House passes abortion restrictions at deadline
RALEIGH — North Carolina representatives passed hotly debated new abortion restrictions, including a measure to prohibit insurers joining a future health care exchange from providing abortion coverage, as they pressed against a Thursday deadline to keep bills alive through the end of the session in 2014.
While the state Senate concluded work on its more divisive bills Wednesday, House lawmakers ran up against a Thursday deadline requiring action in at least one chamber for any bill that doesn't involve spending or tax changes to stay alive into next year.
House members debated for about three hours Thursday. Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, arriving with a sport coat but no tie, promptly suspended a rule that requires men to wear coats and ties on the floor. Only one male lawmaker could be seen taking advantage of the change by the time the daily session adjourned.
Some sessions in past years have gone well into the night.
The threat of having a bill die because it failed to pass a chamber by Thursday preoccupied many in the Republican-held legislature during the crossover week.
Ray Starling, Tillis' general counsel, attempted to assuage the worries of legislators seeking advice with a sign on his door that read, "Keep Calm ... It's Not Subject to Crossover."
The House bill that drew the fiercest partisan outcry would ban private insurers joining health insurance exchanges, or marketplaces, from providing abortion coverage. The Republican bill also would allow any medical professional to refuse to participate in an abortion on moral or religious grounds and forbids local governments from including abortion coverage in employee health care plans.
Current law extends so-called conscience protections only to doctors and nurses. The bill covers people such as pharmacists and technicians.
A measure allowing almost any employer to refuse to cover contraception was pulled from the bill following a poor reception in committee from some Republicans who said it goes too far.
Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg and the bill's lead sponsor, said the measures aren't designed to outlaw abortion but to provide support for the long-standing right of conscience.
"What this bill does is protect a right that is guaranteed to North Carolinians under our state constitution and a right that is guaranteed under our federal constitution," she said.
Democrats argued the bill will instead make a legal procedure prohibitively expensive and push those who can't afford them to seek unsafe abortions outside licensed facilities.
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said that the bill shows a legislature overstepping its bounds.
"How omnipotent the people in this chamber claim to be--to invade my family's decision, my personal decision, spiritual decision and moral decision, and then the economic decision that goes with it to double the pain," he said.
Democrats protested when a Republican sought to cut off debate, but the bill passed 72-39. It now goes to the Senate.
Democrats also opposed a Republican bill prohibiting state judges or agencies from applying Islamic Sharia or other foreign laws in domestic and child custody cases. The bill was narrowed to those cases at the committee level to keep it alive.
Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, has said more than two dozen cases of the application of foreign law have appeared in the U.S., though he's not aware of any in North Carolina. Six states have restricted the circumstances in which state courts can consider foreign and religious laws in their decisions since 2010, according to legislative researchers.
Democrats argued the constitution already protects against applying foreign laws in U.S. courts. They said the bill could actually run afoul of the constitution because it's narrowly drawn to the two specific cases, but the most lasting damage could be to North Carolina's reputation abroad.
Whitmire and other supporters argued it's a precautionary measure based on evidence that it's already happening.
The bill passed 70-41 and will now go to the Senate.
A bill that drew less controversy would prohibit employers and universities from demanding access to the private social media accounts of applicants, employees and students, though the bill includes exceptions in cases such as criminal investigations.
One of the main bill sponsors, Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, said it provides much-needed privacy protections in the digital age. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said he's concerned the bill creates an exception to at-will employment.
The bill passed 76-36 and will now head to the Senate.
The Senate postponed its Thursday action for next week. Left stranded was a bill that would have repealed outdoor smoking bans on beaches, community colleges and other public spaces.
A bill repealing requirements that utilities generate a portion of their energy from renewable sources is also dead in its current form, said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland and the chairman of the House Rules committee.
The six-term representative's committee assignment gives him considerable authority over the House schedule. He said the fact that the Senate didn't pull any late nights and the House concluded by mid-afternoon Thursday bodes well for an early summer end to the year's business.
"I think it's a sign that the session is moving along at the pace the speaker outlined, and we'll be out of here and back home," he said. "It's an aspiration."