Shortly after 3 a.m. this morning, the legislature passed its adjournment resolution. Technically, it is still in session as it awaits action by the Governor on dozens of bills passed in the last weeks. Actually, the legislature doesn’t expect to come back in the near term.
Governor Cooper has indicated he’ll probably bring the legislature back when two things happen. The first is when we have hard numbers on which to craft a balanced budget. With the move of the tax deadline to July 15 from April 15, the state is still awaiting actual numbers on which to base its financial forecasts, which should be available two weeks after the filing deadline. The second has to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars Congress appropriated to jumpstart the economy and pay for pandemic-related costs. Although the monies were sent to state and local governments, the appropriations are severely restricted in how these entities can utilize the money. Both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress say states will receive new guidelines for how federal monies can be utilized; North Carolina will need to backfill some of the revenue losses related to COVID-19.
Between now and July 11, the legislature will hold skelton sessions awaiting action by Governor Cooper on the bills that require his signature to pass. After that, the legislature could come back to take up veto overrides, but will likely wait for Governor Cooper to bring the legislature back in session to adopt a complete budget. Over the past months, a series of Single Shot bills have funded a range of diverse programs, but the budget for FY20-21 is likely to be badly out of balance if revenue projections continue their downward trend. After getting these projections, the Governor presumably will propose a balanced budget and call the legislature back into session.
Regardless of the Governor’s actions, the adjournment resolution brings the legislature back on September 3 for fairly limited reasons, including appropriating whatever COVID funds come from the federal government. The adjournment resolution apparently leaves little room to take up much additional legislation.
A great number of bills passed in the last 10 days, and hopefully some number of the new laws will receive press coverage. For example, funding for Medicaid is a significant part of the budget affecting many people, Rep. Josh Dobson (R-McDowell) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), both mountain legislators, played huge roles in successfully moving that funding forward.
I had a trifecta of major, complicated bills pass towards the end of the session. The first to pass was a bill to provide a balanced budget for transportation infrastructure and repairs in light of a several billion dollar deficit based on revenue projections. Following audits of the NC Department of Transportation, reforms to the department’s cash management system were also clearly needed and legislators were interested in providing more oversight of the department’s spending practices.
House Bill 77 [DOT 2020-2021 FY Budget/Governance] adjusted the two-year budget adopted last year to bring it in line with revenue projections and implemented various financial governance provisions, including a restructuring of the Board of Transportation.
Recognizing a huge problem with the transportation budget which primarily gets its funds from gas taxes and federal monies, House and Senate budget chairs decided to work together to make huge cuts to balance the budget. It was a difficult and painful task. I was given the lead in convening the meetings and guiding the process. After numerous meetings to negotiate the budget cuts and requirements for increased reporting and transparency from the Department, the only apparent issue that could likely cause the Governor to veto the bill was a change in the composition of the NCDOT board. Currently, the Governor appoints all the board members, but the proposed legislation gave the legislature appointments, albeit not a majority of the board.
Initially, the Governor signaled he’d veto the bill over the board appointments provision, but to his credit he engaged with legislative leaders on that issue and a compromise was struck. The Governor will appoint 14 board members, one from each DOT Division, and the Senate and House will each have three appointments. My view is that there has been far too little compromise between the Governor and the legislature on a range of contentious issues, but the transportation funding bill is one example of where compromise led to the passage of significant legislation.
The second leg of the trifecta was HB308 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2020]. Every session, the legislature takes up one or more bills that include numerous changes in law sought by various state agencies and other interests. These bills usually get bogged down in partisan wrangling and become legislative Christmas trees decorated with ornaments — the ornaments being changes in law sought by well-heeled lobbyists on behalf of their clients. Per usual, this year several regulatory reform bills moved through the legislature, including HB308, Senate Bill 374 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2020] and SB419 [Technical and Other Changes].
I was appointed chair of the conference committee on HB308, and with agreement from House and Senate leadership, that bill became the vehicle for reconciling all of the regulatory reform bills. In other words, the three bills were merged. Additionally, some number of narrowly crafted provisions originally included in SB553 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2019] from the last session, which was vetoed by the Governor, were included in the consensus bill.
It wasn’t a simple process to merge the bills; some things put forward by the House weren’t acceptable to the Senate and vice versa. Staff played a huge role in sorting these out, and surprisingly when House and Senate conferees came together, we, more quickly than I expected, agreed on the provisions that would be in the bill. It would have been easy to load this bill with provisions that would draw another veto from the Governor, but the conferees were about fixing problems or addressing issues mostly brought forward by departments reporting to the Governor, for example, environmental provisions from the Department of Environmental Quality.
