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UPDATE: Gov. Bev Perdue announced on Tuesday, Dec. 20, her plans to call the N.C. General Assembly in for a Jan. 4 session, according to a report in the News & Observer, to “to consider whether to override or let stand her veto of the bill gutting the Racial Justice Act.”
Lawsuits challenging redistricting could delay February session
When the legislative session of the N.C. General Assembly convenes on Feb. 16 lawmakers will focus on the redistricting controversy and the possibility of overriding earlier vetoes issued by Gov. Bev Perdue.
But because redistricting matters may still be tied up in state court, and Republicans will likely lack the votes to override any vetoes, the session may produce no meaningful progress. In fact, it may not happen at all.
“There’s nothing on the agenda we can control at this point,” said Rep. Patsy Keever, a Democrat representing Buncombe County. ” We should not be spending taxpayer money on going back to these sessions.”
Legislative and congressional redistricting plans were passed by the General Assembly this summer and subsequently approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. [Here is a summary of how redistricting happens in North Carolina.]
A set of Democrat lawmakers and concerned voters filed suit in the Wake County Superior Court in early November contesting the redistricting plan. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, from Asheville, and House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, from Chapel Hill, said in a joint statement released at the time of the lawsuit that the plan “re-segregates North Carolina as much as possible” in the interest of giving Republicans added advantages in certain districts.
The proposed plan would, among other changes, shift Western North Carolina’s 10th and 11th Congressional districts, currently represented by Republican Patrick McHenry and Democrat Heath Shuler, respectively. The proposed plan would put Polk County, Asheville and half of Buncombe County into the 10th, and place Mitchell, Caldwell, Burk and Avery counties into the 11th.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville and a member of the redistricting committee, said he sees no attempt at re-segregation. “Well, I’m sure Senator Nesbitt said that,” he said. “But the Obama Justice Department disagreed. So I think I’d go with their opinion more than Martin’s.”
He added that the session might not even take place if a three-judge Superior Court panel strikes down the lawsuit before mid-February. An additional lawsuit, also in Wake County Superior Court, was filed on Nov. 4 by the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and two other groups.
“We scheduled the session in case we need it for redistricting,” Apodaca said. “But our hope is we won’t have to go in at all.” He estimated that the suits will be decided “in the next month or two,” though no one can predict the exact date.
Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican from Franklin, acknowledged that the judges’ decisions may be pending in February, but called the session a necessary “safety valve.”
“We don’t know how these suits are going to go,” Davis said. He emphasized the need for Republicans to stay prepared in case a court decision goes against them. “We have to keep our powder dry.”
Considering Perdue’s vetoes to fracking, voter ID requirements
At least five of Perdue’s vetoes will be also under consideration during the session, but only for the purpose of a potential override.
The most prominent of these is Senate Bill 709, the Energy Jobs Act. The act was designed to allow offshore drilling for oil and natural gas and bring the state closer to permitting a controversial onshore drilling method called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” (Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Marion Republican, introduced of a bill calling for a formal state study of fracking in N.C., a measure that was approved in June.)
Democrats oppose the measure due to environmental concerns, including the possible contamination of the water supply and damage to North Carolina beaches. Republicans who passed the bill argue that it will create jobs and help encourage energy independence for the state.
The Senate has already overridden that veto, along with others. But the House needs 72 votes for an override and has just 68 Republican members. Thus far, Republicans have been unsuccessful at recruiting Democrat crossovers.
“I feel like they are having these sessions simply to give themselves an opportunity to override the governor’s veto,” Keever said of the February session. She explained that if fewer members are present at any given session, the required votes for a veto decrease. “Life happens. If there are not enough Democrats at any given point, yes, I think they will override some of those vetoes.”
Davis conceded the point. “If the absentee rate is such that the override can be taken, the override will be taken,” he said. “And that helps to ensure that people show up to work.”
The veto of House Bill 351, which would require all voters to show photo identification at the polls, has also been under reconsideration.
“We had legislation that we felt like was very reasonable and in line with most other states,” Gillespie, a Republican representing Burke and McDowell counties, said. “It was hard to get support because it became so political.”
Davis agreed: “You’ve got to have a photo ID to get on an airplane, to rent a video, to get a driver’s license, to identify yourself. To show photo ID to vote is a small price to pay. That’s not infringing on anyone’s rights.”
But Democrats, including Gov. Perdue, claim that voter fraud is rare, and the measure would target voters who typically vote Democratic.
“It sounds good on the surface,” Keever said. “Sure, everyone should have a voter ID. But there’s something like 300,000 people across the state who don’t have that form of ID. It targets the elderly, it targets students, it targets poor people. It’s simply a way of suppressing the Democratic vote.”
Other vetoes under possible reconsideration are Senate Bill 727, sponsored by Spruce Pine Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, which seeks to prevent teachers from having dues to the N.C. Association of Educators deducted from their paychecks; House Bill 482, which would waive penalties in poor counties for water quality violations; and House Bill 7, which would allow community colleges to opt out of a federal loan program.
The session is scheduled to end on Saturday, Feb. 18. [PDF]