Light in the darkness for Democrats
RALEIGH – Earlier this year, state Sen. Ben Clark, a Hoke County Democrat, became a hero for a day among his party and environmentalists when his amendment to require more well water testing near future fracking sites passed the Senate. It even gained the support of a number of GOP senators, against the wishes of the Republican bill sponsor.
And in at least a couple of instances so far this lawmaking session, Republican lawmakers publicly congratulated Democrats who successfully sponsored amendments to bills. Democratic wins aren't the norm in this Legislature, where Republicans call all the shots.
Such is the life for the minority party in this General Assembly. With GOP super-majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats have little hope of getting major pieces of legislation passed or blocking measures the other party is determined to enact.
What are they left with? The hope of making legislation they oppose a little more "palatable" – a word uttered often on Jones Street in Raleigh – and keeping their opposition to GOP actions in the public eye, with elections just four months away.
That's what's going on this session, which is expected to end in the next couple of weeks. Democrats knew when they filed bills this year to expand Medicaid, increase the minimum wage, roll back last year's tax cuts and restore early voting days that they wouldn't be heard in GOP-controlled committees. But they filed them anyway, mainly to keep the controversial issues on voters' minds. "I think it's more than anything just reminding people and keeping it on the forefront," said Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat. "As you know, November will be here before we know it."
Democrats also know that they have little chance of derailing major plans of the opposing party, such as opening the state to drilling for shale gas, the process known as "fracking," or cutting corporate taxes or moving the state's economic development efforts to a private nonprofit.
So Democrats work behind the scenes with GOP bill sponsors and during public debates to try to make changes aimed at improving Republican-penned legislation. "We've got some good thinkers in the Senate and House Democrats who can look at those things and still find some light in the darkness, and I think that's what we're trying to do, because anything you can find that's good is better than nothing, to make a bad bill better," Pierce said.
With only one Democrat on the 42-member committee negotiating a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the $21 billion state budget, Democrats also are destined to have little formal input into that process.
So in recent press conferences, Democrats urged Republicans to open budget negotiations, which are normally held in private. Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat and Senate minority leader, said allowing different minds to come to the table could result in different – perhaps better – solutions. "It's worked in the past, and I think it would work again if they give it a chance," Blue said.
In recent days, Republicans have shown interest in opening the budget negotiations. But that, like everything else in the state capital these days, is up to them.