Slow and Steady: Legislature's Short Session Got the Job Done
Not all that long ago, North Carolina legislators usually didn't bother returning to the state capital during even-numbered years.
Four decades ago, state lawmakers typically met in odd-numbered years, passed a two-year budget and a gaggle of other legislation, went back to their hometowns and regular jobs, and didn't come back to Raleigh for another two years.
The regular legislative short session began in the early 1970s, and in those initial years, it was usually just that -- short. Typically, the even-year sessions would last just two or three weeks.
In one of those early short sessions, in 1976, legislators passed just seven bills.
Thirty-two years later, North Carolina legislators still convene in early May for the short session. But at the conclusion of that session last week, they had sent 1,440 requests for bills and resolutions to the legislature's bill drafting division. They had passed 264 bills and 24 resolutions.
That may sound like a lot. But the world and the state are a bit more complicated than they were in a largely rural North Carolina, circa 1976.
And in a lot of ways, the short session of 2008 looked a lot like what a legislative short session is supposed to look like.
Lawmakers got their work done in 10 weeks, adjourning on a Friday afternoon that was, by recent comparisons, leisurely. Only a handful of the typical hastily considered, ill-advised, end-of-session measures were approved in the final few days.
The honorables had accomplished their main task -- revising the state budget passed a year earlier -- just a few days into the new fiscal year. And, with a few exceptions, they had otherwise addressed issues that were either fairly pressing or straightforward enough to warrant the more brief vetting and debate characteristics of a short session.
Legislation passed included drought-related measures sought by Gov. Mike Easley, more tools to fight criminal gangs, changes to public official ethics reforms passed two years earlier, the legalization of online ticket scalping, and the easing of tractor-trailer and boat-towing size restrictions.
The $21.4 billion state budget didn't stop at providing modest pay increases to state employees and loading on another $857 million in new debt for university and prison construction. The spending plan includes some tax fairness measures for small businesses hit with bills for back sales tax collections, and provisions designed to put the state's struggling mental-health system reforms back on track.
Legislators began the short session on the heels of a historic March special session in which the House expelled one of its members, former Rep. Thomas Wright. He became the first legislator expelled from either the House or the Senate since the 19th century.
Wright was eventually sentenced to prison on charges that he fraudulently obtained back loans and pocketed thousands in campaign donations. But by the time the legislative session began in May, corruption probes that led to his imprisonment and that of former House Speaker Jim Black seemed to be in legislators' rearview mirror.
Black's successor as speaker, Orange County Democrat Joe Hackney, had successfully united House Democrats. He had done so while giving Republicans a chance to have their say on the chamber floor and generally following rules in a way that gave them a shot at influencing legislation.
In the Senate, the reign of Dare Democrat Marc Basnight as chamber leader continued. But several senators who had sought or were seeking higher office -- Democrats Kay Hagan, Walter Dalton and Janet Cowell, and Republicans Fred Smith and Robert Pittenger -- prepared to leave or did so.
Against that backdrop, legislative budget writers plowed immediately into the task of revising the two-year state budget passed the year before. Easley had sought a 7 percent pay raise for teachers, at a cost of about $400 million. But the economic downturn meant tighter state revenues, and legislators balked.
House budget writers even rejected a Senate proposal that would have given the governor the flexibility to provide additional teacher raises if the economic picture brightened.
Instead, the two sides agreed to a plan that provided teachers with an average pay hike of 3 percent, while other state employees received the greater of 2.75 percent or $1,100. Easley also didn't get all the money he wanted to expand his two education initiatives, the More at Four preschool program and the early college enrollment Learn and Earn program. Lawmakers, though, did provide him some budget flexibility likely to allow some expansion of Learn and Earn.
The budget also continued a trend of boosting non-voter approved debt, this time to the tune of $857 million. Republican legislative leaders called the borrowing irresponsible, especially in light of gloomy economic forecasts. Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said Democrats had left "a ticking time bomb for next year's legislature."
The budget, which gained bipartisan support in the House, gave tax relief to bakers, interior designers and other small business owners who -- stuck with thousands in back tax bills -- complained of being trapped by changing sales tax definitions at the Department of Revenue.
"North Carolina is better than this," said Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat who pushed the changes.
Mental Health Reforms
Also included in the budget bill were numerous changes to the state's mental health system, many of them designed to correct problems associated with a program called community support. The program, with loose service definitions and little review of who received services, experienced huge cost overruns.
To try to get a handle on the problem, legislators told state health officials to revise the service definitions and created different payment rates for different services. Another budget provision allowed local mental health agencies to contract with local hospitals to provide psychiatric beds.
Another issue that both Easley and lawmakers were intent on addressing was how to cope better with drought. The effects of the 2007 drought still lingered around the state, particularly in western counties, as the debate evolved. Easley wanted more authority to force water sharing among communities and the ability to impose uniform, mandatory conservation measures under extreme conditions.
He didn't get exactly what he wanted. But the legislation did ultimately give the governor more power, and water systems were faced with more state oversight if they failed to conserve in extreme drought.
On ethics, legislators tweaked the law that they passed two years earlier. In at least one way -- changing a final question on economic disclosure forms filed by public officials -- they weakened the law.
In the final days of the session, lawmakers also agreed to legalize ticket-scalping over the Internet. Supporters argued that legalizing the practice would provide some protections for consumers and event venues which don't exist now with an unregulated industry operating with unenforceable laws. Opponents, though, said North Carolina would be doing away with its ticket-scalping law.
After the final gavel had fallen, the bell had been rung on the session, Hackney had a far different take on the session than Berger and other legislative Republicans.
"We have preserved the fiscal stability of our state government," he said. "We have budgeted conservatively."
Certainly, in the months ahead, he'll be proven right or wrong.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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