A guilty pleasure? The Real Legislators of Jones Street

The Charlotte Observer’s Associate Editor writes this week’s back-and-forth budget battle in Raleigh (which has included a walkout by Senators,  finger-pointing on both sides, along with Christmas stockings and lumps of coal) could challenge Bravo’s Real Housewives series for ratings this summer.

Here’s Fannie Flono’s Friday editorial:

rljonesMy guilty pleasure these days is the N.C. legislature. The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Orange County have nothing on state lawmakers for entertainment value. Take for instance, the petulant walkout of N.C. Senate Republicans on Wednesday.

It was a bit surreal watching the honorables pack their belongings and sashay – ok, walk – out of a committee hearing because – gasp! – non-legislators (i.e., the public who pays their salaries) had been invited to speak on the issue before them. It was kinda like watching Housewife Nene walk out on Kenya after another contrived wrong on TV.

The bewildered looks on the faces of some of those non-legislators – school superintendents who had come to speak about the education issues that were the subject of the public budget negotiations between the House and Senate – were priceless.

So was the back-and-forth from chief negotiators of both chambers. Said Sen. Harry Brown to Rep. Nelson Dollar, both Republicans: “This isn’t your committee meeting. You decided you would be the rule-maker of this committee. The Senate isn’t going to allow that to happen.”

Dollar responded that the inclusion of witnesses would not violate the conference committee rules the House and Senate had agreed to because the rules didn’t specifically address that issue.

“We are controlling our hour,” said Dollar, calling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison as the first witness.

“Well, I think this meeting’s adjourned,” Brown said angrily, prompting his conferees to leave.

When the senators returned, they found a Christmas wreath on the podium, Christmas stockings on the chairs of Senate negotiators and lumps of coal on those of House negotiators. This was all in apparent reference to a House member’s warning that a compromise could be as far off as Christmas. Pass the popcorn, please.

In the meantime, Morrison had made a pitch for lawmakers not to cut teacher assistants, which is part of the Senate’s plan to help pay for an 11 percent raise for teachers. He such cuts would cost hundreds of jobs and hurt schools’ abilities to meet new student literacy requirements.

The senators didn’t get to hear that or other public comments. They may not have wanted to. Many lawmakers have said teacher assistants are a waste of money. Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger has reinforced that notion, saying studies show them to be of little value to student achievement. An author of one study he quotes weighed in with N.C. Policy Watch and said that was wrong. “Getting rid of TAs (teacher assistants) is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve,” said Ron Webster of the University of London.

Berger now says he’s willing to reconsider cuts to teacher assistants. Midday Thursday, the Senate offered a plan which allows more than $171 million for the House to earmark toward Medicaid and teacher assistants. Given that the Senate hoped to gain more than $230 million from cutting teacher assistants, that proposal comes up laughably short of meeting either of those needs.

Senate negotiators don’t seem bothered by deep cuts to Medicaid. No surprise there. The Senate budget had already called for changing eligibility guidelines which would toss thousands of disabled and elderly people from the Medicaid rolls.

On Wednesday Sen. Neal Hunt and Dollar jousted over Hunt’s reference to Medicaid as welfare. Dollar responded that Medicaid money is spent on mental health, pregnant women, people who have diabetes, or cancer, or heart disease.

“I don’t see those things as welfare. I see those as treating our fellow 1.6, 1.7 million citizens of our state in a very humane way.”

Given how Republicans in the House and Senate have taken an ax to services across the board to support unwise tax cuts, it is amusing to hear them fight with each other over the matter these days. Amusing and entertaining.

For his part, Gov. Pat McCrory is acting like the adult among N.C. pols. He said he was “extremely disappointed that members of the Senate walked out on superintendents and teachers. I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to have dialogue with our educators… We need to listen to them, not walk out on them.”

Rewind. Is this the same governor who a year ago substituted an exchange of cookies for a conversation with protesters over his stands on women’s issues, particularly his reneging on a pledge not to support further restrictions on access to abortion?

Yes, it is. Good for him.

Listening to the public shouldn’t be that hard for politicians. Every election season, those running for office at least pretend to. The better time to do so is when shaping public policy.

Lawmakers should keep that in mind as they do the public’s business and wind up this legislative session.

You can read more of Flono’s writing here in the Charlotte Observer.

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