State lawmakers return to unclear agenda
Posted November 26, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — State lawmakers will return to Raleigh Sunday night for yet another legislative session. It’s expected to last up to five days. But legislative leaders haven’t yet said what they’ll be voting on, and the rules for this session make almost everything eligible.
The unusual Sunday-night-on-a-holiday-weekend session has led some critics to accuse GOP leaders of underhanded tactics. But GOP leaders have repeatedly said the purpose of Sunday night’s session is to introduce bills that the law says must be "read in" on consecutive days. The first reading is strictly procedural and does not involve a vote.
“There is no plan to take any recorded votes on Sunday,” House Speaker Thom Tillis’s Chief of Staff Charles Thomas confirmed again earlier this week.
Two major policy issues are time-sensitive, so they’re likely to at least see discussion, if not a full vote, this week.
The gas tax: North Carolina’s gas tax is linked to the price of gasoline, which has risen over the past six months. That means the gas tax will rise about 4 cents per gallon on Jan. 1 if lawmakers don’t take action to cap it.
The call to cap the tax is loudest in the House, where several Republican proponents say the increase will hurt families and businesses already struggling in the recession.
But others, including House Transportation Chair Fred Steen, say the revenue is sorely needed for the state’s already-underfunded road system and has already been calculated into this year’s budget. If the tax is capped, they warn, some scheduled projects will have to be delayed.
Cherokee gambling: The Eastern Band of Cherokee and Gov. Bev Perdue’s office have been actively pursuing a deal to change the state’s gambling laws to allow live-dealer games in North Carolina casinos. Cherokee leaders also want exclusive rights over much of the state in return for giving the state a share of their profits.
After months of negotiation, the two sides have reportedly reached a deal on the details. But it’s up to the Legislature to seal the deal by enacting the necessary legal changes. That proposal is expected to emerge in this session.
Already on the table
Senate leaders have already scheduled a Monday afternoon committee hearing on Senate Bill 9, a proposal to make changes to the Racial Justice Act.
Critics of the act say it’s too broadly drawn, and nearly every inmate on death row has already filed a motion under it to have their sentences commuted to life without parole. They want lawmakers to rewrite the law.
Supporters of the act say the changes critics want would essentially gut the bill, rolling back what they say is an historic piece of civil rights legislation intended to reduce documented racial bias within the state’s justice system.
SB9 has already passed the House and is considered likely to pass the Republican-dominated Senate by a wide margin. That vote could come as soon as Monday afternoon.
It’s unusual to hold a committee meeting on a “concurrence” bill that can’t be amended. “We’re just going out of our way to make sure the public has a chance to be heard on this,” said Amy Auth, deputy chief of staff for Senate Leader Phil Berger.
Veto overrides are always on the agenda in the House, and two high-profile vetoes are considered likely to come up for a vote this week.
Voter ID: House Bill 351 would require voters to show photo ID. Perdue vetoed the bill this summer, echoing the concerns of critics who say the requirement would disproportionately disenfranchise elderly, poor and women voters.
Earlier this year, House leaders failed to get the handful of Democratic votes needed to override the veto. They’re expected to try again during the upcoming session.
Offshore Drilling: Senate Bill 709 directs the governor and her administration to take steps toward allowing offshore drilling and studying “fracking,” a controversial method of extracting natural gas from onshore shale deposits. It also revamps the state’s Energy Policy Council to make it more friendly to the energy industry.
The Senate has already overridden Perdue’s veto. House leaders have not yet been able to assemble the votes needed for an override, but they’re widely expected to try a vote during this session.
Several other measures could be taken up this session:
- State Disaster Chief Bob Etheridge has said he hopes to have a proposal on Hurricane Irene relief ready for lawmakers.
- State Department of Health and Human Services leaders could introduce a supplemental funding bill to allow the state to avoid deep cuts to Medicaid.
- The House Elections committee could act on measures to combine the state’s monitoring of ethics, campaign finance and lobbying under one agency, rather than the current three. It could also consider bills to change various voting laws.
- The House Rules committee could produce a sheaf of local bills to require voter ID in dozens of counties if the statewide voter ID bill fails its override.
- Several “technical correction bills” could also emerge from either chamber to fix known problems in legislation enacted earlier this year.
Sunday's session begins at 8 p.m.