Legislature, News

2017 legislative session convenes with glimpse of what’s to come; call for bipartisan effort among lawmakers

The North Carolina Senate unanimously passed its rules Wednesday for the 2017 legislative session, including how it will consider confirming gubernatorial nominations or appointments. The rule does not state any sort of timeline for the process.

For the first time in North Carolina history, the General Assembly passed a bill during one of the special sessions in December requiring Senate approval over Cabinet Secretary appointees.

You can find many of the appointees Gov. Roy Cooper has announced here.

There was no discussion from Senators about the new rule and it remains unclear when the process will get underway. The Senate adjourned until Jan. 25.

RULE 49. Consideration of Gubernatorial Nominations or Appointments. – When received by the Principal Clerk, written notice of a gubernatorial nomination or appointment that requires confirmation by the General Assembly or the Senate shall be read in session and shall be referred by the Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, or in his absence the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, to the appropriate Senate committee. The Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate may file an appropriate resolution for consideration of the nomination or appointment. For statewide or at-large nominations or appointments, the Principal Clerk shall transmit a copy of the notice of nomination or appointment to the Senator or Senators representing the county in which the nominee or appointee resides. For nominations or appointments of persons to represent a particular district or region of the State, the Principal Clerk shall transmit a copy of the notice of nomination or appointment to the Senator or Senators representing all or a portion of the particular district or region to be represented. The chair of the Senate committee receiving referral of any nomination or appointment shall determine the procedure by which the committee shall consider that nomination or appointment and may make a report of its recommendation to the Senate.

In other news from the meeting Wednesday, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) was again elected President Pro Tem. Sen. Louis Pate (R-Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne) was elected Deputy President Pro Tem.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

In his address to fellow legislators, Berger thanked them for placing their confidence in him and said he would do the best job he could. He commended the General Assembly for increasing jobs across the state, cutting the unemployment rate, reducing taxes for North Carolinians and increasing teacher pay to more than $50,000 per year for the first time in the state’s history.

He also said that most of what the General Assembly works on is not controversial and most laws passed with “overwhelming bipartisan support.” He said no matter what legislators’ political party, they are all there to help the state thrive and citizens reach their full potential.

“Members, as we consider the task ahead at the start of this session, let us remember all that we can accomplish when we work together,” Berger said. “And let us remember all that can be achieved as we continue down this new path for our state.”

Berger also gave a glimpse of what’s to come this session, noting intentions to maintain budget and spending discipline and a commitment to tax policies that will help return North Carolina to good fiscal health.

Let me be clear, we will not under circumstances return to the failed tax and spend policies of the past that gave us the mess that we had in 2011,” he said. “We’ll continue to look for ways to reduce the tax burden on families, small businesses and other job creators, helping them keep more of their earned money. We’ll continue efforts to reform and improve public education for our students and have already committed to raising the average teacher pay to $55,000 over the next two years. We’ll remain focused on providing a bright future for our children and helping build a stable workforce that will attract businesses to this state.”

Senators will work, he said, to foster a better business climate and to continue building state reserves to be well-prepared for the future.

Working across the aisle

After a series of tense and contentious extra sessions last month, the N.C. House officially convened the legislative session Wednesday on a more hopeful note.

Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) was elected to a second term as Speaker of the House and called for a renewed sense of

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

congeniality.

“We will not always agree, but let us disagree respectfully and with kindness,” Moore said.

Strained by election season and divided by a number of important social and political issues, bipartisanship was in short supply in 2016.

But new Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) extended a hand across the aisle Wednesday to second the nomination of Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) for speaker pro tempore. Jackson praised Stevens’ own spirit of bipartisan cooperation and said she will lead the House well on occasions when Moore is absent.

Beyond the housekeeping of electing new leadership, welcoming new members and taking their oaths, the House did little beyond the ceremonial Wednesday. Like the Senate, they adjourned until noon on January 25 – a move telegraphed earlier this week by a fundraising e-mail from Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), the powerful chair of the House Rules Committee.

Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch contributed to this report.

Legislature, News, Special Session

Prominent NC conservative on special session last week: ‘Would have been better to provide more time’

Special session imagesJohn Hood, president of the John William Pope foundation, told Vice News on Friday that Republicans in the North Carolina legislature may wish they had slowed their roll.

“These are significant changes to the government of the state,” he said. “It would have been better to provide more time.”

