NC lawmakers head home after final flurry of bills

Jul. 26, 2013 @ 05:03 PM

North Carolina lawmakers were headed home Friday after late-night and early-morning sessions that saw a final push to pass bills backed by the Republican majority in what all sides agree was one of the most transformational legislative sessions in state history.

The House adjourned shortly before noon, following the Senate's 2 a.m. adjournment.

The last bills to win approval included a sweeping measure loosening environmental regulations, legislation allowing new restrictions on abortion providers and numerous changes to state elections laws that critics say are designed to help GOP lawmakers retain power.

Items left on the table included an effort to speed up fracking for natural gas and a bill that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory wanted, to remake the state Department of Commerce as a public-private partnership focused on job creation.

McCrory now has 30 days to either sign the bills on his desk or allow them to become law without his signature. At a media conference at the governor's mansion following the adjournment, McCrory expressed concern about two bills he said may trigger his first vetoes — a measure requiring state employers to electronically verify the immigration status of those they hire and a bill requiring those applying for public food and housing assistance to first pass a drug test.

On the whole, however, McCrory said he is "very pleased" with the session, which he said accomplished 20 of the 22 objectives he laid out at the start of his term in January. He confirmed he would sign the voting changes into law, as well as the bill many see as a betrayal of his campaign pledge not to support additional restrictions on abortion providers.

"We've had more reform in this state government in the last six months than this state has seen in the past 30 years," McCrory said. "And now, more than ever, we need reform, because people in North Carolina are hurting and they continue to have a broken government we have to fix."

Democrats, environmental groups, voting rights advocates and many public educators all saw it differently.

"We end this session knowing we did nothing to create jobs, we don't have that prosperity," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham. "We created a tax cut for the millionaires and raised the taxes on the least of these."

Republicans took control of the North Carolina Legislature in 2010 for the first time since Reconstruction and cemented full control of state government with the election of McCrory. That put them in prime position to implement a conservative platform focused on rewriting the tax code and rolling back government regulations they claim impeded prosperity.

The GOP tax plan passed last week cuts taxes for corporations and reduces the state's tiered personal income tax brackets into one flat 5.8 percent rate. Previously, high income earners paid the maximum 7.75 percent — meaning the biggest share of the new tax cuts go to the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the $20.6 billion state budget that McCrory signed into law Friday included no cost-of-living raise for state employees, cut pay for teachers with graduate degrees, ended teacher tenure and included a measure that for the first time will allow taxpayer money to be used to pay tuition at private schools.

The legislature also passed measures that allow concealed handguns to be carried in bars, restaurants, parks and playgrounds. Armed volunteers will also be allowed into public schools as unpaid safety officers.

The sharp rightward turn in Raleigh prompted weekly protests at the legislative building that drew thousands from across the state and prompted about 930 arrests.

For their part, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger praised the legislative accomplishments.

"We have worked tirelessly over the course of six months to enact reforms critical to providing greater opportunities to our state's citizens," said Tillis, R-Mecklenburg. "We lived within our means to provide a fiscally responsible and economically sustainable budget, enacted a comprehensive tax reform plan to bring financial relief to all North Carolinians, and eliminated burdensome regulations to promote economic development in our state."

Berger praised GOP lawmakers for instituting policies that he said would empower the private sector to create jobs. North Carolina's unemployment rate has hovered for months around 9 percent, the fifth-highest in the nation.

"Despite fierce resistance and overblown partisan rhetoric from the left, we did exactly what millions of voters asked us to do," said Berger, R-Rockingham.

To advance their agenda, Republican leaders sometimes reverted to using many of the same legislative tactics and parliamentary procedures that they had lambasted Democrats for just a few years ago, such as passing bills in the dead of the night and slipping controversial changes into wholly unrelated legislation.

The session also saw examples of the GOP supermajority seemingly going against its stated ideological principles of smaller government and local control. Examples included the passage of bills seizing control of the state's busiest airport form the city of Charlotte and ordering Durham to annex and provide services to a proposed mega-development in the sensitive Jordan Lake watershed that's opposed by the city council.

Environmentalists warned that the effects of numerous GOP-backed measures could be felt for generations. They pointed to the removal of key scientists and environmental experts from state oversight boards, rollbacks of clean water protections and a measure making it easier to build landfills near parks and wilderness areas.

"In the blink of an eye — just six short months — many of the legislators at the General Assembly have attempted to rewrite or repeal almost every common sense law and regulation on the books impacting the environment," said N.C. Conservation Network Executive Director Brian Buzby, representing a statewide coalition of more than 60 groups.

Voting rights and civil rights groups also had harsh criticism for the GOP-backed voter ID law that was amended this week to include more than 50 additional elections-related provisions, shortening early voting by a week, ending same-day registration, and eliminating a high school civics program that registers students in advance of their 18th birthdays.

Republicans maintained the changes will restore faith in elections and prevent voter fraud, which they claim is endemic and undetected. Nonpartisan voting rights groups, Democrats and Libertarians say the true goal is suppressing voter turnout among the young, the old, the poor and minorities.

The measure also weakens disclosure requirements intended to make clear who is underwriting campaign ads, increases the cap on individual political donations to $5,000 and enables political parties to rake in unlimited corporate donations.

"The legislature chose to pass a fundamentally flawed and potentially damaging piece of legislation that will likely limit voter access to the polls and open the door to increased special interest money in our elections," said Brent Laurenz, executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education.

The elections bill is one of several new GOP-backed laws likely to face legal challenges. In a telling move, legislative leaders added a provision late Thursday night giving the House speaker and Senate leader equal standing with North Carolina's attorney general to defend their laws in court. The current attorney general, Roy Cooper, is a Democrat. A separate provision moved 19 lawyers out of the Democrat-run Justice Department to executive-branch agencies controlled by McCrory.

Lawmakers are set to return to Raleigh for their biennial "short session" in May 2014 before facing voters at the polls in November, more than 15 months from now.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.