HIGH POINT — Money and maps.
Those are the two issues expected to dominate the 2021 session of the N.C. General Assembly as legislators convene this week.
Representatives and senators will contend with the possible constraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic on the state budget and craft new legislative and congressional districts that will guide elections through the decade.
The 120 members of the House and 50 members of the Senate will convene for the new session at noon Wednesday at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh. The outcomes of last fall’s general election left the political landscape the same — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will negotiate with a General Assembly in which both chambers are controlled by Republicans.
One overriding issue during what’s called the long session of the legislature focuses on the pandemic possibly sapping state revenues at the same time that countering COVID-19 brings greater demand for resources.
“The budget will dominate the main legislative session this year,” said John Dinan, professor of political science at Wake Forest University.
Legislators face a July 1 deadline to pass a balanced budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
So far, North Carolina revenues remain relatively stable compared to the decline in other states, Dinan told The High Point Enterprise.
“Still, North Carolina legislators will be aware of the continuing fiscal challenges posed by COVID,” he said.
The governor and legislative leaders also will keep pressing Congress and the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden to continue pandemic relief to state governments, the professor said.
Another key issue with the budget is whether the second-term Democratic governor and GOP legislative leaders can find common ground on a spending plan.
“The main issue preventing a state budget from being passed two years ago — there were other issues such as the amount of teacher salary increases and increased spending on school construction — was the governor’s insistence that the budget include plans for expanding Medicaid and legislative leaders’ strong opposition to Medicaid expansion, especially in the Senate,” Dinan said. “Governor Cooper took his case to voters in 2020 and won reelection. But Republican legislators also took their case to voters in 2020 and gained four seats in the House and lost only one seat in the Senate.”
However, GOP legislators still lack the so-called “super-majorities” in both chambers to override vetoes of the governor on a strict party-line vote, the professor said.
“If Medicaid expansion were separated from the budget debate, it is highly likely that a budget deal could be reached this year, by splitting the difference between the parties on issues such as teacher pay and school construction funding,” Dinan said. “But as long as Medicaid expansion remains part of the budget debate, we may be in for still another two years without seeing a budget passed.”
Another critical issue for the General Assembly centers on redistricting, which will involve redrawing state legislative and congressional district lines for elections starting in 2022 and lasting through the decade. The lines will be drawn based on the results of the 2020 census, and political observers say North Carolina’s population growth during the last 10 years means there’s a good chance the state will pick up a 14th U.S. House district.
Republican legislative leaders will have broad authority on the maps since redistricting plans aren’t subject to the governor’s veto. But Republicans are coming off a previous decade where numerous plans they crafted for the General Assembly and Congress were invalidated by state and federal courts for gerrymandering or racial bias.
Dinan told The Enterprise it’s virtually certain that legal challenges will be made against the new legislative and congressional maps.
Legislators will try to take steps to avoid their work being overturned by the courts, the professor said. The GOP General Assembly leadership is likely to tout “the transparency of the process” and set “clear criteria for how the maps are drawn,” Dinan said.
Another key issue related to the pandemic that could emerge during the long session involves the authority over emergency orders that the governor has issued since the outset of the crisis this past March.
“There is almost certain to be a lot of discussion and a number of bills introduced about the emergency management act and the relative power of the governor, Council of State and legislature in decision-making during emergencies,” Dinan told The Enterprise. “The governor is almost certain to veto any bills that would try to limit gubernatorial power during emergencies. But there will be a lot of discussion this year in North Carolina, as in other states, about what is the proper balance of power between the governor and other branches in extended emergency situations such as this one.”
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