2015 Session in Review

The North Carolina General Assembly adjourned just after 4:00 in the morning on Wednesday September 30th, 2015. Barring the Governor calling legislators to return for a special session, the adjournment resolution reconvenes the General Assembly April 25th, 2016 for the legislature’s short session. There will be several interim legislative Committees that will meet between now and the start of the 2016 short session to study particular issues and prepare legislation for the next session. 

Christensen: Why the legislature meets so long– N&O

Propelled by the extended length of this year’s session, discussions have begun on how to address the session length of what is supposed to be a part-time legislature. Proposals include placing constitutional limits on the length of session. Another option is to make the legislature full-time, as North Carolina is one of the larger States lacking a full-time professional legislature. Some also argue that limiting the content of legislation could have an impact. 

Momentum builds for changes in General Assembly – Rocky Mount Telegram 

Spotlight on ‘citizen’ lawmaker pay in NC – N&O 

Politicos propose legislative session limits – WRAL 

The case for a full-time legislature in North Carolina – N&O

Click here to view image.

The State Budget

Every session the legislature crafts a 2-year, biennial budget which they adjust in the short session to reflect the second year’s revenues. This year the budget was reflected in House Bill 97. Republicans took control of the legislature in the middle of the economic downturn and were forced to make cuts in state spending in order to balance the budget, which is constitutionally required. This biennium however, Republican budget writers crafted the state's spending plan with a surplus for the first time since coming to power.

Initial reports of a $271 Million revenue shortfall early in the year were proven wildly inaccurate as the State finished the 2014-15 fiscal year with a $445 Million surplus. While it is generally a good thing for the State to be in the black on revenues, extra money to spend often creates more hostility than peace in the legislative building. With a surplus, the Governor, along with every legislator, agency and special interest has an idea how some or all of the money should be spent, often leading to an extended budget fight. Having a revenue shortfall is much easier for lawmakers to manage than a surplus, because it is easier for budget writers to say “no” to new or increased spending. The budget was supposed to be enacted by June 30th, 2015 the last day of the 2014-15 fiscal year. After three temporary spending measures to extend the previous year’s budget and avoid a government shutdown, the Governor signed the State’s two-year spending plan on September 18th, 2015. The budget spends a total of $21.734 Billion and is an increase of 3.1% from the previous fiscal year.
 
Transportation

  • Ends transfer of money from the Highway Trust Fund to the general fund, allocating $216 Million each year towards road construction
  • Raises various DMV fees roughly 30%
  • Increases highway use tax on certain commercial vehicles
  • Gives DOT authority to plan and build additional toll roads and bridges
  • Establishes DOT report program, requiring the Department to fix minor problems, such as filling potholes, within two business days after a complaint is filed
  • Eliminates 29 specific positions at DOT and gives discretion to the Department to select an additional 21 positions the budget mandates it to eliminate
  • Imposed $500,000 limit on State funds for light rail projects, repealed in a later bill 
    Education
  • Increases base teacher pay from $33,000 to $35,000
  • Maintains funding for teacher assistants with spending flexibility in year one but removes flexibility in year two
  • Funds drivers education for the biennium
  • Increases funding for opportunity scholarships by $14 Million, which is the voucher program established to aid students from low income families who attend private school
  • Reduces funding for UNC system by approximately $18 Million
  • Provides an additional $3 Million to Elizabeth City State University for improvements to technology and to enhance recruitment
  • Provides $8 Million to the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University to stabilize the medical school’s budget deficit
  • Increases tuition for Community Colleges from $72 to $76 per credit hour 
    Health & Human Services
  • Discontinues State funding for Planned Parenthood
  • Provides $225 Million in nonrecurring funds for the newly created Medicaid Transformation Fund
  • Increases funding for three-way psychiatric beds by 7%
  • Funds new mental health treatment units in 8 prisons
  • Increases the age that children may remain in foster care to 21 
    Natural & Economic Resources
  • Retains the State’s renewable energy portfolio standards (REPS) which requires 6% of electricity sales be generated from renewable sources and is schedule to increase to 12.5% by 2021
  • Does not extend the State’s 5-year, 35% renewable energy tax credit for solar farms beyond 2015 for new projects unless it is at least 80% complete
  • Provides $500,000 for shale gas exploration 
    Transfers the State’s, zoo, aquariums and the Natural Sciences Museum from the Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) to the Department of Cultural Resources, forming a new Department of Cultural & Natural Resources and a new Department of Environmental Quality

