State legislators have adjourned until May after voting to fix a long-standing issue over mandated class sizes, while delaying further action on the GenX water contamination issue.
If it holds, the three month hiatus will be the longest break for legislators in more than a year. Since late December 2016, the Legislature and executive branch have been embroiled in a constant fight over power - a tussle that could bring lawmakers back to the General Assembly at any point.
Here are some of the highlights of today’s legislative actions:
HB90: Class-Size, The Governor’s Powers And Atlantic Coast Pipeline
Despite overwhelming bipartisan support of House Bill 90, the measure that passed Tuesday morning was not without controversy.
The legislation is aimed at fixing a mandate to reduce class sizes in Kindergarten through 3rd grades. Educators and school districts from across the state warned that the new class size maximum – slated to go into effect next fall – amounted to an unfunded mandate. They said it could result in the loss of specialty or enhancement teachers, in music, art and physical education. This measure provides more than $60 million in funding for four consecutive years, and delays implementation for one academic year.
Representative Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) called it 'historic' as it will eventually reduce the student-to-teacher ratio.
“So that [students] can have the enhancements of art and music and P.E. and computers and other things that are so important," Dollar said.
Meanwhile, Representative Robert Reives (D-Lee) took issue with the various prongs in the bill.
"Being in session for 35 days not knowing what we're going to get, when we're going to get it, how we're going to get it and then ending up with this Frankenstein's monster is a little unbelievable," Reives said.
In addition to the class size fix, this policy also takes another run at curbing the Governor’s power over the state board of elections. A previous attempt to do this was ruled unconstitutional by the courts, and this latest effort may very well bring another legal challenge. Lawmakers say their goal is to establish a tri-partisan nine member board of ethics and elections. This legislation calls for the board to have four Democrats, four Republicans, and a ninth member – from any other party, or any unaffiliated – who would be chosen by the other eight.
And a third facet of this bill has the Legislature taking authority of a nearly $58 million mitigation fund.
Gov. Roy Cooper secured the funds for that money at the same time as a key permit was approved for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. While a similar fund was negotiated in Virginia by that state’s Democratic governor, with the funds going into the state treasury, this money would go into a third party escrow account, which Cooper would oversee.
Lawmakers say Cooper is overstepping his authority and said his efforts amount to the creation of a slush fund. This bill states that mitigation funds would appropriated to school districts in the eight counties where the pipeline will eventually run.
Several Democrats spoke out against the bill for combining unrelated provisions, but still voted in favor of it because of the step toward fixing the class size issue. With the bill having advanced through both chambers, it now heads to Cooper who finds himself in a bit of a political pickle.
Signing the legislation into law could limit his ability to sue over the election provision and asserting his veto would trigger criticism for undoing the class size fix. He has 30 days to sign, veto, or let the bill become law without his signature.
A Slow Drip On GenX
Despite months of debate – and plenty of it heated – about how to handle the potentially toxic water contaminant GenX, lawmakers headed home without providing more funding to the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Each chamber has approved a plan to handle the chemical compound that has leaked into the Cape Fear River basin at the Chemours plant in Cumberland County. GenX is a relatively new contaminant and not much is known about its effects, or what levels of it may be harmful.
The House approved a multi-million dollar plan with funding for several permanent positions at DEQ. But the Senate has less interest in those state positions, and would like there to be collaboration with the UNC System to better study and monitor the issue. The lack of action signals that the issue may sit still until the short session in May.
Longtime Representative John Blust (R-Guilford) announced he would not seek re-election during a 20 minute speech on the House floor. The long-time advocate of greater government transparency and accountability talked about the privilege of serving, quoted Frank Sinatra and said, “We ought to be a body of rules, not men” as he offered some criticisms of the legislative process.
Blust, who served one term in the Senate before nine terms in the House said it took him ten minutes to figure out the problem.
“A few people hold all the cards … and our constitutional system in a legislative body, that’s not the way it’s set-up to be,” said Blust who was in the minority party for a dozen years. He said the top-heavy system of power actually dilutes the votes of many people across the state.
“Some people can be read completely out of the process and other people have an inordinate amount of the power,” he said. “It’s been harder for me in some ways in the majority because we didn’t really stop it, and that’s my biggest regret.”
Are We Entering A Quiet Period At The State Legislature This Month?
If you’re wagering on the political ring in North Carolina quieting down for the next few months, it’s a smart bet to not gamble much. Even with legislators gone – for now – until mid-May, there are several court cases pending, a feud over the pipeline fund is just getting started, and with candidates filing for legislative and congressional seats, the rhetoric is likely to provide a noticeable political hum for weeks to come.