The end is near ... sort of

Posted June 24, 2013

General Assembly voting buttons

— The end (of the legislative session) is near...sort of. 

North Carolina lawmakers are trying to bring their 2013 legislative "long" session to a close over the next few weeks, although, as of June 24, the House and Senate are still wrangling over major policy bills along with budget and tax packages. 

Unlike states such as Maryland and Virginia, there is no constitutional or legal requirement that North Carolina lawmakers finish work by any particular date. But traditionally, if North Carolina legislators are in town much past the second week of July during an odd numbered year (like 2013), it causes legislative leaders to sweat both figuratively and metaphorically.

This year, House leaders might also find themselves itching, literally, to get away, as they've pledged to grow their beards until business is done for the summer. 

As the heat and humidity rises, so does the pace of lawmaking and the number of "non-standard" procedures employed. That makes the action all the harder to follow, as legislators try to speed up a process that is, by its nature, ponderous.

With that in mind, here are eight things to watch for and/or keep in mind as lawmaking wraps up this summer:

It's really not the end: The General Assembly will merely be taking a break when it adjourns for the year. When lawmakers return in May 2014, they will return to what is technically the same legislative session, which means all the bills that are alive and eligible right now can be considered in the short session. 

Gut and amend: One way to cut down on the time it takes for a proposal to move through the legislature is to "gut and amend" a bill. In this practice, an unrelated bill is "gutted" of its original language, a new bill is dropped in and passed. When the measure returns to the chamber from which it originated, lawmakers need only pass the bill on concurrence to send it on to the governor, rather than piping the measure through the usual committee system.

The procedure gets more and more common the closer lawmakers get toward adjournment. It can strike some outsiders as skulduggery, particularly when legislation speeds up to a point where it becomes difficult to follow. The biggest "gut and amend" bill moving right now is the governor's reorganization of the Commerce Department into a public-private partnership

Everyone get on the omnibus: An omnibus bill is something that takes a bunch of related measures and pastes them together in one sprawling piece of legislation. From a technical standpoint, it cuts down on the number of votes needed – it's a lot more efficient to pass one bill than, say, five. Omnibus bills can also help get politically dicey pieces of legislation passed by mixing them in with universally popular measures. 

The most recent example of an omnibus bill is pending gun legislation, which expands rights for concealed handgun permit holders at the same time it raises penalties for gun crimes. However, this measure also shows the perils of an omnibus bill. The measure would end the state's pistol permitting system, something that has sparked opposition form the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, the state's police chiefs and Attorney General Roy Cooper. The whole package is sitting in a House committee while the permitting issue is hashed over.

"Technical" corrections: Big complicated pieces of legislation often need some clean-up after they are passed to fixed typos, errant references and other stray errors. Such "technical corrections" bills are common at the end of session, but as the pigs in "Animal Farm" might say, some corrections are more technical than others. 

In 2011, for example, lawmakers used a technical corrections bill to restore positions cut from the governor's office to help with a spat with then-Gov. Bev Perdue. And last year, a budget technical corrections bill delivered a tax break for filmmakers used to win over a key Democrat's vote for an unrelated bill. 

Study it: In general, lawmakers have rules about policy bills – those that don't contain any  spending or fees – that restrict how and when they can be considered. A measure that hasn't passed either the House or Senate by now might be considered dead for the session.

However, if the measure is "studied" by an interim committee that meets between the close of session this summer and the beginning of the short session next year, it can be considered in 2014. This is a way to keep ideas that didn't make the cut alive for the next legislative session and makes the studies bill one of the most closely watched end-of-session measures. 

Taking hostages: Even though the House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans, leaders of the two chambers don't always see eye to eye. For example, lawmakers have much different ideas regarding the budget and tax reform. So, it's not unusual to see seemingly innocuous measures favored by leaders of one chamber held in limbo by the other until an unrelated measure gets worked out.

For example, senators have assigned a bill dealing with how the town of Cornelius builds new buildings to the Committee on Ways and Means, which meets so infrequently that it's something of a punch line in the Senate. Cornelius is the hometown of House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is helping to lead negotiations over a tax bill. A House measure dealing with Johnston County's school calendar is also in Senate Ways and Means. Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, is one of the lead negotiators on a bill related to the Dorothea Dix property in Raleigh over which Senate and House leaders have big differences. 

Late nights and surprise meetings: As lawmakers reach the end of the legislative session, they work longer and longer days. Unlike city councils or boards of county commissioners, lawmakers do not have to give very much notice of committee hearings. 

That makes it possible for the legislature to meet late into the night, calling committee hearings on the fly in order to move legislation quickly through the process. In addition to making such legislation harder for the public to follow, it sometimes can catch opponents unawares. 

Return to sender and the fiscal note:  Of course, some end-of-session strategies involve killing bills, or at least keeping them at bay for the time being. 

One way to slow down a bill is for lawmakers to request a "fiscal note," which examines how much a particular bill might costs the state. Such requests are typically the prerogative of top legislative leaders, such as a senior committee chairman. A fiscal note request can be particularly deadly in the closing days of session, when there isn't time for legislative staff to draft such an estimate before General Assembly closes shop.

Other scuffles involve whether to send a measure back to committee and to which committee a bill is assigned. As with a measure concerned whether Durham should annex a controversial development, some committees (and their chairmen) are friendlier or more hostile toward a particular piece of legislation.

Of course, storing a bill in committee until a late-night committee vote is not an unheard of strategy either.


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