The North Carolina General Assembly has biennial sessions with a regular long session in odd years and a short session held on even years. In 2011, the legislature’s long session lasted from January 26th to June 18th. The legislature reconvened for their short session for approximately 2 months from May 16, 2012 to July 3, 2012. The 2010 election led to a historical switch in power where Republicans were able to gain a majority in both legislative chambers. Republicans have not held a majority in the House since 1997 nor have they been a majority in the Senate in over 70 years. The legislative session focused on a number of issues notably the budget, hydraulic fracturing, abortion, gambling, and education.
The House is comprised of 120 members, 67 are Republicans, 52 are Democrats, and 1 is an Independent. The Senate has 50 members, 31 are Republicans and 19 are Democrats. The House is led by Speaker Rep. Thom Tillis and the Senate President who is also the Lt. Governor Sen. Phillip Berger. Governor Beverly Perdue is a Democrat and she is North Carolina’s first female governor. The General Assembly introduced 2169 bills and resolutions in this two year session, 653 cleared both chambers and 646 became law.
The uses of veto power and veto overrides were an overarching theme of this legislative session. Gov. Perdue vetoed 19 bills, the highest number of vetoes in a given session in North Carolina since 1996 when veto power was granted to the governor. The House and Senate have also attempted to override an unprecedented number of bills this session and succeeded in overriding 11 of the 19 vetoes.
SB 727 is a symbol of this veto session contention. This bill repealed the ability for public school teachers to have their employee association dues automatically deducted from their paycheck or retirement. Gov. Perdue vetoed SB 727 on June 18, 2011. The Senate overrode the veto on July 13, 2011. When Gov. Perdue called the legislature back in session on January 5, 2012 for the purpose of considering her veto of a bill that repeals provisions of the Racial Justice Act, the House held a veto override vote for SB 727. The Association of Educators has sued the state challenging the House veto override on constitutional grounds arguing the legislature was not properly in session and they waited too long before proceeding to reconsider the vetoed bill.
Following a national trend this year, North Carolina addressed a number of educational reform bills. SB 795 repeals tenure for public school teachers by limiting teacher contracts to no more than 4 years for teachers who have been employed by the local school board for 3 or more years. The bill also puts state public schools on the standard grading system 0-100 and F-A and prevents third graders who do not have sufficient reading ability from moving into fourth grade. This bill died in the House Committee on Education.
North Carolina passes a biennial budget every two years and in general passes an amended budget plan half way through its biennial session. HB 200 is the budget bill for 2011-2013. The controversy over this bill primarily revolves around budget cuts to education and tax cuts for corporations. Opponents of the bill argued for more spending even if it meant higher taxes. Rep. Tim Moffitt, a proponent of the measure, said “This is about more than money; this is about reversing the trend of continued increased spending.” Gov. Perdue vetoed this bill and said, “I will not put my name on a plan that so blatantly ignores the values of North Carolina’s people. I cannot support a budget that sends the message that North Carolina is moving backwards, when we have always been a state that led the nation.” Both chambers proceeded to successfully override the veto.
HB 950 passed in 2012 and serves to amend budget appropriations for fiscal years 2012-2013. Notably, it raises the salaries of teachers by 1.2%, requires standards for reading assessment to be enacted by the Board of Education and allocates additional funds to the state’s community college system. Gov. Perdue, an opponent of the bill, vetoed these amendments and said, “Budgets are about values, priorities, and choices. Last week, the General Assembly delivered to me a budget that left too many of North Carolina’s needs unmet.” Rep. Thom Tillis, a proponent of this bill, called the budget a success. In a press release Tillis said: “Our budget provides more than $250 million in additional funds to public education, including a 1.2 percent pay raise for teachers. It addresses funding problems in the Medicaid system, cuts and caps the gas tax, provides state employees with a pay raise, and gives retirees a cost-of-living increase.” The legislature overrode the veto by Gov. Perdue on July 2 and the bill became law.
