It's that time again already. The General Assembly opened its biennial "long session" on January 11.
A few, new lieutenants in the leadership ranks remind us that some of the old guard has retired and that some things may change as a result. How much change is anybody's guess at this point.
The key changes in the North Carolina Senate leadership offer the most hope.
With the recent retirement of Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaka, the former Senate Finance Committee Chair Bill Rabon (R-New Hanover) takes Apodaka's place at the helm of the powerful Rules Committee. Senator Rabon, long considered to be a defender against the imposition of tax burdens on the press, will now serve as Senate President Phil Berger's gatekeeper for legislation bound for the Senate floor.
Two other Senate leadership-level changes will be important to watch as those changes take hold.
First, Senator Harry Brown (R-Onslow) has been elevated to Chair of the Senate Finance Committee following the retirement of former Mecklenburg County Senator Bob Rucho. Brown, whose views on various issues affecting our industry are often hard to gauge, has consistently been a voice for redistributing sales tax revenue to economically under-performing parts of the state. He is likely to continue that policy course. That, in turn, raises the possibility of new tax burdens on the press.
The other, more subtle, Senate change is Goldsboro Senator Louis Pate's elevation to Senate Majority Leader. Pate is a widely respected political pro and a long-time ally of free press rights. His rise in the Senate leadership comes at a critical time for the industry.
The House of Representatives, on the other hand, appears completely stable at the moment. Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) remains firmly in control on the House Republican caucus. As does his Rules Committee Chairman, David Lewis (R-Harnett). Together, they have aided industry causes in the last two sessions of the General Assembly.
Other than the disheartening loss of the House seat held by Marilyn Avila from Wake County, the House leadership is virtually unchanged. One notable development is the appointment of Goldsboro Rep. John Bell to the Majority Leader's job. The affable Bell, like his Senate counterpart Pate, has been a supporter of NCPA legislative causes.
So what is likely to happen in the long session? First, no one should have a false sense of security about the state's fiscal health and prospects for holding the line on new taxes. One ranking General Assembly member, when asked about a Fall 2016 report that the state was $200 million ahead of its forecasted tax collections, advised that no one should "count on" that surplus.
On the open government front, hopes spring eternal that the Senate will agree to create a joint House-Senate commission to study improvements to the NC open government laws. Last session saw House member David Lewis guide the NCPA-backed study commission bill (HB 499) through the House Rules Committee and passage on the House floor, only to have the Senate block enactment of the legislation.
And, of course, there will inevitably be bills filed to restrict access to government records that are currently accessible upon request by the public. In the December 2016 week-long, Hurricane Matthew-focused special legislative session, one House member filed a bill (HB 18) that would have eliminated public and press access to mug shots. While NCPA-backed forces were able to stop the legislation, HB 18 is emblematic of the historic efforts by certain General Assembly members to try to roll back levels of public access to records.NCPA will continue to keep the vigil.
One thing is for sure, the 2017 long session will be eventful. Stay tuned!