Need for speed will shape legislative session
Posted May 13, 2012
Updated May 15, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — As lawmakers open the so-called "short" legislative session on Wednesday, legislative leaders are promising a swift exit from Raleigh and warn that all but the most essential business will be left for next year.
Experts who follow the General Assembly say this seeming need for speed has a lot to do with the demands of a pressure-cooker November election in which Republicans hope to hold control of both the state House and Senate.
"This session is going to be very much about the election in terms of what they try to get done," said Thom Little, who teaches political science at University of North Carolina in Greensboro and works with the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Republicans, he said, have taken pride in running short, efficient sessions.
"I'm going to guess they will not be there a full six weeks," Little said.
In interviews, Sen. Phil Berger, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and House leaders said they planned to finish legislative business before July 4, which would be fast compared to the benchmarks set in the 1990s and the decade after.
Legislative rules limit the scope of new bills that can be taken up and deadlines given to lawmakers require most new legislation to be filed by May 30. Some controversial measures, including a move to give drug companies protection from lawsuits over faulty pharmaceuticals, have already quietly dropped off the radar.
"The short session is about the budget," Berger said, recalling a time when lawmakers didn't return to Raleigh in even-numbered years barring some sort of emergency.
"The speaker wants us to tweak the budget and get out of town," said Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The committees under his jurisdiction are often a mandatory stop for complex legislation, especially any that could impact civil or criminal court proceedings. He said there are no "must-pass" bills on his agenda at this point.
"There are some that people want to do," Daughtry said. For example, he has been working on a bill that would allow people who commit crimes when they are young expunge their records after leading a law-abiding life for a while. Expunging their records, Daughtry said, would help them find and keep jobs.
That said, the measure has yet to pass the House and may not be able to get the committee time it needs if budget-writing committees take precedence over other work.
"If we don't get it, we'll try again next year," Daughtry said.
That will likely be a common refrain during the short session. But even with the scope of work narrowed, some high-profile legislative showdowns are brewing.
Another budget veto?
Gov. Bev Perdue and Republican legislative leaders are picking up their budget debate right where they left off last year, when a handful of House Democrats helped the GOP override the first budget veto in North Carolina history.
Last week, Perdue offered a $20.9 billion spending plan that relies on increasing the state sales tax by three-quarters of one percent. The extra $790 million raised by a proposed two-year tax increase would go toward boosting funding for all levels of education, including $562 million for public schools.
Republican legislators dismissed that plan, saying that now was not the time to impose any sort of tax increase.
"To add to our tax burden will slow down our recovery from the recession," said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, the lead budget writer in the Senate.
Republican leaders say they will not vote to raise taxes this session, making much of Perdue's budget unworkable.
Rep. Harold Brubaker, R-Randolph, said the House will publish a first draft of its budget the week after lawmakers return to Raleigh. It will attempt to roll back some cuts to education programs lawmakers programmed into their budget last year. But the new budget, he said, will have to cope with a rise in Medicaid costs and planned spending increases in the probation, court and other judicial agencies associated with the Justice Reinvestment Act.
Already, Democrats are lambasting Republican efforts. Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, says that Republican budget writers have assembled the bulk of their budget outside of public view while the General Assembly was not in session.
"Our members don't have any idea what's in the budget," Hackney said. Republicans should take the time to consider the ideas offered by the governor and give the public an opportunity to have a say. “It sounds like a slam-bam budget. Their own members aren't going to know what’s in it either.”
Brubaker and Berger said that they are merely adjusting a two-year budget plan put in place last July 1. Those changes, the two men said, are much more limited than short session budget adjustments were in the past, so less discussion will be needed this year.
"All we're doing is tweaking," Brubaker said.
However, it seems unlikely Perdue will be happy with those tweaks. Should she decide to veto a budget bill for a second year in a row, Republicans would have an interesting choice to make. They could scramble to round up a few conservative Democrats to help them pass the spending plan. Or they could walk away, leaving automatic education cuts and problems with Medicaid funding in place.
"I wouldn't be comfortable with it, but that is an option," Brubaker said.
