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OPINION: Endless summer? It’s time for lawmakers to end the 2023 legislative session

Since the beginning of the Republic, American politicians, advocates, pundits and citizens have argued about the appropriate length of state legislative sessions.

Owing to concerns about the threat posed by rogue legislatures drunk — sometimes literally — with power, as well as the costs associated with endless sessions, most states have long imposed a formal or informal cap on how long lawmakers may remain in session. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported in 2021 that “…only 11 states do not place a limit on the length of regular session. In the remaining 39, the limits are set by constitution, statute, chamber rule or indirect method.”

Though North Carolina’s General Assembly is among the 11 that lack a formal cap, it has long adhered to an informal time limit associated with “part-time” legislatures. Inspired, no doubt, by their paltry ($13,000-plus) annual salaries, and, until the late 1990’s, the complete power they wielded in a state in which the governor could not veto bills, legislators regularly succeeded in wrapping up their sessions around the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 and heading home till the next calendar year. Plus, in the second year of the biennium the session often didn’t even commence until May. So in many ways, North Carolina looked a lot like other states with hard limits.

All of this has changed in recent decades, however, especially since Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011. Today, North Carolina legislative sessions tend to drag on through the summer and even into the fall and winter. The 2021-22 biennium ended Dec. 29 on its 246th legislative day. Meanwhile, even when the main “long” and “short” sessions have “adjourned,” legislative leaders have regularly called additional “special sessions” to fill in the gaps. There were three in 2018.

None of this is to say that there is any magic formula in this realm. While there are legitimate concerns when lawmakers mimic Congress by remaining in the state capital full-time, there are also practical problems associated with attempting to govern a state of millions of people in the fast-moving 21st century with a legislature that must complete all its business in a month or two.

One thing that’s increasingly clear in North Carolina, however, as the Dog Days of summer settle in, is that it’s well past time for lawmakers to get their act together and wrap up the 2023 session that convened in January.

The new state fiscal year began almost three weeks ago, but North Carolina still isn’t close to having a new budget. As a result, hundreds of thousands of state residents — people losing healthcare coverage, state employees going without a raise, school administrators struggling to plan for the new school year – are suffering.

And while one might ordinarily attribute such gridlock to partisan divisions between Republicans and Democrats over big and fundamental issues, the truth is not nearly so grand.


As Lynn Bonner of NC Newsline reported last week, the delay is the result of intra-party squabbles among Republicans. Even though the GOP maintains veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, its leaders are fighting over things like — this is not a joke — how much to accede to big-money special interests by expanding casino gambling and enacting new and regressive tax cuts for wealthy residents.

The result: Though they’re tight-lipped about details, legislative leaders are already admitting that the session is likely to drag on for at least another month.

It would be one thing if that month was to be filled with regular opportunities for open debate and public input on the subjects that remain in contention, but that’s not how Republican legislative leaders roll these days.

Instead, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, real public activity on Jones Street is (and will almost assuredly remain) sporadic, at best. Most legislators will troop to Raleigh to push a button marking their attendance each day and then retreat to their offices to answer mail and contemplate their political futures, as the real work of crafting final deals is carried out by a small cadre of lawmakers in secret.

Now add to all this that when and if they do complete their work and adjourn, it’s already widely understood that GOP leaders will call yet another special session in the weeks that follow to undertake a new round of electoral district gerrymandering, and the whole situation is rendered that much more objectionable.

The bottom line: When the political right took control of the North Carolina legislature in 2011, its leaders promised to usher in a new era of “transparency and efficiency” in which it would “run government like a business.” Sadly, twelve years later, the only resemblance to a business in this area is to one that’s increasingly mysterious, inefficient, dysfunctional, and tinged with corruption.

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast. Republished from ncnewsline.com.