The Case for Improvement in the NC Local Bill Process

To download a pdf copy, click here: Local Bills – The Case For Improvement 2012-08-28


The Case for Improvement in the
North Carolina Local Bill Process

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Written and Compiled By:
Adam Caldwell, Intern

Reviewed and Edited By:
Mayor BJ Murphy, City of Kinston

 August 28, 2012

A Brief Overview of North Carolina Local Bills

Prior to 1917, eighty percent of legislation passed by the General Assembly dealt with local bills, according to the Legislative Drafting Division.  Ninety-five years ago, restrictions were placed on what constituted a local bill.  When compared to other states, North Carolina counties and municipalities have very little home-rule, meaning the state can make decisions affecting local areas.  Local governments in North Carolina must adhere to General Statutes as set forth by the General Assembly on a number of issues including, but not limited to, annexation, taxes, voting, school boards, hunting seasons, community colleges, and special permits.  And, based on the North Carolina Constitution, the State of North Carolina has the authority to supersede decisions by local governments.  Local bills can grant special authority or make exceptions to statewide law.  In addition, there are certain limitations on local bill authority related to highly regulated areas.  For instance, local bills cannot govern health and sanitation or regulate labor, trade and etc.

 

How the North Carolina Local Bill Process Works

The North Carolina Constitution defines local bills as “every bill that applies in fewer than 15 counties” in Sec. 22 (6).  A legislative assistant described the process as follows:

  • A local bill begins as an idea a citizen, group, or municipality presents to a legislator.
    • The idea is researched by the legislator’s staff to ensure it is worthy to constitute local bill status.
  • From there, the local bill is drafted by one or more legislators acting as sponsors or cosponsors.
  • The local bill is read three times in each chamber before a vote is taken.  Usually, the Rules Chairman of the respective chamber sends the bill to the appropriate committee(s).
    • Local bills are required to pass through the House and Senate.
  • After the local bill clears committee(s), it is brought before the full chamber on a floor vote.  Local bills are passed or defeated by a simple majority vote.
  • Once it passes the General Assembly, a local bill is ratified as law and signed by the presiding officers of both houses.
  • The governor does not have to sign the local bill for it to become law nor can the governor exercise veto power.

The rules governing local bills differ in the short and long sessions of the General Assembly.  In the short session held in even years, the general rule is that a local delegation be unanimous in support of a local bill.  In the long session held in odd years, any member can introduce a local bill for passage.


Problems with the North Carolina Local Bill Process

Although rules state that local bills in the short session be unanimous among the local delegation, and while it is a generally practiced rule, the rules can be bent.  Kinston knows this very well.  During this past short session, a State House Representative whose district included Kinston proposed a local bill that would have had a major negative impact on the city.  The local bill did not distinguish Kinston from most municipalities in the state.  In other words, the Kinston policy in question was and is practiced by multitudes of municipalities.

A House member of the opposing party representing Kinston opposed the local bill.  Nevertheless, the bill was brought to the House floor.  The local bill’s fate rested in the hands of the delegation’s Senator, who ultimately opposed the bill, and the bill was sent back to committee without a vote.  Without meaningful reform, there is a possibility that influential members of the General Assembly can side-step the short session’s “unanimous” rule.  Municipalities across the state and legislators in the General Assembly offered different takes on the local bill process.  There were three common points made that describe the current process:

  • Rules governing local bills differ between the short and long sessions of the General Assembly.
  • There has been no major reform in the North Carolina local bill process since 1917.
  • Local bills can be passed without the support of the local government(s).

Steps to Improve the Current Process

The North Carolina local bill process needs to be carried out through laws, not general rules.  Until then, the adage of “rules are meant to be broken” could carry the day.  We recognize the General Assembly’s right to introduce, debate, vote upon, and pass bills as defined by the North Carolina Constitution.  We recognize that counties and cities are creations of the state.  Nonetheless, a more clearly defined system of checks and balances is needed, since some local bills do not necessarily reflect local issues.  Here are a couple of suggested changes:

  • Require by statute that rules governing local bills be the same in both sessions of the General Assembly.   One suggestion is to have a majority of the local delegation to sign off on the bill and for that to be noted in the bill as presented to the floor of either chamber.
  • Examine current NC statutes and clarify what does and does not constitute a “local” issue.  This would ensure that what should be a statewide, public bill is not being resolved through the local bill process.