Florence disaster session could stretch on for weeks

October 2, 2018

State lawmakers will meet Tuesday for a special session on disaster relief for Hurricane Florence. With 28 of the state’s 100 counties under a federal disaster declaration, the needs will be extensive.

However, just two and a half weeks after the storm made landfall, it’s not clear yet what form those needs will take or how much the state will need to add to disaster funding from the federal government.

House and Senate leaders say they expect to take action Tuesday on at least two bills. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s spokesman, Pat Ryan, said they’re working closely with Democrats and Gov. Roy Cooper and “have pretty universal buy-in” on the following provisions:

The state NAACP called on lawmakers Friday to push that deadline to Oct. 17, something also contemplated in a letter the state’s elections director sent legislators last week. That would take registration right up to the start of early voting, when people can register and vote on the same day – effectively allowing registration almost up until Election Day.

The state NAACP also called Monday for an extension to the deadline for returning absentee ballots and for a number of accommodations for voters who may not be able to get back to their home precinct, or even their home county, on Election Day. By law, votes can’t be cast out of county on a local issue, and the organization called on lawmakers to build more flexibility into the system.

“Provision can be made for a distant polling site to request that the affected county board of election fax or email a ballot for an absent voter to complete, and this information can be transmitted to the resident board of elections,” Irv Joyner, an attorney and law professor who advises the NAACP, said Monday.

Kim Westbrook Strach, the executive director of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, broached this subject in her letter to lawmakers last week, saying that any changes to the rule would extend the canvassing time after Election Day to allow provisional ballots to get back to the proper county.

The state has mailed thousands of absentee ballot requests and voter registration forms to shelters that took in people after the hurricane, Strach said in her letter. There’s also a dedicated webpage for victims to get election information at ncsbe.gov/florence.

The elections board has also reached out to counties to check on damage to voting locations and on damage to the roads surrounding them, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, has said legislation will be queued up to allow polling site changes as needed.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve nearly $1.7 billion in disaster aid for North Carolina. That measure awaits a Senate vote but is expected to win approval within the next few weeks.

Over the past few years, Republican legislative leaders have built up the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund to more than $2 billion. They could allocate some of that money for relief needs, perhaps by directing it through state agencies that already have relief operations on the ground.

Ryan said the plan for Tuesday is to gavel in the session at 10 a.m., recess to attend a joint House-Senate appropriations meeting at 11 a.m. to review and vote on the bills, then reconvene in the afternoon “and be out by the end of the day.”

They plan to return in one week, on Oct. 9, for follow-up work as agencies collect more information about what they need.

Ryan said lawmakers might need to convene periodically over the rest of the year because damage assessments may take weeks or months to complete.

“Our goal is respond as quickly as possible to concrete information as it comes in,” he said. “This is our first go at it. It won’t be our last.”

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