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The Highs and Lows of North Carolina’s 2023 Legislative Session

This year’s legislative session has been full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Our state legislature has debated the issues of human life, gender, parental rights, school choice, predatory gambling, marijuana legalization, and so much more. We’ve had some significant wins, and also some substantial losses.

This week on Family Policy Matters, NC Family President John Rustin welcomes NC Family Government Relations Associate Sharon Sullivan and Counsel Jere Royall to discuss and recap the highs and lows of North Carolina’s 2023 Legislative Session.

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Transcript: The Highs and Lows of North Carolina’s 2023 Legislative Session

JOHN RUSTIN: As the 2023 Legislative Session is winding down, we thought it be an opportune time to take a look back at many of the significant and important accomplishments that have taken place this year at the North Carolina General Assembly. And to do that, I’m joined by NC Family’s government relations team, Jere Royall and Sharon Sullivan. Jere and Sharon, welcome.

JERE ROYALL: Thank you.

JOHN RUSTIN: Well, the 2023 legislative session has proven to be an incredibly busy and incredibly intense one with quite a number of what we might refer to as highs and lows. It certainly has felt that we’ve been on a bit of a roller coaster ride. The state lawmakers returned to Raleigh in mid-January at the beginning of the year to jumpstart the session by swearing in members and electing officers, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was elected to his seventh term as the leader of the State Senate while Representative Tim Moore was elected to a record fifth term as the speaker of the North Carolina House.

Well, as the regular session began in earnest on January 25, Republicans held a razor-thin veto-proof supermajority in the State Senate but had fallen just one seat short of a veto-proof supermajority in the North Carolina House. But that all changed in early April when Mecklenburg County representative Tricia Cotham unexpectedly switched parties from Democrat to Republican and gave Republicans an additional seat and a supermajority in the state house.

So this set the stage for a major showdown between the Republican General Assembly and our Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, who has vetoed no less than 16 bills already this year. In fact, one of the first bills that was vetoed by Governor Cooper was the landmark pro-life bill Senate Bill 20 — The Care for Women, Children, and Families Act. This measure was pursued by state lawmakers in North Carolina after the United States Supreme Court issued its famous Dobbs decision last year, which overturned Roe v. Wade. So Sharon remind us a little bit about Senate Bill 20, what this bill does.

SHARON SULLIVAN: Yeah, sure, I’d be happy to. So Senate Bill 20, most importantly, reduces the gestational age for when a woman can have an abortion from 20 weeks down to 12 weeks. So that’s really important. Of course, we were fighting and hoping for six weeks or a conception bill, but we’re happy with what we got. It also does some other things that expand on protecting women, children, and families. First would be that it bans partial-birth abortions, which is super important. We’re so glad that that is in there. It prohibits abortion sought because of the race or sex of an unborn child or in the case of a diagnosis of Down syndrome. It enacts the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, requiring healthcare providers to provide care for babies that are still alive after the abortion is attempted. It also requires abortion clinics to be inspected annually and meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. It establishes more detailed informed consent forms. And it really gives the women more information about what’s going to be happening, who’s going to be helping them, what will be taking place. That was a really important part.

JOHN RUSTIN: And I think that it’s important to know that there are, of course, chemical abortions, abortion by drug, and then surgical abortions. And so these enhanced informed consents are pretty specific to whatever type of procedure you may be going through to make sure that she’s fully informed and is aware of what’s actually going to be taking place. And obviously with the hopes that she will choose life instead of choosing abortion.

SHARON SULLIVAN: Yes, of course. Another thing that it does is it makes it unlawful for abortion-inducing drugs that we were just talking about, the chemical abortions, to be mailed or ordered through the Internet. So that’s another protection that’s built in mostly for, you know, the women. There’s these side effects that happen with these chemical abortions, in particular, where the girl’s home alone or a woman’s home alone going through this procedure, so we’re glad to see some of these things being put into place.

