Jun 9, 2017

NCGA Week in Review

The legislature is moving full steam ahead towards passing a two-year spending plan as budget conferees have begun negotiating the House and Senate’s budget proposals. As the long session begins to wind down, House and Senate leaders are also wrapping up the confirmation process for Gov. Cooper’s remaining cabinet appointees, and discussing major policy proposals regarding rural economic development, the regulation of firearms, and newspaper carriers.

Autonomous Vehicle Regulations

Sponsored by Reps. Phil Shepard (R-Onslow) and John Torbett (R-Gaston), HB 469: Regulation of Fully Autonomous Vehicles seeks to regulate the emerging technology of driverless vehicles. Presently, NC is being used as a test site for autonomous vehicles, but state law does not permit the personal use of the vehicles. The bill, which passed the House in April by a vote of 119-1, was brought to the Senate Committee on Transportation on Wednesday for discussion only. If passed, HB 469 would:

  • Clarify that the operator of an autonomous vehicle must be a licensed driver.
  • Prohibit minors under the age of 12 from riding in an autonomous vehicle without an adult in the car.
  • Define a fully autonomous vehicle as one that is able to perform all real-time operational and tactical functions required to operate in on-road traffic without driver interference.
  • Require similar safety standards as traditional vehicles, such as requiring all passengers to wear a seatbelt and requiring liability insurance.

If the bill receives approval from the committee at a future meeting, it will have a final stop in the Senate Committee on Rules, where a Senate companion, SB 337, has been sitting since late March, before heading to the floor for a vote.

Budget Conferees Named

House and Senate leaders named their respective budget conferees on Monday, and began the process of negotiating their budget proposals. Conferees are expected to work through the weekend and are on track to release their conference report as early as next week and no later than June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Once the budget is on the Governor’s desk, he will have ten days to either sign or veto the spending plan.

The list of conferees for both chambers can be found here.

To read more about the House and Senate’s differing proposals, follow these links:

NC House Releases Budget Proposal

NC Senate Releases Budget Proposal

Confirmation of Remaining Appointees

Governor Cooper’s final two cabinet appointees appeared before Senate committees for their respective confirmation hearings on Tuesday. Ron Penny, Secretary of the Department of Revenue, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee, and Eric Boyette, Secretary of the Department of Information Technology, appeared before the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee. Both appointees received recommendations for confirmation and the appointments now head to the Senate Select Committee on Nominations, and then to the full Senate for final approval.

Energy Policy Reforms

A bill to modify the state energy policies moved through the House this week after months of stakeholder negotiations. The bill aims to reshape the relationship between traditional utilities and renewable energy providers, which has been managed by Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (REPS) since 2007.

HB 589: Competitive Energy Solutions for North Carolina, sponsored by Reps. John Szoka (R-Cumberland), Dean Arp (R-Union), and Sam Watford (R-Davidson), passed the House this week, 108-11. Among other provisions, the bill would:

  • Align the state definition of small power producers in state law with the federal definition of small power production facilities as a generating facility of 80 MW or less whose primary energy source is renewable, biomass, waste or geothermal resources.
  • Require utilities to offer standard contracts to small power production facilities for up to ten years, dependent on the size of the facility.
  • Create a process for the competitive procurement of new renewable energy resources for public utilities with 150,000 customers or more.
  • Create a new renewable energy procurement program for large energy users, the military and the University of North Carolina system.
  • Enable public utilities to recover the cost of Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) qualified facility purchased power through the existing fuel clause rider.
  • Reduce the cost of Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard requirements for residential customers from $34 per account per year to $27.
  • Enact a new Distributed Resources Access Act to authorize leasing of third-party owned solar development.
  • Direct the NC Utilities Commission to establish standards that include an expedited review process for swine and poultry waste to energy projects.
  • Enact a solar rebate program to provide incentives to customers that install or lease solar energy facilities.

To read more about the details of HB 589 and how it compares to existing law, follow this link.

In an unusual fashion, Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) spoke in support of the bill in the House chamber on Wednesday. Proponents of the bill state that it will make solar more competitive in the state, while lowering costs tremendously for all ratepayers. The bill was referred to Senate Rules yesterday.

