COLUMBIA, SC ― Maybe you’ve seen some of the eye-catching headlines bouncing out of North Carolina’s capitol over the last couple months. Stories about legislative measures like the one that would have made it possible to create an official state religion, or another that would mandate a two-year waiting period for a divorce.
It’s the first time in more than a century that Republicans have control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature. And they haven’t wasted any time in trying to drastically reshape North Carolina’s political, social, and economic landscape, unfurling a wave of bills on matters ranging from the relatively mundane to the momentous. Legislation has been proposed that would dole out prison sentences to women who go topless in public, allow public high schools to offer Bible study as an elective, and restrict access to abortions. A dozen years after the industry was outlawed amid concerns over predatory practices, there’s a push to bring back payday lenders. Other measures would end teacher tenure, eliminate green energy rules, resume executions, and restrict the power of local government, especially in the state’s largest cities. Unemployment benefits have been cut amid persistent high joblessness, and there’s a proposal that would turn the state’s corporate income tax from the highest in the Southeast to the lowest. There’s a Voter ID bill, and another one that would penalize families whose college-age children register to vote at their campus location. There are proposals to allow hunting on Sundays―something that hasn’t been permitted since 1868―and to raise the maximum speed limit for school bus drivers, and a group of GOP lawmakers recently tried to make North Carolina’s state marsupial the Virginia opossum. Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle even did a gag bit in which he challenged passers-by on the street to “name the fake bill” (most folks could not distinguish the made-up measure from the real ones).
For North Carolina reporters, it has been a daunting story to cover, one that involves trying to keep up with the rapid pace of proposed legislation while deciding which measures merit devoted coverage and which to dismiss as hackery.
“I think the hard part about it is trying to balance,” says Laura Leslie, capitol bureau chief of WRAL in Raleigh, the state’s leading station for political coverage. “There are crazy bills that get filed in every session under every kind of leadership. How much attention do you devote to those versus the ones that are actually going to move in committee?”
Striking that balance is harder than usual this year; Republicans have streamlined the legislative process so a bill might have to clear only one panel before coming to a vote, sometimes with little debate. “You have to kind of move faster and keep a closer eye on what gets filed,” Leslie says, “because if it moves, you’re not going to have a lot of time to catch it.”
It’s a tension that John L. Robinson, former Greensboro News & Record editor and a journalist in the state for 37 years, has acknowledged in his influential blog―even as he has encouraged reporters to tackle a big story with big journalistic ambitions. From an April 3 item:
You know in Hollywood disaster movies there is always some lone person―usually ignored―who senses the early tremors of the earthquake or the distant sighting of the meteor or the readouts of the soon-to-be erupting volcano or the first wave of a tsunami? If I were a reporter in North Carolina―or a reporter for a national news organization―I would try to be that person. I would be pitching a story about what’s happening in Raleigh. With the GOP takeover of the legislature and the governor’s office, the world as we North Carolinians know it is up for grabs.
…As my friend Guy Lucas pointed out on Facebook, just because a bill has been introduced doesn’t mean it becomes law, which, of course, is true. Historically, the meat grinder that is the legislative process tends to throw off much of the fat and gristle. But North Carolina hasn’t seen this permutation of Republican-controlled government before. There is a sense that the GOP is trying to turn the clock back quickly and efficiently while they feel they have a legislative mandate.
And that’s where the journalists must come in. There are enough trees being planted and growing tall that a forest is forming. It’s time to help citizens see the forest.