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.

Legislature, Special Session

House Democrats protest special session, “legislating in the dark”

Photo of Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County

Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, filed an official protest against today’s special session based on the constitutional grounds that it is “injurious to the people” (Photo: NC General Assembly)

The scene on the House floor today was an exercise in civil disobedience. Democrats, one by one, stood and officially defied the Republicans’ vote to hold an extra special session — a session whose agenda is known only to those holding the majority of political power.

“I’m formally joining the protest,” each lawmaker announced, following the lead of Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, who filed the protest.

Republicans didn’t notify their fellow Democratic lawmakers of the extra special session; nor were Democrats among the required three-fifths of the House and the Senate members who agreed to call it.

“Legislating in the dark — it doesn’t seem to matter, said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat, who called a press conference after the House recessed. “There’s no question most of the action we’re going to see will be heard in the courts.”

Hall compared today’s power grab to the Wilmington riots of 1898. That’s when white racist Democrats won an election by stuffing the ballot boxes. Two days afterward, the Wilmington Race Riot broke out, and whites — among them clergymen, lawyers, bankers and merchants — gunned down African-Americans. At least 25 were killed, although unofficial numbers put that figure at more than 100, including bodies that were dumped in the river.

“In 1898, people didn’t like the vote and they decided to terrorize the town,” Hall said. “In those days, people used physical violence. We’re in a new era when the vote is sought to become meaningless through legislative tactics.”

Republican lawmakers are mixing a potpourri of legislation that could be voted on this evening. The legislation is expected to, among other actions, enact regulatory reforms that failed earlier this year. It’s also rumored that there will be a bill to limit the authority of the executive branch — power that was expanded under Gov. Pat McCrory.

“We’re here after a Republican governor lost the election,” said Hall, who filed two bills yesterday, one asking for a nonpartisan redistricting commission, the other for a restoration of early voting. “Now the Republicans seek to nullify the will of the people by stripping away the powers of the governor.”

McCrory had called the first special session to appropriate $200 million in disaster relief for counties devastated by Hurricane Matthew and the western wildfires. “We came down here for a legitimate reason,” Hall said, referring to the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016. The bill passed both chambers. “That business has been dispensed with. We should be going home.”

Instead, Hall said, “we are now here on a purely partisan agenda to nullify the vote of the people. It should be clear what it is. We should not bite our tongues and look the other way.”

The filing deadline for bills in the Senate is 5 p.m.; in the House it’s 7 p.m.

 

Courts & the Law, Legislature, News

Senator: Court packing on everyone’s mind despite most still being ‘in the dark’ on potential legislation

Sen. Dan Blue at a podium

Democratic leader, Sen. Dan Blue addressed the court packing rumor at a press conference Tuesday before the special session. Photo by Rob Schofield

The special legislative session is well under way, and while there still has been no official word on a GOP scheme to pack the state Supreme Court, it’s very much on people’s minds.

Democratic leader, Sen. Dan Blue, from Wake County, held a press conference before the session started to call attention to the possibility of a Supreme Court expansion, and to condemn any bills that do not solely address disaster relief after Hurricane Matthew and recent wildfires in the west.

“Rumors often run rampant here in Raleigh as most of you know,” he said. “There’s something about rumors though, that if you respond to them definitively one way or another, you can usually put them to rest. And the Republicans have been more than happy to let the rumor mill keep churning, churning and burning.”

He said there hasn’t been productive conversation from Republican leaders, so Democrats are “in the dark like everyone else.”

“I’ve asked and nobody has said they’re going to do it; nobody has said they’re not going to do it; some have said, ‘we’re looking at it,'” Blue said.

He called the idea to expand the court unethical and immoral and said it would use people who need immediate assistance as political pawns. Sen. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland, Hoke, joined Blue at the press conference and spoke about the damage from the hurricane in his district.

“Our district was inundated by the floodwaters ushered in by Hurricane Matthew,” he said. “Let us dedicate the full extent of our focus here during this special session for the recovery of the disasters that have befallen our state and provide our citizens with answers. It’s time for our state to step up to the task.”

Sen. Ben Clark and Sen. Dan Blue stand at a podium

Sen. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland, Hoke, spoke at a press conference Tuesday about Hurricane Matthew damage in his districts. Photo by Rob Schofield

Blue and Clark both said those residents affected by the natural disasters should be the focus of all North Carolinians, but instead everyone in the state was thinking about court packing.

Blue also said there was no workload to justify an expansion of the high court, and that such a move would be done to nullify a branch of government, destroying the idea of three independent branches of government and checks and balances.

There was a second press conference held by progressive advocates who have concerns about ulterior motives during the special session.

Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP, said there were doubts to believe court packing was just a rumor.

“To engage in manipulation of the courts while people’s lives are still in crises is just wrong,” he added.

House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters at the session that he does not expect a bill to expand the Supreme Court to be introduced.

The only bill that has been filed in the session thus far is the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016 in the House, but there is still time for more filings. The House has until 5 p.m. today to file any new bills, and the Senate has until noon Wednesday.