N.C. Lawmakers return to Raleigh

RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly cut short its Thanksgiving weekend Sunday to gear up for what Republican leaders say may be the last chance to pass substantive legislation for the next six months.

The state House and Senate held rare weekend evening floor sessions to begin up to three days of work in which they'll consider repealing a new death penalty appeal procedure. They also could take up a bill to cap the gasoline tax. Debating changes to gambling laws so the Cherokee Indians could offer live dealer games at its casino depended on the completion of an amended compact between the tribe and Gov. Beverly Perdue that's been negotiated for months.

"We haven't seen the compact, so we don't know whether that's going to occur or not," House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said after the House met for about 10 minutes. Like the Senate, the House took no recorded votes in what was a procedural meeting. Only about 60 of the 170 General Assembly members attend the Sunday night session.

Several dozen people opposed a bill that would examine more closely the feasibility of tapping into underground inland natural gas deposits through a process called "fracking." They welcomed arriving lawmakers with a march and protests that included banging drums.

Intense debate was expected Monday at a Senate judiciary committee meeting to consider a bill that would do away with the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which was hailed by supporters as a way to evaluate whether racial discrimination played a role in putting murder defendants on death row. A judge who finds racial bias would commute a death sentence to life in prison without parole.

North Carolina's district attorneys have been lobbying this month to roll back the law, saying it has become a backdoor way to halt capital punishment in the state and is being misused by prisoners — both white and black — to file a whole new round of appeals. A bill to essentially repeal the law passed the House and went to the Senate, where now only one vote of approval is needed to send it to Perdue. A veto would be possible. Perdue, a Democrat, signed the 2009 law.

A key GOP senator said fellow Republicans would talk privately Monday before deciding whether they'd be willing to have a floor vote on the measure this week. The next lengthy work session isn't scheduled until May.

"We haven't made a definite decision," Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the rules committee chairman, said recently.

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, the committee's chairman, said prosecutors had enough concerns about the 2009 law that the repeal bill warranted a full hearing this week. Defense attorneys, public defenders and civil rights groups fighting against the repeal call the prosecutors' arguments far-fetched.

Enforcing the Racial Justice Act "can only strengthen the overall fairness of our criminal justice system," LeAnn Melton, president of the North Carolina Association of Public Defenders, wrote to Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

Some legislators are angry such a change may be considered in late November. GOP legislators are holding their fourth mini-work period since July — a sharp contrast to previous years in which almost all work was completed in one session that lasted months.

Republicans "want to come in here in one day, look at something like this and go home," said Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe. "That is not in any way a democratic process."

Republicans note it has been an unusual year as their party holds a majority in both chambers for the first time in more than a century at the same time the once-a-decade remapping of legislative and congressional districts is occurring. Republicans are trying to use their time efficiently by not requiring colleagues of both parties to remain in Raleigh for extended periods of time with little to do, said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the House Rules Committee co-chairman.

Tillis said Sunday night that fellow House Republicans would talk about whether to push a measure to change the state gasoline tax. It could raise by almost 4 cents per gallon come Jan. 1 to nearly 39 cents per gallon, according to the Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal staff. Some lawmakers are sure to balk at capping the tax at the current rate of 35 cents because it would mean lost road-building revenues.

Republicans could be asked to consider laws exempting the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from current state gambling prohibitions on games with live card dealers, but legislative leaders have been clear that they want to see a final agreement between Perdue and the tribe first. Allowing such games at the Harrah's Cherokee Casino and Hotel could generate more than 400 jobs. Perdue is seeking a deal that would give the state a cut of revenues from the new games.

As is routine for this year's mini-work sessions, Democrats and interest groups are anxious about Republican attempts to override Perdue's vetoes from earlier this year. Five vetoed bills sat on Sunday's House calendar, including one that would require voters to show picture identification before voting. That includes the "fracking bill."

Republican legislative leaders also were expected to consider whether to:

• Make changes to state Alcoholic Beverage Control laws that supporters say would allow some western North Carolina breweries to expand, creating jobs.

• Correct a technical issue involving the payments of public school teachers starting next fall.