At the General Assembly it's "crossover week." That means lawmakers in Raleigh are scurrying about and busier than usual as they try to advance dozens of bills before a self-mandated cutoff for legislation to cross over from one chamber to the other.
"I think it’s sort of chaos by design and we always end up rushing through bills that are very problematic,” said Pricey Harrison, a Democratic House Representative from Guilford County. “Democrats did it do. I’m not going to fault just Republicans."
On Tuesday afternoon, Harrison stepped out of a Judiciary Committee meeting to chat briefly. That group was taking up 19 pieces of legislation, several of which are controversial.
"Last night I received something like 1,700 emails related to one of the bills on the calendar, related to economic terrorism,” Harrison said. “It’s quite overwhelming. It’s difficult to be prepared. You get the drafts of the new bills; at least we’re getting them the night before now. The chance to review for five different committee meetings, 20 to 30 different bills, it’s a long night – long days."
Harrison said that economic terrorism bill is similar to legislation filed in nearly 20 other states. It aims to increase criminal penalties for those participating in large civil demonstrations. Opponents say it is in response to Black Lives Matter protestors. It was voted down in committee. And is, for now, dead. Other controversial bills, dealing with elections, charter schools, class sizes, developer impact fees and even farm waste are in motion this week.
"What this means is you just don’t get the kind of scrutiny you need on a bill that’s got some problems, and has a negative public impact and the public not even have a chance to weigh-in," Harrison said.
But not everyone agrees. Joe Stewart is a former lobbyist and chief deputy State Treasurer.
"That’s probably not a good way to deal with public policy and probably should be undone, at least in part of a holistic change to the legislative process that we have," said Stewart, who now directs the nonpartisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation.
"It is a vestige of a bygone era and it creates a certain kind of dynamic within the legislative process that perhaps separates the sheep from the goats, but it is an artificial barrier none the less,” Stewart added. “And it creates a lot of stress and anxiety on all front in the legislative process and that probably in and of itself is reason enough not to do it anymore."
Since policymakers convened in January, close to 1,600 pieces of legislation have been filed. If a bill does not advance through one chamber by crossover, it’s dead -- most of the time. If a bill has an appropriation or fee, it’s not subject to this arbitrary cutoff. Neither are bills with proposed constitutional amendments.
"It’s important in a sense...but we have a long tradition of the House and Senate leadership in North Carolina essentially being able to get their way whatever the situation,” said Tom Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University. “We had that when Marc Basnight was the Democratic leader, we have that now with Phil Berger as the Republican leader in the Senate."
Lawmakers, particularly those in leadership, have a number of other tools at their discretion to move bills forward after crossover. The most common practice is to gut and amend – a legislative exercise that rips the belly out of one bill and inserts entirely different contents.
For now, legislators are cramming bills through committees and onto the chamber floor. There, most of them pass. Last night, lawmakers in the House approved nearly 50 bills, and rejected just one.
"We don’t fail very many bills – but there you go, there’s one,” said Speaker Tim Moore. “But it’s crossover week, who knows what’ll happen this week."
What we expect is that dozens of additional proposals – some controversial to be sure – will advance today, tomorrow and deep into the night Thursday, when the crossover deadline expires at midnight. That is, unless they change it.