This week, Rep. Chris Millis (R-Pender) resigned from the NC House. Resignations aren’t that usual, but this one is noteworthy because Millis was one of the younger Members, and cited the need to spend more time with family, when announcing his resignation. His resignation came after the legislature came back in session for the second time following adjournment in June. His resignation says something about what service in the legislature has become. In the recent past, the legislature would complete its Long and Short Sessions and then go home for the year, but since 2011 that hasn’t been the norm.
In theory, serving in the legislature is a part-time job. In the first year of a two-year term, a legislator in the past could expect to be in Raleigh for a Long Session beginning in January and finishing sometime after adoption of a two-year budget in the summer. In the second year of the two-year term, a legislator would be back for the Short Session, which convened in May and ended sometime during the summer, completing work on unfinished bills from the Long Session and making any needed modifications to the budget.
Except for 2012, over the past seven years, the norm has been extended sessions, special sessions or sequential adjournments, all of which means legislators are spending a lot more time in session. In 2011, Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue vetoed numerous bills passed by the new Republican majority in the legislature. Rather than adjourning until the Short Session the following year, the legislature adjourned for a month or two at a time, coming back to take action on vetoes and to complete work on other legislation. That year, the legislature finally adjourned shortly after Thanksgiving.
In 2013, the legislature was back for votes to override vetoes by Republican Governor Pat McCrory, and in 2014, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on several bills, including coal ash legislation. Having gone home in June, it came back for sessions in July and August to complete work on the coal ash legislation and other bills.
2015 was the year it seemed the legislature would never go home. Its Long Session ended in the wee hours of September 30, having started in January.
2016 was the year the legislature had five special sessions. The first session in February was required by a federal court to adopt new congressional districts. During the second session in March, the legislature adopted House Bill 2, the so-called bathroom bill. After the normal Short Session, the legislature came back for a third special session to pass disaster relief relating to Hurricane Matthew. The fourth session resulted in a several laws widely viewed as the Republican legislature’s attempt to restrict the powers of the incoming Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. And the fifth session related back to HB2; it was session when the legislature failed in its attempt to repeal HB2. In 2016, the latter sessions all occurred in the weeks just before Christmas.
More of the same in 2017 — the legislature went home on June 30, only to come back in early August to complete work on several bills and return in late August to work on legislative redistricting required by a federal court, complete more work on pending bills and override two vetoes by Governor Cooper. The session ended with adoption of an adjournment resolution, SJR 692 [Adjourn August Redistricting Session and Reconvene], that will bring the legislature back on October 4.
So why are we coming back in October? The adjournment resolution defines the parameters of the upcoming session.
First, the legislature is coming back to potentially do redistricting. By then, the federal court will have had a chance to review the House and Senate maps, and the legislature could make further adjustments required by the court. A judicial redistricting bill, House Bill 717 [Revise Judicial Districts] is also pending. It would revise the 40-plus judicial districts which involve the districts for district attorneys and superior and district court judges.
Second, it is widely expected that the legislature will take up some constitutional amendments. Constitutional amendments have been proposed on a wide range of topics ranging from restricting eminent domain to limiting the terms of the governor and legislator to legalizing medical marijuana. The expectation is that some action could be taken on some of those, likely putting them on the ballot in the General Election in November, 2018.
Third, there are four bills [HB576, HB511, HB205 and SB16] that have been vetoed by Governor Cooper that are eligible for override votes. Moreover, HB56 [Amend Environmental Laws] passed last week, could also be vetoed.
Finally, there are pending bills that are eligible to be heard with the most likely being the adoption of conference reports. Conference committees reconcile differences between bills passed by both chambers, and there were a number of bills being conferenced when the legislature adjourned last week. A bill can become a very different bill when in a conference committee. The most recent example of that is HB770, which went into the conference committee as an environmental bill and came out with all sorts of provisions having nothing to do with the environment.
The most unsettling part of the adjournment resolution is the reference to a “joint resolution further adjourning the 2017 Regular Session or amending a joint resolution adjourning the 2017 Regular Session to a date certain” being in order. What that means is the legislature has left open the option of coming back again sometime after the October session.
My experience is that these extra sessions always take longer that initially expected. My guess is we’re looking at two weeks in October. Any legislator or lobbyist who made vacation plans for October thinking that surely the legislature would have gone home may have guessed wrong.
As evidenced by Rep. Millis’ resignation, these extra sessions take their toll on legislators. The fall is when legislators make decisions as to whether they will run for reelection, and I’m sure many will be questioning whether they are willing to continue to serve when the legislative calendar has become so unpredictable.