Starting the legislative session is much like turning on a copy machine. You turn on the machine, and one isn’t immediately able to make copies. With the legislature, after everyone takes their oaths of office and receives their assigned seats on the floor, designated offices, and committee assignments, legislation doesn’t immediately get enacted. Bills have to be drafted, filed, heard in one or more committees and then come to the floor of either the House or the Senate. After passing one chamber, the bill must then pass the other chamber after some number of committee hearings. So, in our first week, only one bill will have run the gauntlet: Senate Bill 7 [Bipartisan Ethics Appointments], a bill to make certain appointments to the State Ethics Commission. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 45-0, and passed the House by a vote of 116-1. The bill was noncontroversial and isn’t really a “law” since it just makes appointments on behalf of the Senate and House. It moved quickly because the appointments are needed to allow the commission to work due to restructuring of the commission that occurred in late 2018.
Some may remember how quickly things got going in 2011. Both the House and the Senate took up bills on their first full day in session. That was the year that Republicans claimed the majority. We ran on a common agenda and, since the majority had an agreed-upon agenda, bills were introduced on the day legislators were sworn in, and were heard in committees on day two and moved directly to the floor for a vote. That process hasn’t occurred since 2011, probably because legislators in the majority haven’t run on a common agenda since then. In 2011, Republicans signaled a change by moving quickly on bills that had clear majority support. If Democrats had retaken the majority in the last election, it is possible one would have seen similar quick action on some of their consensus bills.
Aside from SB7, the only other bill that passed the House this week was House Bill 16 [2019 House Permanent Rules]. Each chamber adopts its own rules, and this bill was essentially a reenactment of the rules adopted in the last session. A few changes were proposed by Democrats. For example, one member proposed there be no limit on the number of bills that could be filed by any member. A decade ago, there was no limit, but a limitation of 10 bills was set in 2011. Last session, that limit was increased to 15. The limit was put in place to focus legislators on what they deemed appropriate and avoid some amount of wasted staff time drafting bills that weren’t going to be heard. The limit of 15 bills does not include local bills, and it is relatively easy to borrow a bill from another member who isn’t going to use his or her 15-bill limit. When the bill limit was 10, I routinely borrowed bills from other members. With the cap at 15 during the last session, I didn’t hit my limit.
The Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) proposed limiting the subject of conference reports only to such matters as are different between the two chambers and limiting the use of “floaters” in committees. Both these amendments failed on party-line votes. Conference reports are bills put together to reconcile differences between bills passed by each chamber in different forms. Under both the Democrats and the Republicans, conference reports sometimes include matters that weren’t addressed in either of the chambers’ bills and often legislators are surprised when some provision is added to a conference report that was not seen in a filed bill. When this happens, House Rules in recent years have required a committee hearing on the conferenced bill even though the bill can’t be amended in committee. So a member can slow down the process to make sure something new that is inserted in a bill at the last minute gets a committee hearing.
Floaters are members who can join a committee for purposes of creating a quorum or casting votes. When Democrats were in charge up until around 2005, the House Rules provided for “floaters,” and when Republicans took charge in 2011, they quickly learned that it was advantageous to have floaters to maintain their majority in committees when some of their members were missing or didn’t agree with each other.
I hate conference reports that include matters that were not in the original bills, although they are periodically needed to move “necessary” legislation. I also don’t like the idea of having “floaters” change the vote count in a committee when House leadership decides it favors some potential outcome in committee. Knowing that the amendments would fail on party line votes and that my vote wasn’t going to change anything, I did something I’ve rarely done. I stepped out of the House chamber and went back to my office to work on other matters. I’m not one to fight battles that I can’t win and aren’t significant. To be effective, one has to pick one’s battles. Ultimately, I voted for HB16 along with all of my Republican colleagues and 6 Democratic colleagues. The final vote was 70 to 43.
The most important thing that happened for most members in the past weeks was the announcement of their committee assignments. While my appointment as a full chair of the Appropriations Committee had been announced early in January, it was only a few days before the start of session that I learned my committee assignments:
- Appropriations (Chairman)
- Appropriations, Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources (Vice Chairman)
- Appropriations, Transportation (Vice Chairman)
- Alcoholic Beverage Control (Chairman)
- Environment (Vice Chairman)
- Agriculture (Member)
- Education-Universities (Member)
- Judiciary (Member)
Initially, I’d been left off the Judiciary and Transportation Committees, but I was added after the initial appointments were made. Essentially, I got every committee assignment that I wanted while some Republican Members had to give up some of their committee seats to accommodate the larger number of Democratic Members that were elected. Fortunately, I will still have a hand in subject areas important to my district.
The legislature’s pace will pick up in the coming weeks. Legislators will move from “process” to “substance” as bills get filed, heard by committees, and debated on the floor. One can expect to see the legislature pivot to issues ranging from criminal law to transportation policy to education policy to regulatory reform. The budget process will start, and the House takes the lead in this biennium. If things go well, we’ll be home by Independence Day. If things don’t go so well, who knows when we’ll be home.