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This Week in Statehouse Action: Spooky Season edition
It’s finally spooky season!
This is absolutely the scariest time of year, and yet it’s also one of my favorite times of year.
The weather is starting to get a little crisp, the leaves are starting to turn, Halloween festivities are kicking off, and Election Day is barely a month away.
…which is what makes this the scariest, most stressful time of year – for me, anyway. (Yes, I get that I care way too much about Virginia elections. No, I don’t think there’s much to be done about it – at this point in my life, it’s pretty well baked in.)
But even if you take Virginia elections out of the equation, state lawmakers are up to some scary-ass stuff right now.
I believe in facing one’s fears (except heights, screw that), so let’s get at it.
(Editor’s note: I swear this whole thing isn’t just about North Carolina — there’s just SO MUCH BADNESS happening there right now that it fairly commands a significant chunk of this week’s edition.)
The first stop on our little terror tour has just gotta be North Carolina because they are up to some seriously scary stuff.
The GOP supermajorities that control the state House and Senate recently passed themselves a state budget, and … well, it’s quite the piece of legislation.
Let’s start with, like, the ONE good thing about it, and the only reason Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper didn’t veto it (not that it would have mattered, given the GOP’s legislative supermajorities).
After more than a decade of refusing to extend healthcare coverage to almost 600,000 North Carolinians by expanding Medicaid through the ACA, Republicans finally decided to allow it.
Now just 10 states continue to refuse the funding provided by the ACA to give hundreds of thousands of their own residents access to healthcare – and you can probably guess what they all have in common.
If you answered “All are controlled by deeply entrenched GOP legislative majorities,” give yourself a piece of Halloween candy.
Alas, Medicaid expansion was the lipstick on the turd that is the rest of the state budget.
Cooper didn’t veto the budget because doing so would have:
A. been completely futile (GOP legislative supermajorities) and
B. delayed the implementation of Medicaid expansion.
It became law without his signature.
But Cooper already plans to sue over the turd-ier parts of the state budget.
The new law includes several provisions that give Republican legislators way more control over state courts.
First, it creates 10 new “special superior court judges,” which are appointed judges who hear both civil and criminal cases but don’t have to live inside the judicial district in which they’re presiding. (North Carolina judges are otherwise elected and required to live in the district that elects them.)
Currently, the governor appoints all special superior court justices (as of 2021, there were 12), though the legislature has to confirm them.
But why bother with blocking gubernatorial judicial appointees when you can just create some new ones of your own?
… which is exactly what GOP lawmakers did.
The legislature is giving itself complete authority over the selection of 10 newly created special superior court judges, who also have no geographic restrictions on where they can render judgment.
In fact, these special superior court judges are shuttled about the state by the North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice – who, naturally, is a Republican.
This expansion and combination of powers gives Republicans incredible new power over any court cases anywhere in North Carolina — imagine a GOP justice assigning an ultra-conservative judge handpicked by the legislature to a case that would, say, determine the constitutionality of a new state law passed by said legislature.
Speaking of the North Carolina state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice – Republican Paul Newby – he gets a nice boost from the budget, too.
First, it raises judges’ mandatory retirement age from 72 to 76 – which prevents Newby from having to step down in 2027.
If a Democrat is elected governor in 2024, they would appoint a new justice to fill the vacancy left by Newby’s 2027 retirement.
And GOP lawmakers just can’t abide that.
Also, the budget gives Republicans more control over the commission that handles ethics complaints against state judges; the existing four nonpartisan commissioners selected by the state bar are eliminated, and those four slots will now go to legislative (read: Republican) appointees.
As an erudite consumer of this missive, you may recall that this judicial ethics commission – which is already GOP-stacked – went after one of the two Democratic justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court over the summer for the terrible crime of [[checks notes]] speaking out about racial bias in her courtroom.
The investigation against Justice Earls – who is currently the only Black member of the court – could result in her removal from office.
But wait, there’s more!
The omni-budget gives mind-bogglingly extensive new investigative powers to a partisan oversight committee chaired by the legislature’s GOP leaders, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.
“Gov Ops” – the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Operations – will now have the power to:
Subpoena private businesses and nonprofits that receive state funds – including, say, state universities, and
Seize documents and enter buildings without actual judicial warrants if they’re in any way connected to publicly funded entities.
