The legislature was in session early in October to take up several bills and veto overrides and, after Governor Cooper vetoed one of the bills passed in that session, was back for a one day session mid-October to override the veto. The adjournment resolution is interesting in that we will reconvene “the 2017 Regular Session on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.” That’s right: the 2017 Regular Session will be continued into 2018. That session is likely to focus on several potential constitutional amendments originally expected to come up in October. Constitutional amendments could appear on either the primary or general election ballots next year.
Technical Corrections and Appointments
Two bills passed during the most recent legislative session were housekeeping bills, meaning they made corrections to earlier legislation or updated some provisions in prior law. The first bill is Senate Bill 582 [Budget and Agency Technical Corrections]. According to the bill summary for SB582, it “makes technical, clarifying, and other modifications to the 2017 budget and other related legislation and contains agency technical corrections.” Of course, that doesn’t say anything. The devil is in the details. The bill has over 40 provisions, many of which are completely technical and clarifying; however, it is the “modifications” where new law is being made. For example, there was a glitch in the budget law involving a small number of principals and assistant principals seeing a reduction in pay due to a loss of longevity pay. This bill corrected that problem since the intent was to provide pay raises for all principals and assistant principals.
Governor Cooper earlier vetoed House Bill 205 [Workers’ Compensation Changes/Legal Notice Modification], a bill that included provisions dealing with whether newspaper delivery workers and newspaper and magazine sellers are independent contractors or employees. One of those provisions dealing with a rebuttable presumption that certain newspaper or magazine sellers are not employees was inserted into SB582. In other words, while the legislature didn’t override the veto of HB205, it did take one of the provisions of that bill and add it to SB582, the technical corrections bill. It seems clear this isn’t really a technical correction.
SB582 also sought to address several dust-ups between the legislature and Governor Cooper and/or Attorney General Stein. After the legislature cut $10 million from the attorney general’s budget resulting in staff reductions at the North Carolina Department of Justice, Attorney General Josh Stein announced that district attorneys would have to handle criminal appeals coming out of their districts. SB582 included a provision requiring the attorney general’s office to handle all criminal appeals and prohibits any delegation of those cases to any district attorney’s office.
There was also a debate over membership on the Oil and Gas Commission, and in SB582 the legislature replaced “representative” with “member” in reference to the legislature’s appointees to the Oil and Gas Commission. That connects to the second of the housekeeping bills, SB694 [Further Modification to Appointments], where the legislature confirmed various appointments made by the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem.
SB582 passed the House and Senate largely along party lines by votes of 70-46 and 29-17, respectively. My expectation was that the Governor would veto the bill, but he didn’t.
To the casual observer, SB694 was simply an appointments bill, and appointments bills usually pass overwhelmingly. However, this one again split largely along party lines, primarily because of two appointments to the Oil and Gas Commission. James Womack, a former Oil and Gas Commission chair, Lee County Commissioner and an outspoken advocate of fracking, was appointed as the Senate’s appointee to the commission as a “member of a nongovernmental conservation interest.” Similarly, former Rep. Mike Stone (R-Lee) was also appointed as the House’s appointee to the commission as a “member of a nongovernment conservation interest.”
The combination of the two bills meant that the Oil and Gas Commission went from having representatives of nongovernment conservation interests, presumably persons working for an environmental or conservation organization, to having two persons who in no way represent environmental or conservation efforts; they are advocates of increased oil and gas production. [See NC Policy Watch]
On the floor, I voiced my opposition to these appointments, since I’d been involved in writing the original provision establishing the Oil and Gas Commission and had received commitments that there would be environmental advocates on the commission. In the end, though, I voted for the bill since it involved 27 appointments, only two of which I opposed. I made my point by speaking on the bill on the floor, and one has to pick one’s battles. Voting against the bill wouldn’t have changed the result; it would have only irritated colleagues.
SB181 [Electronic Notice- Guilford County] was a bill that also circumvented Governor Cooper’s veto of HB205. It authorized Guilford County and municipalities located wholly or partly within Guilford County to provide electronic publication of public notices and advertisements on their local government websites in lieu of or in addition to newspaper publication. A similar provision was in HB205, which was vetoed by the Governor, but, since this was a local bill, the Governor didn’t have to sign the bill for it to become law. The Senate easily passed the bill, but the House vote was 58-57. As the primary sponsor of several electronic notice bills going back to my first term, I supported the bill. My frustration has been that, in the face of opposition of the NC Press Association, we’ve been unable to pass any legislation providing for electronic notice in lieu of newspaper publication. This bill will allow for a trial of electronic notice.