Justice & Public Safety 

  •  Increases funding for court operations by 11.4% the first year and by 20.1% the second year
  • Increases funding for interpreters, expert witnesses, and juror fees by 31.3%
  • Provides funding for 5 business court judges
  • Provides $1.8 Million for the planning and implementation of the eCourts initiative
  • Funds pay step increases for assistant and deputy clerks, magistrates and highway patrolmen
  • Moves the Capitol Police from its own independent force and places it under Highway Patrol
  • Provides $4 Million to fund outside counsel for current and pending litigation costs in legal challenges against the State. 
    Miscellaneous
  • Provides one-time $750 bonus to all State employees
  • Establishes new cabinet level Department of Military & Veteran’s Affairs
  • Establishes new cabinet level Department of Information Technology
  • Increases the State’s Saving Reserve Account by $200 Million, bringing the balance of that account to approximately $850 Million
  • Provides $30 Million in nonrecurring funds for film grant fund for each year of the biennium
  • Provides $1 Million for study of beneficial reuse of coal ash

Leaders chosen to run two new state Cabinet-level agencies – N&O

Various Tax Changes

One of the cornerstones of the tax reform package, much of which was contained in the budget, was the expansion of the sales tax base. Amid the controversy of the redistribution of sales tax receipts to the counties, additional services were added to sales tax collections, which, although collected in all counties, will be distributed to only 79 of the less affluent. This was the compromise on the sales tax redistribution.

The legislation levies a tax on the “sales price of or the gross receipts derived from repair, maintenance and installation services.” In order to add some clarity as to what is included, the Department of Revenue issued an overview of the tax changes on October 15, 2015. It included several new categories of sales taxes: shoe repair services, watch, clock and jewelry repair services, and tire recapping and retreading services. The Department of Revenue will give additional information on sales and use taxes for repair, maintenance and installation services prior to March 1, 2016, the effective date of the new taxes. The update is expected to include additional trades. 
NCDOR - Summarizing Sales and Use Tax Changes

Highlights from the recent tax changes include: 
 

  • Phases in single sales factor apportionment over 3 years beginning in 2016 and includes a study to review market based sourcing
  • Cuts corporate tax rate from 5% to 4% in 2016 and if revenue targets are met, to 3% in 2017
  • Cuts personal income tax rate from 5.759% to 5.499% for 2017
  • Increases standard deduction beginning in 2016 by $500, from $15,000 to $15,500 for married filing jointly
  • No change in distribution model for existing sales tax revenues
  • Broadens sales tax base to include repair, maintenance and installation services, revenues from which are earmarked to benefit 79 of the State’s suburban and rural Counties
  • Restores unlimited medical deduction
  • Restores historic preservation tax credit
  • Maintains unlimited charitable deduction
  • Maintains cap on sales tax refund for nonprofits at $45 Million 
    Allows State’s 35% renewable energy tax credit to sunset at the end of the year

Economy, Agriculture & Environment

Economic Incentives 

House Bill 117, the NC Competes Act makes several changes designed to help business.

  • Job Development & Investment Grant (JDIG) modifications that would:
    • Increase the available funds in JDIG to $20 Million per calendar year with no high yield project
    • Provide additional $15 Million in flexibility to attract high yield projects ($500+ Million in investment/1,750 jobs) bringing maximum JDIG availability per calendar year to $35 Million
    • Extend program three years to January 1, 2019
    • Require tier three counties to have local government participation in recruitment of the project and to have offered additional incentives to be eligible for JDIG funds
  • Require local match for One NC fund on a tiered requirement: 3 State dollars for 1 local dollar for Tier 1 Counties; 2 State dollars for 1 local dollar for Tier 2; and an even local match for Tier 3
  • Make various tax changes for data centers and aviation

Bond Package 

House Bill 943, entitled the Connect NC Bond Act of 2015, is the $2 Billion bond proposal that will go before the voters for their approval on the 2016 primary election ballot. Since the Governor signed the elections bill into law, which moved the State’s primaries from May to March, a vote on the bond would take place on March 15, 2016. Upon the approval of the voters, the bond will support infrastructure projects for the UNC system, the Community College system, and several other new projects or renovations for existing facilities in State government. Governor McCrory had originally proposed a larger bond package that was closer to $3 Billion and included money for transportation projects. The legislature however cites their move in the budget to end the transfer of funds from the Highway Trust Fund to the general fund, allocating an additional $216 Million each year towards road construction. The distribution of the bonds is now being analyzed and as to be expected, some areas of the State will benefit more than others. 

Voters to decide on $2B bond package – WRAL 

Consultants hired for bond campaign – WRAL 

Breaking down North Carolina's Bond Act – Star News

Regulatory Reform 

House Bill 765, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, is a bill designed to streamline or eliminate antiquated rules and regulations hindering business.

