While the all-important, $19.7 billion state budget labored its way to final passage in the House and Senate last week, the N.C. General Assembly still pushed a number of bills along the corridors of the Statehouse toward the June 9 crossover deadline. 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 in access to public records and public meetings (and admittedly, that includes the press). HB 87 was put forward early in the session, aimed at elevating government-in-the-sunshine by adding a constitutional amendment guaranteeing such public access. The bill saw some amendments of its own, but the concept survived until June 3, when the bill was scheduled for a committee vote. The June 3 version, however, turned out to be a gutted Sunshine Act, its original content replaced by an act to place a 30-day moratorium on “commercial communications” with accident victims and persons charged with certain motor vehicle violations.
“There is never a dull moment at the Statehouse these days,” according to Beth Grace, executive director of the nonprofit N.C. Press Association, who told the Xpress by email that the new HB 87 is “aimed at lawyers and is completely unrelated” to the original purpose. She noted that the original sponsor, Republican Steven LaRoque of Kinston, hopes to bring the sunshine back if possible, and that there was talk of a special legislative session in the fall to discuss constitutional amendments.
At the other end of the spectrum, livermush won its second reading and appears on its way to ultimate victory. HB 440 designates the Shelby Livermush Festival as the official fall livermush festival of the state, and the Marion Community and McDowell County Livermush Festival the official spring version. (Livermush, if you’re not “from here,” and which you won’t find in Webster online, 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 second reading on June 3 and was placed on the House calendar for today, June 6. That bill, sponsored by Republicans Chuck McGrady of Henderson County and Tim Moffitt of Buncombe County, would empower an independent authority to oversee the airport and acquire by gift or consideration the real or personal property necessary to its operation or construction, now owned by Buncombe County, Henderson County or the City of Asheville.
Asked recently about the move to independent authorities appearing repeatedly in this session’s legislation, Moffitt told the Xpress by email that authorities “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 there can be negative aspects of authorities, and he does not think they should have the right to levy taxes or use eminent domain — acts he believes should be limited to elected officials.
McGrady is the primary sponsor of another bill that drew support from three local Democratic co-sponsors, Susan Fisher of Asheville, Phil Haire of Sylva, and Ray Rapp of Mars Hill. HB 350 (Property Tax Uniformity for Conservation Land) modifies when land used for conservation can be excluded from the property tax base. McGrady told the Xpress by email that county tax assessors have interpreted current law differently; some grant tax exemptions under particular circumstances, while others do not. HB 350 is intended to “clarify the law and make clear when land trusts are entitled to a tax exemption on their real estate holdings,” he explained, adding that the bill “also allows the counties to recoup lost tax revenues if the land trust loses its tax exemption.” The bill has passed its second reading and is on the House calendar for June 7.
And while the 2011-2012 budget stays on boil as Gov. Bev Perdue decides whether she will issue a veto, redistricting in the state remains on simmer. HB 824, however, could change the likelihood of that in the future. With two primary sponsors from Western North Carolina, Rapp and Fisher, the bill offers a nonpartisan process for redistricting by establishing standards and making the professional Legislative Services Office responsible for preparing the plan, in conjunction with a Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission (that can include no elected officials) for consultation purposes. The bill is on the House calendar for June 7.
“For the first time ever, a redistricting reform bill passed a legislative committee in the North Carolina General Assembly,” declared Jane Pinsky, executive director of the nonprofit, bipartisan N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform in a press release following HB 824’s movement late last week. The bill, she explained, is modeled after Iowa’s redistricting plan, and it passed in 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.”
Other bills that saw movement in the past week included the following:
HB 32 (Electoral Freedom Act of 2011): Amends statute requirements for a political party to maintain eligibility (from 2 percent to .25 percent of the entire vote for governor, or any Council of State member, or presidential electors in the past election) and reduces the number of signatures required to form a new political party (from 2 percent to .25 percent of the registered voters in the state) and to add unaffiliated candidates to the ballot. Unaffiliated candidates for president, governor or other statewide office would have to provide .25 percent of the vote cast for governor or presidential electors, with at least 200 signatures from three congressional districts. For all other offices, candidates would need signatures of 1 percent of the eligible voters. (District and local offices currently require 4 percent.) Placed on calendar for June 7.
