The 2018 North Carolina General Assembly short session saw heated debates over hog farms, almond milk, school segregation, voting rights, and the powers of a governor who handed down a record-breaking number of vetoes.
Lawmakers ended their session after less than seven weeks by putting six constitutional amendments on the fall ballot, the most in decades.
Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly that allowed them to pass legislation over Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
That included Cooper's veto of the 2018-19 state budget. The spending plan gives state employees at least a 2 percent raise and some will get more, including correctional officers in prisons at about 4 percent, the average teacher at 6.5 percent, principals at nearly 7 percent and Highway Patrol troopers at 8 percent. Cooper criticized the spending plan for not doing enough to fund public education and for an unusual process that didn't allow for amendments after the budget emerged from negotiations among top Republicans.
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Democrats are trying to flip enough seats this November to allow Cooper's vetoes to stand. The potential that they could succeed, in what looks like a favorable election year for Democrats, helped shape the legislative session.
Potential election losses were in the back of Republicans' minds during session as they moved quickly to get as much done as possible, said Andrew Taylor, a politics professor at N.C. State University.
“That may have been driving some of this fairly frenetic activity, the idea that the elections are coming up,” Taylor said. “They really want to try and keep these veto-proof majorities. They might not be able to, so they should get things done."
Jonathan Kappler of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation said because Republicans are concerned about losing their supermajority, they’re trying to push out the constitutional changes they’ve been discussing for a while.
"Some of them are policy issues that they have passed through the normal statutory process, legislative process, and then had trouble in the courts," Kappler said, "so by approaching these policy issues through constitutional amendments it makes it much harder for them to be altered or overturned in some way."
Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said the amendments are also meant to bring energy and mobilization to the Republican base.
“Registered Republicans have typically higher turnout levels than Democrats in midterm elections, but if there is a blue wave coming through, Republicans probably need some extra incentive to get their voters out,” Bitzer said.
In the past 20 years, there have been just seven constitutional amendments. This year, there will be six on a single ballot. The last time a legislature proposed this many amendments was in the 1980s, and then the number was split between the primary and general election.
The amendments would cap the state income tax at 7 percent, require photo ID to vote in person, expand crime victims' rights, add legal protections related to hunting and fishing, give lawmakers power to choose elections board members and other appointees and give them a major role in appointing judges to vacant seats.
Cooper has vetoed 23 bills since he took office in January 2017 — even though he knew many would probably be overturned.
Experts chalked up the high number of vetoes, overrides and amendments to political polarization.
“I think this is just the new normal in North Carolina politics and we are reflecting the polarization at the national level here at the state level,” Bitzer said.
Below is a breakdown of some of the noteworthy proposals that did and didn’t make it into law this session.
Farm Act: This law passed over Cooper's veto limits when and how neighbors of farms and forestry operations can file nuisance suits and creates tougher restrictions for neighbors wanting to sue. This is a response to a $50 million jury verdict — later reduced — against pork giant Smithfield, one of dozens of lawsuits working their way through the courts now over smells and other impacts brought on by hog farms.
The bill also brought debate on whether dairy-free milk substitutes should be labeled as milk. Makers of the plant based products such as soy, almond and coconut beverages now won't be able to label them as milk.
Opioids: The Heroin and Opioid Prevention Enforcement Act puts money toward addiction programs and allows greater police access to the state’s prescription database during investigations. Some patients and doctors worried the access is a violation of privacy; supporters including lawmakers and Attorney General Josh Stein said the bill would help combat the opioid epidemic.
Rape kit tracking: A rape kit tracking system was approved overwhelmingly after law enforcement reported having 15,160 untested rape kits. Stein has said testing one kit costs $700. Some lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to add more money for testing.
Gifted classes: Low-income students will now have better access to advanced math classes. Public schools will now be required to give students who earn the highest score on state math exams the opportunity to take advanced classes. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the bill passed as a response to a Charlotte Observer and News & Observer series, “Counted Out,” which revealed that thousands of bright, low-income kids were being excluded from advanced classes.
Charter schools: A bill that set off a flurry of debate allows four majority-white, suburban towns outside of Charlotte to create charter schools and give preference to the town’s residents. Lawmakers separately allowed cities to fund their local schools. Charter schools have already faced criticism over segregation, and critics said this proposal would create racially segregated schools. Supporters said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools isn't responsive to those towns.
Early voting: Republicans attempted to eliminate voting hours on the final Saturday before Election Day, but later restored those Saturday hours for the 2018 elections. African-Americans tend to disproportionately vote on the Saturday before elections.
GenX: A chemical being released into the Cape Fear River by the company Chemours, GenX has found its way into some North Carolinians’ drinking water. A bill aiming to address the pollution was added to the state budget; some environmentalists criticized it as inadequate.
Bills that didn't become law
In God We Trust: Under one bill, schools would have been required to display signs that say “In God We Trust,” the national motto, and the state motto, "To Be Rather Than to Seem" in Latin and English. The bill would have no effect on prayer or religious teachings in schools; it was inspired by similar bills in other Southern states. The bill passed the House but wasn't considered in the Senate.
Arming teachers: Some lawmakers wanted to let teachers who go through firearms training carry concealed handguns in schools. But bills to do that never came up for hearings or votes.
Movies in schools: This proposal would have required schools to report which movies were shown in classes during parts of the past school year. It upset teachers because many felt it insinuated they put films on in lieu of teaching rather than as educational resources. After facing heavy criticisms from teachers across the state the bill died in committee.
Universal health care: In a surprising twist, Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat, killed her own bill calling for the creation of a state-run health care system. The bill had been sitting in a committee for over a year before Republicans brought it up for consideration. The GOP highlighted the bill's huge cost and said it would hurt the state’s economy.