  • Makes clarifications for legislative appointments by the Speaker of the House and the President Pro-Tem of the Senate
  • Amends the definition of employee under the Workers’ Compensation Act to exclude volunteers and officers of certain nonprofit corporations and associations
  • Makes various changes to laws regarding wastewater, storm water and air quality
  • Codifies practices for environmental self-audit privileges and limited immunity for businesses and other entities
  • Studies the recycling of computer equipment, televisions, other electronics and solar panels
  • Establishes “life of site” permits for sanitary landfills and makes fee adjustments
  • Permits pigeon hunting
  • Creates animal cruelty hotline

McCrory signs deregulation bill, other legislation – N&O

Unemployment Insurance 

Senate Bill 15 contains a number of changes to the State’s unemployment insurance laws. One of the more notable provisions is the suspension of the 20% surtax on employers, which became effective once the Unemployment Trust Fund balance reached $1 Billion. Governor McCrory announced on Thursday November 12th, 2015that the balance in the reserve fund reached that threshold. This will have a substantial impact for the State, potentially saving employers $240 Million annually. The bill also begins charging benefits to employer’s accounts quarterly rather than annually. Another provision requires claimants of unemployment insurance to show a valid photo identification to receive their benefits. The section that received the most attention increased the number of required weekly job contacts from two to five for recipients of unemployment insurance. It also confirmed the Governor’s appointments to the Board of Review which oversees decisions made by the Division of Employment Security and staggers their terms. 

N.C. restores jobless insurance benefits reserve – N&O

North Carolina Farm Act of 2015 

Senate Bill 513, The North Carolina Farm Act of 2015 makes several noncontroversial changes to benefit agriculture, North Carolina’s largest industry. However, one provision that was removed from the legislation amid substantial controversy was added back to the bill in the Conference Report. The provision transfers the oversight of deer farming from the Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS). Opponents are concerned about the spread of chronic wasting disease, but advocates of the transfer say that DACS is best equipped to handle the containment of any possible outbreak.

Protest Petitions 

House Bill 201, a bill ends the zoning protest petition process. A protest petition is a tool for property owners to challenge the rezoning of adjacent property and require a higher affirmative vote percentage by the local governing body to change the zoning. Advocates for the change argued that current law puts too much power to halt projects in the hands of a few while opponents claim current law levels the playing field in battling large corporations.

Property Protection Act 

House Bill 405, sponsored by Rep. Szoka (R-Cumberland), is officially entitled the Property Protection Act and unofficially called, “Ag Gag” by opponents. The bill allows businesses to sue employees who obtain employment solely for an “undercover investigation” to expose business practices. The bill drew criticism from a number of organizations, but chiefly from animal rights groups who claimed the legislation would prevent employees from exposing the treatment of animals at less than reputable farms and slaughterhouses. Proponents claimed there are adequate protections for “whistleblowers”, legitimate employees who did not seek the employment with the sole intent of exposing any abusive actions or practices. The Governor vetoed the legislation, one of the two vetoes he issued this session, but the two chambers quickly proceeded to override the Governor’s veto in a bipartisan vote.

Ride Sharing 

Senate Bill 541, Regulate Transportation Network Companies is directed at ride sharing services. The bill imposes basic statewide regulatory standards on drivers for services such as Uber and Lyft. Among other things, the bill requires the transportation company and its drivers to obtain permits and establishes basic levels of insurance coverage required for drivers. While Uber praised the bill in an email to users, Taxi companies derided the legislation for being less restrictive on the ride sharing service than regulations on the taxi industry.

Healthcare

Medicaid Reform 

House Bill 372, Medicaid Transformation and Reorganization, reforms the Medicaid system in the State.

  • Creates a new Division of Health Benefits (DHB) to administer Medicaid, retaining it under the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS)
  • Gives lawmakers confirmation powers over the Governor’s appointment to oversee the Division
  • Moves the state to capitated, full-risk contracts one year after CMS approval
  • Allows both Managed Care Organizations (MCO) and PLE’s to bid on an RFP to manage the State’s Medicaid population, defining them under the category of Prepaid Health Plans (PHP’s)
  • Allows 3 statewide contracts to be awarded to PHP’s and up to 10 regional contracts which are limited to PLE’s. PLE’s may bid on more than one regional contract provided the regions are contiguous
  • Phases in LME/MCO’s, which manage mental health in the State, 4 years after the capitated PHP contracts begin
  • Keeps dental Medicaid as the lone carve out remaining fee for service
  • Establishes Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and Health Choice to oversee and review budgetary, financial, administrative and operational aspects of DHB
  • Gives DHHS full authority to write waivers and State Plan Amendments (SPA), but must notify the Oversight Committee and post the amendment publicly online no fewer than 10 days before submission

