North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

May 5, 2023

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This week saw a flurry of activity at the North Carolina General Assembly, with lawmakers racing to meet the crossover deadline on Thursday and pass their bills. The busy legislative week was marked by long committee meetings, tense exchanges between members, and protestors even being ejected from the Senate chamber. In total, both chambers passed nearly 140 bills, with bipartisan support for a host of legislation, including comprehensive requests from state agencies. However, it was the controversial bills on abortion, guns, and transgender issues that dominated both media attention and hours of debate during deliberations.

Supreme Court Rulings

The North Carolina Supreme Court made headlines last week by overturning previous rulings on three significant issues: voter ID, felons voting, and redistricting. The decisions will have far-reaching implications for North Carolina’s political landscape, as they reverse previous rulings and establish new precedents, and alter how and which voters can cast their ballots.

The court reinstated a law that requires voters to present identification at the polls, which had been struck down by the court in 2019 when registered Democrats made up the majority of the justices. Republicans argue that voter ID laws will help prevent voter fraud, while Democrats in opposition argue that it will disproportionately affect low-income and minority voters who may struggle to obtain valid identification.

The court also overturned a ruling from the previous court that found the legislative and Congressional maps drawn by the General Assembly last year to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans. Last week’s ruling will allow the Republican-controlled legislature to redraw the state House and Senate districts, as well as the state’s congressional district lines. Following the now-overturned court ruling last year, the legislature drew a congressional district map that elected seven Democrats and seven Republicans, but it is highly anticipated that Republicans will redraw the maps this year to elect just a few Democrats.

In a statement, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper accused the court of “ignoring the constitution” and following the orders of the Republican-led legislature. Meanwhile, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore praised the court’s decisions, stating that they “have ensured that our constitution and the will of the people of North Carolina are honored.”

Abortion Law

On Tuesday evening, during a joint press conference, Republican legislative leaders announced a proposal to regulate abortions in North Carolina. The plan would prohibit abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, down from 20 weeks in current law. There would be some exceptions, including for the life of the mother, that would exceed the 12-week timeframe. The bill would expand the state’s informed consent statutes to require physicians to receive their patient’s signature on paperwork confirming they informed the patient of the risks of the procedure, the gestational age of the baby at the time the abortion is performed. If physicians violate the law, they would be subject to a $5,000 fine and disciplinary action from their governing medical board.

The new abortion restrictions are paired with family-related provisions that several Republican speakers characterized as resources to help women choose against abortion for an unplanned pregnancy. Those measures include 8 weeks of paid parental leave for teachers and state employees and $32 million for childcare facilities. During the press conference Tuesday, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) called the bill, “a comprehensive approach that is compassionate.”

The 46-page bill was included in a conference report of SB 20: Care for Women, Children, and Families Act, which was originally a bill that updated the state’s safe surrender law for parents who want to give up their baby. The process allowed both chambers to expeditiously pass the bill within 72 hours, without going through the typical legislative process of committee hearings. Democrats criticized the process used to pass the bill. Representative Robert Reives (D-Chatham), who leads the House Democratic caucus, said on the House floor that voting on “the most important thing we vote on this session” within a week was “unthinkable.” Senator Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell), one of the conferees appointed to help draft the conference report, responded to those criticisms, saying they “discount the work that I, and other women, put into this” during the months preceding the proposal being announced. 

As expected, the bill brought hundreds of protestors to the General Assembly and led to tense exchanges between members during deliberations. After the bill passed the Senate Thursday afternoon, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) cleared the public from the gallery when protestors erupted into chants of “abortion rights now” and “shame on you.” Debates over the bill in both chambers stretched several hours long. The Senate’s debate lasted nearly six hours, with each Democrat speaking for the maximum time allowed. Democrats in both chambers also repeatedly introduced rarely used procedural motions in an effort to draw out the process. 

Although there was speculation that some House Democrats would vote for the measure, the bill ultimately came down to a party line vote in each chamber. Before the bill passed, Democratic Governor Cooper issued a statement saying he would “veto this extreme ban.” After Representative Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) switched her affiliation from Democrat to Republican last month, Republicans now possess a supermajority in the General Assembly, capable of overriding the Governor’s veto, which they assuredly will attempt on Senate Bill 20 if they have the votes to do so. One Republican in each chamber was absent from the votes this week. In order for an override to be successful, every Republican in the General Assembly would have to be present and vote for the override. 

Regulatory Reforms

The North Carolina House of Representatives passed its annual regulatory reform bill this week. HB 600: Regulatory Reform Act of 2023 was approved by the House Committee on Regulatory Reform and then passed the House floor Wednesday evening. This year’s bill contains several provisions related to local government ordinances, in addition to changes affecting technology procurement, animal shelters, and amusement rides.

Much of the bill’s first few sections would modify the authority local governments have over stormwater controls and voluntary treatment of stormwater and change the requirements for development in vegetative buffers. The bill would limit the additional stormwater controls that could be required by a local government for the redevelopment of a preexisting development. Furthermore, the bill would eliminate the current state requirement that stormwater from an entire development would have to be collected and treated and replace it with a requirement that only stormwater from a built-upon area of a vegetative buffer be collected and treated.

Some Democrats who opposed the bill said the sections dealing with stormwater controls would undermine environmental protections. Republican sponsors of the bill countered that the bill would not substantially impact the environment but would lead to greater economic development due to developers being able to redevelop a preexisting structure, like a closed down shopping center. 

Additionally, the bill would:

  • Create a process for animal shelters to impound healthy, unowned cats, treat them, and return them to where they were trapped without a 72-hour hold requirement.
  • Modify the definition of “airport facilities” and require the Department of Public Safety to grant a permit for flood hazard areas.
  • Direct the Environmental Management Commission to reduce the daily flow requirement for new dwelling units.
  • Authorize associations to charge for water or sewer services.
  • Prohibit nutrient offset banks from selling credits to third parties.
  • Prohibit additional entrances to residential subdivisions not in compliance with Fire Code.
  • Prohibit local governments from imposing additional access requirements for schools.
  • Deem subdivision streets to meet minimum standards if the Department of Transportation fails to make a final determination.
  • Fund the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s procurement activities through administrative fees and charges to agencies.
  • Clarify that inflatable devices are not considered amusement devices subject to regulation.
  • Direct the Standards and Inspections Division to study existing requirements for electrical work during elevator installation.
  • Codify a minimum retention period for medical records.
  • Make submitting data to the HIE Network voluntary for dentists and allow chiropractors to submit data voluntarily.
  • Revise the homeschool cooperative exemption for the definition of “child care” to allow cooperative arrangements outside of a home location.

Although most Democrats voted in opposition, the bill passed the House with bipartisan support. It has been sent to the Senate ahead of the May 4 crossover deadline.

Surgical Permission

This week, the North Carolina House approved HB 808: Surgical Gender Trans./Minors to ban gender reassignment surgery for state residents under the age of 18. The bill does not ban the surgery for anyone 18 or older. There are a few exceptions to the rule that would allow for the reassignment surgery to happen if they have “external biological sex characteristics that are unresolvedly ambiguous.” 

One of the main supporters of the bill Rep. Hugh Blackwell, (R-Burke), said “if you are under the age of 18 in North Carolina, you cannot get a tattoo at all, even with your parents’ consent. You can’t get a body piercing, other than for earrings, without parent consent. But we allow these surgical procedures that, in many instances, maybe are irreversible and life-changing for children who have not arrived at 18 years of age.”

Those who oppose the bill are afraid of the ripple effect that this legislation would have on the mental health of transgender youth. “Despite what this bill says, it’s really just about bigotry and a national trend, frankly, to stigmatize the gender community,” said Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham).

The bill passed the House with a 74-44 vote. All House Republicans supported the bill, along with two Democrats. Now the bill goes to the Senate where a companion bill has already been filed by Republican members of the Senate leadership.