Struggling for justice at the General Assembly

Struggling for justice at the General Assembly

- in Fitzsimon File

Tuesday was one of those days at the General Assembly. The halls were packed with hundreds of mental health advocates and consumers and booths touting the benefits of the tourism, including exhibitors in costumes from the 18th century. A race car from NASCAR filled a sidewalk outside the building, waiting for a pit crew competition featuring members of the House and Senate.

It was also a day that pleas for justice filled committee rooms and legislative offices. The pleas started late Monday afternoon when State NAACP President William Barber and a host of progressive advocates came to the General Assembly demanding action on the NAACP’s 14-point policy agenda that includes expanding health care and child care programs, allowing voters to register and vote on the same day, passing mental health parity and giving public workers the right to collectively bargain.

The group asking for more funding for services for mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities had two missions. One was to convince Senate budget writers to invest more in services than the House budget, which found only $17 million in new money for next year.

The citizen lobbyists also encouraged lawmakers to end discrimination against people with mental illness and addictions by passing parity legislation. The House Insurance Committee took up the bill Tuesday morning.

Rep. Martha Alexander told the committee said that people reached out to her when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and hoped the same thing would happen if she had been diagnosed with a mental illness. But unlike 37 other states, North Carolina doesn’t require that insurance companies cover mental illness the same way they cover cancer or other physical diseases.

Alexander said parity would not dramatically increase the cost of insurance, pointing to studies and experience in other states and citing a comment from the CEO of Blue Cross in Rhode Island, who said that parity did not break the bank in his state.

The facts didn’t stop the lobbyists for the insurance industry and a business group from claiming that parity would increase costs and result in some businesses dropping insurance coverage altogether.

Lobbyists from Blue Cross didn’t speak publicly, but several lawmakers presented the company’s point of view, opposing coverage of substance abuse. Blue Cross has also reportedly backed away from covering all mental illnesses too. The meeting adjourned without a vote, which may come Thursday.

Justice was also delayed on another item on the NAACP’s agenda, the rights of public employees to collectively bargain with their employer. Rep. Dan Blue told a House Committee that his bill would simply restore the dignity of workers by allowing them to speak with one voice about their working conditions and salary. But after fierce opposition from business groups, that committee too adjourned without a vote.

The full House was scheduled to take up the Racial Justice Act, legislation that would set standards to allow people sentenced to death to raise questions on appeal about the role that race played in their sentence.  The Racial Justice Act was taken off the House calendar and scheduled for next week.

The NAACP wants the Senate to take up legislation allowing people to register and vote the same day at early voting sites. The House has passed the same-day registration bill and Senate leaders want to take it up after the legislative crossover deadline. Supporters want Senate action sooner since has to be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department, a lengthy process that could delay implementation of the new registration procedure.

One other reminder of justice came a few blocks from the Legislative Building in the latest chapter of the scandals that hang like a dark cloud over this legislative session. The State Board of Elections convened hearings into the campaign finances of two House members, Rep. Thomas Wright from Wilmington and Rep. Mary McAllister from Fayetteville.  Wright refused to testify about allegations that he pocketed campaign contributions, invoking the Fifth Amendment.  

Delays on ending discrimination against the mentally ill, giving public workers a chance to speak with one voice, and addressing the intolerable role that races plays in the capital punishment system.  There was a lot of talk about justice in the General Assembly Tuesday, but not much action to grant it. The struggle continues.