Lawmakers to craft disaster response, could take up other matters this week
Posted December 12, 2016
Updated December 13, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina lawmakers say their focus will be on floods and fires when they return to Raleigh for a special session Tuesday, even if lobbyists and reporters are more focused on a penumbra of rumored legislation lurking around the edges of the special session.
"The biggest thing we're here for is the appropriations of funds to deal with the flood relief," said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell. "My biggest project is making sure we've met the needs of the fires we've had in western North Carolina by making sure, for example, the Forest Service and others have enough money to cover the overtime they've expended."
When Hurricane Matthew hit the state in October, it left behind flood and wind damage throughout much of eastern North Carolina. Later in the fall, wildfires scorched much of the western part of the state. Combined, the two disasters have cause millions of dollars in damage. Gov. Pat McCrory has put the bill for Matthew-related damage at $2 billion.
So far, Congress has dedicated $300 million for hurricane recovery efforts in the state. McCrory said he wanted state lawmakers to sign off on $200 million to meet immediate disaster needs. That funding bill and associated measures, such as giving local governments more flexibility in handling storm debris and school schedules, would be a stop-gap measure until the General Assembly returns for its long session in January.
"We are committed to addressing the unmet needs of our citizens still suffering, and we must do it now, especially during these Christmas holidays and as the cold weather approaches," McCrory said in a video he released Monday.
Providing money for disaster recovery is a relatively straightforward exercise, but there has been persistent speculation that lawmakers could use the occasion to carry out other more politically motivated pieces of business. No members of the Republican leadership in either chamber have laid out such an agenda, but rumors of such efforts cropped up nearly as soon as McCrory, a Republican, lost his re-election bid to Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Democrats and liberal-leaning groups have repeatedly insisted that they believe the GOP would expand the number of seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Doing so would allow McCrory to fill the two new seats on his way out of office and effectively reverse Democrat gains that gave the party four of the seven seats on the court.
Groups including the NAACP and Progress North Carolina are rallying members to come to downtown Raleigh Tuesday to protest against what they presume the agenda for the session will be, despite the fact there is little, if any, evidence GOP leaders plan to move forward with such a plan.
Lawmakers have repeatedly said they have no intention of taking up such legislation, but legislative leaders have refused to rule it out entirely, saying at various points they don't comment on rumors or that they haven't conferred with rank-and-file members. McCrory stoked speculation that lawmakers could go beyond disaster recovery efforts when his proclamation calling a special session said that lawmakers could handle "any other matters" they deemed fit.
"It would be outrageous if the legislature uses what is supposed to be a special session intended to help victims of natural disasters to instead cynically play partisan games with our state's highest court," said Bob Phillips, executive director of good-government watchdog Common Cause North Carolina.
Phillips' group spent $200,000 to put a television ad decrying the purported "court packing" scheme on cable television in Charlotte and Greensboro and on both cable and broadcast television in the Raleigh market.
"I don't know where that's coming from," said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union. "I've never had one, single fellow legislator come to me and say we need to do this or we want to do this."
Hise was likewise puzzled. "I've not heard that conversation at all from legislators within the Senate that I work with or, quite frankly, even from other House members," he said.
"Rumors are fun things, aren't they?" Horn added.
It would be easier for Horn and others to brush off that speculation if top legislative leaders, such as Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger quashed it outright. Instead, a spokeswoman for Berger said that "Senate Republicans are committed to taking up Gov. McCrory's disaster relief proposal this week. They are also carefully reviewing what Gov.-elect Roy Cooper did as Senate Majority Leader in 2000 and prior."
That appears to be an not-so-oblique reference to Democratic efforts to expand the state Court of Appeals in response to a political change of fortune on that court.
"I don't see how you could compare the expansion in 2000 to this expansion," said Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham.
Back then, Woodard said, the Court of Appeals asked for more judges. The state courts commission says the Supreme Court doesn't need more justices now, he said.
"Any move it seems to be at this point to expand is just brazenly political," he said.
Horn said it's likely other items will come up during the special session.
"But do I believe that they'll be highly controversial items? No, I don't," he said.
Lawmakers have talked about the possibility of taking up other matters, such as a regulatory reform bill that dealt with wind energy, recycling and alcohol sales. There also has been speculation that lawmakers could reclassify as many as 1,000 political positions in state government, protecting some of McCrory's appointees and making it more difficult for Cooper to make his own appointments.
But none of that has been spelled out as part of a confirmed special session agenda. In fact, the most likely first step in both the House and the Senate would be for Republicans to meet behind closed doors to figure out what it is they want to do during this week.
"I haven't heard any definitive answers with anything related to the courts or personnel or any of those things," Woodard said.