A Day at the NCGA

As you know, we had to cancel our Women’s Advocacy Day last month due to an unexpected batch of North Carolina snow.  While it wasn’t a snowstorm on par with what the Northeast experienced this past winter, it was enough to curtail bus service, cancel schools and give pause to drivers around the state, especially those coming from outside of the Triangle.  We completely understand those who chose not to venture out; most of our board members were not able to get there. But not all of our registrants were deterred. We ended up doing a mini-Advocacy 101 with one of the trainers who was able to get to the NCGA that morning, and about 10 of us did make some legislative visits that day (because while some meetings and session may have been canceled, many legislators did make it into work).

Below is a story from one such advocate, NCWU supporter and all around powerhouse people’s advocate Kim Yaman. Thanks to Kim for taking the bus in from Cary that day to participate in our democracy; and for registering to come back to our rescheduled Advocacy Day – Tuesday, April 21. Mark your calendars, and register today!  For a preview of what we’ll be talking about on Women’s Advocacy Day, be sure to check our 2015 legislative agenda, and listen to me on NC Policy Watch’s radio show a few weeks back. See you all at 16 West Jones Street soon!

Tara Romano, President 

Citizen Lobbying on a Snow Day in Raleigh – Kim Yaman

NCGA_Kim_snowyWell, it’s that time again: The N.C. General Assembly (NCGA) meets for a “long session” every other year, when it deals with the majority of bills that have budgetary implications. Our last long session was 2013, a session many of probably remember well: . the infamous Motorcycle Vagina bill, the Yee-Haw-Guns-EVRAWHERE! bill, the We Don’t Needs No Education bills, the Lady Parts Have Vaginal Organisms that Are More Life-Threatening than Man Parts concerns, and so many others.

Tuesday, February 24, I’d intended to participate in Women’s Advocacy Day, sponsored by NC Women United. However, because of the snow, the event had to be cancelled. But some of us needed to be there to let folks know about the last-minute cancellation, as so many attendees came from out of town and might want to talk  with lawmakers despite the weather.

The General Assembly was pretty sparsely populated, of course, so those of us hardy, Rosie-the-Riveter types who did get to GA had unique access with lawmakers on all sides of the aisle. In fact, there were so few lobbyists, constituents, and general public on the campus that lawmakers were literally roaming the hallways and indoor courtyards looking for hands to shake and business cards to hand out. It was a spectacular opportunity to get face time with our senators and representatives.

It was my first opportunity to talk with Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-37th District, Mecklenburg County). You may have heard about Sen. Jackson, who was the only legislator to brave the previous week’s snowstorm and live-tweeted his February 17 Utopian reformation of the General Assembly using the hashtag #JustOneLegislator.

My daughter Yasemin, and grandkids Hasan and Leyla survived a four-hour bus trip from 30 miles away (I’m telling you, snowstorms are <em> different </em> here; they’re just <em> different </em>) to take part in Women’s Advocacy Day, and they loved meeting Sen. Jackson. Yasemin is a US Navy veteran who was injured in 2005 and Sen. Jackson is a member of the US Army National Guard who served in Afghanistan, so the two of them talked about using military PT exercises as parental discipline methods and all kinds of arcane military jargony things. Sen. Jackson invited 7-year-old Hasan to engage in a friendly push-up competition but quickly forfeited the game when Hasan demonstrated he could probably out-push-up the senator.

We talked about economic self-sufficiency, how the new state voter-suppression law impacts NC women in particular, and how underfunding adjudications of those not making their child-support payments results in increased state spending over time.

From Sen. Jackson’s office, we moved on to the office of Yasemin’s state senator. Because the senator already had Women’s Advocacy Day on his calendar, we had a uniquely lengthy discussion with his legislative assistant and an intern, despite the legislator not making it in himself that day. We received a lot of useful information and some regular-people face time with his staff members that yielded some “next steps” for Yasemin’s interest in challenging the structure of a clogged system that allows those shirking their child-support duties  to go years without supporting their children or being held responsible for that crime.

Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-106th District, Mecklenburg County) let me take a seat for nearly half an hour to discuss her fight for parity in the costs of IV-infused chemotherapy and oral chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients. Although she wasn’t able to win that battle in 2013, she did get the NCGA to cut the deductible rates for oral chemotherapy medications and believes she can make more headway in this session by working with cancer patients and patient-advocacy groups that are now more informed about what they’re up against.

Rep. Cunningham also reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment before the House the week after our Advocacy Day. w00t! Yes, we’re making another attempt to take the United States off the list of 13 of 140 countries in the world that do not have constitutional protections for women.

We met with my state representative, Rep. Duane Hall (D-11th District, Wake County), to talk about whether he would draft and sponsor an amendment to H46, a bill to restore the medical-expense deduction to state income taxes that was stripped from us starting with our 2014 taxes. Although H46 is written to restore this deduction only to senior citizens 65 or older, I’m bringing several carloads and busloads of senior citizens to the General Assembly in March to officially ask Rep. Hall to sponsor an amendment that would extend the deduction to people living on fixed incomes through SSDI and SSI, as well as low-income earners.

Rep. Brian Turner (D-116th District, Buncombe County) saw my family in an indoor courtyard in the GA building as we were resting up for another round of visits to lawmakers’ offices. He came right over and actually apologized for not spending more time with us earlier when he was meeting with other legislators outside his office. He brought stickers for my grandchildren and asked us which issues we were interested in. Yes! He asked us!

Our discussion with him about bills coming before the General Assembly drew several other lawmakers, who talked with us about the various bills and ideas for bills and actually asked for our input. I’m totally not kidding. There were eight legislators actually asking <em> regular citizens </em> of North Carolina what we thought about bills coming up before the legislature.

Citizen lobbying is hungry work — especially for 7-year-old boys. We headed down to the NCGA cafeteria and hobnobbed with politicos and the lobbyists who lobby them while enjoying some “Goodness Grows in North Carolina” deliciousness.

After taking on some ballast, I took the family to the Legislative Research Office, where lawmakers send drafts of bills to be researched assiduously to comply with laws already on the books and to bring forward studies and program evaluations that could support or undercut the essence of the bills. The grandkids learned about the process of how a bill is drafted, how it’s vetted and edited, how many times it’s voted on before it reaches the final version that (if passed) moves to the other legislative chamber for more discussion and votes.

We visited the Legislative Research Library, then we mosied over to talk with Larry Yates, the NCGA’s principal program evaluator at the NCGA Program Evaluation Division, which is responsible for studying the efficacy of legislative programs and provides that feedback to lawmakers and committees.

Seven hours of absolutely unprecedented (in my 55 years on this planet) discussions with the people who are fighting a battle between representing North Carolinians and ruling us.

Citizen lobbying. Educational, fun, frustrating, joyful, maddening, challenging, physical, cerebral, spar-worthy. Give it a try. If we don’t demand representation, we’re going to end up being governed by people who believe they deserve more than we do and make the “manifest destiny” laws to prove it.

Although Women’s Advocacy Day itself had to be postponed, there were enough of us who made it through the ice and snow to bring vital issues to the attention of the lawmakers present. My daughter and grandchildren were so motivated by the experience that they’ve asked me to meet them at the General Assembly again sometime soon so they can continue discussions about economic self-sufficiency, health care, and other issues — and start new discussions.

We’re looking forward to a rescheduled Women’s Advocacy Day, but we learned that average citizens shouldn’t wait for a particular date on a calendar to speak up for ourselves and our families. And when armed with the useful information packets from NC Women United, there’s no limit to the strength of our voices!