After legislators passed funds for Hurricane Matthew relief, they kept going.
Update: The legislature adjourned Friday without passing the regulatory reform bill, HB 3.
By Catherine Clabby and Rose Hoban
With large, sweeping measures, the North Carolina General Assembly has moved to limit the power of incoming Democratic governor-elect Roy Cooper, introducing bills during a second “special” legislative session Wednesday afternoon convened after legislators fulfilled their stated reason for being in Raleigh this week.
The body completed work before noon on Wednesday on a bill to provide $200 million in assistance for families and municipalities hit by Hurricane Matthew and by wildfires in western counties.
Then House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) conferred with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Eden) on the floor of the legislature. What followed was an announcement of a subsequent special session to take up “those bills deemed important by a majority of the members of this house,” as Moore said.
More than three-fifths of the members of both bodies – all Republicans – had signed official proclamations earlier in the week, which allowed Moore and Berger to proclaim the special session. The North Carolina Constitution (section 11) allows for legislative leaders to call a special session if they have enough votes.
The move came as a surprise to members of the Democratic minority, most of whom rose to register a protest at the beginning of the afternoon session.
Aside from the special session called this spring to pass HB 2, this hasn’t happened since the 1980s.
But in 2016, the legislature will have called a total of four special sessions: for redistricting, to pass HB2, for hurricane relief and the session called Wednesday afternoon.
By the filing deadlines established Wednesday evening, 21 bills had been filed in the House and seven in the Senate.
Aboard the omnibus
Several of the measures are “omnibus” bills, running to dozens of pages and affecting one area of state government. One of those omnibus bills broadly limits the powers given Cooper, who is slated to be inaugurated as North Carolina’s 75th governor on January 7.
Included in House Bill 17 is a provision requiring all of the governor’s nominees for department secretaries, including for the Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services, to pass muster with the Senate, something Gov. Pat McCrory did not have to do.
“It’s really a disappointing beginning to the relationship with Governor Cooper,” said Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network.
“We were sincerely hoping we’d see bipartisan work on good environmental policy. Right from the start, this suggests a plan to undermine him and not work in good faith. We hope this is not the direction that this goes.”
And, after giving McCrory control over about 1500 political positions in state government when he came into office, HB 17 gives Cooper only 300 political appointees – fewer than those given to Gov. Bev Perdue – and locks many of McCrory’s picks into their roles in state government.
Several environmental-health-related items were included in a regulatory-reform omnibus bill, HB 3 which had been anticipated all day.
Many of the proposals in the 43-page bill had been in a bill filed last summer that died just before the end of the legislative session in July, the result of disagreements between the House and Senate.
House Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison (Greensboro) said none of the individual proposals in the bill is as aggressive as the most extreme environmental rollbacks legislators have enacted over the past five years. But collectively, she said, they will have a negative impact, particularly on flood control.
“The irony is not lost on me that we are giving out money for flood damage at the same time we are weakening flood control mechanisms in our regulatory structures,” Harrison said.
Language in the new regulatory reform bill would:
* Compel the Environmental Management Commission to loosen requirements on how people building near waterways must compensate for any damage to streambeds. Right now, people must perform “mitigation” work —restoration or improvement to surviving stream beds— when a project disrupts 150 feet of streambed, consistent with federal requirements.
The new language triggers the requirement only after a 300-foot loss of streambed elsewhere.
“These small streams are really important for water quality and the health of a river. They slow flood waters and prevent floods,” said McCallie of the Conservation Network.
* Forbid DEQ’s division of water resources from requiring on-site stormwater control measures to protect downstream water quality standards beyond what is currently required by state or federal law. The bill would also fast-track approval of stormwater management system permits when the systems meet minimum design criteria and their plans are submitted by “qualified professionals”.
* Reduce by 25 the number of North Carolina counties where car and truck drivers must get their vehicles’ emission systems tested annually. A state Department of Environmental Quality study released in 2015 concluded that car and truck emissions tests were no longer necessary to protect air quality in more than half the counties where testing is now required. DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart said said cleaner air in this state and improved emissions controls on newer vehicles meant trimming testing would not harm air quality or violate federal standards.
Environmental groups have disagreed with the move. “Mobile source emissions from vehicles will continue to be a significant source of pollution,” said June Blotnick, executive director of CleanAir Carolina, Wednesday evening. “Rural residents deserve the same amount of protection from dirty tailpipe exhaust as urban residents get.”
* Allow use of technology called aerosolization to dispose leachate and wastewater collected at the bottom of sanitary landfills, eliminating the need for state permits. The method, which a committee of the Environmental Management Commission had reviewed, takes the water that drains off of refuse and sprays it over the waste sites, encouraging evaporation.
A presentation to the legislative Environmental Review Commission earlier this year reported that air quality monitoring at a pilot project did not detect elevated levels of volatile organic compounds or toxic air pollutants. The bill states that the process “results in effluent free-production or a zero liquid discharge does not constitute a discharge that requires a permit.”
But McCallie said he knows of no scientific evidence that the process never disperses harmful pollutants. “I’m worried about the human health effects,” he said.
Snakes and standards
Hospital leaders initiating construction projects would have an easier time under the regulatory reform bill. The bill would allow out-of-state architects to use national construction code standards in their designs, rather than compelling them to alter their plans to meet North Carolina code, explained North Carolina Hospital Association lobbyist Cody Hand.
Another section of the bill would roll back a three-decade old ban on the sale of small turtles, a measure which had been stricken from last summer’s regulatory reform bill.
The turtles are known to be frequent carriers of Salmonella and other bacteria. Since the beginning of 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has investigated four multistate outbreaks of Salmonella which infected 133 people.
As recently as 2007, a three-week-old baby in Florida died of Salmonella after a friend gave the family a pet turtle around the time of the birth, recalled John Morrow, a primary care physician who’s also the health director in Pitt County.
“And they identified the Salmonella as being the Salmonella that infected the child and killed the child,” Morrow told NC Health News in June 2016.
Those investigations can cost tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, services for which county health departments get no reimbursement.
“There are no investigation dollars that are identified for public health,” in North Carolina, Morrow said at the time. “We’re losing money every time we launch one of those investigations.”
The bill would also make it easier for game wardens or employees from the N.C. Zoo to confiscate or even kill dangerous snakes and crocodiles that might be owned by private citizens.
The language is likely a response to charges levied against Ali Iyoob, a Chapel Hill man who was bitten last May by his pet cobra. Animal control officials confiscated his animals, which included more than a dozen snakes and two “crocodilians.”