Saturday, April 13, 2024

Budget, bills and maps: 2023’s legislative session is marked by power shifts led by Republican legislators

The North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCGA)
Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly’s have passed multiple measures shifting more power to the General Assembly, which they currently control via supermajority. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NCGA)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The end of the North Carolina long session is nigh and a Republican supermajority, secured in April, has proved a boon for changing the structure and authority of a host of governing bodies across the state. 

READ MORE: Davis backtracks on campaign promise, votes with GOP to override governor veto on abortion bill

The largest amount of power transfers resides in the state budget passed in September after a two-month stalemate between Republicans leaders in each chamber. There are several provisions changing the makeup of leadership bodies ranging from state commissions to community colleges.

Then there are the pieces of legislation passed throughout the session, many of which shift power from the executive branch to the General Assembly. 

Republican leaders have described the new setups, often a change in appointment power, as better aligned with the separation of powers set forth in the North Carolina Constitution. Others disagree, including Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Democratic Party, both issuing lawsuits on separate bills. 

Senate Bill 512, deemed a “power grab” by Cooper and passed over his veto, takes away some of the governor’s appointments or dilutes executive representation on 11 state boards or commissions, including the Utilities Commission, Wildlife Resources Commission and the Commission for Public Health. 

Cooper’s lawsuit, filed against the state and Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore in their official roles, maintains the North Carolina Supreme Court has held the governor “must have sufficient control over administrative bodies that have final executive authority.” 

The lawsuit also challenges a provision in the House Bill 488, passed via veto override, which reorganizes the State Building Council and creates a Residential Code Council.

The North Carolina Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee filed their lawsuit against Senate Bill 747. The law makes various changes to voting laws on same-day registration and absentee voting, and eliminates the three-day “grace period” to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day but delivered after.  

The lawsuit claims several portions of the law violate the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act, leading to voter suppression. Republican backers have said the legislation will increase trust in elections. The law’s changes will apply to elections starting in 2024. 

Adding to the mound of voting changes, Republicans have also submitted two different redistricting maps on Wednesday, both of which could give Republicans more advantage in upcoming elections. In a press release, Cooper accused the GOP of gerrymandering. 

“Enabled by the State Supreme Court’s partisan reversal of constitutional law, Republican legislators have rolled out their latest illegal maps that show gerrymandering on steroids,” Cooper said in a statement. “Drawn in the back room and armed with their new law that keeps their plotting secret, they have used race and political party to create districts that are historically discriminatory and unfair.”

The Republican-created maps made after the 2020 census were struck down twice by courts and a bipartisan group was appointed to draw up the maps in 2022. However, those maps could only be used once and new ones are needed.

The legislature is set to vote on the maps on Monday and Tuesday.

These three latest contested actions are just the culmination of a crusade to give more say to the General Assembly, namely through the House speaker and president pro tempore of the Senate. 

Another law, Senate Bill 749, overhauls the makeup of local and state election boards. It reduces the number of members on local boards from five to four members, and as a result, is expected to increase gridlock due to a lack of party majority.

Appointing power also changes hands. Under the previous process, the governor selected the five members of the state election board, usually appointing three members from their own party and two from the opposition. Governors also pick the chair of each county board, while local officials choose the other county board members. 

The state board will now comprise eight members all chosen by the leaders of the General Assembly. For local boards, the four members will be chosen by the speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate and the minority leaders of each chamber.

The bill was passed, again, over Cooper’s veto. 

The budget’s transfer of power focuses more on government oversight; the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, tasked with ensuring tax dollars are utilized in an efficient and effective manner, now has the power to investigate the executive branch, government agencies and state-funded private companies. Those involved would be compelled to keep the investigation a secret and could be charged with a crime if determined to be uncooperative. 

The commission has looked at distribution of Covid-19 funds and hurricane recovery efforts, of which House Speaker Tim Moore has said investigation efforts were “stonewalled.” 

Left-wing legislators have made comparisons to the Nazi and Soviet-era secret policies and claims investigations will be done for political motives.

Sen. Graig Meyer (D-Orange) said Republican lawmakers are trying to set up a “new, government Gestapo.” 

“We do not need a legislative spy agency,” he said Thursday, calling it a “dangerous level of dark and dangerous government.”

The Judicial Standards Commission, the investigation authority over judges, also gets a makeover. The budget provision removes the State Bar Council’s appointment authority for four members of the commissioner and transfers it to the General Assembly.

That’s not the only change to the justice system included in the budget. 

The budget raises the retirement age for judges on the state Supreme Court and court of appeals from 72 to 76. The current makeup of North Carolina’s Supreme Court is 5-2 Republican justices are elected, and the variance would allow Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby to continue to serve. 

Also, the judges appointed to review the constitutionality of state laws in three-person panels will be picked by the Supreme Court Chief Justice, rather than just two. 

Lastly, the state has taken more control over its community college system. Instead of each school’s president being chosen by the system president, they will now be chosen by the General Assembly.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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