North Carolina legislators are now officially on their spring break after both the House and the Senate held their final floor vote session this week. The House held committee meetings through Wednesday, with the Senate meeting through Thursday afternoon. Speaker of the House, Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has not ruled out the possibility of a Friday, or even Saturday, voting session in hopes of clearing the calendar prior to the House’s much anticipated budget rollout following their return.
While the House is gearing up for a typical schedule to welcome them back to session after the break, the Senate will take the entire week off, reconvening on Monday, April 29. The remaineder of the session is expected to be jam-packed, with the beginning of the budget rollout and 160 bills filed in the House on Tuesday this week alone.
House lawmakers are looking to update alcohol regulations throughout the state this session. HB 91: ABC Laws Modernization/PED Study moved through committee favorably earlier this week with only one vote in opposition. However, the bill, which is made up of recommendations from a Program Evaluation Division (PED) study, faced several amendment proposals in the process.
Section one of the bill, dealing with mergers of ABC systems within counties, was the first to face an amendment. Rep. Pat Hurley’s (R-Randolph) proposal was to strike the entire section, arguing that the state should not mandate the boards to merge, that mergers should be a local decision left up to the counties’ own discretion. A member of the PED study authority was present in committee, commenting that the boards that have merged are often more profitable due to the lower operating expenses of one combined store in the county. The amendment passed through favorably.
Rep. James Boles (R-Moore) was next to offer an amendment. The amendment would remove the requirement to have a permit in order to purchase and transport alcohol. The individual would have to be an employee of the local ABC board and would apply only to those that are selling the alcohol in a permitted establishment. The amendment would also allow for the permittee to contract for the delivery of alcohol. The committee questioned whether this would be applicable to ride sharing services, as their drivers are independent contractors. Staff stated that the local ABC commission would have to come up with their own requirements for a permitting process for any independent contractors. Rep. Boles’s amendment passed the committee favorably.
The final amendment was also proposed by Rep. Hurley. The amendment would remove the language in the bill that allows ABC stores to have liquor tastings, and to sell liquor, on Sundays. While Rep. Hurley argued that constituents would have six other days, besides Sunday, to buy liquor, the amendment ultimately failed.
HB 91 was reported favorably out of committee with the only vote in opposition being from Rep. Hurley. The bill will now make its way to the House Committee on Finance.
The Senate’s plan to reduce the number of exams given to North Carolina public school students moved favorably through two crucial committees this week: the Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education on Wednesday and the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday. SB 621: Testing Reduction Act of 2019 would eliminate N.C. final exams for high school students by 2021 and direct the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction to come up with other methods of assessment. The bill would also require all LEAs to assess the amount of time needed for each exam given every two years, unless the school system can show that they are complying with all local tests, not just state tests, and are showing adequate progress. DPI would also be tasked with coming up with a series of new tests to measure third grade reading proficiency levels.
Alan Duncan, a member of the State Board of Education, was present during the education committee’s meeting. Mr. Duncan spoke in favor of the bill, commenting that the State Board of Education has recently approved changes to the amount and type of testing given to students throughout the state, changes that align with the objectives of the bill as well. Mr. Duncan said the State Board of Education is looking forward to continued collaboration with the General Assembly. The approved testing changes of the board are set to go into effect this June.
SB 621 was placed on the Senate’s calendar for a floor vote on Monday, April 29.
Another bill to move through the Senate’s Education/Higher Education committee on Wednesday with unanimous support will make its way to the Senate Rules committee next. SB 438: Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019, presented by President Pro Tempore Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), is aimed at overhauling the state’s Read to Achieve program.
The bill includes three main objectives. The first would establish individualized reading plans for students. Teachers would create individualized plans for each student who is struggling to meet grade level in reading. The bill would establish online, digital resources for parents to use to work with their students at home, outside of the classroom. The second component of the bill would create summer reading camps. The camps’ curriculum would have to receive approval from the Department of Public Instruction and would incentivize current and retired teachers to staff the camps in hopes of recruiting the best teachers throughout the state. Finally, the bill would renew and expand the partnership with Wolfpack Works and establish a partnership with other higher education entities, such as various community colleges and the UNC System, in order to provide proper teacher training.
Sen. Berger recognized that Read to Achieve is an important program that is working in some places and needs adjustments in others. When it comes to funding for the program, Sen. Berger argued that while there may be some additional costs here and there, the funding that is currently allocated for the Read to Achieve program would be enough to fund this program as well, stating that this bill is not an appropriations bill, but rather a policy bill. State Superintendent Mark Johnson (R), who spoke in favor of the bill, was also present during the committee meeting on Wednesday.
North Carolina congressional districts are in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and the state’s legislative districts are in front of the N.C. Supreme Court, with both courts deciding on the constitutionality of current district lines. These cases have placed redistricting reform at the center of this legislative session.
Thursday, Sen. Erica Smith (D-Northampton) was joined by Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe), Sen. Valerie Foushee (D-Chatham), and Rep. Yvonne Holley (D-Wake) in a press conference to introduce new redistricting reform legislation. SB 673: N.C. Citizens Redistricting Commission would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 to allow an independent commission to draw the state’s districts instead of members of the legislature.
Sen. Smith and her colleagues were joined by representatives from Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Columbus County Forum, and Democracy NC, all of whom spoke in support of the bill, arguing this independent commission is the best way to bring transparency back to the redistricting process. That argument will fall on deaf ears across the aisle. Republicans in both the House and Senate have been very vocally opposed to the idea of an outside commission interfering in redistricting measures. It is unlikely the bill sponsors will see any support from their Republican counterparts on any legislation that establishes such a commission.
Multiple other redistricting bills have been filed this session. One of those bills, HB 140: The FAIR Act, which would also create a constitutional amendment if passed, would not establish a controversial external commission. The FAIR Act has a great deal of bipartisan support and is championed by members of House Republican leadership. None of the seven redistricting bills that have been filed this year have been brought up for discussion or votes in committee as of yet.