Lawmakers left Raleigh on Thursday after completing a couple of veto override votes and passing a few bills, but left some other issues on the table that will likely be addressed when the legislature returns in January.
Legislators will return to Raleigh January 10 to take up unfinished business; usually in odd years the legislature enters into a short session beginning in May, but that does not appear to be the case as the legislature has been a revolving door since legislators left in June after approving the budget.
The adjournment resolution leaves a lot of leeway for what legislators can do when they return to Raleigh, as previous resolutions have, including: veto override votes, constitutional amendments, judicial redistricting, political appointments and bills responding to legal challenges.
Even though most legislators have left the capitol, skeletal sessions will be held for the next 10 legislative days, through Oct. 17, to ensure that Gov. Roy Cooper can address vetoes within 10 day time limit and also to allow time for legislators to return for veto override votes before the holiday season.
If legislators are not in session then the governor has 30 days to veto legislation.
Legislators passed two pieces of legislation during the two-day special session, the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017 and the Budget and Agency Technical Corrections bill.
Both passed along largely party line votes.
The Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, SB656, cancels the 2018 judicial primary election under the explanation of giving candidates time to digest the proposed new judicial districts, though the Senate did not take up the redistricting plan which passed the House during the special session this week.
The bill passed the House in a 70 to 44 party line vote and the Senate approved the legislation in a 30 to 16 vote, putting the bill before Cooper for action.
The bill does not just remove primaries for the district and superior court races, which are on the table for redistricting, but also the statewide court elections.
The bill also delays the period on which judicial candidates would formally sign up to run in those elections, backing it up to June.
Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison) said that the delayed filing period is needed for legislators to have time to consider how judges are selected in the state, raising the question of whether judges will be appointed rather than elected in the state.
How judges are selected varies by state; in Virginia all judges are appointed by the legislature, whereas in South Carolina all but county judges are selected by the legislature. County judges in South Carolina are selected through partisan elections.
Many states maintain systems where some of their judges are appointed and others are elected, trending toward local judges being elected and those in larger and statewide jurisdictions being appointed.
In North Carolina all judges are currently elected.
The bill also eases ballot access thresholds for third parties and unaffiliated candidates, as well as lowering the requirement for primary candidates to win a party nomination from 40 to 30 percent, likely reducing run-off elections.
The legislature also passed legislation that makes some technical changes and some more substantial changes to permitting regulations, the film grant program, and also the attorney general’s office.
The bill, SB582, extended the film grant program, which replaced the film incentive program, indefinitely instead of sunsetting the program. This bill allows the use of state money to pay for permits for private property but the contentious part of the legislation referred to changes made to the state attorney general’s (AG) office ability to delegate appeals to attorneys outside of the AG’s office.
The measure was a topic of hot debate during the special session, which stops the AG from returning any criminal appeals to local district attorney offices, instead requiring that the AG’s office handle those cases.
Democrats opposed the move, while Republicans say that it is already the AG’s job to handle those appeals and this measure just ensures that happens.
Opponents argue that the AG’s office has already seen deep cuts from the last budget, leading to dozens of lost positions, but since July, after the passage of the budget, the AG’s office has posted job openings for 32 positions, 18 of which are for attorneys, supervisors or assistant/deputy attorney generals, according to information from the state Fiscal Research Division.
Of those 32 positions, 13 are state appropriated, 17 are receipt supported and 2 are federally supported.
According to the AG’s reduction in force plan issued August 1, there was to be a hiring freeze, which has been lifted, and a dozen filled attorney and attorney supervisor positions were “separated” as of August 1, but the job postings would seems to cover that amount and more.
The bill passed in a 70-44 vote in the House and passed the Senate in a 30-17 vote, both along party lines.
NCGA Overrides Ninth Cooper Veto
In addition to passing through new legislation, the legislature overrode two more of Cooper’s vetoes, making nine successful override votes since Cooper took office in January.
Legislators overrode Cooper’s veto on SB16, the Business and Regulatory Reform Act of 2017, saying “We should make it easier, not harder, for state and local governments to protect water quality, whether through storm water safeguards or by giving public health departments the ability to revisit wastewater permits if needed. Rolling back ways to protect water quality is dangerous.”
