The 2017 session of the legislature kicks off this morning with House and Senate members gathering to establish rules and then picking-up where they left off in December. The repeal of House Bill 2, voting rights, the question of raising the age at which individuals can be prosecuted as adults in the criminal justice system, and a new budget are among some of the issues lawmakers will tackle in the coming months. NC Policy Watch reporters Joe Killian and Melissa Boughton offer this session preview. Check back this afternoon when Lisa Sorg has a rundown of the environmental issues facing the General Assembly.
Tensions over HB2 still high as session begins
By Joe Killian
With this week’s opening of the new General Assembly session, one issue continues to loom larger than any other, generating national and international headlines.
What is the future of House Bill 2?
The bill, which excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from statewide nondiscrimination protections, has been at the center of a political firestorm since Gov. Pat McCrory signed it into law last in March.
Its most controversial provision, a requirement that transgender people must use restrooms and locker rooms matching the sex on their birth certificates rather than their gender identity, helped to ignite a nationwide discussion about transgender rights and identity.
Boycotts over and business losses related to the law have cost the state more than $500 million, including losses of NCAA and ACC championship events.
With the legislature’s failure to repeal HB2 in a special session in December, many question whether the political will exists in Raleigh to repeal the law – or whether a compromise could be struck to stop the economic bleeding caused by the controversy.
Pressure is on from both the political right and left.
Groups like the N.C. Values Coalition are pressuring lawmakers not to repeal the law under any circumstances. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest stands with them, having characterized it not as a matter of politics but of right and wrong.
Groups like Equality North Carolina and the Human Rights Campaign are pushing for full and unequivocal repeal of the law, a position supported by new Gov. Roy Cooper.
N.C. Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), the powerful chair of the House Rules Committee, acknowledged there was a divide in the Republican caucus over repeal – but said had full repeal come to the floor, there would have been the votes for it in the House.
“I believe the votes were present on the floor,” Lewis said. “There was a divide – that’s fair to say – in the Republican caucus.”
“We’re not quite there yet,” Lewis said of repeal. “I hope we will consider it and get to that point, after some considerable conversation, when we come back in January.”
Former state Rep. Chris Sgro (D-Guilford) was one of just two out LGBT legislators in the General Assembly in the last session. He also serves as executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina.
He said Democratic lawmakers remain united for full repeal, which is long past due.
“This law has hurt LGBT North Carolinians every day since it was passed, especially transgender North Carolinians,” Sgro said. “But it’s hurt all North Carolinians and it has hurt and continues to hurt our state’s reputation.”
Michael Bitzer, professor of political science and history at Catawba College, has been closely watching the impact of HB2 and attempts at repeal. After the failed session last month, he said, it looks unlikely any sort of resolution can be had at the General Assembly level.
“While there may be some willingness on the part of both sides to eventually find a way out of HB2, I’m more inclined to think that the final resolution will be by the courts on this issue,” Bitzer said. “Especially settling the issue of what kind of protected class does sexual orientation and identification fall into.”
Bitzer said other contentious issues this session aren’t likely to help lawmakers come to terms.
“The rancor and divisiveness on both sides coming out of the last special session was especially harsh, and whether trust and willingness to work between Democrats and Republicans on the issue is there, it may be in such short supply that other issues, such as the budget and redistricting, may drain whatever is left,” Bitzer said.
Gerrymandering and voter’s rights
If the hot topic in the courts is any indication of what’s to come in the General Assembly this session, there will likely be legislation about voting rights and maps.
The state’s “monster” voter suppression law was struck down by a federal Court of Appeals in July. There’s since been some speculation that lawmakers will try to introduce a different bill aimed at implementing voter identification requirements.
The state is also embroiled in a legal battle over racial gerrymandering that has made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal three-judge panel ordered the General Assembly to redraw 28 racially gerrymandered state House and Senate districts by March 15, and to hold a special primary and general election in the fall of 2017.
However, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily halted the lower court’s order pending North Carolina’s appeal. The high court did not indicate whether or not it would take the appeal, and the special elections are blocked only until there is a decision.
In the meantime, it’s not difficult to imagine the General Assembly discussing how to move forward with the maps in the future. At the second to last special session last year, Democratic lawmakers expressed a desire to create a bipartisan committee to redraw congressional and legislative maps. Republicans expressed some interest and promised to work more with them on such a proposal in the long session.
Raising the Age
It would be a shock if “raise the age” legislation wasn’t taken up this session, given that North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin’s subcommittee concluded its evaluation with the strong recommendation to raise the age at which juveniles are prosecuted as adults.
North Carolina is currently one of only two states that continues to treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal system.
Officials and advocates have said that legislation presented this session will be different from years past because there is less opposition and a different proposal, stemming from the subcommittee’s work.
The main recommendation is to raise the juvenile jurisdiction from 15 to 17 for all crimes except Class A through E felony offenses and traffic violations. Under that recommendation, 16 and 17 year olds charged with misdemeanor offenses would remain in the juvenile system.
In addition to raising the age, the Martin Committee’s proposal includes ten other provisions designed to address concerns raised by law enforcement and prosecutors. All the recommendations are contingent on full funding for the adoption of changes.
The only thing that’s still not clear is who will sponsor raise the age legislation. Marilyn Avila, a Wake County Republican, had historically been a champion, but she is not returning to the legislature this year.