Say you’re subjected to these abhorrent investigative “tactics.” You might want to consult an attorney, or go to the media, or at least vent about it to a friend.
Public employees under “investigation” by Gov Ops will be required to keep all communications, requests, and even physical searches completely “confidential.”
Failure to comply could result in “disciplinary action,” “dismissal,” fines of up to $1,000, or even jail time.
Anyone who refuses to cooperate with a Gov Ops investigation “shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
I mean, they created a new crime for this!!
(The fun starts on page 531 if you want to dig into it yourself.)
But we’re not done yet.
The same GOP lawmakers who want to “expand” Gov Ops’ power in the name of enhancing government accountability also would like for you to not be able to see how their dirty new gerrymanders came to be — or any other antics they may get up to as members of the legislature.
According to current North Carolina law, most of the drafting and communication involved in drawing new district maps becomes public records after the whole thing is done, available for anyone to request.
The new budget repeals that section of state code, effectively removing all redistricting communications from the public record.
… just in time for the legislature to gerrymander itself some nice new maps this month.
What a coincidence!
But why stop there?
Another section of the budget exempts all legislators, former and current, from North Carolina’s public records law.
Okay, I swear I’m almost done with this North Carolina budget monstrosity, but there’s one more abhorrent provision that needs to be mentioned (and one that sucks, but is relative small beans).
The new state budget will funnel about $20 million in taxpayer funds to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are actually anti-abortion facilities that exist for the express purpose of preventing women from accessing abortion care.
Oh, and the budget strips the governor of his appointment power over the state community college system’s governing board and gives it to the (guess who!) legislature.
So yeah, Cooper probably has some very legitimate “separation of powers” issues with this state budget to sue over.
But guess who ultimately decides that lawsuit.
The 5-2 Republican majority state Supreme Court.
And that GOP majority has already demonstrated that the only “separation of powers” it cares about is separating any power from any North Carolina Democrat.
Tennessee has very publicly revealed itself this year to be full to the brim with legislative monsters, and this week gives us occasion to head back there to peek in on the latest statehouse developments.
… okay but one bit of news is related to someone getting ejected from the legislature.
Even folks who aren’t erudite readers of this missive likely remember Democratic Rep. Justin Jones as one of the Tennessee Three and one of the two Black lawmakers ejected from the Tennessee House for the crime of Being Loud For A Little While Because They’re Mad That Kids Keep Getting Shot In Schools.
You may also recall that these expulsions were not only a grotesque abuse of GOP House members’ power as a legislative supermajority, but also that they were completely pointless.
Both members were reappointed to their House seats within days, and they both won reelection to their seats in landslides just a couple of months later.
Then, in an August special session where absolutely nothing was done to improve gun safety in the Volunteer State, the House Speaker implemented expansive new floor rules intended to limit members’ speech during debate on legislation.
Jones was the only member these new House rules were used against: the Speaker ruled him in violation, and the GOP-controlled House voted to prohibit him from speaking on the House floor at all for the remainder of the special session.
And now he’s fighting back in a new way.
This week, Jones filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Tennessee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and some key House staffers challenging those House rules and his expulsion from the chamber.
His suit is mostly based on First Amendment and 14th Amendment (due process and equal protection) claims; you can read more about it here.
Our other Tennessee tidbit involves someone who’s not in the state House, but she might be in the future, and she’s already been directly harmed by actions of the legislature — specifically, the state’s abortion ban.
Allie Phillips was 19 weeks pregnant when she learned that not only did her fetus have fatal complications, but carrying the pregnancy to term would endanger her own health. She needed an abortion, but she couldn’t get one in her home state of Tennessee. Phillips was forced to travel out of state to end her doomed and dangerous pregnancy.
Now Phillips is running for a seat in the state House.
The seat – House District 75 – is in the northwestern part of the state and is historically deep red; hell, a Democrat didn’t even run here in 2022.
Yeah, it’s a long shot to be sure, but you definitely can’t win if you don’t even try.
And folks like her are why Tennessee, for all its … ah, issues, shouldn’t be given up on.
