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Public hearing scheduled for today on changes to environmental regulations

(Left to right) Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, and House Rules Committee Chair David Lewis explain new proposed possum legislation. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH — Call it the Committee of a Whole Lot.

A legislative body can sometimes convene as a Committee of the Whole, in which all members are part of the committee.

At 82 representatives strong, including 35 chairs and co-chairs, the newly appointed House budget conferees aren’t quite that, but the group is one of the largest to take on budget negotiations in recent years, just 11 members shy of the 93 who voted “aye” when the House passed its version of the budget May 22.

Last week, after announcing the lengthy list of conferees, House Speaker Tim Moore told members he wants to have as many sets of eyes on the budget as possible.

Between now and the second week of August, and possibly longer, the group will be negotiating with 32 members of the Senate team, nearly all of the chamber’s Republicans, to finalize a budget deal. The lone Republican sitting out the talks is Finance Committee chair Sen. Bob Rucho, of Charlotte, who voted against the budget because of its sales tax plan.

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Western region legislators on the committee include Reps. Josh DobsonMike Hager, Jonathan Jordan, Chuck McGrady, Michele Presnell, Roger West and Chris Whitmire; and Sens. Tom Apodaca, Jim Davis, Ralph Hise and Dan Soucek. All are Republicans.

Two WNC members who voted for the budget but weren’t on the big list of conferees were Buncombe County Reps. Brian Turner and John Ager. Both are Democrats.

Environmental hearing

A public hearing has been scheduled for today (Tuesday morning) on a sweeping regulatory bill that includes several controversial provisions on air and water quality protections.

House Environment Committee chair Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, said he expects a large crowd at the 10 a.m. hearing

[You can listen to the hearing at this link. Click on room 643.]

The bill, the new Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, was passed by the Senate July 2. It runs more than 50 pages long and includes several environmental provisions that are almost identical to ones rejected by the House last year, including another attempt to shutter about half of the state’s air quality monitors and a narrowing of protections for isolated wetlands. Sens. Jim Davis, R-Macon, and Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, are co-sponsors of the bill.

Environmental advocacy groups are also concerned about changes to citizen challenges to air quality permits and a proposal that would allow the state to recover legal fees from environmental groups in cases where they do not prevail.

A similar struggle between the House and Senate over an environmental omnibus took place last year.

Possum: The sequel

Shortly before the House adjourned last Tuesday, Rules Committee chair Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, announced a snap meeting of the committee following the session.

About 20 minutes later he and Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, tried to explain to committee members the urgent need to pass language repealing last year’s possum-related legislation, which faced legal challenges by an animal rights supporters.

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Although the legal challenge was successful last year, the fact that the law was still on the books was complicating efforts to fend off a legal challenge to this year’s possum law, which passed last month.

The moves are part of an ongoing effort by West on behalf of his Clay County constituents who want to continue a tradition of lowering a possum in a plexiglass cage on New Year’s Eve.

With more on their minds than the ins and outs of possum wildlife protections, Rules Committee members had some trouble following what the new legislation would do.

After several attempts, Lewis finally deadpanned that the bill would “repeal the 2014 Possum Right to Work Act. It does not repeal the 2015 Possum Empowerment Act.”

The 2015 law, which does not actually bear the above title, suspends protections for possums under state wildlife laws from Dec. 29 through Jan. 2. The lawsuit, filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in June, seeks an injunction to prevent the drop.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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