HB 947 attempted to address issues from the past. North Carolina had an active forced sterilization and eugenics programs that ran for several decades beginning in 1933 and ending in 1974. HB 947 authorizes compensation for eugenics patients by granting each patient $50,000. This bill exempts the compensation from being taxed. It also prohibits the compensation from being considered income or assets when determining eligibility for public assistance. The issue was hotly debated in the House. Rep. Tillis, the Speaker of the House and co-sponsor of the bill said, “Today, the North Carolina House took a historic step toward a long-awaited resolution to a sad chapter in our state’s past.” Rep. John Blust, an opponent of the measure said, “It's hard for me . . . in a year where we have now for the third or fourth year in a row not given teachers or state employees any raise whatsoever and suddenly we have this pressing reason to use up $10 million." Blust proposed an amendment on June 5 to the bill that would change a eugenics patient’s compensation to $20,000, which failed. North Carolina would have been the first state in the nation with a history of state sanctioned eugenics to pass such a bill through the legislature. However, the bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
One bill that received a significant amount of national press coverage this session was HB 819. The bill that initially passed the Senate requires the use of “statistically significant” peer reviewed historical rates of sea-level rise to predict future rates of sea-level rise. It therefore prohibits the state’s Coastal Resources Commission from considering how a changing climate might accelerate sea level rise. Critics of this version of the bill argued that it “would have prevented the commission from considering events, such as the melting of polar ice caps caused by increased global temperatures, which might accelerate the rate at which seas are expected to rise.” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt in reference to the national press coverage said, “This bill has made us the laughingstock of the country.” The two chambers were unable to agree to the terms in the bill until they adopted the compromise reached by the Conference Committee. The final version of the bill set a moratorium on the Coastal Resource Commission’s ability to calculate a sea-level change until July 1, 2016. This version cleared both chambers and was signed by Gov. Perdue.
Another bill that has an impact on the environment and serves to address energy issues was SB 820. It authorizes hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling within the state. Gov. Perdue hinted at being open to shale gas exploration in 2012 unlike in 2011 when she vetoed gas exploration legislation. Sen. Bob Rucho, a proponent of this measure, said, “Energy self-sufficiency is going to be critical to this state in terms of economic growth... The only way you’ll ever know [if there are gas reserves] is by actually punching down some wells.” Gov. Perdue vetoed the measure however, stating that she was disappointed that the measure was not stringent enough in its protection of surrounding houses and it does not address health concerns. Both chambers overrode the veto with the override vote in the House passing on a single vote margin.
Following a national trend of expanding gambling measures, North Carolina passed SB 582. The bill authorizes the Cherokee nation to implement Class III gaming, which includes live gambling tables, video game tables and raffles. In exchange for this authorization, North Carolina will be getting revenue from casinos for the next three decades. Proponents of the bill claim it will create more jobs and like Rep. Roger West said, “We'd be replacing machines with live people.” Meanwhile opponents of the bill argue expanding gambling moves the state in the wrong direction and as Rep. Jones expressed by countering the proponent argument, “If that's the case, perhaps we should take a stand and legalize prostitution, we could create jobs with that.” The bill became law after passing the House with 68 yeas and 49 nays, with voting that crossed party lines.
The Racial Justice Act of 2009 authorized the use of statistics as proof of racial discrimination in death penalty hearings to urge a judge to reduce the sentence from the death penalty to a life sentence in prison without parole for certain offenders. The Senate passed two bills this session to limit how statistical evidence may be used when a claim of racial bias is made. SB 9 outright repeals the Racial Justice Act clause that allowed the use of statistical data to determine whether there was racial bias against the individual who received a death sentence. Debate over this measure was heated with proponents saying this clause has been abused by death row inmates and opponents like Sen. Floyd McKissick saying “We all know that racial considerations still impact the hearts and minds of many people in this state.” This bill was vetoed by Gov. Perdue and although the Senate overrode the veto, the House could not gather enough votes, so the measure did not become law.
SB 416 was then introduced to limit rather than repeal the statistical evidence that may be used to reduce the sentence from the death penalty to a life sentence without parole. This bill requires there be other significant factors to prove racial discrimination played a role in the imposition of the death penalty. It also makes it clear that statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish that race was a significant factor and it requires the statistical evidence to only come from the county or the prosecutorial district. Opponent of this bill, Sarah Preston of the ACLU of North Carolina, said, “This bill is an attempt to sweep that evidence under the rug by allowing the state to ignore mountains of statistics pointing to the pervasive and disturbing role that race plays in jury selection and sentencing.” Whereas supporters like Defense attorney Sen. Thom Goolsby claimed he doesn’t trust “statisticians or people who come in after the fact to find some way to get cold-blooded killers off of death row.” Gov. Perdue vetoed this bill too; however, the House and Senate overrode the veto by July 2, 2012.
Following the national legislative trend, HB 854 served to increase abortion requirements. State legislatures in Florida, Idaho, and Michigan amongst others addressed abortion this year. The North Carolina measure requires physicians to provide an abortion patient with specific information such as the gestational age of the fetus, alternatives to abortion, and medical risks related to the abortion procedure at least 24 hours before performing an abortion. The exceptions to this rule are cases of medical emergencies where the abortion needs to be performed to save the mother’s life. The provisions of this bill also require physicians to provide details on shelters and restraining orders if it is believed that the woman is being coerced into the abortion. Gov. Perdue, an outspoken opponent of this bill, issued a veto on June 27, 2012. The legislature overrode the veto on July 28, 2012 making this bill effective without the Governor’s approval.
Jackie Schicker is a current intern with Project Vote Smart.