George Reed, Editor
- Election Laws
- Gun Violence
- Health and Healthcare
- Raise the Age
- Workers Issues
- Other Issues
- Putting the squeeze on voters
With the passage of deadlines for the introduction of most bills, there’s been a flurry of new legislation. This issue of Raleigh Report will cover some of these new bills, with others to come in the next issue.
Two bills have been introduced which would put in place a more nonpartisan process for redistricting, starting after the 2020 census. One bill would require a constitutional amendment, the other would not.
HB 606, Nonpartisan Redistricting Process, has bipartisan support in the House, with more than half of the members having signed on as co-sponsors. Under this process, the General Assembly’s Legislative Services Office, which is nonpartisan staff of the General Assembly, would prepare redistricting plans for state House, state Senate, and US House. One bill containing all three plans would be submitted to the General Assembly for approval or disapproval, but not subject to modification. If either house failed to approve the bill, the LSO would produce a second set of plans and submit a second bill, again not subject to modification. If the second bill is also rejected, the LSO would submit a third set of plans, but that bill would be subject to amendment just like any other bill. HB 606 contains standards for redistricting, including
- splitting of counties and cities into multiple districts to be minimized,
- territory in a district must be truly contiguous,
- districts to be as compact as possible and not irregularly shaped.
Because the decision about redistricting would ultimately be made by the General Assembly, HB 606 would not require a constitutional amendment. Introduced by Reps. Stam, Glazier, McGrady, and D. Ross and referred to House Elections.
HB 910, Independent Redistricting Commission, would amend the state Constitution, which currently requires the legislature to do redistricting, and turn the task over to an Independent Redistricting Commission. The Commission would be set up so as to include members of both political parties, with the Governor having the appointive power likely to determine which party would be in the majority on the Commission. The Commission’s redistricting would go into effect without legislative approval. Introduced by Rep. Blust and referred to House Elections.
H 607, Require Use of Paper Ballots, would require paper ballots marked by the voter to be used in all elections. Introduced by Reps. Jones and Burr and referred to House Elections.
HB 734, Interstate Agreements to Improve Voter Rolls. One piece of information to come out of the current debate about photo voter IDs is that North Carolina often does not get information from other states about people who have died or changed address, so someone registered to vote in North Carolina who dies in Virginia (whether s/he has moved there or not) could remain on NC voting rolls if no relative notified the board of elections. H 734 would require the state to enter into data-sharing agreements with other states in order to clean up voting lists. Introduced by Reps. Jones, Jordan, Conrad, and Speciale and referred to House Elections.
HB 618, Amend Firearm Restoration Law. Under current law, someone convicted of a nonviolent felony can get his/her “firearms rights” restored 20 years after completing a sentence. Restoration is not possible after a second nonviolent felony or with any violent felony. H 618 would shorten the waiting period to 10 years and allow the possibility of restoration after subsequent convictions for nonviolent felonies. Introduced by Reps. Speciale and Pittman and referred to House Judiciary.
HB 624, Enabling Patriots Act, has a long-title which reads: “an act to enhance the ability of lawful citizens of North Carolina to protect themselves, children and others from criminals and violent sociopaths and to expand areas in which lawful concealed handgun permit holders may carry or keep firearms for protection of themselves and others.” Stripped of its language about patriotism and protection from sociopaths, the bill contains a collection of provisions we’ve already seen which would enable people to carry concealed handguns in more places, including establishments where alcohol is being served. Introduced by Reps. Pittman, Speciale, and Ford and referred to House Judiciary.
HB 705, Preemption Affirmation Act. Current law already severely restricts the ability of local governments to impose stricter limits on guns than what is in state law. H 705 would impose penalties on local governments and their officials for perceived violations. A local government official would be fired, could be fined up to $5,000, and could not be defended with public funds. Also, any person or organization “adversely affected” could sue the local government and, if they prevailed, get actual damages up to $100,000, punitive damages up to the same amount, and payment of attorneys’ fees. Introduced by Reps. Brody and Ford and referred to House Judiciary.
HB 849, Legislative Research Commission/Improve Home Gun Safety, would permit (but not require) the LRC to study ways to improve firearm safety in homes to reduce accidental shootings by children and to prevent felons and people with mental problems from getting access to guns. Introduced by Rep. Farmer-Butterfield and referred to House Rules.
HB 651, Disclosure of Premium Increases Due to PPACA, is another effort to attack the federal Affordable Care Act. It would require health insurers who are increasing premiums to say how much of the premium increase is because of implementation of so-called Obamacare and also to include the words “These increases are . . . not due to any actions of the Governor of North Carolina, the North Carolina General Assembly, or the North Carolina Department of Insurance.”
