Under a bill passed by the NC Senate, the reasons for “demotions, transfers, suspensions, separations and dismissals” of government employees would become part of the public record. In response to concerns expressed by Senate Democrats, Republicans modified the language in HB 64 to allow the completion of an appeals process before a record is made public. However, the final vote was largely along party lines. The bill is supported by the NC Press Association but opposed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, NC Association of Educators and others. It will now go back to the NC House for further review.
The NC Senate passed legislation that would delay city elections in many NC cities from 2021 to 2022. The bill, SB 722, had previously passed the NC House with unanimous support. While nearly all of the cities affected will delay voting until March 2022, Raleigh will have until November 2022 to hold city elections. Because proposed changes to Raleigh city elections did not allow time for public input, all five Wake County senators opposed the bill, which now goes to Governor Cooper.
A bill to remove literacy testing as a prerequisite for voting from the NC Constitution has bipartisan support in the NC House and from both liberal and conservative advocacy groups in the state. While the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy testing, effectively making the North Carolina law unenforceable, several past attempts to remove the requirement from the NC Constitution were unsuccessful. Supporters of the current legislation say that while the provision can’t be enforced, removing it would have symbolic importance. HB 337 passed the House Committee on State Government. If it is approved by both the full House and by the Senate, it would be a ballot initiative in 2022.
On Wednesday, three bills that will impact voting and elections law passed the NC Senate without any support from Democrats. Under SB 326 all mail-in ballots must be received by Election Day to be counted. The law currently allows a 3-day grace period. SB 725 would prevent local governments, including election boards, from receiving outside grants - including those from charitable organizations – to help defray the cost of elections. In 2020 nonprofit organizations helped to pay for things like single-use pens, PPE equipment, and direct mailers with information about absentee and in-person voting options. Republicans claim SB 724 (titled “Expand Access to Voter ID and Voting”) would facilitate online voter registration and getting identification cards if a currently blocked voter ID law is allowed by state and federal courts to be enforced. Voting rights advocates oppose the law because implementation would be both difficult and underfunded, effectively disenfranchising many potential voters. All three bills will now go to the NC House for consideration.
Economic and Housing Policy
Under a bill approved by the NC House with bipartisan support, military retirees with at least 20 years of service or who retired due to medical reasons will not have to pay state income tax on their military retirement pay. HB 83 sponsor John Szoka (R-Cumberland) suggested that the cost to the state would be recouped as military retirees will pay state income tax when they take on second careers in the state. Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange), who voted for the bill, expressed concern that the state is underfunding many essential services, saying, "There are a lot of people who aren't paying their fair share. When we cut taxes, we ought to balance it out by finding a place where people can pay more." The bill now moves to the Senate.
The latest state tax revenue forecast, released Tuesday by the Legislative Fiscal Research Division and the Office of State Management and Budget, indicates the state will have $6.5 billion more than expected over the next two years. The increase is credited to “the state collecting more individual and corporate taxes as the economy recovers and to an economic boost from the federal American Rescue Plan” and makes it more likely there will be disagreements between the Republican-led legislature and Governor Cooper over tax cuts versus spending. Traditionally, a budget is in place by July, the start of the new fiscal year, but that will be delayed as both legislative chambers negotiate a final budget to send to the Governor. The delay could be extended if the Governor vetoes the bill.
Gov. Cooper issued a formal statement criticizing a major legislative energy policy bill that has not yet had its first public hearing. Cooper said the bill would "cost ratepayers too much, fall short of clean energy goals, hamper job recruitment and weaken the Utilities Commission, which exists to provide accountability for utility companies." He wants more emphasis on renewable energy and more input from stakeholders on a policy that will determine the state’s energy strategy for the next decade. The 50-page HB 951 was written by NC House Republicans in concert with Duke Energy, renewable energy industry representatives, and major electricity customers.
The Air Quality Committee of the NC Environmental Management Commission (EMC) recommended the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state agreement to cap companies' carbon dioxide emissions. The full EMC will vote in July on whether to join the RGGI. While major regulatory steps would need to be developed, including a long rule-making process and public hearings, environmental advocacy groups were pleased by the committee’s recommendation.
Gun Violence Prevention
Gov. Cooper vetoed SB 43, a bill that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry guns in churches that meet on school property as long as the school was not in session. In his veto message, Governor Cooper said, “For the safety of students and teachers, North Carolina should keep guns off school grounds,”
Women’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights
The federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a block on a North Carolina statute that would severely limit abortions rights. The law, enacted in 2016, sought to ban abortions - with very few exceptions - after 20 weeks’ gestation. It was originally blocked in 2016 in a lower court on appeal from several reproductive rights advocates.