RALEIGH — Scrambling to hurdle a key deadline, state lawmakers approved roughly 180 bills this week, spending seconds on some and hours on others, often in marathon sessions that left them confused and bleary-eyed.
The House gave final approval Thursday to measures that rejected the use of Islamic Sharia law in North Carolina and prohibited coverage for abortions in the new state health insurance exchange, both marked by a heated debate. The Senate, by contrast, spent 14 minutes in session, declining to consider legislation to repeal local bans on smoking in public parks and beaches and study the expansion of midwifery that leaves the measures essentially dead.
But the chaos of the so-called crossover week in which most legislation must pass one chamber to remain alive for the two-year session became eclipsed later in the day as attention turned to the two most significant debates still looming over the final weeks of lawmaking.
The Senate announced it would release its state budget plan online Sunday with formal committee meetings and full votes expected next week. Senate leader Phil Berger said the plan would spend about $20.4 billion, less than Gov. Pat McCrorys $20.6 billion proposal.
The budget is expected to reflect the Senates desire to cut annual spending as part of a tax overhaul, even though the House revealed its own tax plan Thursday that is much more modest in scope than what the Senate has outlined.
The major issues outstanding are likely to make the final push reflect the intensity from earlier this week. The self-imposed crossover deadline created a burst of activity that stuffed legislative meeting rooms and filled hallways with lobbyists, activists and others eager to get a bill to the floor or keep it buried in committee.
A House bill to prevent employers or colleges from tapping into the private social media accounts of its applicants passed 111-1 at 10:09 p.m. Wednesday, with just four minutes of debate from weary lawmakers. But in the daylight the next morning, it consumed a half-hour and led to a split 76-36 vote. And later, a parliamentary move ground all action to an extended halt before being resolved.
Earlier in the week, most Democrats preliminarily voted for a bill to curtail civil service protections for state employees, even though they opposed the bill and fought it a day later on final reading. We were so damn tired no one realized it, said Democratic Rep. Paul Luebke, a veteran Durham lawmaker.
This years crossover is more tame than years past, lobbyists and lawmakers said, because the House limited the number of bills each member could sponsor to 10. But its still messy, veterans said, and the adage about lawmaking and sausage-making is frequently mentioned this time of year. I dont have time to get into the technicalities of the bill, Rep. Jeff Collins of Rocky Mount said at one point Wednesday, asking for his colleagues support.
Eight-term veteran Rep. John Blust acknowledged that crossover is sloppy. It does create a situation when I dont think we are giving enough scrutiny to them, the Greensboro Republican said.
Through his eyes
For freshman Rep. Jim Fulghum, a Raleigh Republican, the week seemed overwhelming at times. Bills flashed across his computer too fast to read before a vote. And a Styrofoam coffee cup became an appendage. Im surprised there is order in the chaos, he said.
As a physician and former neurosurgeon, Fulghum was keenly interested in health legislation. As the deadline neared Wednesday, he tracked a bill to require health insurance companies to cover autism.
You going to be with us or not? asked lobbyist John Cooper, as Fulghum left the House floor at an intermission. Cooper was lobbying for Autism Speaks. Fulghum demurred. He didnt mention his amendments planned for the floor debate. Dont hurt me too bad, Cooper added.
Fulghum walked barely 20 paces before being stopped by a lobbyist for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, an insurance company that opposed the bill. Just say no, the lobbyist told Fulghum as he continued to another meeting with his now-empty coffee cup in one hand and a briefcase stuffed with papers in the other.
There are a lot of moving parts, and everybody is trying to get last things added here and there, he said.
In the halls, lobbyists and lawmakers call him Doc.
Oh, I hate that, he said, climbing the stairs to a Republican caucus meeting. I guess its a term of endearment, but I just never liked that.
Before the meeting starts, he excuses himself to take a call on his cellphone from Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. The sheriff wanted Fulghum to vote against giving rank-and-file deputies and other local law enforcement officers whistle-blower protections. Fulghum didnt even know the bill was on the calendar.
A late night, early morning
The House resumed just after 7 p.m., but Fulghum was absent. Fulghum, a diabetic after a kidney transplant years ago, had returned to his legislative office in the satellite building to check his blood sugar. He didnt feel so good. Emily Roberson, his daughter and legislative assistant, offered him a sandwich from the mini-fridge.
Fulghum returned to the floor in time for the autism bill. He introduced an amendment to require certified treatment providers, which a bill supporter argued would gut the bill. His amendment failed. Fulghum voted for the bill anyway, though he wished it covered more children with autism.
The action moved more quickly throughout the night, and decorum deteriorated. The House speaker waived rule 12(h) requiring a tie on the floor at 8:45 p.m. Lawmakers passed around Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Fulghum refilled his cup with tea.
Three hours later when the members adjourned, after approving more than 40 bills in a roughly 10-hour session, Fulghum said he felt relieved. He acknowledged he didnt get a chance to read every measure completely before the votes but relied on others to point him in the right direction.
He turned to Blust, the veteran, to get his take. Theres no way you can read them all, Blust consoled him.
The next morning, Fulghum was back at the statehouse for an 8:30 a.m. committee meeting.
In his legislative office, he studied the Thursday calendar with his daughter and then returned to the House floor.
By the end, Fulghum said he felt as invigorated as tired. I dont think it blew by too fast, Fulghum concluded.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner and researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.