North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — The promise of fireworks over judicial elections and constitutional amendments at this week’s brief legislative session fizzled as General Assembly leaders opted to delay action on the controversial plans, pending input from a new committee.

Instead, legislators returning to Raleigh for what’s been described as a one or two-day session are expected to take up legislation on water quality proposed by a House committee looking into unregulated contaminants. Lawmakers may also discuss several of Gov. Roy Cooper‘s appointees who are still awaiting confirmation.

Ahead of the session, Cooper and Democrats in the General Assembly are pressing for a fix for legislation passed last year mandating class-size reduction in grades K-3. School administrators across the state have warned that the class-size requirements will mean continued cuts to classes in art, music, physical education and other specialty areas. The legislature passed a one-year delay in the requirements in September, but school boards continue to seek additional flexibility in spending.

When the session opens on Wednesday, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, plans to reintroduce the original version of H13, which passed the House in March 2017, he told a news conference at the General Assembly Tuesday afternoon.

Chaudhuri said the legislation he wants to see passed is a short-term fix to only one part of the debate over education funding.

“There is a longer-term challenge for the state … we’re under-investing in public education,” Chaudhuri said.

With Republican firmly in control of both chambers, House and Senate leaders have pushed back against critics’ contentions about overall education funding and have so far declined to include the class-size plan in this week’s agenda. However, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, a key House budget chair for education, said recently that he believes the legislature will address the class size issue this year.

While that fight continues, the battle over judicial redistricting and proposed constitutional changes in how judges take office is likely to resume in full later this month.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, chair of the House Rules Committee, said the legislature could come back again in late January to take up a judicial redistricting plan and hold hearings on proposed constitutional changes calling for judges to be appointed rather than elected.

Last week, the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, which was set up to review redistricting plans proposed by the House and a plan to select judges rather than hold judicial elections, voted to send the proposals on to a new House and Senate joint committee.

Both proposals have generated heated debate.

During last week’s meeting Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Asheville, said she felt like the redistricting plans to divide Buncombe County into two districts were an “an attack” on the local judiciary.

Van Duyn said under both House and Senate redistricting plans Buncombe County, where Democrats are in the majority, was being treated differently than similarly-sized counties with Republican majorities.

“I can see no justification for that other than Buncombe County has a reputation for electing the wrong kinds of people,” Van Duyn said. “That, to me, takes our judiciary in a political direction that is bad for the people of our state.”

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, said he disagreed with Democrats assertion that the proposals, which first surface toward the end of last year’s regular session, have not been properly vetted. He said the Senate had taken ample time reviewing and discussing the bill.

“The one argument is ‘when you can’t find anything in substance, gripe about the process,’ ” Hise said.

The 30-member Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting, appointed last week after the Senate committee voted, is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Thursday.

Constitutional amendments

In addition to a potential change in the state constitution clearing the way for a new system of judicial appointments, several other constitutional changes are waiting in the wings.

House leaders have said repeatedly that they plan to introduce another Voter ID bill, in response court rulings that struck down legislation passed in 2013 was was ruled unconstitutional after courts determined that many of its provisions targeted African-American voters.

Other possible constitutional amendments to be considered include capping the state’s income-tax rate at 5.5 percent and a proposed amendment co-sponsored last year by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Cherokee, that guarantees the right to “hunt, fish and harvest wildlife.”

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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