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Colin Campbell: Bills that look boring — but aren't

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By Colin Campbell
Capitol Press Association

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The legislature’s one-day session on Aug. 3 was initially supposed to be about overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, but that’s not what happened during the 10-hour meeting. 

Cooper had issued a proclamation calling for the session after he vetoed four bills from the regular session. The Democrat’s proclamations don’t carry much weight around the General Assembly, so Republican leaders decided to stick the vetoes on the back burner.

House Speaker Tim Moore told me the delay was needed because legislators from both parties were absent for vacations and medical issues. Legally, there’s no deadline for override votes until next year’s session ends, and neither Cooper nor Democrats objected to the delay.

Instead, the legislature tackled unfinished business — mostly deregulation efforts sought by businesses. Moore said early in the day that he “assumes” the bills on the agenda would be “non-controversial.” That assumption proved false as the day dragged on until night with closed-door GOP caucus debates and opposition from Democrats.

Politically, this month is a convenient time to kill government regulations that environmentalists will fight to keep. Lots of people are on vacation and aren’t paying attention to politics, and news coverage is focused on the looming legislative redistricting battles. Plus, one-day sessions are efficient for ramming through legislation without first getting feedback — remember House Bill 2?

Most bills on the Aug. 3 agenda weren’t released in advance, and several were disguised with incredibly boring titles like “Various Clarifying Changes” and “Amend Administrative Procedure Laws.” I bet your eyes glazed over just reading those, but stick with me. I promise there’s important stuff in there.

I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to understand all eight pages of “Amend Administrative Procedure Laws,” but the most controversial provision would take some regulating power away from state agencies and give it to the legislature. Agencies would be banned from making regulations that would cost more than $100 million over five years to companies and people affected, and the legislature would get a chance to review any regulations with total costs over $10 million.

Senate leader Phil Berger told WRAL that elected officials should control rules that would “impose on citizens things that cost money.” But the restriction would also apply to agencies led by elected officials, such as the Department of Agriculture. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said on Twitter that the bill is “far reaching and stunning in its impact. It’s outrageous that it will be taken up (with) no public notice and no House review.” After the bill passed the Senate without debate, Harrison lodged an objection and the House later postponed a vote. But the bill could come back later.

Two other bills did make it to the governor’s desk by the end of the session. “Various Clarifying Changes” included budget cuts to several mental health management agencies, shifting the money to other agencies to fix what lawmakers called a “miscalculation.”

The “Business Regulatory Reform Act of 2017,” which drew opposition from most Democrats, is a 16-page grab bag of deregulation provisions. It loosens water quality rules and imposes limitations on local governments’ power over landfill permits — the latest in a series of power shifts from local to state government. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, called the final bill a compromise because it didn’t feature more controversial provisions repealing the Outer Banks plastic shopping bag ban and dropping requirements for coal ash disposal.

But those proposals aren’t dead, because nothing at the legislature ever really dies. We could see those provisions again when lawmakers return to Raleigh later in August. Let’s just hope they’ll give the public more than a few hours to review and comment on whatever legislation is on the agenda.

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