In Part 2 of this 2-part series, NC Family President John L. Rustin talks with NC Family Lobbyist and Counsel Jere Royall, about the highlights of this past session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us for Family Policy Matters. Our guest again this week is Jere Royall, Counsel and Director of Community Impact at the North Carolina Family Policy Council. Last week, Jere and I had a great discussion about NC Family’s role as an advocate and lobbyist in the North Carolina General Assembly and all that entails. When the General Assembly is in session, we are down there every day looking out for the interests of families and family values. This week, we are going to discuss the recently concluded legislative session of the North Carolina General Assembly, in which NC Family was very actively engaged, and the actions our state lawmakers took on particular issues of interest. Jere, thanks for being with us again on Family Policy Matters.
JERE ROYALL: Thank you for having me back.
JOHN RUSTIN: We are very thankful for all that you do, Jere. As we begin our discussion Jere, let’s talk about the obvious, which is House Bill 2, and let me set the stage for our listeners. As you may recall, the Charlotte City Council passed a set of highly controversial ordinance changes in February, including opening public bathrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms, and other facilities to individuals of either sex, and also enacting provisions that would have enabled the city to trample on the religious liberty rights of citizens and businesses. The North Carolina General Assembly would not stand for this and they held a special session on March 23 to stop these ordinance changes before they could go into effect. They were scheduled to go into effect on April 1, so the legislature came into session again on March 23 to stop that. Our lawmakers passed HB 2 on that day, and fortunately Governor Pat McCrory signed that bill into law that very evening. Knowing the legislature was coming back into session for the regularly scheduled short session just a month later on April 25, LGBT activist groups like the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, and Equality North Carolina really turned up the heat on state lawmakers calling for a full repeal of House Bill 2. The media was also complicit in creating what turned into a national firestorm over this common sense legislation. With that background and intro Jere, tell us about what happened with House Bill 2 during the session?
JERE ROYALL: John, as you said, we continue to hear that lawmakers were facing a lot of pressure, and especially late in the session, and we heard at that point that some specific changes were being considered by some legislators. So, throughout the session we continued to meet with members, we continued to send out alerts encouraging other citizens to affirm what the legislators had done, to let them, their senators, their house members, and the governor know that they appreciated the strong position that our state had taken to protect the privacy and safety of our citizens. But what we did is we continued to meet with legislators throughout the session, especially at the end was to remind them some of the basic facts about House Bill 2 and the necessity for that law to be maintained. First of all, that Charlotte had acted beyond its legal authority and that’s why the legislature had to act. And number two, the state needs to maintain a statewide bathroom privacy and safety law. But in addition to those we also reminded them that our state’s antidiscrimination laws are almost exactly the same as 27 other states, and the federal government. Well also, while the session was going on the US Departments of Justice and Education made this a national issue by issuing a guidance letter that applied to all public schools, kindergarten through the university level, that would effect restrooms, locker rooms, showers, and dormitories and other facilities. And what happened in response to that is there are now 23 other states, in addition to North Carolina and Virginia, that are in lawsuits against the federal government to defend the states’ privacy and safety laws. So this is an issue that now has become a national issue, which was a good way for our legislators to be encouraged that what they were doing was the right thing, when you have now half the states involved with defending this almost same law around our country. So what ended up happening at the end of the session was just one change was made in the law that was passed that’s referred to as House Bill 2, and this change was a bill entitled “An Act to Restore the State Torte Claim for Wrongful Discharge.” What that meant was that state claims could be brought in state courts as it related to wrongful discharge from employment. House Bill 2, had not effected claims that were brought under federal law in either state or federal court. So this was a change that I think everyone agreed was a good adjustment that was made in the law, but the substance of House Bill 2 as it related to privacy and safety of our citizens was maintained and upheld.
JOHN RUSTIN: Jere that was really just a wonderful blessing because the nation was looking at North Carolina. We were clearly ground zero in this fight, so the fact that the legislature and the governor held the ground on this, they did make this one little tweak, but again as you said, it did not change the substance or nature of House Bill 2 and so the vast majority of House Bill 2 remains in effect. So we were very, very pleased to come out of this session with House Bill 2 remaining intact. Clearly Jere, we could spend an entire show, and we have spent several Family Policy Matters programs discussing House Bill 2, but we do want to look at some of the other important issues that the general assembly acted on this session. As I mentioned in the intro, a primary focus of the short session is the budget, and state lawmakers finally agreed upon a 22.3 billion dollar state spending plan. Besides just that appropriation of 22.3 billion dollars Jere, were there other provisions in the budget that we were particularly interested in or concerned about?
