January 9th was the first day of the 2019-2020 legislative session. As lawmakers gather in Raleigh, what can we expect from the General Assembly this year?
The Rules of the Game
North Carolina operates under a biennial budget. That means that lawmakers construct a two-year budget in odd-numbered years and – theoretically – make only small adjustments in even-numbered years. The legislature operates under different schedules for the two years of each biennium:
- During odd-numbered years, the legislature has “long session.” It begins in January and lawmakers hope to conclude their work by June 30th, when the fiscal year ends. If you look at history however, sessions usually conclude in early July or later.
- During even-numbered years, the legislature has “short session.” It begins in mid-May and aims to conclude in early July.
Since 2019 is the first year of the new biennium, there will be long session with a full budget process this year.
The 2018 elections had a big impact on the political dynamics of this year’s legislature. Since 2013, Republicans have enjoyed veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate. The ability of Republican legislators to override vetoes has significantly diminished the role of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in the policy process.
After the 2018 elections, Republicans still maintain majorities in both chambers, but no longer have supermajority margins in either the House or the Senate. Republicans will either have to work with Cooper to craft legislation that he will not veto, work with Democratic lawmakers so that they will help them override potential vetoes, or accept that they can pass bills but may see few of them enacted due to the governor’s veto.
Cooper has proven that he will freely use his veto – he has vetoed 28 bills in his first two years as governor. Now that Republicans will find it more difficult to override the governor’s vetoes, Cooper may have a greater impact on policy in the state. It will be interesting to see if this reality impacts how the governor will use his veto pen.
For example, Cooper recently vetoed the voter ID legislation. Fifty-five percent of North Carolinians voted for the voter ID constitutional amendment. Ignoring the will of the people, Cooper was able to claim a win with his far-left base through the veto. Since the veto was overridden, though, voters may be less aware of Cooper’s opposition to that popular policy. Up to this point, Cooper has essentially had his cake and ate it too – he has been able to appease his progressive supporters while paying little political price with the average North Carolinian. That privilege will no longer be afforded to him under the 2019 partisan dynamics, creating an intriguing situation to watch going into Cooper’s 2020 reelection bid.
Policy Issues to Watch
Here are some issues that are likely to take high-priority for lawmakers in this legislative session:
- The Budget. As mentioned, lawmakers will be writing the state budget for the next two years. The budget adjustments from 2018 led to that year having uncharacteristically-high spending increases compared to the previous several years. Hopefully, fiscal conservatives will emerge from each political party to rein in spending for the next two years. There is significant risk to this, however, due to the temptation of “compromise” through trading funding for pet projects at taxpayers’ expense. One way to address these challenges is to develop a bipartisan commitment to fiscal responsibility. Lawmakers could start the session by enacting parameters on unnecessary spending.
- Election Integrity Issues. The situation in the Ninth Congressional District has catapulted election integrity to the forefront of the policy agenda. Specifically, lawmakers will probably turn their attention to securing the state’s absentee voting mechanism. North Carolina citizens clearly support shoring up election integrity, and lawmakers need to take action to prevent future election tampering.
- Economic Development Enhancement. Despite being named best for business by Forbes for the second year in a row, North Carolina was recently passed over for major expansions of Apple and Amazon. Lawmakers of all political persuasions have demonstrated a willingness to give away taxpayer money to high-profile businesses. However, the Apple and Amazon expansions sparked national pushback on state lawmakers across the country for their participation in crony capitalism deals. North Carolina and other states need to turn the page and start looking for other ways to be more competitive in attracting new business, ways that benefit all businesses and individuals and not just some. One good start for North Carolina? Eliminating the corporate income tax.
- Obamacare-authorized Medicaid Expansion. Cooper has publicly acknowledged his desire to see the state expand Medicaid this year. Medicaid is a federal and state program to provide health insurance to needy populations; Medicaid expansion would cover anyone up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, regardless of disability or parental status. Authorized in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Medicaid expansion is a state decision that would likely harm the truly needy in North Carolina by limiting their access to care. Medicaid expansion would also obligate the state to more spending, forcing cuts in other areas or – more likely – future tax increases.
But Wait, There’s More.
In addition to the discussed policy priorities, legislators also have the threat of some court-mandated issues that they will have to take up in 2019:
- Redistricting – again. In August, a federal court ruled that the state’s congressional maps would need to be redrawn. The court later decided that the maps did not have to be redrawn for the 2018 election, since the primaries had already been held in the established districts. However, the issue is almost certain to be raised again this session.
- Voter ID – again. Within minutes of the legislature overriding Cooper’s Voter ID veto, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a court case against the new law. Depending on the outcome of that case, legislators may have to revisit the voter ID guidelines in 2019.
- State Ethics and(or) Election board(s) – again. In 2016, the General Assembly combined the state’s ethics and elections boards, making structural changes and taking some appointment power away from the Governor. Last fall, a state court ruled the new board unconstitutional. After several extensions, the court finally dissolved the board in December. The General Assembly passed a new board structure in December, when the legislature overrode Coopers veto of the plan. The new board will reconstitute in late January. If it goes back to court, the issue will likely resurface this session.
These court cases all have something in common: they are recurring issues and all deal with elections. Under a strategy known as “Sue Till Blue,” the Left in North Carolina has habitually used the courts to overturn commonsense election reforms. Such antics raise serious questions about why the Left is so afraid of fair elections, but that is a topic for another time.
Emboldened by more favorable election results, progressives in government and the left- leaning media are likely to challenge conservative leadership in state government. Conservatives will be urged to compromise on their values for the sake of “getting along” across party lines. They should hold firm.
Fiscal responsibility and a commitment to individual freedom should be the cornerstone for all policy decisions, regardless of political affiliation. Those principles should be the starting place for lawmakers looking for bipartisan common ground during this legislative session.