North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

April 21, 2023

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The North Carolina General Assembly resumed its session this week after a legislative spring break last week. Legislators hit the ground running with back-to-back committee meetings in both chambers, hearing dozens of bills. Since the House passed their state budget bill two weeks ago, the Senate will now go through their budget process, before sending the budget to a conference committee with the House. And with the crossover deadline approaching on May 4th, lawmakers are expected to continue their busy schedule throughout the coming weeks. As the deadline approaches, lawmakers will be moving steadily to get their bills passed through at least one chamber.

Transgender Athletes

The North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation this week that would prevent transgender female athletes from participating in girls’ sports teams in middle school, high school, and college. House Bill 574: The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act was filed by Representative Jennifer Balkom (R-Henderson) several weeks ago, and passed this week by a 73-39 vote in the House. Three Democrats joined all Republicans to support the bill. A Senate companion of the bill, Senate Bill 631, also passed this week, along party lines. These bills are among several introduced this month that would impact transgender people, including restrictions on gender-affirming medical procedures for trans youth and criminal penalties for public performances by some “male or female impersonators.”

The legislation would prohibit male students from playing on middle or high school teams designated for females and require athletic participation to be recognized solely based on reproductive biology and genetics at birth. Female students would be allowed to play on male sports teams only if there is no comparable female team in the same sport at the school.

Supporters of the bill argue that it ensures fairness in sports and protects women’s sports from being dominated by transgender athletes. Republican lawmakers invited twelve-time All-American swimmer, Riley Gaines, who was defeated in a match by a transgender swimmer, to speak in favor of the bill at three committee meetings.

Opponents of the legislation, including Democrats and LGBTQ lawmakers, argue that it discriminates against transgender athletes and encourages discrimination and stereotypes against them. Representative Vernetta Alston, who is gay and one of the few LGBTQ lawmakers in the General Assembly, called the bill “part of what I think is a larger effort to ban transgender people from living their lives openly.”

Similar legislation has been introduced in 20 other states, with proponents arguing that allowing transgender female athletes to compete against cisgender females is unfair due to physiological differences in strength and athletic ability. However, critics argue that such legislation is discriminatory and violates the rights of transgender individuals. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court refused to reinstate a West Virginia law that would have banned transgender athletes from participating in athletics.

Annual Farm Act

This week the North Carolina Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee advanced Senate Bill 582: North Carolina Farm Act of 2023, with bipartisan support. This bill is an omnibus package of various policies that affect a wide range of agricultural industries, including hog farms, forest fires, muscadine grape juice, and more.

Most of the bill’s 20 sections are noncontroversial. However, two sections drew concerns from environmentalists. The Southern Environmental Law Center distributed a fact sheet to Senators in the committee expressing worry about a section that loosens restrictions on how hog farms use digestors to release gases captured from waste lagoons. This section allows hog farms to vent more methane gas from waste pits. The group said in the fact sheet, “With this change, venting and flaring – and harming the climate – is explicitly allowed.” Some state lawmakers changed regulations in recent years to make it easier for farmers to capture that gas and feed it to utility companies that burn it to produce electricity.

The NC Pork Council says the changes are needed to allow temporary flaring at times and to let farmers plan for the future, installing equipment it takes to collect and sell methane before the pipes that are needed to transport the gas reach their farm.

Additionally, some Democrats raised concerns during the committee about a section that would tie North Carolina’s wetland protections with federal rules. According to Senator Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), a farmer and the bill’s sponsor, the section would align North Carolina’s wetland rules with whatever emerges from a series of federal lawsuits where the “federal waters of the United States” rules are being challenged.

Senator Lisa Grafstein (D-Wake) said she was “cautious to support rules we don’t know the consequences of.” A representative from the Southern Environmental Law Center told committee members that state regulations “fill in a gap” while federal jurisdiction over wetlands is in flux.

Other parts of the Farm Act are less controversial, including prohibiting unmanned aircraft, like drones, from being used near a forest fire, and boosting penalties for operators who spill animal waste along state roadways and leave the scene.

The bill now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further discussion and a vote.

Community College Governance

North Carolina’s community college system could see a significant shift in governance if Senate Bill 692: Community College Governance is enacted into law. The bill would give the Republican-controlled General Assembly powers that currently belong to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. These powers include appointing the community college leader, appointing members to each campus board, and making appointments to the State Board of Community Colleges. Currently, the responsibility of naming the Community College System President lies with the State Board. This bill proposes that the General Assembly take on that responsibility.

Not only would the General Assembly gain more power, but the community college system president would also have increased budget authority and be able to give reports to the General Assembly without the Board’s approval. Additionally, the president would be authorized to give their formal recommendation to approve or deny the Local Board’s choice to the State Board of Community Colleges.

The bill’s sponsor Senator Tom McInnis (R-Moore) said it “is imperative that local officials play a role in determining the future of their community college. By having the county commissioners and the General Assembly members appoint the boards, we will be able to have boards that best represent the needs of our residents, students, and employers.”

The bill passed the Senate Higher Education Committee this week with objections from some Democrats. It now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

School Discipline

A bill that requires governing bodies of public school units to use best practices when developing and enforcing discipline policies and to avoid discriminating against students on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability passed the North Carolina House this week. House Bill 188: Standards of Student Conduct would encourage school officials to use in-school suspension instead of other punishments that would remove the student from the school building. The language in the statute that provides examples of conduct that would not be deemed serious violations of the Code of Student Conduct would also be removed.

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) expressed concerns that the bill could lead to increased suspension rates among Black students, who are already suspended at higher rates than white students. “Even though the language says use best practices and do not discriminate, it does affect our African American and children of color two to three times the rate of our white kids,” she said.

However, Rep. Ken Fontenot, a Wilson County Republican who is Black, argued that Democrats are underestimating Black students’ ability to meet the same standards as white students. “My parents, who grew up in a time when they could be found hanging from a tree, taught me that nothing can stop me from succeeding,” he said.

The bill’s passage comes as school crimes are on the rise in North Carolina. A report published last month by the State Department of Public Instruction shows short-term suspensions up 7% and long-term suspensions up 18% from the 2018-19 school year.

The bill passed 71-42, with three Democrats joining Republicans. It now goes to the Senate, who did not hear a similar bill in 2021, but may this year due to Republicans possessing a supermajority in both chambers.

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, April 24

3:00PM: House Session
4:00PM: Senate Session

Tuesday, April 25

9:00AM: House Finance
10:00AM: House Local Government
10:00AM: House Health
11:00AM: House Pensions and Retirement
1:00PM: Senate Commerce and Insurance
1:00PM House Environment
1:00PM: House Education K-12
2:00PM: Senate Finance
3:00PM: House Judiciary 3

Wednesday, April 26

10:00AM: House Judiciary 2
10:00AM: House Marine Resources and Aquaculture

Thursday, April 27

10:00AM: House State Personnel
11:00AM: House Education – Community Colleges