Freshman legislators finally got some insight into what to expect throughout the session, with their first full week of activity. The week was fast paced, with long days, as lawmakers acted upon a number of bills. The Governor’s proposed budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year was presented, hundreds of bills were filed and sent to bill drafting, all in time to head to Greensboro for the ACC Tournament.
Governor McCrory’s Budget Director, Lee Roberts, addressed a joint meeting of both the House and Senate full Appropriations Committees on Tuesday for an overview of the Governor’s budget. Wednesday, the individual Appropriations Committees meet separately for more detailed review of their respective budget sections.
Some good news for the budget is that revenue forecasts from NCGA fiscal analysts said that revenues are currently estimated at $159 Million below target. It is good news because last month, analysts projected a shortfall of $216 Million.
On Wednesday morning, at 8 o’clock, the House Rules committee met to hear House Bill 157, Amend Environmental Laws. A proposed committee substitute (PCS) was presented that morning, which included, among other provisions, a controversial amendment sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Hager (R-Rutherford).
This same language was added, and then removed, from a bill on the floor earlier last week. The specific provision directs the Environmental Management Commission to adopt air quality rules for drilling operations only if it is determined that the federal regulations are inadequate.
HB 157 was reported favorably by the Rules Committee that morning and passed the full House that afternoon. The Senate also acted immediately, sending the bill through the Ag/Env/Natural Resources Committee Thursday morning, and passing the second reading that same day. Objection was raised to hearing the bill on third reading Thursday, thereby carrying over the bill to early next week and probably to the Governor shortly thereafter. Rep. Hager indicated that the reason for the fast pace is that it is a time sensitive piece.
N.C. House changes air pollution rules on fracking – Winston-Salem Journal
Differences between the Senate and the House have arisen early in the session. The Senate failed to accept modifications of Senate Bill 20 which addresses the changes to the NC gasoline tax. This bill is time sensitive, since if nothing is done by July 2015, the gas tax in NC will automatically decrease by 7.5 cents per gallon. A conference committee was appointed to address the differences with the house. The second area of disagreement appears to be around incentives. House Bill 117, the economic incentives bill, containing a number of the Governor’s recommendations, but was not received warmly by the Senate. Senate Rules Chairman Sen. Apodaca (R-Henderson) followed through with earlier statements, and referred the bill to his Rules Committee, where it is likely to remain for some time.
The Senate Health Care Committee met Wednesday to hear Senate Bill 7 , sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Sen. Tillman (R-Randolph). SB 7 states that as long as there is no threat to public health and safety, a food stand would be allowed to provide tables and chairs for customers eating or drinking on the premises, without obtaining a restaurant permit. The bill, which sparked humorous debate, stems from an example of a mini-mart. The mini-mart in question sells pre-packaged biscuits for customers to microwave themselves, but are currently not allowed to provide seating to customers because it would qualify as a restaurant. The only distinction in current law between a restaurant and a food stand is whether or not the establishment provides seating.
Certificate of Need
Rep. Avila (R-Wake) filed House Bill 200 on Tuesday along with Representatives Bishop (R-Mecklenburg), Collins (R-Nash) and Michaux (D-Durham). The bill would exempt psychiatric facilities, ambulatory surgical centers (ASC), and diagnostic centers from the state’s Certificate of Need (CON) process. State approval is currently required under CON to determine the need of new healthcare assets before they can be added. Proponents argue that eliminating CON requirements would help bring down healthcare costs by providing more competition in a free-market approach and expand access to rural areas.
Opponents counter by saying that healthcare is one of the most regulated industries in the country, and many providers are not free to accept or reject patients. A true free market in healthcare does not exist. In eliminating CON laws, owners of new facilities could elect to serve only the most lucrative, thereby pulling them from the safety net providers. That economic model does not encourage opening new facilities in an area with a large Medicaid or uninsured population.
Rural hospitals and larger hospital systems do serve those areas at substantial expense. This service is part of the charity care that is required of hospitals, along with treating patients who have government insurance or no insurance at all. Providers are able to accept these losses only by subsidizing revenues from patients with private insurance, which many times is not sufficient. Perhaps the CON process could be streamlined and some of the costs eliminated, in order to address some of the complaints.
On Thursday the Senate approved two bills that would change the makeup of the Wake County Commission and the Greensboro City Council. The first bill Senate Bill 181, sponsored by Sen. Barefoot (R-Wake) would increase the number of members of the Wake County Commission from seven to nine, while also drawing commissioners into individual districts.
Wake County voters can currently vote in all county commission races and candidates for the Wake County Commission must live in their individual districts, but are elected at-large. Rather than voting in all county Commission races, the bill would change the electoral structure so that voters would only be able to vote in two races, their individual district, and one of the two new regional districts in which they reside.
Proponents cite a lack of geographical diversity on the Commission as reason for the change, with most members residing in Raleigh and few from the outlying suburbs or rural areas of the county. They also point to the high cost of running countywide, having to reach more voters than a candidate seeking a congressional seat. Opponents feel that such substantial changes should be done with local input rather than imposed by the legislature. There is also concern that this is being done primarily to change the political composition of the board.
The other bill, Senate Bill 36 sponsored by Sen. Wade (R-Guilford), would increase the number of city council members from five to seven while simultaneously redrawing the council districts, and modifying the length of the terms of the members. Proponents similarly cite lack of geographic diversity, with five of the seven council members residing in one part of the city, within a two-mile radius of each other. Opponents to SB 36 have similar concerns to those of SB 181.