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RALEIGH — The lull of the past two months — as North Carolina’s House and Senate negotiators worked through widely different budget goals — ended abruptly last week. Not only did a final budget compromise move quickly through both chambers, but several other bills that had been held up as talks dragged on started moving as well.
Shortly after the budget was approved early Friday morning, House Speaker Tim Moore announced that he and Senate Leader Phil Berger had settled on a Sept. 30 adjournment date. Moore promised a busy week ahead with votes on “substantial bills” on Tuesday and Wednesday and additional voting sessions likely into next weekend.
This afternoon (Monday), the Senate Finance Committee takes up 10 bills, including a $2.8 billion bond package that would go before the voters for approval next year. On Tuesday, the House and Senate are expected to review extensive revisions to the state Medicaid program, which would turn management of the program over to private companies.
Both the bond and Medicaid bills were linked to the budget, with negotiators hard wiring them into the final deal by making sections of the budget bill contingent on passing both the House and Senate.
The schedule for later in the week is somewhat murkier right now. Currently, it is expected to include at least one major bill with a slew of environmental and regulatory policy changes and traditional end-of-session bills such as a technical corrections package and any lingering appointments by House and Senate leaders to various state boards and commissions.
Future of TABOR?
Less certain is whether the General Assembly will revisit legislation on a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit state government spending growth. The Senate passed the Taxpayers Bill of Rights — know as TABOR — in early August, but the bill has yet to be heard in a House committee.
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House leaders and State Treasurer Janet Cowell have been cool to the idea. Cowell said last month that the measure could jeopardize the state’s triple-A bond rating.
The bill limits increases in the state budget, amending the state constitution to read that “State fiscal year spending shall not exceed the average inflation growth for the prior three calendar years plus the average growth in State population for the prior three fiscal years.”
For the past three years, inflation has remained below 1 percent and the state’s population has climbed about 1.6 percent annually.
The proposal would also amend the constitution to cap state income tax rates, include a mandatory level for the state’s rainy day fund and require a two-thirds vote of the the General Assembly to spend it.
At least one major piece of environmental legislation is still expected, although its fate is also unclear.
House Bill 765, The Regulatory Reform Act of 2015, started as a one-page House bill on gravel rules. In July, it was modified in the Senate to include 50 pages of provisions changing state policies on the enforcement of air and water quality protections. Some of the provisions were similar to those rejected by the House last year.
House leaders, including Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, called some of the changes, such as elimination of dozens of air quality monitors, unacceptable.
McGrady and conference committee co-chair Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said earlier this month that House conferees would send changes to H765 to their Senate counterparts after the budget is passed.
An earlier version of a House proposal eliminated some of the Senate provisions and offered to study other potential changes, but not enact them.
Environmental advocates say even that might not be enough.
Molly Diggins, executive director of the N.C. Sierra Club, said the bill represents sweeping changes to environmental protections and should have been subject to more hearings.
“It’s a whole range of issues that have been kicked down the road all session,” she said.
She said one provision, which would allow polluters to self-report violations and be able to keep them confidential, is of particular concern because it could leave communities in the dark on violations and the nature of contaminants.
Not the agenda this week is House Bill 44, Local Government Regulatory Reform, which passed just prior to the budget debate on Thursday.
The final version of the bill did not include a controversial provision that would have made adding bike lanes more difficult for local governments.
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The bill included a compromise on riparian buffer rules worked out by McGrady. The bill’s previous language restricting buffers drew objections from a coalition of local governments that argued that larger buffers are sometimes necessary to meet state and federal water quality regulations.
McGrady’s proposal would maintain current setbacks and add some new restrictions on local governments, but it would allow local governments to seek approval for expanded buffer requirements from the state’s Environmental Management Commission.
Changes to Isothermal’s trustees
One of the remaining local bills that moved last week was legislation by Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, to revise the appointments process for trustees of Isothermal Community College.
The change would take the appointment power away from local school boards, shifting it to the Rutherford and Polk county commissioners. Rutherford County would appoint seven members and Polk County three members. The change would take effect July 1, 2016.
The bill retain four appointments made by the governor and one seat reserved for a student representative.