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Republicans barrel ahead on enabling vice
Marijuana, gambling take a front seat in new legislative session. That's disappointing under GOP leadership
I continue to be baffled by the energy and enthusiasm in the General Assembly’s Republican caucus for marijuana and gambling.
Again this year, Republicans are the driving force behind bills to legalize marijuana in North Carolina for medical use and to legalize sports gambling throughout the state. Such bills have failed narrowly in the past few years, but legislative leaders predict that this year both will go to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk — where he will eagerly sign them.
Both issues have the media behind them, and most public polling. But the real arguments for marijuana and gambling largely center around money. They’ve become big businesses in the United States — and the General Assembly sees dollar signs. As neighboring states legalize and regulate these burgeoning industries, legislative worry that they’re missing out.
But this ignores something more important than money. Both issues strike to the heart of a few simple questions: What kind of state do we want North Carolina to be? And what’s more important: Being the most business-friendly, or the most family-friendly?
About the medical marijuana bill
North Carolina’s medical marijuana legislation is called the Compassionate Care Act.
The effort has long been championed by Brunswick County Republican Sen. Bill Rabon, who cites his own experience with colon cancer when he was in his 40s. "In my opinion, it will not keep you on earth a day longer, but every day you’re here is a better day," he told The Assembly.
Under the bill, North Carolina would set up an elaborate, regulated industry around marijuana growing, distribution, and sale. Companies would pay a $50,000 fee to get a license to manufacture or sell the drug in the state, opening roughly 80 “cannabis centers” around the state to sell weed. They’ll pay a $10,000 fee each year, plus a 10% tax on total revenue.
A fairly lengthy list of conditions will qualify for medical marijuana to begin with, including cancer, AIDS, Chron’s, HIV, sickle cell anemia, nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the governor will get the vast majority of the appointments to a “Compassionate Use Advisory Board,” which can add other conditions to the list as it sees fit. The Department of Health and Human Services is required to police whether the system is being used as intended.
Last week, the bill raced through the state Senate with overwhelming majorities. It has yet to receive a hearing in the House.
The arguments against medical marijuana are numerous, but they can be boiled down to two fronts. First, approving medical marijuana is essentially a backdoor way to legalize its recreational use. And two, there's no evidence that marijuana is legitimate for medicinal purposes.
While the FDA has approved some marijuana-derived medicines, it has not approved so-called "botanical" marijuana for medicinal use, despite years of study. Instead, it warns that "the use of unapproved cannabis and cannabis-derived products can have unpredictable and unintended consequences, including serious safety risks."
I’ll grant that some truly ill people may perceive benefits from medical marijuana. But at what cost?
“Card mills,” similar to the “pill mills” that devastated rural North Carolina, will want to set up shop to prescribe marijuana en masse — unless you trust the executive branch to rigorously enforce laws against them. Our roads and workplaces will be less safe. And this damaging drug will be front-and-center for children across the state.
Marijuana will essentially be elevated to the same position alcohol currently holds — a ubiquitous and celebrated substance that children grow up familiar with. That’s not the type of state many North Carolina parents want to see.
About the sports gambling efforts
This year’s version of a sports wagering bill has yet to be filed, but it will likely be similar to the bill that failed by a single vote in the House last year. Berger told the Carolina Journal that he expects it to pass in 2023.
In short, the gambling bill would allow 10 to 12 corporate bookies to set up shop in North Carolina, allowing people in the state to bet on professional, collegiate, amateur and video game sports from their phones. Youth sports are excluded.
Companies would pay a $500,000 fee for the privilege of running gambling operations in the state. And in return, sports arenas will set up computer terminals or other special booths designated to promote betting on their platforms. Every sporting event in the state would now become an advertisement for gambling, and expect sports bars and restaurants to follow suit — not to mention the sports media.
Republicans are pushing this bill under the guise of “stimulating economic activity” and creating jobs. Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) also couches his support for the bill with a libertarian argument: “I don’t bet on sports, and that was my decision to make. If an adult enjoys doing so, that should be their choice,” he told Carolina Journal.
