H.B. 2 gets all talk, budget and taxes all action

RALEIGH — Lawmakers convened Monday to begin the 2016 legislative session and were greeted by thousands of both supporters and opponents of the state’s controversial Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, or House Bill 2.

The NAACP of North Carolina, opponents of the law mandating use of bathrooms according to biological sex in government facilities, offered sympathizers “Direct Action Training” on Monday morning before engaging in a protest on state capitol grounds.

While leaders of the Republican majority have stated that their focus for the so-called “short” session will be budget adjustments and further tax reform, Democrat lawmakers wasted no time in filing House Bill 946 Monday morning, a bill that repeals H.B. 2. in its entirety.

“It is a simple bill, it’s a half page long. It is a full repeal of H.B. 2,” said Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake).

In a press conference previewing the legislative priorities of the Senate majority last week, Senate leader Phil Berger said the Senate Republicans had no interest in making any changes to the law that would allow for men in women’s bathrooms and locker rooms.

Converging rallies

Opponents of H.B. 2 were not alone in Raleigh on Monday, though, as supporters of the bill inundated the state legislative complex with signs and folding chairs. As lawmakers began arriving to their offices at the General Assembly, hundreds of H.B. 2 supporters greeted them with praise and encouragement.

As the day wore on, those protesting the law underwent further activism training and participated in a rally outside the legislature, before initiating a mass sit-in at the General Assembly around 5 p.m., chanting “Forward together — Not one step back” as they marched toward the legislature’s doors.

When the House and Senate called their respective Monday evening sessions to order, an otherwise perfunctory meeting, opponents of H.B. 2 filled the public galleries lining the chambers.

The House chamber handled routine business in opening the year’s legislative session, but also welcomed its newest member, Rep. Chris Sgro (D-Greensboro).

I have big shoes to fill,” Sgro said after receiving a welcoming applause from the chamber. Sgro is also the director of Equality NC and was appointed by the Guildford County Democratic Party to replace Rep. Ralph Johnson, who died in November.

No votes were held during the Monday session, but just when Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) moved to adjourn after 30 minutes of housekeeping to reconvene on Tuesday morning, H.B. 2 protesters leaped to their feet to shout down the departing lawmakers.

“Our House! You will do no business but the people’s business!” protesters yelled as they were ushered out of the chamber by police and sergeants-at-arms.

Chants of “Justice!” and “You have blood on your hands!” rang through the halls as the protesters continued to make their voices heard, watched closely by State Capitol Police.

Groups of protesters then moved to occupy the Speaker’s office, and others refused to leave the premises. After several warnings by police, a total of 54 protesters were arrested after refusing to leave the premises as the building was closing.

“Thank you! We love you!” said remaining protesters outside the building to those being arrested.

Yet, adding another wrinkle to the H.B. 2 debate, Senate leaders also floated the idea this week of sending the controversial issue to voters in the form of a referendum. A similar referendum was passed by voters in Houston, Texas by wide majority in 2015.

Governor’s budget

Wednesday morning, state budget director Andrew Heath offered a presentation of Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget recommendations to House and Senate members.

“The governor’s first priority is teacher pay and bringing average teacher pay above $50,000 [per year] mark,” Heath said during his presentation. Such a raise, Heath said, would elevate North Carolina NEA teacher pay rankings from 46th place to 32nd.

Approximately 80,000 teachers across the state will receive an average salary increase of $2,313, Heath explained. Raises would average 5 percent across the state, and $5,000 bonuses would be issued for veteran teachers with more than 24 years of service.

In addition to teacher pay, the recommendations also provide for excess lottery funds to be provided for education initiatives. A $3 million request in total funds from the lottery for developing flexible academic pathways for non-traditional students such as those affiliated with the military, and $3 million in total funds from the lottery for predictive analytics and high impact programs aimed at improving student completion rates.

Lottery funds are also dedicated to special needs scholarships, with $5.8 million toward expanding the Special Education Scholarship Program by 300 students.

Heath also reported that Medicaid and public school enrollment figures came in under budget, contributing to a forecasted $237 million surplus. A portion of the surplus funds are to dedicated to implementing the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use, including transitional housing, case management, mental health first aid training, child crisis centers, and efforts to combat heroin and opioid addiction.

Medicaid will also be expanded, Heath said, recommending $3 million to offer services to older adults and those with Alzheimer’s disease, and $1 million for caregivers. Some of those recommendations, such as an appropriation bill dedicating funds to caregivers of those with dementia, received votes on the House floor the next day.

Routine business

During the eventful week lawmakers also began passing technical tax change bills out of committee, including changes to unemployment tax laws on businesses and proceeded to focus on the Republican majority’s focus on the budget and tax reform.

Further, the House and Senate began confirming multiple appointments made by McCrory to various positions on Wednesday and Thursday, after a freeze extending back to 2014 in some cases. Each appointment must be confirmed by both chambers before being sworn in to the post. A list of fully confirmed appointments will be published in the North State Journal’s next edition.

The General Assembly reconvenes Monday afternoon.