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Lawmakers, don’t sweat the small stuff

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RALEIGH — Legislators will be back in the state capital for their annual session on May 16, but it feels like they never left.

This year’s legislative off-season featured multiple special sessions and a slew of study committee meetings that brought lawmakers to Raleigh nearly every week.

I bet you’re thinking “wow, those extra months of work probably allowed them to find solutions to all of North Carolina’s most pressing problems.”

Not exactly. Your legislators delved into the massive problem of legal disputes involving homeowners associations. There was a whole committee devoted to this, and eventually they reached the groundbreaking conclusion that more studies are needed. Another committee addressed private process servers (the people that come to your door with legal notices and say “you got served”), while another tackled the scourge of slow building inspections.

Why delegate these issues to state government bureaucrats when the honorables are eager to handle them for the low pay of $104 a day?

In all seriousness though, it can be worthwhile for the legislature to slow down and study issues in detail without the deadline pressure of a busy voting session. And while I picked on the most esoteric committee topics, others were devoted to school safety, economic development and GenX water contamination.

Most of the committees have issued findings and draft bills for the coming short session. But many of those proposals have been underwhelming — a few minor tweaks to existing law or calls for further studies.

A House and Senate education oversight committee is facing criticism that its report didn’t address hot topics like teacher pay, education funding and student achievement. Instead, the committee wants to make sure schools follow a 2013 mandate to teach cursive handwriting.

Luis Toledo, a candidate for state Senate, says that committee “squandered” an “opportunity to identify the barriers faced by our students and educators, and craft solutions to lift our students to their potential.”

“You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried!” Toledo said of the cursive mandate on his Facebook page.

The cursive issue is only one provision of a four-page report, but I’m not sure why lawmakers are so focused on fancy penmanship when far greater challenges are facing our schools.

Like most adults, I only use cursive when it’s time to sign a credit card receipt. Even then, my signature is an impossible-to-read scribble that would likely embarrass my third-grade teacher, who taught me better.

Cursive signatures could eventually die off. I suspect the next generation might opt for a personalized string of emojis to sign their names. Teaching cursive simply wastes class time that could be spent on basic reading and writing skills.

We need our legislature to stay focused on the bigger picture, especially during the off-season months when the part-time lawmakers are supposed to get time to stay home and work their real jobs.

One committee did set the example for legislative work that’s valuable outside of session. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, House Speaker Tim Moore organized the House Select Committee on School Safety.

While avoiding the polarizing topic of gun control, the committee quickly zeroed in on concrete proposals, such as adding more school resource officers and improving counseling programs to help students with mental health issues.

The proposals won’t eliminate the threat of school shootings, but they’re a step in the right direction. And they seem to have bipartisan support so far — an impressive feat in today’s partisan legislature.

The committee’s efforts deserve votes in both the House and Senate when the session begins. And the work can be a model for future between-session initiatives: Tackle the big problems and spend less time on minor issues like homeowners associations.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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