Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina General Assembly adjourned just before dawn Saturday after a 19-hour, overnight session in which they negotiated and approved compromise legislation on ethics, campaign finance and taking DNA samples from suspects.
The gavels fell on the House and Senate at 5:32 a.m. with a ceremony inside the Legislative Building, finishing a session that began eight weeks ago.
A 29-page ethics and government reform bill got the final approval shortly after 3 a.m., when the House voted for it unanimously. Earlier, the Senate approved the bill with only one dissenting vote.
"It doesn't do everything that either body would have wished ... but it will continue to change the culture of the institutions," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, co-author of the House bill. "More than any provision, it's the work that was done in a bipartisan way."
The measure toughens penalties for illegal campaign donations above $10,000, requires board and commission members to report campaign fundraising activities for elected officials who appointed them, and expands information about state employees that must be released publicly.
"It allows the public access to information so that they can make their own judgment call on who our contributors are and their influence on the Legislature," Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said. "Hopefully, through that transparency, they'll feel better about their government."
Nesbitt was among a handful of lawmakers who balked at including a so-called pay-to-play provision that would limit campaign contributions by a contractor doing business with the state. Instead, the bill sets up a commission to study the pay-to-play bill.
Glazier said that he believes that with a little more education, more lawmakers will support the measure.
"Both chambers, both parties have really realized the necessity to make sure that our conduct is of the highest level," he said.
The bill was the latest response by state leaders to a series of corruption and campaign finance investigations over the past decade. Officials also have examined activities surrounding former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and his campaign, though he hasn't been charged with crimes.
The Senate and House also voted separately on final legislation requiring police to take DNA samples from people arrested on certain misdemeanor and felony charges. Current law requires only convicted felons to give samples.
The bill authorizes law enforcement to hold people who refuse to give a sample. If charges are dropped or the suspect is acquitted, the individual's DNA sample must be removed from the database.
Attorney General Roy Cooper had said having the samples in the state DNA database would help solve dozens of crimes by locating repeat offenders.
"Hopefully, one of our first hits will exonerate someone in prison currently who has been wrongly imprisoned," a bill sponsor, Rep. Wil Neumann, R-Gaston, one of the bill sponsors, said.
Several House members said requiring the sample upon arrest amounts to unreasonable search and seizure.
The debate became racially charged after 2 a.m. as some lawmakers said more black residents would face the demand because they are too often wrongly targeted. House Speaker Joe Hackney admonished lawmakers to keep their comments civil.
"Black people will be disproportionately infringed upon, because we're disproportionately affected," said Rep. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, who is black.
Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, countered that the bill is not racial because people of all races commit crimes. "Our society should be relieved of people being robbed, murdered and raped, and where we have technology ... we should use that," he said.
The bill passed 83-21.
In other actions this session, which was the shortest since 1996:
- On party-line votes, the Democratic-led Senate and House gave final approvals to new rules corporations must follow to report political activities, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed a prohibition on corporate giving to support or oppose a candidate. The measure requires companies and unions to disclose how much they spend on television commercials and mass mailings.
- Democrats in both chambers reached compromises on a pair of economic incentives bills that expands the size of tax breaks to the film industry, creates preferential tax treatment for green-friendly tenants in industrial parks and attempts to recruit a handful of unnamed companies that claim to be able to 1,200 jobs to the state. The two chambers finalized the bills with separate votes early Saturday.
- Lawmakers approved and the governor signed a budget before the new fiscal year, for the first time since 2003. The nearly $19 billion budget was aimed at saving public school teachers' jobs and tempering reductions in the University of North Carolina system. Republicans who voted in the minority against the budget argued it didn't prepare the state enough for a $3 billion shortfall next year and contained too few tax breaks for small business.
- The legislature gave final approval to reforms of the Alcoholic Beverage Control system and banned computer-based sweepstakes games showing up in parlors and Internet cafes statewide.
Gov. Bev Perdue has 30 days to act on dozens of bills approved in the session's final days. Barring a veto override or special session, the Legislature won't meet again until a new group of 170 elected lawmakers arrive in January.