RALEIGH (WTVD) -- It's all about storm relief. At least, that's what lawmakers in the NC House are saying about the December 2016 legislative "special session" called by Gov. Pat McCrory.
The Governor called lawmakers back to Raleigh a couple weeks ago, with the stated purpose of solidifying a plan for disaster relief and transferring the necessary money from the state's rainy day fund to accomplish that.
Speculation has been rampant that Republican lawmakers will pass additional bills unrelated to storm and wildfire relief but on the first day of the special session, disaster response was front and center.
McCrory addressed the House Appropriations committee, the starting point for the storm and fire relief bill, by making a strong appeal for a $200 million package that will help in five specific areas:
- Housing to provide short-term housing for areas not covered by FEMA and provide grants for rental assistance, construction of new rental units and repairs;
- Local governments to address school calendar flexibility and help fund repairs to infrastructure, trash pickup, river maintenance and other local needs;
- Economic development and stabilization to help impacted businesses get back on their feet;
- Planning to rebuild communities in a sustainable way;
- Funds to cover the state share of disaster relief.
There was broad, bi-partisan support to offer state funds to those devastated by Hurricane Matthew and the wildfires in the western portion of North Carolina. But many Democrats worry that the special session might bring other legislation as well and Republicans say they are considering taking up other bills.
WATCH: Jon Camp and Jonah Kaplan with full coverage Tuesday
House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement Tuesday evening following House passage of the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016. The bill passed unanimously, 114-0. The Senate will take it up Wednesday.
"North Carolina is well-prepared financially to provide disaster victims with relief thanks to a $1.6 billion Rainy Day Fund and substantial budget surpluses," Moore said, in part. "Our state can fund the Disaster Recovery Act without borrowing money or raising taxes because legislators spent responsibly and saved taxpayer dollars in our emergency fund over the last four years."
The Disaster Recovery Act of 2016 appropriates $200 million for wildfire recovery, hurricane and tropical storm relief efforts across North Carolina:
- $37,950,000 to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for disaster-related repairs, debris removal, forest and stream restoration
- $20,000,000 to the Housing Trust Fund to directly benefit persons and families affected by the disasters.
- $10,000,000 to the Department of Commerce for local government grants to construct, repair or replace infrastructure of utilities including water, sewer services and sidewalks.
- $10,000,000 to the Department of Environmental Quality for wastewater and solid waste cleanup, dam safety, emergency permitting and repair of drinking water systems.
- $9,000,000 to the Division of Emergency Management to provide additional support meeting short-term housing needs.
- $1,000,000 to the Department of Insurance for grants to volunteer fire departments to repair disaster-related damage not covered by federal assistance or insurance proceeds.
"I am constantly encouraged by the exceptional leadership and collaboration of North Carolina public officials in this effort at the state, local and federal level of government," Moore added. "I'm proudest of our law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency responders and volunteers who served bravely during these disasters. Thank you to those men and women who risked their own safety to protect the lives and livelihoods of fellow North Carolinians."
The most persistent concern from Democrats and others is that Republicans could "stack" the state Supreme Court by adding two additional seats. That would flip the margin from a 4-3 Democratic advantage to a 5-4 Republican advantage.
It's unclear where that rumor began but prior to Tuesday, few Republicans seemed willing to put it to rest. That seemed to change after hundreds of people showed up at the General Assembly to make their opinions heard.
Wake County Republican Rep. and the House chief budget writer Nelson Dollar told the I-Team, "I have not been in favor of moving forward with an expansion, but the issue really hasn't been brought forward."
Harnett County Republican Rep. David Lewis said, "As we've not talked about it, at this time, I would not feel inclined to support it."
Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, appeared to put the question to bed when he said, "The only folks talking about a bill to deal with the state Supreme Court are the Democrats. That's not something we're even discussing."
Asked if he would support it, Moore said, "I don't believe we ought to do it. I've made that clear from day one. That's not something we're looking at, expanding the Supreme Court."
"We certainly hope that's a sign that he's not going to take it up," said longtime McCrory critic Rob Schofield, with NC Policy Watch. "Indeed we hope it's a sign he's not going to take any of these extraneous, controversial measures that shouldn't be for a special session. But I have to say that part of the reason he's probably hesitant to do it is because we have a crowd of 1,000 people saying, my God, don't do this."
Moore did allow that Republicans in the House are looking at other bills, however; specifically, a regulatory reform bill that failed to pass before lawmakers left Raleigh at the end of June. He didn't go into detail, causing further consternation among Democrats.
"I think it's a travesty," Schofield said. "The notion that we would pass important legislation that would affect millions of people without any real notice or opportunity for people to comment and without any clear forecasting of what's going to be discussed ahead of time is just ridiculous. The people have a right to expect better."
Moore said that Republicans are having "general conversations" about changes to the authority, powers, or appointments enjoyed by the governor. He didn't speculate on what those changes might be, but Democrats worry they could include moving appointing power at the Board of Elections from the party of the governor to the party of the lieutenant governor (in this case, a Republican).
The fact Republicans haven't committed to a specific agenda for the next few days of this special session was enough to bring hundreds of Democrats, progressives, and activists out of the woodwork.
Jack Page showed up at the General Assembly hoping there would be strength in numbers.
"I think it's consistent with how they took this activity a year ago to do some other pretty disruptive legislative efforts and I'd like to express with my body and my presence my opposition to them doing it again," he said.
Peggy Hickle showed up at the Legislature with the same idea.
"I'm here to express my opposition to the legislature packing the Supreme Court. We need to let them know that we don't want them to do that."
"I came out to hopefully keep the legislature from doing any stealth or ill-considered laws like they've done in the past," agreed Gail Brock. "So we were hoping to limit them to the purpose of the session which is to provide relief for those damaged by Hurricane Matthew."