September 30, 2015

Legislative Update:
Legislators finally call it a day


Finally! Legislators called it a wrap on the 2015 session of the General Assembly a little after 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 30, thus making it the longest legislative session since 2002. Total cost of the session extended beyond the beginning of the fiscal year that began July 1 - $2.73 million.

The final days echoed those of the last two sessions when substantial changes to state law were inserted into bills that had been focused on unrelated matters. And, via the session's technical corrections bill, earlier approved bills – even some that has yet to receive the governor's signature – were changed.

Technical corrections generally refer to cleaning up earlier legislation by correcting misspellings, clarifying language or correcting references to statutes. But Senate Bill 119 went far beyond that.

House Bill 373 which changes the dates of all primaries to March 15 has passed both chambers and was sent to the governor on Sept. 25. Gov. Pat McCrory has not yet signed the bill but language in the technical corrections bill makes a significant change to the legislation. As sent to the governor, HB 373 includes a provision to allow the leaders of both chambers to set up their own affiliated campaign committees.

The Technical Corrections bill adds giving the same authority to the members of the Council of State including the governor.

To meet federal guidelines, HB373 also pushes back the candidate filing dates from February 2016 to Dec. 1-21, 2015. If the governor signs the bill into law, candidates wishing to change their party affiliation must do so 75 days before the end of the filing period which will end at noon Dec. 21. If the bill becomes law, Oct. 8 is now the deadline for changing the registration. Traditionally, the change requirement has been 90 days before the end of filing, however, because of the late date of passage of the bill, law makers had to adjust the time period.

The elimination of the job training programs offered by the NC Department of Health and Human Services has been overturned in the Technical Corrections bill. This change of heart is in response to outcries about banning extended food stamp benefits for unemployed who are able-bodied.

Opponents of the measure pointed to more than half the counties in the state where unemployment is high and jobs are few. Implementation of the ban on food stamps to able bodied unemployed also has been changed from March 2016 to July 16 to give the department time to get the jobs training program back in operation.

Also in the Technical Corrections bill are provisions to eliminate almost all local ordinances that deal with gas and oil development. In part, the bill states: “To this end, all provisions of special, local, or private acts or resolutions are repealed that do the following: within the jurisdiction of a local government are invalidated and unenforceable, to the extent necessary to effectuate the purposes of this Part, that do the following: (1) Prohibit the siting of wells for oil and gas exploration, development, and production within any county, city, or other political subdivision. (2) Prohibit the use of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing for the purpose of oil or gas exploration or development within any county, city, or other political subdivision. (3) Place any restriction or condition not placed by this Article upon oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities and use of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing for that purpose within any county, city, or other political subdivision. (4) In any manner are in conflict or inconsistent with the provisions of this Article.

“If a local zoning or land-use ordinance imposes requirements, restrictions, or conditions that are generally applicable to development, including, but not limited to, setback, buffer, and stormwater requirements, and oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities would be regulated under the ordinance of general applicability, the operator of the proposed activities may petition the Oil and Gas Commission to review the matter. After receipt of a petition, the Commission shall hold a hearing in accordance with the procedures in subsection (d) of this section and shall determine whether or to what extent to preempt the local ordinance to allow for the regulation of oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities...”

House Bill 765,  Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, passed both chambers in the final hours but not without controversy. On he governor's desk awaiting his signature, the proposed legislation substantially weakens environmental laws aimed at protecting water quality.

The proposed law, if signed by governor, will allow companies to self-monitor and if they report violations before it is discovered by state inspectors, they will receive some legal protections. Internal records related to the pollution will be considered private.

It also removes protection of intermittent streams – streams which are dry for a portion of the year. Almost half the streams in the state are considered intermittent.

Air quality monitors will be reduced from 132 to 74. Further reductions are planned for future years.Wetlands on the coast will not come under regulations unless more than one acre.

The session ended with many bills still in committees. Some are considered “live” and can move forward when the legislature convenes again in April 2016.

(Sandy Semans is a retired newspaper editor and reporter who now works as a free-lance writer.  She lives in Stumpy Point. Her update on the goings-on in this session of the General Assembly will appear weekly in The Island Free Press, usually on Friday.)


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