House leaders call the legislation a “pro-growth regulatory reform to streamline and simplify state government’s rulemaking process” saying the bill, now law, “reduces the burden of excessive guidelines on state government and the private sector while increasing public notice requirements and citizens’ access to judicial review of new agency rules and regulations.”
“North Carolinians continue to reap the economic rewards of a government that works for the citizens it represents,” House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said. “We’ve empowered the people of this state with a louder voice in government’s rulemaking process through regulatory reforms that enhance transparency and respond to public input.”
The bill is the latest in Republicans’ crusade to reduce regulation in the hopes of bringing more business growth to the state.
Gov. Veto of Local GenX Funding Bill Overturned
The other veto, passed on Wednesday, overrode Cooper’s veto of a bill sending money directly to the Cape Fear Region to study and combat the GenX crisis in the area.
GenX is a by-product of Teflon production from the chemical company Chemours, an offshoot of DuPont, which is currently not regulated for discharge into water.
Chemours has since been ordered to cease dumping GenX or any other perflourinated chemicals into the Cape Fear River.
House Bill 56 directs $435,000 directly to the area to study the water and upgrade water treatment facilities in the area.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington will receive $250,000 to quantify the amount of GenX in the Cape Fear River and how long it will take the GenX to degrade in the water.
The remaining $185,000 will go to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and other local public utilities to develop treatment technologies to remove GenX from the water supply and to ensure that the treatment is working through ongoing monitoring.
The law also repeals a 2009 partial plastic bag ban for three coastal counties, a goal of Republicans for years.
Cooper said he vetoed the regulatory reform bill because it did not give money to the state as he had requested but instead sent the money directly to the local utilities that are tasked with ensuring that the Cape Fear Region has access to clean and safe drinking water.
In his veto message Cooper said, “Clean water is critical for our health and our economy and this legislation fails to appropriate any needed funds to the departments in state government charged with setting standards and enforcing laws to prevent illegal chemical discharges into rivers used for drinking water.”
The House passed the veto override in a 70-44 vote, clearing the three-fifths threshold to override vetoes by one vote.
In the Senate the veto override vote passed with a wider margin, going to a 30-9 vote along party lines, with some Democrats and Republicans absent from the chamber, though two Democratic senators did not vote on the veto override, Sens. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham) and Ben Clark (D-Cumberland).
Of the veto override House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said, “Providing immediate resources for water treatment facilities and researchers in Southeastern North Carolina was an important step to protect the people of the Cape Fear region. “We will continue to hold hearings in the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality to investigate the GenX contamination and develop solutions that ensure administrative accountability and clean drinking water for our citizens.”
After the override vote Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick), both from the Cape Fear Region, released a statement saying, “It’s a shame that families in the lower Cape Fear region had to wait this long for a solution because of the governor’s veto, but we are pleased our Senate colleagues ended the delay and helped make this local solution that will actually help clean our drinking water a reality.”
The House passed through the judicial redistricting bill, HB717, however the Senate left town before the House had even finished debate on the bill.
Moore said that the bill is needed to overhaul a system in which piecemeal edits over the last 50 years have left “unfairly skewed judicial districts.”
The bill passed the House in a 69-43 vote, with only one Democrat voting for the legislation, Rep. William Brisson (R-Bladen).
Of the bill Moore said, “It’s past time to correct the unbalanced representations produced by piecemeal edits to our court system maps with a consistent framework for North Carolina’s judicial divisions. I appreciate the exceptional service of Rep. Justin Burr in completing a thorough legislative process that included extensive public comment from judicial officials and stakeholders, the approval of three legislative committees, and the consideration of more than a dozen amendments from legislators. North Carolina’s population has grown rapidly over the past two generations, and it is a constitutional duty for the General Assembly to ensure the justice system serves all our citizens equally.
“Our changes incorporate public input, state resources, geography, population and caseload into an overdue update of North Carolina’s judicial maps. North Carolina voters deserve an equal voice and full confidence in their justice system, and our comprehensive legislative process has balanced their representation to reaffirm those rights.”
Opponents of the redistricting effort say that the new maps are more about giving Republicans advantages in the courts than increasing fairness in judicial districts across the state, but without the Senate taking up the legislation the effort appears to be stalled, at least until legislators return in January for another special session.