RALEIGH — As a legislative clerk read 170 new bills to a near-empty chamber Thursday, the House deadline for filing most legislation, Rep. Jeff Collins kept his seat. Too much work to do, he said. Too little time.
“It seems much more hectic to me this time,” the two-term Republican from Rocky Mount said.
The N.C. General Assembly started fast and furious in January as Republicans, bolstered by big majorities and equal ambition, pushed major agenda items into law, such as changes to the state’s unemployment system and limits on the federal health care law.
Now at the halfway mark, momentum has slowed.
Of the 1,660 bills filed since the session’s start, only 33 have passed both chambers. And the biggest promises – overhauling the tax system, cutting government regulations, restraining spending, requiring voter ID at the polls and expanding school choice – have yet to progress.
Republicans talked about introducing a voter ID measure in the first week. But facing significant pressure, lawmakers are still crafting the bill’s language as the session enters week 12. Likewise, cutting income taxes was a top priority, but the effort is proving more difficult than expected.
Other efforts that are designed to help create jobs – such as energy bills and legislation to streamline regulation of businesses – are also moving slowly.
Local issues such as the Dorothea Dix property lease and statewide matters including design standards for homes, charter school bills and efforts to weaken gun laws diverted lawmakers for weeks. Education proposals were introduced in both chambers, but peripheral issues caused a distraction, including bills to allow a state-sanctioned religion and to add the word “nipple” to the state’s indecent exposure law.
“They are dealing with so much,” said David McLennan, a William Peace University political science professor who watches the legislature closely. “So that’s why I think some the big-ticket items haven’t been introduced or filed yet – because they are taking on everything.”
Republican Rep. Jason Saine acknowledged that the headline-grabbing legislation is hurting the GOP agenda and its reputation. He said his constituents are giving him an earful back home in Lincolnton on the weekends.
“You have a lot of competing ideas ... when you have whopping majorities,” he said. “One thing about the quick pace is a lot of things get filed that haven’t been sorted out.”
House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, a Hickory Republican, said the session is moving as expected.
“I think the General Assembly has been on a pretty slow and deliberate pace,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything too terribly controversial yet.”
‘Busy, loud and messy’
Outside the changes to unemployment benefits and rejecting Medicaid expansion, most of the approved legislation represents small tweaks to existing laws or consensus items. Among them: a “good Samaritan law” to prohibit prosecution for those seeking medical help for drug overdose victims; a measure to toughen penalties and access for protesters at military funerals; an act to allow surety bonds instead of liens for aircraft storage; and a bill to designate high school diplomas as job- or career-ready.
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville said it’s difficult to judge the session with taxes and the state budget still to come. But, he said, “I can tell you on the warm-up bills we’ve been pretty draconian.”
Nesbitt referenced the broader themes that have emerged this session, such as pushing back against the federal government, upending longstanding government institutions, intervening in local matters and imposing a solid conservative viewpoint.
With so much left on the table, it’s setting up a chaotic sprint to the finish, which is expected in June.
“The next half of legislative term will be busy, loud and messy,” McLennan predicted.
How the House and Senate work together could determine how messy it gets. Some push and pull between the chambers is normal, but lawmakers say they are noticing more tension this session.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, the No. 2 Senate Republican, loudly voiced his displeasure at the House for changing his bill to replace all state board and commission members, and House members are complaining that the Senate is ignoring their bills.
How the relationship progresses will help define the session, said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political expert.
“Last session they had a common enemy with Gov. (Bev) Perdue,” he said. “Now, the question is how well they will play with each other without a common enemy. Both are trying to establish their pre-eminence over one another.”
GOP leaders downplay the talk of tension and whether it will affect the agenda in the final weeks.
More hearings on taxes and voter ID are expected in the next two weeks. And the Senate will unveil its budget in early May.
From his chair on the House floor, Collins said it’s a waiting game.
“I don’t think we’ll know whether we are successful until we are done, which is a little disconcerting,” he said. “But it takes time.”