The North Carolina General Assembly adjourned the 2017 Legislative Session in the early morning hours of June 30, bringing to a close a productive session that included many positive pro-family initiatives. This “long session” featured a Republican-controlled supermajority in the General Assembly working with a Democratic Governor for the first time since 2012. It also included a highly contentious and controversial “compromise” on House Bill 2, which took up much of the focus for state lawmakers during the first two months of the session.
Despite some setbacks, the 2017 Session was a success with the passage of legislation that protects the sanctity of human life, expands school choice; attacks human trafficking, and seeks to remedy the state’s opioid epidemic, among other things. State lawmakers also rejected some measures that would have drastically expanded legalized gambling in the state, while minimizing the effect of other related bills.
The following is a summary of the outcome of select legislation of interest. While this is not a comprehensive list of all the issues in which NC Family was engaged—we monitor hundreds of bills every session—this report highlights what our staff considers to be the most important policy actions taken, and not taken, by state lawmakers this session.
State lawmakers passed a $23 billion budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, which began July 1. The budget continues the tax relief efforts initiated by the GOP-led General Assembly several years ago. SB 257—Appropriations Act of 2017 reduces the personal income tax rate to 5.25 percent and raises the standard deduction for married couples to $20,000. Both of these changes take effect in January 2019. The budget also adds $363 million to the state’s “rainy day fund,” bringing the total to $1.84 billion dollars, the highest ever.
As usual, the majority of the state budget was dedicated to education with $13.06 billion for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017-2018 and $13.53 billon for FY 2018-2019. For the fourth consecutive year, teachers will receive a pay raise, with an average raise of 3.3 percent. The budget also raises the pay for principals and assistant principals. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the budget, but the General Assembly overrode the veto within 24 hours.
HOUSE BILL 2
After more than a year of controversy, North Carolina lawmakers attempted to “reset” the field and commentary surrounding House Bill 2 and the state and national debate over bathroom access, privacy rights, and religious liberty. On March 30, the General Assembly passed HB 142—Reset of S.L. 2016-3, which repealed House Bill 2 in its entirety, but preserved the primary tenets of the bill by: (1) prohibiting state agencies and local governments from adopting ordinances that regulate bathroom access, and (2) establishing a moratorium on the ability of cities and counties to enact nondiscrimination ordinances relating to private employment practices and public accommodations until December 2020. Consistent with what NC Family has said all along, more and more evidence has come to light to show how North Carolina’s economic and business climate has prospered during the past year-and-a-half, despite the false and misleading claims of HB2 opponents and the left-leaning media that HB2 was having a devastating impact on the state.
SANCTITY & DIGNITY OF HUMAN LIFE
During the 2017 Session, state lawmakers continued to build on the incredibly positive pro-life gains made in recent years. The state budget increased state funding for pro-life initiatives from $300,000 to $1.7 million over each of the next two years. The Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a statewide network of pro-life pregnancy resources centers, will distribute $970,000 in state grants for these centers to purchase medical equipment and provide training for “durable medical equipment.” In addition, Human Coalition, a Texas-based pro-life organization with an affiliate in North Carolina, will receive $300,000 to develop and implement a two-year pilot program to “provide a continuum of care and support to assist women experiencing crisis pregnancies to continue their pregnancies to full term.”
In addition, the General Assembly sought to further address the scourge of human trafficking in North Carolina with the passage of SB 548—Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws/Studies, which increases the penalties for certain trafficking activities and puts into place preventative measures aimed at businesses, such as some massage and bodywork therapy establishments, that often serve as a front for human sex trafficking operations.
The NC General Assembly furthered its investment in school choice in North Carolina, funding an expansion of existing programs and creating an entirely new one. Lawmakers continued their multi-year expansion of the popular Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows qualifying lower income families to apply for educational scholarship grants of up to $4,200 per child, per year to help cover the costs of tuition at non-public schools. The budget bill increases funding to $44.8 million in FY 2017-2018 and $54.8 in FY 2018-2019. This will increase the number of available scholarships from 10,700 to 13,100.
In addition, state lawmakers established a Personal Education Savings Account (ESA) Program for children with disabilities. The program, which is funded at $3.45 million, would provide eligible students up to $9,000 a year to offset the costs of education-related expenses. Eligible students with certain severe disabilities may combine an ESA award with the existing Children with Disabilities Scholarship of up to $8,000 per year.
