Legislative News by Nelda Holder –
The 2019-2020 NC Legislature opened at noon on Wednesday, January 9, for a brief convening of its “long” session for organizational purposes such as election of officers and adoption of rules.
The full body returns, by command of the General Statutes, on the “third Wednesday after the second Monday in January”—this year January 30, to get down to legislative business.
But both the House and the Senate will have slightly different constituencies following the 2018 general election, when Republican supermajorities in both chambers were eroded by a Democratic undertow.
That means that in the new session, the Republican majority in neither chamber can override a gubernatorial veto of legislation without picking up members of the Democratic delegation. This is a significant shift in the balance of power, giving Gov. Roy Cooper a decidedly stronger hand than during his first two years in office.
Prolonging the short session
But before we look at the future, let’s do a little analysis of that past 12 months in Raleigh. Most noticeably, the Legislature racked up three special sessions plus two extensions of what was to be its “short session,” keeping legislators on the road and usurping the relative order of the second-year legislative norm (not to mention costing the public additional money.) That included flocking back to Raleigh on the day after Christmas in order to hold a veto override vote on the election law bill, their 23rd such override in the last session.
That bill (HB 1029) drew the governor’s opposition in particular because of a stipulation that apparent or alleged violations in campaign finance must be reported by the State Board of Elections confidentially to the State Ethics Commission, and remain confidential during investigation.
In his campaign to sustain the veto, Cooper referenced the ongoing investigation of potential absentee ballot tampering in the 9th Congressional District, noting that a secrecy law would make it harder to prosecute lawbreakers and protect politicians who commit fraud. But that confidentiality is now the law, due to the veto override.
Confusing boards and elections
It is almost high political comedy that HB 1029 also reconstitutes a five-member State Board of Elections, to be convened January 31. This, with finality, splits the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement the Legislature had established in 2017 to replace the former five-member State Board of Elections.
That replacement board did not prove popular with the courts when challenged, primarily because of its usurpation of the governor’s powers of appointment, and was declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel in October. It had been allowed to remain in place, however, because of the election fraud investigation in District 9, until it failed to meet the court’s directions and was summarily dissolved on December 28.
One further provision of HB1029 mandates a new primary if a new general election is called for by the State Board of Elections following their investigation. However, there is no current State Board of Elections.
In a letter to the Democratic and Republican Party chairs, Cooper vowed to appoint a five-member interim board to serve until January 31, according to the “last constitutional Elections Board statute that was in existence” in 2015, so as to continue the investigation in District 9. But after the governor’s request to the Republican Party for board nominations was summarily refused, the Cooper decided not to appoint an interim board lest its actions be called partisan by Republicans.
The irony of it all
So we enter 2019 with an apparently flawed election in multi-county District 9, so far primarily centered around absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson Counties. The evidentiary hearing that was expected on or before December 21 was postponed by the former Elections Board until January (thus invoking the court’s wrath). It was rescheduled for January 11, and attorneys for the Democratic challenger in the unsettled race, Dan McCready, have named some 48 potential witnesses to be called.
Attorneys for the uncertified winner of the race in question, Republican Mark Harris, are protesting the need for witnesses to be called because there is currently no Elections Board sitting in Raleigh. Harris has also demanded to be certified as the November winner, while the new Democratic majority leader in the U.S. Congress has said the House will not seat Harris until the investigation is complete and the outcome is determined, possibly by a new election. And to snarl things further, a new election would fall under the late December veto override in the Legislature that now mandates a new primary be held for such a new election.
Thus have we woven an intricate knot of political irony that is choking the state’s national image and depriving the residents of District 9 of representation in Washington, D.C., as the new Congress convenes in 2019.
On the brighter side
Now that the 2018 elections are over, the state is finally due to clean up its eight-year, gerrymandered labyrinth of illegal districts and provide legal districts for its citizen voters. This final (hopefully) correction phase was expected before the November election, but subsequently delayed by a panel of federal judges because of possible the potential disruption of that election.
This case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but returned to the lower court for verification of standing on the part of the challengers (which included the League of Women Voters and Common Cause). Standing has since been declared, and at present the ruling stands that requires replacement of the state’s congressional map.
Lt. Gov. Van Duyn?
Buncombe County’s Sen. Terry Van Duyn has announced that she will seek higher office in 2020. Having served three-plus terms in the NC Senate and currently acting as minority whip for the Democrats, Van Duyn plans run for the lieutenant governorship, replacing current Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who has held that job since 2013. Forest is expected to challenge Roy Cooper for the governorship in 2020.
Words from the observer
A new year seems to perpetually offer hope. It is this writer’s hope in the first days of 2019 that this year in state politics will see a shift from the power-to-the-power usurpation on the part of this Legislature, to a power-to-the-people deployment. The only way that happens, however, is if the people demand it in no uncertain terms. As always, you—each of you as individual citizens in this state—are either going to be players in this game, or simply the pawns that get moved by someone else.
You are encouraged to be a player! Take advantage of the contact box on page 5. Speak out for the causes and legislation you see as necessary for a better society for all of us. Be the democracy that only comes from the voices of individual citizens!
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts.