NC Dem leader says Republicans should be honest about stance on abortion

NC Lawmakers return

North Carolina House Democratic leader Robert Reives, left, and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, in Raleigh in April. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

By Michael McElroy

April 29, 2024

As lawmakers return for a new session this month, House Democratic Leader Robert Reives says that Republican leadership should be honest with voters about their plan to further restrict abortion rights and should pay more attention to North Carolinians trying to make ends meet.

The North Carolina General Assembly returned to session last Wednesday, but the first few days were spent settling in, extending condolences for losses of loved ones, and passing one bill, a 117-0 bipartisan agreement to approve the nomination of a business court judge.

But the real work will play out over the summer as the legislature considers several bills that could have a direct effect on people’s lives. And these votes will likely be far less harmonious.

Last year’s session brought some monumental changes to the state, including a 12-week abortion ban and a budget that more than doubled the money taken from public schools to be spent on private school vouchers, including for wealthy families. The Republican-supermajority in the House and Senate helped push those bills through over the opposition of most Democrats and over the veto of Gov. Roy Cooper.

Though this session is expected to feature fewer earthquakes, lawmakers could still spar over some major issues.

Republican leadership has indicated they will add even more money to the voucher program amid high demand, even as public schools remain underfunded.

Cardinal and Pine talked via phone last week with NC Rep. Robert Reives, the House Democratic Leader, about what issues he expects to see this session on abortion, IVF, childcare, public schools, and more.

The conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

What are some of the things you expect the General Assembly to do this session?

[House Speaker Tim Moore] already talked about several things he hopes to have attacked. He wants to put $300 million more into the voucher program. He or someone in leadership stated that they want to take a really strong look at efforts to create diversity in different places in schools, in employment, in private employment, places like that. They do not believe that those places should be concentrating on diversity. And I know that there have been rumblings that they’ll be reapproaching immigration bills, bills regarding the border, things of that sort, which again, if we were following the rules directly, a lot of these issues wouldn’t be getting addressed. But obviously as I said, these rules only apply mostly to the minority party.

$300 million is a lot of money added to what was already a lot of money. What are your thoughts on the increased funding?

We love to boast about the fact that we’ve been rated number one for business for the last couple of years, but what we’ve done is we’ve gotten them here and then we’ve robbed them of one of the things they need: an educated workforce. We’re ultimately breaking a promise that we’ve made to all the companies we’ve recruited to our state. So the [initial increase] was already a very bad idea. Everywhere you look throughout the country that this scheme has been tried, you’ve had all the same problems and it’s been crushing to the public education systems. And it has caused an unaccountable group to be even more unaccountable.

The argument from the leadership would be that the increased funding is simply a response to the huge demand.

The leadership has strained public schools to a point where people are wanting to try anything to try to save their kids. And it’s just that simple. But the first thing that happens, which again is completely the right of any private school entity, is that they find out what the voucher amount is and then they raise their tuition by that amount. Second, people get to the schools and find out they’re not going to be able to afford all of the other costs. These vouchers don’t pay for all the school’s costs. And then these kids end up right back into the public school system.

If they add that extra $300 million, that will make $700 million total given just to the voucher program in less than a calendar year. With public schools chronically underfunded in the state, don’t they need that money too?

Eighty-five percent of children are still going to go to public school. And if 85% of your children are still going to public school, why would you not want them, as a point of pride for the state, to be some of the best schools in the country? It is ridiculous for the ninth-largest state in the entire country to have a school system that ranks between 49 and 42 in every major statistical category in the country. We’re getting outdone by Mississippi, we’re getting outdone by South Carolina, and we’re proud of that. We’re saying that, ‘Hey, the wealthiest people that we’ve got in the state though, they’ve got great schools they can go to.’

I don’t think that’s what government is here for

The state, this year anyway, has a billion dollar surplus, and there’s been a loud call to spend that money on the public school system. How would $1 billion help public schools?

[$1 billion] is about $10 million [for each of] the 100 counties. Ten million dollars in some counties gets you amazing raises for your teachers, amazing supplements. In some counties, it gives you the opportunity to build a new school, to help with overcrowding. Think of just all of the amenities and opportunities that it adds to the school.

I represent Randolph County, and the Asheboro School System has innovation after innovation. We just sat and talked about a theater program that they have. They also have an interactive program that allows for internships for kids to work with local businesses early in high school and not just in trades, but in things that they can go to four year colleges for, get a master’s, get a PhD, stuff like that. There are all kinds of innovations that you can put in.

We’ve continued to take a ridiculous amount of money from these school systems and public schools are just trying to fix the basics. Look what happened in Alamance County at the beginning of this school session with the mold problem. You’ve got a school system [that] gets shut down for a month because of mold and all these types of things, but at the same time, you’re finding some private school in the area to give that money to. Makes no sense.

But again, I’m not in charge and that’s not my decision. But I think that you are taking a whole lot of money and using it to benefit friends and family and coworkers of folks who are serving in the majority right now.

