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Mitch Kokai: Lawmakers have chance to practice bipartisanship

Mitch Kokai

Mitch Kokai

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BY MITCH KOKAI

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Just seven weeks remain for veto-proof Republican supermajorities in the N.C. General Assembly. That gives GOP lawmakers plenty of time to craft, unveil and approve new legislation.

They don't need support from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. They need no input from Democratic colleagues in the House or Senate. Acting on their own, Republican legislators face a relatively clear path to enact their favorite policies.

The urge to end the 2017-18 legislative session with a bang will prove tempting. Lawmakers should fight the temptation.

Regardless of the supermajorities, the General Assembly has plenty of work to do when it reconvenes Nov. 27 in Raleigh. The post-Thanksgiving session also offers lawmakers a chance to practice for the new political reality voters have created for 2019.

That reality includes a House and Senate still under control of Republican leadership. But GOP members will no longer enjoy the luxury of sidestepping all objections from the Democratic caucus. Nor will Republican leaders be able to ignore complaints from the Executive Mansion.

With a new legislative lineup taking office next year, a united GOP will need at least one Democratic senator and a half dozen Democratic representatives to help them override a Cooper veto. That's not impossible. But it will require work.

In other cases, legislative leaders can strive to bring the governor on board to support their plans. Any time he's willing to leave the veto stamp in his desk drawer, lawmakers can spend less time worrying about counting to 72 and 30 — the number of House and Senate members needed to override Cooper's objections.

New legislative constraints take effect Jan. 1. There's no reason why lawmakers have to wait until the new year to test those constraints. They will have multiple opportunities in the weeks ahead to conduct practice runs.

Three of the four constitutional amendments voters approved last week could require new laws. The tax-cap amendment offers the single exception. That amendment simply changed one word in the existing N.C. Constitution.

It's not entirely clear whether new amendments promoting crime victims' rights and hunting and fishing rights require immediate action. If so, Republicans need not craft measures that would bring their supermajorities into play.

Forty-six legislative Democrats — 77 percent of that party's caucus — approved placing the crime victims' amendment on the ballot. Twenty-seven Democrats backed the hunting and fishing amendment. One suspects well-drafted implementing legislation for both measures could win a fair amount of bipartisan support.

The voter ID amendment presents a different story. No legislative Democrat supported placing the measure on the ballot. Recent debates for and against a photo identification requirement have tended to emphasize partisan division.

But the same electorate that gave Democrats victories in every contested statewide election also approved the voter ID amendment with more than 55 percent of the total vote. More than 2 million people cast ballots favoring the measure. It clearly has a degree of bipartisan support.

Now that the constitution mandates a voter ID, lawmakers must fill in details. As they decide which forms of identification will prove acceptable, and as they consider possible exemptions, Republican leaders might find some support from open-minded Democratic colleagues.

It wouldn't hurt to start discussions by looking at requirements that have cleared legislatures and survived court challenges in the 34 other states with voter ID. With 70 percent of states now enforcing some ID rules, the issue clearly goes beyond basic red-versus-blue partisan fights.

Beyond the constitutional amendments, lawmakers need to take some action soon on the future of state elections oversight and ethics enforcement. Voters rejected a proposed amendment creating a new bipartisan board to deal with those issues. Meanwhile, a state court has struck down the current elections and ethics board. It's slated to go away in early December.

If GOP legislators seek input from Democratic counterparts on a replacement, they could find some takers. There must be bipartisan interest in creating some certainty in elections and ethics enforcement before the next electoral cycle begins.

Bipartisan outreach undoubtedly would catch some Democrats off guard. During a presentation for the Institute of Politics at UNC-Chapel Hill, Cooper strategist Morgan Jackson indicated that the governor expected GOP legislators to punish him for campaigning against their supermajorities.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, told Raleigh's News and Observer that he “wouldn't be surprised to see quite a few things appearing on the agenda that none of us are aware of today."

Jackson and McKissick might be correct. Like the teenager approaching his 18th birthday and adulthood, some GOP lawmakers might relish a chance to run wild before the new circumstances of Jan. 1 rein them in.

Those seeking a productive 2019 legislative session ought to pursue an alternative course.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation of Raleigh.

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