Changing Medicaid to managed care could take years – WRAL Jones named as operations director for new Medicaid division – WRAL

Women and Children's Protection Act of 2015 

House Bill 465, sponsored by Rep. Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg) requires women who request an abortion to wait 72 hours before the abortion could be performed and puts limitations on which doctors can perform them. Additionally, the bill was turned into an omnibus bill that includes a provision closing a loophole in the laws around statutory rape, applying to victims 15 years old and younger instead of current law that applies to those that are 13,14 and 15 years of age. A second provision added sex offenders that are convicted in other states or in federal court to the list of people not allowed near playgrounds. Attempts to sever the abortion language from the other provisions and vote on them separately failed in both chambers.

End Marketing/Sale of Unborn Children Body Parts 

House Bill 297 comes in response to several online videos of members from Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of fetal tissue. It also eliminates any State funding for any organization, such as Planned Parenthood, that provides family planning services, pregnancy prevention activities, or adolescent parenting programs that also performs abortions.

Autism Insurance

Senate Bill 676, Autism Health Insurance Coverage requires health insurance companies operating in North Carolina to cover certain treatments for children under 18 years old with autism. Insurers can also set a $40,000 ceiling for coverage.

Legacy Medical Care Facilities 

Senate Bill 698 exempts existing hospital facilities that have closed and are not currently operating from Certificate of Need laws and allows them to reopen if certain requirements and conditions are met. The bill is aimed at reopening hospitals in Belhaven and Yadkinville. In addition, the legislation eliminates the Certificate of Public Advantage (COPA), which restricts Mission Hospital from expansion, but allows protection from antitrust laws. It also clarifies that Hospital Authorities are authorized to operate outside of North Carolina.

Elections

Election Changes 

Among several electoral changes, House Bill 373 moves the State’s primary elections up from May to March 15th. The intent of this change is to give North Carolina a more influential voice in the process of selecting presidential nominees. In all but a few cases, by the time North Carolina has held its primary election, a candidate from each party has all but secured the nomination. The provision also moves the filing period for candidates from February to the first week of December. This means that legislators seeking reelection will have to file less than a year into their two year term. Another provision that would have made the State an attractive, winner-take-all primary was changed to allow proportional allocation of delegates. The most controversial section of the bill creates “affiliated party committees” which can operate in the same fashion as the statewide Republican and Democratic parties, but as their own entities. The bill only allows the State’s House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses to form these committees. This prompted the Governor to threaten to veto the bill. However, a change made in the Technical Corrections bill allows Council of State candidates to do the same, which appeased the Governor’s concerns. 

Earlier NC primary means quicker decisions but some confusion – WRAL

Judicial Campaigns 

House Bill 222 allowed sitting Justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court to run for reelection in retention elections instead of competitive, expensive battles against an opponent. It initially also included members of the Court of Appeals, but that section was removed in the Senate so that it only applied to the Supreme Court. The change is effective for 2016 and the only seat up on the Supreme Court in the 2016 election is currently held by conservative Justice Bob Edmunds.

Court of Appeals Election Modifications 

House Bill 8, entitled Court of Appeals Election Modifications, restores partisan judicial labels next to the names of candidates for the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Currently a candidate’s party affiliation is absent on the ballot and all candidates for a seat on the Court run in a collective primary to determine two candidates for the general election. Opponents argue that partisan politics should remain absent from judicial elections. However, proponents argue that this change would make the process more transparent as political parties currently endorse judicial candidates and include their names on material they distribute at the polls. Under this bill, all candidates will still participate in a collective primary, meaning that two candidates of the same party could still face off in the general election.

Local Intervention

Wake County Commission Redistricting 

Senate Bill 181 increased the number of members on the Wake County Commission from seven to nine, while also drawing commissioners into individual districts for the 2016 election. Rather than voting at-large in all County Commission races, the bill changed the electoral structure so that voters would only be able to vote in two races, their individual district, and one of the two new regional districts in which they reside.

Greensboro City Council Redistricting 

House Bill 263 restructured the Greensboro City Council by decreasing the number of Council members from nine to eight while simultaneously redrawing the council to be elected from districts. It also prevented the Council from redistricting itself after the 2020 census and instead would have the legislature redraw the districts. The controversial bill barely passed the House, but succeeded due to parliamentary maneuvering and a few changed votes. The plan is under litigation and a federal judge granted an injunction so that it will not be in effect for this election cycle. However, the legislature made a change in the Technical Corrections bill at the end of session which may invalidate the lawsuit, allowing the Council to redistrict itself after the census instead of the NCGA.

