Last Thursday night—11:59 p.m. on April 27, to be precise—marked the legislature's crossover deadline, an odd, decades-old tradition that every two years incites self-inflicted chaos on North Carolina's House and Senate. Crossover is the point at which bills must pass one chamber or the other in order to remain viable for the remainder of the legislative session. As of last Thursday, more than fourteen hundred bills had been filed since the General Assembly convened in January, though many of them never saw the light of day.
Wednesday and Thursday saw a marathon of hearings that ran well into the evening. Several significant pieces of legislation were rammed through at breakneck speed, often with very little discussion and sometimes with votes changed after the fact, because politicians didn't realize what they were voting for.
With the dust settled, the INDY has identified eleven bills that beat the deadline and are worth keeping a close eye on. If they make it into state statute, they'll have the potential to affect immigrants, minorities, the environment, the free press, and more.
House Bill 330: CivPro/Qualified Immunity for Auto Accident
Sponsors: Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly), Chris Millis (R-Onslow, Pender)
Status: Passed the House April 27, 67–48
What It Does: Exempts drivers who exercise care when they strike protesters who are blocking traffic on a public road or highway from financial liability.
Why It Matters: Imagine Martin Luther King Jr. marching across a bridge in North Carolina and being hit by a car. Under HB 330—which came in response to the protests that engulfed Charlotte last year following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott—the driver, if he could show that he exercised care, could not be sued for damages. The bill fails to address how intent would be determined. The passage of this bill comes after House Bill 249, which would have labeled some protesters "economic terrorists" and charged them with felonies, died in committee. But antiprotest legislation in the age of Trump isn't just a North Carolina thing. At least sixteen other states have entertained similar legislation designed to discourage people from taking to the streets.
Senate Bill 343: Increase Teacher Supplement/Electronic Notice
Sponsors: Trudy Wade (R-Guilford), Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland), Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg)
Status: Passed the Senate on April 25, 30–19
What It Does: Allows governments to post public notices online instead of in newspapers.
Why It Matters: What's the big deal? Let city and county governments save some cash. There's just one problem. Those notices bring much-needed revenue to small-town newspapers, so what's to stop a city or county government from holding that potential advertising revenue over the heads of publishers and pulling the money should watchdog journalism appear in their respective pages? According to the Salisbury Post, cosponsor Senator Andrew Brock of Mocksville responded to criticism of the bill by the N.C. Press Association and others by saying, "We used to have a town crier that would stand on the corner and shout public notices. There wasn't much outcry when the newspapers put him out of business." Looks like Brock wants to party like it's 1909.
House Bill 335: Vacancies/NC Sup Ct/Ct of App/Superior Ct/DAs
Sponsors: Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly), Kyle Hall (R-Rockingham, Stokes), Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), Dana Bumgardner (R-Gaston)
Status: Passed the House on April 26, 70–48
What It Does: Limits the governor's power to appoint judges.
Why It Matters: The governor—in this case, the sponsors' political foe, Roy Cooper—could still appoint judicial replacements for the state Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals; however, those appointments would have to be selected from a list of three candidates recommended by an executive committee of the political party with which the vacating member was affiliated when elected. Let's break this down. If the vacating member was, say, a Republican, the executive committee would be three Republicans, thus ending the idea that to the victor go the spoils. Or in this case, the idea that the people who voted for a governor deserve to have judicial vacancies filled by that governor.
House Bill 351: Utilities/Rate Base/Fair Value Determination
Sponsors: Sam Watford (R-Davidson), Jeff Collins (R-Franklin, Nash)
Status: Passed the House on April 26, 89–30
What It Does: Authorizes water and wastewater public utilities to use fair-market value when determining rates
Why It Matters: The bill would allow municipalities to sell their water systems to private companies for a profit, leaving customers to pick up the tab through increased utility rates. Generally, municipalities sell their water systems to a private company because they cannot afford to update the infrastructure required for safe drinking water. Yet private companies are notorious for not taking on the upkeep, either. In addition to incentivizing privatization for municipalities, the bill establishes that the fair value at which the municipality sells must be determined by two appraisers, one of which is hired by the municipality.
Senate Bill 486: Uniform Voting Hours Act
Sponsors: Andrew Brock (R-Davie, Iredell, Rowan), Warren Daniel (R-Burke, Cleveland)
Status: Passed the Senate on April 26, 34–15
What It Does: Voting hours can only be extended at one precinct if they are extended at all precincts.
