Friday Follies: Lawmakers head back to Raleigh, Mark Johnson doubles down and some new huffing and puffing about hemp

Friday Follies: Lawmakers head back to Raleigh, Mark Johnson doubles down and some new huffing and puffing about hemp

Lawmakers return to Raleigh to do…well…something…maybe

The North Carolina General Assembly takes the latest step in its ongoing transition to a de facto fulltime legislature next week. Less than two months after having vacated the capital for the holiday season, lawmakers will return to Raleigh on Tuesday for a session of indeterminate length and indeterminate subject matter.

News reports in recent days have speculated that the session may be brief – just a day or two or three – and deal with relatively low-profile topics like scholarships for the children of veterans and compliance with federal tax changes. Then again, rumors also persist that Senate Republicans will make a run at overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s nearly-seven-month-old budget veto – if they can convince a Democrat or two to develop a conflict that keeps them away from Raleigh, or perhaps even to abandon the Governor.

There are also all kinds of important and long-neglected bills that lawmakers should take up next week – from the expansion of Medicaid to raises for teachers to final passage of the bipartisan Second Chance Act to enacting a long-overdue hike in the minimum wage – but few observers are holding their breath.

Of course, the real outrage in all of this is that no one – save for a few powerful legislators working behind closed doors – has any real idea of what will take place in the upcoming session or even what legislation will be considered.

Rather than sharing an agenda ahead of time with rank and file legislators, the news media, advocates or, God forbid, the public at-large, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and/or a few of their chief minions will simply issue a pronouncement or two shortly before proposed new laws are brought up for votes. Then, if things remain true to their usual form, when a handful of courageous souls rise from the legislative backbenches to protest the lack of process, Republican leaders will soberly inform all those in earshot that the subject matter of the proposal has been a topic of debate for months and that “its time to get on with the people’s business.”

Mark Johnson begins his final year in office in typical fashion

And speaking of lack of process and closed-door policymaking of highly-questionable legitimacy, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson was back in the news this week.

The lame duck DPI leader (Johnson has already announced that he is opting for a politically suicidal plunge into a crowded GOP field in the race for Lt. Governor rather than seek re-election) made yet another effort to override the advice of education experts as to the appropriate vendor to hire to measure the reading skills of students in grades K-3.

Johnson, as you will recall, has been pushing doggedly since last summer to hire a Texas firm called Istation that, as it happens, is well-connected to a number of Republican politicians.

In recent days, he’s gone so far as to lay out more than $900,000 in DPI “emergency” funds to keep the IStation program up and running. This, after IStation had agreed to put its system in place for “free” temporarily while Johnson tried – unsuccessfully thus far – to secure an administrative or judicial ruling validating his decision to ignore the advice of a panel of experts that had recommended IStation’s competitor, Amplify and its MClass program.

Johnson’s actions in the matter hearken to his previous unilateral decision to fork over millions in state funds outside of the appropriate procurement processes to purchase thousands of Apple iPads back in 2018 after the Silicon Valley corporate giant wined and dined he and some other state and local officials.

By all indications, Johnson is not terribly worried about the potential consequences of continuing to ignore experts, the courts and other state officials charged with reviewing his decision. Even as he engaged in testy exchanges with leaders of the State Board Education over the matter and ignored the eminently reasonable pleas of the North Carolina Association of Educators to focus on the “real emergencies” in public education, he announced this week that he’s prepared to sign another emergency contract with Istation if the legal disputes in the matter aren’t resolved by the end of March.

What have they been smokin’?

And finally, speaking of public officials who seem confused about what ought to be their priorities, a group of law enforcement officials and prosecutors called this week for state lawmakers to criminalize smokable hemp.

According to the officials, because the hemp is so hard to distinguish from its genetic sibling (marijuana, aka cannabis) without expensive testing that’s not widely available, a failure to enact a ban makes it impossible to enforce laws against marijuana possession.

The problem with this logic, of course, is that smokable hemp is an innocent product that many people believe provides beneficial effects. How can it possibly make sense to criminalize possessing something just because it looks like a currently illegal substance? By such convoluted logic we should criminalize any number of beneficial medicines.

The bottom line: Rather than wasting time arresting people for possessing hemp, North Carolina would do much better to start looking at ways to follow the national and global trends by ending the wasteful criminalization of marijuana/cannabis.

Surely our state law enforcement officers and prosecutors have many more important things to worry about.