He was speaking about last week’s surprise special session in which Republicans, who have a super majority in the House and Senate, passed bills stripping Democrat Gov.-elect Roy Cooper of power, among other things.

The John William Pope Foundation is the grant-making arm of the policy empire controlled by North Carolina Republican megadonor Art Pope, who is also a top backer of outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Hood told the news outlet that it wasn’t the changes Republicans were proposing that scared him, it was the scope of the proposals and the pace legislators were moving them into law that worried him.

You can read the full interview here.

Ultimately, Hood said, what the Republicans did last week doesn’t help create a functional government in North Carolina.

Rather, it continues “a cycle that harms our discourse in the long run.”

Courts & the Law, Legislature, News, Special Session, Voting

Senate Bill 4 touted as bipartisan effort; Democrats told special session not the right time to amend

Republican Senators touted their bipartisan effort bill Thursday morning as a way for both parties to work together, but brushed off Democrat Senators’ requests to add an amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting committee.

Senate Bill 4 is a complex, four-part, 25-page document that was introduced late Wednesday during the General Assembly’s fourth special session of the year. It seeks to:

  • Create a new, bipartisan agency: the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement that consolidates elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics.
  • Reestablish partisan elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
  • Modify the appellate court process.
  • Allow outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory to fill a vacancy on the Industrial Commission.

The bill was discussed at a nearly two-hour committee meeting Thursday. Democrats didn’t oppose the bill in its entirety and seemed to like the idea of a bipartisan Board of Elections, but expressed concern about the timing of the bill and said they would prefer to work on it in the long session.

Sen. Floyd B. McKissick Jr., D-Durham, Granville, said the independent Board of Elections had been around a long time and it appeared the only reason to move on the bill now was political in nature, to take away an opportunity for incoming Gov.-elect Roy Cooper. He also asked why there wasn’t anything in the bill about bipartisan redistricting after Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Union) told the group the bill would be one step toward that goal.

“You don’t eat a steak in one bite,” Tucker replied, adding that he wouldn’t have objections to working on something regarding bipartisan redistricting in the future but that there wasn’t enough time in the special session to do so.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Terrell and Washington, asked to introduce an amendment to add a bipartisan redistricting committee. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, asked her to wait until later. She did, and the amendment was promptly voted against with little discussion.

“This would not be the appropriate time for this particular amendment,” Rucho said.

The group also discussed the other parts of Senate Bill 4, with Democrats again questioning the timing of it all, and Republicans insisting there were good reasons behind everything.

“There is no other time to run this,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford and Yancey. “It’s a great piece of legislation and I think people are just grasping at straws to see what the opposition is.”

Sen. Jane Smith, D-Columbus and Robeson, said the legislation seemed drastic to pass in such a short amount of time, and that she was concerned this was all being done in a special session that all legislators were not even aware was going to happen.

McKissick told Republicans that if there was more willingness to work together, as opposed to having been excluded from the process to begin with, there may be a different tone moving forward.

The bill moved forward to the Senate Finance Committee, where it is currently being discussed. There is no fiscal note attached to the bill, so it is unclear how much it would cost taxpayers. A fiscal note was requested at the finance meeting, but Senators said they would not hold up the bill if the note was not available in time.

Commentary, Legislature, Special Session

Regulatory reform, part 2: Now the really bad news

A photo of two state lawmakers talking on the Senate floor.

The calm before the storm: The Senate Chamber on Tuesday. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

You know it’s been a horrible day for democracy when the best thing we can say is, “Well, they didn’t kill renewable energy.”

The Regulatory Reform bill, which has a few positive aspects, nonetheless contains troubling stormwater provisions and a public records bombshell.

First, the bill would prohibit the NC Department of Environmental Quality from mandating stormwater control measures at say, a construction site, if they would protect water quality downstream, unless required under state or federal law. That effectively thwarts counties and cities from enacting stronger stormwater standards in these cases.

Secondly (this is in Section 3.15, for those of you playing along at home), development can occur within some areas area that otherwise would have to be in a vegetative buffer. This means that impervious surface — pavement, parking lots, sidewalks — can replace grass, meadowlands and trees, as long as the runoff is collected and treated and discharged through another buffer.

The net effect is more pavement, more runoff and fewer buffers that can alleviate flooding. (And flooding from Hurricane Matthew is primarily what brought the legislature back in session in the first place.)

