State heaves to the right in massive push

Staff WriterJune 10, 2011 

  • State lawmakers capped their long "crossover" week with a flurry of activity on Thursday. Some highlights of other action:

    The Senate adopted compromise medical malpractice legislation that limits the amount of money that juries can award for the most severe injuries. The compromise, worked out in a conference committee of legislators from both chambers, also retains the limited protection for emergency room doctors that the House version provided. It passed the Senate on a vote of 32-9 and then won House approval 62-44. The bill now goes to Gov. Bev Perdue.

    A bill to overhaul the state's system for compensating workers injured on the job was unanimously passed by the Senate today and now moves to Perdue's desk. Among other sweeping change, the bill limits disability benefits for most workers at 500 weeks, a little more than 9-1/2 years, instead of the "lifetime" benefits currently available.

    North Carolina's future political redistrictings would be done by non-partisan staffers, not partisan lawmakers, under a bill passed by the state House. The law would take effect in 2020, the next time North Carolina redraws voting districts.

    Lawmakers sent to Perdue a bill that would take away the ability of the N.C. Association of Educators to automatically collect hundreds of thousands of dollars through a direct deduction from teachers' paychecks.

The legislature continued its historic shift in steering the state to the right during marathon law-making sessions this week, with bills that would change voting, reduce abortions and liberalize gun laws clearing important hurdles.

The legislature on Thursday night conquered "crossover," a self-imposed deadline for many bills to be passed by either the House or Senate in order to be alive through the 2012 session.

This week the House, with its Republican majority, has approved a measure requiring voters show photo identification at the polls and another that requires 24-hour waiting periods and ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. The Senate voted along party lines to eliminate straight-ticket voting. Legislators passed bills protecting property owners who fire at intruders, reducing penalties for firearm possession on school grounds, and allowing concealed-carry permit holders to have their guns at parks.

The GOP-controlled legislature has put its stamp on state policies since the legislative session started in January, but the volume of bills accentuated the change in direction from a legislature run by Democrats for most of the past century.

"It seems like every other bill on the calendar is a seismic shift in public policy," said Connie Wilson, a lobbyist and former Republican House member from Charlotte.

'Pro-family' applause

Last week, Republican Rep. Mark Hilton of Catawba County complimented the chamber's leadership on "one of the most conservative, pro-family legislative years I've ever seen."

House Speaker Thom Tillis on Thursday characterized the session as "business friendly." The legislature approved medical malpractice lawsuit changes that limit the noneconomic damages for patients, changed workers' compensation laws, cut taxes for businesses, and made other changes business groups backed.

"I think, of course, when you've been under a fairly liberal leadership for quite some time, anything we do will appear to be conservative, even if it is really centrist or right of center, just because of the reference point," the Mecklenburg Republican said.

The House and Senate hunkered down this week for hours of long meetings and floor debates on measures that would bring fundamental changes to the state. Crossover was supercharged this year, with the date pushed from the middle of the legislative session to near the end.

So it was crossover and a bit of end-of-session frenzy rolled into one.

Committee meetings started as early as 8 a.m. with some voting sessions running close to midnight. Some of the bills, such as the voter ID provision, were hotly argued. Others, including the change in workers' compensation , passed with bipartisan kudos.

Not every issue was held until the deadline. The House approved an attempt to rein in the "pay to play" practice of awarding government contracts in exchange for campaign contributions last month, for example.

A quick start to the session helped space out the work but didn't prevent the crossover crush.

Setting a do-or-die date is the only way to manage the hundreds of bills filed each year, said Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican.

"If we expect to get out of here," he said, "we've got to have a deadline."

But Damon Circosta, executive director at the N.C. Center for Voter Education, said the changes to voter laws approved in the waning days didn't allow for full consideration.

A call for reform

"It's a bad way to make legislation," he said. Lawmakers could avoid cramming bills into a few days, Circosta said, by staggering deadlines for the different chambers or committees.

"It's a system that needs reforming," he said.

The legislature still has ways to pass bills they want, even if they don't meet the deadline. One of the most common is to take all the language out of a bill that has been approved in one chamber and insert new language. Often, the new language has nothing to do with the original bill.

The other strategy is to add a fee to a policy change and send it through a Finance Committee. Bills that have anything to do with money don't have to meet the crossover deadline.

Though the legislature has reshaped the state with new laws, some of its most contentious work remains for later this year.

Legislative leaders are talking about adjourning the main session next week, then coming back in mid-July for a special session to vote on redrawn legislative and congressional election maps. They're considering a second special session after redistricting to deal with some of the many proposed constitutional amendments legislators have suggested that deal with everything from same-sex marriage to state spending limits.

Not explicitly written into the schedule are override attempts of any bills Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue may veto. Perdue has a $19.7 billion budget legislators wrote that she does not like. She has until early next week to veto the budget, if she's going to do it.

Tillis said he wasn't worried that any Perdue vetoes would force the legislature to come back for override votes.

"We're not going to let the governor set our agenda," Tillis said, and he did not expect her to try.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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