This Thursday is the bill filing deadline for the Senate — meaning that, with a few exceptions, all bills that can be filed by senators must be filed by that date. Of course, there are other ways to get a matter considered, but for your rank-and-file senators, Thursday is a big day. One either gets one’s bills filed or one may have to wait a year or two before one gets another shot at filing bills.
The House’s bill filing deadline is still several weeks away, but the same rules apply. If a House member doesn’t file a bill before the bill filing deadline, he or she is generally prohibited from filing bills. House members are restricted to filing no more than 10 bills of general application — in other words, local bills don’t count towards one’s bill limit. A House member can get another House member to lend one of their bills. So, for example, I filed 12-13 statewide bills last session, and I had to borrow 2 or 3 bills from my colleagues to allow me to file all of my bills.
The restriction on the number of bills one can file is only a House rule; with 120 House members, it was felt that some limitation was needed. Since the Senate has only 50 members, it never adopted any restriction on the number of bills that a senator can file.
As one might expect, there are some House members who file few bills, and there are others, like Representatives Paul Stam (R-Wake), Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) or former Rep. Tim Moffitt (R-Buncombe) who are prolific. Members like Stam, Glazier or Moffitt typically get a large number of bills drafted and then get other legislators to file them. When I first came to the House, I worked with Rep. Stam on the Eminent Domain bill, and in my second term I became the primary sponsor of that legislation.
With the Senate’s bill filing deadline looming, hundreds of bills are being filed and, one of the results of all of that is increased media coverage of some set of issues. Similarly, interest groups begin working for or against certain legislation. Suddenly, legislators are getting lots of emails and other communications on some subject that they weren’t hearing anything about the week before.
This week’s hot topic is Senate Bill 346 [Enact Stricter Immunization Standards]. Introduced by two Republican Senators and Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn (Buncombe), the bill would essentially repeal the religious exemption for vaccinations for various diseases. The bill is probably a reaction to the measles outbreak linked to Disneyland in California where someone from another country apparently brought the disease into the state. California, like North Carolina, has a rather liberal standard for requiring vaccinations for measles and other diseases, and suddenly children were catching measles, a disease largely wiped out in the United States.
Under current state law, a parent or guardian of a child can get an exemption for their child from school immunization requirements simply by submitting “a written statement of the bona fide religious beliefs and opposition to the immunization requirements.” Similarly, adults can also exempt themselves from required immunizations for colleges and universities. Under the legislation, while repealing the religious exemption, medical exemptions would still be permitted with a doctor’s signature.
Buncombe County apparently has the state’s highest rate of religious exemptions. About 1 in 20 students enrolling in Buncombe County and Asheville schools aren’t vaccinated, and that is why Senator Van Duyn said she joined in introducing the legislation.
When I left Raleigh last week, there was no discussion of this issue. By the weekend, many of my incoming emails related to this subject. Evidently, the legislation aroused the ire of a large number of people who object to having their kids vaccinated. Interestingly, while I’m getting lots of emails about the subject, none of the communications are coming from my constituents — no one from Henderson County.
In each of the last two sessions, at some point, legislators were buried by emails on the subject of gun rights. One night I was working late and watched as I received over 500 emails regarding a pending gun bill. Evidently, we received them in batches of 10 emails, and I watched them quickly fill up my inbox.
Communications like that are generated by a mass communication to known supporters or opponents on some issues. Typically, someone receives an email, and can automatically generate an email to that person’s senator or House member. So whatever the topic or topics of the week are will cause me to receive the same email dozens or hundreds of times.
When I get a computer-generated email, I figure the person sending it probably spent no more time on the email than the time that it took to type his or her address. Therefore, I typically generate one response to everyone and have my legislative assistant, Laura Bone, respond. I respond to emails coming from my district, but I don’t generally respond to emails coming from outside my district. When my office was covered by emails relating to pending gun legislation, only 3 or 4 of the emails came from my district. I responded to those, and didn’t worry about the rest. I knew all legislators were getting the same emails.
There are other subjects that are the subject of consistently-arriving emails. For example, there have been bills to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in each of the last two sessions, and this year Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) has again filed a bill, HB78 [Enact Medical Cannabis Act]. Former Rep. Carolyn Justus (R-Henderson) told me she used to receive lots of email on this topic as well.
Periodically, one is surprised by a topic that gets hot. This week’s surprise is HB173 [Omnibus Criminal Law Bill]. The bill includes a wide range of provisions that are largely consensus provisions designed to help make the criminal system more efficient. One provision allows for a person who has been convicted of a misdemeanor sexual battery to avoid being put on the sex offender registry at the discretion of a judge.
Legislators are receiving a fair number of emails from people who support the provision, but want it to be expanded to allow people who were previously convicted to go back before a judge to determine whether they need to be on the sex offender registry. Evidently, there are lots of people who think they, their relatives or friends should have the opportunity to have this new law, if it is passed, apply retroactively.
Who knows how the word gets out about an obscure provision like this one, but I’ve gotten a few dozen emails on the subject within the last two days. Clearly, some group is mobilizing.
So each week as we approach the bill filing deadlines, we’ll have hot topics caused by the filing of bills. It doesn’t seem to matter that the bill’s fate is uncertain or that the bill is going nowhere. People just get all agitated. Generally, I don’t take positions on bills before I know they are moving, since a bill may morph as it goes through the legislative process. One doesn’t like to support or oppose a bill only to find that it has significantly changed as it goes through committees or when debated in the House and Senate chambers.
The exception to that is on issues on which I’ve already consistently taken a position. For example, I’ve worked on billboard issues every session. I can usually quickly determine what my position is on billboard bills and I am quick to respond.
Sometimes I get a good laugh out of some of the computer-generated emails. I’ll get an email urging my immediate action on some issue from someone I know quite well. I’m amused that someone who knows me well choses to send me a computer-generated email when they can call me or catch me around town. I’m also sometimes puzzled that I get emails urging me to cosponsor legislation on which I’m already a cosponsor or even the lead sponsor.
Most recently, I’ve been getting emails urging me to cosponsor HB245 [Utilities/The Energy Freedom Act]. A simple check on the General Assembly’s website would show that I’m a primary cosponsor of that legislation — no need to write me about that. The same happened with the nonpartisan redistricting bill, HB92 [Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission]. I got a fair number of communications from constituents asking me to support that legislation. Of course, I’m going to support that legislation; I’m again a primary cosponsor and I’ve been a primary cosponsor of the legislation in both of the last two sessions.
Effective lobbying is about building relationships, and a thank you message to a legislator who has authored or cosponsored legislation would be a lot more effective than another communication which proves that the writer or caller really doesn’t know what a legislator’s position is.
So where am I on the hot topic this week — the religious exemption on vaccinations? I haven’t taken a position on the bill, and I wouldn’t cosponsor the bill if a companion bill is filed in the House. While I’m inclined to support it, I want to hear debate on the bill before making a final decision.