exception of the teacher assistant funding problem, inadvertently created by the budget and left without a fix, every issue our lawmakers faced was known months before convening. There was ample time to have reached consensus without the machinations of the past few weeks.
In politics, perception isn’t the only thing that matters but it ranks pretty close to the top. The take-away perception is that this session wasn’t pretty, didn’t move the state forward and most likely didn’t benefit either the GOP or incumbent legislators’ re-election campaigns. Everyone is worn out, dispirited and angry to the point where even legislative victories don’t feel much like wins.
Lawmakers count on having several months for voters to forget what went on during the session before Election Day but they won’t have that cushion this year. Republicans can try to blame what they believe is a liberal media broadcasting biased coverage but they didn’t help themselves, appearing more like spoiled children on the playground than the team to lead our state. Because they gerrymandered legislative districts so artfully there is little likelihood they will lose control of either the Senate or House but they may lose their veto-proof majorities, especially in the Senate.
One can hope this not-ready-for-primetime group will learn from this session. Unlike 2013, it did not appear leaders had clearly defined and prioritized goals. They got distracted early, especially by Speaker Thom Tillis’ Senate campaign, and never regained their focus. Tactics and coercion took precedent over reason, the focus was more on personalities than issues and, despite repeated caucusing, neither body forged a cohesive consensus.
If our legislators cannot demonstrate more discipline and control of the legislative process it is time for prescribed enforced session limits. There must be a better way to run a state.
*Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin