Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina would set aside money for housing, volunteer fire departments and other needs as part of a $200 million disaster recovery package that the state House passed unanimously Tuesday.
"It's a great bill to address all the issues we've had – all those who have lost their homes, their businesses," House Speaker Tim Moore said. "It's a very comprehensive bill and will get fully vetted."
After the 115-0 vote on the House floor, the legislation heads to the Senate on Wednesday.
The money and related measures are part of the state's response to both Hurricane Matthew that brought flooding to eastern North Carolina and wildfires that have ripped through the western part of the state.
House leaders called the legislation "a good first step" that can be adjusted or added to next year, and Gov. Pat McCrory gave it a ringing endorsement.
"There are human stories behind every one of those floods," McCrory said during an impassioned plea to the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Many of the residents and businesses affected by the flooding were "barely keeping their heads above the economic waters of living day to day" and need help to move forward, he said.
"Now, during the Christmas holidays, now, when the cold weather is finally coming to North Carolina, now is the time for action to help these people who cannot help themselves and who are in desperate straits," he said.
Several lawmakers said the $200 million was short-changing disaster relief, and a bigger pot needed to be made available.
"We all agree this is not a lot of money. We also know there are a lot of people hurting," said Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson.
"We tried to deal with what's most critical in the very near term," said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who helped craft the bill.
McGrady and others said lawmakers could appropriate more money as needed as soon as January, when they reconvene for their normal 2017 session.
Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, complained that the bill required school districts hit by flooding after the hurricane are required under the bill to make up two of the lost days. Robeson County schools were out for about three weeks after the storm.
"I think it's time to just close the wound and move forward," Graham said, noting that schools might need to use make-up days in their calendars for days lost to winter weather. "We have the authority to wipe the slate clean."
McGrady the two-day requirement was a compromise between some lawmakers who wanted schools to make up every missed day and others who wanted more forgiven. He noted some districts have already made up some days and shouldn't be punished for being proactive, and many schools need as much classroom time as possible to perform well on standardized tests.
The bill also calls for school districts to report back to the General Assembly by the spring so lawmakers can determine whether other calendar flexibility is needed, McGrady and others said.
Other legislation on agenda?
Lawmakers returned to Raleigh Tuesday morning among speculation they could take up more than disaster recovery. Although none of the Republican leaders who control the House and the Senate have laid out a specific agenda beyond disaster relief, intense speculation has focused on a purported efforts to add two justices to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Such a move would dilute a victory by a Democratic judge who flipped the balance of the court away from the GOP. That's because McCrory, a Republican who leaves office at the end of the month, would get to appoint justices to fill the two seats until elections could be held.
"The Republicans have been more than happy to let the rumor mill keep churning, burning and turning," said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, who said GOP leaders should stay focused on disaster recovery.
Moore, R-Cleveland, and other top lawmakers have said the court-packing rumor is nothing more than idle speculation.
"At this point, there is no bill to do that. I've been saying that all along. The only folks talking about a bill with state Supreme Court are the Democrats. That's not something we're even discussing," Moore said.
He added that, if it did come up, he would oppose it. "I don't believe we ought to do it."
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger did not address the court-packing matter head on but called it the product of "speculation" and said the issue wasn't being pushed by any of his members.
Such assurances weren't enough to keep crowds from filling the Legislative Building galleries and hallways on Tuesday urging lawmakers to stick to disaster relief during the special session.
"At the end of the day, they want to know if their lawmakers will go along with the scheme to overturn the will of voters," said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress North Carolina, a liberal advocacy group.
"To engage in manipulation of the courts while people's lives are still in crisis is just wrong," said Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter.
Matters other than the disaster bill might be heard this week, Moore said, pointing to a number of issues left over from the summer session that could come up. Foremost among them is a regulatory reform bill that could impact how wind energy is regulated in the state.
While House members turned their attention to disaster recovery, the state Senate idled itself Tuesday morning. Senate Republicans retreated to a closed-door meeting to discuss what else they might handle.
At the end of the Senate's work day, Berger, R-Rockingham, said there was no firm plan for what else lawmakers might tackle.
"I don't think any decision has been made as of yet as to exactly what would transpire beyond the hurricane or forest fire relief bill," he said.
Asked what might be on the list of items to be considered, Berger said, "I'm not in a position to speculate on anything beyond what you've seen in terms of a filed bill."