And finally, some stormwater management systems can be fast-tracked through the permitting process without a technical review. Because what could go wrong?

Nothing to see here: Proposed changes to the public records law

Citizens and the media rely on public records to monitor the activities of state government. Expense reports, environmental violations, travel manifests, emails and correspondence: This is all ostensibly a public record except under limited circumstances, such as attorney-client privilege and open criminal investigations.

Most of the time, the records are provided for free, although state agencies have been known to charge fees for staff time and paper copies. However, these costs aren’t supposed to be onerous. (That said, on occasion some citizens groups and the media have been asked to pay thousands of dollars  — the very definition of onerous.)

Currently, people can ask for records in electronic form (CD, pdf, downloadable database) or in paper form. But under this bill the state agency could decide the format.

Here’s an example of how this could be a problem: A person in rural North Carolina, who has no broadband Internet access (or any Internet access), requests the state mail her a CD of water quality data. If this bill becomes law, the state could say, no, you have to download a database. Without an Internet connection, she couldn’t access the public records that she, as a taxpayer, actually owns.

Conversely, a state agency, irritated by a certain reporter or media outlet, could decide to provide the records in a 6 foot stack of paper. This is known as a data dump, and it’s a passive-aggressive way for government to meet its legal obligation while making the media’s life very difficult. It’s very inefficient to parse paper records and build an electronic database, which is how reporters had to work in the old days. Downloadable data has made watchdogging much easier. This bill would make it more difficult.

Either way, citizens own the records and should be able to choose which format they prefer.

The Sunshine Center at Elon University explains:

The bill would change how agencies are required to provide access to public records and electronic databases. Under existing law, an agency must permit inspection or provide a copy of a record or database upon request, unless it is otherwise exempt. The person making the request has the choice of format, as long as it is one in which the agency is capable of reproducing the record.

The bill would permit agencies to satisfy their obligation under the Public Records Law by making records and databases accessible online in a format that allows the record or database to be downloaded. The agency would not be required to provide the record or database in any other form or format. The agency could choose to provide the record or database in another format “as a service to the requestor” and would be permitted to “negotiate a reasonable charge for the service.”

The words “negotiate a reasonable charge for the service” should sound an alarm for open government advocates. “Reasonable” is not defined, leaving room for outlandish fees. And “negotiate”? Usually the person with the most power wins a negotiation. As we’ve seen in the last 24 hours, that’s not the citizens of North Carolina.

Courts & the Law, Legislature, News, Special Session

Senate bill seeks to create new bipartisan Board of Elections agency, restore partisan court races, diminish power of NC Supreme Court

A bill filed by Senate Republicans on Wednesday night would take away the political advantage of having Governor-elect Roy Cooper appoint positions to the State Board of Elections by creating a new, bipartisan agency: the Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

The Board would consist of eight members; four Republicans and four Democrats appointed by the governor and the General Assembly, and they would serve four-year terms. This would make it impossible for a Democratic majority on the State Board of Appeals under Democrat Cooper’s appointments.

The bill would also restore partisan elections for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and change the appeals process, making it more difficult to get cases to the high court.

There had been rumors swirling before this special session that the General Assembly would try to add justices to the court in an effort to gain back partisan control. An expansion of the court was not introduced, but it appears this bill attempts to diminish the power and the influence of the Supreme Court.

Democrat Mike Morgan was recently elected to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court in the nonpartisan race. His election flipped the court to a 4-3 Democratic majority.

There was some speculation that Morgan’s 54.45 percent win came because his name was above incumbent justice Robert Edmunds’ on the ballot, a placement held by Republican candidates in other judicial races on the rest of the ballot. The high court candidates also were not identified by their parties on the ballot because the race was non-partisan (though support for each campaign was partisan).

And finally, the bill would give outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory the right to name the chair of the North Carolina Industrial Commission, another power Cooper would have as incoming governor if this bill isn’t passed.

During the special session Thursday, Cooper tweeted that “#NCGA should focus on higher teacher pay, better wages for working North Carolinians and repealing HB 2.”

Of course, this bill is only one of a flurry of bills from both the House and Senate that were filed in the last hour Wednesday night. You can see all the bills here and here. And the excitement will continue Thursday as the House reconvenes at 10:30 a.m. and the Senate at 9 a.m.