The North Carolina legislature will return to Raleigh in a week for its regularly-scheduled Short Session. However, not a lot about the session is expected to be like any previous Short Session. Substantively, the focus will be quite different from what I would have projected six weeks ago. Procedurally, the legislature will be making changes to conform the law to the new norms requiring no large meetings and social distancing.
Six weeks ago, the direction from House leadership was to start the preparation of a budget for Fiscal Year 2020-21 with the expectation the House would put forward its budget in May. Now, no immediate action on a budget will happen. With the change in filing dates for tax returns and a massive slowdown of the economy, the budget cycle is very different, and the expectation is we will put together a budget in late June or early July, when we have a better understanding of our pandemic-affected revenues and the new funding priorities related to the economic slowdown.
Prior to the pandemic the expectation was this would be a relatively short legislative session with the legislature finishing work on some legislation started last year and taking up a one-year budget, following Governor Cooper’s veto of the two-year budget last year. Now, there is no expectation regarding work on longer term issues like redistricting reform. The expectation is we’ll largely focus on pandemic-related issues: some funding issues and some changes to allow the state to bounce back from the terrible toll the pandemic has taken.
The Substance. Even without the pandemic, the upcoming legislative session was likely to be unusual because the typical two-year budget was not enacted last year. While the General Assembly passed a two-year budget, that budget was vetoed, and the legislature was unable to muster the required 2/3’s vote to override the veto; the House overrode the veto but the Senate failed to override by one vote. The legislature and Governor Cooper agreed on a series of mini-budgets addressing a range of issues including education, state employee pay raises,and disaster relief, but the budget under which the state is operating is a combination of those mini-budgets and the budget for Fiscal Year 2018-19. The effect was teachers and state employees continued to get paid and the state government continued to function, but teachers, college professors and others didn’t receive pay raises and few capital projects were undertaken.
One might think that the COVID-19 infection would lead to a resolution of the budget disputes, but that isn’t likely and not for the reasons one might expect. While there are still differences of opinion among legislators and the Governor on Medicaid expansion, funding of teacher raises, and spending on capital projects, those differences of opinion seem easy to resolve compared to the negative fiscal impact of the virus on the economy. With a constitutional requirement that the state budget be balanced, pay raises and a large number of capital expenditures seem no longer possible. Modifying tax filing deadlines and postponing payment of various taxes makes projecting the state’s revenues for the next fiscal year quite difficult.
Lacking accurate fiscal projections, the legislature will come into session next week and apparently take up a series of pandemic-related changes to state law dealing broadly with recovering from the pandemic. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) created the House Select Committee on COVID-19, and that committee divided into several working groups which are working on providing economic support, and addressing health care, education and the continuity of state operations issues. Each of the working groups has bipartisan leadership, and the usual bipartisan bickering has not been much in evidence.
My assignment is to the working group drafting legislation to shore up the state’s economy, and our focus has been primarily on a bill intended to increase access to unemployment benefits, waiving the accrual of interest on certain tax payments and extending certain tax related deadlines. Additionally, the working group is working on legislation to provide small business emergency loans and emergency assistance to commercial fishermen. The former proposal would appropriate $75 million to the Golden Leaf Foundation to provide bridge loan funding for small businesses adversely affected by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Each of the working groups is working remotely via conference calls, and one can listen to those calls by going to the legislative website.
Each working group has its own website, so the public can read the input provided by various people and groups, see the presentations made to each working group and can review draft recommendations. The Education Working Group is considering issues including providing budget flexibility to school boards in terms of how they spend their state allocations,changes or postponement for statewide testing and changes in the school calendar. The Continuity of State Operations Working Group has received input from all of the various state departments and is expected to put forward a set of regulatory changes to flex deadlines and changes in operations consistent with each department’s responsibilities.
The Health Care Working Group has a similar mandate as the Education Working Group in that a whole body of law may need to be flexed in response to the reality of providing health care at this time. Moreover, the state’s hospitals are vital but many of them are in dire straits because they are no longer able to perform elective surgeries and other procedures. The Health Care Working Group will apparently recommend various funding for providers using money coming from the federal CARE Act.
The expectation is that each of these working groups will draft necessary legislation and that legislation will be introduced next Tuesday when the session opens. The draft legislation being considered by the Economic Support Working Group is already online, and I expect bills will be recommended by the other working groups.
The current House schedule has us coming into session on Tuesday, April 28, when bills will be introduced. Those bills will be referred to standing committees which will consider them on Wednesday, April 29, and the House will likely vote on whatever bills clear the standing committees on Thursday, April 30. At that point, consideration of those bills will shift to the Senate.
House Members are being told to expect to be in session for two weeks at which point we’ve been told to expect to adjourn a date sometime later. A decision on when we will return may turn on our understanding of when we’ll have a good read on what the state’s revenues will be for the upcoming fiscal year. As a full Appropriations Chair, I expect in mid-June we will restart our work on the budget.
In terms of substance, one question is whether we’ll take up any legislation other than the budget when we return. My expectation is we will, although no one wants a long legislative session in an election year. Local bills might be able to move quickly through the legislature if they are noncontroversial. Moreover, if agreements can be reached on other bills that didn’t make it through the Long Session, they may get taken up. In order to prevent the legislative session from getting bogged down, it is doubtful that controversial bills will be considered. To be accurate, it isn’t even clear if the Senate will want to take up a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As with last year, we could pass some mini-budgets and freeze other spending as reflected in the Final Year 2018-19 budget.
Neither the state constitution nor state laws anticipate a pandemic. Thus, there is no current provision for passing legislation without the legislature being in session—meaning a quorum of each body being available to vote on whatever bills come forward. However, just because no one anticipated the need for some way of voting during a pandemic, doesn’t mean the current law or the rules of each chamber cannot be complied with, while also ensuring the various executive orders regarding meetings and social distancing can be met.
Per an earlier adjournment resolution, the legislature will come into session on Tuesday. There is no need for a large number of Members to be in attendance. Once in session, the bills coming out of the various working groups can be introduced and immediately referred to one of the Standing Committees. On the following day, those bills can be heard in committee. There are several large meeting rooms intended for use by the entire membership of either chamber that can be utilized by committees, keeping members at the appropriate distancing requirements. We’ve been advised lobbyists and others will not be allowed in the committee rooms, but the hearings on the bills will be broadcast live for anyone to follow. The bills will have been filed the day before the committee hearings, and legislators can be directly contacted via email or phone if anyone has concerns or suggestions regarding any bill being considered.
When the bills come to the House floor, the usual procedure is to have all Members vote within 10 or 15 seconds with each Member seated at his or her seat. That will change. The voting will be staggered over some period of time allowing Members to come in to vote in shifts.
Congress uses a similar procedure to allow its Members to vote over an extended period of time. Some Members may be seated in the gallery, and the presiding officer can recognize them and have them cast their votes verbally. Additionally, leadership has indicated that a temporary rule will be adopted allowing Members to vote by proxy. Currently, a Member has to be in the House chamber to vote, but proxy voting will likely be allowed at least for the duration of the pandemic.
Most of the public legislative activity has been on the House side, and there is no clarity as to whether the state Senate will take up any legislation put forward by the House. However, there is clearly some common understanding that there are regulatory reform and funding issues on which both chambers and both parties probably agree. Therefore, my expectation is that there will be action by the Senate on some set of issues, but the initial part of the Short Session will only last two weeks or so. Thereafter, we’ll adjourn until we have a more accurate forecast of revenue numbers in late June or early July and can begin some work on a balanced budget and complete work on any noncontroversial matters still awaiting legislative action.
My primary reason for running for re-election in 2018 was to complete work on a number of initiatives, primarily dealing with nonpartisan redistricting, insurance coverage of autism, alcoholic beverage regulatory reform and funding of public lands. My fear is that the pandemic will thwart much of the work done on those issues. For example, one has to wonder whether there will be an opening for nonpartisan redistricting next year after another election occurs and the census is complete. Funding of public lands would have received a huge boost had last year’s budget been adopted. As things stand, those appropriations will likely be lost as the state moves to fund more pressing pandemic-related programs.
My one hope is that the bipartisanship that has been the norm in the North Carolina House in response to the pandemic will continue, that relationships between Members from different parties will grow and will allow next year’s legislature to work in a more bipartisan way to address whatever the challenges are.