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Aug 30, 2019

NCGA Week in Review

North Carolina lawmakers met this week to debate a variety of issues, from voting laws many hope will boost the state's confidence in the election process, to a press conference packed with legislative leadership and a guest appearance from U.S. Senator Thom Tillis calling for action from the Governor's administration to disperse the disaster relief funds to areas around the state still feeling the effects of the last two major hurricanes to hit the area, Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Matthew.

Legislators are now heading into a much-needed week long Labor Day break after wrapping up business Thursday morning. Neither the House nor the Senate will take action on bills next week. Members will reconvene to continue with floor voting sessions and committee work once again on Tuesday, September 10th. The plan is to piecemeal more provisions from the budget bill that received strong bipartisan support while legislative leadership tries to push through as many of the budget provisions they can, at least until the legislature and the Governor are able to reach a compromise which has eluded them for the last 55 days. 

From the entire Raleigh McGuireWoods Consulting team, have a great and safe Labor Day weekend!


Salary Increases

As the budget stalemate continues, legislators are trying to pass through pieces of the budget bill that received large amounts of bipartisan support. This week those provisions focused on legislatively mandated salary increases which moved through both the House and the Senate unanimously. 

HB 426: Educators' Pay Increases/Retiree Supplements was the only salary increase stand-alone bill that did not reach an unanimous vote. Currently, the bill as written would provide one time bonuses for retirees of the teachers, state employees, and legislative retirement system, as well as provide salary increases for UNC system and community college employees. The bill also provides a 1% salary increase to non-certified public school personnel. During Wednesday's House floor debate on the bill, several members hoped to offer up amendments aimed at higher pay increases for state educators but were not able to be heard as Speaker of the House Rep. Time Moore (R-Cleveland) withdrew the bill, sending it back to the Appropriations committee. Later, Speaker Moore indicated that the bill will likely be back before the full body on the floor as a conference report. Members are not able to offer amendments to conference reports and would have to vote either for or against the bill. 


Ballot Bill

Six years ago, North Carolina took its first steps towards decertifying direct record electronic voting systems (DREs). The move away from the machines has stalled over the years due to the time and financial constraints of the counties who have historically payed for all of their voting equipment, and a delay in the State Board of Election's ability to certify new voting machines that meet all of the state's standards and requirements. The setbacks have lead legislators to continuously delay the decertification of the machines. 

This year, the story is not much different. The House passed SB 683: Combat Absentee Ballot Fraud this week, which, among other provisions, would give the State Board of Elections the permission to allow county boards of elections to continue using DRE voting systems through the 2020 election cycle. Opponents of the DRE voting systems, many of whom continue to push for a paper ballot voting system, argue that voters should be able to review their vote after they cast their ballot and that county boards of elections should be able to retain a copy for potential auditing purposes. The DRE voting systems have faced continued scrutiny as the fear of election hacking grows throughout the country. 

Supporters of the extension through December 1, 2020 argue that from now until the election simply is not enough time for county officials to get everything in place and test the equipment before the crucial 2020 election. Supporters also voiced concern over the cost of buying new equipment, worried that they would be placing too much of a financial burden on their counties. Both Democrats and Republicans fell on both sides of the issue making the provision the most highly debated part of the bill.

Aside from the DRE voting system extension, the bill also increases the penalty for absentee ballot law violations, restores the last Saturday of early one-stop voting, and will provide the funds to include pre-paid postage for the return of absentee ballots. The bill now heads back over to the Senate for a concurrence vote. 


Regulatory Reform

 After spending over a month in conference committee, SB 553: Regulatory Reform Act of 2019 finally made it through for floor votes this week. The House passed the bill during session Thursday morning. The Senate passed the bill on second reading and now awaits the final vote when they return from their week off. The bill will make changes to a number of state regulatory laws. However, several sections that were included in the bill as it went into conference could not hold on and were taken out of the bill, making room for a few additional provisions, Rep. Dennis Riddell (R-Alamance) explained before the House held their first vote on the conference report Wednesday afternoon. Among the sections that did not make it into the final version of the bill were modifications to real estate licensure for time share sales people and adoption of the 2017 food code, both of which were already passed through their own stand-alone bills. A study into training and certification requirements of interior designers, a definition for electric standup scooters, and a study of best practices for the recycling of computer equipment and televisions were removed but will likely end up in other bills devoted to policy studies. 

The conference report for this years regulatory reform bill will raise the threshold for contracts exempted from conflict of interest prohibitions for public employees, amend the state's building and plumbing code, directs occupational licensing boards to study and report on online continuing education options offered, allows counties to establish a temporary event venues permitting process, and requires NC Pre-K's to provide parents with information on both public and private school options in their county. The bill also clarifies landfill life-of site franchise requirements, directs the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to study express permitting expansion needs, establishes the Viable Utility Fund to assist public water and wastewater systems to become self-sustaining, allows the sale of alcoholic beverages at stadiums meeting certain requirements, makes technical changes to statutes related to the Board of Architecture, and adds aquaculture to the list of uses for flood hazard areas without requiring a permit. 


Medicaid Transformation Funds

A bill to provide the $400 million the state needs to continue the Medicaid transformation process to a managed care system now sits on the Governor's desk awaiting his signature. HB 555: Medicaid Transformation Implementation worked its way through the Senate and the House this week but not without a few changes along the way. As presented in the Senate Health Care Committee by Sen. Ralph Hise (R-McDowell) last week, the bill would have provided the Medicaid transformation funding needed but also cut around $73 million from the Department of Health and Human Services' (DHHS) budget. The provision that included the cut was removed from the bill as it moved through the legislative process this week as a piecemeal proposal. 

Supporters of the bill argue that the state must take action to keep moving forward with the transformation process, with or without an official budget bill for the biennium. Many have argued that without approval of this appropriation, phase one of the roll out would be in jeopardy of being delayed. these funds would help ensure that implementation can continue as scheduled, a point members in support of the action drove home during floor debates. Members expressed their full-fledged confidence in the DHHS staff's ability to make it happen, pointing to the fact that DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen has not asked the legislature for a delay in the transformation process. Opponents of the piecemeal approach, and the measure itself, argue that things are moving too quickly, that the hospitals, patients, and providers in their districts are not ready to make this big of a change yet. Members suggested that lawmakers delay the appropriation and continue trying to work out potential kinks in the system before they continue forward with the roll out. The bill now sits on the Governor's desk awaiting his action.