North Carolina’s January Session Lasted Less Than Three Hours. Here’s What Got Accomplished.

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, at the podium. (Image via screenshot)

By Kimberly Lawson

January 16, 2020

Senate Democrats managed to uphold the governor’s veto on bills related to teachers’ raises and regulations reform. Then Republicans canceled a vote on the state budget.

On Thursday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed legislation that would secure an additional $2.4 million in scholarships for children whose parents were injured or killed while serving in the military. “Increasing the amount of these scholarships is the right thing to do,” Cooper said in a statement.

The bill was approved unanimously by the Republican-majority state legislature on Tuesday. In fact, it was the only thing lawmakers were able to accomplish when they reconvened this week for the last stretch of 2019’s long legislative session. 

“It was quite a waste of a day,” Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-36) told COURIER. “Luckily, I live 20 minutes from the legislative building. But if I lived six hours away, I would not have been happy that I had to be there.”

After being away for two months, the N.C. General Assembly opened the session at noon on Jan. 14. With a few announcements and other housekeeping matters, leadership gaveled out for committee meetings. 

For about 10 minutes, Rep. Allison Dahle (D-11) sat in the appropriations committee meeting to hear about the bill regarding the military dependents’ scholarship program. “Then I caught up on things that happened over Christmas,” she told COURIER, “and then spent a lot of time talking with my Republican cohorts, trying to figure out what we were doing there.” 

In addition to the scholarship bill and a resolution to adjourn the session until April, there was only one item on the House agenda for Jan. 14: a small change to the state tax code that had to do with medical expenses. It was an issue reserved for the finance committee. 

Haefen attended that committee meeting. They discussed the change, she said, fully aware that the Senate wasn’t planning to take up the bill that day. 

“I knew we weren’t going to do much,” von Haefen said. “The House was there because of what was going on in the Senate.”

Indeed, senators had three items they were there to consider, and all were bills that had previously been vetoed by the governor. 

  • SB 354 would increase teacher’s salaries by 3.9% (but only for teachers with 15 years of experience or more) over two years. Teachers have come out in support of Cooper’s veto.
  • SB 553 would reform certain regulations, which, according to the governor, could “threaten public health and safety.”
  • HB 966 would outline the overall state budget for fiscal years 2019-2021, and address things like public school funding and other expenditures. Among the reasons the bill was vetoed was the fact that it did not include a pathway to expand Medicaid for low-income workers. 

Senate Republicans had hoped to override the governor’s budget veto, which passed in the House during a surprise morning vote on Sept. 11 when most Democratic representatives were absent. If Republicans can obtain a supermajority by getting one Democratic senator to vote in favor of overriding the veto, they can push the budget through over the governor’s objections. 

von Haefen said she and others believed Senate leadership scheduled the special one-day session in January after the filing deadline for potential candidates to run for office in 2020. “I think they thought that would free up some of these Democrats who they thought weren’t voting with them because they were scared they were going to get a primary opponent,” she said. “If they didn’t have primary opponents, they might be more likely to vote with the Republicans on the veto override.”

Senate Democrats, however, were able to uphold the governor’s veto on the bills related to teachers’ raises and regulations reform. After Republicans failed to override the veto on the regulatory bill, they canceled the vote on the budget. 

Earlier in the day, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger told reporters that he expected the veto to stand: “This is what Democrats stand for in 2020. They should be judged on their failure to act.”

A request for comment sent to Berger for this story was unanswered as of press time. 

At 2:26 p.m., a resolution to adjourn the January session and reconvene April 28 was passed with a vote of 144-24.

North Carolina’s 2019 legislative session was the second longest in legislative history. “With 156 legislative days logged in 2019, the N.C. General Assembly has little to show for it,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue wrote in an op-ed published this week. 

Dahle, the lawmaker representing District 11, agreed. “I would like to see us do a better job. I think there are legislators on both sides of the aisle that want to see us move forward.”


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