The North Carolina legislative session begins Wednesday with a more conservative House and Senate and an environment in which GOP leaders will have an easier time pushing state laws and policies further to the right.
Republicans gained seats in both the House and Senate in the November election. The GOP won a veto-proof majority in the Senate and is one vote shy of a veto-proof majority in the House, making it much more likely that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes can be overturned.
Cooper vetoed 47 bills in the last four years, and none were overridden. He begins the last two years of his second term with nearly no cushion of Democratic votes in the legislature to sustain vetoes if all Republicans vote together.
The session promises to be an active one, with longstanding Republican goals standing a good chance of becoming law.
The legislature is poised to pass new restrictions on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated all constitutional protections, leaving the issue to the states. Abortions after 20 weeks are now limited in the state, and legislative leaders have said they will work to enact more limits this year. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, House Speaker Tim Moore issued a press statement saying abortion legislation would be a top priority this session.
Senate leader Phil Berger told the Associated Press last summer that he would prefer restricting abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy. Moore personally prefers abortion bans after ultrasounds detect fetal heart activity, which is usually around six weeks of pregnancy, the AP reported.
Cooper has vetoed two bills restricting abortion since 2019, which the legislature could not override. A handful of House Democrats supported one or both of those bills, and their votes could be crucial to passing a veto-proof abortion bill this session.
Jillian Riley, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said a coalition of abortion-rights supporters is fighting to “hold the line,” and work to continue to uphold Cooper’s vetoes.
“We have a tough fight ahead,” she said. “We expect to be able to uphold the veto, just as we were able to uphold the veto last session.”
The state Senate passed a bill last year dubbed North Carolina’s version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which would require schools to tell parents if their children want to change their pronouns and prohibit teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in Kindergarten through third grades.
Senate Republicans said their bill differed from the Florida law, because teachers would not be prohibited from talking about sexual orientation if it came up during class discussions. In a news conference last year, Berger said schools should tell parents if their children ask questions about sexual orientation, Policy Watch reported.
The House did not vote on the bill, but anti-LGBTQ bills are expected to pass this year, Policy Watch reported.
Teaching about racism and American history
Cooper vetoed a bill last year that would have set out rules for how schools teach and talk about racism.
The bill included 13 concepts that schools would be prohibited from “promoting.” These include that “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist,” and that “the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”
Schools would have been required to give the state Department of Public Instruction (and to post on their websites) information about curricula and reading lists addressing those concepts, as well as information about contracts with diversity trainers, speakers and consultants.
The legislature passed it with no Democratic votes.
The bill was debated as conservatives around the country attacked critical race theory and claimed it was being taught in schools. Critical race theory is an academic discipline that studies how American racism shapes public policies and laws.
The legislature will redraw congressional and state Senate districts this year. One of the last opinions by the outgoing Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court last year held that the state Senate district map used in the last election was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, and that the legislature needed to redraw it.
Last winter, a divided state Supreme Court rejected state House, state Senate, and congressional districts drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature. Lawmakers drew new district maps. The congressional plan was again rejected, and the district boundaries used in November were set by redistricting experts with oversight from Superior Court judges. That congressional plan was good for only one use, which means a new map should be in place by 2024.
While Democratic justices moved to throw out partisan gerrymandered maps based on provisions in the state constitution, Republican justices have dissented, arguing that partisan redistricting matters are beyond the courts’ purview.
Power on the state’s highest court shifted with the November election, and Republicans now have the majority. It’s less likely that voting rights groups will find the Supreme Court willing to force changes to redistricting plans weighted in Republicans’ favor.
The congressional district map used in November elected seven Republicans and seven Democrats. Assessing the congressional map the court rejected, redistricting experts said it would have created 10 Republican districts and four Democratic districts, or 10 Republican, three Democratic, and one toss-up district.
With the changes on the Supreme Court, the legislature will have a freer hand in drawing election district boundaries, Meredith College political scientist David McLennan said in an email.
New Senate districts will likely be similar to districts used last year, McLennan wrote, “since it would be less likely that any case that ends up at the NC Supreme Court may declare those maps unconstitutional.”
A case that Republican legislative leaders brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, Moore vs. Harper, adds another wrinkle. Republicans argued that state courts should be precluded from reviewing laws state legislatures pass regulating federal elections, which would include the shape of congressional districts.
The legislature will probably wait for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Moore vs. Harper before drawing new congressional districts, McLennan wrote.
“The Court may announce some guidance in terms of how the state courts may be involved with redistricting of federal election maps,” he wrote. “Even if the Court sides with Harper in the important case, it is likely that the maps that will be used in the 2024 congressional elections in North Carolina will be decidedly more Republican.”
Contrary to their record on issues such as guns, LGBTQ legislation and abortion, GOP leaders have devoted some of their energy to allowing medical marijuana use and sports gambling, even as organized conservative groups opposed these bills.
Mobile sports gambling
The state Senate approved mobile sports betting in 2021, but the idea faltered in the House last year after a convoluted series of votes. The state’s major league sports teams want the online betting, and supporters said they’d try again this session.
Sports betting in North Carolina is legal only at two Cherokee casinos and the Catawba Two Kings Casino in Kings Mountain.
The state Senate labored over a medical marijuana bill last session. The bill easily cleared the Senate, but it went nowhere in the House.
The three Senate sponsors of last year’s bill could not be reached this week on whether they would try again. But a lobbyist talking to legislators about a medical marijuana bill said the issue is still alive.
“What we hope is going to happen is the bill will get reintroduced early,” and that the legislature will pass it this year, said Ed Hanes Jr., founder of the NC Medical Cannabis Association and a former state House member.
Hanes wants to keep the focus on medical use. “We’re not looking to become a retail situation,” he said. “This is about medicine.”