The big success of the week was getting funding for the next step in implementing the Raise-the-Age legislation. Three years ago, North Carolina was one of only a handful of states that treated 16 and 17 year olds as adults when charged with a crime; most states recognized that 16 and 17 year-olds shouldn’t be put in the criminal justice system which might mean prison sentences served with hardened criminals. For most crimes these young adults should be in the juvenile justice system where they might get intensive treatment to hopefully shape them into productive members of society.
While it was relatively easy to change the law, it had never changed because of the cost of implementation. It is more expensive to house and counsel young adults in the juvenile justice system than incarcerating them in the criminal justice system. When the legislature raised the age, it committed to phased funding for an expanded juvenile justice system.
House Bill 1187 [Raise-the-Age Funding] appropriates $10,440,000 to renovate two state facilities and to complete construction on one new facility to house juvenile delinquents. Next year, the legislature will have to fund the staffing of those facilities. HB1187 passed by a voice vote with no one speaking in opposition to the bill. Since Senate leaders have already agreed to the bill, it is likely that the bill will go to Governor Cooper next week. The expectation is the bill will become law.
This bill, like several other bills on topics, like HB1208 [Funding for Workforce Housing Loan Program] (housing funds) and HB1063 [Fund VIPER Tower Hardware Upgrades] (a public safety telecommunications project), are being funded from some cash balances the legislature is clawing back to fund some needed projects.
HB1154 [Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority] is a local bill that simply spaces out the terms served by airport board members appointed by Asheville, Buncombe County and Henderson County. All of the local legislators from the two counties and city supported the bill — senators and representatives; Democrats and Republicans — but the problem with a bill like this is just getting it moved when much weightier subjects are being considered. I felt good about getting it passed in the House before most local legislation had begun to move. I’ll need Senator Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) to help move it in the Senate.
Perhaps the most important bill to come out of the House was HB1169 [Bipartisan Elections Act of 2020]. While there are a lot of parts to the bill, the summary reveals it primarily dealt with absentee ballots and funding for elections in response to COVID-19. For weeks, partisan groups generated communications to legislators from constituents falsely making claims about what the Governor-appointed State Board of Elections would impose and what the legislature would require. Playing off voters’ memories of past difficulties obtaining absentee ballots, Democratic activists wanted absentee ballots or absentee ballot applications sent to all voters. Based on this push, the rumor on the other side was North Carolina was going to go to a strictly mail ballot system which a handful of states use.
In the end, the House bill will give each county up to $250,000 to offset the cost of elections. The absentee ballot request can be made via telephone or an online request. Even before this bill, it was already law that one didn’t have to give an excuse for using an absentee ballot. The bill contains numerous other provisions including one meant to assist voters in quarantined care facilities, expanding or improving voting identification documents or pictures, and creating criminal penalties for trying to send or deliver an unrequested absentee ballot. Neither side got everything they wanted, but a vote of 116-3 made clear a strong compromise was struck between Democratic and Republican leaders.
Passage of this bill by such an overwhelming majority gives one hope that one benefit of the pandemic is it has caused some to put aside partisan differences for the sake of solving issues related to the viral infection. Not sure what the prospects for the legislation are in the Senate, but it seems everyone understands we need to allocate the monies to counties for elections and that we ought to make the process of voting via absentee ballot easier for people who want to vote but are fearful of voting in person.
Success But Frustration
Sometimes what appear to be legislative successes turn out to be something other than successes. For example, last year, I was largely successful in getting funding in the budget for a wide range of trust funds to protect public lands and water quality; however, that budget never became law because of differences between Governor Cooper and legislative leaders over issues like Medicaid expansion and teacher salaries. This week, I have a sinking suspicion that my work on HB536 [Temp Outdoor Restaurants for Outdoor Seating] will not actually accomplish anything.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HB536 would temporarily authorize existing food establishments to operate dining and beverage service options under certain conditions. What prompted the bill were discussions like those of the Hendersonville City Council about closing off Main Street and allowing restaurants to expand their service space for food and beverages, including alcoholic beverages into contiguous open space. The bill passed the Senate by a 42 to 5 vote, but only passed in the House by a vote of 65-53 — an almost party line vote.
While there was a little discussion of the public policy implications of the bill, the actual debate was over the Governor’s executive orders to address COVID-19. In the end, Democrats didn’t want to see any legislative interference with the Governor’s orders and some number of Republicans wanted to see the orders abolished or undercut. There was no middle ground.
So perhaps there is success in passing the bill but the expectation is Governor Cooper will veto it which will mean not much will have been accomplished. That is the frustration. While I enjoyed hearing the highly principled legislators propound their perspectives, I hated that perceived political advantages ultimately determined the vote.
Of course, the Governor could still avoid a confrontation in much the same way that Chief Justice John Marshall avoided a showdown with President Jefferson with his decision in Marbury v. Madison. He could keep HB536 from becoming law while modifying his executive orders to account for the concerns that prompted the bill. In recent weeks, I’ve worked closely with the Cooper Administration and legislative colleagues to try to keep summer camps open. While everyone acted in good faith, the effort has largely failed at this point with most camps choosing to close. More recently, I pushed hard for changes to the executive orders relating to breweries, cideries, and wineries. Those efforts were successful or, at least they will be if breweries, cideries and wineries open without some additional outbreaks of the virus.
Over the course of the week, most of my time was spent in a room with three senators and six other representatives, along with legislative staff, trying to figure out how to craft a budget or something like a budget. A week ago, the consensus revenue forecasts showed multi-billion dollar revenue deficits both in the state’s General Fund and its transportation trust funds. After receiving these forecasts, budget chairs were told by legislative leaders to put together a series of one-issue budget bills in which we’d pull down funds unappropriated last year and monies from various cash sources to fund state needs for the next fiscal year. Meanwhile, we’re waiting to see if Congress will give the states more flexibility in spending the federal COVID-19 funding.
A few weeks earlier, the House game plan was to put together a one-year budget for FY2020-21, but that plan is no more. Rather than one budget, the expectation is two dozen bills addressing important but narrow issues — nothing comprehensive — will be crafted. Absent a full budget, the thought is the state can continue spending based on the FY2018-19 budget as amended last year.
The frustration with this process is it likely signals more political maneuvering in advance of the November election. With income tax revenues being mostly pushed back into the next fiscal year following the new July 15 filing deadline, revenue projections may be less reliable, and some argued we ought to wait to do a budget until things become clear. However, putting together a budget following last year’s failure to enact one by overriding the Governor’s veto, might have also been a fool’s errand.
So this past week, both the House and Senate passed or moved six of these one shot budget bills: HB1063 (VIPER), HB1187 (Raise-the-Age), HB1208 (Workforce Housing), Senate Bill 801 [Military Presence Stabilization Fund/Funding], SB806 [Capital Appropriation – Western Carolina Univ], and SB836 [Additional CFR Funds for State Government Operations]. Next week, the Senate will complete work on its three bills and take up the House bills, while the House will take up the Senate bills. Then some number of new bills will begin to move.
The frustration will come from never really getting a complete budget. It will also come from jockeying between the parties as they set up for the November elections. Republican legislators control the legislature, and they’ll press legislative Democrats into having to vote on some difficult issues while forcing the Governor to veto some bills. The Governor will likely put together a more comprehensive budget proposal, but he may also try to paint legislative leaders into a corner.
For a short-termer like me, I doubt there will be a lot of opportunity to actually work on funding projects or programs which are needed in my district, in western North Carolina or to address issues of statewide importance on which I’ve worked. With Raise-the-Age funding likely following the expected passage of HB1187, one of my priorities is addressed, but I have no expectation that I’ll be successful in protecting funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Parks & Recreation Trust Fund, or water quality testing for emerging compounds. I fear losing funding for DuPont State Recreational Forest’s recreation plan or Muddy Sneakers’ education programs.
Moreover, in the light of the expected fights over the Governor’s pandemic orders and budget shortfalls, one has to wonder if there is any path forward for legislation dealing with nonpartisan redistricting or licensing of those who treat autistic patients — two of my priorities in running for reelection in 2018.
My expectation is that session will continue until late June. At that point, the legislature will likely go home. We could come back if the Governor vetoes some bills late in the session or we could adjourn to a later date if we are still waiting on federal guidance as to how we can spend the federal monies coming to the state related to COVID-19.