Late Night Yields Big Changes From General Assembly's Special Session

Oct 6, 2017

Credit North Carolina General Assembly

There were a lot of surprises in a marathon special session by the General Assembly last night.

Closed-door meetings led to significant changes in election law, the budget and more.

Some things lawmakers said they would fix were not. Another thing surfaced which could make you wonder if clam is the new pork.

Morning Edition host Marshall Terry and WFAE reporter Tom Bullock discuss just what happened Thursday night in Raleigh.

MARSHALL TERRY: Tom, let's start with the state budget.

TOM BULLOCK: Ah yes. Lawmakers just passed this budget in June. And while they did fix some text errors, they also slid a lot of new policy into this last night.

Republican leaders wanted to give public school principals a pay raise in the original budget. But the formula they used meant a number of experienced principals would have actually had their pay cut because their longevity bonuses would go away. So this new budget would fix that and allow principals to keep their higher salary. But just for a year. And no additional pay is included so, in effect, they still don’t get raises.

MARSHALL TERRY: Then there's what you're calling 'the strange case of the new aquarium.'

TOM BULLOCK: The original budget calls for $300,000 of taxpayer money to be spent on a study and planning of a new shellfish aquaculture site in Pender County (north of Wilmington). Turns out, this is at a place called Blake Farms, a site being privately developed, and not far from the state aquarium at Fort Fisher. Under the changes, this money can be used by that private developer to pay for permits for the site and a satellite aquarium, meaning taxpayer dollars can now be spent to help a private company pay for the anchor tenant in a private development. So maybe "clam" is the new pork.

There is a lot more in this bill, including changes to standards in expert testimony in DWI cases, and extending indefinitely the state's film tax program, which was due to expire in a few years. But what it did not do is fix the class size issue in elementary schools. Lawmakers want smaller class sizes in early grades, but haven’t allocated more money for extra facilities and teachers this would need to work. So school districts are saying they would have to cut spending on art, music, PE and other similar programs instead. So that issue remains unresolved.

MARSHALL TERRY: The original budget slashed the amount North Carolina's Attorney General could spend on staff, specifically lawyers. Any changes in that?

TOM BULLOCK: Officially yes. But not the kind that Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, was hoping for.

After the Republican-led General Assembly cut roughly a third from his staff budget, Stein has had to lay off some state lawyers who handle criminal appeals. He was hoping to shift some of that work down to local district attorneys in order to make sure those appeals would be dealt with.

But instead, the General Assembly simply mandated the Attorney General's office has to deal with criminal appeals themselves. Republican leaders argue this is simply enforcing statue and the status quo, which is true. But that status quo was set under a fully staffed Attorney General's office, and not one dealing with significant budget cuts, though Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar did say it was possible lawmakers could revisit the issue in their next session.  

MARSHALL TERRY: The budget was just one of the bills passed by lawmakers. Another measure makes significant changes to the state's election laws.

TOM BULLOCK: This measure would significantly lower the bar for third parties and unaffiliated candidates to get on local and statewide ballots. It also lowers the threshold for a candidate to avoid a primary runoff.  Currently a candidate needs to get 40 percent of a primary vote to skip that extra election. Under this bill they would now only need to garner 30 percent.

Those measures were somewhat uncontroversial. Here's where this bill gets messy. It would eliminate the primaries for judges in 2018 going instead to what's known as a jungle system, where the winner of a possible large field of candidates is simply the top vote-getter or getters in the general election.    

Republican leaders argue this system will work because voters are educated on judicial races they'll know who is qualified and who isn’t.

Which lead House Minority Leader Darren Jackson brought up, what he sees as a contradiction. Republicans made judicial races partisan earlier this year because, they argued, voters didn't know enough about judges and needed help in knowing who to vote for.

MARSHALL TERRY: Any moves made on the Republican proposal to redraw the state's judicial districts?

TOM BULLOCK: As you know Marshall, this is a controversial plan being pushed by Republican Justin Burr. The house did pass the measure but the Senate did not – and will not until the next regular session begins. But that date has been moved up. Normally the so called "short session" begins in May. But next year it will start on January 10th, and the Senate is expected to quickly take up the plan then.

MARSHALL TERRY: Now yesterday wasn’t exactly the model of how the legislature usually works.

TOM BULLOCK: Instead of bills being hashed out in committees, the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate formed conference committees, which are a small group of hand-picked negotiators from each chamber. They meet behind closed doors and decide the meat of these bills without public debate.

And a lot of negotiations went on. In fact the floor sessions were delayed multiple times before finally being gaveled in around 2 p.m. The bills the conference committees agreed on were then brought to the floors of each chamber for an up or down vote. This means lawmakers can debate them but have no ability to make any changes or amendments.

So, yes, yesterday was hardly an example of regular order at the General Assembly.

MARSHALL TERRY: Finally Tom, any more veto overrides?

TOM BULLOCK: Yes. Another bill easing environmental regulations for developers was overridden last night. But a similar vote on bill ending a requirement that public meeting and other government notices be published in local newspapers did not take place. These notices are an important source of revenue for newspapers, especially small local ones. That original bill would have been statewide. Instead the General Assembly passed a similar measure targeting only Guilford County. And that passed both chambers. Since this is considered a local bill, no gubernatorial signature is required and it is now law.