NCMatters: Sunshine and livermush

While the all-important $19.7 billion state budget labored its way through the General Assembly en route to Gov. Bev Perdue’s historic June 12 veto (the first time a North Carolina governor has ever rejected a budget), legislators also pushed a number of other bills along the Statehouse corridors toward the June 9 crossover deadline (after which most bills can’t be considered for the rest of the two-year session). Some lost their earlier patina; others made light of the serious business at hand.

Take, for example, the Sunshine Act — the darling of those who believe free access to public records and public meetings is vital. Put forward early in the session, HB 87 aimed to bolster government-in-the-sunshine by adding a constitutional amendment guaranteeing such access. The bill saw some amendments of its own, but the concept survived until June 3, when it was scheduled for a committee vote. The subject of that vote, though, turned out to be a gutted bill, its original content replaced by one calling for a 30-day moratorium on “commercial communications” with accident victims and people charged with certain motor-vehicle violations.

“There is never a dull moment at the Statehouse these days,” said Beth Grace, executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Press Association. The new HB 87, she told Xpress via email, is “aimed at lawyers and is completely unrelated” to the original purpose. Republican Stephen LaRoque of Kinston, who sponsored the original bill, hopes to bring the sunshine back if possible, noted Grace, adding that there’s talk of a special legislative session in the fall to discuss potential constitutional amendments.

At the other end of the spectrum, livermush won a second reading and appears well on the way to ultimate victory. HB 440 would designate the Shelby Livermush Festival as the state’s official fall livermush festival while annointing the Marion Community and McDowell County Livermush Festival as the official spring version. (For those not “from here,” livermush — which you won’t find in most dictionaries — is a combination of pig’s liver and other assorted parts, plus cornmeal.)

On a more local and serious note, HB 552, which would establish the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority as a “body corporate and politic,” passed its third reading June 3 and has now been referred to the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee. Sponsored by Republicans Chuck McGrady of Henderson County and Tim Moffitt of Buncombe, the bill would establish an independent authority and empower it to acquire and oversee the airport and related property and facilities now owned by Buncombe County, Henderson County or the city of Asheville — either by gift or for “such consideration as allowed by federal law and as it may be deemed wise.”

Asked recently about the move toward independent authorities appearing repeatedly in this session’s legislation, Moffitt told Xpress by email that these bodies “provide an additional level of governance that at times is needed,” including a “higher degree of specialized oversight” and an additional layer of taxpayer protection by “minimizing potential conflicts with elected officials as well as minimizes any potential politicization of said facilities or service areas.” Moffitt added that authorities can also have negative aspects, and he doesn’t think they should have the right to levy taxes or use eminent domain — which should be limited to elected officials.

McGrady is the primary sponsor of another bill co-sponsored by three local Democrats: Susan Fisher of Asheville, Phil Haire of Sylva and Ray Rapp of Mars Hill. HB 350 would modify when land used for conservation can be excluded from the tax base. County tax assessors, McGrady explained in an email, have interpreted current law in different ways: Some grant tax exemptions others don’t recognize. McGrady’s bill is intended to “clarify the law and make clear when land trusts are entitled to a tax exemption on their real estate holdings,” he wrote, adding that the bill “also allows the counties to recoup lost tax revenues if the land trust loses its tax exemption.” The bill passed its third reading June 8 and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

And while the 2011-12 budget stayed on boil as the governor pondered her options, redistricting remained on simmer. HB 824, however, could change the likelihood of that happening again in the future. With two primary sponsors from Western North Carolina, Rapp and Fisher, the bill proposes a nonpartisan redistricting process, establishing standards and making the professional Legislative Services Office responsible for preparing the plan, in consultation with a Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission (which can’t include elected officials). The bill passed its third reading June 9 and was referred to the Senate’s Rules and Operations Committee.

“For the first time ever, a redistricting-reform bill passed a legislative committee in the North Carolina General Assembly,” Jane Pinsky, executive director of the nonprofit, bipartisan N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, declared in a press release following the committee vote. The bill, she explained, is modeled after Iowa’s redistricting plan, and it passed the House Elections Committee “overwhelmingly” and with “strong bipartisan support.” Noting that North Carolina leads the nation in lawsuits over redistricting (24 legal actions in the last three decades, according to the press release), Pinsky added: “We believe lawmakers are serious about changing how North Carolina handles redistricting. The public clearly no longer wants legislators drawing their own districts.”

For a list of other bills that saw movement in the past week, see mountainx.com/special/ncmatters.

— Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com.

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