RALEIGH — Since taking over the legislature in 2011, North Carolina Republicans have trumpeted passing legislation designed to draw back the hand of government hanging over the private sector by getting rid of regulations they consider redundant or burdensome.
The GOP credits regulatory reform among the reasons why North Carolina’s economy appears to be improving, especially with an unemployment rate now below the national average.
“It’s clear that making long overdue changes to our state’s regulatory and tax environment is driving positive change,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a release after the Senate gave tentative approval to the fourth annual “Regulatory Reform Act” before the holiday weekend. Six Democrats joined Republican senators in supporting the measure.
But lawmakers from both parties and environmental groups are wondering whether the breadth of the latest edition and the speed in which it’s considered is good for the public, the public’s health, and for responsive government. The bill covers more 50 separate topics, sweeping through two committees in successive days with no opportunity for public comment.
“It’s not a very transparent process that we’re using here,” said. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, one of two House Republicans who voted against the 2013 regulatory reform law because of environmental-related concerns.
On the Senate floor, Republicans used parliamentary maneuvers to scuttle Democratic amendments that would have prevented the removal of dozens of optional state air quality monitoring stations and that would have retained lower thresholds for citizens to appeal or block temporarily air quality permits.
“Regulations are about protecting the public (but) this bill in particular, rather than being an even-handed, fair implementation of the law through rules, creates winners and losers,” said Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club’s North Carolina state director.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie and a primary bill sponsor, said many items came from previous committees or were discussed last year.
Senate Minority Whip Josh Stein, D-Wake, said many provisions are likely good but “I’m assured there’s something in here bad for the people of the state.” The measure will head to the House following a final Senate vote.
Suspicion about the measure is magnified after the 2013 law contained language sought by Duke Energy that allowed it to continue avoiding costly cleanups of contaminated groundwater caused by leaking from nearby coal ash dumps.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, defended the latest regulatory reform measure and said legislative staff and senators presenting the bill “went over this as carefully as they possibly could.”
Still, he added, legislators can’t prepare for every scenario: “I think there are always unintended consequences that happen.”
The key question is whether the regulatory reform laws have resulted in water, air and workplaces that are less safe, or simply protected with less waste and paperwork and more efficiency. The answer is important as senators resume consideration this week of separate product liability legislation that would seem to rely on a strong regulatory structure to protect the public.
A wide-ranging measure backed by the North Carolina Chamber and others in part would give immunity against lawsuits to any company that designed, manufactured and sold a product in keeping with state or federal regulatory standards, or had received government approval for the product.
Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson and a bill sponsor, said companies that have spent potentially millions of dollars to meet regulatory requirements should have some immunity. But Mary Bethel, a lobbyist for AARP North Carolina, said relying on government regulation for protection is a dicey proposition in days of budget belt-tightening.
“Government resources for approval are limited and get more limited all the time,” Bethel said.