By John Ager
The North Carolina General Assembly is scheduled to re-convene in yet another “special session” on October the 4th. These sessions bear close scrutiny by the voters, since they often involve controversial bills that can appear out of nowhere and be voted on before legislators, interest groups, and voters have a chance to evaluate them. As Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady explains, “We just don’t do what we used to do in terms of using committees, doing things between sessions, doing a lot of the work on gleaning the facts…Its more about bullying your way through whatever the issue is.”
While due process has suffered, the endless string of special sessions is eroding the long-held desire to maintain a citizen legislature that meets on a part-time basis. North Carolina is the ninth largest U.S. state, with about 10 million citizens. Most of our economic and population growth is occurring in the urban areas like Raleigh and Charlotte. Do we give up on the idea of a part-time legislature? I hope not. We just need to stay away from controversial bills that sap the collective time and energy of the legislative body and focus on keeping North Carolina up to date with changing technological and social trends. We lost another young member to the House last week, and it is no mystery that family and business back home suffer from so much time in Raleigh.
One purpose of this special session is to try to override the Governor’s vetoes of certain bills, which requires a 60% vote of House and Senate members. There will be at least four potential override bills for the October Session. In the previous special sessions, there were not enough GOP votes to assure the override and so they were not brought before House for consideration even though they were on the agenda. One of the bills, HB 511, would allow non-profit organizations to have “game nights” that would include gambling. Governor Cooper believes that this bill would provide a loophole for the video poker interests. A second bill, HB 576, is known as the Garbage Juice bill (or officially, “A bill to allow the aerosolization of Leachate”). This process has come under criticism because the company that sells it has made large political donations to members of the General Assembly. More importantly, two landfill management companies have determined that the process is ineffective.
Another stated purpose of the session is to consider amendments to the North Carolina constitution. A proposed amendment must pass both houses with 60% aye votes, after which the voters would approve or not in the November 2018 election. The governor cannot veto. Commonly, the amendments are used as a tactic for the party in power to drive voters to the polls. There were 16 constitutional amendments proposed during the Long Session. They include: eminent domain restrictions, strengthening victims’ rights, capping income tax rates, right to work provisions, and the right to hunt and fish.
While the Legislature passed a bill to re-draw some of NC’s House and Senate districts as demanded by the courts, the judges could still rule that they are not satisfied with the results. There is also a controversial judicial redistricting bill, HB 717, that would revise the 40-plus districts involving superior and district court judges. HB 717 has not been vetted by the NC Bar, and there appears to be an outcry from the judicial community, on the Democratic and Republican sides, against the process. Many believe these districts are being gerrymandered to give GOP judges an advantage, and will harm the impartiality of our court system. Along with the $10 million cut to the Attorney General’s budget and the reduction of the Court of Appeals from 15 members to 12 (to prevent Gov. Cooper from making the appointments), a major theme of the General Assembly this year has been to make our courts more partisan.
Finally, there remain bills that have passed both the House and Senate but in different versions. When that is the case, a conference committee is appointed and sometimes the bill can return for a vote larded with extra policy not pertinent to the original bill. HB 770 is an example. It was originally an environmental bill but came out of conference with all sorts of provisions having nothing to do with the environment. Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill but the veto was overridden and it became law in August.
I would like to take a moment to reflect on our late summer storms. While we have largely been spared here in the mountains beyond a few downed trees and power outages, we can see how the partnership between government and our people can bring us all together to fight hardship and adversity. So many groups from our Western North Carolina area have dropped everything to help the people of Texas and Florida. We as Americans are going to pay billions in taxes to bring the lives of affected people back to life. These storms have been more intense this year because the ocean waters that feed their intensity have been warmer, and long term we have to face the fact that dumping carbon in our atmosphere must be curtailed. I look forward to reporting back to you on how the October Special Session worked out. And once again, I thank you for allowing me to serve you in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Rep. John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives