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Blank bills: what you need to know about NC's bill-filing work-around


DTH Photo Illustration. State senators occasionally file blank bills during legislative sessions in order to work around local bill filing deadlines.

Most bills in the N.C. General Assembly are written to address a specific issue, but for some bills originating in the North Carolina Senate, there are only two provisions — one referring to a specific legislative district, and another stating that an act is effective when it becomes law.

In North Carolina, state senators occasionally file blank bills during legislative sessions, which could be filled in later before going to a vote in the General Assembly.

In the N.C. Senate, local bills for 2023 must be filed by March 9, about a month earlier than the deadline for filing public bills and resolutions. 

Andy Jackson, the director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, said blank bills are useful for senators because they can be used to respond to local issues that arise after the deadline for filing local bills.

“It is a parliamentary trick to get around bill submission deadlines,” Jackson said in an email.

Gerry Cohen, an adjunct instructor at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, said these bills often originate from post-deadline requests from city councils, county commissioners or school boards.

“A lot of times what members will do is they'll file a blank bill that can be used for any county in their district, and then a lot of times it'll be filled,” Cohen said.

He said the state legislature has different deadlines for specific types of bills to spread out the workload across the entire legislative session. There were no deadlines for bill filing until the 1980s, Cohen said.

“The legislature got tired of 60 or 70 percent of the work for the year getting done the last two days of the session,” he said.

This newer deadline system is possible because North Carolina Senate bills can be amended after they are filed, as long as the committee to which the bill is assigned approves of the senator’s new draft of the bill, which is called a “substitute.”

Local bills do not require the governor's approval to be enacted and are required to affect fewer than 15 counties. All of North Carolina's 50 state senators have introduced a local bill this session.

Christine Wunsche, director of legislative reporting services at UNC's School of Government, said senators from all regions of North Carolina and both political parties use blank bills. She added that blank bills do not need to be used even if they are filed.

“The only content that can go into a blank bill, however, is local legislation. So you can't take a blank bill and put in legislation that applies statewide,” Wunsche said.

Although senators may only submit one blank bill per legislative session, Cohen, who worked in various roles for the North Carolina General Assembly from 1977 until 2014, said blank bills used to be allowed in both houses in an unlimited quantity. 

“Back in the early '70s, members would file like 10 or 12 of them, which was an enormous amount of paperwork and close to pointless,” Cohen said.

He said there are limitations on the number of blank bills senators can file today in order to cut down on the workload for legislative staff. He added that each bill requires a large amount of paperwork. Prior to the 1980s, he said the bills had to be printed on paper using a typewriter. 

Even with new technology, Cohen said it is unlikely the rules on blank bills will change.

“I've not heard of anyone wanting to allow more blank bills, let's put it that way,” Cohen said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article gave the wrong time period for when bills in the North Carolina General Assembly were written using typewriters. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

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