Those who know me well know I have conflicting views on the legislative process. There are some things I like and some things I hate. The basis for these conflicting views was pretty evident over the past two weeks.
It is easy to describe my positive views. There is nothing like the feeling of successfully passing a major bill. Last week, the House passed House Bill 280 [Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act] by a vote of 104-8. Among other things, the bill if it becomes law would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year olds except in the case of some felonies involving mostly violent crimes. While the vote count suggests the bill wasn’t a heavy lift, the opposite is true.
A similar bill passed in the House a few years ago on a much closer vote. One of the main concerns that legislators had was the bill’s costs. Initially, there is a capital cost of about $25 million associated with building a new facility to house youthful offenders. While the appropriation of that money is not in the bill, the cost was very much on legislators’ minds.
When 16- and 17-year old offenders move from the criminal justice system to the juvenile justice system, they will receive more intense efforts to promote rehabilitation. Although some believe sending teens to the adult system holds them more accountable, the opposite is actually true. Teens typically receive no more than unsupervised probation in adult court. Those same charges receive more significant consequences in the juvenile system and mandate the teens’ families’ involvement in the process.
If a teen is adjudicated as a juvenile, a judge may enter an order to provide “appropriate consequences, treatment, training, and rehabilitation to assist the juvenile toward becoming a non-offending, responsible and productive member of the community.” (General Statute 7B-2500). Lower-level sanctions include consequences such as restitution, community service, and supervised day programs. Intermediate level sanctions may include placement in a residential treatment facility or house arrest. The highest level sanction might include requiring the youth to be committed to state custody and held in a youth development center.
The more intense focus on rehabilitation means the juvenile justice system will need some beefing up. Everyone agrees an additional residential facility will be needed. Since juvenile cases involve more work on the front end, additional help will be needed in the district attorney and juvenile court counselor offices across the state.
The upside of this intense focus on rehabilitation is that study after study shows recidivism decreases when youths are handled in the juvenile system versus the adult system. When other states raised the age, juvenile crime dropped.
Only 3.3% of NC’s 16- and 17-year olds are convicted of violent crimes, the vast majority commit only misdemeanors. Under House Bill 280, nothing changes for youths charged with truly violent crimes; they will continue to be adjudicated in adult court. The juvenile system ensures public safety through frequent contact with court counselors, assessments, rehabilitative services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, gang intervention training, counseling and education.
Passing House Bill 280 will be one of the biggest accomplishments of my legislative career if it ultimately becomes law upon passage by the Senate and approval by the Governor. However, last week I had more than just House Bill 280 moving in the House, I was also successful in getting Finance Committee approval of House Bill 616 [NC Public Benefit Corporation Act], and the House unanimously passed House Bill 491 [Henderson County Fire Tax Districts].
Solving peoples’ problems by passing sound legislation is the best part of my job, but all too often the job involves voting on legislation I would rather not become law. An example of this also occurred last week when the House overrode Governor Cooper’s veto of House Bill 467 [Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies]. House Bill 467 limits the amount of compensatory damages that may be awarded in a private nuisance lawsuit against an agricultural or forestry operation to the fair market value or fair rental value of the plaintiff’s property.
Essentially, the bill limits lawsuits over agricultural activities that might be considered a nuisance because of odors or noise. As originally introduced, I thought the bill was unconstitutional, since it attempted to dismiss pending lawsuits involving claims that certain animal operations [hog, chicken and turkey farms] constituted nuisances. In the House, the bill was amended to only make the law applicable to future nuisance claims. I voted for that amendment and then voted for the bill, although I still wasn’t sure the change in the law was needed. Later, the Senate made some minor changes to the bill and sent it back over for concurrence. I again voted for the bill, but the bill’s sponsors knew I was a weak “yes” vote. Basically, I continued to have doubts as to the need for the bill.