State lawmakers also took action to further protect free speech on college campuses in North Carolina through the passage of HB 527—Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech. This bill comes in response to a rise in incidents on college campuses across the nation where students’ free speech rights have been violated and where campus events have been canceled because scheduled speakers have been protested, shouted down and threatened. The bill directs the UNC Board of Governors to “adopt a policy on free expression” and to establish a committee on Free Expression. The bill was backed by Lt. Governor Dan Forest, who said that the bill was “a great step toward restoring and preserving free speech on our university campuses.”
Several stand-alone bills, as well as multiple iterations of the state budget, sought to expand gambling in North Carolina. A provision proposed in the Senate’s version of the budget bill would have doubled the advertising budget for the state lottery to close to $46 million for FY 2017-2018. Fortunately, this provision was not included in the House’s version of the state spending plan and did not make it into the final approved budget. Another major gambling proposal, which would have legalized online Daily Fantasy Sports gambling, was defeated in the House Regulatory Reform Committee on May 17 after NC Family and concerned citizens across the state stood in opposition to the bill. HB 279—Fantasy Sports Regulation and its Senate counterpart never came up again for consideration.
NC Family also worked hard opposing the passage of HB 511—Game Nights/Nonprofit Fund-Raiser that would allow nonprofit organizations to hold Las Vegas-style casino nights, complete with alcohol, for fundraising purposes. Despite the fact that the possession and operation of poker, blackjack and craps tables; roulette wheels; and other gambling equipment is illegal in North Carolina, casino game nights are being conducted by nonprofit organizations with increasing frequency and with little to no enforcement by law enforcement agencies. When it became clear HB 511 was going to pass, NC Family was able to negotiate with the bill sponsors to jettison the most troublesome parts of the bill, which would have allowed “employers” and “private individuals” to conduct casino game nights across the state with practically no regulation and no oversight. Overall, the passage of HB 511 may help to regulate what has become a largely unregulated gambling activity in our state.
Finally, NC Family worked with Sen. Andy Wells (R-Catawba) during the last days of the session to seek a new felony offense for the possession of more than four electronic sweepstakes gambling machines. Similar to other gambling equipment, the possession and operation of video sweepstakes machines is illegal, but the sweepstakes industry has challenged every law that has passed and has exploited every opportunity in an attempt to continue to operate in the state. The amended version of HB 577—LSC Crim. Check/Felonious Gaming Machines, would create a new Class G felony, “if any person shall operate or place into operation more than four electronic machines or devices,” and it would require the forfeiture of the machines. Although the amended version of HB 577 passed the Senate and was placed on the House Calendar for consideration by the entire chamber, it was pulled and referred to the House Judiciary 3 Committee prior to adjournment. This bill remains eligible in the House.
State lawmakers worked with Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Governor Roy Cooper in a bipartisan effort to begin addressing the growing epidemic of opioid abuse in North Carolina through the passage of HB 243—Strengthen Opioid Misuse. HB 243 limits access to opioids; increases doctor and pharmacy participation in regulating, tracking and limiting access to these addictive drugs; and provides funding for community-based treatment and recovery services.
NC Family worked with the sponsors of HB 559—Outdoor Heritage Enhanced to ensure that laws and regulations allowing expanded Sunday hunting continue to respect and honor religious worship that typically takes place on Sunday mornings. This bill ensures that hunting on Sunday is prohibited between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and within 500 yards of a place of religious worship. The bill also directs the Wildlife Resources Commission to conduct a formal study to determine whether the hunting of migratory birds, such as ducks and geese, should be allowed on Sunday. Additionally, HB 559 allows counties to adopt an ordinance prohibiting Sunday hunting, subject to a county-wide referendum that must be approved by a majority of those voting.
WHAT’S NEXT & THANK YOU!
According to the adjournment resolution, state lawmakers will return to Raleigh on August 3, 2017 and September 6, 2017 to consider veto messages from the Governor, redistricting bills, pending conference reports, bills received from the other chamber for concurrence that were not addressed prior to adjournment, and other specified matters.
NC Family can’t thank you enough for staying informed and involved throughout the session and for your responsiveness to NC Family’s Action Alerts! We hope it is clearly evident from the summary above how much of a positive difference your partnership with NC Family can make in forming and shaping our laws, as we pursue our vision of “A state and nation where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive and live is cherished.”
Thank You Again!