JERE ROYALL: Yes there were. In the area of education there was an expansion of the scholarship funds which help families who want to make an educational choice, other than a public school, to do that. And there are two areas that were established in previous sessions but were increased this year, and one of those was the Opportunity Scholarship grants which allow lower-income families to receive assistance up to $4200 a year for their children to attend a non-public school. And, this program over the next 10 years is going to be increased so that 20,000 more students will be able to participate in that scholarship grant program. And also there was an increase in financial assistance, through scholarship grants, for families with children with disabilities. And that program allows for $6,000 a year for tuition and special education and related services for children with disabilities.
JOHN RUSTIN: There was one other issue of particular interest in the budget that we were not supportive of.
JERE ROYALL: That particular area was related to the lottery. And over the last three years there have been proposals that would increase the lottery advertising allowance by $19 million, which would basically double the amount of advertising in our state for the lottery. And, we have worked on the lottery and gambling issues for over 20 years, have seen all the harms that come with gambling in in our state and across our country where you have more broken families, divorce, bankruptcies, domestic violence and other crimes like theft, all these come with gambling in in a state, and especially gambling that’s being promoted by our state government. We try to help legislators see that even though this is now legal in our state, this is not a way for our state to bring in additional revenue at the expense of our citizens and the many, literally thousands of people who will become problem and addicted gamblers if you continue to increase the advertising expense on that.
JOHN RUSTIN: Jere, the lottery provision is a great example that sometimes a successful lobbying effort isn’t just about what passes but is also about what doesn’t pass, or make it to a final vote. Clearly we have to stay vigilant and on guard throughout the session because we never know when an issue, whether good or bad, may pop up out of nowhere. And actually we did have one of those happen at the end of session, didn’t we?
JERE ROYALL: Yes we did, it’s was what’s referred to often as the “Needle Exchange Program.” This is an issue that we have researched for many years and there’s a lot of mixed information about these programs. The idea is a laudable one, and this is one of the things that we want to acknowledge when we’re working on issues, are the positive aspects as well at the negative aspects, and for those to be weighed by us and by legislators as they are considering these important issues. The idea behind these programs is they help reduce the spread of disease when people are sharing contaminated needles. And also when law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel are interacting with people who may have contaminated needles in their possession, and they could be injured by these needles. And finally, these programs offer an opportunity when people come to participate in the exchange program, to receive clean needles, that they can also be referred to treatment centers where hopefully they can be cured of their addiction. But, our concern on the other side of it is that these programs can in fact help people continue in their addiction and actually make matters worse. And we actually have some studies that indicate that, that in some cases they the people end up with more contaminated needles and you end up with increased drug use as well. So we were concerned about this being passed, especially right at the end of the session without adequate debate, but unfortunately this one was added to a bill which eliminated a lot of the debate would normally happen in the committee process, and in the debate on the floor.
JOHN RUSTIN: What you say is important that we did communicate to legislators as we discussed our concerns about this bill to them when we learned in the closing days of session that it was coming up, that there was really a lot of mixed research and evidence about these programs, but as laudable as the objectives of the programs are, at the very least syringe exchange or needle exchange programs send a mixed message to our youth and our society at large. It’s a really challenging issue, it’s a complex issue, but something that we did express concerns about and unfortunately saw enacted in the legislature. We will be watching this very closely as the program progresses to see what kind of experience North Carolina has with that. Jere, anything else that we saw this session of interest?
JERE ROYALL: One thing on a very positive note, appropriation that was made has been made in recent years to Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, which is a non-profit pro-life organization that’s committed to equip and encourage a network, pregnancy care ministries across North Carolina. These centers serve over 20 thousand women and men each year by assisting them and making healthy life-affirming choices for themselves and their unborn babies. So we were thankful to see that appropriation continue in our state budget this year.
JOHN RUSTIN: Jere, overall it sounds like the session was really quite a success, especially with all the attention focused on House Bill 2, there were a number of other issues that were discussed and debated, and not just in the realm that we’ve talked about today, but a lot of issues that the members of the General Assembly grappled with. Some bills passed, some bills did not, but overall we are grateful for the work of the General Assembly. We are extremely grateful for the involvement and participation of citizens across North Carolina who care passionately about these issues and contact their members of the General Assembly to express their concerns. And Jere, on just a personal note I want to thank you so much for all of your hard work and your efforts on behalf of NC Family and our supporters all across the state, and all across the nation.
JERE ROYALL: Thank you John. As I said at the beginning this is a great blessing for me getting to work together with you and with people here at the Family Policy Council, and with people all over the state who are working together with us.
JOHN RUSTIN: Jere, thanks so much for that, and listeners thank you for tuning into the show, and we appreciate your prayers, your financial support and all that you do to partner with us at NC Family.
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