Notable Legislation

Gun Law Changes 

The legislature was able to pass House Bill 562, Amend Firearm Laws, but only after a series of amendments that softened or removed several of the more contentious provisions. The bill allows District Attorneys and Administrative Law Judges that have concealed handgun permits to carry a firearm concealed in the courtroom. It also allows a permit holder to have a firearm that is in a closed compartment in a locked vehicle on educational property. A provision that some pro-gun Republicans did not like would allow the Commissioner of Agriculture to prohibit the carrying of firearms at the State Fair was also included.

Protect North Carolina Workers Act 

House Bill 318 entitled Protect North Carolina Workers Act deals with food stamps and immigration. The bill prohibits the Department of Health & Human Services from seeking a waiver to the time limits established by federal law for able-bodied adults, without dependents, to receive food stamps. Another section of the bill places limitations on acceptable forms of identification that law enforcement and other government officials may use to officially determine an individual’s identity. It also requires law enforcement in localities to uphold federal immigration laws, eliminating “sanctuary cities” for people in the country illegally. The bill drew protest from the Hispanic community who delivered a petition to the Governor asking him to veto the legislation, which he declined to do.

Magistrate Recusal 

Senate Bill 2 allows magistrates to recuse themselves from performing all marriages for a six month period, based on sincerely held religious beliefs. One of several bills vetoed by the Governor, the Senate handily overrode the Governor’s veto. The House needed to utilize the “veto garage”, a tactic of calendaring the bill every day until there are enough votes to override the veto. Overriding the Governor’s veto requires a three-fifths majority of the members “present and voting” which would be 72 if all members were in the chamber. However, ten members were absent for the vote which decreased that threshold. The override in the House passed 69-41 three votes over the necessary 66.

Lethal Injections 

House Bill 774 allows executions to resume in North Carolina. Previously, the law required a physician to be present at an execution to monitor the lethal injection. Changes in the bill however allow a lethal injection to proceed with a defined medical professional present to supervise including physician assistants, nurses, and paramedics. A physician must still be on site to pronounce the person dead. Another provision exempts information from public records about the drugs used in the lethal injection, including the contents and dose of the drug, as well as information on suppliers and manufacturers. The bill also exempts the procedure from the State’s rule making process and gives the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety the discretion to release information pertaining to the procedure.

Sunday Hunting 

House Bill 640, the Outdoor Heritage Act, sponsored by Rep. Dixon (R-Duplin) allows restricted hunting on Sundays in North Carolina. The bill permits hunters in all but two Counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, to hunt on Sundays except between the hours of 9:30AM-12:30PM, when worship services generally take place. There are several other restrictions in the bill, including no hunting being allowed within 500 yards of a place of worship. The bill also prohibits the hunting of migratory birds and deer hunting with dogs on Sundays. Bow hunting is already allowed on Sundays.

Gas Tax Changes 

Senate Bill 20, sponsored by Sen. Rabon (R-Brunswick) made changes to the gas tax. One of the highest in the region, the gas tax formula in North Carolina was calculated semiannually in correlation with the wholesale price of gasoline. Projections had shown that the gas tax was scheduled to drop to roughly 30 cents per gallon in July. Under that formula, revenues from the gas tax would have dropped hundreds of Millions of dollars, crippling road maintenance over the next four years. The bill reduced the gas tax rate from 37.5 cents per gallon to 36 cents per gallon until the end of 2015 and then drops it to 35 cents per gallon on January 1, 2016 and 34 cents per gallon July 1, 2016. Lawmakers are likely to readdress the issue in the short session in an attempt to reconfigure how the formula for the tax is calculated.

Technical Corrections 

Senate Bill 119, the Technical Corrections bill was the last piece of substantive legislation passed by the General Assembly this year. The perennial legislation is intended to make various clarifying and technical changes to statutes, but often contains revisions to policy as well. Among other provisions, the Conference Report amended the recently passed Elections bill, to add the legislative caucuses and the Council of State to the list of “affiliated party committees”. It also modified legislation from earlier this year that redistricted the Greensboro City Council which is currently under litigation. The change would allow the Council to redistrict itself after the 2020 census.

Burt’s Law 

The title of Senate Bill 445, “Burt’s Law”, refers to a special-needs adult who was sexually abused while in a group home. Some employees witnessed the abuse but failed to properly report the offenses to authorities. The law now increases penalties for witnesses of such abuse in a group home who fail to properly report the offenses.

ABC Bill 

House Bill 909, entitled ABC Omnibus Legislation, contains a number of provisions regarding ABC laws in NC. It includes a ban on powdered alcohol. It also contains a provision that took affect October 1st allowing distilleries that give tours to sell one commemorative bottle of liquor at the distillery per year to an individual that takes the tour. This was the first time since prohibition that a bottle of spirituous liquor could be legally sold outside of an ABC store in North Carolina. 

