In everyone’s memory, there hasn’t been a slower start for a legislative session than this session. There are fewer bills filed than in recent memory, and fewer committee hearings and votes on bills. We’ve had almost no votes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and rarely votes on Thursdays. What few votes have occurred have been taken on Wednesdays. Why is this session different?
My guess is the nearly continuous session in 2018, including several weeks in December, simply delayed work preparing for the Long Session. Staff was working on bills in December for the never-ending Short Session. Returning legislators were still focused on finishing up their work in late 2018 and, like me, weren’t able to turn their attention to the upcoming session.
It might seem that I bucked the trend with five bills already filed — one already having passed the House — but the numbers are deceptive. Several of my bills were reworked bills from previous sessions, and two of my bills were worked on by others—one of those coming from the research arm of the legislature, the Program Evaluation Division (PED).
Two of “my bills” are actually bills that I asked another legislator to introduce, with me as a “primary cosponsor” of each bill. In the House, there can be up to four primary cosponsors, with one of the legislators—the one whose name is first on the bill — as the lead sponsor. As a senior member of the House, I feel a responsibility to give more junior members the opportunity to run important bills.
Thus, I asked Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell) to take the lead on House Bill 3 [Eminent Domain] and asked Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham) to take the lead on House Bill 69 [Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission]. In both cases, there were additional reasons for asking other members to carry the bills, but both of these bills were bills that came to me when I was a junior member of the House and, with the passage of years, became my responsibility.
Having been on an eminent domain bill since my freshman term, my feeling was that it might be best to let someone else try to pass the bill. If I couldn’t get the bill moving in the Senate last year when six constitutional amendments were on the ballot, then someone else should be the face of that amendment. HB3 proposes a constitutional amendment to prohibit condemnation of private property except for a public purpose and to require the payment of just compensation for the property taken in and among to be determined by a jury trial. The amendment would appear on the primary ballot in the spring of 2020.
The legislation relates back to a U.S. Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London. That case determined what was constitutional under the federal constitution but explicitly stated the states were able to set a higher bar for condemnations under their own constitutions. Additionally, most states have put the requirements for jury trials and just compensation in their constitutions, but North Carolina has not.
In past sessions, the eminent domain bill passed with significant bipartisan support, usually over 100 votes. Yesterday, the vote was 94 to 21. All Republicans who voted supported the constitutional amendment. Democrats supported the bill by a margin of 32 to 21. Some Democrats didn’t want North Carolina to have a higher bar for condemnation and some didn’t like the scheduling of the constitutional amendment during the 2020 primary, presumably wanting it on the ballot during the 2020 General Election.
HB69 was one of two nonpartisan redistricting bills I’ve filed. The other one was HB140 [The Fair Act]. The Fairness and Integrity in Redistricting (FAIR) Act is an effort to enact a nonpartisan redistricting bill through a constitutional amendment. H 69 doesn’t involve a constitutional amendment; it is a statutory approach to nonpartisan redistricting. H 69 was put together with help from Common Cause and a coalition of organizations interested in redistricting reform. H 140 was put forward with the help of North Carolinians for Nonpartisan Redistricting (NC4RR), a nonprofit working on the redistricting issue. I worked closely with both organizations on these bills.
Rep. Reives is the lead sponsor on H 69, a bill similar to the bills I’d introduced in the past two sessions, and I was a primary cosponsor. I am the lead on H 140 with Rep. Reives as the next cosponsor. Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) is a primary cosponsor on both. The thought was to put forth two approaches to the same problem, making clear by having similar cosponsors that we were quite willing to take either approach.
H 69 is modeled after Iowa law that had a nonpartisan commission that draws up the congressional and legislative maps following the census. It is similar to the bill that passed the House in 2011, and similar to bills introduced in each session since then. Those bills didn’t receive hearings, and that is part of what prompted the drafting of H 140. One advantage to H 69 is that it will only take a majority, no more than 61 votes, to pass. As a proposed constitutional amendment, H 140 would require 72 votes to pass—a 3/5’s vote.
Under H 69, the maps would be drawn by an eleven-person commission. The commission would have members of both major parties as well as voters not affiliated with either major party. The commission would hire staff, hold public hearings both before and after the drawing of the maps, and create the maps in a transparent public process.
The commission would be tasked with drawing districts that would be compact, contiguous and abide by federal civil rights laws. No use could be made of political factors including voter registration and turnout, previous election results, or demographic information other than population headcounts.
When the maps drawn by the commission are sent to the legislature, the vote must be on the maps without altering them. If the maps aren’t approved, the commission will again draw maps and again they would bring them back to the legislature for approval. If not approved, the commission gets one more shot. After that, the legislature is free to draw its own maps. In Iowa, the commission has never drawn the maps more than twice and usually just once. It seems when the process is transparent and is viewed as nonpartisan, that legislators are more likely to vote for nonpartisan maps — at least, that is the idea.
Under H 140, the constitutional amendment brings three main changes to North Carolina’s redistricting process by establishing transparent methods, prohibiting the use of partisan data, and mandating that districts are drawn sensibly. Unlike under H 69, map drawing would be done by nonpartisan legislative staff, but similarly to H 69 the legislature couldn’t amend the maps on the first, two votes. Only after two sets of maps drawn by staff without direction from legislators were disapproved would legislators be able to create their own maps. Again, the view is that legislators are not likely to get to the third stage given an open process that includes no political data.
Both H 69 and H 140 received significant bipartisan support. Between the two bills, over 70 House Members cosponsored one or both of the bills.
Of course, the question is why anyone should expect action on these bills this year. For proponents of nonpartisan redistricting there is a near perfect storm. First, with redistricting required after the next census in 2021, it isn’t clear which party will be in charge. When Democrats were in charge, Republicans supported nonpartisan redistricting. Now that Republicans are in charge, Democrats support nonpartisan redistricting. If neither party is clearly going to be in charge of redistricting, the hope is that both parties will opt for nonpartisan redistricting.
Second, there is a real clear chance that redistricting will be done by a court if the legislature doesn’t take action. Cases are moving forward in both federal and state courts, and either the U.S. Supreme Court or the North Carolina Supreme Court could find partisan redistricting to be unconstitutional. Legislators may be motivated to fix the problem before they lose control of the redistricting process.
My view and the view of others is that this session is our best opportunity to address the issue of nonpartisan redistricting. However, even with a majority of legislators supporting both of these bills, the decision as to whether the bills will get heard will be made by legislative leaders, like Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and other Republican leaders.
Other bills I’ve introduced are HB14 [Reconstitute Various Boards and Commissions] and HB91 [ABC Modernization/PED Study]. The first is a bill to fix certain boards and commissions that were deemed to be unconstitutionally constituted by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Cooper v. Berger. The second is a bill put forward by the research arm of the legislature proposing to modernize our alcoholic beverage laws. More on these bills later.