Spoons clanging on pots, singing protesters, NASCAR legends, teams of teachers and a bomb-sniffing dog named Carly greeted state lawmakers Wednesday as they returned to Raleigh.
The General Assembly convened for a session expected to last six weeks and focus on tweaks to the state’s $20 billion two-year budget. But once again lawmakers found themselves under a microscope.
The opening day protests symbolized the return of the mass demonstrations next week, and the roughly 100 bills filed suggested that the term is likely to cover much more ground than the three priorities – state budget, teacher pay and coal ash – outlined by legislative leaders before the session began.
All of this comes amid the shadow cast by the state’s all-important U.S. Senate race which drew national attention to the first day as House Speaker Thom Tillis returned to the helm after winning the Republican nomination last week.
The race is expected to color the legislative agenda and spur the opposition.
Anticipating more protests this year, Republican legislative leaders are moving to overhaul the rules governing the legislative building in response to the “Moral Monday” protests that led to 900-plus arrests in 2013.
The obscure Legislative Services Commission will meet Thursday for the first time in 15 years to consider measures that are likely to lead to fewer arrests when protesters return next week but mean more convictions, by addressing concerns raised by judges hearing the 2013 cases about where visitors can gather and what is appropriate behavior.
On the first day, however, the contentious debates in the days ahead seemed distant as lawmakers maintained a relaxed atmosphere. (Carly and her federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives handler were just there for a visit, not a particular threat.)
The House spent more than an hour feting NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees, telling personal stories of their connection to racing and their driving prowess. The Senate, acknowledging the resolution had been thoroughly debated in the House, spent only minutes passing it and sending it along to Gov. Pat McCrory in time for him to sign it at a ceremony with the drivers at the Executive Mansion.
In the Senate, a bouquet of flowers stood on the podium in the front of the chamber in honor of Sen. Martin Nesbitt, the Democratic leader who died in March; the Senate adjourned in his memory. The House adjourned in memory of former Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco, who died suddenly Monday at the end of his campaign for Congress.
Spotlight on Tillis
In the days ahead, the political spotlight will focus on Tillis as he challenges Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
Tillis has rebuffed calls, even from those in his own party, for him to relinquish his post amid the campaign.
“If I ran the North Carolina House like Harry Reid runs the Senate, where all the decisions are made in his office, then I probably couldn’t do this job,” Tillis said Wednesday, when asked about how he would juggle the two roles. “That’s the great thing about a chamber that functions against a chamber that doesn’t.”
Six years ago, Hagan stepped aside as a chief state Senate budget writer during her U.S. Senate bid.
Tillis’ heightened political language – whether the slam against the Senate majority leader in Washington or other attacks on the state’s previous Democratic legislative leaders, a not-so-veiled hit on Hagan – exemplifies one way the race will influence the session.
Another example is the agenda: Republicans are putting the emphasis on issues that appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, such as teacher pay and the coal ash spill, as opposed to a largely partisan agenda last session that touched on abortion, voter ID and guns.
GOP leaders also are rethinking their approach to Common Core, the national education standards that emerged as a top issue in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate and riles conservative activists.
Tillis took a firm stance in favor of repealing Common Core amid the campaign in April, suggesting it represented intrusion into state and local education decisions. A legislative panel likewise recommended ending the standards this year.
But Wednesday, Tillis suggested a full repeal may not reach a vote this session as he called for a “methodical approach” that requires more study. And Rep. Craig Horn, a Tillis lieutenant on education issues, later said the standards are likely to remain for the next school year.
First bill filed: coal ash
State Senate Republican leaders lost no time in filing a coal-ash regulation bill. The first bill filed, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and state Sen. Tom Apodaca, is the plan that McCrory proposed last month. It would gradually close some coal-ash storage basins, depending on individual conditions.
Apodaca said that would be a starting point for legislators to develop a final bill regulating coal ash. The bill sets aside money to pay for it: $1.4 million to fund 19 permanent positions and associated costs to carry out the regulatory law.
It spells out a timetable for closing the Riverbend, Asheville, Dan River and Sutton plants. Among other provisions, it would impose a moratorium on how coal-ash material is used in structural fill products until rules are established to ensure public health.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which is embroiled in legal wrangling with the administration over coal ash regulation, criticized the bill as too weak.
On Thursday, legislators from both chambers will begin digging into the budget as well as a dozen more legislative issues that will keep lawmakers busy through June.