Guide

A brief guide to our state legislature Part 1

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist and public policy enthusiast. He has covered the General Assembly and state politics and policy for Coastal Review, Carolina Public Press, the Chapel Hill News and the Washington Post. He is currently reporting on the U.S. Senate race for States Newsroom and NC Policy Watch.

Hello Triangle Blog Blog readers, Kirk Ross here, with an updated version of my guide to keeping an eye on the North Carolina General Assembly. Given that another chaotic short session is about to get rolling, I thought it might come in handy.

This document began as part of a workshop “to help citizens and journalists better understand the workings of the most powerful branch of North Carolina’s state government and engage with the decision-making process in a meaningful and effective way.”

Over the years it’s become a kind of cheat sheet for how to follow what’s happening with the budget as well as track specific bills and local acts. It’s in three parts.
Part One: The Basics/Constitutional Power/Timelines/Rules/Exceptions
Part Two: The Budget/Money & Policy/Committees/Regular Order & The Lack Of It
Part Three: Staying Ahead of the Curve/Studies & Reports/Budget Clues & Searching Tips
Bonus Tracks if you have trouble sleeping: The NC Administrative Code/The Rule Making Process

The guide also incorporates various bits of perspective and a collection of meditations on the legislative process. I’ll start with the most important of these for anyone trying to fathom what the hell is going on at the legislature.
Things don’t make sense for a reason

So, let’s dive in with Part One and I’ll post updated sections of Part Two and Three in the coming days.

Part I

The Basics

The North Carolina General Assembly website: https://www.ncleg.gov/
Behold the front page
NCGAsite Front Page

A few quick things about searching

  • You must use quotes when searching more than one word
  • When searching for a bill, use S23 or H23 not SB23 – even though bills show up that way in news stories
  • Sometimes there are extra sessions. Pull down the menu and you’ll see all the “extra sessions” in 2016. Yeah, that was a blast.

The Calendar Is Your Friend

https://www.ncleg.gov/Calendars
At this page, you can sign up for email alerts for specific committees, chaptered bills, etc. You can also look through back calendars.

Audio/Video Feeds

https://www.ncleg.gov/Audio
When I first started doing this workshop there were only a few committee rooms that had mics. Since the pandemic, most public meetings are now available.

Twitter

The hashtag #NCGA has long been used to follow along with what’s happening with key hearings. There’s not as much live tweeting right now, but it’s still a good place to look at mostly NCGA stuff. You’ll also see the occasional tweet from a golf group and the National Corn Growers Association. #NCPol is another good hashtag for following breaking news, but it is also an occasional hellscape.

About That Constitutional Power

You can skip this section if you don’t want to know about the scope (broad) and limitations (few) of the legislature, but it’s kind of important to understanding why things don’t make sense sometimes.
https://www.ncleg.gov/Laws/Constitution
The constitution starts with a declaration of rights.

When it comes to our government, here’s the part I think is the most important thing to remember. It’s right up at the top, just under the certain inalienable rights section:

Sec. 2.  Sovereignty of the people.
All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.

It’s a long document, btw. Below are some key sections on legislative power starting with the part that gives the legislature dominion over local governments

ARTICLE VII
LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Section 1.  General Assembly to provide for local government.
The General Assembly shall provide for the organization and government and the fixing of boundaries of counties, cities and towns, and other governmental subdivisions, and, except as otherwise prohibited by this Constitution, may give such powers and duties to counties, cities and towns, and other governmental subdivisions as it may deem advisable.

Here’s the part that gives the legislature responsibility for the schools

ARTICLE IX
EDUCATION
Sec. 2.  Uniform system of schools.
(1)        General and uniform system: term. The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.
(2)        Local responsibility. The General Assembly may assign to units of local government such responsibility for the financial support of the free public schools as it may deem appropriate. The governing boards of units of local government with financial responsibility for public education may use local revenues to add to or supplement any public school or post-secondary school program.

And over higher education. The reason why it seems like the legislature is in charge of the legislature is because it is. Historians I’ve interviewed have told me it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sec. 8. Higher education.
The General Assembly shall maintain a public system of higher education, comprising The University of North Carolina and such other institutions of higher education as the General Assembly may deem wise. The General Assembly shall provide for the selection of trustees of The University of North Carolina and of the other institutions of higher education, in whom shall be vested all the privileges, rights, franchises, and endowments heretofore granted to or conferred upon the trustees of these institutions. The General Assembly may enact laws necessary and expedient for the maintenance and management of The University of North Carolina and the other public institutions of higher education.

