State lawmakers this week debated scores of bills from early morning to late night, stumbling through long workdays with the tired frenzy of recreational runners nearing the end of a marathon.
They are rushing to make a self-imposed deadline called “crossover” that means life or death for some of their proposals.
As the hours wear on, legislators employ various strategies for staying focused and maintaining their stamina. Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Charlotte Democrat, tried to prep like an athlete.
“I try to drink a lot of fluids, a lot of water,” she said. “Trying to eat more protein.”
Crossover is a marker that serves to divide bills that have a chance of becoming law this session from those that have little or no chance. The House has to clear most House-sponsored policy proposals from its chamber by the end of Thursday. Same for the Senate and its policy bills. Bills about money don’t have to meet the deadline.
The legislative whirlwind makes for multiple scheduling conflicts, lots of of power walking, hallway conversations and meals on the fly. At least on the House side. Some days that the House tore through bills, the Senate had comparatively short meetings and long breaks.
The House worked until almost 11 Tuesday night, after some legislatorswere in for 8:30 committee meetings that morning. By the time the House knocked off work, the Senate had been gone for hours.
The Senate picked up the pace Wednesday, taking on such contentious issues as allowing felony charges against students who assault teachers. They also took on some more obscure topics such as pole attachment disputes, the focus of Senate bill 88.
Still, the Senate was done by 5 p.m. after passing about 40 bills without much controversy. Senate leaders said they plan to handle 10 or 12 more bills Thursday but expect a short day. House Speaker Tim Moore was talking about the House working past midnight.
“On the Senate side, you didn’t see nearly as many bills introduced,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown said. “Most of the stuff you’re seeing now has been vetted in both caucuses, and most of the kinks have been worked out … and there’s very little opposition to most of them.”
Brown said the vastly different paces this week highlights the difference between the two chambers: “More members, more bills – that’s what you get on the House side.”
That’s not to say the Senate won’t have some late nights this year. Major budget and tax bills will come after the crossover deadline. “Of course, those are always the harder bills – incentives bills, tax bills, any of those types of bills,” Brown said. “After we get through this, we’ll have more time to deal with some of that.”
The House spent more than an hour Tuesday night debating a bill that failed, a change in law that would have prohibited school boards from suing boards of commissioners over money for education.
House members later bit into the divisive issue of Sunday hunting.
Patience wore thin as evening sessions dragged on. Time limits on floor speeches aren’t always enforced, but Democratic Rep. William Brisson’s lengthy oratory against Sunday hunting was cut off mid-sentence by Moore. “The gentleman’s time has expired,” the speaker said as he banged the gavel.
At one point Tuesday night, Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican, tweeted two photos of “Seinfeld” character George Costanza tucked under his desk in the episode “The Nap.”
“If I could!” Saine added as commentary.
He later tweeted a photo of the NBA playoff game he was streaming during the session to show how he was coping with a debate that was getting repetitive.
“You kinda have to learn to laugh at yourself,” he said Wednesday. “It does get intense. People are tired.”
He was scheduled one day this week to present three bills at different committees meeting at the same time.
“It is stressful,” he said. “You really rely on your staff to make sure you’re going to the right place, because there are so many moving parts and people pulling at you. There are citizens walking in the building who want to talk to you and different folks who are impacted by the bills who want to talk to you,” Saine said, all while the meeting schedule gets packed.
The House Judiciary III Committee had six bills on its agenda Wednesday – ranging from synthetic drugs to assaults on a National Guard member – but managed to wrap up within 30 minutes.
“We have met our crossover,” the committee co-chairwoman, Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy, said triumphantly as committee members rushed to the exits. “You can go to caucus, or Rules, or whatever you need to go to.”
The House Rules Committee met for two hours – Chairman David Lewis provided lunch – and still wasn’t finished with its agenda. Rules was one of several committees that scheduled meetings during breaks in the session.
Even the best of strategies doesn’t mean that late nights are a good time for weighty debates, said Cotham.
“It was very obvious after 9 you could hear in people’s voices and in their comments that everyone is just not as sharp as they normally are,” she said. “It’s just a dangerous time to make decisions and policies that affect so many when you’re not at 100 percent. It is exhausting.”
Legislative sessions have a certain rhythm.
The legislative pace speeds up again near the end of the session as legislators try to push their bills that survived crossover through the final laps that will make them laws. All the bills that “make crossover,” as the Jones Street jargon goes, have to win approval in the opposite chamber before they mean anything.
What’s a crossover deadline?
Both the Senate and the House agreed early in the session to set Thursday, April 30, as this year’s crossover deadline. That means that bills must pass either the House or Senate by Thursday to have a shot at becoming law.
The deadline doesn’t apply to budget or tax-related bills. And while hundreds of bills will be dead by Friday, the proposed laws inside them could resurface later in the session. That’s because there’s little to stop lawmakers from inserting unrelated provisions into another bill. That happened several years ago when abortion restrictions were added to a motorcycle safety bill.
Once the crossover deadline passes, the House will turn its attention to crafting the state budget. They’ve been awaiting revenue figures expected to be released in the first week of May. And while the Senate awaits its shot at the budget, Republicans expect to work on economic development incentives and proposed changes to sales and income taxes.