Southern PoliticsBy Mullen, Patric
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1979, pp. 22
By most press accounts the 1979 session of the North Carolina General Assembly was lack luster, if not dull. While North Carolina's deliberative body met for 108 legislative days and considered 2,480 bills, which resulted in 1,077 new laws, the mood in the legislative building was decidedly anti-growth in government. Governor Hunt presented a very modest legislative program with few new initiatives. Even before the session began in early January, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House were both talking about adjournment at the earliest possible date.
From the perspective of the state press, the entire session might well be characterized as a slow news day. After all, North Carolinians can only stand so much public debate on the new state rock (granite) or the new state reptile (the box turtle). Having passed the seemingly obligatory resolution calling upon the U.S. Congress to submit a constitutional amendment to the states which would require a balanced federal budget (despite the fact that one out of every four dollars in the state budget comes from the feds), the General Assembly settled down to a sessionlong debate on rewriting the state bingo laws.
Midway through the session, having dispatched the Equal Rights Amendment to an early grave, it looked as if the predictions of a short legislative session would come true. Then the HEW University of North Carolina dispute over desegregating and funding of the predominately Black UNC institutions became the subject of legislative debate, along with questions of teacher pay raises and the size and nature of a tax cut. All this served to prolong the session and, perhaps, heightened its newsworthiness.
Before the opening gavel of the 1979 session, Legal Services of North Carolina, Inc. (LSNC) had met with a large and diverse number of clients across the state to determine client problems and interests which should be represented in the state legislature. Following a series of issue meetings between clients and Legal Services staff at the local program level, some sixty clients and staff members gathered in Raleigh to hammer out a 14-point legislative agenda. This agenda included five basic substantive areas to be pursued in the 1979 session: consumer, domestic, housing, benefits and employment.
LSNC also structured a legislative coordinating committee composed of a client and a staff member from each of the ten local programs to implement the LSNC legislative agenda.
Once the General Assembly convened in January 1979, it became clear that the LSNC legislative unit would have to follow a two-track approach: one defensive, to protect clients from damaging legislative proposals, and the other offensive, to promote client supported legislation. LSNC was able to do both with relative success.
During the five-month long session, acting on behalf of clients statewide, LSNC was able to substantially rewrite the state's landlord tenant laws to make them among the most progressive in the nation; enact a moderately progressive statute covering domestic violence; est ablish in workers compensation law the principle of retaliatory discharge; eliminate the practice of spousal deeming; relieve parents of financial responsibility for severely disabled adult children; and defeat legislative attempts to establish wage garnishment for the collection of money judgments, to limit the statute of limitations on civil rights cases, and to require a bond to stay execution of judgments on appeal.
Properly viewed these legislative accomplishments, these improvements in North Carolina public policy, are the result of competent and aggressive representation of clients. They are the product of important public policy debates conducted on behalf of clients by Legal Services staff and clients throughout the state.
LSNC was by no means successful one-hundred percent of the time. A legislative proposal to require statewide implementation of the federal school breakfast program was killed, as were client supported proposals to repeal the state sales tax on food and to repeal the 1977 enabling legislation which allows utility companies to add to the rate base the cost of construction work in progress.
Yet the message of the 1979 session suggests that client interests can be properly represented in the General Assembly; that LSNC can make a responsible contribution to the formulation of state public policy. This message is hardly a revelation and it most certainly will not make headlines but it does add credence to the proposition that client interests can be protected and advanced through the legislative process.
Patric Mullen is a staff member of the Legal Services of North Carolina.