According the Linda Walling, executive director of Faithful Reform in Health Care, “Premiums were going to rise with or without Obamacare. Obamacare will do four things, however: slow the rate of growth of the premium increases; protect against unjustified rate increases; ensure that we all have more and better benefits in our coverage; and ensure that a higher percentage of our premium dollars will pay for health care rather than executive bonuses, excess profits, etc.” So perhaps HB 651 should require health insurers to tell us how much higher premiums would have been but for the Affordable Care Act. Introduced by Rep., Collins, Hager, Burr, and Martin and referred to House Insurance.
HB 683, Commonsense Consumption Act. Its long-title says it all: “An act to bar civil actions against packers, distributors, carriers, holders, sellers, marketers, or advertisers of food products that comply with applicable statutory and regulatory requirements based on claims arising out of weight gain, obesity, a health condition associated with weight gain or obesity, or other generally known condition allegedly cause by or allegedly likely to result from long-term consumption of food; and to clarify that local governments may not regulate the size of soft drinks offered for sale.” The problem with this and other bills which pit unhealthy behavior against individual freedoms (see also SB 703, below) is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Nobody’s unhealthy behavior affects only that person. People who, because of obesity, get diabetes or cancer or have heart attacks or strokes cause family pain and strain, lose years of productivity and die prematurely, and in many cases create financial burdens on families, healthcare providers, and society at large. Introduced by Reps. B. Brown, Moffitt, Ramsey, and Shepard and referred to House Judiciary A.
HB 805, Ban Smoking in Foster Care Setting/Infants, would authorize the Social Services Commission to adopt policies prohibiting a foster parent from smoking in the presence of an infant in the foster parent’s care. Introduced by Reps. Cotham and Jackson and referred to House Health and Human Services.
HB 848, NC Toxic-Free Kids Act, is a bi-partisan bill which would prohibit the manufacture and sale of children’s products containing bisphenol A in any amount, or TRIS or phthalates except in exceptionally low concentrations. TRIS is a fire retardant. Bisphenol A and phthalates are chemicals added to plastics. They have been tied to cancers and a variety of other health impacts. Introduced by Reps. McGrady, Fulghum, Harrison, and Glazier and referred, in sequence, to House Commerce, House Health and Human Services, and House Judiciary A.
HB 864/SB 530, Prohibit E-Cigarette Sales to Minors. Current law makes it illegal to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products to minors. H 864 would add so-called electronic tobacco products, where a liquid containing nicotine is heated so the vapors can be inhaled. Introduced by Rep. Fulghum and Sen. Goolsby and referred to House Judiciary B and Senate Health Care.
SB 703, Limit Local Regulation of Outdoor Smoking, would repeal the authority currently given to local governments and community colleges to limit smoking on outdoor grounds, including parks, under their jurisdiction. Currently more than half the community colleges ban smoking on their grounds, and all but two restrict outside smoking to designated areas. Introduced by Sens. Newton, Jackson, and Brock and referred to Senate Agriculture.
HB 725, Young Offenders Rehabilitation Act, would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds who have committed misdemeanors, enabling them to stay in the juvenile justice system rather than going into the adult courts. Introduced by Rep. Avila, Moffitt, Mobley, and D. Hall and referred to House Judiciary B.
HB 642, Lower Corporate Income Tax Rate, would drop it from 6.9% to 4.9%, beginning with the current taxable year. Introduced by Reps. Conrad, Jeter, Moffitt, and Murry and referred to House Finance.
HB 822, Three-Fifths Vote to Levy Taxes, would amend the state Constitution as the title indicates. If the amendment were adopted by the voters, any bill to impose a new tax or raise an existing tax would have to have a 3/5 majority in each house in order to pass. Introduced by Reps. Blust, Jones, Holloway and Jordan and referred to House Finance.
HB 825, Minor Can’t Be Prosecuted for Prostitution. Under current law, the state’s Human Trafficking Statute says that prostituted minors are victims of sexual servitude/sex trafficking, but minors are not excluded from the definition of prostitution found elsewhere in the statutes. H 825 clarifies this situation by saying that a minor can’t be prosecuted for prostitution, but is treated as an abused juvenile. Introduced by Reps. Glazier, McGrady and Jordan and referred to House Judiciary B.
HB 855, Human Trafficking, contains the provisions of H 825, above. In addition, mandatory restitution would be provided to victims of trafficking, and a person with one conviction for prostitution that is the result of being trafficked is eligible for victim’s compensation. It would also provide materials and resources on human trafficking to teachers and other school personnel, students and parents. Introduced by Reps. Schaffer and Presnell and referred to House Judiciary A.
HB 647, Nondiscrimination in State/Teacher Employment, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classifications on which there cannot be discrimination in hiring state employees and school personnel. The NC Council of Churches has for the past 20 years opposed discrimination based on sexual orientation. Introduced by Reps. Cotham, Brandon, Hamilton, and Jackson and referred to House Rules.
HB 872, Protect NC Right-to-Work, would make it an unenforceable unfair trade practice for a contract to require the use of unionized labor. Contracts paid with federal funds would be exempt. Introduced by Reps. Moffitt, Murry, Warren, and Stam and referred to House Commerce.
