RALEIGH (AP) — An effort to compensate survivors of North Carolina’s defunct sterilization program with cash payments received a jolt of bipartisanship when Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis vowed to see it through this year.
Thousands of North Carolina residents in the 20th century received surgeries through a state-sponsored eugenics program that left them unable to reproduce. A state panel often authorized sterilizations for people it found mentally feeble, promiscuous or too poor to raise children.
Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue supports $50,000 payments to the living victims. Tillis was one of four sponsors — two Democrats and two Republicans — of a compensation bill for the same amount.
“Every once in a while I feel like you have the chance to make history. This is one of those chances,” Tillis said on the House floor this month during debate on the bill. “This is an opportunity to say, ‘we’re going to put this to rest.'”
While lawmakers agree the program represents an awful chapter in state history, the idea of going further and securing monetary compensation for the victims has been a hard sell this year, especially for Tillis’ fellow Republicans.
Recent politics draped around the issue in the Senate threaten to derail the idea this year. Budget negotiators meeting over the weekend could address the topic in the state spending plan, or it could be considered in a stand-alone bill before adjournment, expected in no more than a few weeks.
Compensation critics argue money won’t make up for the victims’ emotional pain or inability to have children. Others have said the $50,000 figure reached by a state advisory board could result in a large state liability over several years. More said it could open the door to other groups who feel wronged by the state seeking reparations.
“Why don’t we pay the Indians, the ancestors of slaves?” asked Sen. Don East, R-Surry, who believes a majority of the 31 Senate Republicans oppose compensating the victims. “You just can’t rewrite history. It was a sorry time in this country. I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it, don’t make it go away. It still happened.”
Senate leader Phi Berger, who supports compensation, said he told a Democratic colleague last week he “couldn’t see where the votes were to pass it” in 2012.
What the state did “is reprehensible,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said in an interview. The question, he added, “is one of time and one of amount.”
North Carolina laws enforced from 1929 to 1974 led to more than 7,600 people undergoing sterilizations. Some chose to be sterilized as a form of birth control. Up to 2,000 people who were sterilized may be alive. The state has verified 118 victims who are still living.
Then-Gov. Mike Easley formally apologized for the program in 2002. Compensation supporters say the tax-free money is a concrete way to show the state’s regret. No other state with a similar program has agreed to make payments like North Carolina is considering.
“This is a unique opportunity for North Carolina to really set an example,” said Mark Bold, a leader with the Virginia-based Justice for Sterilization Victims Project.
The House passed the compensation bill by a comfortable 86-31 margin. But the numbers belied division among Republicans. While all Democrats on the floor voted yes, just 35 of the 66 Republicans joined them. Those voting no peppered House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, another bill sponsor, with questions in earlier committee meetings.
The state could have to pay $100 million if 2,000 living victims came forward before the proposed deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. Stam said he expected the total price tag to be much less. This year’s bill seeks only $11 million.
The bill has yet to be debated in the Senate. The House earmarked money in its state budget proposal for the compensation, but the Senate didn’t. Berger indirectly referred to Tillis’ comments that he didn’t want to make compensation a budget negotiation point in explaining its absence from the Senate plan.
A Senate budget amendment last week that would have set aside money for compensation threatens to doom the idea this year. The amendment, penned by a Democrat, was designed to force Republicans to vote on eliminating a 2011 business tax break for the most profitable firms.
Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to block that vote, but Senate operating rules suggest the compensation now can’t be brought up again. Berger acknowledged the rules could be suspended, but he said the amendment left the impression Democrats aren’t serious about the topic.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, a primary sponsor of the Senate version of Tillis’ bill, said Senate Republicans made compensation a political football when they didn’t put money for it in their budget. McKissick is cautiously optimistic a compensation agreement will be reached this year.
What happened to sterilization victims “needs to be appropriately redressed,” McKissick said. Tills said he’s confident “an agreeable path forward” can be reached on the compensation issue.
For people such as Janice Black of Charlotte, who was sterilized in her late teens because she was labeled mentally disabled, compensation would put force behind the feelings of regret coming from state officials, said Sadie Long, her caregiver and friend.
“To say ‘we’re sorry,’ that’s the bottom line,” Long said.