Raleigh, N.C. — More than 150 bills received either House or Senate approval on Wednesday and Thursday, with scores more passing in the preceding 10 days. As lawmakers take stock of their handiwork, wrought in the press of the so-called crossover deadline, those who don't live inside the bubble of the legislative complex might wonder: what's next.
While the House stayed up until 2:30 a.m. Thursday in order beat the clock and Senate leaders streamlined their calendars to work through as many bills as they could, this week's deadline was more a milepost than a barricade, a porous boundary that marks a kind of halfway point in this year's lawmaking.
Q: What is this crossover deadline? Why does the General Assembly have one?
Crossover is a way of attempting to impose discipline on an inherently messy and chaotic process.
Unlike states such as Maryland or Virginia, there are not constitutional or other limits on how many days legislative sessions can run in North Carolina. Left unchecked, a constant stream of well-meaning ideas could keep flowing, keeping a supposedly part-time legislature in session and taking attention away from must-dos such as the state budget.
Under the crossover rules, most bills that don't involve raising or spending money must pass either the House or the Senate before the deadline. There are a handful of exceptions, but by and large, measures that deal solely with criminal or other policy matters are supposed to be at least halfway through their legislative journey by the deadline, which was set on April 30 this year. This allows leaders to winnow the matters they'll take up and which ones will fall by the wayside for the time being.
Q: What happens to all those bills that moved in the past week or so? Do we have a bunch of new laws?
Virtually all of the legislation moved during the crossover period – from rules about who can own lions, tigers and bears to renewable energy standards – is only partially complete. In order to be sent to the governor for his signature or veto, a bill has to pass both the House and the Senate. The sponsors of those bills now have to set to work persuading their colleagues in the other chamber to consider their legislation. If history is any guide, a large percentage of those bills will not ever be sent to the governor or even get a hearing in the second chamber.
Q: Did a bunch of bills that didn't meet the deadline die last night?
Yes and no.
There are certainly individual bills that, by rule, are ineligible to move through the process. For example, a House committee shot down a bill rolling back North Carolina's motorcycle helmet law late Wednesday night.
But that doesn't mean the ideas contained in those measures go away, and it doesn't mean that ideas that haven't been aired publicly yet won't pop up. There are several ways ideas and pieces of legislation can survive past when crossover rules say they should be dead:
If you like it, put a fee on it: Remember, if a bill raises a fee or a tax or spends money, it is exempt from the crossover rules. That's how House leaders kept a sweeping firearms measure alive as controversy over the measure threatened to bury it in the crossover rush. Some bills, such as economic development measures, are drafted for spending money so are never subject to the crossover rule.
Hitch a ride in the budget: The biggest and most important policy document of the year is the roughly $21 billion state budget. Although the document is supposed to be an outline of how North Carolina raises and spends money, over the years, it has been a safe harbor for policy items favored by legislative leaders.
Gut and amend: Once the House sends the Senate a bill, or vice versa, the receiving chamber isn't stuck with the exact language in the bill. That allows a chamber to take a bill that was originally about motorcycle safety and insert provisions restricting abortions. It's not uncommon for the entire original contents of a bill to be swept out in favor of whatever the new language happens to be. Although legislative rules require that amendments and additions to bills be "germane" to the original legislation, that rule is broadly interpreted.
Study it: Legislative sessions run for two years. In the time between when lawmakers wrap up their work this year – typically sometime in July or August – and when they return in 2016 – the week after the May primary – legislators will run study committees. These committees take in-depth looks at issues and sometimes include people other than legislators. Bills recommended by study committees are eligible to be considered when lawmakers return in 2016.
Q: What's next for lawmakers?
The state's current budget expires on June 30, and focus will now turn to crafting a new $21 billion tax-and-spending plan. Closely related to those short-term budget discussions will be proposals to borrow $3 billion to improve the state's highways and buildings.
Both House and Senate leaders say they want to remake how the state's Medicaid program operates, which would be a major undertaking. As well, Gov. Pat McCrory and business recruiters have been pleading with lawmakers to reauthorize, expand and add to North Carolina's business recruiting programs. While some of those business lures could be included in the budget, often they are last-minute items handled late in the legislative session.
Interspersed among those big-ticket items will be dozens of smaller bills, including many that were passed during the crossover hustle.
Q: When will the session end?
There's no hard and fast time limit. Sessions in odd-numbered years typically end sometime between July 4 and the end of August, but stalemates over spending or high-priority items have kept some legislative sessions in town far past those dates. Stay tuned.