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The General Assembly gathered in Raleigh today for a Special Session, ostensibly to handle emergency matters related to the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew and wildfires out west.  But speculation has been rampant that lawmakers would also take up unrelated matters, including the possibility of increasing the number of seats on the Supreme Court. That could give outgoing Republican Governor Pat McCrory the ability to add two new seats to the court which, after November's election, ended up with Democrats claiming four of the Supreme Court's seven seats.  We will be providing live coverage of the special session. I will be covering the House and reporter Liz Bell will be handling the Senate. Stay tuned for updates throughout the day. 

Editor’s Note: Most recent news is at the top. Scroll down for updates from earlier in the session.

Tuesday, December 13
Update: 5:52 PM

The disaster relief bill passed unanimously and moves now to the N.C. Senate.

Rep. McGrady reiterated that this disaster relief bill is only a first step.

“We know we don’t have all the numbers right,” he said. “We know there’s not enough money there.”

But as additional information becomes available as to what is needed as far as disaster relief, the General Assembly will continue to address the issue.

Rep. Dollar also reiterated that this is only phase one. He said that information from Governor Pat McCrory’s administration as well as other agencies involved in disaster relief informed the amount of funding that made it into this bill. He also said that the numbers were run by FEMA, and FEMA said that it looked like North Carolina was addressing what needs to be addressed at the moment.

Update 5:40

Graham’s amendment failed to pass.

Update: 5:37 PM

Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, sent forth an amendment that would excuse schools from all days missed because of Hurricane Matthew. Presently, the legislation excuses all but two days.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the amendment is a bad idea because some schools and school systems have already started to make up some of their lost days. In the future, an amendment such as this may make school systems less proactive.

He also said the original language in the bill is a result of a compromise between the House and the Senate.

“It really concerns me about the message that we’re sending to people in the future,” McGrady said.

Update: 5:26 P.M.

In addition to the more than $200 million in the Disaster Recovery Act, it’s also estimated that the state will be getting $300 million from the federal government for disaster relief. And the Disaster Recovery Act is meant to simply be a first step, Rep. Nelson Dollar has said, with more money to come in a second phase.

Update: 5:23 PM

Debate is underway on the Disaster Recovery Act in the House. First up was Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, who said many of the representatives in the chamber know firsthand the damage of the hurricane and wildfires that have besieged the state.

“Many of us here represent districts that were significantly impacted by this,” he said.

While emergency management of the disasters was commendable, there remains much work to be done, Bell said.

“Today’s the day we start filling those voids,” he said.

Update: 5:14 PM

A few other bills have been filed today in the House, including two by Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham. One is to restore early voting days, and another is to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow introduced another bill — An Act to Implement the Statewide Classification and Compensation System.

They have all been sent to various committees for further consideration.

Update: 4:26 PM

The House just announced a recess until 5 p.m. The announcement was met by boos and chants of “For shame,” and “What do we pay you for?”

Update: 4:15 PM

The item on the agenda is a waiver to certain DMV fees that the governor has already used, said Rep. Nelson Dollar. The waiver was for people who lost their licenses, registration cards, special identification cards, etc., as a result of the hurricane; for instance, people who had to evacuate quickly. The disaster relief bill got a favorable report and moves on now to the full House.

Update: 4:05 PM

The House Finance Committee is getting underway to take up the disaster relief bill. The full House is supposed to reconvene at 4:30 PM. We are being told this will be a short Finance meeting. There is only one item on the agenda.

Update: 3:45 PM

The bill received a favorable report and moves now to the House Finance Committee. Two minor technical amendments were added. One amendment added a couple more counties to those that could receive disaster funds, and the other required a report in May on the impact of the calendar flexibility being given to schools impacted by the hurricane.

Update: 3:40 PM

Rep. Shelly Willingham, R-Edgecombe, talked about the mental health needs of Edgecombe County, where the residents were particularly hard hit by the flooding from Hurricane Matthew.

“We probably need to have counselors in those affected areas, because they are hurting,” he said. “I think it would be a small price to pay for us to allocate funds to have counselors in these areas for a period of time.”

Willingham is being told that more than $600,000 from FEMA is being given to North Carolina to handle mental health needs in the wake of the state’s natural disasters.

Update: 3:29 PM

This morning, the House said it would reconvene at 3:30 PM. But, we’re all still here in Appropriations. Also, a House Finance Committee meeting is scheduled for 15 minutes after the end of this Appropriations meeting. The disaster relief bill will be heading there. It may be a while before the full House reconvenes on the chamber floor.

Update: 3:15 PM

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, senior chair of the House Appropriations Committee, was questioned further about the amount of money being requested. He said the money in this bill is only phase one, and more will be coming in a second phase, likely in the spring session. So, it appears that more money may come for disaster relief in the future.

