Long-time General Assembly observers have been surprised at the speed at which the legislature is moving. Last week, the House and Senate completed work on both an energy bill and the omnibus tax bill, sending both bills to Governor McCrory for his signature. The Senate also stayed until the wee hours of Saturday morning to pass its budget bill, and also passed a regulatory reform bill that was sent to the House. This week, the House will begin its budget work, and the Senate is likely to begin work on coal ash legislation.
To get a sense of how quickly things moved, one only needs to look at the passage of the Senate budget bill. That bill went public on Wednesday, was heard in committee on Thursday, and passed the Senate on Friday afternoon before being voted on the last time shortly after midnight on Saturday. Similarly, the energy bill was heard in a House committee on Tuesday, and passed the House in separate votes on Wednesday and Thursday — near record speed for legislation of this nature and scope.
Senate Bill 786 (The Energy Modernization Act)
The energy bill was a fairly technical bill primarily relating to when the state would allow hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and detailing what the rules would be. Proponents of the bill were generally trying to speed up the process for granting permits while opponents said they were trying to allow sufficient time for the development of rules governing oil and gas development. However, some opponents were simply against allowing fracking at all. While the debate mostly revolved around fracking, the bill had many provisions, including a provision that established a severance tax applicable to oil and gas exploration. The bill didn’t simply relate to fracking but also began to anticipate potential offshore oil and gas development.
House Democrats tried to amend the legislation ten times but none of their amendments passed. Six of the amendments were defeated on direct votes, but Republican leaders used a parliamentary maneuver to derail the remaining four amendments. Those amendments would have required landowner permission to disturb surface land when drilling, banned the disposal of fracking fluids and wastewater from drilling in open pits, given local governments more leeway in regulating drilling, and reinstated a requirement from earlier legislation that the rules governing fracking would be approved by the General Assembly.
The parliamentary procedure, known as “tabling,” was used to thwart the Democrats’ amendments; it allows amendments to be killed without a recorded voted on the topic of the amendment. One amendment offered by a Republican legislator relating to studying net metering (a solar power issue) was also tabled.
Consistent with my earlier votes, I voted against the bill that passed on its third reading by a vote of 64-50, but I voted for or against each amendment depending on the subject of the amendment. For example, Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) proposed an amendment that would have banned compulsory pooling by repealing the state’s forced pooling law. Recognizing that when one takes gas from underground that gas is actually pulled from under the property of adjoining landowners, the forced pooling law requires a split of the money garnered via royalties from oil and gas development.
For some, the amendment was a property rights issue and they argued against forced pooling. I argued that forced pooling was actually a policy intended to protect landowners who have land adjoining property being drilled. Adjoining landowners who don’t receive any royalties from oil and gas development and left with nothing even though it is clear that gas is being taken from under their property. That amendment failed on a vote of 44-70, with me voting “nay.”
SB744 (The Appropriations Act of 2014)
The Senate’s budget plan runs 275 pages, and there is no easy way to summarize it.
The press has mostly focused on the 11% raises for teachers, but there has been less focus on where the money to pay for those raises has come from: cuts to budget allocations for teaching assistants, cuts to Medicaid, and use of monies reserved in the budget to cover unexpected shortfalls, and a range of other cuts. The part that I’ve heard the most about is the provision that provides the pay raise being tied to a provision that requires teachers who have “career status” (sometimes called tenure) to give up that career status in return for the significant raise.
Senator Apodaca secured some significant monies for Henderson County-related projects or programs. For example, Hands On!, the children’s museum, will receive some grant funding from the State — monies that were going to the Park Ridge-sponsored Health Adventure at the old Biltmore Square Mall. Health Adventure closed its doors this past year, freeing up the monies.
A major goal of the western NC legislators was to secure funding for construction of a crime lab to provide testing of evidence related to criminal prosecutions. Currently, most testing is done at a Raleigh lab, and criminal prosecutions are being hampered or potentially could be dismissed when lab results could not be obtained in a timely fashion. Senator Apodaca successfully added funding for such a lab at the NC Justice Academy in Edneyville.
What people don’t understand about adopting a state budget is that it is a process. The process starts with the Governor proposing a budget. Then, one of the chambers of the legislature — this year the Senate —starts the process by adopting a budget. Then the other chamber adopts a budget. Usually, they aren’t exactly the same budget, and the differences have to be reconciled by a conference committee composed of Senate and House members.
When a compromise has been struck, both houses of the legislature pass the budget, and it goes on to the Governor; the Governor can sign it or veto it. If signed, the budget is adopted. If vetoed, the budget goes back to the General Assembly. A vetoed budget only is enacted if the Governor’s veto is overridden by a 2/3’s vote of each house. Governor Perdue was the first governor to veto a budget, and she was also the first governor to have such a veto overridden by the General Assembly.
So the Senate has now passed its budget, and now it’s the House’s turn. I spent last weekend in Raleigh working with my fellow budget chairs to recommend the House’s budget: a mixture of the Governor’s budget, the Senate’s budget, and some new funding items and provisions. The “process” continued today with committee hearings on the Governor’s and Senate’s budgets. My committee heard the education portions.
On Thursday, the budget recommendations that my co-chairs and I made will be outlined and discussed in the various subject-matter subcommittees: Education, General Government, Health and Human Services, Information Technology, Justice and Public Safety, Natural and Economic Resources, and Transportation. On that same day, I’ll chair the “mark-up” session where the subcommittee adopts changes to the education budget that my co-chairs and I have proposed.
All the various pieces will be stitched together following subcommittee action, and a House proposed budget will be posted on the General Assembly’s website over the weekend. One day next week, the full Appropriations Committee will meet for an all-day “mark-up” session, and then the House will vote on that budget on two successive days. My expectation is that by the end of next week, the House will have adopted its budget.
Again, it is a process. At various points, one can make changes to the budget, but it gets harder and harder to make changes as it gets later in the process. Only a small group of legislators will work on the budget that comes out of the conference committee (and Senator Apodaca and I will likely be among them), and the budget that comes out of the conference committee cannot be amended on the floor. In other words, it is just an up and down vote.
Understanding that, one can understand how a legislator can vote for a budget that contains provisions that the legislator doesn’t support. Unless a provision is really important to that legislator, he or she isn’t likely going to vote against the whole budget in the end simply because of some disagreement with one or more provisions.
What this means is that you have maybe another week to communicate your opinions about budget matters. After that, it will become very hard to cause any change in a budget provision.