'Santa' arrested at Legislature protest
State legislators wrapped up their work Friday on a pair of proposals that would deprive the incoming governor of a substantial part of his authority to make appointments and reduce Democrats’ power over election regulation. Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law the bill dealing with elections a short time later.
The special session came to a close two days after the Republican-controlled legislature ended a special session convened to deal with disaster relief and called itself into the new one over the objections of Democrats.
At least 39 protesters were arrested Friday at the Legislative Building as a group of hundreds chanted slogans blasting a “power grab” by Republican lawmakers. The arrests came in addition to about 17 arrests Thursday, according to General Assembly Police Chief Martin Brock. Those arrested, who accuse the GOP majority of using Hurricane Matthew victims as pawns in a ploy to seize power from Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, included civic leaders, university staff and faculty, and clergy.
The House approved the elections proposal on a vote of 67-23 on Friday before final approval by the Senate and governor. Senate Bill 4 also provides for political party affiliation to be listed on ballots next to the names of candidates for the state Supreme Court, and gives the majority-Republican state Court of Appeals a role in constitutional challenges to laws.
McCrory, a Republican, has not said whether he will sign another controversial bill, House Bill 17, which would make Cooper’s appointment of Cabinet officials subject to approval by the state Senate and reduce the number of appointees who serve at the pleasure of the governor.
The same measure would move some authority from the State Board of Education to the Republican just elected as state schools superintendent, Mark Johnson. And it would prevent the governor from appointing members of the boards of trustees for UNC system schools.
Steve Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of political science and former chairman of the UNC system Faculty Assembly, wrote to McCrory, warning that the bill could result in “severe sanctions” by the university’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. He said that’s because the legislature has “clear and direct intent to insert ‘undue political influence’” in the selection of campus board of trustee members.
Republicans said they were merely reverting appointment of trustees to what is described in the state constitution, which says the General Assembly “shall provide for the selection of trustees.”
Ethics, elections combined
Democrats disputed Republican claims that SB 4 would create a bipartisan commission merging the current State Board of Elections, State Ethics Commission and the lobbying-regulation functions of the Secretary of State’s office.
Democrats said it couldn’t be called bipartisan because they weren’t involved in creating the proposal. Republicans call it bipartisan because it would create a state board and county elections boards comprised of members equally split between the parties. It would also deprive the incoming Democratic administration of control of those boards; currently, the administration can appoint three of the five state members and two of the three members on each county board.
Democrats argued the bill is far-reaching and should be discussed in more detail in the long session that starts next month. Republican sponsors said ideas in the bill have been discussed in the legislature for years, and that this is a good time to make the changes because there is no impending election.
The bill would also give McCrory the authority to make a one-time appointment to fill a vacancy on the state Industrial Commission for a six-year term plus the unexpired portion of the commissioner’s term. Normally, a vacancy replacement only fills out the remainder of a term.
On Friday, Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat, called the bill “a blatant political move by a party that must be afraid of voters so they hang on to what power they have.”
Protesters disrupted a House debate about the changes to election law, chanting and prompting House Speaker Tim Moore to order police to clear the public gallery. The gallery remained closed to the public Friday afternoon, meaning those in the general public who wanted to watch the House proceedings could not do so, although the session could be heard on the legislature’s audio feed. Protesters later entered the Senate gallery, which was closed after disruptions there.
N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes sent out a statement on Friday, saying he supported the right to free speech but condemned the protesters’ actions, calling them a “small mob.” He called on Cooper to denounce their actions.
“However, when a few hundred people decide to shut down the work of the General Assembly simply because they are against the outcome, we have gone from free speech to mob rule,” Hayes said.
Protests wore on lawmakers
As the day wore on, several House Republicans lashed out at the protesters, while Democrats defended them.
Tensions from the acrimonious debates of the week and the protest disruptions seeped onto the House floor throughout the day. Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Cary, disputed the portrayal by opponents and liberal commentators of GOP strategy to reduce the governor’s authority as a “coup.” He repeated the oft-heard response from Republicans that Democrats used every maneuver they could to keep the minority party under their thumb for decades.
“This isn’t mob rule,” Dollar said. “It’s majority rule. ... This is no coup. Every member was elected in a constitutional way.”
Rep. Robert Reives, a Democrat from Sanford, said he was tired of hearing that Republicans were just doing what Democrats did.
“I do not give a rat’s rear what somebody did 20 years ago that called themselves a Democrat,” Reives said. “Nobody tell me it’s OK for me to do that because some guy 20 years ago did that. ... Parties change, people change.”
Several Republicans criticized the protesters for preventing school classes on field trips and the general public from watching the proceedings.
“This whole day is a day that will be burned in my memory,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a Republican from New Bern. “What happened up there this morning was unacceptable. That their views are the only views in North Carolina that we should represent.”
Those arrested on Thursday were charged with second degree trespassing and violating legislative building rules, both misdemeanors. One of them, Leslie Coburn, 66, was also charged with misdemeanor resisting a public officer.
After the ejections from the House gallery, chants and songs continued outside the chamber. Brock told the group that anyone who led a chant would be arrested, and officers began arresting people who did – including Carrboro Town Alderman Damon Seils and the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, a leader of the state NAACP, which had organized the protest with the liberal advocacy group Progress North Carolina.
Final piece of business
The final piece of business for the General Assembly this special session was the appointment of Yolanda Stith, wife of McCrory chief of staff Thomas Stith, to a vacancy on the Industrial Commission. The vacancy is due to the departure of former secretary of the Department of Administration Bill Daughtridge for health reasons.
The Industrial Commission hears appeals of worker compensation cases. Yolanda Stith is the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Long Term Care Facilities, and was previously a lobbyist.
House Democrats said they had nothing against Yolanda Stith but most voted against her confirmation as part of a protest against the special session they view as unconstitutional. In the Senate, five Democrats voted against her confirmation.
The N.C. Democratic Party issued a statement calling Stith’s appointment a “million dollar giveaway” that amounted to corruption.
Senate leader Phil Berger, asked about the appointment, acknowledged "there have been some discussions with the governor’s office" but said he sees no conflict of interest. “At the time she will be serving and hearing cases, my guess is that Mr. Stith will no longer be in state government,” he said.
Staff writers Jane Stancill, Colin Campbell and Chris Cioffi contributed
What the General Assembly did this week
Senate Bill 4: It will equally divide election boards between the two major political parties, ending control by the governor’s party. It also makes N.C. Supreme Court elections partisan and allows the Court of Appeals to hear appeals of its three-judge panel decisions as a 15-judge panel.
House Bill 17: Makes Gov.-elect Roy Cooper’s Cabinet appointments subject to approval by the state Senate and cuts his ability to appoint members to UNC schools’ boards of trustees. It also cuts the number of employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure from 1,500 to 425, reversing an expansion that legislators approved for outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who was defeated by Cooper in November.
Appointments: The legislature voted to appoint state budget director Andrew Heath and Charlotte attorney Adam Conrad to business court judge positions. And it voted to appoint Yolanda Stith, whose husband is McCrory’s chief of staff, to the Industrial Commission.
What didn’t pass
House Bill 3: A “regulatory reform” deregulation bill was similar to one proposed last summer, and would have made a number of changes to environmental and other regulations, including vehicle emissions inspections.
House Bill 12: Would have allowed school boards to set the opening date for schools to coincide with the opening date of a community college serving their city or county
House Bill 13: Would have eased upcoming changes in school class sizes that were made in this year’s state budget.
House Bill 10: Would have required the state Department of Transportation to reimburse schools, including charter schools, when they’re required by cities to make street improvements associated with getting in and out of schools.