When the legislature adjourned its “Short Session” in late June, it didn’t adjourn for the year. Rather, it adjourned until November 27th. At the time, the thought was, if one or more of the constitutional amendments on the November ballot passed, the legislature might need to pass implementing legislation. For example, voters could approve the Voter ID amendment, but the legislature would need to define what type of voter identification would be accepted. Well, the amendment passed, so we came back to consider Voter ID legislation.
The adjournment resolution, however, set no limits on what matters could be taken up during the November session. So almost any matter can be brought up for consideration during the session, giving rise to concerns that a lame duck legislature could take up major legislation during its end-of-the-year session. Since Republicans lost their veto-proof majority in the November elections, the concern is that Republicans in the majority in both chambers will pass legislation that Governor Cooper would veto, but the veto would be overridden. However, if that same legislation passed next year, and Governor Cooper vetoed it, his veto might hold since Democrats will have enough votes to keep the veto from being overridden.
So far, the session has proceeded with few fireworks. The Senate and House passed a Voter ID bill, SB824 [Implementation of Voter ID Const. Amendment], that implements the constitutional requirement that voters offering to vote in person provide a photographic identification before voting. The bill provides that any of the following is a valid ID: A North Carolina driver’s license, a non-driver identification card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles without charge, an identification card issued by a county board of election, a U.S. passport, college student IDs, military and veteran IDs, and tribal enrollment cards.
The debate over the bill primarily focused on what types of IDs should be acceptable. Democrats mostly argued that there were other IDs that ought to be permissible, such as high school IDs or employer-issued IDs. Republicans argued the bill already provided a broad range of acceptable IDs and that IDs that were not government-issued should not be allowed. Some Republicans actually thought the bill was too liberal in its definition of acceptable IDs. Their particular concern was the use of IDs issued by colleges and community colleges. They felt that students coming from out-of-state shouldn’t be able to use school-issued IDs, since it allowed students to vote when they probably were still using the driver’s licenses issued by other states.
The Senate bill was amended in the House to require the State Board of Elections to implement rules for verifying absentee ballots in a more secure manner consistent with in-person photo ID requirements. This provision was clearly the result of the apparent fraud involving absentee ballots in Robeson and Bladen counties.
The bill passed the Senate on a 31-11 vote which was largely along party lines with all Republican senators joined by three Democratic senators voting for passage. Similarly, the House passed the bill by a vote of 67-40, with two Democratic House Members joining all but one Republican in supporting the bill.
What surprised me was how few communications I received from constituents about Voter ID. What I did receive mostly came from constituents who had previously contacted me to oppose the Voter ID amendment, but now want the legislature be very liberal in determining what IDs should be accepted. Medicaid cards (which aren’t photo IDS), high school IDs, and employer-issued IDs were among the suggestions; none of those suggestions are in the bill. Recognizing that obtaining photo IDs from a local DMV office can be difficult, the House provided monies for county boards of election to issue photo IDs.
In contrast to the Voter ID bill, the disaster relief bill, SB823 [Hurricane Florence/Supplemental Act], passed unanimously in both chambers. It provided an appropriation of almost $300 million for additional Hurricane Florence disaster relief. In mid-October, the legislature passed two bills allocating over $850 million for Florence-related disaster relief. The largest appropriation of $240 million went to provide grants to farmers for crop losses. Other large appropriations included $25 million for repair and renovation of school facilities, $5 million for loans to small businesses, $10 million for commercial fishing assistance, and $18.75 million for mitigation and cleanup of coastal storm damages to ocean beaches, dunes and shorelines. Thus far, my primary focus in this session has been on disaster relief since I authored most of the legislation related to Hurricane Matthew.
The last major bill taken up by the House was SB469 [Technical Corrections]. In theory, a technical corrections bill should only contain corrections to earlier legislation, typically clarifying earlier legislation or changing dates or correcting cross-references to other legislation. In actuality, technical corrections bills often attract substantive changes to earlier legislation or even totally new provisions.
Looking towards this week, the issues that need to be addressed are issues involving the State Board of Elections and Ethics. The legislature has made several attempts to restructure that board, but those attempts have been successfully challenged in the courts. The latest effort to restructure the State Board is HB1117 [Restructure Election Admin/Ethics/Lobbying/CF], which would split the agency putting its functions under the oversight of two boards. One board controlled by the governor would handle elections. The five person board would be appointed by the governor—three from his party and two from the other party. A second eight person board would handle ethics, campaign finance and lobbying with the appointments equally split between the governor and legislative leaders.
With the focus being on Voter ID and disaster relief, election-related legislation has not begun to move through the committees or either chamber, but a court-imposed deadline to take action probably means that the bill or other bills on the same topic will move next week.
One section of HB1117 sunsets six boards or commissions, effective on June 30, that were determined to be unconstitutionally constituted in Cooper v. Berger. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund board, the Parks & Recreation Trust Fund board, and the Child Care Commission were among the boards that would be sunsetted. The reason given for sunsetting the boards was that they were found to be unconstitutional and the statutory references should be removed.
The real reason for sunsetting the boards and commissions is to create a disincentive for Governor Cooper to challenge the composition of other similarly constituted boards and commissions. Moreover, the perspective was that the Governor had a great interest in the boards and commissions being reconstituted consistent with the court decision and by sunsetting the boards and commissions Republicans gained leverage in negotiations on this and other issues.
My view is that we should simply reconstitute the boards and commissions, consistent with the court decision, and I filed a bill to do just that, HB1120 [Reconstitute Various Boards & Commissions]. There is no one saying that these boards and commissions weren’t functioning, and I think we shouldn’t be playing politics with boards and commissions that are actually doing their jobs. By executive order Governor Cooper reconstituted the boards and commissions, and he reappointed all of the board or commission members appointed by the legislature except those that would be expiring soon. My pitch to my colleagues is not to play politics with programs that are working.
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund was the primary funder when the DuPont State Recreational Forest was acquired. It also funded Fletcher’s park and helped Conserving Carolina, the local land trust, on a wide range of projects. Similarly, the Parks & Recreation Trust Fund has helped fund most of our towns and cities parks. I’ve heard from constituents about the important work done by the Child Care Board.
The assumption is that Governor Cooper may veto one or more of the bills passed by the legislature — maybe the Voter ID bill, the technical corrections bill, the elections board bill, or the boards and commissions bill. For that reason, when the legislature goes home this week, it will technically stay in session to force the Governor to take action in ten days. That will allow the legislature to come back and consider overriding any vetoes.