News, Special Session

Bills push forward in House, Senate as protestors disrupt meetings, get arrested

Protest sign that says Democracy is so overrated

Numerous protesters disrupted House and Senate meetings Thursday at the General Assembly’s fourth special session of the year. Photo by Melissa Boughton

It was a busy night in the Legislative Building. It started in the Senate, where lawmakers reconvened just before 4 p.m. and took up Senate Bill 4.

The 25-page bill, if it becomes law, would create a bipartisan Board of Elections and ethics agency, reestablish partisan elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, modify the appellate court process and allow outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory to fill a vacancy on the Industrial Commission.

Despite objections from Democratic senators, the bill passed 30-16 along party lines and was moved to the House, where legislators planned to take it up just before 8:30 p.m. at an Elections Committee meeting. If it passes there, the bill will move to the House finance committee, set to meet at 8 a.m. Friday.

Sen. Jane Smith, D-Columbus and Robeson, called the piece of legislation an egregious power grab and said lawmakers used Hurricane Matthew as a ruse and its victims as a ploy to get them to Raleigh.

Republican Senators said what they were doing was minor in comparison to what Democrats had done in the past and brought up political events as far back as 1976.

Democratic leader, Sen. Dan Blue of Wake took Senators to task for seeking vengeance and putting their own interests above the interests of North Carolinians.

“It’s not fair to compare 21st century North Carolina to 19th century North Carolina,” Blue said, adding that he believes in fairness but the Old Testament way of an eye for an eye was not right. “The end result of that is we end up with a lot of blind, snaggletoothed people.”

During the Senate meeting, the gallery was emptied and the public and reporters were locked out of the proceeding. Protesters who were in the gallery were warned about disruptions before being asked to leave. No one was yelling at the time the decision was made to clear the gallery. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said that gestures were considered a disruption.

Not long after, protesters filled the House gallery and the hall outside. They shouted loudly several phrases, including, “all political power comes from the people,” and sang together for quite some time. The House gallery was also eventually cleared and the doors locked, but not before about 17 people were arrested, including NC Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian, who was covering the proceeding at the time.

Protesters in the hall were asked to leave as well, under threat that the Capital Police would begin arresting them. Most cleared out, but a few dozen returned a short time later and watched the House meeting from the hall.

The House continued despite the protests and passed House Bill 17 with 70-36 votes along party lines. The bill goes to extraordinary lengths to strip Governor-elect Roy Cooper’s power, slashing the number exempt positions he can oversee from 1,500 to 300 and eliminating his ability to make appointments to university boards of trustees.

Democrats in the House had similar objections to their Senate counterparts about the motivation for the special session. Rep. Philip Lehman, D-Durham, said he had received 3,000 emails from North Carolinians objecting to the lack of transparency of the session. Republicans said they were sick of being chastised and that a lot of the bills did not bring about new discussions.

House Speaker Tim Moore also addressed the empty gallery after a Representative asked if he would re-open the doors to the public. He condemned protesters and said they encroached on the rights of all North Carolinians by disrupting the meeting. He added that the audio stream of the meeting was sufficient to keep it open to the public.

The House also passed House Bill 10, which could mean public and private schools would be reimbursed for road projects mandated by cities.

The House will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Friday and the Senate at 8:30 a.m. The House is expected to take up House Bill 13 on Friday, which would modify the maximum average class size requirements for kindergarten through third grade.

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