by John Ager
Since my grandsons’ basketball games were cancelled, I took off for Raleigh on the night of the Georgia/Alabama college football championship. The excitement of the game helped the time to fly by, and I arrived just as Alabama scored the winning touchdown. (Full disclosure: I was pulling for the Bulldogs.)
The next day was spent at a meeting of our party caucus of NC House members, and we heard a variety of speakers that mostly focused on the elections of 2018. It began with a talk from Governor Cooper. Our state elections are unusual in 2018 as there are no governor or US Senate statewide races, which tend to dominate voter interest. Our day ended with a strong message from Deborah Ross, who lost her Senate race in 2016.
The Gerrymandering Game
During the day, an important decision was announced by three federal judges in a case involving the drawing of US Congressional seats by the North Carolina General Assembly. The judges unanimously agreed that our current districts were unconstitutional and would have to be redrawn by January 29. Filing for elections begins on February 12., It was the first time that any court had ruled that you could not draw districts to gain a partisan advantage. The practice is known as gerrymandering. Common Cause and the League of Women Voters were the plaintiffs. The ruling stated, “On its most fundamental level, partisan gerrymandering violates ‘the core principle of republican government…that the voters should choose their representatives not the other way around.”’ You only have to notice that our Fairview district (#10, represented by Patrick McHenry) goes all the way to Gastonia to see how the gerrymandering game is played.
There is a similar case from Wisconsin before the US Supreme Court, and this North Carolina case will be appealed to that body as well. There is a strong possibility that the filing period will have to be changed until the districts are finalized. These districts were already declared unconstitutional for the 2016 election on racial grounds, and some of them had to be redrawn and a primary election date changed. The North Carolina General Assembly has already spent almost $7 million defending their districts, and the $500-an-hour lawyers have a lot of billing left to do.
There is one other case regarding our North Carolina districts that should be resolved by the time the Town Crier is sent out. Another panel of judges hired a “special master” to remedy North Carolina House and Senate Districts. The court found that the new districts drawn by the General Assembly did not adequately resolve the racial gerrymandering of these districts.
All of the litigation could stop if North Carolina would end once and for all letting politicians draw the districts and set up a non-partisan commission to do this work. Other states have found ways to get this done. It would be an important first step in rebuilding some credibility with our citizens.
The first Special Session of 2018 opened with little information about the agenda. We were originally scheduled to vote on several North Carolina constitutional amendments, one of which would have ended citizen voting for judges. For this vote, protesters from all over the state, including a busload from Buncombe County, were on their way to Raleigh to stand up to the various efforts by the General Assembly to gain more control over the state’s judicial system. The general outcry from citizens and judges, on both political sides, scuttled that effort for the time being.
One pressing issue should have been on the agenda. There is a mandate in place requiring smaller class sizes in K-3 in our public schools. While a laudable goal, it can only be accomplished at present by replacing music, art and P.E. teachers. Moreover, many more classrooms will have to be created. The General Assembly has refused to fund this initiative. School boards, superintendents and principals in the process of planning budgets for the 2018-19 school year are unsure about whether they will have to comply or not. More protesters came to put pressure on legislators on this issue. It was a lively day in the halls of government!
DEQ and GENx
The House did try to solve an emergency problem regarding GENx in the drinking water of the Cape Fear River. Emerging chemicals being dumped into our rivers is a looming crisis across the state. Our Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) has been stripped of much of its funding over the past six years, laying off large numbers of water quality staff. Discharge permits were about 40 percent expired, including the Chemours plant that produces GENx (a compound used to make Teflon). The House was ready to pass a rather weak bill to deal with this problem, but without an appropriation. Money was found, the Appropriations committee met, and $2.3 million was authorized to hire staff to work down the permitting backlog and to purchase technology so that DEQ could test chemicals in house. That bill passed the House unanimously in late afternoon on Wednesday, but the Senate refused to take it up and adjourned. It was a disappointing outcome.
The Short Session continues in a ghostlike manner, so I may be called back to Raleigh when least expected. For now, I am glad to be back in Fairview with my family.
Rep. John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-6450