To look at the House calendars this week, it would seem to have been a quiet week — particularly compared to the first two weeks, when a tax bill and an energy bill passed both houses and became law, and the Senate budget bill and a regulatory reform bill moved forward. But looks are sometimes deceiving.
Above The Surface
The House took floor action on about two dozen bills of all sorts this week. The bills that had the highest profile were House Bill 1032 (Patent Abuse Bill), House Bill 1061 (Replace Common Core State Standards With North Carolina’s Higher Academic Standards) and Senate Bill 370 (Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Activity).
The patent abuse bill was sought to end the practice of “patent trolling.” If approved by the Senate, it will make a “bad faith” assertion of patent infringement a deceptive trade practice.
As has been explained in various media coverage (click here for Legislative Week in Review’s video segment), there are people and companies in the business of buying up patents and then asserting patent infringement claims against deep-pocket corporations in hopes of extracting a big settlement. Since these sorts of lawsuits are expensive to defend, some companies have made the economic decision to simply settle the lawsuits rather than incur the legal costs of defending the claims. It seems like legal extortion, and the legislation will potentially turn the tables by making the claimant liable for asserting a patent infringement claim in bad faith. The bill unanimously passed the House.
The Common Core bill probably had the highest profile of any of the bills considered this week. The debate was interesting because it had elements of constitutional law mixed with ordinary public policy. The constitutional argument was that education is an issue for the states, not the federal government, and that the federal government shouldn’t be imposing education standards on public schools established under state law.
Common Core standards were developed to set high academic standards that could be the basis for comparing the academic results of students in different states and even different counties. They were adopted by 44 states, and the Obama Administration put a lot of money into North Carolina during the recession to fund education programs. That money was tied, in part, to the State’s adoption of these standards. The standards are not a curriculum, but they do set forth what students need to know and be able to do in order to graduate from high schools.
Repealing Common Core is a rallying cry for many in the Tea Party, but most Democrats and the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce opposed the effort to repeal the standards. Educators and teachers usually told me that they didn’t want the State to suddenly shift from Common Core because they’d just started to teach to meet those standards and they didn’t want to have to replace textbooks that may have just been purchased.
The bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote of 78-39; I voted “aye.” The House bill clearly declares North Carolina’s right to exercise sovereignty in education, addressing the constitutional issue. The House bill establishes a process for the State Board of Education to revise the content of North Carolina’s standards.
The student prayer bill was evidently a reaction to a specific instance when a student was not allowed to pray, but the debate on the bill mostly centered on when teachers or coaches could join in student-led prayer. The bill was basically about First Amendment rights, and the courts have been pretty clear that students can initiate prayer at sporting events, for example, but that teachers aren’t to lead such prayer.
Most of the debate was around a provision allowing a teacher to “adopt a respectful posture” when students pray. In other words, could teachers bow their heads in prayer with their students or kneel down with their student athletes when a prayer was offered by a student at the start of a sporting event?
Bills of Local Interest
Two bills of local interest also passed the House. First, HB1113 (Bent Creek Property Sullivan Act Exemption) which will help settle a dispute between the City of Asheville and Henderson County relating to the 1990’s water agreement passed the House on a voice vote. Second, HB1140 (Amend Hotel Carbon Monoxide Alarm Requirement), legislation responding to several deaths by monoxide poisoning at a motel near Blowing Rock, passed unanimously.
An interesting bill that may be of interest to the agricultural community is HB1099 (Unmanned Aircraft Regulation). This is the so-called “Drone Bill,” and it seeks to regulate the use of unmanned drones.
Drones increasingly can be used in a myriad of situations, including monitoring crop growth or assessing damages to crops during a drought. Law enforcement could also use drones for criminal investigations. The bill would establish when and under what conditions drones can be used and create criminal penalties when they are misused, for example, prohibiting them from being weaponized.
I chaired the committee that heard the bill, and I am on the subcommittee studying it. A revised bill will be considered shortly.
Below The Surface
Three years ago, I couldn’t have written about what was going on below the surface, since I was a freshman legislator and wasn’t a party to what went on below the surface or even really aware of it. I am now.
When the Senate sent its budget over to the House late last week, the House’s budget process started. As a co-chair of one of the appropriations subcommittees (the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education), I was told I needed to spend last weekend in Raleigh preparing budget recommendations that would be taken up by my subcommittee after those recommendations are approved by the chairs of the House Appropriations Committee and House leadership. In other words, I was one of three legislators making recommendations on how education would be funded, and our recommendations would be initially approved by five other legislators plus Speaker Tillis.
While it is a pretty heady experience to make recommendations about how to spend over $11 billion, it is also a very tiring experience working closely with staff over the course of the weekend and then most of this past week. When a group of Henderson County Chamber of Commerce leaders came to Raleigh on Tuesday, I think they found it strange that I was on call at night to return to the budget discussions. I had dinner with them and headed back for another meeting with the so-called “big chairs” of the full Appropriations Committee.
At the beginning of the week, I expected the House would roll out its budget before the weekend, but as I head home my expectation is the rollout will occur sometime next week. Before the rollout, the draft budget will get vetted by the House Republican Caucus. If there is a reasonable expectation that the draft budget can get the votes it needs to pass, then the draft budget will go to each of the appropriations subcommittees and then on to the full appropriations committee. In both the subcommittees and the full committee, members of those bodies can offer amendments which, if they pass, will become part of the budget that comes to the floor for a vote. On the floor, House members can also amend the budget bill; although few amendments usually pass on the floor if the issues have been fully vetted in the majority caucus.
Aside from the budget process, my responsibilities this session include responsibility for shepherding a coal ash bill through the House. Passing legislation in response to the coal ash spill on the Dan River is a stated priority for leadership in both the House and the Senate.
While the Senate held a hearing on Governor McCrory’s Coal Ash Plan, the House’s process this week was a series of meetings with various interested parties including representatives of Duke Energy, state officials with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and environmental leaders. The latter scheduled a lobby day bringing in environmental activists from across the state to lobby on behalf of strong coal ash legislation.
It was a productive week for coal ash legislation, and that is about all I can say. I have a much better idea of what these interested parties think of various proposals that have been floated and have a much better idea of where these parties disagree with each other.
Unless I’m totally wrong, next week the House will be consumed by work on its budget, and that work will be “above the surface.” I expect the Appropriations Committee and its various subcommittees will be meeting, and there could be action on a House bill before the end of the week. Since the Senate will have held a public hearing on the Governor’s Coal Ash Plan, Senate leaders are moving closer to publicly rolling out their coal ash legislation — legislation that I’m cautiously optimistic that the House will generally support. The legislative process of passing coal ash legislation would be much easier if the Senate and the House are pushing the same or similar legislation.