How North Carolina’s legislative session could affect you

Abortion in North Carolina

Abortion rights supporters march on the General Assembly in Raleigh ahead of a vote for the 12-week abortion ban in May, 2023. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

By Michael McElroy

April 23, 2024

After a six-month break, the General Assembly returns for a new session on Wednesday, April 24. Though this round is expected to be relatively short, lawmakers will still cover some important issues.

North Carolina’s legislative session last year lasted a decade. Or so it seemed. And this week, the legislature is back for more.

After a six-month break, the General Assembly returns for a new session on Wednesday, April 24. Though this year’s session is expected to be relatively short, the lawmakers will still cover some important issues that could affect the day-to-day lives and finances of North Carolinians from the coast to the Blue Ridge.

But there will likely be fewer fireworks than last year.

The short session is meant to tweak budgets, which is good because several important issues remain underfunded, including public schools and childcare centers, even as the state reports a $1.4 billion budget surplus. So there is money to spend if Republican leadership chooses to spend it.

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After a six-month break, the General Assembly returns for a new session this week. Though this year’s session is expected to be relatively short, the lawmakers will still cover some important issues that could affect the day-to-day lives of all North Carolinians. The short session is meant to tweak budgets, which is good because several important issues remain underfunded, including public schools and childcare centers, even as the state reports a $1.4 billion budget surplus. So there is money to spend if Republican leadership chooses to spend it. Political correspondent Michael McElroy takes a look and shares a special message to one Cardinal and Pine reader. #northcarolina #ncpolitics #ncbudget #nceconomy

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A quick review

Last year, the General Assembly introduced some 1,700 bills and passed nearly 150 into law, many of them bipartisan and transformative, and many that drew large crowds of protest.

  • The legislature expanded Medicaid to national applause and passed a 12-week abortion ban to widespread scorn.
  • Republican leadership fought amongst themselves over the state budget, delaying final passage for months.
  • There was also a major defection as Rep. Tricia Cotham switched to the Republican Party soon after winning election as a Democrat, giving the GOP a supermajority that could override any veto by Gov. Roy Cooper. With that supermajority in both chambers, North Carolina Republicans overrode all 19 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation, loosen gun laws, and make it harder to vote.

The new session is meant for tweaking legislation already passed, adding some funding here, adjusting some levers there. But these are loose guidelines rather than hard and fast rules, so what the legislature does or doesn’t do this session is entirely up to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger, both Republicans.

Add in the run-up to a major election with huge issues at stake, and there could be a few surprises along the way.

Here are some issues to look for as the legislature returns.

Private School Vouchers

The legislature last session allocated $294 million to expand private school vouchers and strip away income requirements, meaning that wealthy families can now use taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.

When applications opened, more than 71,000 families applied.

Moore told reporters this month that the legislature was considering adding another $300 million to the system in the new session.

Republican leaders say voucher expansion gives parents more choices of where to send their children, but in reality, there is not much of a choice for anyone other than the wealthy. The increased funding will go mostly toward families who already send their kids to private schools, while depleting the resources of public schools that educate 80% of students in the state.

Voucher expansion, several studies show, hurts public schools, and critics point out that many of the private schools that would benefit from more voucher funding openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and kids with disabilities.

“Everywhere you look throughout the country that this scheme has been tried, you’ve had all the same problems and it’s been crushing to the public education systems,” Rep. Robert Reives, the House Democratic leader, said in an interview last week.

And just because a low-income family gets a voucher doesn’t mean they can afford to send their kids to private school, Reives said.

“The first thing that happens, which is completely the right of any school private entity, is that they find out what the voucher amount is and then they raise their tuition by that amount.”

And the vouchers don’t pay for all the other costs, Reives continued.

“In a practical sense, people get to the schools and find out they’re not going to be able to afford all of the other things,” he said, adding “and then these kids end up right back into the public school system.”

He added: “We’re not trying to use [tax dollars] for the larger percent of the people, but we’re using it for basically what comes down to a lot of friends and associates of the people who are in leadership.”

Abortion

Abortion is a major issue in this year’s election, as several high profile Republicans, including Mark Robinson, the GOP nominee for governor, have pushed for complete abortion bans and have stated their belief in life starting at conception.

