March 3, 2017

Legislative update:
Good news, bad news for open government

State legislators are just beginning to settle into the current session but have already filed more than 300 bills for consideration. Constitutional amendments, repeal and/or changes to environmental laws, and steps to change some elected offices from nonpartisan to partisan are just some of the topics gaining legislative attention.

Local officials, Sen. Bill Cook, R-Chowinity, Rep. Beverly Boswell, R-Kill Devil Hills, and Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Edenton have been busy filing their want-list of legislation.

Cook, for the second time, has filed Senate Bill 77 that if enacted into state law,  would make violations of the State's Open Government Laws a Class 3 misdemeanor. First filed in 2015, that bill was sent to the House Rules Committee where it languished until dead.

Currently, violations of the Open Records and Open Meetings Laws are not deemed criminal and the only penalty is possibly paying attorneys fees for complainants if found guilty in a court of law.

Both Boswell and Steinburg are sponsors of House Bill 161, Divestment From Companies That Boycott Israel. The bill instructs the State Treasurer to identify companies that boycott doing business with Israel and to divest the state from any contracts or investments with those companies.

Cook also is a sponsor of Senate Bill 131, Regulatory Reform Act of 2016, which, among other things, states that agencies can respond to public records requests by making the information downloadable via the internet and that those means would satisfy the law.

If the agency chooses to do so, it may make the records available through other means such as paper copies and negotiate a fee for doing so. The language does not include an exemption for requesters who do not have internet services or other necessary equipment.

The bill also seeks to remove from Wildlife Resource Commission, Utilities Commission and the Marine Fisheries Commission records personal information from the public records. That information includes a person's mailing address, residence address, e-mail address, Commission-issued customer identification number, date of birth, and telephone number.

That same bill aims to repeal or substantially change many environmental-related laws regarding private wells, land use plans, file comments with federal authorities in relation to increasing the threshold for the requirement of mitigation for loss of stream bed of perennial or ephemeral/intermittent streams from 150 linear feet to 300 linear feet.

A number of statutes mandating regular reporting on programs and situations are targeted for repeal including fish kill activity.

An annual report on the progress of implementing the Coastal Habitat Protection Plans would be reduced to reports only in years when significant revisions are made to the plans.

The Coastal Habitat Protection Plans were requested by the commercial fishing community to be included in the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997. Although included in the legislation, environmental groups refused to support a mandated effective date for completion of the plans. Two decades later, the plans have never been fully implemented. 

Rep. Steinburg is a sponsor of HB 148, which is a request for a referendum on a proposal to repeal Section 10, Article VI of the North Carolina Constitution. That section mandates that to vote, one must be able to read and write in English.

To obtain citizenship status, immigrants must pass a test showing that they meet that requirement so the removal of the literacy clause would only affect those born in the US.

Boswell is a sponsor on another proposed amendment to the state Constitution, HB 146. The bill seeks to remove the word “government” from Section 5 which is titled “Allegiance to the United States.”

Currently, the section states: “Every citizen of this State owes paramount allegiance to the Constitution and government of  the United States, and no law or ordinance of the State in contravention or subversion thereof can have any binding force."

Boswell also is a sponsor of HB 62 which, if enacted, would require doctors to tell patients that if they have only taken the first of two drugs used for drug-induced abortion, they can choose not to take the second and reverse the abortion by taking hormones. According to WRAL, both the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say there's no scientific evidence that trying to do so would be safe or effective.after taking the first of two drugs. It would also require women to return to the doctor's office and undergo a second exam before being given the second drug.

The freshman Boswell also has introduced HB 163 which seeks to define life as beginning at inception and is an attempt to ban abortion. In response to questions from the Voice last week, Boswell wrote: “The Supreme Court declared it could not resolve “the difficult question of when life begins. But the 14th Amendment states no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” Boswell said. “The State of North Carolina should settle the question the Supreme Court said it could not resolve.”

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