There were two sessions of the North Carolina
General Assembly last week in Raleigh, one aimed at disaster recovery
that resulted in unanimous approval, and one that ended in acrimony,
and dozens of arrests after House and Senate leaders pushed through
broad government restructuring legislation that dialed back the powers
of incoming governor Roy Cooper.
The vastly different sessions will both influence how the state does business in coming years.
The Disaster Recovery Act of 2016 sends roughly
$175 million to eastern North Carolina to assist communities hit by
flooding after Hurricane Matthew. Often described by legislators as a
down payment in a longer-term recovery program, the legislation also
establishes a framework for how, and potentially where, rebuilding will
see further state support.
The bill includes another $25 million to cover the cost of fighting wildfires in western North Carolina.
The disaster funding was approved in by unanimous votes in the House and Senate Thursday at around 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Minutes after closing the disaster-related
special session, House and Senate leaders opened a new special session,
the legislature’s fourth of the year.
Although 28 bills were introduced shortly after
the session opened, only a handful made it to a vote. Included were two
last-minute appointments requested by outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory and two
bills that together restructured the state judicial branch, revamped
the governance of elections oversight, slashed the number of employees
the governor can hire and fire and took away all of the governor’s
appointments to University of North Carolina system boards of trustees.
The move, which proponents called long-needed
reforms, triggered sizable protests. The final votes of the
session, the legality of which was challenged by Democratic
legislators, were taken while protesters rapped on the doors of the
galleries, which had been cleared and locked. Over two days, more than
50 people were arrested.
REGULATORY REFORM DIES AGAIN
One bill that was introduced but failed to come
up for a vote was a revival of the Regulatory Reform Act of 2016 that
included a number of rollbacks in environmental protections. The bill
was similar to one left hanging at the end of the regular session in
In an interview after the special session, Rep.
Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who introduced the legislation, said the
bill represented most of the compromises struck late in the regular
session. But McGrady said senate negotiators still wanted to see
further changes to wind energy, electronics recycling and alcohol
regulations opposed by the House.
“We tried to run a bill that stripped out all
those provisions and the Senate just wouldn’t agree to take the bill,
therefore the House didn’t take up the bill.”
McGrady said he didn’t agree with all of the provisions in the bill, but that it fairly represented the compromise.
The legislation included a doubling of the
allowable amount of streambed damage during development and loosening
of stormwater, buffer and sandbag rules.
“I’m not at all unhappy that the bill didn’t pass
because I think that frankly we can pick it up in a few months and get
it right,” he said.
The bills that did pass in the last special session of 2016 include substantial changes in how state government operates.
Senate Bill 4, the Bi-Partisan Ethics, Elections
and Court Reform Act, creates a new State Board of Elections and Ethics
Enforcement, merging the state Board of Elections and the state
Elections Commission. Unlike the current seven-member state board of
elections, which tilts in favor of the governor’s party, the new
eight-member board will be split evenly between the parties. Major
rulings would require a vote of six members.
The current three-member county boards of
elections, which have a majority two members from the party of the
governor, will grow to four, and will be split evenly between the
parties. A further provision would effectively designate the GOP
representatives’ control of the board during General Assembly election
The bill, which was signed by McCrory shortly
after it landed on landed on his desk Friday afternoon, also changes
the state appeals process by routing certain types of cases that now
head from a three-judge panel directly to the state Supreme Court. The
change affects constitutional challenges, which could now be appealed
to the full Court of Appeals by a losing party.
Opponents of the move say the provision is a
legislative reaction to the recent shift in the partisan makeup of the
state Supreme Court and a group of recent losses under the current
system. Losses include McCrory v. Berger, which shot down a legislative
attempt to set up a coal ash oversight board and two other boards with
a majority of members appointed by the General Assembly.
House Bill 17, Modify Certain
Appointments/Employment, reduces the number of positions appointed by
the governor from 1,500, granted under McCrory, to 425, which was close
to the number employed at the beginning of former Gov. Bev Perdue’s
final year in office in 2012. The change puts hundreds of state
employees appointed by McCrory under the State Personnel Act.
While the new governor will retain hiring and
firing authority for the upper management and policy levels of each
department, he’ll face another layer of scrutiny at the very top.
The bill, which McCrory has yet to sign, grants
the Senate advice and consent power over all cabinet appointments.
Under the provision, any Cooper appointments made prior to the upcoming
session of the legislature could be rejected through a Senate
The appointments subject to Senate approval
includes Secretary of Environmental Quality and the Secretary of
Cultural and Natural Resources.
