The 2023 Legislative Session is underway, and this year is shaping up to be quite interesting. Several significant issues will appear, including bills that would protect the unborn and support the mother, legalize marijuana, and expand gambling.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes back NC Family’s own John Rustin and Jere Royall to discuss three of the prominent issues that will be addressed by the North Carolina legislature this session. John, who is the President of NC Family, and Jere, who is the Director of Community Impact and Counsel at NC Family, both work closely with the legislature and are heavily involved in the session.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. After a busy election season, it’s time for the newly elected members of the North Carolina General Assembly to get to work. For a preview of what might be coming in this legislative session, we’re joined today by NC Family President, John Rustin.
JOHN RUSTIN: Hey, Traci.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And NC Family Counsel and Director of Community Impact, Jere Royall.
JERE ROYALL: Hello, Traci.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: As always, we are very grateful that they will be there on our behalf to be voices of persuasion for family values in the halls of our state government. Well, first of all, let’s talk about the make-up of North Carolina’s General Assembly now that we are past last fall’s election.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, Traci, following the election, Republicans actually had control of both chambers of the General Assembly, the State House and Senate, but extended their margins of control in those chambers. In the State Senate, Republicans actually captured 30 of the 50 seats, which is a veto-proof supermajority, and so one of the big issues relating to the desire for a supermajority is that Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed dozens of bills last legislative session, and the General Assembly, which is led by Republicans, have not been able to override the vetoes. They simply have not had the votes to do that.
So in the State Senate, Republicans captured a veto-proof supermajority of 30 seats. In the State House, they fell one seat short of a supermajority, so Republicans hold 71 seats in the 120-seat House and Democrats hold 49 seats, so a wider margin than Republicans had before, but not quite what they needed to have kind of a clinch on a supermajority. However, the Speaker of the House, Tim Moore, has said that they have an effective supermajority because he believes that they will be able to win support of at least one Democrat, if not more, on a variety of issues that the Governor may consider vetoing. So all of that’s yet to be seen, but it’s going to make for a very interesting legislative session.
JERE ROYALL: One quick sidenote on that, even though the numbers are there, the reality of having all the people within the caucus agree and work together is sometimes a challenge. Just a quick example, like on the gambling bill last year, two-thirds of the Republicans in the Senate were opposed to it, yet it passed in the Senate. So the numbers do tell us something, but they don’t indicate that everything is a sure thing just because the numbers appear to be there.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yeah, it’s not an absolute guarantee, so —
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So we have to remain vigilant.
JOHN RUSTIN: Exactly, exactly.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right.
JOHN RUSTIN: And the legislative leaders have got to work with their caucuses, and the members in both chambers have to work with other members to try to garner the votes necessary to not only get bills passed, but if they think that a bill might be subject to veto to garner the votes necessary to override the veto. So it definitely ups the stakes. It’s going to make for an interesting session.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So I’m assuming, as well, that those of us who are just voters around the state who follow what we do here at NC Family, that we also need to remember that just because we have a Republican or a Conservative in there, don’t just assume that they’re going to vote in a way that we would agree with.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. We cannot take anybody for granted, and we certainly hope that the majority of elected officials, particularly in our state legislature, are going to espouse values that we agree with, but that’s not necessarily the case, and, oftentimes, there’s a lot of turnover, there are new members, and they may just not have any practical experience with some of the issues that are being considered in the legislature. So they need to hear from groups like the Family Policy Council, but they also need to hear from constituents back home, so we would always encourage citizens to get involved, to get to know who their legislators are, and to be sure to contact them when issues come up that they have an interest in.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So let’s start off talking about the life issue. We know that the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision last summer overturning Roe v. Wade, and since then, North Carolina has become somewhat of a destination state for people seeking abortion, which is surprising at least to me. What kind of response do you expect from our state lawmakers in this upcoming session?
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, just a little bit of the background on that, prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dobbs decision, a number of states across the country and many states in the southeast had passed legislation that basically said if Roe v. Wade is overturned, then our law becomes life at conception or life when a fetal heartbeat is detected. And so after those points, abortion would be prohibited in those states. Well, a number of our neighboring states enacted such laws after Dobbs. North Carolina had a 20-week abortion ban in place that was enjoined several years ago by the federal courts. That was actually reinstated after Dobbs, but what became the situation is that North Carolina’s abortion laws, along with Virginia’s, were more liberal than many of our surrounding states. And so Planned Parenthood reported that they had seen a 37 percent increase in women from out of state coming to North Carolina to get abortions. And so, obviously, that’s a huge concern, and so we are pursuing legislation in this legislative session to enact a heartbeat bill in North Carolina, so once a fetal heartbeat is detected by use of an ultrasound that the life of that child cannot be taken. Of course, we would very much prefer to see life at conception, but considering the dynamics and the make-up of the legislature and what we really believe can happen this session, we really believe that the heartbeat legislation is the direction that we need to go.
JERE ROYALL: And this is another great example of where it’s so important for everybody across the state to encourage your members in the legislature because already we’re hearing and to give a little bit of the detail to help understand the picture, right now the last official numbers on abortion in North Carolina were around 30,000 per year. The heartbeat bill would save as many as 26,000 out of the 30,000, and so the other bill that’s apparently being considered is a 13-week bill, which would save only 4,000 out of the 30,000. And so a lot of members are not going to be aware of the difference in what each proposed law will do, but these are just numbers to help people understand the difference in the bills that are going to be considered by our legislators. So, please, be part of the voice to help them understand, one, the importance of North Carolina having stronger laws, and the difference in what each of the proposals can mean as far as saved lives.
