“The insanity is incessant.”
There was no hiding the frustration in Senator Dan Blue’s voice, the weariness that comes from being utterly powerless to stop what you view as a parade of awfulness. It was Friday morning, and Blue, the Raleigh Democrat and Senate Minority Leader, was seated across from me in his law office’s conference room, a space with well-apportioned chairs and no windows.
The day before, Senate Republicans had overridden Governor Cooper’s veto of their budget bill, which Blue, on the Senate floor, had argued “fails our schools and fails to protect drinking water. And it puts special interests before the interests of North Carolina families.”
Around the Triangle, there’s another complaint: a one-sentence provision would essentially kill the Durham Orange Light Rail Transit project by requiring a federal funding commitment before the state commits funds, even though the feds require a state commitment before they commit funds.
I asked Blue if he thought this move was intentional or just a product of sloppiness.
He laughed loudly, and for several seconds. “It was totally intentional.”
The budget was cobbled together by a handful of Republicans behind closed doors, then rammed through the House and Senate without the possibility of amendmentan efficient way to move complex legislation, Blue said, common to “fascist, authoritarian regimes,” but it “disregards the democratic nature of the legislature” and marks the “obliteration of our normal open procedures.”
Those are strong words, to be surethough Blue acknowledged that most voters couldn’t care less about process issues, so hand-wringing about the destruction of norms won’t get Democrats far.
And in the meantime, Republicans are ramping up their legislative machinery.
Last week, for example, the Senate began moving through a Farm Bill that, among other things, carves out even more special protections for multibillion-dollar pork producers. Following a law passed last year that restricted the amount of money neighbors of hog farms can recoup in nuisance lawsuitsindustry advocates tried but failed to make it retroactive, which would have negated more than two dozen pending cases against Smithfield Foodsthis year’s Farm Bill redefines the word nuisance itself.
If it becomes law, agricultural operations can’t be sued for causing nuisances if they follow practices, methods, or procedures “generally accepted and routinely utilized by other agricultural and forestry operations in [the] region.”
In other words, if every hog farmer sprays liquefied pig shit on his neighbors’ property, then there’s no problemat least for Big Pork. Those neighbors, however, would be left without legal recourse while the industry profits off of their misery.
It goes without saying that this bill comes on the heels of a $3.25 million verdict last month against Smithfield in the first of those twenty-six cases to go to triala judgment that originally came in at more than $50 million but was reduced thanks to North Carolina’s punitive-damages cap.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Senate Agriculture Committee explicitly declined to clarify that this bill wouldn’t be retroactive. If it passes, Smithfield will almost certainly argue that the cases in progress should be shut down.
Then there’s the most cynical initiative of all: voter ID. After a strict voter-ID law they passed in 2013 was struck down by a federal court in 2016with a panel of judges famously writing that it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision”Republicans want another bite at the apple, this time in the form of a constitutional amendment that would go on the November ballot. From a legal perspective, if voters sign off, lawmakers can tell the courts that voter ID is the will of the people and not the product of racial animus. More immediately, headed into the fall, it’s a quick and easy way to gin up a demoralized base around the canard of voter fraud.
The facts are as follows: Illegal voting is an infinitesimally small problem. In 2016, according to the state Board of Elections, 508 people0.01 percent of the electoratevoted illegally in North Carolina; of them, voter ID would have stopped exactly one. But researchers have shown that strict voter ID laws substantially suppress black and Hispanic turnout. Not coincidentally, those groups tend to vote for Democrats.
Right now, Republicans have the supermajorities they need to get this amendment on the November ballot. After November, they might not.
Blue is sanguine about Democrats’ electoral chances this year: “We will overcome the supermajorities in both chambers,” he pledged. “And there’s a real possibility we will take the majority.”
The latter seems like wishful thinking. Regardless, without their supermajorities, Republicans would be unable to override Cooper’s vetoes at will. There would have to be deliberation, negotiation, and a “pause to allow democracy to work,” as Blue put it.
If he’s right that Republicans’ stranglehold on absolute power is threatened, then that leaves this short session as a sort of last gaspa final chance to push through the most controversial parts of their agenda while no one has the ability to check them.
“It seems like a frantic pace,” Blue told me. “The only reason is to try to get in place all the things they thought and dreamed of.”
And it also means there’s more to come, Blue added, though he’s not sure what it will be: “They’ll have more than one constitutional amendment.”