Looser alcohol laws benefit NC distilleries, retailers – N&O

Monument Protections 

Senate Bill 22  prohibits the removal of certain “objects of remembrance,” such as monuments, on public property by a local governing body. The bill was controversial because it would protect Confederate memorials that are displayed across the state.

Sex Ed 

Senate Bill 279 rewrites qualifications for professional counselors and changes curriculum requirements for reproductive education in schools. A Conference Report to the bill had included new provisions that would have overturned local ordinances establishing higher minimum wages as well as nondiscrimination and safety ordinances. The Conference Report came directly to the floor for adoption which included the entirely new language, which Rep. Jackson (D-Wake) correctly pointed out is against House rules. The specific rule says that Conference Reports containing language that was not contained in either chamber’s version must be vetted in Committee. He then made a motion to send the bill to the Rules Committee which passed with the help of several Republicans. The House Rules Committee met shortly after to review the bill and members voted 14-7 not to send the legislation back to the floor. Sen. Barefoot (R-Wake), the bill sponsor, was able to revive an earlier version of the bill in a series of procedural motions. This allowed the Senate to reconsider the vote to concur with the House version, which did not include the language overturning local ordinances.

Term Limits for UNC Board of Governors 

Senate Bill 670 imposed term limits for the UNC Board of Governors, restricting service to no more than three, four-year terms beginning in 2017. Another provision that would have made the list of finalists in the search for the next president of the UNC system public was removed. The bill sat on the Governor’s desk until the Board of Governor’s selected Margaret Spelling to succeed Tom Ross as President of the UNC System, and then he signed it.

Legislative Appointments 

House Bill 272 is the perennial appointments bill. Both the Speaker of the House and the President Pro-Tem of the Senate have statutory authority to make appointments to various Boards and Commissions and this bill fills any vacancies that may turnover.

What Else Happened?

The State paid off the $2.75 Billion in debt owed to the federal government for unemployment claims. During the recession, the state authorized borrowing from the federal government to pay for unemployment claims that outpaced the funds reserved to cover them. The state accelerated the date by which the debt would be paid off by increasing unemployment taxes on businesses and reducing the duration and amount of the benefits. A reserve fund is planned to cover future economic downturns.

After thirteen years of controversy, the State sold the 307-acre Dorothea Dix property to the City of Raleigh for $52 Million. The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS), currently housed on the Dix campus has a ten-year window to relocate its operations and will pay rent for up to 10 years to the City until they are able to do relocate.

Governor McCrory pardoned two half-brothers who spent more than thirty years on death row and were exonerated last year. The two were convicted in 1983 for the rape and murder of an 11 year-old girl, but DNA tests last year revealed that the two were innocent. The pardons, which had been on Gov. McCrory’s desk for nine months, were necessary for the two men to collect compensation for their improper incarceration.

Governor McCrory’s lawsuit against the General Assembly over appointments in a separation of powers dispute is still pending. The case involves the creation of the Coal Ash Commission, established last year by the NCGA where six of the nine appointees were appointed by the legislature and three by the Governor. Governor McCrory was joined by former Governors Jim Hunt (D) and Jim Martin (R) in the suit. The result of the case, which will not be decided until later this year, could cause an upheaval in the makeup of state boards and commissions if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Governor.

Another court battle over Voter ID is still pending as well. The lawsuit was put on hold due to lawmakers adding a “reasonable impediment” clause to the law, which allows voters who fail to present identification to cast a provisional ballot. However a Wake County Judge is allowing the case to move forward, but not until 2016. Any further proceedings will not happen until after the 2016 primary election to see if the changes the General Assembly put in place this year are sufficient.

Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring the North Carolina Supreme Court to review its original decision to uphold the election maps, the Court again heard arguments. There is no timetable for Justices to make a decision, but regardless of the decision, another federal appeal is likely. 

Ruling awaited over pair of N Carolina congressional maps – N&O

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the State’s opportunity scholarships or “school vouchers” are constitutional. School vouchers supplement the tuition for low income students who attend private school. Opponents of the 2013 law argued that public funds should not be used to help pay tuition to private religious schools.

An initial draft was submitted in August from the Academic Standards Review Commission, which is tasked with either modifying or replacing the State’s education standards. The Commission, put in place by lawmakers last year, was created to examine the relatively new national education standards known as Common Core. The charge to repeal Common Core has been led by conservative groups that view the national standards as overreach from the federal government.

What Didn’t Happen This Year?

