News: CJ Exclusives

Contentious legislative session ends with tentative talk of unity

The final day of a sometimes divisive election year legislative session ended with bipartisan back slaps, and emotional farewell speeches injected with folksy humor, good-natured jabs, reminiscence, and heartfelt thanks from those who will not return next year.

The gavel fell Friday, June 29, on a session that began May 16. It was not only one of the shorter sessions in recent history, but also one crammed with contention: Constitutional amendments. Gubernatorial vetoes and legislative overrides. Controversial budget adjustments. A massive teacher rally. Heightened security screening at the Legislative Building.

The General Assembly adjourned until noon, Nov. 27. The only other action taken Friday completed House Bill 1092, a constitutional amendment requiring photo identification to vote. Senators approved the bill on a 33-12 party line vote, setting aside the heated rhetoric from the previous day. It now goes to voters to decide in the Nov. 6 general election.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Elections, gave brief remarks supporting the measure. He couched his remarks in terms of the right of people to self-governance, allowing citizens to decide.

Photo ID is one of six constitutional amendments passed this session. The Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement said they will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot in this order:

  • Protect the right to hunt and fish
  • Expand the rights of crime victims and their families
  • Establish a Bipartisan Ethics and Elections Board
  • Create a nonpartisan, merit-selection commission to nominate judges to vacant positions
  • Cap the maximum personal income tax rate at 7 percent
  • Require photo ID to vote.

The Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, chaired by the secretary of state, must draft language explaining the amendments, and prepare the caption for the ballot, at least 75 days before the election. The language will be distributed to local election boards and the public.

During the biennium Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper set a veto record, rejecting 23 bills. The Republican-led legislature voted to override 18 of them. (A 19th measure was folded into another vetoed bill which was overridden.)

Education funding caused much of the partisan conflict during the 2018 session.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the Republican legislative leadership had three priorities for education: Award meaningful raises to teachers and school administrators; address school safety concerns; and expand educational options.  

“Despite resistance from their political opponents, lawmakers achieved all three within the first few weeks of the session,” Stoops said. “Most returning teachers and school administrators will return to work in the fall with bigger paychecks and safer schools.”

He said “big deal” education items passed this year included:

  • Increases funding for public education by nearly $700 million.
  • A 6.5 percent average salary increase for teachers, which is projected to bring the state’s average teacher salary to $53,700.
  • A 6.9 percent increase to the principal salary schedule. Principals may qualify for performance-based bonuses of up to $20,000.
  • Total of $35 million for school safety initiatives
  • Cities will be allowed to allocate property tax and other unrestricted revenues to district, laboratory, charter, regional, and Innovative School District schools.
  • Placing students who score a five on math end-of-grade or end-of-course tests into advanced math classes the following year.
  • Requiring Superintendent Mark Johnson to study and make recommendations on reducing testing not mandated by the state or federal government.
  • Municipal government leaders may constitute or appoint a board that may apply to operate a charter school in their jurisdiction.

In a news release, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, touted other GOP accomplishments, and pledged to build on them next year.

“Eight years ago, legislative Republicans promised to chart a new course for North Carolina, and ever since, we’ve worked tirelessly to place our state on a path to better economic growth, greater prosperity and a stronger public education system,” Berger said.

“During that time, North Carolina has experienced historic gains, including more funding for public education than ever before, average teacher pay raises of nearly 20 percent, comprehensive tax reform, and tax relief for millions of North Carolinians,” Berger said.

 Sadie Weiner, spokeswoman for Gov. Roy Cooper, had a much different take. In an email, she said nearly 20,000 educators rallied at the General Assembly for more resources. She said North Carolina is 37th in the nation in teacher pay, 39th in per pupil spending, and funding for basic classroom supplies has been cut dramatically.

She called the 2018-19 spending plan “a special interest budget” because “Republican leaders froze the public out of the budget process. They announced a budget written in secret without public input and prohibited amendments for the first time in modern history.”

Weiner said teachers did not receive meaningful pay raises, but Republicans approved $53 million in pork, and tax breaks for corporations and families earning more than $200,000 per year.

“Teachers and families gave legislators a clear mandate for this session: Do more for public schools,” Weiner said. “But at every turn, Republican leaders have ignored the pleas of educators.”

Nine lawmakers will not return in 2019 after losing primary contests. In Senate District 31, Sen. Dan Barrett lost to Sen. Joyce Krawiec. In Senate District 45, Sen. Shirley Randleman lost to Sen. Deanna Ballard. Rep. Sam Watford, R-Davidson, lost a bid for a Senate seat.

Other incumbent primary losers were Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg; Sen. David Curtis, R-Lincoln; Rep. Beverly Boswell, R-Hyde; Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake; Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg; and Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly.

Fifteen lawmakers are retiring, or already stepped down. They are Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake; Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union; Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort; Sen. Cathy Dunn, R-Davidson; Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett; Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash; Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wake; Rep. Bob Muller, R-Pender; Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham; Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham; Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford; Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash; Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson; Rep. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg; and Rep. Linda Hunt Williams, R-Wake.

Cook reflected fondly on his eight years in the Senate, jesting, “It’s taken most of the last six years to recover from the first two.”

Michaux, the General Assembly’s longest-serving legislator, gave a lengthy, colorful speech highlighting his multifaceted career, and work with many of the country’s civil rights lions.

“Once you forget your history, it has a tendency to repeat itself,” he said, warning his colleagues not to return to a darker time in the nation’s history. He ended by reciting the lyrics to the Frank Sinatra tune “My Way.”

Rabin reminded that the motto on the nation’s Great Seal is “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one.

“That’s not a message of diversity. It’s a message of unity,” Rabin said. “I’m not saying that we cannot disagree, but when we disagree in ways that are deleterious to our strength as a people, we’re doing the wrong thing. We’re doing an injustice to the United States of America, to North Carolina, and to your respective districts and counties.”