Last week was a week for moving one’s bills through the legislative process. With the Senate working on its budget, the House’s focus was on moving bills introduced by House members through House committees and onto the House floor.
For me, it was a good week.
House Bill 488 — Regionalization of Public Utilities — cleared the House, received a favorable recommendation in a Senate committee, and passed its Third Reading in the Senate on Monday night by a vote of 31 to 16. This is the bill that would have the effect of combining the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County (MSD) with Henderson County’s Cane Creek Sewerage District and the water system run by the City of Asheville.
The Senate struck the provisions of the bill that gave the new combined entity taxing authority; that amendment to the bill reflected our understanding that the new authority didn’t need taxing authority. The current MSD has taxing authority that it has never used, and the expectation is that any needed sewer or water infrastructure can be financed using monies paid by the users of the sewer and waters systems. The bill will have to come back to the House for concurrence since the Senate has amended the bill as passed by the House.
My biggest surprise came when House Bill 756 — Reform Recreational Use Statute — moved through committee and passed the House unanimously. This bill seeks to clarify that the Recreational Use Statute applies to equestrian activities. The Recreational Use Statute basically protects landowners who allow their lands to be used by mountain bikers, hikers, rock climbers, and other recreational users from the threat of lawsuits if some accident happens on their land. The bill addresses a concern that the statute might not be viewed as applying to landowners who allow their lands to be used for horseback riding events, since there is already another statute that specifically relates to liability arising out of equestrian activities.
On Monday, HB756 wasn’t scheduled to be heard in committee, but then another bill was removed from a committee’s agenda, and I got HB756 substituted for that bill. The bill was heard on Wednesday and received a favorable recommendation and, to my complete surprise, the bill was unanimously approved by the House on Thursday when the House’s calendar came open following a shorter debate than expected on the Voter ID bill. While it was fun to go back to those who sought passage of this bill to tell them that the bill had passed the House, I was quick to admit that it was just good luck.
Another local bill I am pushing, HB671 — Mills River Deannexation — also received a favorable recommendation from a House committee. It has one more stop in a committee before it will be ready for debate on the House floor. The Town of Mills River supports the bill.
Three bills of statewide significance, HB589 (The Voter Information Verification Act), HB786 (RECLAIM NC Act), and HB298 (The Affordable and Reliable Energy Act), also saw movement this week. HB589 is the so-called Voter ID bill, and HB786 is the immigration bill. Both bills are priorities of the Republican House majority. HB786 is the bill to repeal the so-called renewable energy portfolio standards — the requirements that power companies get a certain percentage of their power from solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. That bill may have been killed when the House Utilities Committee failed to give the bill a favorable recommendation.
After more than three years of public discussion around the issue of voter identification, a bipartisan majority in the North Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill that requires a photo ID when voting. The vote was the result of a 10-month process that included multiple public hearings, hours of testimony by experts and members of the public and in-depth analysis of voter ID systems in numerous other states.
The Voter ID bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 81-36, and I supported the bill. The bill is an effort to improve North Carolina’s voting process by requiring citizens to show photo identification when voting and will be fully implemented by 2016. The measure utilizes the 2014 elections as a bridge to identify which voters may be without an accepted form of photo ID and establishes a program to help citizens acquire a free photo identification card through the Department of Motor Vehicles. For citizens without photo ID’s, non-operator photo ID cards will be issued at no cost to the voter through the DMV.
Beyond the photo identification requirement, the bill takes steps to ensure the integrity of provisional and absentee ballots. It also directs the State Board of Elections to study the use of modern technology in voting, paving the way for further efficiency through digital efforts in the future.
The bill to enact the RECLAIM NC ACT was heard in the Judiciary subcommittee that I chair. It was only up for discussion last week, but it will be heard again this coming week and I expect will then move forward. The bill is complicated, but its significant provisions would:
- Increase penalties for certain offenses involving the manufacturer or sale of false or fraudulent forms of identification;
- Disallow the use of certain documents in determining a person’s actual identity or residency;
- Provide for the issuance of a restricted drivers “permit” or a restricted identification card to a person not lawfully present in the United States;
- Provide a procedure for seizure, impoundment and forfeiture of a vehicle driving by an illegal alien driving without the restricted drivers permit;
- Create a rebuttable presumption against pretrial release of illegal aliens reasonably believed to have committed certain crimes;
- Require prisoners unlawfully present in the United States to reimburse the cost of their incarceration;
- Authorize law enforcement to verify the immigration status of any person stopped detained or arrested where there is a reasonable suspicion that the person is unlawfully in the United States; and
- Prohibit the award of State and local government contracts to employers that do not register and verify the work authorization of new employees.