The Governor then vetoed the bill, and explained his veto. At that point, the bill came back to the House, and we had to again, vote on the bill. The House voted to override the veto on a vote of 74 to 40. Initially, I was going to vote “no.” I hate special interest legislation that gives special protection or privileges to some industry or group of people, and House Bill 467 was clearly special interest legislation. However, I ended up voting to override the Governor’s veto.
Why did I do that? To override a governor’s veto, each chamber must vote by a three-fifths vote of members present and voting. Depending on how many House Members were voting, something between 69 and 72 votes were going to be needed to override Governor Cooper’s veto. House leadership knew several House Members were absent, and the bill was only going to be brought to the floor if there were enough votes to override.
If everyone were present, there were clearly enough votes to override even if I joined some number of my colleagues in voting against the bill. However, just before the vote, a Member supportive of the bill had to leave to address a family health issue and the vote to override was in doubt. I voted to override, in part, to simply get the issue behind us. Had I told leadership I would vote “no,” they would have just postponed the vote and taken it up later. As it turned out, the vote was not as close as expected, but I suspect there were other Members who were inclined to vote “no” but then voted “yes” when it became clear the veto was going to be overridden.
People will ask “why’d you vote “yes” when you had doubts about the bill?” My reason was that I believe one can’t fight every battle. To be effective, one must pick one’s battles. House Bill 467 was a major priority for the agricultural community, and the agricultural community is important in my district. While I was willing to vote “no” if my vote made a difference, when both supporters and opponents of the bill confirmed the bill would pass if all members were present, I voted “yes” to put the issue behind us.
The sponsors of this legislation included Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin) and Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson). Both of them are strong legislators whose support will be needed on other matters important to me. If I had voted “no,” it ultimately would have made no difference and my vote could have hurt my relationship with some colleagues whose support is essential on issues more important to me than House Bill 467.
Still, I hate voting against my gut feeling about a bill. If passing a good bill is a high, then voting for a bad bill or a bill one doesn’t think is necessary is a low. I’m often asked to vote for bills I don’t really like. I know I can’t fight every battle, and I’m not willing to waste my time on issues that I can’t change or influence. But it still doesn’t feel good.
The budget process also involves highs and lows. The highs come when one is successful in getting one of my priorities funded, usually something that is important to my district. The lows come when we start mimicking what happens in Congress. The budget should be about money not policy, yet some numbers of my colleagues (usually senators) keep trying to make policy by inserting it in the budget.
Another part of the job which is equally challenging is the time commitment and travel. In the past I could come to Raleigh on Monday afternoon and get back to Hendersonville on Thursday afternoon. Now, with increasing responsibilities, I almost always drive to Raleigh on Sunday night and get home late on Thursday evening or even Friday. This week, I’ll spend the weekend in Raleigh working on the budget.
Some legislators live in or near Raleigh and can sleep in their own beds. Most have to stay in motels and apartments while here. A few legislators have long trips each week, including myself. It is four hours each way between Hendersonville and Raleigh, and sometimes a lot longer than that. [Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) had a nearly 7 hour trip a few weeks ago because of road construction and wrecks.] That means some legislators spend a great deal of time simply traveling back and forth between the state capital and their homes. Rep. Cody Henson (R-Transylvania), Rep. Bob Steinberg (R-Chowan), Rep. Beverly Boswell (R-Dare), Rep. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon), and Rep. Michele Presnell (R-Madison) are among the House Members who drive even farther than me.
I love the time spent in Henderson County, and when home I try to get out and meet with people who have concerns about state government or need help with state agencies. However, I’m increasingly spending more of my time in Raleigh.
Over the next few weeks, I’m expecting more highs and lows. Whatever budget we put forward will include funding for some programs or projects significant to my district and me. Conversely, it will also not include funding for some programs or projects that are important to my district and me. The budget will reflect compromises, and I’m sure there will be some items in the budget I wouldn’t fund if it were my decision.
We’ve been in session since January, and my hope is that we don’t have a session like two years ago that extended well past Labor Day. Perhaps John Denver got it right: “Take me back to the place where I belong…Take me home country roads.”