JOHN RUSTIN: Yeah. Well, and also in Senate Bill 20, it provided approximately $160 million in funding to enhance things in North Carolina like foster care, adoption, child care, and other vital services. And the budget bill, which was fairly recently passed by our state lawmakers and enacted that budget bill made good on that promise of providing $160 million over the next two years for these vital and important services that really honor unborn life and will be provided to help support women and families that are facing unplanned and crisis pregnancy. So we were excited to see that in the budget bill. And also, speaking of the budget, Sharon, there were a number of other important pro-life provisions that were included in the budget.

SHARON SULLIVAN: Sure, a couple of them that I want to bring to everybody’s attention actually do include funds. So, there were $6.5 million for the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship. They are a network that gives grants to pregnancy care centers across the state. In each of the next two years, we’ll get $6.5 million. And then also, in each of the next two years, $1.5 million is going to go to pro-life nonprofit Human Coalition, and they also are out there trying to help women choose life over abortion.

And then there’s some other provisions that were in there, that actually weren’t related necessarily to budget funds. For example, there’s a provision that state dollars can’t go to abortion. We already kind of had that in our legislative notes, but now it’s also saying that if someone has family planning services or adoption services, but they also perform abortions, we’re not going to be giving them any state funds either, mostly just to protect the money, so it doesn’t get moved around and shuffled into us paying for abortions that we didn’t intend to do.

JOHN RUSTIN: So those provisions basically say that no state taxpayer dollars can be used to either directly or indirectly fund entities that provide abortions. So that’s an enhancement of the status of the law right now. So great. Well, thank you for that review. The budget bill, Jere, also contained a number of significant education-related measures, in addition to the important life measures that Sharon mentioned, talk about those.

JERE ROYALL: In the field of education, there were significant changes there. Really monumental change in the Opportunity scholarships. What that started out as a program for lower-income families to receive some financial assistance if they believe that their child could receive a better education in a private school. Well, now, this has taken a tremendous step. So that, beginning February 1 of next year, 2024, every child, every family will be eligible to apply for these scholarships. And they’re going to be on a sliding scale, the lower income families, what they’ll receive is 100% of the state’s public school per pupil spending. And then for higher income families, as I said, it’s on a sliding scale, the highest income will be a little less than half of that per pupil spending. A tremendous step.

As far as the overall funding for this program, it’s going to, over the next two years, more than double, to a total of over $400 million. And then, over the next six years, up to a total of $500 million. So all this is a tremendous expansion in the Opportunity Scholarship Program for school choice for families. So that’s a wonderful development. You know, people realize not every child is fit for this particular education, one school system may be a better fit than another. And this is offering families that opportunity to make that choice. So, as you can see, the budget typically involves monetary issues. There’s some policy involved. But I know we now want to look at some actual policy developments that have happened separate from the budget.

JOHN RUSTIN: Right. As you mentioned, Jere, the General Assembly has enacted a whole plethora of legislation throughout this year’s session. There were three major bills passed in the area of parental rights and gender issues, which, similar to Senate Bill 20 the big pro-life bill, were enacted into law by the General Assembly over the objection and veto of Governor Cooper. So Sharon, tell us about these three bills.

SHARON SULLIVAN: Sure. The first one that you mentioned was Senate Bill 49 — The Parents’ Bill of Rights, which is exactly what the title says. It clarifies and codifies the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, especially in the areas of education and health care. Those are hot issues right now, and so we believe, and fortunately, so did the legislators, that it is important for parents to be the ones that are in control of their children when it comes to these issues. And then there was also House Bill 574, which is the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. And that requires that all teams in North Carolina, that all middle school, high school, and universities, be designated as male, female, or co-ed on the basis of their biological sex. So that kind of takes the whole trans athlete thing and puts it to bed here for right now.

JOHN RUSTIN: So that bill would essentially prohibit a biological male from participating on a female or girls sports, correct?

