By Nelda Holder –
The 2017 session of the NC General Assembly is underway.
And this could be one of the most publicly scrutinized sessions in recent history, given the overall political climate in the state and in the country.
With that in mind, we offer a few tips for those of you who haven’t played this game before. The first is to save and use the sidebar associated with this column. It gives you contact information for all state legislators associated with Buncombe County, as well as the U.S. senators and the two representatives serving portions of Western North Carolina.
First and foremost, familiarize yourself with the rules and with the best access for information. Most of that is available at the General Assembly’s own website: ncleg.net. There you may check to see which bills have been introduced and read them as they (often) change during the legislative process; check on individual legislators’ voting and bill-filing records and find their contact information; scan the legislative calendar and potentially listen to live committee hearings; look up General Statutes references or read the NC Constitution, and much more.
Bill filing deadlines are important to watch. For this session House bills recommended by study commissions must be filed by March 1; bills recommended by state agencies by March 15; local bills by March 29; public bills and resolutions (not appropriations or finance) by April 12; and public bills (appropriations and finance) by April 19. For the Senate, local bills and resolutions are due March 15; public bills and resolutions by March 30. The website will offer bill filings by day, an important reference.
There are no deadlines on (1) redistricting bills for House, Senate, Congress, or local entities (House); for ratification of amendments to the Constitution of the United States (House); bills introduced on report of House Committees on Appropriations, Finance, or Rules (House); bills providing for action on gubernatorial nominations/appointments (Senate); or adjournment resolution (House and Senate).
Blowing in the legislative wind
Three of the most immediate problems before legislators as they launch this year’s business are also headaches for the general public.
The final (fifth) special session in December of last year instituted major changes to state government in general, and specifically removed the power of the governor to make appointments without State Senate approval. Newly elected Governor Roy Cooper (D) has defied the appointments restrictions by filing a legal challenge and by swearing in his picks to head eight of the ten departments so far. Meanwhile, the Senate has established a three-step process that will run through mid-March to examine the governor’s choices according to three criteria: qualifications, conflict(s) of interest, and commitment to following the law.
The results of another special session last year, the now notorious “HB2,” continues to drag at both the state’s reputation and its economy, as well as the personal lives of some of its citizens. But the bill, passed and signed in a special session on February 18 and 19, 2016, has already been the cause of a second special session in December, when it ostensibly was set for repeal but during which the Legislature took no action. Gov. Cooper continues to ask the Legislature to repeal the law; leaders in the Legislature are saying complete repeal is not on their agenda; and a large number of representatives from the majority party (Republican) are unwilling to state their position on the matter publically. So repeal at this point in time remains highly questionable.
The third hot topic for opening days is a budget clause passed during the 2016 session that reduced class size limits without providing the money necessary for school districts to add the necessary staff to cover the mandate. School systems have warned that the lack of funding may mean elimination of arts and physical education staff, and legislators are faced with the immediate question of correcting the funding problem.
Perhaps a lesson learned?
Look again at the three issues “blowing in the wind” above. All three, it would appear, took place without adequate vetting which might have kept these immediate problems from happening. Two occurred in special sessions, called with little notice and little preparation on the part of lawmakers and no time for input from the public, paired with inadequate input and questioning of a far-reaching budget provision affecting the entire state’s school system.
Perhaps we should expect better.
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com