The House considered and approved more than 200 bills this week as we near the end of the 2005 legislative session. Following is a quick snapshot of some of the bills that were approved by the House in the last several days:
Lobbying Reform – SB 612: The Legislature gave final approval early Wednesday to a rewrite of state lobbying rules that requires more disclosure of expenses and expands regulations to cover spending on top executive branch officials. The compromise of competing House and Senate bills largely follows the House version, which requires lobbyists and their principals to report any expenditure above $10 whereas the Senate bill simply capped spending at $100 per year. Under the approved proposal, legislative lobbyists, including those who lobby for state agencies, would have to file monthly reports while the General Assembly is in session starting in 2007 and quarterly otherwise. Only lobbyists at the General Assembly file now, and they do so twice a year. The measure eliminates a long-standing “goodwill” loophole that allows lobbyists to treat legislators to unlimited meals and entertainment as long as no specific legislation is discussed. Lawmakers or executive branch officials such as the governor, Council of State members, and department secretaries who leave office would have to wait six months before returning to lobby the Legislature or the executive branch, thereby addressing the “revolving door” issue.
Gang Violence Prevention Act – HB 50: The House approved legislation that seeks to prevent gang violence through preventative measures and increased criminal penalties for people who participate or abet gang activity.
A person who organizes or leads a gang can receive an additional 10 years in prison for their crimes. The Governor’s Crime Commission recently identified 387 gangs operating in the state with 8,517 members - a 65 percent increase over four years ago. North Carolina led in the numbers of people arrested in a national roundup of gang members earlier this month. The bill was based on recommendations made by the House Select Committee on Gang Violence Prevention, which met prior to the start of this year’s session. The state budget approved two weeks ago included $2 million in gang-prevention grants that will be awarded to community programs. The bill has been sent to the Senate, but further action may be delayed until the start of next year’s short session in May, 2006.
Identity Theft – SB 1048: The House gave final approval to legislation that seeks to better protect customers’ personal information by restricting the sale and display of Social Security numbers and forcing companies to properly destroy information when they throw it away. The bill would also allow consumers to “freeze” their credit with the national credit bureaus, which would then forbid any credit inquiries and prevent potential thieves from opening accounts or applying for loans in other people’s names. Once a freeze is requested, consumers receive an identification number that allows only them to “thaw” their credit when they want to buy a car, apply for a credit card account, or seek a loan. Such freezes are being considered or have passed in 25 states. The Senate unanimously approved a version Tuesday that was modified in the House to clarify guidelines for bringing an identity theft lawsuit. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature. At least 286,000 North Carolina residents are victims of identity theft each year. A typical identity theft victim spends $800 and 175 hours over a nearly two-year period to repair credit and erase fraudulent charges, according to the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Hit & Run Law – HB 217: The General Assembly gave final approval on Monday to my bill making it a crime if a driver and a passenger switch places after a car accident and flee the scene. The measure, sent to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature, was in response to the traffic death of Tar Heel Sports Network commentator Stephen Gates, in October 2003. Mr. Gates was struck and killed by an approaching car on an interstate ramp in Orange County while he examined a flat tire. A woman driving the SUV stopped, but a male passenger took the wheel and drove away, authorities said. The woman pleaded guilty to failing to report a traffic accident, a misdemeanor. The man was acquitted of a more serious hit-and-run charge. Mr. Gates’ parents and I have been working on for the bill since November, with the Gates making some three dozen trips from Greensboro to Raleigh.
Addressing Teacher Shortage – HB 706: The General Assembly gave unanimous final approval on Monday to a bill that would give local school districts more say in the hiring out-of-state teachers. School districts face an annual statewide teacher shortage in the thousands, largely because of retirements and enrollment growth. The measure would designate any out-of-state schoolteachers as “highly qualified” under the definition of the federal No Child Left Behind Act if they were labeled as such in their state. The North Carolina Association of Educators and Governor Easley have expressed concerns regarding the measure. The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature or veto.
