The North Carolina House of Representatives took its last vote of the Long Session at 4:12 am on September 30. The vote came on a technical corrections bill, Senate Bill 119 [GSC Technical Corrections 2015]. 37 members weren’t around to vote and the bill passed because the remaining Members were assured that the bill just contained technical corrections to bills previously passed in the session and not anything substantive.
No one, other than the conferees, can say they knew exactly what was in the bill, since it came out of a conference committee and went immediately to the House and Senate floors. With no time to read the 41-page bill — and knowing that some mischief had been discussed when House and Senate conferees met in the wee hours of the morning — I voted “no,” but the bill passed fairly easily by a vote of 61-22. The Senate passed the bill a few minutes earlier on a vote of 28-15.
The mischief that was discussed was a provision to force the developer of an offshore wind farm to go through the permitting process again. The wind farm had already received its permits, but there were press reports that the wind farm might interfere with military radar. Apparently, Governor McCrory threatened to veto the technical corrections bill over that provision and that squashed the effort to include the wind farm provision.
The General Assembly completed actions in its final week on a number of important bills: among them was the bill authorizing a $2 billion bond referendum, House Bill 943 [Connect NC Bond Act of 2015]. All of the major projects that would be paid for with the bond monies are set forth in the bill. Broadly, the monies go to pay for construction for the university system, community college system, and state parks. Additionally, monies would be set aside for loans and grants to repair failing water and sewer systems. The National Guard also would get monies for three facilities, but no monies were made available for roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. The referendum will occur at the same time as the presidential primary in March 2016.
Senate Bill 513 [North Carolina Farm Act of 2015] was another bill that passed towards the end of the session. Its 38 sections addressed a myriad of small regulatory issues related to farming, but Section 14 dealing with deer farming was the most controversial. Section 14 tranfers the captive cervid program (deer farming) from the Wildlife Resources Commission to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS). Many of those who voted against the bill feared that DACS would be less vigilant in protecting native deer from contracting Chronic Wasting Disease, a disease that is diminishing wild deer and elk herds in other states. The bill passed on a bipartisan vote of 67 to 45, and I voted with the majority.
House Bill 765 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2015] was a bill that was expected to engender significant debate, but the bill came to the floor shortly before midnight on Tuesday night, and debate was rather tame, probably because it was the last bill after about a ten-hour session. The bill passed on a vote of 73-39, and I voted “no.”
The 61-page bill’s title said it was “An Act To Provide Further Regulatory Relief . . . By Providing For Various Administrative Reforms, By Eliminating Certain Unnecessary Or Outdated Statutes And Regulations And Modernizing Or Simplifying Cumbersome Or Outdated Regulations.” The title doesn’t give one a clue that the bill dealt with a huge number of issues including coastal stormwater, air quality monitors, isolated wetlands and toxic waste cleanups.
The bill included numerous regulatory reform provisions, including provisions repealing obsolete statues, establishing process for legislative appointments, providing for attorneys’ fees in some cases when the State is the prevailing party, authorizing license plates for trailers attached to motorcycles, and requiring the State to use a licensed surveyor to mark boundaries of state properties. The heart of the bill was its environmental provisions that included establishment of an environmental self-audit privilege and limited immunity, repeal of recycling requirements for discarded computer equipment, prohibition on the implementation and enforcement of standards for wood heaters, and repeal of energy audits for state buildings.
Having served on the conference committee for the bill, ordinarily I would have been expected to support the bill. However, despite having improved the bill in conference, the bill still included provisions that I found objectionable. For instance, the bill still included the self-audit privilege and limited immunity. The privilege protects the confidentiality of communications relating to a company’s internal environmental audit and provides limited liability to an owner or operator of a plant if the violator of an environmental law or rule discloses the violation to the regulator.
My view was that current law already provides for a similar audit privilege and that a statutory audit privilege was unnecessary. Adding the limited liability provision, in my view, is only going to result in businesses factoring in the diminished risk of liability in making decisions that may violate some environmental statute. If one can always self-report and avoid liability, there is little risk in operating in any grey areas relating to an environmental regulation.
The isolated wetlands provision was also a weakening of current law, and it moves towards where some groups would like the state to go: no regulation of isolated wetlands. While the air quality monitors provision was modified in conference in a way that still leaves discretion with the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as to how many monitors are needed, my view was that the provision was unnecessary since DEQ already has discretion as to air quality monitors. For me, the provision was just another section of the bill that was unnecessary but apparently included to suggest that the legislature was for regulatory reform. In other words, it was just window-dressing.
On the positive side, the final bill had no provision relating to attorneys’ fees in environmental cases, did away with the repeal of the recycling requirement for computer equipment and also struck the provision repealing energy audits for state buildings.
Two bills, on which I had worked, passed on the last full legislative day. House Bill 647 [Epi Pens in All Child-Serving Businesses] passed both chambers unanimously. The bill permits the prescribing and dispensing of epinephrine auto-injectors to restaurants, motels, gyms, summer camps, and other entities to prevent severe allergic reactions to food, bee stings or similar allergens.
Senator Apodaca and I had introduced similar bills requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for autism. His bill, Senate Bill 676 [Autism Health Insurance Coverage], passed the Senate months ago while, by agreement with Senator Apodaca, I didn’t try to move my bill, House Bill 646 [Insurance Coverage for Autism Treatment]. The bills were similar in that the both had an insurance mandate, but his bill created some caps on the extent of coverage. The nonprofits working on autism issues were not in agreement on the bills, so it looked like no bill would actually pass. Unbeknownst to most of the advocates for autism insurance coverage, both Senator Apodaca and I were trying to reconcile our different approaches to the same issue.
With significant help from Senate, House and central staff, we were able to bridge the differences. In a session that sometimes seemed endless, I was very happy that we stayed long enough to pass the autism bill with broad bipartisan support. While everyone agreed that we needed to provide autism coverage, there wasn’t agreement on how to do it and what would be the extent of the coverage. In the closing hours of the session, with considerable assistance from legislative staff, we found a way to make everyone comfortable.
In the end, much was accomplished during this session, and the last several weeks were particularly productive with passage of the budget, the economic incentives package, the bond referendum, and Medicaid reform. The legislature fixed the date of the presidential primary in mid-March, and passed a lot of good legislation like the epi-pen and autism bills. Soon, leadership will appoint Members to various oversight committees and decide what study committees will meet in the interim before we come back into session in late April 2016, for the so-called Short Session. Legislators, staff, lobbyists, and the public no doubt hope that it turns out to truly be a “short session.”