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NC Legislature ends session with child care funding, noncitizen voting amendment

State Senate chamber
Dave DeWitt
File photo of N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh, 2021.

The legislature adjourned its “short session” Thursday without approving a budget plan for the state’s billion-dollar revenue surplus.

But the House and Senate did pass a pair of stopgap spending bills to ensure that the state doesn’t lose federal funding and that teachers get their scheduled raises from last year’s budget bill.

The spending bills also include about $68 million for child care center grants. That’s significantly less than the $130 million in the House and Senate’s original budget proposals. The goal is to help child care centers with the impending loss of federal COVID-19 grants over the next few months, with potential to add more funding later in the year.

But one big priority for Republicans wasn’t included in the two spending bills: hundreds of millions of dollars sought for the “Opportunity Scholarships” private school voucher program. That means higher-income families who didn’t get vouchers under the current funding likely won’t have them in time for the new school year.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore blamed each other for the voucher impasse.

"I'm disappointed in the House because we sent them an Opportunity Scholarships funding bill eight weeks ago, and they've not taken it up," Berger said.

Moore said the House wanted to pair the vouchers with more public school funding, including additional teacher raises proposed in the House's budget bill.

"We feel like it needs to be done in a comprehensive manner, for doing more with the surplus to help the traditional public schools," Moore told reporters after the session. "I think it's going to happen. It's just a matter of matter of when."

Lawmakers are planning to return later this year, at which point they could consider bills that didn't make it to the governor's desk during the short session. A resolution approved Thursday brings the legislature back for brief monthly sessions through December, including a four-day session soon after the November election.

But Berger wasn't optimistic that a budget deal could surface in the coming months.

"I don't see us doing anything other than maybe a few more stopgaps in instances where we see that something needs to take place," Beger said.

Disagreement over which amendments to put on ballot

Voters will decide this November if they want to put a ban on noncitizen voting in the state constitution.

Both the House and Senate approved a constitutional amendment Thursday with nearly unanimous support. State law already bans noncitizens from voting. But Sen. Brad Overcash, R-Gaston, said a reference to “every citizen” in the constitution could open the door to changes in the future.

“Our current constitutional language uses the word ‘every’ not ‘only,’ and in one sense that could permit a future legislature to consider opening the door to noncitizens voting in this state,” he said, pointing to court decisions elsewhere that have allowing noncitizen participation in some local elections.

The state House also approved a proposed constitutional amendment to remove the Jim Crow-era literacy test from the constitution. The test hasn’t been used in voter registrations for decades, but there’s been an effort for years to remove the language from the constitution.

“This was a remnant from the Jim Crow era that has been rendered inoperable by the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham. “I think that everybody in this body believes that the reasons why this was implemented back in the past is not representative of the state of North Carolina now that we all know and love.”

But the Senate didn’t hold a vote on that proposal. And the House didn’t take up a proposed amendment in the Senate to lower the cap on income taxes. A 2018 constitutional amendment lowered the maximum income tax rate to 7%, and the Senate voted Thursday to put a 5% cap on November’s ballot.

The Senate also backed a proposed amendment that would tweak the voter ID requirement in the constitution to make it clear that photo IDs are also needed to vote by mail. The House had that bill on its agenda but removed it Thursday without taking a vote.

It's possible some of the amendment ideas could resurface when lawmakers return in July or August, but time is running out to get amendment questions on the ballot.

Vetoed bills are now laws

The Senate followed the House's lead on Thursday in overriding three of Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes. The bills are:

  • A bill that tweaks state law on face masks in public while also loosening campaign finance laws
  • Changes to the state’s “Raise The Age” law that could result in more teenage offenders facing trial in adult courts
  • A transportation bill that makes it easier to cut down trees near highway billboards

Voter registrations and 'Totes Legit'

Republicans in the state House want to require state election officials to investigate claims of invalid voter registrations from outside groups. 

A bill that passed the House Thursday would mandate a new process for the State Board of Elections to investigate data on potential ineligible voters and duplicate registrations submitted by “election integrity organizations.”

Asked what those groups might be, the bill's sponsor, Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, named an anonymous online tipster.

“I don't know what the gentleman's real name is, but it's 'Totes Legit,’” Cleveland said. “He has consistently over the past several years sent voter list problems to the state board.”

Cleveland said the State Board of Elections hasn't been taking action on the information submitted by people like “Totes Legit.” Some Democrats worry the bill could open the door to people challenging legitimate voter registrations.

The House also passed a bill that would require disclaimers on political ads that use artificial intelligence. The Senate didn't take up either bill before adjourning.

AI sex crimes, revenge porn law passes

An effort to update the state’s sex crime laws to address modern technology is headed to Gov. Roy Cooper.

The bill would create a new “sexual extortion” offense for people who threaten to release or refuse to delete a sexual or nude photo in a blackmail attempt.

The legislation also includes a ban on child sex dolls.

“AI is being abused for child pornography, sextortion and revenge porn in North Carolina,” Attorney General Josh Stein said in a news release praising the bill’s passage. “Until now, our laws have lagged behind technology. This bill will give law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to keep kids and adults safe from AI sex crimes.”

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.