About three weeks ago, the House passed its budget, and I went home expecting to spend the next weekend in Raleigh negotiating a budget with the Senate. Basically, the Senate adopted one budget, and the House adopted a different budget, and negotiations are necessary to resolve the differences. A “conference committee” is appointed to resolve the differences, and both Senator Apodaca and I are among the few dozen legislators that will resolve the differences between the budgets.
When I got back to Raleigh after the weekend break, I was told that we wouldn’t be taking up the budget until the House and the Senate resolved their differences on tax reform. That makes some sense, since one should have an estimate of revenues before appropriating money in the budget. So I went home the next weekend, with the hope that when I got back, the negotiations over tax reform would be complete, and we could start on the budget.
But that didn’t happen. Another week went by, and the House decided to take a break for the July 4th holiday, shortly after adopting a “continuing resolution” to keep government running through the month of July. June 30 is the last day of the fiscal year, and the legislature had to temporary fund government on an ongoing basis until the budget for the current fiscal year is adopted.
So I’m heading back to Raleigh to see whether we’re going to agree to a new tax reform bill that the Senate passed. There are lots of issues, but the two provisions in the Senate proposal that I’m hearing the most about are (1) the cap put on sale tax refunds for nonprofits and (2) the $15,000 cap on deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes. The sale tax refund issue primarily affects large nonprofit hospitals like Pardee, Park Ridge, and Mission.
Of course, a lot went on while we were waiting for the outcome of tax reform negotiations.
The House passed a major farm bill, SB638 (The NC Farm Act of 2013) that strengthens liability protections for fruit and vegetable growers and adds additional legal safeguards for people and organizations engaged in equine and farm animal activities. The bill also enhances liability protection for farms that offer agritourism activities and allows farm buildings used for public or private events, such as weddings, to forego certain State Building Code requirements.
I chaired one of the committees that took up this bill and successfully fought efforts to add a whole range of provisions to the bill that had little or nothing to do with farms, including a provision that could have removed the ability of the State to protect mountain bogs. The only provision that was added to the farm bill was my bill having to do with equine liability issues.
House Bill 756 (Reform Recreational Use Statute) sought to protect landowners who allowed their lands for recreational activities, particularly horseback riding. In the mountains, there are lots of trails used by bikers and riders that are on lands owned by private landowners. These landowners are fine with people using trails, but the fear is that the trails will be lost to public use if the landowners have the potential of liability for accidents that occur on their property. HB756 passed the House unanimously, and with the consent of the bill sponsors it was simply incorporated into SB638. Thanks to Dot Moyer of the Foothills Equestrian Trails Association for working with me on this bill!
While the House was taking a break for the July 4th holiday, the Senate passed an anti-abortion bill along party lines. HB695 (The Family, Faith an Freedom Protection Act) was originally a law to prohibit the recognition of foreign law, such as Islamic Sharia law, in family courts, but the bill was converted into an omnibus anti-abortion bill adding the contexts of various anti-abortion legislation pending in the General Assembly. While I wasn’t in Raleigh, apparently police had to clear people from the Senate gallery after the Senate vote on the bill.
It is not clear when the legislative session will end but everyone understands the end is in sight, and legislators and lobbyists are scrambling to move their bills. It is quite common for a bill to be substantially amended in committee to include some other bill that hasn’t been able to move through the process. Aside from the farm and abortion bills, this also happened to another bill of mine, HB321 (Amend Local Solid Waste Planning). My bill is a priority of the NC Association of County Commissioners, and it does away with a planning report currently required by law. It seems everyone agrees that the requirement is no longer necessary. However, when the Senate committee took up the noncontroversial bill, it added a provision to resolve some dispute regarding a landfill that had been annexed into a municipality and wasn’t given a franchise to operate by the municipality.
Even though I was the primary sponsor of the original bill, I received no notice that my bill was being modified in the way it was. The bill was just amended. This week, the House will have to decide if the change made by the Senate is acceptable.
The best part of the July 4th break for me was the dedication of a pedestrian bridge and the visitors centers at DuPont State Recreational Forest. I joined Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and other officials for the dedication ceremonies. Troxler has done an amazing job in the two years since the Forest Service was moved to the Agriculture Department from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in bringing resources to bear on pressing issues at Dupont. Working closely with the Department of Transporation, he got the pedestrian bridge built in record time. I was particularly thrilled with the dedication of the visitors center in honor of Aleen Steinberg — one of the key members of the group that successfully pushed for state acquisition of what is now the state recreational forest. I should also add that I enjoyed being home to attend the 60th Anniversary celebration of the founding of Pardee Hospital.
My hope for the coming week is that, with rest, both senators and House members will be able to resolve their differences on tax reform and quickly move to work on the budget. We’ve been continuously in session since January, and legislators are tired. Most legislators want differences to be resolved with the hope that we’ll be home before the end of the month. I sure hope that is possible.