My wish for the legislative session

Published March 28, 2024

By Donald Bryson

As the pinks, purples, and whites of blooming dogwood trees paint the landscape and a blanket of yellow pine pollen settles over everything, signaling the unmistakable arrival of springtime in North Carolina, another significant event is near — the “short session” of the state General Assembly. Yet, amidst the seasonal renewal, there is a healthy skepticism, questioning whether this biennial legislative rendezvous will stay true to its name and be short. 

There are definitely important matters to discuss in the short session. From flood mitigation to funding for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program to the unfortunate and ugly issue of antisemitism, legislators have work to do.

However, as lawmakers assemble for what’s meant to be a brisk affair, I have doubts it will achieve that aim, due to the propensity to let the session drag on well into the summer or even fall. While billed as a brief interlude for urgent matters, there’s a wary eye cast on whether efficiency will prevail or if the allure of prolonged debate will hijack the session’s brevity, casting a shadow over the efficacy of governance.

Anyone who spends time down on Jones Street in Raleigh will hear the terms “long session” and “short session” ad nauseam. These terms refer to the regular legislative sessions of the General Assembly. The “long session” occurs biennially in each odd-numbered year, typically begins in January. It is the primary legislative session during which the General Assembly conducts its most significant business, including crafting and passing the state budget and addressing major policy issues.

The “short session,” on the other hand, is convened in the following even-numbered year and is typically shorter in duration, commencing in late April or early May. The traditional goal for both types of sessions is to end shortly after the end of the state’s fiscal year, on June 30. However, that has rarely happened in the past several years, including 2023, when the adjournment resolution passed on Oct. 25, three months and 25 days into the new fiscal year.

Article II, Section 11 of the North Carolina Constitution outlines the General Assembly’s session schedule. It mandates regular sessions to convene biennially, beginning in 1973 and continuing every two years after that, on a date specified by law. Additionally, the section allows for extra sessions to be called by the joint proclamation of the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Thus, while the “long session” is constitutionally mandated and serves as the cornerstone of the legislative calendar, the “short session” is not; instead, it is a procedural creation of the General Assembly itself. The short session allows lawmakers to reconvene to address any remaining legislative matters, make budget adjustments, and respond to emergent issues, providing a mechanism for ongoing governance between the “long” sessions.

There are no constitutional or statutory limits to the length of these sessions, and the “short session” length has generally been on the longer side in recent years.

While the 2022 session adjourned on July 1, it appears more of an exception in the recent history of “short sessions” rather than the norm. The 2020 session adjourned on Sept. 2, two months and three days after the end of the fiscal year. In 2018, the General Assembly did not adjourn “short session” until Dec. 27 and had three additional special sessions interspersed. In 2016, the General Assembly adjourned at a reasonable date of July 1 but then had five extra sessions, the last of which adjourned on Dec. 21. In 2014, the “short session” adjourned one month and three days after the end of the fiscal year, on Aug. 2.

Traditionally, those on the center-right of American politics — conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians — tend to distrust situations that lead to government overreach and expansion. Therefore, if there’s a conservative majority in the General Assembly, there should be a push for a brief legislative “short session.”

Conservatives emphasize fiscal responsibility and limited government intervention. A shorter session restricts lawmakers’ time to propose and pass new legislation, curbing the potential for overreach and excessive spending. Prolonged sessions are unnecessary opportunities for creating increased regulatory burdens and unnecessary bureaucracy, contrary to conservative government efficiency goals. A brief “short session” would allow legislators to focus on critical conservative priorities like fiscal discipline, tax relief, and safeguarding individual freedoms without succumbing to overreach. Therefore, keeping the session brief ensures that legislative actions align with small government principles.

By the time the General Assembly convenes on April 10, the state budget — the real focus of the session — will have only been in place for six months since it became law on Oct. 3, 2023. Interim committees have helped legislators narrow down their priorities, and many would like to return to their districts quickly to work at their real jobs (we have a part-time legislature) and campaign for re-election. My advice to them is to keep the “short session” short and avoid the shenanigans and bad press of spending months in Raleigh needlessly.

Donald Bryson is CEO of the John Locke Foundation.