JOHN RUSTIN: And, Traci, I would add to that the one other major component of this legislation is not only the heartbeat provision, which, as Jere said, is likely based on state statistics to save as many as 26,000 unborn lives a year in North Carolina, but that means there are 26,000 mothers who are facing unexpected pregnancies, who had been seeking for abortion that will not be able to get an abortion in North Carolina should this legislation pass. And so it is incumbent upon us to help those women, to provide resources to them, to give them encouragement and support, and give them every reason to seek to save the life of that unborn child and whether they carry the child to term or whether they ultimately place the child for adoption, we want to deal with all of those structures to provide as much assistance as we can to those women and those families that are facing unplanned pregnancies, so that, again, they have every reason to save the lives of those children and then have an environment where those children can really prosper.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Now, when you say “we”, who are you talking about? Are you talking about the legislature is going to try to do this, we as individuals — who are you talking about?
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, that’s a great question. Yes. The answer is yes. We’ve been working and talking with legislators. We have a broad coalition of pro-life organizations in North Carolina, and we’ve been working for months and months to craft what we believe is the best legislation not only for heartbeat but also for all of these other supporting women and babies in crisis pregnancy situations.
JERE ROYALL: And again, Traci, to reinforce the importance of your question, what “we” means, the government can play a role in that and can help fund these different areas like pregnancy centers, maternity homes, adoption law. Most importantly, though, the church is going to be a vital part of if we’re talking about as many as 26,000 women who need help, that’s going to be a day-to-day help that people are going to need that ideally will be provided by people in their community who are willing to walk alongside and help them in every way they need help to choose life.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, good.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yeah. And I think, as Jere said, it’s a great opportunity and a great example for us to be the hands and feet of Christ to women and families and these unborn children, who are facing crisis situations, so just a tremendous opportunity. And we’re really excited about the opportunity here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, we could talk about this all day because I do think this is something that conservative North Carolinians are very passionate about, but we do have a couple of other things that I think we need to keep an eye on. Gambling and marijuana are two things that seem to keep coming up in our legislature, gambling in particular. I think you guys have talked about that being like the whack-a-mole of North Carolina public policy, always popping up somewhere. So what are you hearing on that front for this session?
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, there was a statewide sports gambling bill that would legalize sports gambling all across North Carolina last year. This bill passed the State Senate. It got through multiple committees in the State House, got to the House floor, and was actually defeated by one vote. And so, you know, there is a ton of money wrapped up in this bill for the gambling industry and for other interested parties. So we’re going to see a different bill. I know some of the professional sports teams in North Carolina are weighing in and saying that they want to be licensees, so that they can actually have gambling operations amongst themselves. And so there are a lot of different proposals that will be out there. But the bottom line is the expansion of gambling in North Carolina is going to have a major impact on a significant degree of our population, and these are people who become addicted to gambling. And we know from studying the issue of gambling for decades that there are lots of social and economic negative impacts that go along with that: increases in domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, embezzlement, job loss, theft, drug abuse, all of these types of things, and even suicide. And so we’ve got real concerns and have been talking with lawmakers for years and years about the negative things that expanded gambling in North Carolina would bring. And so we’ll be doing that again —
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right.
JOHN RUSTIN: — with respect to sports gambling and any other gambling proposals that may be put forward.
JERE ROYALL: I also want to add to that what we said earlier, the importance of people across the state being involved. I think part of what we saw in the picture last year, we found that there were 28 gambling entities in North Carolina with 56 registered lobbyist, so the legislators are hearing a lot of voices about why the state should go in this direction. But as John shared, it was defeated by one vote and the Republicans and Democrats were split on it. So whoever represents you, it is critical that you continue to encourage them to oppose this because of all those harms John just shared.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And I think as you just both made the point, this is a good example of what we talked about earlier that if you think that because your representative is a conservative or Republican that they are opposed to gambling, then you need to think again because you need to check what your representative is thinking on this issue.
All right. Let’s move along to marijuana, another hot topic that seems to always be lurking in the legislature. Do you expect lawmakers to take this up again this year?
JERE ROYALL: We definitely do. I mean we’ve already heard some about that, and what we presented to legislators, the medical information is that the major medical groups, the AMA, the FDA, neurologists, psychiatrists, say do not legalize it because of the harms. Let the FDA pick the ones that are working that have been studied. Sadly, in spite of that information, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill last session. The House ,thankfully, never brought the bill up for consideration. We’re already hearing that, yes, that is going to be pursued, and granted the Senate sent that through five committees. They’re not going to walk away from the effort that they put behind this bill last session. So we can expect it to definitely be a challenge and, again, another great opportunity for you to encourage your legislators to oppose this.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So we’re about out of time. What do people need to do? So we’ve made the point throughout this conversation that people need to be involved. We’re grateful that you guys are there, but you’re not the ones that are going to be doing all the work. You’re just helping us to stay informed, so talk about some of the things that NC Family has available as far as resources for us to plug into.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yeah. Well, thanks, Traci. NC Family has a lot of important resources available to citizens across the State. We have a daily email that we send out, and we will be providing updates on a regular basis about what’s happening in the legislature. We also send out issue alerts to inform people about specific proposals that are being considered in the General Assembly and when it’s most important for the citizens to contact their legislators because we know that people’s time is valuable. And so we will let them know when it’s most important for them to act and then give them the resources that they need to be knowledgeable about the bill or bills and then how to most effectively contact their lawmakers. And so we would just encourage folks to sign up for our emails, stay plugged in. Call us if you’ve got questions, but also reach out and get to know your lawmakers because they really depend upon constituents back home contacting them and informing them about their interests on pieces of legislation. So a lot of people really under estimate the impact that they can have if they reach out and talk with their legislators about bills that they have an interest in.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Well, thank you, again, for all of the good work that you guys do down there, and we look forward to hearing from you in the months again. John Rustin and Jere Royall, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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