Brunstetter called walking away "a very viable strategy." Berger said it was also something that he would consider.
Gas tax a point of agreement
Even with big disagreements looming, Perdue and lawmakers do agree on a few key items.
In her budget, Perdue proposes capping the state's gas tax for one year at 37.5 cents per gallon. Drivers currently pay 38.9 cents per gallon due to a formula that shifts based on the wholesale price of gas. When gas prices rise, so does the per-gallon tax.
State lawmakers say they will also cap the state's gas tax starting July 1. However, because the gas tax funds a large part of the state's budget for highway construction and repairs, legislative leaders say they need more time to decide exactly how low they might cut the tax or how long they might cap it.
"We'll need to look at what the various scenarios will do in terms of funding for projects that are out there," Berger said. "I couldn't say right now where we are other than I'm certain that the gas tax, as a result of the upcoming budget, will be lower than the gas tax is now."
Additional points of agreement include:
- Providing compensation for victims of a state-sponsored eugenics program that sterilized 7,600 people between 1923 and 1974 because a government panel deemed they would be unfit to raise children.
- Approving a new gaming compact for the Eastern Band of Cherokees. The new agreement between the state and the tribe would allow for live dealers at the Cherokee-owned casino in western North Carolina. The measure could meet with resistance in the House, where social conservatives are more influential and skeptical of expanding gambling.
Teachers' groups balk at education reform plan
In addition to the budget, leading senators say a key priority will be an education reform package they unveiled earlier this year. Republicans senators have argued that changes to the school system would both improve student performance and save the state money in the long run.
Features of the Senate education plan include:
- Adding new reading-intensive instruction for students who struggle with reading.
- Ending social promotion of students who can’t read at grade level by the end of third grade.
- Creating a system to grade schools A through F to help parents better gauge performance.
- Establishing a North Carolina Teacher Corps program – modeled on Teach for America – that will give recent college graduates and mid-career professionals a direct path to teach in low-performing schools.
- Providing transportation and non-instructional support funding for the five additional instructional days already added to the school calendar.
- Allowing state employees to volunteer in a public school literacy program for up to five hours per month.
- Rewarding the most effective teachers with bonuses and merit-based pay increases.
- Employing teachers on annual contracts that are renewed based on performance.
Perdue has also emphasized the need to improve reading in elementary school grades, although she has emphasized providing teachers with hand-held diagnostic tools to assess reading progress. And there was widespread agreement last year that adding days to the school calendar would be helpful, but schools needed more money to pay for that time.
However, teachers' groups balk at measures that would cut into job security, target raises to those deemed high performers and put a letter grade on school performance.
"All career status and tenure says is you have to give teachers a reason you're letting them go," said Brian Lewis, a lobbyist with the N.C. Association of Educators. "It doesn't say you get a free ride, it just says you have the right to a hearing."
While some parts of the Senate education proposal may be helpful, he said, NCAE worries that things like the merit pay proposal could make it even harder for lower-performing school districts to attract teachers.
Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, the House majority leader, said he agreed with "90 percent" of the Senate proposal and was optimistic that at least part of the package would pass. But he cautioned the whole package may not pass given the time constraints lawmakers are working under this year.
"The education reform is complicated enough that if we tried to do all of it at once it would keep us in session for a while into the summer," Stam said.
Annexation, eminent domain laws get another look
Two pieces of legislation from 2011 that were aimed at protecting property rights hit obstacles their backers hope to clear this year.
Part of a new law that curbs cities' ability to annex property against the wishes of the owners was declared unconstitutional in a Wake County court ruling. The measure allowed a majority of the property owners to block the annexation, something the court said amounted to an improper election.
"We'll have some reaction to that," Stam said. He was unsure whether lawmakers would rewrite the entire law to satisfy the court ruling or merely intercede in the specific cases where annexations would have been stopped if the suit had been successful.
Stam said he also hoped the Senate would approve a House-passed measure on eminent domain. The measure would ask voters to pass a constitutional amendment to curb the ability of government to force the sale of private property.
Brunstetter, who chairs the Senate Judiciary I committee, said the measure would likely be heard in committee this summer.