Why It Matters: SB 486 would essentially prevent the state and county boards of elections, as well as state courts, from extending voting hours in a particular precinct for any reason unless voting hours are extended for every precinct statewide. Think about that for a second. It's an illogical solution to a problem that already has a logical one, which is extending voting hours on a case-by-case basis. It basically means that if Durham County, for example, experiences technological malfunctions during its next election (as was the case in 2016), the precinct experiencing those problems would be prevented from extending its hours unless hours are extended at every precinct in the state.
House Bill 496: Fair and Nonpartisan Ballot Placement
Sponsor: Bert Jones (R-Caswell, Rockingham)
Status: Passed the House on April 25, 84–24
What It Does: Changes the order in which political candidates are listed on election ballots.
Why It Matters: The bill would reorganize the order in which political candidates are listed on North Carolina's ballots, putting candidates in alphabetical or reverse-alphabetical order rather than by the incumbent governor's political party. It goes without saying that this bill only came about after Democratic governor Roy Cooper eked out a win over Republican Pat McCrory in November. With a Democrat at the wheel, no way are Republicans going to let his candidates be listed first—which is where candidates in low-profile elections want to be.
Senate Bill 656: Electoral Freedom Act of 2017
Sponsor: Andrew Brock (R-Davie, Iredell, Rowan)
Status: Passed the Senate on April 26, 49-0
What It Does: Changes the number of signatures required to form a new political party
Why It Matters: For once, this feels like a win for all of us. Want to start a new political party? Want to make it easier to get an independent on the ballot in North Carolina, a state that has traditionally been unkind to third parties? This bill would get that done.
House Bill 527: Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech
Sponsors: Chris Millis (R-Onslow, Pender), Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga)
Status: Passed the House on April 26, 88-32
What It Does: Requires UNC schools to punish protesters who disrupt public events or interfere with somebody else exercising free speech.
Why It Matters: This bill is, ironically, an attempt to limit free expression on campuses by arguing on behalf of "free speech." Coming in response to protests against the UNC Board of Governors, the bill would require all public universities to punish anyone who "interferes with the protected free expression rights of others"—meaning protesters or hecklers. Under the law, the board of governors would have the discretion to determine what exactly is "disruptive" and the schools would be required to teach freshman about free speech policies during orientation.
Senate Bill 145: Government Immigration Compliance
Sponsors: Norman Sanderson (R-Carteret, Craven, Pamlico)
Status: Passed the Senate on April 26, 34-14
What It Does: Prohibits UNC universities from becoming "sanctuaries" for undocumented immigrants and strips funding from local governments that identify as sanctuary cities.
Why It Matters: Following in the footsteps of President Trump, the state Senate seeks to withhold funding from local governments that defy state immigration policies, especially the ban on sanctuary cities. Listing the punitive measures as "incentives to comply," the bill denounces any identification document that has not been authorized by the General Assembly. Local governments are not allowed to accept any such document as proof of identity or residency. If they do, the General Assembly and attorney general would then be able to leverage funding to force local governments to comply. (This could include taxes from natural gases and scrap tire disposal, beer and wine taxes, telecommunication taxes, and city street funding.) According to The News & Observer, Wake County could potentially lose $3.9 million if it violated the 2015 ban on sanctuary cities. Here's the kicker: any person can submit a complaint to the attorney general about their local government violating these laws.
Senate Bill 531: School Boards Can't Sue Counties
Sponsors: Tommy Tucker (R-Union), Bill Rabon (R-Bladen, Brunswick, New Hanover, Pender)
Status: Passed the Senate on April 26, 37–11
What It Does: Repeals the statutory authority for a local board of education to sue county commissioners for insufficient funding.
Why It Matters: Under North Carolina law, local school boards have no taxing authority; instead they get their money from county commissions. Right now, if school boards feel the counties are overly stingy, they can take them to court. That's happened four times since 2009, according to WRAL. But if SB 531 passes, it won't happen again. Under this bill, if a local school board determines it cannot function on the amount of money allocated by county commissioners, the board will simply be out of luck.
Senate Bill 434: Amend Environmental Laws
Sponsors: Norman Sanderson (R-Carteret, Craven, Pamlico), Bill Cook (R-Beaufort, Hyde, Gates, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Pasquotank, Perquimans)
Status: Passed the Senate on April 24, 31-17
What It Does: Among other things, it repeals the ban of plastic bags in the Outer Banks.
Why It Matters: In 2009, in an effort to fight littering that could be hazardous to wildlife, the Outer Banks passed a ban on plastic bags. SB 434 seeks to repeal it. Instead of a ban, this bill's proponents contend that a voluntary recycling program will reduce plastic bag pollution just as effectively. Many local businesses in OBX have opposed the bill, saying it would hurt tourism and marine life.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Crossover!."