McGrady weighed in as well: “What we tried to do here is try to deal with what’s most critical in the very near term.”

Update: 3:00 PM

Rep. Henry Michaux, D-Durham, called the slightly-more-than $200 million in the disaster bill “paltry.” He said he has heard estimates between $1 billion and $2 billion in damage to the state.

“There are going to be immediate needs that I think are going to be much more than this,” he said.

Update: 2:53 PM

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, asked for an amendment on the part of the legislation that would forgive schools that missed more than two days of school due to the hurricane. The legislation says that any day in excess of two missed by schools would be forgiven. McGrady’s amendment would ask for a report back in the spring on how the implementation went. The amendment passed.

Update 2:40 PM

Governor Pat McCrory opening up the House Appropriations Committee meeting taking up the Special Session Disaster Relief Bill (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)
Governor Pat McCrory opening up the House Appropriations Committee meeting taking up the Special Session Disaster Relief Bill (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)

Governor Pat McCrory opened up the Appropriations meeting by explaining the need for emergency funding. He talked about people displaced from their homes, put into gyms as make-shift shelters, and placed in hotels. He said his plan includes bringing in mobile homes and providing more shelter.

“Now is the time for action to help these people who cannot help themselves,” he said.

He also mentioned the needs of schools, such as those in Lumberton, where he said several schools were lost in the flooding.

And he explained that North Carolina has suffered from not one, but two natural disasters.

“We literally had California wildfires come to North Carolina,” he said.

His plea to the General Assembly leading up to today’s Special Session was in the following areas:

  1. Housing
    The requested funding would help with short-term housing not addressed by FEMA; and grants for home ownership, rent, construction, and repairs.
  2. Local government issues
    McCrory said adjustments would be made to school calendars for school systems that were closed for long periods. Funds would also be spent on infrastructure repairs, trash pickup, and river maintenance.
  3. Economic development and stabilization
    McCrory wants to help with “getting businesses back on their feet,” he said in the video.
  4. Planning
    The funds would find sustainable ways to rebuild hard-hit communities.
  5. Disaster relief
    Part of the funding would go to the state’s share of federal and state disaster relief.

Update 1:08 PM

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, has told press he doesn’t want to expand the number of seats on the State Supreme Court and the House isn’t planning to.

Update: 12:20 PM

The draft disaster relief bill introduced by the House appropriates $100,928,370 from the Savings Reserve Account to the General fund in non-recurring dollars for the 2016-17 fiscal year, and an additional $100 million from the unappropriated General Fund balance.

How the funds are to be used is laid out in the bill, which deals with a variety of issues, including residential rebuilding and housing needs, clean-up efforts, infrastructure repair, help for small businesses and more.

The need for state funds is explained in the bill:

Without significant additional State assistance to the area devastated by these events, further deterioration of the economy, the environment, public health and safety, and quality of life in the region is likely to occur. Without additional State assistance:

  1. Many people in uninsured, damaged homes will either not qualify for federal housing assistance or not have the resources to take advantage of federal housing assistance.
  2. Local governments already overwhelmed with storm-related expenses may not have the resources to repair damaged infrastructure and provide the new infrastructure necessary for families relocating out of the flood and landslide zones and for businesses that are in the process of rebuilding.
  3. Jobs may be permanently lost because many cannot qualify for Small Business Administration loans.
  4. Many farmers who suffered significant losses may find it difficult to continue farming.
  5. Resources for drinking water protection, solid waste cleanup, hazardous waste cleanup, and remediation of high-risk storage tanks will be inadequate.

The bill also deals with school calendar flexibility for schools affected by Hurricane Matthew. If a school was closed in October because of hurricane-related weather for at least two days, the bill says “that school shall be deemed to have completed any scheduled instructional hours and days in excess of those two days missed.”

Basically, they would only have to make up two days of school. And teachers and other school employees employed for a 10-month term will be paid for the days missed beyond those initial two days.

The legislation applies the same rule on calendar flexibility to charter schools for the months of October and November if they were closed due to issues related to either Hurricane Matthew or the wildfires in the west.

See the full bill text below:

Update: 11:41 PM

Just after the House recess, protested were gathered outside the chamber. Here is a short video of the packed rotunda.

Update: 10:49 PM

Disaster relief bill is going to House Appropriations Committee at 2 p.m. House is in recess until 3:30.

Update: 10:28 PM

The halls are packed, and just outside the chamber, people gather holding up signs of protest.

Protesters stand just outside the House chamber during the Special Session (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)
Protesters stand just outside the House chamber during the Special Session (Photo Credit: Alex Granados)

Update: 10:17 PM

The session is getting underway and the formalities are being dealt with. The House will be getting down to business in minutes.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.