Highlights and lowlights from the General Assembly as lawmakers pass 2021 “crossover deadline”

Highlights and lowlights from the General Assembly as lawmakers pass 2021 “crossover deadline”

- in Education, News, Top Story

The state legislature marked “crossover” last week, the point at which most bills must pass at least one chamber to have a chance of becoming law this session.  

House members had filed 969 bills by the end of last week, and senators had filed 721. 

The House passed 336 bills by the crossover deadline — a little more than a third — and the Senate passed 156, about a quarter of those filed. About two dozen have already become law.  

Here are some of the notable bills that cleared crossover: 

Loosening gun regulations

Despite calls in many corners for stricter gun safety laws, both houses advanced bills that would relax rules on guns.  

House Bill 398 would repeal a longstanding law that requires people to get permits from their county sheriff before buying a pistol, unless they have concealed carry permits. Sheriffs check the applicants’ backgrounds using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and records maintained by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Proponents say the law is duplicative of the national background check, but opponents point to several loopholes in the federal law as well as the fact that gun deaths have risen in some states that have taken similar action.   

House Bill 47 would allow elected officials to carry concealed weapons while “acting in discharge of their official duties.”  

The House defeated a proposed amendment that would have kept guns out of the House and Senate chambers.  

Opponents said the bill was unnecessary because visitors to the legislative building must walk through metal detectors and the building is staffed with armed security. 

Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort and Craven, who sponsored the bill, said if the amendment passed, he would have to walk between the Legislative Building and his office in the Legislative Office Building without protection. It takes less than a minute to walk between the two buildings, moving at a moderate pace.

Tightening control of public schools

House Republicans want more control of what happens in classrooms and limitations on instruction about racism in America.  

House Bill 324, which passed along party lines, would restrict what’s taught about racism in American history. Other Republican-led legislatures have introduced similar bills.  

Rep. James Gailliard, a Rocky Mount Democrat, called the bill “anti-American history.” One of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, said children are owed an education that “unites and not divides.” 

House Bill 755 would require teachers to post online lesson plans and instructional materials. Similar bills have been introduced in other states, NC Policy Watch reported. Critics say it is an effort to prevent students from learning about slavery and structural racism.  

House Bill 267 would make school dress code violations, use of inappropriate or respectful language, noncompliance with staff, or minor fights eligible for long-term student suspension or expulsion. A 2019 study by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice found that Black students were 4.3 times more likely to receive short-term suspensions and 3.4 times more likely to receive long-term suspensions than white students. Critics said the bill represented a backward step, and would exacerbate racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. The bill passed the House along party lines.  

Targeting protesters and law enforcement misconduct

Republicans promoted bills aimed at improving law enforcement and punishing protesters, an apparent legislative response to national demonstrations against police shooting Black people.  

Senate Bill 300, which passed unanimously, is a multi-faceted proposal: It would create a public database of law enforcement officers’ certification suspensions and revocations, make training in mental health and wellness part of the minimum standards for entry-level employment as a criminal justice officer, create a duty to intervene for law enforcement officers who see another officer using excessive force, and would increase penalties for rioting that causes injury. It makes brandishing a dangerous weapon or using pepper spray or tear gas during a riot a felony.  

The House also addressed some of these same issues, but in separate bills. House Bill 805, one of a handful that has House Speaker Tim Moore as a primary sponsor, established new penalties for rioting. People who are injured or sustain property losses during certain events involving civil unrest would also be permitted to sue for triple damages. Civil rights groups, including the ACLU of North Carolina, opposed the bill, saying it would dissuade people from engaging in peaceful and constitutionally protected protests.  

“Protesters calling for racial justice, and people who engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, would risk being detained for an extended period of time and punished with years in prison for property damage that they have not caused,” Daniel Bowes, ACLU-NC director of policy and advocacy said in a statement.  

House Bill 536 would create a duty for law enforcement officers to step in when they see another using excessive force. House Bill 436 would require psychological screening of new law enforcement officers before they start work and require training in mental health and wellness strategies.  

