While the short session of the N.C. General Assembly was brief — lawmakers met for just over six weeks, from May 18 to July 1 — it was nevertheless consequential for residents of Western North Carolina.
According to the UNC School of Government, short sessions allow members of the state House and Senate to focus on bills that have passed one chamber but not yet the other, as well as issues related to the budget. The sessions typically occur in even-numbered years and can last anywhere from six weeks to several months.
Aside from passing a $27.9 billion spending plan, state legislators voted on several measures specific to WNC. Xpress rounded up some of the biggest changes (and legislative flops) to come out of the summer session.
Show me the money
In early 2020, local leaders and hotel representatives began to coalesce around changing the rules for Buncombe County’s occupancy tax. The law, which was first implemented in 1983, required that 75% of the occupancy tax collected from overnight stays in Buncombe County be spent on tourism advertising, with the remaining 25% allocated toward tourism-based capital investments.
That momentum was temporarily thwarted by governments focusing on COVID-19 response. But this year, Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield and Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards, both of whom represent Buncombe County, took up the issue alongside Republican Sen. Warren Daniel, who represents Avery, Burke and Caldwell counties. (Due to redistricting, Daniel’s District 46 will include much of eastern Buncombe County after this year’s midterm elections. He is seeking reelection to the Senate against Democratic challenger Billy Martin.)
The three senators introduced Senate Bill 914, which sought to change the respective allocations for advertising and capital spending to 66% and 33%. The law also aimed to expand the allowable uses of capital spending to include maintenance and infrastructure. While that bill failed to move past a Senate subcommittee, its language was included in House Bill 1057, which passed and became law July 1.
In response to the new law, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the quasi-governmental entity that manages Buncombe’s occupancy tax, is expected to pass a budget amendment at its meeting of Wednesday, July 27. The new split will increase the amount spent on tourism capital expenses and maintenance from $10.2 million to $13.6 million, reflecting 33% of an expected $40.8 million in tax revenue.
“Explore Asheville and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority is grateful for the steadfast leadership of Sen. Chuck Edwards in shepherding the Buncombe County occupancy tax changes through Raleigh,” said Explore Asheville President and CEO Vic Isley in a July 2 statement. “Local hotel leaders have advocated for this change since long before the pandemic. The team at Explore Asheville and the TDA stands ready to implement these important changes on behalf of Asheville and Buncombe County for years to come.”
Hooray for hemp
The passage of Senate Bill 455, also called the Conform Hemp with Federal Law bill, will permanently allow WNC’s hemp farmers to continue to grow and sell the product.
According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the state launched the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program in 2015, which allowed for the legal production of hemp for the first time. Since then, more than 1,500 licensed hemp producers have joined the industry, including growers in WNC.
That program was slated to sunset June 29 until lawmakers, backed by Gov. Roy Cooper, voted to make hemp cultivation fully legal in the state.
“Agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry, and giving North Carolina farmers certainty that they can continue to participate in this growing market is the right thing to do for rural communities and our economy,” Gov. Cooper said of the bill in a June 30 statement.
The legislation differentiates hemp and CBD products from marijuana, which would continue to remain unlawful.
Marijuana on the back burner
Results from the session weren’t as positive for hemp’s cousin, marijuana. Senate Bill 711, otherwise known as the Compassionate Care Act, would have legalized medical marijuana to help North Carolina residents manage symptoms of cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, as well as opened applications for 10 medical cannabis supplier licenses.
The bill passed the state Senate with bipartisan support in a 35-10 vote on June 2, but disagreements remained. As reported by Xpress in June, critics of SB 711, including some local hemp producers and Sen. Mayfield, argued that the limited number of licenses, high permitting fees and a requirement that license holders grow, distribute and sell their products would make entering the state’s medical marijuana industry inaccessible for many.
The bill eventually stalled in the N.C. House, leaving North Carolina as one of 12 states without a medical marijuana program.
“While most of us want to legalize medical marijuana, the bill as currently structured hurts our hemp farmers and small hemp-based businesses, so I am not sorry it didn’t pass,” said Sen Mayfield in a July 1 newsletter. “Hopefully, we can address some of these concerns before the bill returns next session.”
All bets are off
A bill that would have legalized online sports betting across the state came up short during the session. Senate Bill 688, which was previously approved by the Senate in November, failed to pass the N.C. House by a vote of 49-52.
More than 30 other states and jurisdictions have legalized sports wagering to date. A 2019 bill made sports wagering legal in North Carolina only on tribal lands; that change benefited two Harrah’s casinos, both of which are managed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and are located on tribal lands in Cherokee and Murphy. Betting at these facilities must take place in person.
Buncombe County’s House delegation, consisting of three Democrats, was split on SB 688. While District 116 Rep. Brian Turner supported the bill, District 114 Rep. Caleb Rudow and District 115 Rep. John Ager both voted against it.
“North Carolina does not need to legalize sports wagering and sanction an activity that has ruined countless lives,” Rudow wrote in a July 8 newsletter. “Sports wagering would disproportionately affect people that cannot afford to go into debt.”
Bar memberships muddled
WNC residents frustrated at the number of bar membership cards stuffed into their wallets will rejoice at the passage of House Bill 768, which does away with the membership requirement for such establishments.
The state’s membership rules, which dated back to 1982, previously required that businesses that serve alcohol and make less than 30% of their revenue from food and nonalcoholic drinks be considered private clubs, meaning that patrons had to pay dues and show membership cards when visiting. (Many bars set dues of $1 to remain accessible while technically fulfilling the rule.)
The N.C Bar Owners Association, a nonprofit founded by bar owners from across the state, has long pushed back against the law, saying that the practice was “rooted in racist beginnings designed to legally discriminate against people of color.”
Business owners today will have the option of remaining a private club or not. The choice may be welcome news for some local bar owners, who told Xpress in 2015 that the membership rules were cumbersome.