Fourth extra session legislation empowers legislature, reforms boards of elections

RALEIGH — Lawmakers opened a fourth extra session of 2016 immediately after adjourning the third on Wednesday, passing several bills that reassert the legislature’s constitutional role in confirming cabinet appointments and selecting board and commission appointments, while also reforming state and local boards of elections.Senate Bill 4 (S.B. 4), passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory shortly thereafter Friday afternoon, consolidates the functions of the elections, campaign finance, lobbying and ethics under one state agency by creating the N.C. Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.The new board will increase to eight members, four Republican and four Democrat, with appointment authority split between the governor and legislature. It will also be required to achieve a six-vote consensus to take action, thus requiring at least two votes from opposite party members, hence the bipartisan label.The current executive director, Republican Kim Strach, will continue in her role until May when new elections will be held to fill out the board. In the interim, the eight members of the current ethics board, four Republicans and four Democrats, will comprise the membership. No substantial board action is expected to be required before new membership is named considering the absence of elections in the next six months.S.B. 4 also vests more authority in the General Assembly for the upcoming redistricting process required by the courts, drawing some criticism from Democrats who have been calling for an independent redistricting commission after current maps were thrown out by judges who deemed the gerrymandering racially discriminatory.Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville) took offense to the criticism on the Senate floor.”It’s interesting because Republicans only got to draw them one time,” said Brown. “In all of 150 years [Republicans] never drew districts, and [Democrats] could of had an independent panel for 150 years, but it was never important. I think that’s interesting how things change.”Further, S.B. 4 does away with nonpartisan elections for the N.C Supreme Court and N.C. Court of Appeals, meaning candidates for those positions will now be labeled with party affiliations on the ballot.In committee debate, Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) defended the measure, saying under the current system the “voter is totally blind to what the judge represents” when viewing names on the ballot.Another bill passed during special session, House Bill 17, clarifies the role of the incoming N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, returns to the N.C. Senate confirmation power over certain cabinet agency appointments, and changes appointment process to university boards of trustees.”This bill is a good step forward in reasserting legislative authority vested by the constitution and entrusted to the members of this body,” said Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) during House floor debate. “This bill provides for the constitutionally vested powers to confirm executive cabinet level appointments rest in the state Senate. This respects the constitutionally mandated separation of powers between the branches of government. The bill also acknowledges the constitutional power vested in the General Assembly to appoint persons to university boards of trustees.”H.B. 17 also reduced the number of employees exempt from the N.C. Human Resources Act that executive cabinet agencies may hire from 1,500 to 425. This legislation will limit exempt political hires of Governor-elect Roy Cooper’s incoming administration. While McCrory enjoyed an increased ability for patronage after pushing for the increase, exempt positions were capped at 105 as recently as 2011.General Assembly Democrats pushed back against the extra session proposals as much as possible considering their super-minority status, deeming the moves unjustified power grabs by the Republican majority meant to restrain Cooper.The legislature also moved to confirm appointments by McCrory to commissions and judicial posts before he leaves.Current McCrory State Budget Director Andrew Heath was appointed and confirmed by the legislature as a special superior court judge, as well as confirming Charlotte attorney Adam Conrad as judge for the N.C. Business Court.Before adjourning, the legislature also received and confirmed the appointment of Yolanda Stith to the N.C. Industrial Commission. Stith, the wife of McCrory chief of staff Thomas Stith, will complete the term of commissioner Bill Daughtridge, who is retiring for health reasons. In addition to completing the the remaining five years of Daughtridge’s six-year term, Stith was confirmed to a subseqent full term on the commission, a move enabled by special session legislation to modify appointment rules.The legislature reconvenes in for regular session in January.