Well, sure, but maximizing individual negative freedom is not the ultimate goal of government. There are plenty of things adults may enjoy that remain illegal, and justifiably so. Fostering positive freedom — the conditions under which society flourishes — is just as important.
North Carolina families should have the freedom to bring their children to a ballgame and enjoy the sport, without being forced to parade them through a corporatized gambling den. And how many thousands more North Carolina families will be devastated by a parent suffering from a gambling addiction?
Why these are popular
I frequently advise Republicans to lean into 70/30 issues, areas of broad agreement where they can boldly push for the true priorities of North Carolinians.
This typically refers to things like school choice and parental rights — but you can certainly make an argument that medical marijuana and sports gambling are 70/30 issues as well.
Nearly three-quarters of North Carolinians reportedly support medical marijuana, according to a Meredith Poll in February. That includes about 64% of Republicans in support, and 75% of unaffiliated voters.
Public support for sports gambling is considerably weaker but still strong. Just under half of N.C. voters support creating sports gambling in the state, though it is a plurality, according to the Meredith Poll. About one-third of voters oppose it, and 20% said they were unsure.
There’s a generational divide at play, too. Younger people are more likely to support both. Legislative leaders are undoubtedly keen to make inroads into a demographic that leans largely to the left.
But there’s a difference between marijuana and gambling and, say, school choice. Education is an animating issue in North Carolina politics. Weed and wagering are not. No 25-year-old voter is going to read about legalization and think, “Gosh, Republicans are cool and hip now. They’ve got my vote.” Republicans don’t stand to lose many votes by punting on the issue, either.
Instead, Democrats will use these victories to continue to push their own agenda — especially full legalization of marijuana for recreational use.
I get that my argument sounds a little pearl-clutching and old-fashioned. But I believe my conservative political philosophy demands it. Neither marijuana nor gambling improves the quality of life in North Carolina. Quite the opposite: Enabling these vices erodes the fabric of our society, all for a few hundred million more dollars in the state coffers.
Lottery 2.0, with a twist
Nearly 20 years ago, the General Assembly faced an eerily similar type of debate over instituting a state lottery. For years, it had been a Democratic Party priority, with Republicans standing firmly against it. But polling showed the majority of the state approved of joining most of the country in sponsoring a lottery, and legislators in moderate districts felt some pressure to fall in line. Doing so, however, would put Republicans at risk of a primary challenge.
Of course, Republicans then never did cave on the lottery issue. The Democratic majority rammed it through in 2005 when two Republicans missed a session, suspending chamber rules to get the necessary votes.
It's sad to see Republicans caving on this type of moral, quality-of-life issue today.
5 things of note
General Assembly reaches deal on Medicaid expansion
After more than a decade of debate, the General Assembly has finally caved to the Democratic Party's top priority: Medicaid expansion.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced Thursday that their two chambers had reached a compromise deal to massively increase the federal entitlement program in North Carolina.
We’ve gone over what exactly Medicaid expansion does and the arguments for and against it in the past. If you need a refresher, you can click the link below.
The details on the new Medicaid expansion compromise are so far a little scarce. Legislative leaders said this week that Medicaid expansion will be tied into the overall budget process. It’s unclear whether it will actually become part of the budget bill, but I think it’s likely — to give Republican caucus members political cover to vote for it. Here are the details we know.
Starts this summer. Once passed, newly eligible people would be able to sign up for Medicaid beginning this summer. It’s estimated that some 500,000 more North Carolinians will be pushed onto government-run health insurance.
Certificate of Need reforms. Certificate of Need refers to the antiquated system in North Carolina that requires hospitals and other medical providers to get government permission to expand or buy new equipment. Reforming the system has been a priority for the Senate, but resisted by the House. The Medicaid expansion compromise would remove CON requirements in some areas — such as behavioral health and substance abuse. But Sen. Berger told reporters Thursday that the reforms won't be as expansive as the Senate would have liked.