Proof why the exact words matter:

Sec. 9.  Benefits of public institutions of higher education.
The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.

Some of the Guardrails on Legislative Power

Don’t try to read this next part without coffee. It says that generally the legislature is supposed to do things in a uniform way and treat local govs equally. This comes up later as well.

ARTICLE XIV
MISCELLANEOUS
Sec. 3.  General laws defined.
Whenever the General Assembly is directed or authorized by this Constitution to enact general laws, or general laws uniformly applicable throughout the State, or general laws uniformly applicable in every county, city and town, and other unit of local government, or in every local court district, no special or local act shall be enacted concerning the subject matter directed or authorized to be accomplished by general or uniformly applicable laws, and every amendment or repeal of any law relating to such subject matter shall also be general and uniform in its effect throughout the State

The Veto!

Good to remember that the governor didn’t have veto power until 1996 and even then it is full of compromises because it took an act of the legislature to grant the governor a veto. There was a lot of hating on governors when North Carolina’s government was set up and it shines through in our constitution to this very day.

The Veto
Sec. 22.  Action on bills.
(1)        Bills subject to veto by Governor; override of veto. Except as provided by subsections (2) through (6) of this section, all bills shall be read three times in each house and shall be signed by the presiding officer of each house before being presented to the Governor. If the Governor approves, the Governor shall sign it and it shall become a law; but if not, the Governor shall return it with objections, together with a veto message stating the reasons for such objections, to that house in which it shall have originated, which shall enter the objections and veto message at large on its journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such reconsideration three-fifths of the members of that house present and voting shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the objections and veto message, to the other house, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered; and if approved by three-fifths of the members of that house present and voting, it shall become a law notwithstanding the objections of the Governor. In all such cases the votes of both houses shall be determined by yeas and nays, and the names of the members voting shall be entered on the journal of each house respectively.
(2)        Amendments to Constitution of North Carolina. Every bill proposing a new or revised Constitution or an amendment or amendments to this Constitution or calling a convention of the people of this State, and containing no other matter, shall be submitted to the qualified voters of this State after it shall have been read three times in each house and signed by the presiding officers of both houses.
(3)        Amendments to Constitution of the United States. Every bill approving an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or applying for a convention to propose amendments to the Constitution of the United States, and containing no other matter, shall be read three times in each house before it becomes law, and shall be signed by the presiding officers of both houses.
(4)        Joint resolutions.  Every joint resolution shall be read three times in each house before it becomes effective and shall be signed by the presiding officers of both houses.

Here’s the part where the governor can’t veto redistricting bills

(5)        Other exceptions.  Every bill:
(a)        In which the General Assembly makes an appointment or appointments to public office and which contains no other matter;
(b)        Revising the senate districts and the apportionment of Senators among those districts and containing no other matter;
(c)        Revising the representative districts and the apportionment of Representatives among those districts and containing no other matter; or
(d)       Revising the districts for the election of members of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States and the apportionment of Representatives among those districts and containing no other matter,
shall be read three times in each house before it becomes law and shall be signed by the presiding officers of both houses.

Right after that section is the part that prevents the governor from being able to veto local bills. Local bills can include a hell of a lot of counties and it leaves open the possibility that the legislature could, over time, legislate a statewide policy through a series of local acts that couldn’t be vetoed.

(6)        Local bills.  Every bill that applies in fewer than 15 counties shall be read three times in each house before it becomes law and shall be signed by the presiding officers of both houses. The exemption from veto by the Governor provided in this subsection does not apply if the bill, at the time it is signed by the presiding officers:
(a)        Would extend the application of a law signed by the presiding officers during that two year term of the General Assembly so that the law would apply in more than half the counties in the State, or
(b)        Would enact a law identical in effect to another law or laws signed by the presiding officers during that two year term of the General Assembly that the result of those laws taken together would be a law applying in more than half the counties in the State.
Notwithstanding any other language in this subsection, the exemption from veto provided by this subsection does not apply to any bill to enact a general law classified by population or other criteria, or to any bill that contains an appropriation from the State treasury

Here’s the big Other Limits section. Looks weird, but it’s real. I once got to watch a major constitutional court case in which the fact that the legislature can’t pass certain bills relating to non-navigable streams was one of the deciding factors. [Shoutout to City of Asheville].

Other limits
Sec. 24.  Limitations on local, private, and special legislation.
(1)        Prohibited subjects.  The General Assembly shall not enact any local, private, or special act or resolution:
(a)        Relating to health, sanitation, and the abatement of nuisances;
(b)        Changing the names of cities, towns, and townships;
(c)        Authorizing the laying out, opening, altering, maintaining, or discontinuing of highways, streets, or alleys;
(d)       Relating to ferries or bridges;
(e)        Relating to non-navigable streams;
(f)        Relating to cemeteries;
(g)        Relating to the pay of jurors;
(h)        Erecting new townships, or changing township lines, or establishing or changing the lines of school districts;
(i)         Remitting fines, penalties, and forfeitures, or refunding moneys legally paid into the public treasury;
(j)         Regulating labor, trade, mining, or manufacturing;
(k)        Extending the time for the levy or collection of taxes or otherwise relieving any collector of taxes from the due performance of his official duties or his sureties from liability;
(l)         Giving effect to informal wills and deeds;
(m)       Granting a divorce or securing alimony in any individual case;
(n)        Altering the name of any person, or legitimating any person not born in lawful wedlock, or restoring to the rights of citizenship any person convicted of a felony.
(2)        Repeals.  Nor shall the General Assembly enact any such local, private, or special act by the partial repeal of a general law; but the General Assembly may at any time repeal local, private, or special laws enacted by it.
(3)        Prohibited acts void.  Any local, private, or special act or resolution enacted in violation of the provisions of this Section shall be void.
(4)        General laws.  The General Assembly may enact general laws regulating the matters set out in this Section.

Constitutional Things of Note

 

One of my favorite sections of the constitution happened when the hippies got to write something

Sec. 5.  Conservation of natural resources.
It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry, and to this end it shall be a proper function of the State of North Carolina and its political subdivisions to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water, to control excessive noise, and in every other appropriate way to preserve as a part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands, and places of beauty.

Still in There Although Void AF*

Sec. 6.  Marriage.
Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.  This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts. (2011-409, s. 1)

*This is the infamous Amendment One. Important to remember that the voiding of this amendment came about because of the decision by the U.S. Supreme court in Obergefell v. Hodges. The latest draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade includes Obergefell, among other decisions it questions as valid.

Timelines & Process

Here’s a handy cheat sheet by the legislative library itself
https://sites.ncleg.gov/library/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2020/01/Leg-Hist-Step-by-Step.pdf

Each chamber has its own unique set of rules and own unique ways of getting around them. At the beginning of each session they pass a set of rules — mostly boilerplate — for the session.

At roughly the midpoint of each session there is a crossover deadline. Any bill not passed by one or both chambers by that date is considered dead for the rest of the session. It’s an important deadline, but there are ways around this. There are also filing deadlines for certain types of bills. It’s usually at the bottom of the calendar for each chamber.

During floor sessions you can follow along using the dashboards, which display the bills and amendments as they happen and also have the audio feeds. The House also has a video feed.

Long Session (odd-number years following election)/ Short Session

Long Session

After each election, the NCGA is sworn in during the first week of the January, adjourns for a couple of weeks and then returns for a session that lasts until July. Some have lasted much longer, a few somewhat shorter.

The state’s fiscal year ends on June 30. A new budget or a continuation budget must be in place by then or an automatic continuation budget law passed in 2016 kicks in.

The governor introduces a budget proposal in mid February or so. The governor’s budget is generally considered DOA, but it’s useful for clues on spending priorities and what cuts are proposed or at least acceptable to the administration.

Short Session

In even-numbered years, the legislature typically meets mid-May to sometime in July and adjusts the budget. There are limits on what kinds of bills can be introduced in the short session. For the most part anything that passed prior to crossover in the first year of the session (i.e. the long session) is still eligible. All bills introduced in the short session are subject to the crossover rules.

Other Stuff

The legislature can call itself back into session w/ a petition of 3/5 of its members. The governor can also call the legislature back into session, although he has to have a really good reason.

The legislature can also write the rules for what it will consider upon its return into its adjournment resolution. This has made the last several sessions interesting and, at times, damn near impossible to follow unless you knew that.

In the next installment, we’ll get into the guts of the process and what to expect as the budget progresses this session. Thanks! — kmr