July 14, 2017
2017 Legislative Session Review
The 2017 regular session of the N.C. General Assembly began on January 11 and adjourned in the early morning hours of June 30. Legislators addressed key issues including, among other things, repealing HB2, passing the biennual budget, and reorganizing parts of state government. While the regular session has adjourned, lawmakers plan to be back in Raleigh at least twice this year for extra sessions.
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The legislative session was perhaps as notable for political dynamics between Republican majorities in the General Assembly and Democratic Governor Roy Cooper as it was for the policy issues addressed. Before Gov. Cooper was sworn in, the General Assembly restructured various aspects of state government during a 2016 special session. Gov. Cooper sued the General Assembly over the reconfiguration of and appointments to boards overseeing ethics and elections and over the newly created process for confirmation of the governor’s cabinet picks.
This year Gov. Cooper vetoed a number of high-profile bills, including the budget, but with supermajorities in both chambers Republicans have voted successfully to override all of the bills vetoed prior to adjournment.
House Bill 2
In March, the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper found a compromise that resulted in the repeal of House Bill 2 (S.L. 2016-3). HB2 was passed during a special legislative session in March 2016, in response to the Charlotte City Council’s action to provide protections for the LGBT community in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
HB142 repealed HB2, but placed a prohibition on the regulation of access to multiple-occupancy bathrooms by state or local governments. HB142 also placed a moratorium on local governments enacting or amending ordinances regulating private employment practices or public accommodations until January 1, 2020.
In June, the General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto to enact Senate Bill 257, The Appropriations Act of 2017. Highlights of the two-year spending plan include:
- Average salary increase of 3.3% for public school teachers and a permanent pay increase for other state employees
- 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees
- Increased funding for enrollment growth in Pre-K, K-12, community colleges, and universities
- Creation of 31 new assistant district attorney positions across the state
- Funding cuts to the Attorney General’s Office
- Funding for capital improvements at commercial airports
- Funding for bridge preservation and replacement and other high-priority transportation projects
- Significant increases to the State Savings Reserve Fund
- Income tax rate reductions beginning in 2019
- Repeal of the state’s excise tax on mill machinery equipment
The budget also included several significant policy changes that have an impact on future appropriations. These changes include the elimination of retiree medical benefits for new state employees hired after December 2020; a phase-out of criminal justice provisions that require automatically trying 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court for misdemeanors and for some felonies; and the creation of exceptions to limits on economic development incentives for transformative projects, which are defined as projects with at least a $4 billion capital investment and the creation of 5,000 new jobs.
How the General Assembly has drawn legislative and Congressional districts has been a key issue this year. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that two of the state’s 13 congressional districts drawn in 2011 were unconstitutional because legislators relied too heavily on race in drawing the districts. That case does not affect the State’s current congressional districts, which were redrawn in 2016 due to the lower court’s order.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in a separate case that found that 28 of the state’s 170 legislative districts drawn in 2011 were also unconstitutional because legislators relied too heavily on race in drawing those districts. In the case involving legislative districts, the lower court had ordered that new districts be drawn and new elections be held in 2017. However, the Supreme Court returned the case involving legislative districts to the lower court for further review of the benefits and drawbacks of requiring a special election. The lower court has scheduled a hearing on the issue for July 27.
Organization of State Government
In an extra session in 2016 and during the 2017 regular session, the General Assembly made numerous changes to the organization of state government. Several of these changes remain subject to ongoing litigation:
- Consolidation of State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission. Legislation created the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. In response to litigation over the 2016 act, the General Assembly made changes to the structure of the Board in 2017. The 2017 legislation is still the subject of litigation.
- Confirmation of Cabinet Appointees. Legislation enacted in a 2016 special session created a process for the confirmation of cabinet appointees. The state constitution has long provided that certain gubernatorial appointments are subject to consent of the Senate, but previous General Assemblies have not sought to play an active role in appointments. While the confirmation process remains subject to litigation, all 10 of Gov. Cooper’s cabinet appointments were confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
- Reduction of Court of Appeals. Legislation enacted in early 2017 gradually reduces the size of the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12.
- Partisan Elections for District and Superior Court Judges. Legislation enacted early in 2017 reinstates partisan elections for District and Superior Court judges beginning in 2018. Elections for Superior Court judges have been nonpartisan since 1996, while elections for District Court judges have been nonpartisan since 2001.
The General Assembly will return for a first extra session on August 3. That session will focus primarily on consideration of overrides of the governor’s vetoes, bills making appointments to various boards and commissions, bills responding to litigation challenging the legality of legislative enactments (including congressional and legislative redistricting), and bills before conference committees.
On September 6, the second extra session will convene. Legislators may address most issues eligible for consideration in the first extra session. They also may consider legislation related to judicial or local redistricting and legislation proposing amendments to the United States or North Carolina Constitutions.
The adjournment resolution allows for the possibility of a third extra session solely to address redistricting issues. This session would be required to commence no later than November 15.