Limbo, whether for the souls of unbaptized babies or the patriarchs of the Old Testament, is a temporary state, and this is where things currently stand with the budget.
The budget negotiations are in limbo because House and Senate negotiators weren’t able to agree to spending targets for education, health and human services, justice and public safety, natural and economic resources and general government as of late last Friday. That left me in Raleigh for the weekend, since I’d have little time at home if I drove back to Henderson County and then turned around to get back for more budget negotiations early this week.
Aside from the conference committee on the budget, I’m also on three other conference committees. So, with budget negotiations in abeyance, I spent the weekend working primarily on three bills.
The original House bill was a one-page bill that simply authorized cities to provide notice to chronic violators of overgrown vegetation ordinances by regular mail and posting. The bill passed the House unanimously. When the bill came back from the Senate it had ballooned to nineteen pages with nearly twenty provisions running from authorization for cities to regulate certain structures on beaches to well-drilling to regulation of signage at construction sites to a provision relating to local regulation of beehives.
My appointment to the conference committee was made because the Senate version of the bill included numerous environmental provisions. Typically, the original sponsors of the bill are appointed to any conference committee, but the bill sent back by the Senate was so different that several legislators were added to the conference committee because of their subject-matter expertise.
One of the new provisions was titled “Riparian Buffer Reform,” and it was a provision from House Bill 760 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2015], that required the Environmental Management Commission and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to implement the Neuse River Basin Riparian Buffer Rule, the Tar-Pamlico River Basin Buffer Rule, and the Jordan Lake Watershed Buffer Rule so that the riparian buffers would be 30 feet in width instead of 50 feet in width and the 30 foot riparian buffers could be cleared, graded, and replanted in any type of vegetation. In other words, the bill would reduce buffer protections for three, nutrient-sensitive river basins.
This buffer reform provision also changed how buffers were measured, specifically, that coastal wetlands and marshland would not be treated as part of the surface waters but would be included as part of the riparian buffer. Again, the bill would reduce buffer protections by changing how they were measured.
Another provision in the bill related to bike lanes. It would prohibit local governments from converting lanes of state roads to bike lanes if the road experiences a volume of more than 20,000 vehicles per day. Bike enthusiasts and cities strongly opposed this provision.
One curious provision prohibits local governments from adopting any ordinance that would put in regulation a voluntary recommendation by a state agency. It is not clear what harm or benefit was intended to be corrected by this provision.
Finally, well drillers are very agitated about a whole range of changes to the law governing well-drilling. These provisions could have significant environmental implications since water on the coastal plain is typically taken from aquifers.
With the ongoing budget negotiations, work on HB44 has slowed, but progress has been made. My hope is we can reach a compromise on the riparian provisions that largely satisfy the concerns of those wanting reform of the riparian buffer provisions while not completely gutting them. Work is ongoing on the other provisions.
As part of the deal to reach an overall spending target of $21.735 billion for the budget, the Senate agreed to take its Medicaid reform provisions and substitute them for the House-passed Medicaid reform bill. The House unanimously voted not to concur with the Senate changes, and then both chambers appointed conferees.
Despite my well-recognized aversion to involvement in the Medicaid reform debate, House leadership appointed me to the conference committee. My guess is that the appointment reflects leadership’s view that I’m broadly supportive of the House’s position on Medicaid reform while being open to compromise.
As the media has reported, a hybrid-model for Medicaid reform that allows for non-profit, provider-led solution (provider-led entities or PLEs) and for-profit insurance entities, usually referred to as managed care organizations (MCOs) or health management organizations (HMOs) is what is being discussed. While not intending to be too parochial, I’m going to pay particular attention at how any such hybrid model might affect Henderson County providers and patients.
The expectation is that the legislature won’t go home until it passes some form of Medicaid reform, but many of the budget conferees are also Medicaid reform conferees, like me. Because of that, Medicaid reform will move forward on a separate track, probably somewhat the budget.
As with HB44, HB765 started out as a one-page bill, entitled “Env. Technical Corrections.” My expectation was that the bill would become a vehicle for a host of changes to environmental law, but the bill has morphed into the session’s primary regulatory reform bill and includes many environmental provisions but also many provisions that have nothing to do with environmental law. Some portion of the bill came from HB760, the House’s regulatory reform bill. As with the other bills, the House did not concur in the changes made to the bill, and a conference committee was appointed.
My appointment to this conference was not surprising given all of the environmental provisions. While many interest groups and local governments have concerns about the Senate version of the bill, the environmental community is particularly upset by the bill. For example, the Sierra Club has its supporters asking legislators not to bring up the bill for a vote this legislative session, a somewhat unusual request.
The Sierra Club takes that position because it says the bill would allow polluters to self-report environmental violations and avoid penalties, would require DENR to remove some of our state’s air quality monitors, would reduce protections for wetlands and streams, and would eliminate manufacturer funding for electronics recycling, a growing waste stream. The League of Municipalities and the NC Association of County Commissioners have similar concerns, although their concerns are more related to limitations put on local governments’ powers to address environmental issues.
The conference committee on HB765 will not likely meet until the conferencing process on HB44 is done. Moreover, while House conferees are working on the bill, the budget is everyone’s primary focus.
While most House and Senate committee are not meeting as budget negotiations continue, that doesn’t mean that some bills aren’t still moving. Last week, the House took final action on Senate Bill 665 [Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits] that may cause life insurance payouts to rise on old policies. The bill addresses concerns that insurance companies haven’t been very diligent in determining whether policy holders have died. That bill now goes back to the Senate, since the House made changes in the Senate bill.
The House also approved changes to the North Carolina’s unemployment laws. Senate Bill 15 [Unemployment Insurance Law Changes] makes numerous changes to unemployment insurance laws. One of the most notable tax changes in the bill is a suspension of the 20% surcharge for the tax year 2016 if the amount in the State’s account in the Unemployment Trust Fund equals or exceeds $1 billion by March 1, 2016. The trigger is projected to be met by March 1st. The 20% surcharge generates approximately $240 million and would save employers and employees money.
The debate in the House revolved around a provision that required people receiving jobless benefits contact five employers each week. Current law requires the unemployed to contact two employers each week, and an amendment would have changed that to three rather than the five contacts required by the bill. The vote on the amendment failed in a relatively close vote of 49 to 60, but the bill passed 83-27 with all Republicans supporting the bill but with Democrats divided.