NCGA 2018 Wrap Up: Abbreviated Short Session Produces Fewer Bills but More Proposed Constitutional Amendments

The 2018 Short Session of the North Carolina General Assembly adjourned in late June and can boast something that many Short Sessions cannot: that it was genuinely short. 

What else made it memorable?  An unusual adjournment resolution, a pre-negotiated state budget, a renewed interest in amending the North Carolina Constitution, campaign pressures, a record-breaking protest on opening day and milk jokes… lots of milk jokes.

Short Session by the Numbers


The intended purpose of the Short Session is to make modifications to the two-year state budget enacted during the previous Long Session based on changes in revenue projections, new priorities, and unforeseen events such as natural disasters.  Legislation unrelated to appropriations may also advance during Short Sessions, but it is subject to a very restrictive body of eligibility rules imposed by each chamber.  

The practical impact of these rules is that very few bills with statewide implications are introduced during a typical Short Session and only a small percentage of the bills introduced during the previous year's Long Session can be considered.  Below is a quick look at the 2018 Short Session by the numbers.

6 – The number of weeks the 2018 Short Session lasted

129 – The number of bills enacted

1922 – The number of bills filed during the biennium (The Long Session and the Short Session occurring between each General Assembly election)

$23.9 billion – The amount of total spending in the Fiscal Year 2018-19 state budget

2% – The minimum state employee pay raise in the budget

6.5% – The average pay raise for teachers in the budget

6 – The number of North Carolina Constitutional amendments legislators voted to put on the ballot for this fall's general election.

Quick Length Mostly Due to a Streamlined Budget Process


Spanning just six weeks from opening day to adjournment, the 2018 Short Session was unusually efficient and concise, which was made possible largely by the decision of General Assembly leaders to release the state budget as a pre-negotiated conference report.  This format did not allow for budget amendments from either party, which drew criticism from both sides of the aisle and later necessitated the approval of a budget technical corrections bill, but its positive impact on the Short Session's pace was undeniable.  

Budget writers began work before the 2018 Short Session in order to have the budget ready for votes shortly after their fellow lawmakers returned to Raleigh. In most years, the budget is approved and sent to the Governor in the final days of June, just before the June 30 conclusion of the state's fiscal year. This year's streamlined budget process enabled both chambers to give the budget final approval by June 1. 

Campaign Pressures Also Influenced Session's Pace and Bill Content


The 2018 Short Session began with considerable fanfare as an estimated 22,000 teachers marched to the Legislative Building on the first day of the Short Session to raise awareness for the North Carolina Association of Educators' legislative agenda. Although the opening day protest drew significant media attention and set a new General Assembly record for demonstration size, the remainder of the Short Session was, by design, relatively tame.

Most political pundits would tell you that 2018 is a critical election year for both parties as Democrats hope to capitalize on an anticipated "blue wave" of voter turnout in response to the 2016 presidential election and Republicans work to counteract that wave to maintain their large, veto-proof, majorities in the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives. 

It's easy to surmise that both parties were eager to have a quick and efficient Short Session so that they are able to return to their districts to fundraise and campaign.  It's also likely that, for reasons related to their chances for re-election, legislators were very reluctant to vote on controversial legislation in 2018, curtailing many contentious proposals before they were even drafted.

The North Carolina Democratic Party announced on July 12 that it has raised, and has on hand, $5.8 million to promote its candidates during the 2018 election season.  This is 7 times the amount the party had raised by the same date in 2014, and is roughly 4.5 times the $1.3 million that the North Carolina Republican Party reported that it currently has on hand for this year's election. 

With $7.1 million on hand between both parties today and more to be raised, North Carolinians should prepare for an onslaught of political advertisements on their televisions, smartphones, and radios this fall.  Although election outcomes are still too far away to predict, it's clear that advertising platforms will win big in the coming months.

Exception to Avoiding Controversy:  The Farm Act


The Farm Act of 2018 ("Farm Act") was probably the most notable exception to the unwritten rule that controversial legislation would not find an audience at the General Assembly in 2018.  The Farm Act, which was enacted over a veto by Governor Roy Cooper, limits the ability of individuals to file nuisance lawsuits against neighboring farms in North Carolina. 

Debate on the Farm Act continued for days and included impassioned arguments from both sides of the aisle, and even caused many members to break with their respective parties when casting their votes.

Changes to the state's milk labeling laws also found a home in the Farm Act and provided countless hours of comic relief to weary and overworked policymakers. One effect of the legislation is to prevent dairy-free milk substitutes such as almond milk and soy milk from being labeled as "milk."  From jokes about "mooshiners" smuggling almond milk labeled as milk across the state's border to existential questions about the true meaning of milk, legislators milked the Farm Act dairy jokes for weeks.

Constitutional Amendments on the Ballot this Fall


Also vying for voters' approval later this year will be six proposed amendments to the North Carolina Constitution that lawmakers voted to place on the November ballot.  By contrast, only seven constitutional amendments have been put to a statewide vote in North Carolina in the last 20 years.  If approved by qualified voters during the election, the constitutional amendments proposed by the 2018 General Assembly would:

  • Require a photo ID to vote in person in North Carolina;
  • Clarify the right to hunt and fish in the state;
  • Cap the state's income tax at 7 percent;
  • Expand the rights of crime victims;
  • Give the General Assembly a major role in the appointment of judges; and,
  • Give the General Assembly power to choose elections board members and make other appointments that traditionally have been made by the Governor.

Voters will vote for or against each proposed amendment separately. 

An Atypical Adjournment Mechanism Left the Door Open for November Votes


In addition to its abbreviated length, the 2018 Short Session was unusual in the way it was adjourned.  Short Sessions generally mark the end of the legislative biennium in North Carolina and are concluded with the adoption of a resolution to adjourn sine die, Latin for "without day."  In other words, an adjournment sine day is a final adjournment without setting a date to return for the remainder of the biennium. 

This year, the General Assembly adjourned to reconvene on a date certain: November 27.  The adjournment resolution did not place restrictions on the types of bills that can be considered during the November Special Session, and many believe that House and Senate leadership plan to consider bills during the Special Session that were considered too controversial for the Short Session.

There will also be a series of legislative interim study and oversight committee meetings through the remainder of the summer and fall.  These committees will make legislative recommendations to the 2019 Long Session based on their findings. 

--
© 2019 Ward and Smith, P.A. For further information regarding the issues described above, please contact Whitney Campbell Christensen.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or fact situation. No action should be taken in reliance upon the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.

We are your established legal network with offices in Asheville, Greenville, New Bern, Raleigh, and Wilmington, NC.

Subscribe to Ward and Smith