Via email ... the first of many depressing reports to come about the three-ring circus in Raleigh.
The legislature met for one day on Wednesday, January 9th to be sworn in and to elect officers and adopt rules for the 2013-14 terms. I am pleased to again be the Secretary of our Democratic Caucus. Martin Nesbitt, who did an excellent job last term, was elected Minority Leader. President Pro-Tem, Phil Berger was reelected to lead the Senate. This session brings a new presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has never held public office. He will have a steep learning curve, not being familiar with the day-to-day proceedings of the Senate. Wednesday, he had the expert help of the Principal Clerk who wrote out every line of the day’s business for him to read, which led to a smooth session. The Principal Clerk is tasked with knowing all the rules, procedures, record keeping and generally keeping us all straight. It is a tough job that requires an extremely well-organized and competent person.
An interesting new rule prohibits lobbyists from coming onto the floor until 15 minutes after adjournment. This is a radical - and some say welcome change - as lobbyists in the past swarmed on the floor before the sessions until the doors closed, and immediately after and during recesses to promote their agenda. Lobbyists are an important part of the legislative process. They are both advocates for their cause and a source of often useful information on subjects about which they generally know quite a bit, but the trick is separating the information from the advocacy. Not all lobbyists are big business representatives with a profit-driven set of objectives; I rely on environmental and justice groups for information and advice. However, lobbyists can provide useful last-minute information during recesses for debate on pending legislation that often is complex and can change rapidly. Email and text messages can provide access to information but it's much less interactive and collaborative.
All bills and supporting material, such as summaries of bills, will be electronic from now on - no paper copies. Every member will depend on notebooks and tablet computers, with paper still available for those who prefer it. This will cut down tremendously on paper and trees consumed, as legislation is a very heavy paper user. Every time any change was made in a bill in committee, for instance, even if it was one word, all copies for legislators, staff lobbyists and the public had to be reprinted. Most new members are comfortable with electronic information and welcome the change.
Redistricting changed the make-up of the new legislature drastically. Under the Republican-passed maps, about half of the African-Americans in the state were packed into just three congressional districts, 10 state Senate districts, and 25 state House districts, thereby diluting African-American influence outside those districts. The Democratic Senate Caucus has eight black members and nine white members. There is a similar distribution in the House. The Republicans have no black members. There are four Democratic women and four Republican women in the Senate.
Last week I attended the Hunt Institute’s 10th Annual Legislators Retreat. Governor Hunt and Governor Holshouser presided over the meetings that explored new trends and possibilities in Kindergarten through 12th grade. Presenters from North Carolina and the nation told of a changing environment, mainly through electronics. What I found surprising is that there are some schools that have eliminated textbooks. Electronics are pervasive in testing, individual assessments, instruction, record keeping and all other aspects of the public schools. Some charter schools are also embracing electronic education and operations.
Chatham County dedicated a new courthouse last week in a ceremony attended by court personnel, elected officials, Supreme Court Judges and the public. The building is a Greek revival style to reflect the original courthouse that burned last year and is being rebuilt. The original 1881 building is a landmark in the center of Pittsboro and everyone is grateful that it could be restored. The new courthouse has plenty of space and convenience for court and all its attendant services.
This week the National Science Foundation issued a report showing that Americans have shorter life spans and poorer health at a much higher cost than 22 other nations. Causes include poor health habits and an inefficient healthcare system, but a significant cause is gun deaths.