HB 227 (Disturbing/Dismembering Human Remains): Creates criminal penalty for disturbing or dismembering human remains. Passed second and third reading. Co-sponsors, Republicans Phillip Frye, Avery/Caldwell/Mitchell/Yancey counties, and McGrady.
HB 344 (Tax Credits for Children with Disabilities): Credit for an eligible child or children who attend grades K-12 in a nonpublic school or a public school that charges tuition; reevaluated every three years.
Co-sponsors, Moffitt, Rapp.
HB 417 (Extend Time for Site of Low/Moderate Income Housing): Extends tax exemption from five to 10 years for property held by a nonprofit organization for low- or moderate-income housing. Passed second and third reading June 2; moves to Senate. Primary sponsor, McGrady.
HB 476 (Protect Galax & Venus Flytrap/WRC Rule Fines): Adds protection to galax and Venus flytrap under the Plant Protection and Conservation Act. Passed third reading on June 2; moves to Senate.
HB 503 (Nutrition Studies/All Foods Sold at Schools): Committee substitute version of original; directs State Board of Education to adopt nutritional rules for all competitive foods and beverages sold to students, and to disallow snack vending and soft drinks to elementary students. Passed third reading on June 1; moves to Senate. Co-sponsors, Fisher and Rapp.
HB 542 (Tort Reform for Citizens and Businesses): Passed third reading on June 1; moves to Senate. Co-sponsor, Moffitt.
HB 627 (Study Efficiency and Cost Savings/State Government): Creates a joint study commission using a zero-based budgeting review process to study whether there are obsolete programs, cost-reduction opportunities, and any cases where existing funds can be redirected to meet new and changing demands for public services. Passed second and third reading on June 3; moves to Senate. Co-sponsor, Moffitt.
HB 696 (Assault/Officer/Physical Injury): Adds a penalty for an assault on a law enforcement officer inflicting physical injury (including probation, parole or detention personnel). Passed second and third reading on June 2; moves to Senate. Primary sponsor, Republican David Guice, Henderson/Polk/Transylvania counties.
HB 709 (Protect and Put NC Back to Work): Changes current statutes regarding Workers’ Compensation and the legal responsibilities of employers regarding medical compensation for employees. Passed third reading June 1; passed first reading in Senate; referred to Committee on Insurance. Co-sponsor, Moffitt.
HB 787 (NC Water Efficiency Act): Adds language to existing statutes to include planning for long-term per capita reduction of demand for potable water and other planning measures. Passed second and third reading on June 2; moves to Senate. Primary sponsor, McGrady; co-sponsors, Democrat Patsy Keever of Buncombe County, Fisher, Rapp
SB 309 (Conservation Easement Stewardship Funds): Authorizes the governing board of any Soil and Water Conservation District to establish a special reserve fund for maintaining conservation easements. Withdrawn from Appropriations; re-referred to Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources. Primary sponsor, Republicans Tom Apodaca, Henderson/Buncombe counties, and Jim Davis, Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Haywood/Jackson/Macon/Swain/Transylvania counties.
SB 446 (Community College Tuition for Members of Military): Permits community colleges to add the costs of textbooks in tuition charged for members of the armed services (for all purposes associated with billing the armed services). Placed on calendar for June 6. Co-sponsors, David and Republican Ralph Hise, Avery/Haywood/Madison/McDowell/Mitchell/Yancey counties. Companion bill HB 515 passed on May 23; co-sponsor, Rapp.
HB 780 (Crossover Rule): Adds bills establishing districts for Congress, state or local entities to the bill categories that are not required to meet the crossover deadline (June 9). Placed on calendar for June 6. Primary sponsor, Apodaca.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor