By the scheduled 3 o’clock hour for closing, only half of the 126 people signed up to speak to the General Assembly’s April 15 Joint Regulatory Reform Committee in Flat Rock had been heard, so the meeting continued into late afternoon. The large number of participants surprised the panel’s co-chair, Sen. David Rouzer, who observed in his opening remarks that the four previous hearings around the state had not produced “nearly this much participation.”
But the one hearing in Western North Carolina brought in people by the score to Thomas Auditorium at Blue Rige Community College — either to testify or to listen. And although the 16-member committee’s express purpose is to support private-sector job creation by “lifting the undue burden imposed by outdated, unnecessary, and vague rules,” the five members in attendance heard a strong message that many of the state’s regulations need to be preserved. At least half the speakers urged caution in addressing regulations that protect WNC’s environment, citing health, outdoor recreation, tourism and the retirement industry as vital to the region.
“I’m concerned about weakening regulations,” testified Michele Skeele of Advanced Thermal Solutions, a solar company located in Hendersonville. “A healthy environment will grow our economy.” Her premise was echoed by many others, including retirees along with environmental and outdoor-recreation professionals. James Hutcherson of the Environmental Health and Safety Institute at Blue Ridge Community College, summed up many of the sentiments: “What price would you put on the value of my family or the families of everyone sitting here today? We need the regulations we have, and we need more people enforcing them.”
But the long line of speakers included a robust mix of WNC’s population and business owners — farmers, day-care operators, chip-mill owners, manufacturers, road builders, and educators coming from up and down the state’s western spine. And they did propose reforms, especially targeting the elimination of redundancies and conflicts in regulations and their enforcement. And although the committee’s concern is with regulations currently in force, a number of speakers spoke to issues now under discussion in the Legislature.
Native farmers, in particular — still tending land that had been in their family for generations — brought specifics they wanted the listening team to address, including a plea for being “reasonable” in regulating farms, requests for better notification of regulation changes, a proposal for tax exemptions for farms that become part of a city’s ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction), and complaints that the regulators interacting with farmers too often are not people familiar with agriculture.
Doug Harrell, whose Harrell Hill Farms business in Mitchell County is on family land that dates back to 1790, spoke of his financial losses as burley tobacco was taken away and dairy farming became unprofitable. He had turned to the state, he said, for grants to change his business, now producing molasses and vegetable crops to sell. Those grants came from Golden LEAF Foundation and Tobacco Trust Fund, state trust funds now threatened in this year’s budgeting. “If you take those away, we couldn’t do these things,” Harrell cautioned the legislators. He and several other farmers also urged the General Assembly not to close the state research stations that benefit state agriculture.
Bert Lemkes, co-owner of the Van Wingerden International greenhouse business in Fletcher, brought a different agricultural issue to the committee. He told them that lack of comprehensive immigration reform nationally is a key issue of concern for agriculture, and that as states take the issue into their own hands, problems arise. Agriculture in North Carolina, according to his testimony, depends on “undocumented” immigrant labor for at least 75 percent of its workforce. The legislature’s move to prohibit driver’s licensing for such workers leaves many without a valid I.D. — “with undesired consequences,” Lemkes pointed out. And proposed mandates such as the e-Verify program to check documentation would be “a nightmare without end” for agricultural employers. “Give agriculture a much stronger voice in review of new regulations and the interpretation of existing ones,” Lemkes urged.
On the manufacturing end of WNC business, Evergreen Packaging of Sylva had several representatives standing in line to stress points regarding regulations on their type of facility. In particular, they wanted restoration of a toxic emissions exemption that was taken out of N.C. Division of Air Quality regulations last year. Those emissions must now meet state requirements that are stricter than federal limits, and Evergeen cited the cost of meeting the new standards, particularly the requirement for air-quality modeling in the approval process, in asking for reinstatement of the exemption. Other requests included amending solid-waste facility regulations that treat private water systems differently; changing permit-amendment deadlines so that permit holders have time equal to that of third parties; and creating a tiered approach in enforcement that differentiates simple errors and minor infractions from those that are more serious.
Perhaps unexpectedly, a number of child-care operators or supporters came to speak at the meeting. Their concern was keeping the current N.C. star-rated license system, begun in 1999 and based on staff education and program standards. Sheila Hoyle of Murphy, who claimed 39 years as a day-care operator, told the committee, “Today I value and trust the current regulations for early childhood. I hope you will keep in place what we currently have.” When both providers and consumers are satisfied with a regulation, she noted, “Maybe this we got right.”
There were five representatives of the 18-member committee on the listening end of the Friday hearing, including both WNC representatives, Chuck McGrady of Henderson County and Roger West of Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Macon counties, both Republicans. Rep. Bill Brawley of Mecklenburg County and co-chairs Rouzer of Johnston/Wayne counties and Sen. Harry Brown of Jones/Onslow counties, also Republicans, rounded out the day’s panel.
The committee’s final public hearing takes place on Thursday, April 21, in Raleigh from 1 to 3 p.m. in the third-floor auditorium of the Legislative Building. Sign-up to speak begins at 12:30 p.m. For additional information on the committee and to submit comments online, click here.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor