Politics & Government

What NC lawmakers did – and didn’t do – in the short session

N.C. Speaker of the House Tim Moore, left, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, center, and House Minority Leader Rep. Larry Hall presided over one of the shorter short sessions in recent years.
N.C. Speaker of the House Tim Moore, left, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, center, and House Minority Leader Rep. Larry Hall presided over one of the shorter short sessions in recent years. cseward@newsobserver.com

The General Assembly’s 2016 short session lived up to its name. At 68 days, it was shorter (lawmakers have averaged 77 days lawmakers in election-year sessions since 2000).

And, except for some frayed nerves in the final hours before a late-night Friday adjournment, the session’s tone was mostly one of cooperation rather than partisan bickering.

On many issues the debate was among Republicans, while Democrats, far smaller in number, could occasionally played a role by making new alliances.

Looming over the session was whether the Republicans would do anything at all about House Bill 2, the LGBT law enacted earlier this year. Democrats could only make theatrical gestures: filing a protest petition in the House to force a vote on repeal, and then voting against the resolution to adjourn because Republicans wouldn’t allow such a vote.

But in one of the last actions of the session, lawmakers modified the section of HB2 that made it more difficult to file discrimination lawsuits. They left the rest intact, including restrictions on transgender bathroom use.

Final-day rancor

Verbal missiles flew on the final day of the legislative session Friday in a couple of exchanges pitting the House against the Senate.

Republicans overwhelmingly control both chambers. But the House refused to go along with a plan to change how Asheville City Council members are elected, which was sought by Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca.

Impassioned speeches against the bill came from both parties in the House.

Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, criticized the bill as “the vision of the anointed, that we know better than the people, the citizens of Asheville, because we may not agree ideologically with the citizens of Asheville or the city council of Asheville. I’m sorry but we don’t need to agree with them because we don’t live there. And the people that live there selected those people that are representing them on the city council and we don’t have to like them or agree with them.”

Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, has said people in Asheville asked him for the change to boost representation of outlying areas feeling dominated by voters in the city’s liberal core.

Earlier in the day, members of the House Finance Committee pushed back against Senate budget writer Harry Brown’s attempt to get through the committee a bill that would use most of the revenue from a local occupancy tax to build a sports complex.

Brown’s proposal violates a House rule that says most revenue from occupancy taxes must go to promote tourism. The Senate does not have such a rule.

Brown, a Jacksonville Republican, said if the House didn’t let his bill through, the Senate might not consider any House occupancy tax bills. “That would be unfortunate,” he said.

Rep. Julia Howard, a Mocksville Republican and former Finance Committee co-chairwoman, said Brown’s plan made it to committee because Brown is someone “with the power to intimidate you.”

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said Brown’s bill was being considered because he helped move bills that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten heard in the Senate.

When a House member said he was concerned about talk of retribution, Brown said it probably happens on both sides.

“You’re right,” Brown said. “Legislation should be able to stand on its own.”

The bill failed 9-18.

Tax changes

Lawmakers cut income taxes in the state budget that’s on Gov. Pat McCrory's desk. It would increase the standard deduction from $15,500 to $16,500 for married couples filing jointly this year, with an additional increase to $17,500 next year. For a single person, the deduction would increase from $7,750 to $8,750 over two years.

The standard deduction is income that isn’t taxed unless a taxpayer chooses itemized deductions. The legislature’s nonpartisan research staff presented calculations showing that a married couple making about $44,000 a year would save $115 annually with the change. Projections show savings of about $60 for families making between $10,000 and $30,000 per year. And 70,000 to 75,000 additional filers would owe no income taxes because their income would be less than the standard deduction.

Salary increases

Public-school teachers are slated to receive raises averaging 4.7 percent, which legislative leaders say would boost the average salary for the coming school year to $50,186 including supplemental pay by counties.

The raises would be aimed at more experienced teachers because entry-level educators got a raise last year. The salary increases would range from 2 percent for teachers with 25-plus years of experience to 8.1 percent for teachers with 14 years of experience.

All state workers would receive a 1.5 percent raise and a one-time bonus equal to 0.5 percent of their annual salary. Additionally, the budget includes $80 million for targeted merit raises, which would average 1 percent of employee salaries.

State retirees would receive a one-time cost-of-living adjustment of 1.6 percent.

Tuition cuts and freezes

Lawmakers passed the NC Promise Tuition Plan, which cuts tuition beginning in fall 2018 at Western Carolina University, UNC-Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University. The three schools would charge an in-state tuition rate of $500 per semester and an out-of-state rate of $2,500.

An earlier version of the proposal ran into controversy from supporters of historically black colleges and universities, who worried targeted schools would suffer financially or lose their identities.

The plan is paired with a proposal to lock tuition rates across the UNC system for incoming students for at least eight semesters, and cap increases in undergraduate student fees across the system at 3 percent per year.

Making nice over coal ash

Lawmakers compromised on a coal ash bill to avoid a showdown with Gov. Pat McCrory – a change from past sessions where his wishes seemed to be ignored.

The bill called for leaky coal ash ponds at half the state’s power plants to be capped and left where they are instead of being excavated and moved to lined storage, under a compromise that avoided a showdown with McCrory.

Neighbors of coal-fired power plants who have drinking water wells will be connected to municipal water or given filtration systems by the fall of 2018 under another provision of the bill. Duke Energy will have to establish three centers to process coal ash into concrete and other material for reuse.

The legislation makes a concession to the governor by not attempting to reconstitute an independent oversight panel, which McCrory successfully challenged in a lawsuit as unconstitutionally intruding into executive branch authority. The legislature wrote a new bill that gave the governor more control over the panel, but McCrory vetoed it.

This compromise was criticized by environmental groups because Duke Energy won’t be required to excavate and safely store the basins at all 14 coal-fired power plants. Neighbors who have been using bottled water for more than a year say it further delays permanent water supplies.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, with one Republican voting against it. There was more resistance in the House, which had crafted the bill the governor vetoed, splitting the Democrats and drawing about a dozen Republican opponents.

Action on charter schools

Five low-performing traditional public schools will be turned over to charter-school management companies if McCrory signs a bill seeking to improve student proficiency.

The five schools, selected from a statewide pool of struggling schools, would become part of an Achievement School District that would be overseen by a superintendent the State Board of Education selects. The charter management companies would run the schools for up to eight years.

The Achievement School District in neighboring Tennessee has not produced the promised results. A study of student performance found the district had no effect on student performance after three years.

North Carolina lawmakers who support the district say their version has more safeguards. Charter operators who want to work in the district must show they know what they’re doing and that they have a plan for “dramatically improving student achievement.”

In other charter legislation, lawmakers agreed that charter schools will no longer be reviewed at least once every five years to ensure that they are meeting academic, financial, and governance standards. Instead, if McCrory agrees, charter schools would be reviewed at least once before their charters expire.

The State Board of Education would no longer revoke a charter simply because a school is continuously low performing. The low-performing charters can stay open if they have met standards for academic growth in the previous three years, or if they have implemented improvement plans and are working toward their goals.

Regulation over body cam videos

Legislators voted to regulate the disclosure of police body camera footage, despite concerns that the bill they approved gives law enforcement agencies too much power to keep the videos private.

The bill requires law enforcement to let someone shown or heard in the videos view them. If the person involved is younger than 18, incapacitated or dead, someone authorized to represent that person – such as a lawyer – can request the footage.

The bill gives law enforcement agencies a number of exceptions from showing the footage. Those exceptions include footage that’s “of a highly sensitive personal nature,” footage that would “create a serious threat ... to the administration of justice,” and footage that would “jeopardize the safety of a person.”

Denied requests to view the videos can be appealed to a Superior Court judge.

Police would not release videos to the broader public without a court order.

The bill is pending on the governor's desk.

Welcome to North Carolina

After roughly 20 years of debate, North Carolina lawmakers resolved a border dispute with South Carolina.

The plan involves a handful of properties around Gaston and Union counties, near Charlotte. On Jan. 1, 16 South Carolina homeowners will wake up to find themselves in North Carolina. Three homes in North Carolina would end up south of the border.

The legislation aims to make the transition easier for the residents forced to switch states. Children would be allowed to continue attending public schools in the state where their home was previously located. They would also be eligible for in-state public college and university tuition for the next 10 years. And the properties could still be served by utility companies from their previous state.

But they would need to get new driver’s licenses and start paying taxes to a different county and state.

In addition to the properties switching states, the new border would run through the middle of 54 homes and commercial buildings. Residents in the homes could choose which state they want to live in. And a gas station moving from South Carolina from North Carolina will still be allowed to sell fireworks and alcohol.

Targeting sex offenders

The legislature passed a law restoring parts of a 2008 law that prohibited sex offenders from being near children. A federal judge earlier this year struck down those provisions, which were part of a broader law titled the “Jessica Lunsford Act.” The 9-year-old girl memorialized in the title was murdered in 2005 in Florida. She had recently moved there from Gaston County. The bill attempts to address the judge’s concerns that parts of the law were vague by listing examples of places that convicted sex offenders must avoid when they know minors are present. The bill also attempts to overcome the judge’s finding that the law was too broad by rewriting a provision that requires offenders be no closer than 300 feet to premises intended for the care and supervision of children.

They also passed a bill labeled “Sheyenne’s Law,” increasing the penalties for killing or seriously injuring someone while operating a boat while impaired. It aligns the punishment with penalties for impaired driving.

Regulating hemp farms

Additional regulations for North Carolina's first legal industrial hemp crop are awaiting action on the governor's desk.

The bill approved by the legislature adds law enforcement to the hemp permitting process, requiring the new commission to notify the State Bureau of Investigation, sheriff’s departments and police about the location of all approved hemp farms. Those agencies would be allowed to inspect hemp operations at any time, and farmers would be required to maintain production records.

The bill also requires N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University to oversee the hemp research program, which all licensed hemp growers would be required to join. Violations of the hemp regulations, including the placement of marijuana plants on hemp fields, would be Class 2 misdemeanors with fines of up to $2,500.

The legislature legalized industrial hemp last year.

Reacting to the court

In the wake of a successful lawsuit, legislators voted to drop restrictions on development along the paths of future road projects.

The bill addresses the N.C. Supreme Court’s ruling in June that the N.C. Department of Transportation was effectively taking private property without paying for it. The court sided with property owners who haven’t been able to develop their land for decades because the property is reserved for a future highway.

If McCrory signs the bill, all current Map Act development restrictions would be dropped. Those areas include the route of the future Interstate 540 loop in southern Wake County as well as the Winston-Salem Western Loop and the U.S. 17 Hampstead Bypass.

No additional routes could be protected from development until July 1, 2017. And DOT would develop recommendations for a new policy that balances property rights with road building needs.

What didn’t make it

Shaving what some say are unnecessary and burdensome regulations – what others call eliminating environmental protections to benefit business – has been a hallmark every year since Republicans took over the legislature in 2011.

But not this year.

As usual, there were several deregulation bills in play that came down to a committee to work out a single compromise piece of legislation. But the House and Senate committee members couldn’t agree on enough provisions to produce a bill in the final couple of days of session – even though one of those billls represented a carefully crafted compromise among House members, which that chamber passed unanimously.

Here’s some of what those bills would have done: Repeal the ban on discarding televisions and computers in landfills, reduce the number of counties that must conduct vehicle emissions inspections, and allow a new technology to dispose of waste liquids from landfills without permits. Legislators also scaled back a Senate proposal, written into the budget rather than a standalone bill, that would have replaced watershed and lake pollution controls with new, as-yet unwritten regulations.

Here are some others that didn’t make it:

Major House Bill 2 changes HB2 loomed in the background through most of the session, but didn’t seem to attract serious discussion until the final days.

Democrats pushed for a repeal of the LGBT bill. Republicans rejected the idea of eliminating some of the most controversial parts of the bill, including the best-known provision requiring transgender people in government facilities to use bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates.

Draft proposals for a rewrite circulated near the end of session, but ultimately lawmakers made just one change. They complied with McCrory’s request to rewrite one provision of HB2 that had blocked one recourse for people wanting to sue for employment discrimination. The bill’s authors said they hadn’t intended to impose that restriction.

Ultimately that provision was the only change made to the law. It surfaced late Friday in what had been an unrelated deregulation bill, written that night by high-ranking members of both chambers.

Math standards: Lawmakers considered retreating from a change to the way math is taught in high school. Students now take integrated math courses instead of separate classes on algebra and geometry. Efforts failed to either return to the traditional methods or give students a choice of systems.

Constitutional amendment to lock income tax rates: Lawmakers wanted to ensure their lower income tax rate of 5.5 percent wouldn’t be increased by future lawmakers by putting it in the state constitution. Introduced late in the session, it will have to wait for another day.

Wind power: A proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican, would have put vast swaths of the state off limits to wind farms, cell phone towers and other tall structures. The idea was to make it safer for military pilots on training flights in jets or helicopters. Opponents said the bill would hurt the wind energy industry. Two wind farm projects that are already in the works would have been at risk. Look for Brown to resume his case next year.

Eugenics compensation: A House bill that would have allowed counties to offer compensation to eugenics victims never got a hearing in the Senate. While the state has been issuing payments to people who were forcibly sterilized by the state, some people who were sterilized by a county government were left out.

Killing I-77 tolls: The House voted to cancel a controversial contract to build toll lanes on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte. The Senate and McCrory declined to join the effort to stop the tolling project — likely fueling a fall campaign issue in the conservative-learning northern Mecklenburg County suburbs.

Kratom tea: The House never took up a Senate bill that would limit the sale of kratom — an herbal drug often served as a tea drink — to people 18 or older. While kratom supporters said the product is harmless, Sen. Tom McInnis said he worried that it’s addictive and shouldn’t be served to kids.

Sanctuary cities: The House never took action on a Senate bill that would have penalized local governments that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws. Had the bill passed, cities and counties would have lost school and road construction funding if they didn’t comply with the state’s ban on “sanctuary city” policies.

Step therapy Facing opposition from fellow Republicans, House Rules Chairman David Lewis killed his own bill that would have banned insurance companies from requiring patients to try cheaper alternative drugs.

Several major insurers require what’s known as “step therapy.” When a doctor prescribes an expensive medication, patients must first try cheaper alternative treatments that target the same ailment. If those drugs don’t work, patients can then receive insurance coverage for the drug their doctor recommends. Lewis said he didn't want a "protracted floor fight" over his proposal to curb the practice.

Lead testing The Senate didn’t take action on a House bill that would have required older schools and child care facilities to conduct tests for lead in drinking water.

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