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How to tell if a bill stands a chance in NC

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

It's easy to misunderstand the goings-on in North Carolina's legislature.

Watching news reports, you might think that handing out guns to teachers is this year's top priority. A Charlotte TV newscast recently featured the eye-popping headline that "we are one step closer to allowing teachers to carry guns in North Carolina schools" because a bill "passed its first reading" in the House.

But the headline was false because the TV reporters didn't know that "first reading" is a meaningless procedural step. First reading is when a bill's title is read aloud on the floor of the legislature, and it gets assigned to committees. Nearly every bill ever filed has "passed its first reading."

Second reading and third reading are where lawmakers actually vote, and previous proposals to arm teachers haven't made it to that step. In the off-chance the proposals get through the House and Senate, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will veto them, and Republicans no longer have enough votes to override his vetoes.

House leaders know this, and last week, that chamber unanimously approved a package of school safety measures that deliberately avoided anything gun-related: No armed teachers, but no gun control either.

Those school safety proposals — student mental health screenings, vulnerability assessments for school buildings, more training for school resource officers — could easily become law. But some news coverage has focused instead on polarizing proposals that won't pass.

That's partly because controversy grabs attention, and partly because fewer news outlets bother to have state government beat reporters. To understand the legislature's odd workings and large cast of characters, you have to be there every week of session. The capital press corps is still full of talented journalists, but nearly all of us work for Triangle-based publications and TV stations.

Browsing the legislature's website from Charlotte in search of outlandish bills is a recipe for misleading or downright inaccurate news stories — or at least an excessive focus on bills that are going nowhere.

Last session, nearly 2,000 bills were filed, but only 360 actually became law. Some of those that fell short were unpopular, but others simply lacked the legislative muscle to get through the process. "There are more than 1,000 bills that are probably the right policy for the state of North Carolina that are going to die in the General Assembly this session without getting through to the end," said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, at a recent NC Insider panel discussion.

But how can you tell which bills have a real shot — and are therefore worth advocating for or against? Here's what to look for if you do your own research:

Who's sponsoring it? If the bill sponsor is a member of the GOP leadership team or the chair of a relevant committee, odds are good that the bill will pass at least one chamber. Committee chairs are powerful because once a bill is directed to their committee, they get to decide if and when it gets a vote — or if it's dead on arrival.

If the bill is a partisan proposal sponsored only by Democrats, or if it's sponsored by a fringe figure on the right like Rep. Larry Pittman, the proposal is likely already dead.

Is the proposal a re-run? Many persistent legislators file the same bills every session. While the political climate does occasionally shift, bills that went nowhere last session will likely suffer the same fate this year. Examples include repealing permit requirements for guns and reinstating the earned income tax credit.

Did it go straight to the Rules Committee? All bills eventually make a stop in the powerful House and Senate Rules committees, but the committees also often serve as leadership's dumpster for unpopular proposals. This year, bills to arm teachers and "nullify" the federal legalization of gay marriage went directly to House Rules without other committee assignments. Odds are that they'll die there.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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