SHARON SULLIVAN: Yes, that’s right. We’re really just trying to make sure that it’s fair play and safe play. And then the last one that you mentioned, House Bill 808, which is Gender Transition/Minors, and it prevents the administration of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and doesn’t allow for any of the gender transition surgeries on minors in North Carolina. It also provides conscience protections to healthcare providers and practitioners that don’t want to participate.

JOHN RUSTIN: So, really, some very key bills that were enacted again by the General Assembly over the veto of the governor, which we were very much involved in and advocated for very strongly. Obviously, friends, a lot of good things happened during this legislative session, but we also did experience a few losses. One of those was the passage of Senate Bill 347, which legalized sports gambling and parimutuel wagering on horse racing in North Carolina. Of course, NC Family strongly opposed this bill, we’ve been researching the gambling issues for gosh over three decades. And the research clearly shows all of the social harms that result from gambling legalization, from increases in gambling addiction, and the impact that that has on individuals, on families, and on communities across our state. It was unfortunate that our lawmakers enacted this piece of legislation. But you know, we’re hoping and praying that this does not have tremendously negative effects on families in North Carolina, but it unfortunately, is likely to.

And if that were not enough, just weeks after the General Assembly approved sports gambling and horse racing, the leadership in the State Senate and the State House put forth a proposal that would legalize up to four commercial gambling casino developments and that would also legalize tens of thousands of video gambling machines that would be operated under the auspices or the umbrella of the state lottery. In fact, it looked like the legislative leaders were going to try to avoid an up or down vote on this massive gambling expansion proposal in North Carolina by including it in the budget bill. And fortunately, what happened was that our legislative leaders ultimately realized that the votes did not exist in either the State House or the State Senate to pass this proposal. The votes just didn’t exist to do it. And so finally, our legislative leaders, Senator Berger and Speaker Moore held a press conference and said, “Okay, we’re gonna move forward with a quote unquote, clean budget that does not include this massive gambling expansion in North Carolina.” And hopefully, as we’re recording this, the legislature is still in session, but we’re hopeful, and the leaders have said they’re not going to bring this legislation up this year, but we certainly can expect something to happen when the legislature comes back for the short session next spring.

Jere, I know that was one other issue in that category of things that did not happen that we fought and you really led our efforts in opposition to a bill that would legalize marijuana in North Carolina, that bill sort of stalled out in the house, but it’s still eligible and could rear its head again, right?

JERE ROYALL: It is. And then we’re again hearing that the efforts are continuing. But at this point, I think because legislators have been informed the opposition is there to stop marijuana being legalized as medicine in North Carolina. The title of the bill itself could draw people over. It’s called the Compassionate Care Act. And our position is, if you really want to be compassionate, you look at the facts, the truth. What does medical and scientific evidence show? We’re continuing to find the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration, American Academy of Neurology, American Psychiatric Association, none of those support marijuana as medicine. They’ve researched for years, they’re finding harm, not help. They do say keep researching. And that’s what we’re saying. Let’s let the medical community use years of research to develop what can be helpful to people. And so that battle, as you say, John, is one more that will continue.

JOHN RUSTIN: Well, I can’t say enough thanks to you, Jere, and to you, Sharon, for your tireless efforts this year down at the General Assembly, just working with, educating, meeting with, talking with our lawmakers to help them understand the implications of bills that they’re considering, decisions that they’re making, and the real-life impacts that those decisions have on citizens across the state. As this session has demonstrated over and over again, if we all work together, we can protect the integrity of our state and make it a place that we’re proud to call home. Now, that doesn’t mean that things are always going to go our way. But it’s so important for us to play that role, to be a voice for biblical truth in North Carolina’s political and public policy arena. Because if we do work together and work with our elected officials who are making these decisions, we can have a significant and very positive impact and, hopefully, in the process, honor the Lord in doing so. So, Jere, Sharon, thank you. I imagine we’re probably close to being out of time for this week. So thanks so much.

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