  • The State landing an auto manufacturer
  • Redistricting Reform
  • Medicaid expansion
  • Certificate of Need (CON) reform
  • Crowdfunding legislation
  • Third party premium payments for dialysis
  • Per-capita sales tax redistribution
  • Legalization of medical marijuana
  • Gubernatorial “team ticket”
  • Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR)
  • Repeal of sales tax refund for nonprofits
  • Insurance coverage for oral chemotherapy
  • The “Legal Zoom” bill
  • Employee Misclassification Reform
  • Revenue law technical corrections
  • Confirmation of current Revenue Secretary Lyons Gray’s appointment to the Utilities Commission

Levity from the 2015 Session

  •  #JustOneLegislator : The only legislator to show up for work on the February snow day was Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg). He had some fun on social media, “taking over” the NCGA which garnered the attention of a few national media outlets. The News & Record has compiled his posts here.
  • A long standing joke in the North Carolina Senate is the Ways and Means Committee. Sen. Apodaca chairs the three-member Committee nicknamed the “graveyard” Committee. That is because the Committee hasn’t met in more than fifteen years and is where Senate leadership parks legislation they don’t like. Occasionally a bill is resurrected from the Committee, but more often than not, a bill residing in that Committee won’t ever move again. Read more from the Asheville Citizen-Times here.
  • On April Fools day, the NCGOP unveiled a website to parody the announcement of Roy Cooper’s 2016 Gubernatorial campaign, highlighting former Governors Easley and Perdue as his co-chairs. The website included a contribution link which redirected users back to the NCGOP website. The Senate also scheduled a Ways and Means Committee meeting for 15 minutes after session to hear several bill sponsored by Democrats, but was cancelled just before session adjourned. In addition, the colors of each chamber's printed calendars were swapped, throwing off a number of lobbyists who are used to the Senate calendar being blue and the House calendar being yellow. And finally, Sen. Berger and Speaker Moore each gaveled the opposite chamber into session.
  • Again, Rep. West (R-Cherokee) pushed legislation for the infamous Clay’s Corner New Year’s Eve Possum Drop out in the western corner of the State. The popular event has been challenged in court by PETA for the last several years. Every year, Rep. West has filed new legislation to circumvent the lawsuits. This year’s version,House Bill 574, exempts the Virginia opossum from any laws preventing it’s capture, confinement, treatment or release between Dec. 29 – Jan. 2. 
    'Lot of balls in air' in possum litigation – WRAL
  • South Carolina legislators defeated North Carolina legislators in the biennial NC vs. SC legislative basketball game. SC lawmakers won the game on home turf in Columbia 66-63 but the lobbyist/staff team took the glory for NC, defeating their SC counterparts 71-56. No special incentives were offered by either state.

Resignations, Retirements & the 2016 Election

Several members of the General Assembly resigned their seats this year during session. Two resigned their seats very early in the year to take other jobs. Rep. Edgar Starnes (R-Caldwell) resigned before session started to work as a legislative liaison for the Treasury Department and Sen. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) resigned to work for Congresswoman Alma Adams (D). Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) resigned just a few weeks before adjournment to take the lead at the NC Justice Center. So far two members have resigned since session ended to take on other jobs. Rep. Brian Brown (R-Pitt) resigned the week after session adjourned to work for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R). The Pitt County Republican party has selected Dr. Gregory Murphy, an urologist, to serve out the remainder of Brown’s term. And Rep. Bryan Holloway (R-Stokes) resigned several weeks later to take a government affairs job with the North Carolina School Boards Association. When the legislature returns in April, he will have just met the 6-month “cooling off period” to register to lobby his former colleagues. The Stokes and Rockingham County Republican parties selected Stokes County native Kyle Hall to server out the remainder of Holloway’s term. Hall works as Communications Director for North Carolina’s 6th district Congressman Mark Walker (R) and at 26 years old will be the youngest member of the General Assembly.

In addition to the several legislative resignations, there has been a wave of members who have said they will finish out their current term but will not seek reelection. This crop of lawmakers is a blend, including both tenured members and relatively new members, and both young and old members. Some observers cite the toll of the length of this past session in relation to how near the filing period is. In their official announcements however, several members have included self-imposed term limits, accomplishing their goals, and more time with family for their resignations, as well as many other reasons.

The list of members to date who have announced they will not seek reelection but will serve out the remainder of their term include Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Davidson); Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg); Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston); Rep. J.H. Langdon (R-Johnston); Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake); Rep. Rick Catlin (R-New Hanover); Rep. Rayne Brown (R-Davidson); Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg); Rep. Nathan Baskerville (D-Vance); Rep. Ken Waddell (D-Columbus); and Rep. Paul Tine (U) who was previously a Democrat, but switched to Unaffiliated to caucus with the Republicans. Several other legislators are rumored to be leaning towards retirement but have not announced, leaving little time for potential successors to weigh running with candidate filing beginning in December. 

