After having a highly productive week last week, this week gave me heartburn. While accomplishing a lot on drafting legislation (in advance of filing deadlines on issues like autism and craft brewing, and working on thorny issues like the school calendar) action on the House floor bogged down over matters of not much substance. Committee work also slowed in advance of a certain basketball tournament in Greensboro.
Last week, we had a dust-up over a provision added to an appropriations bill dealing with air emissions from hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking.”) This week, as promised, that provision got added to a bill dealing with some noncontroversial changes to a host of environmental laws. The bill summary for HB157 [Amend Environmental Laws] says simply, “House Bill 157 would amend various environmental laws.” It goes on to explain the various parts of the bill having to do with the Interstate Mining Compact, a clarification of the law relating to steel slag, some coal ash technical amendments and changing the name of a wetlands protection program. As promised the bill was in the Environment Committee on Tuesday. I chaired that committee meeting and the fracking-related amendment was adopted by voice vote.
With the now controversial amendment added to the bill and with the expectation of no votes on Thursday, when the bill got reported out of committee and to the floor on Wednesday, the bill sponsors moved to have the bill put on the calendar for immediate consideration that day. What that caused was a debate on whether to take up the bill immediately before any debate on the substance of the bill.
There is nothing more uncomfortable than debating whether a bill should be taken up. Democrats argued that the House had been functioning in a fairly bipartisan matter and that we shouldn’t get partisan by forcing immediate action on the bill. They said they wanted the public to have more time to consider the bill. Republicans argued that one portion of the bill was time sensitive — not the fracking provision — and they wanted to take it up immediately since there were no votes being scheduled on Thursday. The debate was really about nothing more than whether we took up the bill on Wednesday of this week or Monday of next week. The motion to add the bill to the calendar on Wednesday passed by a vote of 73 to 42, largely along party lines.
Next, a Democratic Member, Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham) moved to strike the fracking provision. After a long, confusing debate, that effort was defeated on a vote of 46-70. One Democrat voted against the amendment as did all but a few Republicans. The bill ultimately passed on a vote of 76 to 40, again largely along party lines.
The expectation, I guess, was that I would vote to strike the fracking provision, but I did not. I also voted to bring the matter immediately to the floor, and I voted for the bill. One might ask why, since I’ve consistently opposed bills and provisions in bills supportive of fracking.
Well, I voted to move the bill forward immediately because it needed to move ahead and the Senate was poised to take up bill. In fact, the Senate took up the bill today and passed it on second reading by voice vote. Presumably, the Senate will complete action on the bill next week and the bill will be sent to the Governor.
Delaying action on the bill, in my opinion, was just politics. If it could be delayed, there would be a few anti-fracking editorials published over the weekend, but the result was not likely to change whether we took up the bill this week or next week. Legislators had made up their minds.
As to the amendment, I’d voted against this amendment last week when its sponsor, Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherford), had put it forward. My vote then was about the process of adding a substitutive amendment on fracking to an appropriations bill that had nothing to do with fracking. HB157 was an environmental amends bill; there was nothing inappropriate about adding it. By this time, everyone understood what the amendment was about.
The proponents of the amendment were seeking to protect the legislation passed back in 2011 that authorized fracking from legal challenge by patching one portion of the law relating to air emissions. While I understood why the amendment was being put forward, my view was that it was unnecessary since there was no expectation of a legal challenge on the air emissions provision. The better fix for the problem lies with HB172 [Fracking-Protecting the Public], a bill that I’ve co-sponsored. The original pro-fracking legislation from 2011 didn’t fully address air emissions from fracking operations, and I support a proactive approach to the air emissions issue as reflected in HB172.
I voted against striking the “patch” because I didn’t think it did any real harm. My jaded view was that all sides were just playing politics. I think that the environmentalists were making it seem that the air emissions provision was a huge deal, when in fact it didn’t amount to much. They were just trying to garner positive press on an issue on which the public has misgivings. As already indicated, I thought the proponents were trying to fix an issue that didn’t need fixing.
There are occasions, and this was one of those occasions, when I wanted to just not vote. I guess I could have gotten up and walked out of the room, but my job is to vote and so I did. If my concern was to bolster my environmental voting record, I guess I should have voted for the amendment, but I’m just not into playing those political games.
For me, the vote for final passage of the bill was an easy vote, though. All but one of the provisions in the bill were noncontroversial and needed to pass. The one provision in the bill that was controversial was largely about politics—not substance. Therefore, the bill was much more of a positive than a negative, and I voted for it.