A clear majority of North Carolinians, however, are opposed to abortion restrictions, so the General Assembly may not take up any bills establishing new restrictions so close to Election Day in a state nearly evenly split politically.

While Moore has said he did not expect to bring up any more votes on abortion this year, he has also made it clear that if Republicans retain their supermajority after the November election, they would almost certainly introduce a more severe ban than the 12-week ban.

But to wait until after the election to do what they already intend to do, Reives said, is a form of deception.

“They may be concerned that it’s going to have an effect on the election, but my thing is, [voters] ought to know where they are. So if their belief is just as has been stated by the gubernatorial candidate, if their belief is that we should have a complete and total ban on abortion, then that needs to be done this session. Because I don’t think that you should falsely make people believe that somehow your stance has changed and then walk into January 2025 and institute a total ban.”

He added: ”It would be disingenuous to our voters not to make clear what the belief and stance is about where we should go on abortion.”

IVF

Many national Republicans tried to distance themselves from a recent Alabama Supreme Court ruling that threatens in vitro fertilization (IVF), a process that has helped millions of couples with fertility issues have healthy babies. The conservative judges in the case ruled that life begins at conception, a core belief of many far-right lawmakers, and since IVF uses live embryos, they wrote, the treatment amounted to murder.

Far-right lawmakers in North Carolina and across the country used the same reasoning to justify the abortion bans they introduced in many states after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

There has been lots of talk among Republicans about protecting IVF access, but very little action. IVF patients and Democrats have urged the legislature to clarify protections, but it’s unlikely that Republicans would move one way or the other on IVF in the months before an election.

Any rumblings from Republicans suggesting they would protect IVF, is just talk until they show otherwise, Reives said.

“It is completely inconsistent to say that we’re going to try to protect IVF and still hold the same positions that you have about total bans on abortion,” Reives said. “There’s no way around that.”

Childcare funding

As the pandemic shuttered schools and threatened to permanently close childcare centers across the country, the federal government passed emergency funding to help daycares stay open. That funding expires on June 30.

Without a new source of money from the state, day care directors say they will have to either reduce staff, increase the rates they charge parents, or both.

A recent survey found that 30% of childcare centers in the state said they may have to close without new funding. More than 90,000 young children in North Carolina would lose care.

Lawmakers have been noncommittal about whether they would allocate money to the centers, but there are some signs that they are hearing about the problem from their home counties.

Ariel Ford, the Director of Child Development and Early Education at the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said at a recent roundtable discussion about the issue that DHHS staff have appeared twice at a legislative oversight committee to discuss the problem.

“Being asked to come twice before a session even starts is a good sign that they are hearing from their constituents,” Ford said of lawmakers.

“I think there is a growing awareness,” Ford said, “that the storm is coming our way.”

Reives said he hopes that is the case, but that he has not heard any word of a possible vote on the issue.

I really hope there is, because it’s a really big deal, not just to our constituents, but to a lot of companies also. They’re trying to figure out what to do because childcare is an incredible burden at this point in time. And again, we’re not making it easier. So I hope there’s some movement, but I have not heard anything about it being moved.”

Other issues

Here is a quick list of other bills that could come up this session:

  • A bill requiring local sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration agents. The bill passed the House last year but did not get a vote in the Senate.
  • Moore told the News and Observer in March that he would seek to clarify under existing law that antisemitism was considered a hate crime. Among the specifics of an existing proposal is to make it a crime to deny the Holocaust, which Robinson has been accused of doing several times in social media posts.
  • There remain deep divisions among Republicans over separate bills expanding casinos in the state and legalizing medical marijuana. The NC senate passed them both last year and the House rejected them.
  • Attorney General Josh Stein said in an interview last week that he expected to ask the legislature for more funding to expand a cold-case investigative unit to address shortages in law enforcement, and to adopt stricter laws to help fight deep-fake sex videos.

On Wednesday and throughout the session, you can follow along on the General Assembly’s website as lawmakers debate bills and pass them. The House has a video stream and the Senate has audio.

And of course, we’ll be covering the session as it unfolds across all our platforms, website, and newsletter.

 

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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