If you didn’t know better, you would think Democrats were running the North Carolina Senate. The body passed Medicaid expansion earlier in the session and passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana this week. Both bills will likely get stymied in the House this year, but both will probably become law in the not-too-distant future. And both will be enacted by a Republican legislature.
So, you might ask, are Republicans becoming more liberal? I don’t think so overall, but they may be becoming more practical and less ideological. Several influences are at play. They’re responding to changing times and they’re getting used to being the party in power, beholden to the broader population instead of their narrower base.
In South Carolina, Republicans matured as legislators once they had control of the state for a while. They started putting more money into education, investing in infrastructure, and got rid of the Confederate flag on government property, though it took a massacre at a church to wake them up. North Carolina Republican legislators may be maturing in a similar fashion.
The two issues that have caught people’s attention, Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana, have broad public support even though both may be opposed by a portion of the GOP base. Opposition to Medicaid expansion is opposed mainly by the free-market ideologues, while evangelicals make up the main opposition to marijuana. However, neither group cares that much about the other one’s cause, preventing any unified front.
On Medicaid expansion, the federal government is offering states a huge carrot in the form of billions of dollars. The offer reminds me of the government bribing Southern states to integrate their schools back in the 1960s. States that agreed were rewarded with huge amounts of federal support and the money was too much for legislatures to keep bowing to segregationists and their dwindling influence. Now, the money offered to places like North Carolina is more powerful than the free-marketeers whose influence is just a fraction of what it was in the Reagan era.
Politically, there’s little downside to expanding Medicaid and plenty of upside. Republicans can take credit for getting more people health care and bringing more money into the state, even if they’ve been the obstacle for the last decade. Expansion also takes away a Democratic talking point.
Medical marijuana is a bit of different animal. The whole country has moved toward support for legalization with diverse interest groups all supportive of more liberal laws. Marijuana has been shown to have positive effects for people with emotional and physical ailments. It’s long been known to help alleviate uncomfortable side effects of cancer treatment and it’s now seen as an alternative to opioid treatments at a time when too many people are becoming addicted to pain killers. Veteran groups dealing with PTSD and chronic pain have been pushing for legalization for years and many of those veterans lean Republican on most other issues.
In addition, criminal justice reform advocates from both the right and left have been urging reform of marijuana laws. Those arrested for marijuana possession are disproportionally African American even though they don’t represent a disproportionate percentage of users. People with marijuana convictions carry the burden of a criminal record that can make employment more difficult. Finally, the cases can clog up an already over-crowded court system.
In North Carolina, both measures will eventually become law. House Speaker Tim Moore has said that the House won’t take them up until the long session. Technically, Moore is probably right. The short-session was always supposed to just be an adjustment to the budget passed during the previous long session and should only last a few weeks. It was never intended to be a time for big bills or significant pieces of legislation, though that’s not the way it’s been treated for the past 20 years or so.
Be happy that we’re making progress with significant legislation on health care. We will have expanded Medicaid and we will have medical marijuana in the coming years. North Carolinians will benefit, regardless of who gets the credit.