CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Reflecting the tensions that marked North Carolina’s legislative session, seven Mecklenburg lawmakers sparred with each other and their audience Wednesday night over the new voting law, education spending and Charlotte’s airport.
In a lively exchange at the forum sponsored by the Observer and PNC Bank, lawmakers answered questions about what guest host Mike Collins called a “tumultuous” session.
The panel’s four Republicans often found themselves on the defensive before a sometimes raucous audience at Central Piedmont Community College.
The tone was set early when Collins, host of “Charlotte Talks” on WFAE, asked the legislators whether they thought what they did was in the best interest of everybody in Mecklenburg County.
“While some of us may disagree … we did what we thought was in the best interests of Mecklenburg County and the state of North Carolina,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and a GOP leader.
“In my opinion, we as a state went 20 years backward,” responded Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat. “Our national brand as a state has been tarnished.”
His comment drew loud applause.
If the exchange among lawmakers reflected the session’s partisan divisions, reactions from the audience reflected the passion felt by many voters.
The GOP-controlled legislature cut taxes and regulations, enacted voter ID laws and school vouchers, tightened rules on abortion clinics and loosened laws on guns. It turned down federal Medicaid money, ended teacher tenure and cut benefits for the unemployed. It transferred direct control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city.
Wednesday’s two main flashpoints were the new voter law and the airport. Both are now in court, and Democrats called each law unconstitutional.
Boos over the voting law
The voter ID law – which also shortened early voting and ended early registration for teenagers – came under fire early.
One audience member questioned whether voter fraud is a real problem.
Rucho said there aren’t systems in place to detect it. The new law, he said, is to “establish a level of integrity.”
Rep. Bill Brawley used an anecdote to amplify the point, prompting some on the audience to interrupt him with shouts.
“Let me finish!” he interjected, prompting boos and forcing Collins to ask audience members to be civil.
Republicans defended other provisions of the law, which also ended straight-ticket voting and same-day voter registration.
Though early voting was cut by a week, Rucho said early voting sites are still required to be open the same number of hours as in previous elections. Samuelson said she’s open to revisiting early registration for teens.
But Democrats questioned the assumption behind the voter ID bill.
“The only fraud that’s being perpetrated,” said Graham, “is on the citizens of North Carolina.”
Rep. Beverly Earle, a Charlotte Democrat, said, “What this is about is voter suppression.”
Earle said veto-proof Republican majorities in both legislative chambers were one reason so many bills were passed. “Because they could,” she said.
Airport still contested
As they did in Raleigh, lawmakers also fought over the airport.
The legislature first passed a bill transferring airport control to an independent authority. Then, in the final days of the session, it created a commission to oversee most of the airport’s operations. That’s now tied up in court and awaits a ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rucho, a chief sponsor of the airport legislation, responded to a questioner who suggested the General Assembly was taking the airport.
“The old premise about people taking the airport or stealing the airport is totally wrong,” said Rucho. “Apparently you might’ve been reading the newspaper too many times.”
He said there was evidence of the city “micro-managing” the airport. Critics cited the decision by the city to replace airport security with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and a plan to have the airport pay for part of any proposed streetcar line that crosses onto airport property.
“Every time the city got involved, it cost the airport more money to operate,” Rucho said. “And that put the airport in jeopardy.”
Samuelson said House leaders slowed down the legislation and tried to work with the city, only to be rebuffed.
“You can be upset with us, but we felt like there were problems at the airport,” she said. “(City leaders) won’t sit down and talk with us.”
Responded Earle: “If I have candy, and you say you’re going to take my candy, why would I sit down with you and talk about my candy?”
Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, argued that passing the airport legislation as a so-called local bill was illegal under the state constitution.
Brawley accused the city government of trying to divert revenue from the airport to pay for other projects, a practice he said has been discussed before.
Former Aviation Director Jerry Orr’s removal was still a flashpoint, with Republicans saying he was unfairly fired, while Democrats said he voluntarily resigned.
Clodfelter said the issue of Orr’s employment has been overblown.
“It’s a very dangerous thing for any community to allow any major institution in the community to become personalized,” he said. “It’s a bigger issue than Jerry Orr.”
Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said the fight over the airport devolved into a “goat rodeo.”
Another issue that drew sharp reactions from the crowd was education spending.
One questioner who identified himself as a retired manufacturing executive asked lawmakers how they reconciled the state’s low national ranking in teacher pay with making the state more attractive to business.
Brawley flashed a series of charts he said show that education spending has actually increased under Republicans. He said he’ll work to restore extra pay for teachers who get master’s degrees, which would end under new legislation.
“I will concede, people in the program now are accidentally being eliminated,” he said.
Democrats decried the passage of vouchers to subsidize private schools. Under what one lawmaker called a pilot program, students can now get more than $4,000 in state money to use toward a private school.
Earle said that wouldn’t be enough for poor children to attend private school. The programs’ defenders say it will give low-income students more options. They’ve said some private schools will subsidize the tuition.
“We know that there are some fabulous public schools,” Samuelson said. “We also know that there are some not-so-great ones.”
‘We’re all good friends’
After the forum, Tarte said the partisanship on display wasn’t reflective of the legislature’s behind-the-scenes workings.
“We’re all good friends,” he said. “That doesn’t get printed. People see this and think it’s all so divisive.”
Clodfelter said the level of passion about politics he’s seen since the session ended is the highest during his time in office.
“Folks realized maybe you can’t take some things for granted,” he said.