Cooper’s transition team is currently vetting
candidates for top positions in both department and is expected to name
new secretaries to head them up soon after taking office on Jan. 1,
In addition, the bill also shifts much of the
power over the K-12 education from the state school board to the Office
of Superintendent and eliminates all of the governor’s appointment
powers for boards of trustees of UNC system campuses.
As the session unfolded, Cooper said he is considering a court fight over some of the provisions.
“I will use every tool in the Governor’s Office
to fight for everyday North Carolinians, including the courts if
necessary,” Cooper said in a statement. “If I believe that laws passed
by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they
will see me in court, and they don’t have a very good track record
DISASTER RELIEF HAS CAVEATS
Legislators made good on their promise of a
substantial down payment in disaster funds for flooded communities in
the east as a result of Hurricane Matthew and fighting wildfires in the
west with a unanimous vote in both chambers Thursday.
But the bill, which provides $200.8 million in
additional state funding for disaster relief, wasn’t just about money.
In addition to the down payment in funding, Gov. Pat McCrory and
legislators said the state must also begin re-examining its policies on
rebuilding and resiliency and the new legislation includes several
related policy provisions. Some are early indications that, in addition
to encouraging buyouts of residences and businesses, the state will
start to make it more difficult and more expensive for rebuilding in
The bill provides an initial $30 million in aid
for redevelopment and infrastructure outside of the 100-year floodplain
and a provision that explicitly prevents any use of state funds in the
act to be used for building any new residences in the 100-year
floodplain. The only exception is when the project meets the
requirements in a local floodplain management ordinance. In addition,
homeowners who receive state assistance now and in the future will also
be required to have flood insurance. In his remarks to House and Senate
committees, McCrory urged the legislature to not just help Matthew’s
victims but to look for “long-term sustainable, resilient results” in
areas the areas hit.
“You’ve got some of these communities that
are going to have remake themselves,” Senate Majority Leader Harry
Brown, R-Onslow, said in an interview with Coastal Review. “Some of
these communities right on these rivers are just going to have to face
the fact that you can’t build there again and that’s not going to be
easy. That’s re-establishing a community and that’s tough.”
Brown said there is definitely another round of
state legislation coming early in next year’s session and legislators
may have to move funding around once more is known about damage in the
hardest hit areas.
“We’ll have to adjust when we get more
information,” he said. “This is going to be a long-term process. It
takes a long time to truly understand what all the needs are.”
While the coastal counties fared much better than
those just inland, there is still concern about the effect on inlets
and other critical spots like New River Inlet. “New River Inlet has got
problems, Brown said. “We had dredging, but this storm has kind of
messed that back up, so there’s issues there.”
Additional dredging money is possible, he said,
once a better assessment of the inlets is in and schedules can be
worked out with dredging companies.
Both Brown and Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said
the flooding underlines the challenge of controlling flooding
downstream from high-growth areas, likely another area the legislature
“We’re probably going to have to look at
all the river basins, because times have changed. There are so many
more people, so much more runoff,” Rabon said.
With heavy growth continuing unabated especially
upstream in the Piedmont, Rabon said the state may have to consider new
approaches such as adding additional lakes between the coast and the
high growth regions.
For now, legislators say the urgency is to deal
with the basics, especially in getting people back into permanent
housing. About 1,500 North Carolina households are in temporary housing.
“I hope we can get people who have been displaced
back into their communities. I hope we can get people who have lost
their homes, lost everything, who can’t go back into their own (homes)
permanent shelter as quickly as possible,” Rabon said. “I’ve think
we’ve got enough out there to do that, but to make them whole, that’s
going to take some time and though and we’re going to have to find out
who needs what.”
Brown said one problem to address brought up in
debate is that while aid is flowing, navigating the support system is
‘“I think the real challenge is letting people know where to get help,” he said.
Funding in the Disaster Recovery Act includes:
- $29 million for housing and emergency shelters.
- $11.5 million for resilient, redevelopment planning.
- $66 million to match federal disaster funds.
- $10 million to replenish state emergency funds.
- $5 million for small business support loans to be administered under the Golden Leaf foundation.
- $20 million for residential redevelopment and infrastructure out of the 100-year floodplain.
- $10 million for development of local government infrastructure outside the 100 year floodplain.
- $10 million to the Department of Environmental
Quality for disaster-related environmental cleanup and infrastructure
repair, dam safety and solid waste cleanup.
- $38 million for Forestry Service needs and stream debris and agricultural water resources assistance.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)