Raleigh, N.C. — House lawmakers are making doubly sure the State Bureau of Investigation is moved out of the Attorney General's Office.
The language for the move was added to Senate Bill 529, a criminal justice omnibus that was sent swiftly to the House floor Thursday for its first of two votes.
The rest of the measure deals mostly with changes to criminal statutes. It raises penalties for cellphone possession by prison inmates, increases punishment for graffiti and makes it a crime to threaten or assault any person in retaliation for actions of a government official.
It also allows forensic analysts from the State Crime Lab to testify at trials via video link if the defense agrees. Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, said the change would allow analysts to spend a lot less time on the road to trials, leaving more time for lab work.
That change takes effect Sept. 1 if the bill wins approval.
Before the bill's final committee hearing Thursday, House leaders decided to add in a budget provision that moves the SBI out of the Attorney General's Office and into the Department of Public Safety. It also moves the Bureau of Alcohol Law Enforcement, making it a branch of the SBI.
The House and Senate had each already approved the SBI move in their respective spending plans, although the Senate wants to move the crime lab to DPS as well while the House would leave the lab where it is.
Because both sides have agreed to the SBI and ALE moves, they would be included in any final version of the budget, Senate Bill 744. But in light of the stalemate, House Republicans are putting the move into a separate bill as insurance in case no budget deal is struck.
"This is an effort to make sure that this is one item that will be included in any final budget," said Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly. "We need to go ahead and get this transition started."
Democrats called the provision a "poison pill" inserted into a bill they could otherwise support. Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the House to remove it.
"We’ve already passed that in the budget. There’s no need to do it again," Jackson said.
"Less than two weeks ago, there was an article on the SBI investigating members and leadership of this body," said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood. "Now, we’re going to transfer the SBI from the AG to the an appointed position confirmed by this body?
"We’re putting the fox in the hen house," Queen said. "The idea that this is not political is just beyond the pale. It’s nothing but partisan politics for the gubernatorial race."
Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is widely seen as a potential opponent to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in the 2016 gubernatorial race.
Neither the SBI nor DPS requested the move. The state's sheriffs have opposed it.
Republicans insisted the purpose of the move is to make the SBI less political by putting it under an appointed chief with an eight-year term who can't be fired except in extreme circumstances.
"The idea that Roy Cooper, the attorney general, is not political is laughable on its face," said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. "Come on, let’s not be naïve here."
The bill passed its first vote, 75-39. It's scheduled for a final House vote Monday evening, and it would then return to the Senate for a concurrence vote.