As two states with the most thrilling elections happening this year, I can’t not check in on Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Pennsylvania, as erudite consumers of this missive know, is holding an incredibly important state Supreme Court election in November.
Total spending in the race has already reportedly topped $4.5 million, but that number will absolutely spike between now and Nov. 7.
The Commonwealth Leaders Fund, which basically serves exclusively as a conduit through which billionaire investor Jeffrey Yass funnels his campaign contributions, has already spent $2.1 million on attack ads and such against Democrat Daniel McCaffrey.
Thankfully, national Democrats have finally signaled just how important this race is.
This week, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee announced a “six-figure investment” in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race between McCaffrey Republican Carolyn Carluccio.
Sure, six figures isn’t chump change, but it’s telling that Democrats aren’t being specific. We’re probably talking about an amount much closer to $100,000 than $999,999.
But this isn’t even actually the DLCC’s job.
The DLCC is the Democratic party committee responsible for electing democrats to legislatures – a historically underfunded effort by the left to start with.
But unlike Republicans, Dems don’t have a party committee focused on electing judges.
So it’s great that DLCC’s stepping up – especially considering that majorities in the Virginia legislature are on the line in November, too.
Needless to say, DLCC isn’t neglecting the Commonwealth.
This week, a couple of huge new donations from the committee to Virginia – $850,000 to Senate Dems and $700,000 to House Dems – became public, bringing DLCC’s total investment here this year to more than $2 million.
The Democratic National Committee is finally getting off its duff, too.
The DNC donated $300,000 to the Virginia Democratic Party for use in legislative elections at the beginning of September, but – reportedly at Joe Biden’s behest, because apparently God gave the man some good sense – now they’re pumping another $1.2 million into Virginia.
Virginia Republicans are on record whining that the Republican National Committee hasn’t come to their aid this year, but what they don’t mention amid all their hand-wringing is that the GOP committee responsible for electing Republicans to state legislatures – the RSLC – has donated a combined $3 million to their efforts this year (although one Republican “aide” says that RSLC has spent “roughly $5.5 million this cycle”).
Interestingly, more than $1 million of that money has gone to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Presidential Hopeful)’s PAC, Spirit of Virginia.
And no, this isn’t some campaign committee pass-through gimmickry or shell game required to accommodate finance laws. Campaign finance laws in Virginia absolutely allow RSLC to give as much as they want directly to GOP campaign committees – or even individual candidates.
If Virginia Republican campaign committees and candidates are upset about anything, it should be that Youngkin’s PAC has given almost $3 million to the Republican Party of Virginia this year but barely more than $1 million to GOP efforts aimed directly at winning control of the General Assembly.
So, arguably the RSLC donation to Spirit of Virginia was a pass-through donation designed to give Youngkin credit for donating money to GOP legislative races when he actually plans to keep his billions and billions of dollars to himself to spend on a presidential bid.
But that’s just speculation – it’s impossible to actually know (until Youngkin declares his candidacy on Nov. 8, anyway).
The campaign finance reports that drop on Oct. 16 will definitely shed more light on all this, and the “Youngkin is more focused on his presidential prospects than on his party winning control of the General Assembly” rhetoric could go right out the window.
Or his real priority could become irrefutably clear.
Let’s wrap this week in a place I don’t often venture to in this missive: Oregon.
Its safely Democratic state House and Senate and (relative) lack of dysfunction generally render it uninteresting.
But did you know that there was a recall election there this week?
Democratic Rep. Paul Holvey is considered one of organized labor's strongest allies in Oregon state government, but UFCW Local 555 tried to unseat him after the committee he chaired this year effectively killed a bill that would have smoothed the path for cannabis workers who want to unionize.
Holvey argued that he’s concerned that the measure would violate federal law, but Local 555 claims that Holvey tabled the legislation at the behest of a major cannabis dispensary chain.
Anyway, despite Local 555 spending more than $300,000 on the recall effort, it failed rather spectacularly. As of a Wednesday afternoon count, fewer than 10% of ballots cast were in favor of recalling Holvey.
And thus, Holvey avoids being the first Oregon lawmaker recalled in more than 30 years.
Thank you, as ever, for hanging in.
Here’s hoping your weekend is super great and not at all scary … unless you’re, like, into that kind of thing.
And take care of yourself.
We need you.