Deadlines already approaching for 2016 elections – Salisbury Post 

Lawmakers take themselves out of running – WRAL

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who was defeated last fall by now Sen. Thom Tillis (R), announced in June that she would not challenge incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R) in 2016. Three individuals have declared their candidacy to seek the Democratic nomination. Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey (D) was the first to announce and former Rep. Deborah Ross (D-Wake) as well as a Durham CEO, Kevin Griffin (D) declared in mid-October. Other rumored candidates include Sen. Joel Ford (D-Mecklenburg). 

Democrats Still Seek Strong Challenger to Burr in North Carolina – Roll Call

Will 2016 Senate race spending be a repeat of 2014?– WRAL

A few other lawmakers will not be seeking reelection because they have their sights set on higher office. For instance, both Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake) and Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wilson) are seeking the office of North Carolina Attorney General. After much speculation, current Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) officially announced a challenge to Governor Pat McCrory who is seeking reelection. Freshman Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) announced he will not be seeking reelection to the House, but rather run for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Rucho. 

Top N. Carolina governor candidates come from middle - WSOCTV

North Carolina Treasury Secretary Janet Cowell (D) unexpectedly announced that she will not seek reelection, making the race for the next State Treasurer an open seat. Cowell had previously been a top recruit for national Democrats to challenge Burr in 2016 after Hagan passed, but declined. She announced that she also will not seek any elected office in 2016, ending speculations before they began. Since her announcement, a list of several potential candidates considering a bid has expanded including Former Speaker Pro-Tem, Rep. Dale Folwell (R) who is currently Assistant Secretary for the Division of Employment Security at the Department of Commerce; Former House Majority Leader, Rep. Edgar Starnes (R) who is currently a senior policy advisor and legislative liaison at the the Treasury Department; and The Governor’s Budget Director Lee Roberts. 

Cowell won't run for N. Carolina state treasurer next year – Charlotte Observer

State Superintendent June Atkinson (D) announced she would seek reelection after it was widely assumed that she would not. She joins the rest of her fellow Council of State members who have announced they are seeking reelection; Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest (R); Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry (R); Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin (D); Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (D); State Auditor Beth Wood (D); and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (R). Several lawmakers are rumored to be eyeing higher office such as Congress or Council of State including Rep. Rodney Moore (D-Mecklenburg), Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenburg) and Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Wake).

WRAL launched an application to help people quickly find who represents them in the General Assembly and in Congress. Simply enter your address, and you'll get photos and contact information for each of your five representatives in state and federal government. Try the app for yourself here.

Complete List of 2015 Session Laws

See complete list of 2015 session laws from the NC General Assembly

In the News

Former N.C. congressman Howard Coble dies – Charlotte Observer

Poor counties, small business largely left out of incentives – WRAL

New courts director appointed – N&O

Secrecy inherent part of North Carolina ethics panel's work – Daily Reflector

Advisory letter could permit bigger role for outside groups in NC elections – WRAL

Former lobbyist recalls NC legislature’s ‘clandestine speakeasy’ – N&O

Appeals court blocks new EPA water rules, N.C. DEQ secretary calls it a 'win for farmers' – TBJ

With tax credit back, historic renovations likely to ramp up – N&O

N.C. joins suit against federal mandates to reduce carbon emissions – CBJ

DHHS reveals potential Medicaid data breach – WRAL

UNC taps Spellings to lead system; will oversee $2.75B in state funds – TBJ

UNC Board of Governors Chairman John Fennebresque Resigns – TWC News

Likely 2016 before Hollywood returns to NC – Star News

North Carolina No. 2 in judicial election spending, report says – TBJ

Industrial hemp poised to become NC’s newest legal crop – N&O

NC WARN could face over $125,000 in fines for sale of solar power to Greensboro church – CBJ

The case for a full-time legislature in North Carolina – N&O

Expert says GOP ‘very likely’ to retain General Assembly majorities – Salisbury Post

The 2020 redistricting war is (already) on – Washington Post

Federal investigators probing big contracts, personnel at DHHS – N&O

North Carolina’s Tier System – The Insider

Dems Prioritize Governor's Race – Carolina Journal

NC state health plan’s liability is growing – N&O

Battling Lobbyists’ Bad Rap – Carolina Journal

Tom Apodaca: Senate’s enforcer uses muscle, humor to deliver GOP agenda – Charlotte Observer

A One-Man Justice Crusade in North Carolina – The Marshall Project