The recently completed two-day session resulted in the passage of several noteworthy laws and bills on regulatory reform, judicial redistricting, electronic notice and the budget. My focus is going to be on only two of those bills, but I’ll cover those other bills in future blogs.
Senate Bill 16 [Business Regulatory Reform Act of 2017] and House Bill 56 [Amend Environmental Laws] were two regulatory reform bills that have now become law, following the legislature’s overrides of Governor Cooper’s vetoes. The override vote on SB16 was 70-44 in the House and 31-15 in the Senate, and the override vote on HB56 was 70-42 in the House and 30-9 in the Senate — in both cases the requisite three-fifths votes.
In each session since 2011 when Republicans became the majority party in both chambers, bills have passed that rolled back a range of laws and regulations that were viewed as unnecessary or unduly burdensome to business interests. Many of these bills have focused on environmental regulations. SB16 and HB56 were this session’s versions of those bills. Because of the way these bills moved through the General Assembly, SB16 (which started in the Senate) was actually the House’s regulatory reform bill, while HB56 (which started in the House) was actually the Senate’s regulatory reform bill.
In recent years, because of my expertise on environmental issues, I have served on most of the conference committees that resolved differences between the House and the Senate (and sometimes the differences with whoever the governor was), and I served on both conference committees for SB16 and HB56. When the vote was taken on SB16 and HB56, most legislators voted the same way on both bills, but I didn’t — and here is why.
SB16 amended several State laws related to State and local government regulation, business regulation and environmental legislation. It also provided for various studies of issues. The bill summary for SB16 provides all of the details, but what is most interesting is how the bill changed over time. In the end, SB16 became a mixture of the original SB16 and HB374 [Business Freedom Act]. The most controversial provisions on these two bills were removed leaving noncontroversial provisions or provisions that reflected not only compromises between the House and the Senate but also compromises between the legislature and the Cooper Administration.
The contested cases provision in HB374 (Section 12) was one of the most controversial provisions since it would have restricted who could contest the issuance, denial or modification of certain permits issued pursuant to the Clean Water Act. In the final version of SB16, that provision was largely stripped out so it didn’t restrict the ability of people to challenge agency action on clean water permits. Similarly, the provisions related to stormwater laws were changed to reflect compromises between the views of certain legislators and the views of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Whole sections of SB16 as passed by either the House or the Senate did not appear in the final bill. For example, provisions relating to health benefit plans, coal ash reuse, pet boarding facilities, and Onslow vehicle inspections were cut. Other sections dealing with issues like eminent domain were modified. Again, all of these changes reflected compromises.
Having strived to strike the most controversial provisions of the SB16 and HB374 and having garnered bipartisan support for the conferenced SB16, my surprise came when Governor Cooper vetoed the bill. As I explained to the Governor after his veto, it will make it difficult to negotiate compromises if the end result is going to be the same: a veto. Why would my colleagues want to change their bills to accommodate concerns of the Governor if he’s still going to veto the bill?
For me, overriding the Governor’s veto of SB16 was an easy vote, since I’d largely been successful in striking or modifying all of the provisions which I viewed as problematical. Having worked with my colleagues to reach consensus, I couldn’t renege on those agreements to now support the Governor.
Governor Cooper has been very specific in most of his veto messages about various bills that he has vetoed. That wasn’t true with respect to his veto message on SB16. My suspicion is that his veto of SB16, which wasn’t sought by environmental groups, really reflected his desire to not draw criticism for weakening environmental laws when the legislature and the Administration were fighting over responsibility for the GenX pollutants in Wilmington’s water.
HB56 was a different matter. Just like SB16, I served on the conference committee and I sought to reconcile differences between the House, the Senate and the Administration. Again, the bill summary can give one a sense of the breadth of bill dealing with issues as diverse as the rule for pool lighting to hazardous waste regulation. Included in last minute additions to the bill were several measures designed to address the GenX issue, including an appropriation of monies to UNC-Wilmington and the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for water monitoring and further studies.
One of the high profile provisions in the bill was the repeal of the plastic bag ban on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. Another high profile provision, opposed by the NC Association of County Commissioners (NCACC), was a provision affecting the ability of counties to restrict the flow of solid waste, basically prohibiting a county from requiring solid waste generated in the county to go to the county’s landfill or transfer facility. This provision was opposed by the county commissioners association because counties may lose tipping fees used to operate their landfills or transfer stations.
On HB56, I’d gotten myself comfortable with all of the various provisions, even the plastic bag provision, but still opposed the bill because of the solid waste flow provision. I was one of three Republicans who voted against the bill when it came to the floor during the August session, but I was the only Republican who voted to sustain Governor Cooper’s veto.
It is always uncomfortable to be the only legislator to vote against a bill or the only legislator in one’s party to vote some way on a bill, and I haven’t done that often during my years in the legislature. However, I’d clearly stated my concerns about the flow control provision, and I ignored the politics and voted against the bill and to sustain the veto for the reasons fully articulated by the NCACC. Had all the Democrats been present and voting and the two Republican legislators not changed their votes, Governor Cooper’s veto would have been sustained.