For me, the experience of putting together the compromise was a bit surreal. In my earlier years, I’d spent a lot of time trying to defeat these types of bills, but now I was leading the effort to pass one. I communicated regularly with the various departments and vetted provisions put forward by them. In the end, the bill passed the House and the Senate unanimously. Since the bill largely provides changes in law sought by the Cooper Administration, the expectation is the bill will become law.
Finally, one of the One Shot budget bills dealt with environmental issues. At its heart was a water/wastewater bill, HB570 [Water/Wastewater Public Enterprise Reform], I worked with Sen. Newton (R-Cabarrus) on, which provides funding to repair failing water or wastewater systems run by local governments. The bill had passed both chambers several times, but since it had strong support it kept collecting those Christmas ornaments, which then thwarted passage of a clean bill.
The same happened with this bill, HB1087 [Water/Wastewater Public Enterprise Reform].
The bill drew support from environmental advocates because it settled a potential problem with North Carolina receiving its share of a class action lawsuit arising out of Volkwagen’s settlement of claims relating to modifications of emissions controls on its vehicles intended to skirt air quality laws. Additionally, for the first time, priority was given to efforts to fund mitigation of flooding that occurs when hurricanes hit the NC coast. Having had a series of hurricanes that have struck many of the same areas of North Carolina, legislators are now willing to consider adding flood storage capacity by potentially purchasing low-lying land rather than allowing development of these lands that will likely flood again.
In recent years, it has been unusual to get broad bipartisan support for large, multi-faceted bills, but how one handles a bill can determine whether a partisan fight breaks out or whether special interests manage to insert controversial provisions into otherwise broadly supported legislation. The regulatory reform and water/sewer infrastructure bills passed unanimously, and the transportation bill, while not garnering unanimous support, received strong bipartisan support in both chambers. My view is this happened in some part because we worked to solve problems and vetted drafts of the legislation with the Cooper Administration and with Democratic leaders. How these bills were crafted and the substance of the bills drew praise from both Republican and Democratic legislators. Another example of a complicated bill that got bipartisan support is the recent passed election bill, HB1169 [Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020], shepherded by Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover).
Not unexpectedly, the legislative session ended with some of the usual shenanigans. Conference reports on bills in controversy came to the floor during the wee hours of the morning on the last day. Agreements conferees believed they had weren’t fully reflected in the bills that came to the floor, but in our haste to adjourn the House and the Senate couldn’t always get on the same page. There was an education omnibus bill SB113 [Education Omnibus] that addressed the school calendar issue, for example, but another bill, SB212 [Capital Approprations/R&R/DIT/Cybersecurity] included another provision relating to school calendars that no one highlighted when presenting the second bill. Handling bills in this fashion is not transparent, and is simply wrong.
My greatest disappointment was the failure of the Senate to pass my autism bill, HB671 [Behavior Analyst Licensure]. North Carolina is the only state in the entire country where persons who provide services to autistic children cannot practice independently and be directly reimbursed for their work. In North Carolina, behavior analysts must work under the supervision of some other licensed professional, usually psychologists, and insurance companies don’t compensate behavior analysts directly. Since other states usually license behavior analysts and allow either licensed or nationally certified behavior analysts to be paid directly by insurers, it creates a deficit of practitioners in North Carolina leaving a population of autistic children who need services without resources.
During the past six years, I and others have filed bills to correct this and it seemed that this year, the legislation would finally pass. In the wee hours of the morning, I was informed by the Senate there wasn’t enough time to take up HB671, and that is a bitter pill for me.
A more difficult issue is the issue of nonpartisan redistricting. In the House, a majority of Members are supporting one of several nonpartisan redistricting bills, including HB140 [The FAIR Act] and HB69 [Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission], both of which I’m a primary sponsor. Given the adjournment resolution that passed, it is hard to see a realistic opportunity to change how we draw the congressional and legislative districts upon the completion of the census next year. We may have lost our best opportunity to adopt some form of nonpartisan redistricting as many other states have done.
As I leave town, I feel proud of the role I played in passing the transportation funding bill, the regulatory reform bill, and the water/wastewater infrastructure bill. Conversely, I’m despondent about what happened on the autism bill and not hopeful that nonpartisan redistricting will be addressed before this legislator finally heads home later this year.
These latter setbacks pretty much confirm I made the right decision to move in another direction with my life. My record over the last 10 years speaks for itself, but there may be no realistic way to accomplish my goals on autism and nonpartisan redistricting during the remainder of my term representing District 117 in the House.