"We're still evaluating the bill," Brunstetter said, adding it was unclear whether the measure would make it to a floor vote.
House, Senate split on fracking
By far, the highest-profile environmental issue likely to be heard during the legislative session involves allowing companies to use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas.
Known colloquially as fracking, the process has been associated with water quality problems in other states. Attorney General Roy Cooper has said there needs to be better protection for landowners who lease or sell mineral rights to drilling companies.
Over the winter and spring, House and Senate lawmakers have developed different versions of fracking legislation. In the House, Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, is pushing a version that would provide for research and development of regulations but not lift North Carolina's current ban on the process. A Senate version of the bill, developed largely by Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, calls for the fracking ban to expire in 2014.
While there is a contingent of House lawmakers who agree with Rucho, those who track environmental legislation say they don't expect the House as a whole to fully embrace the Senate version of the bill.
Other measures related to the environment that lawmakers could handle include:
- An air toxins bill. Members of the Environmental Review Commission have been working on a measure to roll back pieces of the state law that regulates how much pollution factories can emit. They have said that state law sometimes overlaps with federal law. While environmental groups say they would rather see no tinkering with the current law, they say recent drafts of the air toxins bill do less damage to health protections than early versions did. "It really isn't nearly as bad as when it started out," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who is known as particularly sympathetic to environmental interests.
- Regulatory reform. Berger said in a news conference last week that lawmakers could look at rolling back more regulations as part of a reform effort aimed at making the state more business-friendly. Much of the regulatory reform effort has curbed environmental rules. Berger was not specific as to what specific steps lawmakers might want to take.
Lawmakers try again to override vetoes
Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed 16 bills last year, more than she and all other chief executives had rejected combined during the first 14 years North Carolina governors had veto power.
Of those, Republicans have been unable to override the governor's objection on two high-profile pieces of legislation. Stam said House leaders planned to try once again on both bills:
- Voter ID: Republicans pushed through a measure that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Perdue vetoed the measure amid concerns that it would keep many senior citizens and college-age voters from voting. Republican backers say it would help make voting more secure.
- Racial Justice Act: The Senate has already voted to repeal a measure that allows death row inmates to appeal their convictions based on statistical evidence showing racial bias. But Republicans were one vote shy of the number needed to override Perdue's veto.
Other measures that may get some attention this year include:
- Dental management arrangements. A Senate-passed bill would limit how much control corporations could exert on dental practices. Dentists who work under such arrangements say the General Assembly shouldn't interfere with their business models. A House select committee has been studying this bill.
- Unemployment benefits. North Carolina borrowed $2.5 billion to pay unemployment claims during the recession. Lawmakers have been studying ways to repay that debt. A House task force has been looking at how to curb fraud in the unemployment system as well.
Not on the agenda
Finally, several high-profile issues will almost certainly have to wait until 2013 or after for a hearing. Among the topics legislative leaders say are unlikely to see action this year are:
- Sweepstakes machines. Those behind these machines say they merely provide entertainment. But as hundreds of locations have popped up across the state, critics say sweepstakes machines are a form of gambling. Lawmakers have tried to stamp out the machines with previous laws but court rulings have called those laws unconstitutional and have kept police from fully enforcing the bans. Berger and Stam say they will wait to see what the state Supreme Court rules in the case before taking further action.
- Pharmaceutical liability. House lawmakers passed a bill last year that would protect drug companies from lawsuits if the federal Food and Drug Administration had approved their products. A Senate judiciary subcommittee studied that bill during the interim period. However, Senate lawmakers said last week they were unlikely to take up the bill this summer.
- Tax reform. The Revenue Laws Study Committee has been looking at ways to update North Carolina's tax code to avoid big dips in revenue such as were seen during the recession. A key element of any reform would be lowering income and sales tax rates but taxing more goods and services. However, that comprehensive tax rewrite will wait until 2013, leaders in both chambers say.
- Immigration. Despite regular, contentious House committee hearings on what, if anything, the state should do to enforce immigration law, Stam said the chamber was unlikely to take up any new immigration laws this session.