Moore said that he didn’t think that there would be any further abortion restrictions this session, but he has made it clear too that if Republicans hold their supermajority after the 2024 elections, then there would be next year. What’s your sense? Do you expect there to be any new abortion restrictions in 2024?

The speaker was very, very clear that they intended to further restrict abortion, so I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it this session. They may be concerned that it’s going to have an effect on the election, but my thing is people ought to know where they are. So if their belief is just—as has been stated by [Robinson]—that we should have a complete and total ban on abortion, then that needs to be done this session. Because I don’t think that you should falsely make people believe that somehow your stance has changed and then walk into January 2025 and institute a total ban.

It would be disingenuous to our voters not to make clear what the belief and stance is about where we should go on abortion.

Do you get any sense of a move to try and protect IVF since there have been some rumblings in other Republican-led majorities after the Alabama Supreme Court Case?

I don’t believe so because just what you’ve said is what’s happened. It’s been a bunch of rumblings. Look, when Roe v. Wade was overturned and when we started talking about when life begins and things of that sort, naturally you have to then restrict IVF. There’s no way around that. And so it is completely inconsistent to say that we’re going to try to protect IVF and still hold the same positions that you have about total bans on abortion. Even if you see a bill [to protect IVF access], I’d be very surprised if the bill moves.

On June 30th, federal pandemic-era funding childcare expires, putting some 30% of childcare centers in danger of closing. I’ve spoken to several lawmakers who have said they keep hearing from their constituents on this. Do you expect the General Assembly will try to address the childcare funding crisis?

I really hope there is, because it’s a really big deal, not just to our constituents, but to a lot of companies also. They’re trying to figure out what to do, because childcare is an incredible burden. And again, we’re not making it easier. So I hope there’s some movement, but I have not heard anything about it being moved.

When you talk to your colleagues across the aisle about this, do they seem to acknowledge it’s a major problem?

I mean, I have no doubt that they understand it’s a major problem. I don’t think that’s the issue. But again, their caucus works differently than our caucus. You can have 71 people in that caucus that feel like it’s a problem, but there’s only one person that makes a decision about whether or not it gets addressed. And I’m not saying that the speaker does not want to have it addressed. What I’m saying is ultimately it’s his call. So if I see where your question is going, your question is if they recognize it’s a problem, then they should do something about it. What I’m saying is it’s not their call.

If you’re wealthy in this country, childcare isn’t a problem. But if you are like 99% of us who work every day and you have young children, childcare is a problem. If you look at legislation that we have passed in that particular General Assembly, especially over the last five years, it is not passed with a lens looking towards what is going to happen to the everyday worker, the people who are out here working two jobs and trying to figure out every day how to make it even though.

We’ve got to prioritize spending and prioritize law changes that benefit them. When [Republican leadership] announced the new $300 million for vouchers, they said ‘there are a lot of wealthy people who are being left out.’ And I think that’s the lens that a lot of them govern from is that, ‘Hey, my friends are wealthy. The people who go to my country club are wealthy. The people who live in my neighborhood are wealthy and they’ve got problems and we’re tired of government not addressing their problems.’ Now, again, whether you agree with that or not is a whole different story, but if that’s the lens that you govern from, then that’s how you make those decisions.

There are several lawsuits in the courts now about provisions of the abortion ban, recent changes to election laws, and laws stripping power from the governor. Do you think the General Assembly could move to address any of the specific pieces of these bills that are at issue in the suits?

We’re the most powerful legislature, most likely in the country. And [there] doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of trust in the future nominee or the present nominee for governor on their side because they continue to try to take away gubernatorial powers, which if I were supporting somebody who I felt would make a very good governor, the last thing I would be doing is trying to limit their powers. With that being said, I fully anticipate that we are going to continue to attack board appointments and other executive powers. I think we’re going to continue to fully attack voting rights and things of that sort, because the last power the people have got is the vote.

That’s it. I mean, when you get, again, this tremendous amount of wealth that I just talked to you about, you talk about all of the money in politics, you talk about all of the power that is really consolidated within a few people. The only chance that people have of getting the government that starts working for them again, is in the voting box. And there is going to be every effort made this year [by North Carolina Republicans] to make sure that those folk who don’t agree with this theory of government don’t get a chance to vote. And that’s sad, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t think it represents the best of us.

What else is on your mind as you return to the legislature?

Continuing to advocate for good governance. Not about advocating for Democrats, not about advocating for Republicans, unaffiliated or whoever, but continuing to advocate for people to return to good governance, to return to civility, to return to real, honest listening of ideas, real honest compromise. I’m hoping that if people continue to see those examples, that maybe it’ll get through that, that’s who we need to be.

So that is really what my focus is going into this session and most every session, because I just think that [what’s] more important than who’s in power, who gets to do what, who gets to pass out what money in the budget is that we really return to a focus of treating each other like human beings and knowing that no matter how much we agree or disagree with each other, that the other viewpoint cares.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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