The bill is drawing fire from critics on both the right and left. Some opponents don’t like the provision allowing illegal aliens to get drivers permits. The proponents of the bill say that this is a public safety issue and that those persons here illegally are going to drive whether they can get a license or not. Proponents say it is better to get them a “permit” (something less than a license) and require insurance. They also point out that this is a way to know how many undocumented persons are in the State. Other opponents don’t think the State should be getting into the immigration debate. They think that Congress must address the immigration issue, and they particularly object to the provisions which are intended to deport some number of the illegal aliens in the State.
While I have taken no position on this bill, I’m primarily interested in what the views of Henderson County’s agricultural community are. I’ll be again chairing the Judiciary subcommittee when it takes up the bill this week.
The effort to amend the renewable portfolio standards got seriously side-tracked when the House Utilities Committee failed to give the bill a favorable recommendation. Proponents of solar and wind energy fought the bill, but its author is Representative Mike Hager (R-Rutherford) who chairs the House Utilities Committee. Rep. Hager got the bill moved to his committee in an apparent effort to make some changes to the bill to garner more support. Typically, a committee chair’s bill routinely gets favorable recommendation in his or her committee, but that didn’t happen with HB298.
Under current law, three percent of a power company’s power must come from renewable sources (solar, wind, etc.), and that goes to 6% in 2014, 10% in 2017, and 12.5% in 2020. The bill would have done away with the requirements for 2017 and 2020.
Rep. Hager and proponents of the bill argued that the State shouldn’t be forcing power companies to increase their purchases or production of energy from renewable sources, since this is more costly than the use of natural gas or coal. Opponents of the bill said that current law was working, that the price of renewable energy sources was coming down (particularly solar), and that we needed to continue to promote renewable sources of energy that generally don’t produce air pollution.
While HB298 is still technically alive, it is hard to see how it will get favorable committee recommendations from both the Utilities Committee and the Environment Committee. Previously, it only mustered a one vote margin in a Commerce and Job Development subcommittee. Clearly, the bill is controversial, and it doesn’t appear that it has enough support to come to the House floor. Moreover, the fate of the bill is uncertain in the Senate.
The Senate passed a bill, SB287 — Notice Publication by Some Local Governments — that is a companion bill to one of my bills, HB504 (Local Electronic Notice). Basically, both of these bills seek to allow various counties and municipalities to publish public notices electronically rather than publishing them in newspapers. The bills are strongly opposed by the North Carolina Press Association, and I’ve heard from the publishers of the Times-News and the Hendersonville Lightning that they don’t support the bills.
At the request of Henderson County and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, I introduced a statewide electronic notice bill last session that would have given authority for all counties and municipalities to publish their notices electronically rather than in newspapers. When that bill failed to pass in face of strong opposition from newspaper publishers, I decided this year to take a narrower approach by simply providing for electronic notice in a few counties and municipalities, including Henderson County and the municipalities in Henderson County.
Opponents of the bill argue that many people don’t have computers and wouldn’t receive notice of public meetings and other things that currently appear in newspapers. Proponents of the bills argue that most people can get access to public notices electronically and that it would save a lot of money if counties and municipalities didn’t have to buy ads. They say the bills make provision for mailing of notices to anyone who might want to get them but don’t have computer access.
My view is that the fight is mostly about money. The newspapers try to argue that this is about getting notice of meetings and other things to the public, but the argument doesn’t seem to get a lot of traction when one realizes how few people actually subscribe or read newspapers.
The fight over electronic notice broadened with my introduction of HB755 — DENR Electronic Notice — a bill to run a test of electronic notice on a small range of notices published by the North Carolina Department of Environment & Natural Resources. Predictably, the NC Press Association is also against that bill, again arguing that some people only get notice by reading the newspapers. Again, my view is that this is simply about money, and I philosophically oppose what amounts to a subsidy to the newspaper industry.
My expectation is that HB755 will be heard in the House Environment Committee this week. I also expect a committee will hear another of my bills, HB829 (Sale of Growlers by Certain ABC Permittees) this week.