Leftover issues aplenty expected in North Carolina session

Published 8:43 am Sunday, January 29, 2023

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By Gary D. Robertson and Hannah Schoenbaum, Associated Press

North Carolina’s legislative ledger gets cleared every two years when the next set of 170 lawmakers are sworn in. The General Assembly starts from scratch filing and advancing bills.

But the legislative session that begins in earnest Wednesday should be chock full of familiar issues from 2022 — whether to approve Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and sports gambling among them — for debate and votes during this year’s chief work period, expected to reach into early summer.

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Action on often-redrawn redistricting maps and another way to implement photo voter identification are likely, although appellate judges could step in and restore Republican legislation that they recently struck down.

And with the GOP now holding a veto-proof majority in the 50-seat Senate and just one seat short in the 120-member House following November elections, Republicans could again pass looser gun laws and tougher immigration directives with hopes to finally override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.

These items are in addition to passing a state government budget, which is usually the heaviest lift for legislators annually.

“This is going to be fast paced. There’s a lot of issues that we will be debating that’s carried over,” said GOP Rep. Donny Lambeth, one of the House’s chief budget-writers. “I’m sure there’s going to be a few new items thrown in, but a lot of us that’ve been there have been debating these issues for years.”

New items should include proposed restrictions on abortion that are much broader than narrow alterations Cooper successfully vetoed in 2019 and 2021. Abortion access is expected to be among this year’s most contentious issues in statehouses nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated federal abortion protections last June.

North Carolina bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks, with narrow exceptions for urgent medical emergencies. House Speaker Tim Moore suggested this month that some support was emerging in his chamber for a proposal backed by Senate leader Phil Berger to prohibit abortions after the first trimester — 12 or 13 weeks of pregnancy — with new exceptions for rape and incest.

Berger and Moore, reelected chamber leaders at General Assembly organizational meetings Jan. 11, cautioned that discussions were early.

Moore has said repeatedly he believes Republicans now hold a “working supermajority,” with several Democrats prepared to vote with the GOP on many fronts. But finding unanimity on abortion among Republicans, let alone a House Democrat willing to defy Cooper, a strong abortion-rights supporter, will be challenging.

The conservative North Carolina Values Coalition wants lawmakers to ban abortions once an ultrasound first detects fetal cardiac activity — typically about six weeks after fertilization and before many patients know they’re pregnant.

“We believe a heartbeat bill is already a compromise because we believe that life begins at conception,” coalition executive director Tami Fitzgerald said, and “because we believe it will save more lives.”

Another bill with cultural flashpoints over education and gender identity likely to resurface is a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that passed the Senate last year but didn’t get a House vote. Promoted by GOP senators as a toolkit to help parents oversee their children’s education and health care, the bill included provisions that bar instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 curricula and require schools to alert parents prior to any change in the name or pronoun used for their child.

Berger has said he suspects there will be “good support for moving forward with that again.” Critics of the measure say it needlessly interferes with classroom instruction and instills fear into transgender schoolchildren who lack supportive parents.

Ann Webb, a policy attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, called anti-abortion legislation and other “highly politicized” issues pushed by the GOP “pieces of legislation that are driven by hate and misunderstanding.”

Temporary House rules for operating the chamber, and likely to become permanent, deleted a previous two-day notice before a veto override vote could be attempted. This means Republicans could attempt overrides when they notice Democratic colleagues are off the chamber floor, even briefly.

House Minority Leader Robert Reives, who criticized fiercely the rule change and wants an override notice retained, said he’d like the legislature to pass measures that increase public education spending, promote affordable housing, give tax breaks to working people and expand Medicaid.

GOP leaders and Cooper made dramatic progress last year toward a deal to expand Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults through the 2010 federal health care law.

The House and Senate passed separate expansion bills by wide margins. But negotiations fizzled as Senate Republicans insisted any final measure needed provisions to ease rules so there are more health care professionals and medical venues to treat more Medicaid enrollees. House Republicans said they wouldn’t consider expansion and health care access changes in one omnibus measure.

A bill creating a regulatory framework to legalize marijuana for medical use passed the Senate last spring but idled in the House. And legislation to authorize sports betting and license operators passed the Senate, but was turned back in the House by social conservatives and liberal Democrats.

With a roughly 25% turnover in each chamber this year, it will take time for new lawmakers to get up to speed on longstanding issues. But Lambeth said there’s still a sense at the Legislative Building that now’s the time to act.

“I view a lot of these as issues that it’s time that we do take them up and resolve them one way or the other,” he said, “either a yes or no.”