Legislators call second special session – but unclear on topics to be addressed
Expanding beyond the disaster recovery legislation the General Assembly approved Wednesday, Republican lawmakers quickly proposed sweeping changes to state government, including proposals that would diminish the governor’s authority to make appointments.
Lawmakers want to hobble the incoming Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, before he takes office Jan. 1 by making his Cabinet appointments subject to approval by the state Senate and cutting his ability to appoint members to UNC schools’ boards of trustees.
One proposal in the mix would equally divide election boards between the two major political parties, ending control by the governor’s party.
Yet another provision would cut the number of employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure from 1,500 to 300, reversing an expansion approved for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory at the start of his term.
Of the two dozen bills filed by both Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday night, only a handful are likely to be voted on during this special session. Those that are likely to move forward represent a significant shakeup by the Republican-controlled legislature.
“I think to be candid with you, that you will see the General Assembly look to reassert its constitutional authority in areas that may have been previously delegated to the executive branch,” House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis told reporters earlier in the day, adding that legislators will “work to establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state.”
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall of Durham said Republicans were trying to “nullify the vote of the people” in electing Cooper, who defeated McCrory last month.
Cooper said on Twitter Wednesday evening that the General Assembly “should focus on higher teacher pay, better wages for working North Carolinians and repealing HB 2.”
The floodgates for all these last-minute bills opened when the GOP-controlled legislature brought the session on disaster relief to a close by approving McCrory’s request for $200 million. Legislators immediately issued a proclamation convening a new special session, the fourth of the year.
Lewis, a Dunn Republican, said some of the appointment and election board changes were prompted by Cooper’s election.
“Some of the stuff we’re doing, obviously if the election results were different, we might not be moving quite as fast on, but a lot of this stuff would have been done anyway and has been talked about for quite some time,” he said.
On the proposed Senate role in confirming Cabinet members, Lewis said: “We believe firmly that it’s important for the legislature to be able to work with and communicate with the governor and the governor’s cabinet selections.” He noted Senate confirmation hearings were held earlier in North Carolina’s history. “The framers of the constitution felt that Senate confirmation was important.”
As for reducing the number of exempt positions, he said: “We’re trying to reaffirm that our state employees are in fact professionals, but the governor and the Council of State still have the right to pick their top advisers.”
One of the most far-reaching of the bills filed in the new session Wednesday night was a Senate proposal to merge the State Board of Elections with the State Ethics Commission, among other provisions.
The independent, quasi-judicial regulatory agency would have the authority to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify. It would be run by an executive director and overseen by an eight-member board, evenly divided along party lines.
The governor would be given four appointments, choosing from Republican and Democratic party nominees. Two would be chosen by the House and two by the Senate.
The bill would also change the makeup of county elections boards from the current three members – two of which belong to the party of the governor – to four-member boards with an equal partisan split.
A Senate bill would shift power from the N.C. Supreme Court that will be controlled by Democrats to the 15-member state Court of Appeals that will have a Republican majority.
The Nov. 8 election shifted the political makeup of the state Supreme Court to a 4-3 Democratic majority, while Republicans won five seats on the appeals court that is one step below the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers propose removing the right to make a constitutional challenge in a direct appeal to the state Supreme Court from Superior Court, a process approved by the Republican-led legislature while it had control of both legislative chambers, the governor’s office and a 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court.
Under the bill introduced Wednesday, any such cases would have to be first heard by all 15 members of the Court of Appeals before the state’s highest court could review the challenge.
The bill also would add state Supreme Court justices to those positions in which party affiliation will be listed on the ballot. The legislature changed the law this summer so that Republicans were listed first on the state Court of Appeals ballots with their party affiliation included.
Before the barrage of proposed legislation became public, House Speaker Tim Moore was asked about the possibility of a different change to the state Supreme Court: expanding the court by two justices who could be appointed by McCrory before he leaves, a persistent rumor that has brought protesters to the Legislative Building. He said he opposes the idea.
“I do not expect to see the court packing that people are talking about,” he said.
The court proposal that did emerge drew criticism from Anita Earls, director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a firm that has represented many of the challengers to the General Assembly’s election law changes since 2013.
“Instead of a court-packing bill, it appears we got a court-denial bill,” Earls said in a statement. “This proposal seems to delay Supreme Court review of cases, including those involving citizens’ constitutional rights. Unconstitutional laws could be in effect for years before the state Supreme Court would finally get the case and rule.”
Also Wednesday night, the House filed a 43-page deregulation bill that was a hodgepodge of provisions that didn’t make it into law during the regular session earlier this year.
Missing from the bill, however, were two of the most controversial deregulation provisions from the regular session: repealing the ban on discarding televisions and computers in landfills, and prohibiting skyscraping wind turbines from being erected in military flight paths.
The bill instead calls for a report on the pros and cons of allowing electronics in landfills.
One bill introduced Wednesday would end the governor’s authority to appoint student advisors and a superintendent advisor to the State Board of Education.
A House bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Jason Saine of Lincolnton would make the state’s Department of Information Technology — currently a Cabinet agency whose leader is appointed by the governor — an independent agency. Its leader would be appointed by the lieutenant governor, currently Republican Dan Forest, with confirmation from the legislature.
The House was also scheduled to vote to appoint Andrew Heath, the governor’s budget director, to a judgeship with the state’s business courts.
Committees are scheduled to discuss the bills on Thursday, and votes are expected later that day or Friday.
Three-fifths of the legislators in both chambers signed a petition to call the special session, which began at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The petition was dated Monday, prompting objections from House Democrats that legislative leaders have known for two days that there would be a new session.
Democrats were quick to criticize the extra session, which they weren’t informed about until noon Wednesday. Most House Democrats signed a protest filed by Rep. Darren Jackson of Knightdale claiming the session violates the state constitution.
“This ain’t right,” Hall said. “You can’t make it right. The people of North Carolina aren’t being treated right. We owe them more.”
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed.
The Disaster Recovery Act of 2016
The disaster recovery bill, approved unanimously by the Senate, was a response to the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Matthew and western wildfires. Gov. Pat McCrory appointed a task force to consider short-term and long-term needs, and that work formed the basis for the legislation.
It allocates more than $200 million from the general fund and a reserve account to pay for immediate housing and rebuilding, and excuses schools for lost classroom hours in excess of two days. Funds will also go to help local government repair and improve infrastructure. Rebuilding in ways to make communities less vulnerable to flooding is a key goal of the package.
Several lawmakers acknowledged that won’t be nearly enough money. They said this will be the first of two or possibly three phases of additional funds. The bill’s sponsors said the first phase is to provide enough money for immediate needs and to make sure there isn’t a gap in federal funding.
Much of the money will be directed to current governmental or nonprofit groups that already deal with low-income people in need of assistance, as those were the people most affected by the disasters. Periodic reports to the General Assembly will be required. Some DMV fees will be waived for those who live in affected counties.
A total of 87 counties are covered in the legislation.