NC General Assembly wraps up most of its 2021 work

Politics

(WNCN photo)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina General Assembly wrapped up late Monday nearly all of its work for the calendar year, although vetoes, redistricting rulings or other items could bring lawmakers back to Raleigh for more activity within weeks.

The Republican-controlled legislature, which began the session in January, held House and Senate floor votes on more than a dozen measures before members left town.

“We ended up on a very good note. It took us a long time to get here,” six-term Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, said after the adjournment gavel fell in the House. “It’s an excellent outcome after a long, tedious year.”

One bill heading for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk that he’s apt to veto would prohibit election boards and officials in counties from accepting private money to run elections, which happened in 2020. It was approved on a party-line vote favoring the GOP. Another measure receiving final approval — spurred on by a stinging state audit last year of Rocky Mount’s finances — places new conflict-of-interest rules upon local government officials across the state, subjecting them to possible felonies when personal financial gain is the result.

And a 35-page measure approved making mostly technical changes to the new state budget sets aside another $107 million for Piedmont Triad International Airport improvements should an airplane manufacturer choose to expand in Guilford County. The company isn’t identified in the bill text, but one legislator referred to it as “Project Thunderbird.”

Another finalized bill likely to get scrutiny from Cooper in part would prohibit local governments from barring a type of energy service based on the fuel type — such as natural gas, for example.

After Monday, the legislature will hold no-vote meetings until Dec. 10 — a parliamentary maneuver designed to limit Cooper’s time to act on legislation to no more than 10 days.

Then lawmakers could return starting Dec. 30 for limited purposes, such as veto overrides, votes on last-minute negotiated measures between the two chambers and to address bills that are related to redistricting. But legislative leaders said any necessary actions are unlikely to occur until early January 2022.

At least four lawsuits have been filed challenging U.S. House or legislative districts, or both, that the General Assembly enacted in early November or the process by which some boundaries were formed. A hearing for one of the lawsuits is scheduled for Tuesday. The legislature may need to rework the boundaries should a court declare that illegal gerrymandering occurred. If that happens, the March 8 primary likely would be delayed.

This year’s session, which began in earnest on Jan. 27, marks the second longest uninterrupted annual session since at least 1965, when calculated by the number of days that lawmakers hold chamber floor meetings, according to legislative data.

The longest was in 2001. This year, COVID-19 precautions and aid, a later tax filing deadline and a massive revenue surplus all combined with redistricting to extend the session into the late fall.

The 2021 session was marked by the first comprehensive budget bill that Cooper agreed to sign into law since he took office in 2017, and the first enacted in over three years. There was no such budget approved in 2019 because of a stalemate between the governor and GOP legislative leaders.

The enacted budget, which was supposed to be in place July 1, included billions of dollars for COVID-19 relief and recovery funds. There are also significant individual and corporate income tax cuts; average 5% raises for teachers over two years and bonuses of up to $2,800; and 5% raises and bonuses over two years for most rank-and-file state employees.

Republicans gained leverage over Cooper in the budget talks as several Democrats seemed willing to join the GOP in overriding any vetoed budget. Still, Cooper continued to use his veto stamp effectively, given that Republicans lack veto-proof majorities. None of his 12 vetoes this year have been overridden.

While Cooper criticized several sections of the budget, he said the good outweighed the bad. The signing reflected greater openness by Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and the governor to negotiate this year on big-ticket legislation.

Cooper, Moore and Berger came together on an agreement to return more K-12 students to daily in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the governor and senators hammered out a consensus bill that Cooper signed that targets sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Debate on some high-profile bills that idled this year — including those that would authorize sports gambling in North Carolina and legalize marijuana for medical use — could resurface when lawmakers go back to work in 2022.

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