Not a record to boast about

Published March 17, 2022

By Tom Campbell

On March 10th our General Assembly adjourned a session that spanned 14 months, starting in January of 2021. It was the longest session length on record since 1965, and it’s not a record to boast about.
House Speaker Tim Moore announced, “We have set a record,” then thankfully added, “…I hope it is a record that we don’t try to break.” His House had 198 floor sessions, while the Senate recorded 196. It costs North Carolina taxpayers more than $850,000 per month for lawmakers to be in session, so this marathon cost you and me roughly $12 million.
When the session began on January 13, 2021, they had three main priorities. Since we were still in the throes of the pandemic priority one was combatting the raging coronavirus. There was an estimated $6 billion in cash in state coffers with which to attack COVID, but it seemed our lawmakers were more obsessed with fighting Governor Cooper’s emergency actions than fighting the virus. By and large they did a decent job of appropriating federal funds, however they frequently tried to politicize the pandemic. For example, “Free the Smiles Act,” that would allow parents to opt-out of school mask mandates, was quickly vetoed by Governor Cooper. As session closed leadership tried, but failed, to override that veto.
Their second priority was passing a state budget. Since 2018 we had been basically operating on the one passed that year. Legislators hemmed and hawed well beyond the July 1 start of the state’s fiscal year, finally sending the governor a budget that he signed November 18th. We were the last state among the 50 to enact a state budget, appropriating $25.9 billion for the current year and $27 billion in the 22-23 fiscal year.
The third major task was redistricting, a requirement after every ten-year census. They get some grace on the tardiness here because our state’s final census numbers were not available until mid-August. That said, creating legislative and congressional districts is no longer the painstaking and lengthy task of old, as computers make it considerably easier and quicker. Leaders gathered behind closed doors before releasing in early November what was considered to be among the most politically gerrymandered maps in the nation and allowing fewer opportunities for people to review and comment on them. As was the case in 2011, voting rights groups sued to have the maps overturned. Once again, the courts sided with the groups and they were redrawn for both legislative and congressional districts, however congressional maps were drawn with the intent of electing Republicans to 10 of our 14 seats. Frustrated, the court finally appointed special masters to draw fairer congressional districts. Republican legislators challenged those maps, but the US Supreme Court ruled earlier this month those maps would be used in this year’s elections. Lawmakers tried to change election laws and the dates for the primary, but once again the NC Supreme Court declared primaries would be held May 17th.
Leadership is promising that the short session will indeed be short, primarily just tweaking the budget. We’ve heard that one before.
As a rule, various partisan think-tanks and advocacy groups summarize the main session achievements, but those analyses are non-existent this year. I suspect it is due to more than just “session fatigue.” I suggest it is because this session didn’t accomplish all that much.
In summary the session began with the state plush with money, although lawmakers socked away much of it into savings instead of using it to improve infrastructure. Once again, we saw the courts become more of a factor in the legislative process. Republicans contend it was because of activist courts, however it could be said their actions were discriminatory and unfair. The session was frequently contentious, especially in opposition to Governor Cooper. And while they successfully passed a budget for the first time since 2018, it only occurred because they
recognized they couldn’t get it done without inviting Democrats and the governor into the negotiations. It may have been their most important action. 
We will wait with interest to learn how November’s elections will affect next year’s 170-member General Assembly and hope for a more harmonious and productive legislature.