Charity care requirement. Some medical providers will be required to provide at least 4% of their budget in the form of charity care.
No nursing reforms. The Senate has wanted to expand the breadth of what nurses are allowed to do in North Carolina, as has been done in other states. This would increase access to primary care, something desperately needed in North Carolina — and something that will only become more pressing when Medicaid expansion goes into effect. This is not part of the compromise deal.
Berger said that Gov. Cooper will be pleased with the legislation. In a statement, Cooper pushed for it to go into effect immediately.
Liberal publication decries the state of Asheville’s downtown
Things must have gotten bad in Asheville if even the city’s most liberal media organizations are crying for something to be done.
In a column this week, Asheville Watchdog reporter John Boyle warns that “what’s going on now is not sustainable for anyone,” mentioning an increase in belligerent encounters, feces and needles on downtown sidewalks. The police department cites meth addiction as the culprit, though Boyle notes a decreased police presence downtown. The city is facing a significant shortage of officers.
“Everybody has a right to feel safe in our town,” he writes. “That’s not an outrageous ask.”
Gov. Cooper to give “State of the State” address Monday
Following North Carolina’s odd-year tradition, Gov. Roy Cooper is scheduled to deliver a “State of the State” address to the General Assembly at 7 p.m. Monday.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson will then present the Republican rebuttal — perhaps also making his first big public preview of his impending gubernatorial campaign.
We will watch both speeches and give an analysis in next week’s edition.
Another Governor Hunt?
The first major Democratic lieutenant governor candidate has entered the race: Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County state senator and daughter of former Gov. Jim Hunt.
In her announcement, Hunt pledged to reduce "divisiveness" and focus on expanding healthcare access, increasing education spending, upping the state minimum wage and strengthening environmental protections. She also attacked current Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson as an "extremist."
The Hunt name doesn't loom nearly as large in the minds of North Carolina voters today, though there may still be some residual benefits to that. What does make a big difference is the Hunt money. Rachel Hunt has access to the still-potent Hunt fundraising machine, bringing in one of the highest money totals in her General Assembly races.
Also notable is the fact that her father was elected lieutenant governor before reeling off an unprecedented four terms as governor. When The Charlotte Observer asked if she would run for governor, she said: "I would not take any path off the table."
This is not surprising. Rare is the LG candidate who doesn't have their eyes on the Executive Mansion. Don’t be surprised to see another Hunt on the gubernatorial ballot in four or eight years if she is successful in 2024.
Speaker Moore backs Constitutional convention for federal term limits — but we need a different amendment
Once again, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore is again backing an effort to call for a national convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to add term limits to the federal Congress. Under the Constitution, it takes two-thirds of state legislatures to call for such a “Convention of States” for one to be held. That's 34 states under today's 50-state arrangement. Then you need three-quarters of states (38) to ratify it.
The term limit effort is somewhere near 19 states currently. In previous years, the state House has passed a similar resolution to demand a Constitutional convention, but the Senate has now ratified it.
It is of course quite rich that Moore wants term limits for the U.S. House and Senate, but not for himself (as plenty of others have pointed out). He's currently 11 terms into his service in the General Assembly.
But I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t see term limits as particularly useful. Voters get to decide if they want to continue to send the same person to Washington again, and the power of incumbency has grown considerably weaker in recent years.
I do agree, however, that a Convention of States is needed — just for a different amendment. A balanced budget amendment like one that has been regularly floated over the years is likely necessary to reign in federal spending and prevent economic collapse under the weight of U.S. debt. Here’s hoping Speaker Moore will get on board with that one, instead.
1 good idea from another state
Tennessee bans “adult cabaret” shows in view of minors. Gov. Bill Lee signed into law last week a bill that bans “adult-oriented” performances in places where they can be viewed by children. These performances include strip shows, exotic dancing and other shows that appeal to prurient interests — including but not exclusively the R-rated drag shows that have popped up around the country and market to children.
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