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Aug 23, 2019

NCGA Week in Review

While the end of session seemed to be just around the corner last week, legislators jumped back in this week, taking up a number of highly-debated and controversial bills both on the floor and in committee. All the while, legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, can agree that continuing their work without a budget for the biennium  is difficult for everyone. As members work to continue policy making, pieces of the budget will be coming before individual committees throughout the next week in hopes of providing some of the more pressing issues included in the budget with the funds they need to continue operations. 

North Carolina taxpayers may see a few extra dollars in their bank accounts this fall thanks to the state's $900 million budget surplus. Legislative leadership has proposed a plan, HB 74: Taxpayer Refund Act, which would give a refund of $125 to individual filers and $250 to those who filed jointly last year. The bill still has a number of hurdles to get over before becoming a reality for tax payers. 


Governor Vetoes

The list of bills vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper got a little longer this week as he took the red pen to HB 645: Revisions to Outdoor Advertising Laws and HB 370: Require Cooperation with ICE Detainers. HB 645 would have established new guidelines for the billboard industry when relocating signs due to continued development statewide. Billboard owners would be authorized to remove vegetation from around the new location for the sign, without being required to have consent from local authorities first. The bill would have also loosened height restrictions and electronic billboard provisions - language that many were concerned would increase distracted driving. Supporters of the bill argue that the revised provisions are needed to allow the billboard industry to keep up with changing times after losing thousands of billboards throughout the state as North Carolina continues to grow. In his Thursday veto, Gov. Cooper explained that he cannot support the clearing of trees, other vegetation, and other road work in communities without the first receiving local approval. 

After passing through the House and being sent to his desk on Tuesday, Gov. Cooper vetoed HB 370 Wednesday afternoon, just one day after receiving the bill. The Governor cited the possible unconstitutionality of the bill, the current authority already in place for law enforcement, and the use of local law enforcement resources to do the job of federal agents as reason for his decision, also arguing the bill was simply a move for Republicans to gain political points. 


Farm Bill 

The fate of this year's Farm Bill was unclear for some time, until this week. The House Committee on Rules discussed a modified version of the bill on Tuesday that changed the effective date of the smokable hemp ban. The resulting change was a six month compromise between the House and the Senate versions of the bill as bill sponsors Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin) and Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) met in the middle. The Senate version of SB 315: North Carolina Farm Act of 2019 included an effective date of December 1, 2020 for the ban. In the House version, that date was moved up by one year to December 1, 2019. Following a great deal of discussion in previous committees, the House Rules Committee moved forward with the newly proposed effective date of May 1, 2020 - a six month difference between the House and Senate's individual proposals. 

The bill was up for discussion again as it made its way to the House floor the next day. In an effort to address concerns among hemp farmers, producers, and distributors and law enforcement, who have both been steadfast in their positions on the bill, specifically the hemp provision, Rep. Joe John (D-Wake) offered an amendment that received a great deal of bipartisan support. Until the smokable hemp ban goes into effect next year, any evidence that is found in a search where the appearance of marijuana is the source of the officer's probable cause, will still be permissible in the charges against the individual even if it is later found that the substance thought to be marijuana was in fact hemp. 

The amendment comes following law enforcement's continued concerns that without a ban on smokable hemp, officers will not be able to enforce North Carolina's marijuana laws as the products look and smell the same. They believe this will essentially cause the de facto legalization of marijuana 

Along with the changes to the smokable hemp provision, language in other provisions of the bill was tweaked. The bill will redefine the state's definition of agritourism to include hunting, fishing, and shooting, gives county commissioners the final say on shooting facilities zoning guidelines, directs a study of the issues surrounding the state's struggling dairy industry, such as the possibility of reinstating the milk commission, among a number of additional provisions related to North Carolina's agriculture industry.


Transformation Funds

The first of the budget piecemeal provisions was heard in the Senate Health Care Committee Wednesday afternoon. HB 555: Medicaid Transformation Implementation takes language directly from the budget and puts it into a separate, stand-alone bill that would provide the $218 million appropriation for Medicaid transformation implementation.

While the bill provides the appropriation needed as the state transitions to a managed care system, the bill will also cut around $73 million from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) budget. DHHS expressed concerns about the cut, worrying that with the trouble they already have retaining administrative staff, a cut in funding for those positions may cause even more to look elsewhere for employment. DHHS fears that as North Carolina tackles one of the biggest changes ever to the state's healthcare system, the cut will leave them extremely shorthanded. 

Supporters of the bill argue that as the state transitions to a managed care system, the need for administrative staff specifically will decrease as the Department will have a lighter work load. Those in favor of the measure also point to the prepaid health plan tax and hospital assessment fees that will generate enough revenue to make up the funding cut from the base budget. Sen. Ralph Hise (R-McDowell), who explained the bill to the committee, noted that further delay in the approval of the $218 million in funding would possibly cause a delay in the implementation of the Medicaid managed care system statewide which is currently set to roll out phase one early next year. 


Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, August 26

2:00PM Senate: Session Convenes

4:00PM House: Rules, Calendar, and Operations

4:00PM Senate: Rules and Operations

7:00PM House: Session Convenes

Tuesday, August 27

9:00AM House: Appropriations