The General Assembly has reached the symbolic halfway point of the 2019 session with last week’s deadline for bills being approved by one chamber and crossing over to the other.
However, the bulk of the legislative work remains to be done, including a 2019-20 state budget agreement and action on several controversial House and Senate bills.
“The most important point to remember about the General Assembly’s self-imposed crossover deadline is that it really exists to kill off ideas that are unlikely to win support from both legislative leadership and a majority of the members of either the House or the Senate,” said Mitch Kokai, policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.
“Otherwise, ideas that have no chance of passing might still crop up in conversation for the next year and a half.
“Whoever runs the General Assembly, the rules tend to work to block ideas that are limited to the minority party or to isolated backbenchers in the majority party,” Kokai said.
John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University who is an expert of state legislatures, said “in short, much of the work of this session is just getting started.”
The length of the session’s second half could come down to whether Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Senate Democrats are willing to bog down the budget process for the sake of inserting some form of Medicaid expansion.
If that is the case, expectations for wrapping up the session around the Fourth of July holiday could go out the window.
Regular and extra sessions extended the 2017 legislative calendar from January 2017 into February 2018, and the 2018 regular and extra sessions from mid-May to Dec. 27.
Sessions from 2001 to 2016 ended in a range from June 18 (in 2011) to Sept. 30 (in 2015).
Extra sessions in 2017 and 2018 were spurred in part from the butting of heads between Cooper and Republicans that held super-majorities in both chambers. For example, extra sessions were called to allow for Republicans to override Cooper vetoes.
The marathon pace of the last two sessions spurred a bipartisan Senate bill that would set firm limits on how long future sessions could last.
According to Senate Bill 169, the odd-year regular sessions could run no more than 135 calendar days, while the even-year regular sessions could go no more than 60 calendar days.
In both instances, the session could be extended one time for no more than 10 calendar days upon joint resolution.
SB169, as might be expected, has not been heard in committee.
The possibility of expanding Medicaid to between 450,000 and 650,000 North Carolinians has become perhaps the most contentious legislative issue.
The program serves 2.14 million North Carolinians, representing about 21% of the state population. About 1.6 million will be enrolled in managed care under a federal waiver.
Heavyweight politicians on both sides — foremost Cooper and Republican Senate leader Phil Berger — have issued statements that point at, and talk past, their opposition.
Consequently, none of the Democratic and Republican bills containing Medicaid language have advanced in the committee stage.
That includes bipartisan support behind House Bill 655, sponsored by Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, which includes a work requirement for some recipients.
The proposed legislation retains two controversial elements: a work requirement for some Medicaid recipients between ages 19 and 64; and an assessment for health care systems and prepaid health plans (PHP) to pay for the state’s 10% share of additional administrative costs. Health-care systems and PHPs operating in the state would pay $758 million annually.
The federal government would pick up the remaining 90%, although Berger and other key GOP Senate leaders have tried to cast doubt on the sustainability of those federal funds.
Cooper can veto any public bill if he has unanimous Democratic support in the Senate and loses no more than six Democratic votes in the House.
Cooper’s budget plan recommends expanding Medicaid “to bring $4 billion into North Carolina’s economy, create an estimated 40,000 jobs and provide more affordable health care for 500,000 people,” according to a statement from his office.
“Closing the health care coverage gap would be a boost for rural communities,” Cooper said in a recent appeal to rural legislators concerned about their community hospital’s financial status.
The N.C. Healthcare Association said it supports HB655 “as a common-sense option” to close the coverage gap and increase affordable access to health insurance for working individuals and families in North Carolina.”
About 70 noteworthy bills were introduced by Forsyth and other legislators in the Triad and Northwest N.C. between when the session opened in late January and early May.
Of them, just one cleared both chambers and has been signed into law by Cooper.
It was Senate Bill 162, a bipartisan attempt to allow origination and late fees on bank loans to increase for the first time in 28 years.
Another bill that cleared both chambers, Senate Bill 359, addresses a doctor’s responsibilities if a later-term abortion results in an infant born alive. It was vetoed by Cooper.
The Senate overrode Cooper’s veto with the help of one Democratic senator, but the House has not attempted an override even though the bill appeared on its floor agenda several times last week.
There were at least 17 that made it through the crossing deadline into the other chamber.
Among the most noteworthy are:
- House Bill 144
- , which would ban use of hand-held cellphones and other wireless devices while driving.Senate Bill 9, which would ban female genital mutilation.House Bill 79, which would allow for public schools and community colleges to open classes on the same day. It has been fiercely opposed by the state tourism sector.Senate Bill 86, which would loosen the requirements for associated health plans in N.C. in response to federal Labor Department changes made in June by the Trump administration.House Bill 184, which would halt state Treasurer Dale Folwell’s attempt to alter how medical providers are reimbursed by the State Health Plan and require a study of the plan’s financial sustainability.House Bill 120, which would not allow county commissioners to use fire-tax revenue “to fund a fire protection-related service or program that is furnished countywide.”
All of those 18 bills await action by the other chamber, some of which may have to wait until the state budget process is settled before being addressed, if at all.
Other bills, such as House 56 on arts education class requirement and House Bill 494, a $42.2 million appropriation for the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem, were inserted into the House state budget.
Did not advance
The majority of bills filed by Forsyth and regional legislators did not advance. They include:
- House Bill 24
- , which would have allowed local Board of Educations to opt out of allowing public school facilities to be used on election days.House Bill 46, which would address equal pay for women; accrual of paid sick leave; the federal family medical leave; raising the minimum wage for restaurant servers who receive tips; and reenacting elements of the state earned income tax credit.Senate Bill 58, which would make it legal to possess up to 3 ounces of marijuana for personal use.House Bill 399, which would extend historic rehabilitation tax credits.House Bill 575, which would require licensure for birthing centers.House Bill 576, which would allow Forsyth and few other counties to make reparation payments to eugenics victimsHouse Bill 725, which would expand funding for youth tobacco prevention initiativesSenate Bill 263, which would amend Winston-Salem regulations about use of law enforcement body cameras.
“Most of the bills that are considered dead after crossover (deadline) never got a single committee hearing,” according to the Insider publication.
Still, Kokai said legislative leaders and their allies have a number of ways to get their bills heard after the deadline.
“They can gut and amend a bill that has cleared a chamber,” Kokai said. They can add a tax or spending component to a bill that didn’t otherwise have fiscal implications.
“They also can add measures to larger bills, like the state budget or the year-end technical corrections measure,” Kokai said.
“As long as a majority of their colleagues are willing to go along with them, top legislators’ ideas never die.”