Healthier School Food – HB 855: Lower fat and sugar in school diets is the mandate for the State Board of Education in a bill given final legislative approval. The bill sent to Gov. Mike Easley seeks to establish nutrition standards in schools by gradually increasing the amount of healthy foods available for students to eat. The nutrition standards would promote gradual changes to increase fruits and vegetables, increase whole grain products, and decrease foods high in fat and sugar. The standards, which would be implemented by the end of the 2007-08 school year in elementary schools, would then be extended to middle schools and high schools.
Homeowner’s Associations – HB 1541: The more than 13,000 homeowner’s associations in North Carolina would be barred from foreclosing on a homeowner for violating community rules or solely for attorney fees in legislation given final approval on Tuesday; however, associations still could place liens on property if someone fails to pay dues. The measure would reduce the maximum fines assessed by associations from $150 a day to $100 a day, as well as cap late fees for association dues unless rules state otherwise. Associations could not restrict or ban the flying of U.S. and North Carolina flags up to 4 feet wide and 6 feet long unless property documents prominently state the rules. The bill also would require associations to let members speak at board meetings and allow homeowners to review association finances and minutes.
Worker’s Comp – HB 99: The General Assembly has agreed to a compromise proposal between industry lobbyists and advocates for injured workers, which would make some technical changes to our state’s workers’ compensation law. The original measure generated lots of discussion and disagreement during the last several months; however, the ultimate bill which was passed by legislators deferred most of the controversial issues – including the length and coverage of wage and medical payments, whether compensation rates for injuries should be adjusted for inflation and compensation for workers exposed to asbestos – to a study commission that is to report back the General Assembly next spring.
Rachel’s law – SB 486: Lawmakers approved stiffer penalties for anyone who fires a gun into an occupied car or home in a bill given final legislative approval on Monday night. The bill would make firing a gun into an occupied building or traveling vehicle a felony punishable from roughly three years to 15 years in prison. Existing law makes the maximum term for the crime about six years. The punishment could reach as high as 17 ½ years if the shooting causes serious injury. The bill is titled “Rachel's Law,” named after Rachel Sanchez, a 5-year-old girl shot in the head while traveling on Interstate 40 in Catawba County in 2003. A teenager confessed to firing the weapon at the car; Rachel is recovering. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley.
Fishing license laws revamped – SB 1126: After a year of negotiations, the legislature has overhauled a coastal recreational fishing license law that was approved last year but had not taken effect. North Carolina has been the only state on the Southeast coast without a recreational license. Along with the permit for coastal anglers, the update would create a unified permit for someone to fish in all public waters. Freshwater and commercial saltwater fishermen already must get licenses. The compromise, however, removes a longtime license exemption for freshwater fishermen who use natural bait in their home county (this exemption had been problematic for the Wildlife Resources Commission). The changes, which would take effect in early 2007, retain optional licenses for pier owners and charter boats that would cover anyone fishing from piers or on charter boats. The annual coastal license would cost $15 a year for residents and $5 for short-term permits. The new unified permit would cost $35 and would increase to $55 if the permit applicant also wanted to hunt. A lifetime license is slightly higher. Children under 16 would be exempt and poor anglers could get free licenses. People fishing in ponds on private property would not need a license.
Incentives to get timely public airing – HB 393: The public will have access to information about government tax-incentive business deals within 25 business days of the arrangements’ announcement. The bill applies to local and state agencies, but is aimed mainly at the state Commerce Department, which has taken months to provide documents about incentive deals. The bill was in response to a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina Press Association and another group against the state Commerce Department, claiming the agency delayed releasing details on incentives packages for computer maker Dell Inc., pharmaceutical giant Merck, and airline manufacturer Boeing. The new law would require agencies to make their records of deals available for public inspection and copying within five weeks of the announcement. Government agencies also would have to report each year on the business incentives they administer.
Historic Mill Rehabilitation Tax Credit – HB 474: The House approved legislation on Tuesday that will provide tax credits for businesses that renovate historic textile mills. Supporters of the bill said there are approximately 30-35 such mills across the state. Virginia and South Carolina have recently enacted similar legislation. Supporters of the bill highlighted the fact that North Carolina has lost more than 164,000 jobs in the textile industry during the past decade and a large number of manufacturing jobs in other industries such as tobacco and furniture, which have resulted in the vacancy of numerous mill buildings, many of which are historic. Several legislators from the Triad said that large vacant mills in their districts can be an enormous eye sore in a community if it remains vacant and unused, resulting in the deterioration of surrounding neighborhoods and commercial districts, crime, vandalism, vagrancy, arson, and a loss of community spirit; however, an old factory or mill can have significant environmental, economic development, cultural, tourism, tax base, and affordable housing benefits for a community if renovated for new uses.
Tax Credits for North Carolina Businesses – HB 105: NASCAR teams and passenger airlines would get refunds on the sales tax they pay on aviation fuel in a measure given final approval Wednesday at the General Assembly. Both industries are major employers in North Carolina and have an enormous economic impact on our economy.
Local vote for education spending – HB 1050, HB 746, HB 947: The House considered several bills this week, which would allow voters in 48 counties across the state the opportunity to vote for a half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for new schools. Supporters argue that the counties need to raise money to replace classroom trailers with permanent buildings and stressed the importance of giving local officials another tool to pay for rising education costs, but pointed out that the local voters would have the ultimate say on the idea. Other sources of revenue have become inadequate.
HB 1050 and HB 746 would allow a ballot referendum in Pitt, Martin, Davie, Buncombe, Chatham, Anson, Union, Vance, Franklin, Lee, Duplin, Surry, Cumberland, and Davidson Counties to pay for public school and community college construction. The bill was given final approval by the House on Thursday.
HB 876 would allow Haywood County commissioners to raise the sales tax by an extra half-cent to pay for capital improvements at the local community college if approved by voters. Commissioners could not authorize the increase unless local voters approve the idea in a referendum. The bill was given final approval by the House on Wednesday morning.
HB 947 would allow another 31 counties the option to raise their sales taxes by an extra half-cent to spend on public school and community college construction in a bill that cleared the House Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon and given initial approval by the full House on Thursday. The House is expected to complete debate on the measure early next week. (NOTE: The bill originally included 32 counties, but Forsyth County was removed during debate on Thursday.)
However, even if the measures pass the House, they would have to be considered by the Senate, whose leaders have said they do not plan to take up any more work this year except to set a new adjournment date for the session
Smoking ban inside prisons – SB 1130: Smoking inside state prison buildings would end under a bill given final legislative approval Tuesday. Supporters said the goal was to reduce health problems associated with secondhand smoke. The House earlier this month passed a version that exempted Correction Department employees and inmates' visitors, but voted 70-43 Tuesday on a broader version sought by the Senate that bans indoor smoking at all of the state's 76 prisons. Inmate health care cost $138 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, not including dental and mental health services. The Senate passed the measure 40-1 Tuesday night. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.
Regulation of Genetically Altered Plants – H671, Dewey Hill (Columbus-D). This bill, initiated by the biotech industry, would eliminate local authority to impose restrictions on genetically modified (GM) crops. A Senate committee substitute passed two weeks ago also sets up a legislative commission to study the issue of GM crops in NC and adds an organic farmer and a consumer advocate to the Board of Agriculture. On the House floor, at the request of bill sponsor Rep. Hill, the House voted (113-0) to not concur with the Senate version, sending the bill to conference committee. Conference chairs are Rep. Dewey Hill (Columbus-D) and Sen. Charlie Albertson (Duplin-D), and conferees are Rep. Joe Tolson (Edgecombe-D), Rep. Arthur Williams (Beaufort-D), Sen. Janet Cowell (Wake-D), Sen. Clark Jenkins (Edgecombe-D), and Sen. Stan Bingham (Davidson-R). The bill appears unlikely to emerge from conference in this session, but the conference could meet when the legislature returns for the short session in May 2006.
Improve Environmental Enforcement – H1283, Bill Culpepper (Chowan-D). This bill raises penalties for serious violations of several environmental statutes, allows DENR to recover investigative costs, and authorizes DENR to allow violators to take educational courses or perform community service rather than paying fines if they would prefer. A controversial provision authorizing DENR to undertake a pilot program to retain actual costs of collection rather than the 10% they currently retain was removed in House Rules on August 22. The bill ran into trouble on the House floor. To the pleasure of the agency’s harshest legislative critics, the bill failed, 46 to 68, on second reading. For advocates wanting a sense of the distribution of environmental attitudes in the NC House, this is a revealing vote.
Disposal in Landfills/Additional Bans – H1465, Joe Hackney (Orange-D). As passed by the House this bill would have banned wood pallets, plastic containers, and used motor oil filters from disposal. In the Senate two weeks ago two amendments on the floor had added oyster shells to the list of banned items, and gutted the ban on disposal of wood pallets by allowing them to still be disposed of in unlined construction waste landfills. The bill takes effect in October, 2009. (A provision inserted into the Technical Corrections bill (H413), which awaits House concurrence, would move the effective date for the oyster shell ban up to 2007.) The House voted to concur with both amendments and the bill has been sent to the Governor.
ABC Licensees to Recycle Beverage Containers – H1518, Joe Hackney (Orange-D). This bill requires Alcohol Beverage Control permit holders (bars and restaurants) to recycle all beverage containers sold on premises, and bans the landfilling or incineration of beverage containers. A Senate substitute delayed the effective date one year, to 2008. On August 22, the House voted to concur (107-7) and the bill has been sent to the Governor.
Manufacturing Redevelopment Districts – S629, John Snow (Cherokee-D). This bill releases DuPont from liability for toxic contamination on a manufacturing site in the middle of DuPont State Forest, in exchange for transferring title to a new company, Ilford/Oji, to re-open the plant and clean up the contamination, and in the end, give the land to the State. The Governor has been negotiating this deal with Ilford/Oji, and at the beginning on August the Senate adopted the conference report, but Ilford/Oji had pulled out of the deal days before. This week, however, the conference report reappeared in the House and the House voted to concur on August 22 by a vote of 111-4 (dissenting: me, Paul Luebke (Durham-D), Jennifer Weiss (Wake-D), John Rhodes (Mecklenburg-R).
Energy Credit Banking/Selling Program/Fund – S1149, Clark Jenkins (Edgecombe-D) (I sponsored the companion in the House). The Federal Energy Policy Act (EPAct) issues credits to State agencies for use of alternative fuel vehicles. This bill allows the State Energy Office to bank and sell these credits and use the money to support further alternative fuel programs in the state. A Senate floor amendment on August 12 added the extension of the renewable energy tax credits from H1715, Renewable Energy Tax Credits, Paul Luebke (Durham-D) to the bill. The bill was sent to House Finance, where, on August 23, the bill received a unanimous favorable report with no discussion. The House approved the bill early this morning, 63 – 19 on second reading, and passed third reading on a voice vote and has been sent to the Governor.
No Local Regulation of Forestry / Agriculture – S681, David Hoyle (Gaston-D). This bill blocks local governments from regulating most forestry activities by prohibiting local ordinances from regulating timber harvesting and transport, including setbacks to protect water quality, restrictions on pesticide spraying, and weight limits on city roads. While the bill does not ban local ordinances as applied to development, it draws a blurry line between bona fide timber operations and development, and makes it easy for developers to escape any serious penalty for masquerading as forestry operations by clearing "in anticipation of development approval" - well before beginning the permitting process. The original bill allowed local governments to withhold building permits for up to five years if a developer violated a local ordinance; on the Senate floor, the sponsor amended this to an insignificant two years. In House Environment on August 9th, the penalty was raised to a milquetoast three years, and five years for "willful" violations, though "willfulness" would be very difficult to prove. On the House floor August 22, I offered an amendment to return the penalty to five years; it failed (24-91). The bill passed the House (99-16) and the Senate voted to concur on August 23. The bill has been sent to the Governor.