Newspaper Carriers

A bill that would change the employment status of newspaper carriers from independent contractors to traditional employees of the newspaper is headed back to the House for concurrence this week, after receiving approval from the Senate with a 29-14 vote. Sponsored by Reps. Allen McNeill (R-Randolph) and Lee Zachary (R-Yadkin), HB 205: WC for Inmates/UI & WC/Newsprint Employees passed the House in early March as a bill to provide worker’s compensation for certain prisoners working in prisons. However, when the bill arrived in the Senate, Sen. Trudy Wade (R-Guilford) added provision that would remove a carve out for newspaper carriers, which allows them to be classified as independent contractors instead of employees entitled to benefits such as worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and taxation. Those opposed to the bill say it would cripple the state’s newspapers, especially in small towns. Proponents argue that this is a way to fairly treat individuals who work as employees, and are not currently provided benefits.

Omnibus Gun Changes

Legislation to make various changes to state gun laws received approval from the House by a vote of 65-51 on Thursday. HB 746: Omnibus Gun Changes., sponsored by Reps. Chris Millis (R-Pender), Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus), Justin Burr (R-Stanly), and Michael Speciale (R-Craven), would allow an individual to carry a concealed handgun in areas where it is allowed to be carried openly. Also, the bill would lower the age to carry a concealed weapon from 21 to 18, and remove the requirement for a conceal carry permit unless the individual is prohibited from owning a gun under current law. Proponents of the legislation argue the bill provides clarity in current law, and allows for parity between open and concealed carry. Opponents say eliminating the conceal carry permit removes necessary safeguards and required firearms training that protects the public. The bill now heads to the Senate. Eight House Republicans joined the Democratic caucus in voting against the bill, so the current vote count would not be able to override a veto from Gov. Cooper.

Rural Investment Fund

Sponsored by bipartisan group of House members, HB 904: North Carolina Rural Job Creation Fund would create the NC Rural Job Creation Fund, a new economic development fund aimed to target investment in rural areas. Sponsored by Reps. Stephen Ross (R-Alamance), Ken Goodman (D-Richmond), Jeff Collins (R-Nash), and John Faircloth (R-Guilford), HB 904 calls for an annual $50 million appropriation, which was not included in either chamber’s proposed budget, would:

· Provide matching funds to businesses that expand operations in rural or economically distressed areas.

· Invest at least 70% of its funds in tier one or two counties, with the remaining portion targeted to economically distressed areas in tier three counties.

· Require repayment of the investment if certain job growth measures are not met, and no more than $5 million in state funds may be invested in one business.

Bill sponsors say this legislation would increase access to capital for companies in rural areas, and would encourage private equity firms and other investment groups invest in rural North Carolina. HB 904 was heard by the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development on Wednesday and has been sent to the Committee on Appropriations.

Primary Date Change

In general election years, NC holds primaries on the first Monday in May, though a law passed in 2015 pushed the primaries to March in 2016 only, in an attempt to give the state more influence in the presidential election. A bill sponsored by Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Davie), would make that change permanent. SB 655: Change Date When Primary Elections Held passed the House 71-46 on Tuesday. The bill now heads back to the Senate after an amendment from Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake), changed the bill’s effective date from 2018 to 2020.

Supreme Court and Legislative Districts

Last year, a three-judge federal panel determined that 28 NC legislative districts were racial gerrymanders, and ordered the legislature to redraw the maps and hold special elections in 2017. The special elections were put on hold as legislative leaders appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling affirming the lower court’s decision, following a similar decision last month on the state’s congressional districts. The Court ordered the same three-judge panel to reconsider how to correct the maps. As the week continued, House and Senate lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper have disagreed on when the maps will be redrawn.

The Governor issued a proclamation for a two week long special session on Wednesday afternoon, calling legislators to begin redrawing new legislative maps the following afternoon. On Thursday, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), chairmen of the elections committees in their respective chambers, called the Governor’s proclamation unconstitutional and a political move, before cancelling the special session.