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Jul 26, 2019

NCGA Week in Review

This year's long session continues to trudge along as Senate lawmakers were all set to hit the road after session Monday but wound up sticking around until Wednesday morning after all. This time around Senate leadership is actually planning to take some time away from the legislative building by not holding another floor vote session until August 6. The House was around through Wednesday, but their plans to stick around still have not changed. The House will also be welcoming a new member to the body representing the 113th district which covers Henderson, Polk, a and Transylvania counties following this week’s resignation of Rep. Cody Henson (R-Translyvania).

The House will reconvene Monday, July 29 at 7:00PM, and will likely have voting sessions held throughout the week. 


Billboard Bill

A contentious bill surrounding the state's billboard industry will make its way back over to the House for their final stamp of approval after passing through the Senate in a 27-17 vote. HB 645: Revisions to Outdoor Advertising Laws would allow the relocation of billboards on property that has been taken through eminent domain or which the property owner has decided they no longer want the billboard to be located. Local government ordinances would not be able to block the relocation. Rather, when relocating, companies would be allowed to remove vegetation blocking view of the sign and convert over to digital billboard displays. The impact of the legislation has been interpreted very differently by supporters and opponents, stirring up confusion as to what the bill will actually do. Supporters of the legislation argue that all the bill will do is save the billboard industry by allowing owners to keep up with modern times. Opponents of the bill argue that the language provides too much leeway for companies who decide to relocate their signs because they will be able to cut down surrounding trees, raise the height of the sign by up to 50 feet, and be allowed to convert the original signs to digital displays. Several members voiced concerns over the digital displays, worried that it will increase driver distractions putting the safety of those on the road at risk.

Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham) tried to amend the bill on the floor Tuesday to delay the industry's move towards digital displays for three years while the General Assembly studies the impact further. Sen. Woodard offered a second amendment in hopes of giving control to the local governments, allowing their ordinances to stand. Ultimately, the Senate voted down both of the amendments. 


Hemp Provisions

One of the most highly debated and divisive bills of the session took an unexpected turn in the House Judiciary committee Wednesday morning. Substantial changes were made to SB 315: North Carolina Farm Act of 2019 as it moved over from the Senate to the House and moved through House committee hearings, of which there have been several, often drawing public audiences larger than the rooms are able to hold. One of the most substantial changes to the House version of the bill was about the hemp provision. The House version, introduced by Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin), would have moved the ban on smokable hemp up to December 1, 2019 and included smokable hemp in the state's definition of marijuana, subjecting users and growers to the same criminal consequences. Rep. Dixon has shown little willingness to waver in his stance on the bill's hemp provision, that is, until Wednesday.

The version of the bill that was up for debate in the House Judiciary committee completely strikes any and all changes to the bill that had been made thus far and reverts the language to the exact version of the bill that the Senate originally passed. The current version of the bill includes a smokable hemp ban effective date of December 1, 2020, does not include hemp in the state's definition of marijuana, and strikes any amendments added in other House committees.

Many of the Judiciary committee members were confused by Rep. Dixon's sudden switch in positions following hours and hours of debate in previous committees. Some members were also frustrated that the amendments already made to the bill would now be removed, leaving many to wonder why this flip was being made now.

Members of the public who both support and oppose the bill, specifically the hemp provision, showed up once again to stand to their ground. Several law enforcement representatives spoke to voice their continued concerns about the provision impeding their ability to enforce North Carolina's marijuana laws. Supporters, particularly several hemp farmers themselves, argued that a ban on smokable hemp would devastate farmers throughout the state who have already invested thousands in this year's crop and prevent them from participating in a rapidly-growing industry. The Farm Act heads to the House Committee on Rules before going to the floor for a vote. It is yet to be determined if this version of the bill will remain in tact or see additional changes once again.


Liquor Sales

State owned and operated liquor stores could soon be a thing of the past in North Carolina as the House ABC Committee met to discuss a modernization bill Tuesday. HB 971: Modern Licensure Model for Alcohol Control would allow privately owned stores to have control over their liquor sales while still being regulated by the state's ABC Commission. The bill would begin the phase out of state owned ABC stores beginning in 2021 through 2022 and make the switch from a 30% excise tax to a quantitative tax of $28, levying a flat tax amount for both bottom and top shelf liquors. The bill would also establish an off-premises liquor permit for retail business and restaurants, establish liquor store franchise laws, and would require that each of the privately owned stores must be at least 500 feet apart. Additionally, the bill eliminates current Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) officer positions, replacing the position with an ABC officer hired by each local government. The ALE branch would have the ability to investigate all those applying for the permits. 

HB 971 stems from a Program Evaluation Division (PED) report that bill sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) said highlights many of the state's ABC system inefficiencies. Several committee members raised concerns over the number of jobs that may be lost by eliminating ALE officers and phasing out the stores. Others were concerned about the potential for retail stores that are not actual liquor stores to being selling alcohol. Rep. McGrady addressed members’ concerns, assuring them that he is committed to keeping the revenue generated flowing to state and local governments, and that dry counties would remain dry until holding a referendum to allow liquor sales. The bill sponsor emphasized that he is open to discussion, thoughts, and opinions of all members on the timing of the roll out and any other provisions causing concern. Rep. McGrady stood by the idea behind the bill and the need for more efficient sales throughout the state but plans to present a revised PCS to the committee in the near future. 


Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, July 29

3:00PM House: Rules, Calendar, and Operations

7:00PM House: Session Convenes

Tuesday, July 30

10:00AM House: Health