Limiting reproductive rights

The legislature advanced more abortion restrictions.  

House Bill 453 would prohibit patients from obtaining abortions based on race or the presence of Down syndrome and require physicians to certify that abortions have not been been performed based on these proscribed reasons. Republican legislators said a law is needed to prevent doctors from pressuring women into abortions and to preventing profiling based on race or genetics. 

Doctors and Democratic lawmakers said the bill looks to address a problem that doesn’t exist.  

Senate Bill 405 would require doctors to try to save the lives of infants born alive after an abortion. Republicans supported the bill with anecdotes about newborns who doctors left to die after attempted abortions. Democrats said federal and state laws already protect newborns and that the bill is meant to erode abortion rights. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a similar bill in 2019.  

Restricting gubernatorial power

The legislature passed bills to limit executive branch powers. 

Both the House and Senate passed bills that would limit a governor’s powers in a state of emergency. The bills differ in some of their details, but both would require consensus from the Council of State for an executive order issued under the Emergency Management Act to last more than a certain number of days.  

Republicans have opposed Gov. Roy Cooper’s use of executive orders in the COVID-19 pandemic, saying they were too restrictive. Cooper vetoed a similar bill last year, and the legislature did not have the votes to override it.  

Former Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, the Republican who challenged Cooper for the governorship last year, sued him over the pandemic executive orders. Forest dropped the suit after a Superior Court judge ruled against him.  

Senate Bill 360, which passed along party lines, would give the House and Senate leaders veto power over some legal settlements negotiated by the state Attorney General.  The Attorney General would have to get agreement from the House Speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem before settling lawsuits in which they intervened or been named. Republicans are angry about a settlement last year that resulted in a six-day extension for receipt of absentee ballots in the November election. The House version HB 606 was passed 60-48 in a partisan split vote earlier this month and referred to Senate Rules.

Protecting children and incarcerated women

A proposed change in marriage law would increase the minimum age for legal marriage from 14 to 16. Under Senate Bill 35, which passed unanimously, 16- and 17-year-olds would need permission from a parent or guardian to marry, and they would not to be able to marry people more than four years older. Earlier in the committee process, Senate leadership dramatically weakened the bill in order to retain marriage as an option for 14- and 15-year-olds under many circumstances, but later relented after widespread public criticism and allowed the bill to be strengthened via a floor amendment.

House Bill 608, which passed unanimously, would limit use of shackles on pregnant incarcerated women during their second and third trimesters, during labor and delivery, and six weeks after they give birth.  

The bill had board support, from the NC ACLU to the NC Sheriffs’ Association. Officials would be required to leave infants with their mothers while in the hospital following delivery, and the necessary food and hygiene products would have to be provided to women during postpartum recovery.  

On the books already

The legislative session has already yielded more than two dozen new laws and one Cooper veto.  

Cooper vetoed a bill in February that would have required school districts to offer in-person instruction, saying it violate health guidelines and hindered state and local officials from protecting teachers and students in an emergency. Cooper and Republican legislative leaders negotiated a reopening plan a few weeks later.  

The state has a new law that is supposed to fix the 2012 “Read to Achieve” law, by requiring teachers to use a phonics-based approach. Read to Achieve aimed to have students reading at grade level by third grade or risk retention, but never produced the results its proponents promised.  

School districts will have to offer summer school for students who have fallen behind in the pandemic. Instruction must last for at least 150 hours or 30 days. Student participation is voluntary under the new law.  

The weeks and months ahead

Getting past crossover makes room for consideration of the proposed state budget, the next big legislative event. Bills that have to do with taxing or spending don’t have to meet the crossover deadline.

Legislators also have ways of getting around the crossover deadline for policy bills. They can add a fee to a bill, tuck a new policy into the budget, or strip a bill that has passed crossover of its original language and fill it with a different proposal.

In past decades, lawmakers usually attempted to wrap up work during the first year of the legislative biennium (also known as the “long session”) shortly after the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. In recent years, however, the General Assembly has frequently extended the long session, or reconvened for multiple “special” sessions, throughout the summer and fall.