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Lawmakers Convene To Discuss Disaster Relief Measures

protesters inside the General Assembly
Jeff Tiberii
Hundreds of protesters gathered on the third floor of the General Assembly to oppose rumors that lawmakers could expand the state Supreme Court from seven to nine seats.

UPDATED Tuesday, December 13, 2016 at 7:05 p.m.
The state House voted unanimously Tuesday night to pass their version of a disaster relief measure. The bill goes onto the Senate for further debate Wednesday.The third special session of 2016 convened Tuesday morning so that legislators could provide assistance to homeowners, small businesses and address infrastructure needs. The funds will go toward those affected by flooding from Hurricane Matthew and wildfires in the western part of the state.

With a new special session, the number of bills begins anew, so the legislation filed Tuesday is actually called House Bill 2. Dubbed the “Disaster Recovery Act”, the bill proposes to allocate more than $200 million, mostly for the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief fund and to match a congressional distribution.

Schools to make up two days only under House plan

The bill would mean schools wouldn't have to make up more than two days instruction missed because of Hurricane Matthew or the wildfires.
In the wake of flooding, some districts were out one day of school. Others missed five or ten. Robeson County schools missed fifteen days. But the House disaster relief bill only requires schools to make up two of those days. Robeson County Democrat Charles Graham and several other members wanted to waive all the missed days, but Henderson County Republican Chuck McGrady said two make-up days was a compromise.
"You have to wonder whether if we waive a bunch of days, whether those school systems are going to do as well in their grades and evaluations,” he said on the House floor.

Pat McCrory at special session
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC
Governor Pat McCrory speaks to lawmakers during a special session on December 13, 2016.

Other measures possible

Outgoing Republican Governor Pat McCrory called lawmakers back to deal with relief, and speculation has percolated for weeks about what else lawmakers may address. The stated reason for the session, which could last two or three days, is to deal with disaster relief. However, the Executive proclamation leaves the door open adding, “and for the purpose of addressing any other matters the General Assembly elects to consider.”

 That ambiguity has some on the Left worried. Rumors are circulating that state lawmakers could expand the state supreme court from seven to nine seats, as existing state statute allows them to do. Last month’s election of  Democrat Mike Morgan to the state supreme court shifted power to a 4-3 Democratic majority. Under the rumored court expansion scenario, the legislature would create two more seats, and outgoing Republican Governor Pat McCrory would appoint judges to fill them before leaving office at the end of the month. Such a move would shift the power back to the Republicans in the state’s highest court.

Hundreds of protesters gathered on the third floor of the General Assembly building Tuesday morning to oppose the rumored move. Fred Foster, Jr., came in from Durham, where he is the local NAACP branch president.

a protester holding a sign
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC
Protesters gathered at the General Assembly on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016 to oppose rumors of a possible expansion of the state Supreme Court.

“The voters have already spoken,” Foster said, referring to last month’s election of Mike Morgan to the state supreme court. “Why would you try to use an underhanded backdoor deal to try to get it done a different way—to stack [the state supreme court] so that you have the advantage, instead of letting the people have the advantage?”
But House Speaker Tim Moore has downplayed that possibility, and legal challenges would almost certainly follow in attempt to thwart any judicial changes before Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper takes office.
It is also possible that lawmakers will seek to shift some appointment powers away from the state executive – either to the Lt. Governor or the legislature. An environmental regulatory reform bill is also rumored to be a possible action item in the coming days.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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