Election Reform and Judicial Redistricting
In the first October session, the legislature passed SB656 [Electoral Freedom Act]. After Governor Cooper vetoed the bill, the legislature overrode that veto in the second October session. A complete summary of SB656 can be found on my website here. I supported that bill, but with reservations regarding a provision eliminating primaries for all judicial offices in 2018.
Like the bill discussed earlier, the judicial primaries provision related to another bill that passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate next year: HB717 [Judicial Redistricting & Investment Act]. HB717 is a statewide redrawing of judicial districts, something that hasn’t been done comprehensively in over 50 years. HB717 reconfigures districts for prosecutors, district court judges and superior court judges. It adds judges and prosecutors in some places, trying to equalize the caseloads.
Like with congressional and legislative redistricting, the bill includes references to all the voting precincts in the state, so it is very complicated. Since we’re talking about judicial districts, there is no need for them to be exactly the same size. Each legislator or senator represents almost exactly the same number of people. However, judicial districts are more reflective of geography. While one generally wants them of the same size, the redistricting is more about making sure that the caseloads are similar and prosecutors and judges aren’t required to travel great distances.
Initially, my concern was that the redistricting would be mostly about politics — electing and reelecting Republican and Democratic judges and prosecutors. However, my decision to support the bill came after I saw the bill’s primary sponsor (and my seat mate on the House floor), Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly) respond to issues and complaints raised by judges and prosecutors after the filing of the bill. The bill that passed the House reflected numerous changes put forward by Republicans and Democrats. While inaccurate to say there were no politics involved, over time politics seemed to become less of a driver of the bill. Chief District Court Judge Athena Brooks from Henderson County was among those who raised concerns about the original redistricting, particularly the lack of input from those serving in the judicial branch. However, she advised me that Rep. Burr had made a large number of changes to the original bill in an effort to address concerns raised by judges in other parts of the state.
HB717 will not change the maps governing the judicial district that includes Henderson County. Its only effect will be to add one district court judge slot and one assistant district attorney slot, both of these changes reflecting the caseload for the judicial district that includes Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties.
Like most everything else recently, HB717 was adopted in an almost party line vote of 69-43. HB717 now heads to the Senate, and there is an expectation in the House that it will be heard by the Senate in January.
So how does HB717 relate to SB656?
Well, assuming judicial redistricting takes some time, it is possible that judicial candidates could start qualifying to run for office before the process is complete. To put it another way, it makes no sense to have judicial candidates file in February for primaries when their district may change. Thus, the provision in SB656 was potentially necessary to allow for the implementation of HB717 if it were to pass.
Democrats correctly pointed out that statewide primaries for Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court are also cancelled in the bill, and there is no need to cancel those primaries since those are positions elected statewide. My vote and likely a number of votes from my Republican House colleagues hinged on assurances that we’d look at the issue of whether to eliminate primaries for statewide judicial positions again in January.
What people need to understand is that passage of a bill is really a process. A complicated bill like HB717 involves a complicated process. As a freshman legislator, I might have been inclined to vote against HB717 simply because it eliminated primaries in statewide judicial races. However, as a more experienced legislator, I supported the bill knowing that it was going to come back in some form early next year and, once we get a revised bill, I’ll have a shot at correcting what I think is bad public policy — eliminating primaries for judicial offices.
It is possible that judicial primaries could occur later in the year, once judicial redistricting is complete. It is also possible that we’ll provide for judicial primaries for statewide offices. Those debates and votes will occur in the future. There is a risk, however. We might not pass HB717 but we’ve already passed SB656. The legislature has done away with judicial primaries in 2018, but one doesn’t know that the legislature will repeal that provision if it can’t reach agreement on judicial redistricting.
In the past, much of the work of the legislature has occurred after it has adjourned. That work is done by legislative committees. Some of the work involves oversight of state agencies, and some of the work is about working on legislation that might be considered in an upcoming session. In recent years, the legislature has been in session a lot, so less committee work is being done. As we left Raleigh last week, my question to Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), the chair of the House Rules Committee, was whether we could expect the appointment of various study committees now that the legislature has gone home for a few months. He said he expected some new committees would be appointed, and he expected the various oversight committees would begin to meet more regularly.
What that means for me is that the next few months are not going to be a vacation. I co-chair the Environmental Review Commission, an oversight committee dealing with environmental issues. I serve on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. I also serve on three select committees looking at various issues relating to potential legislation: the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief, the House Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality (looking at the GenX issue affecting Wilmington’s water supply) and the House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long Term Funding Solutions. Additionally, I expect to chair a committee looking at the use of enterprise funds by counties and municipalities. These funds are used to build water and sewer infrastructure and address solid waste issues. My hope is that I can put to bed some thorny water and sewer issues that have divided local governments in western North Carolina.