HB 547, Tax & Regulate Video Sweepstakes, would delete the law’s current prohibition on equipment for electronic sweepstakes and, instead, create a system to allow these sweepstakes and for the state to tax them. Introduced by Reps. Wray and Collins, and referred to House Commerce and Job Development.
HB 751, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, would restore in NC the compelling state interest test in deciding cases where there is an allegation that the state has violated someone’s right to the free exercise of religion. This standard prohibits limiting someone’s religious freedom unless 1) there is a compelling state reason to do so and 2) the state is using the least restrictive way possible to protect that state interest. It had been established law at the federal level going back 50 years, but was changed by the US Supreme Court in 1990. Introduced by Reps. Schaffer, Jones, Riddell, and Shepard, and referred to House Judiciary A.
HB 772, Study Free and Reduced Lunch, would create a Legislative Study Committee to examine the state’s participation in the federal school lunch program. Among items to be considered are nutrition standards required by the state that are higher (i.e., healthier) that federal requirements. Introduced by Rep. Brawley and referred to House Rules.
FINALLY, LEGISLTORS MOVE TO THE CRUCIAL ISSUES FACING OUR STATE
HB 830, Adopt State Symbols, would adopt an official state fossil, frog, salamander, marsupial, and folk art. Introduced by Reps. Avila, Martin, McElraft, and West, and referred to House Rules.
It’s a fact of political life that any group can help itself gain or maintain power by controlling access to the polls. Requirements such as poll taxes and onerous literacy tests once made it hard if not impossible for some Americans to take part in elections. The struggle to secure a fair voting opportunity for African-Americans, especially in places where an attempt to vote might have put one’s life at risk, was central to the epic civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
These days, citizens across this country register to vote and cast their ballots without the threat of violence, and we can be thankful for that. Yet the contest to shape the electorate goes on.
There’s no getting around the fact that the contest, in North Carolina as elsewhere, now involves Republicans, whose proposals would tend to cut down on the number of votes cast by certain groups of people, and Democrats, who look to those people – minorities, the elderly, the young, the poor — as leaning overall in the party’s favor.
But this is more than simply a tug of war for partisan advantage. At stake is the democratic principle that so long as voting is orderly, efficient and honest, more voters are better than fewer. Beyond that is the social justice principle by which groups lacking political power should not be held down by rules that hinder them from having an equal say in choosing elected leaders.
The N.C. Council of Churches, mindful of those justice implications, is watching several efforts in the General Assembly that would make it less convenient to vote. The Council’s 2013 Legislative Seminar on April 11 featured a rundown on those efforts. It was provided by Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a group that advocates for voting rights and for proper safeguards against the influence of self-serving special interests in the political system.
The debate over whether voters should have to show a photo ID has raged from state to state, with backers saying such IDs are needed to combat voter fraud.
Nobody wants to see even one vote cast illegally, and it’s true that most voters already have photo IDs. However, those who don’t have them tend to be among society’s vulnerable. If the ID would be difficult or costly for them to get, the law would be unfair. And the kind of fraud by impersonation that a photo ID might prevent appears to occur so infrequently that election officials and prosecutors typically don’t see it as a serious concern. A person who claims to be someone else and goes on to cast a vote is committing a felony. Few people would be inclined to take that risk.
The centerpiece voter ID legislation is House Bill 589, which would require voters to present a photo ID issued by a government agency. Someone lacking a driver’s license or other ID could get a special identification card at the DMV for $10. Fees for the special ID or for the documents needed to prove identity could be waived. However, the person would have to swear, under penalty of perjury, to having a financial hardship.
As Hall pointed out at the Council’s event, with “financial hardship” not being defined in the bill, someone who claimed hardship could be set up for a challenge: “If you have a shirt on your back or you ate lunch, you don’t have a hardship.” The upshot is that complying with the ID rule could be onerous for some people – unnecessarily so.
Several other bills would cut back on people’s options to vote before Election Day. These options have been popular, allowing people to avoid lines at the polls and to fit voting into their busy schedules. But as it happens, early voting has been used more by Democrats. That underlies Republican-led efforts in North Carolina and elsewhere to narrow the voting window.
Hall listed HB 451, SB 428, SB 666 and SB 721 as bills that would trim the present three-week early voting period, end voting on Sundays and keep voters from registering and voting on the same day. Under SB 721, early voting would be limited to six days.
According to Hall, last year 56 percent of all votes and 70 percent of votes by African-Americans were cast during early voting. And Sunday voting also is popular among black citizens, under the banner of “souls to the polls.” It’s clear that holding down black voter participation is an unspoken aim of these bills.
HB 589, the voter ID bill, and HB 451, limiting the voting period, are among those being considered by the House Elections Committee, which meets Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. (Be sure to check the legislative calendar before going to these meetings, both to be sure a meeting hasn’t been cancelled and to see which bills are on the agenda.) Legislative leaders may want these bills to pass, but it will be a shame if they let North Carolinians’ precious franchise to vote be degraded.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate