It was a busy week of committee meetings for North Carolina with no sign of it slowing down any time soon. The Senate passed SB29: Move Over Law/Increase Penalties, which increases the penalty for drivers that do not move over or slow down when passing emergency vehicles, carrying a potential of a class F felony charge if an officer is hurt.
In the midst of all the legislative action, the North Carolina Board of Elections ordered a new House election to fill North Carolina's Ninth District seat. Hearings took place this week regarding evidence that Mark Harris' campaign underwrote an illegal get-out-the-vote effort.
Another busy week of committee meetings and chamber sessions lay ahead for the North Carolina General Assembly. Both the House and the Senate will re-convene on Monday, February 25th, the Senate at 2:00pm and the House at 6:00pm.
Redistricting Constitutional Amendment
Several North Carolina House members, along with the co-chairs of the North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform group, proposed a constitutional amendment this week that aims to end the state’s politically-motivated gerrymandering. Tom Ross, former UNC System president, and Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) want to change the current system through HB140: The FAIR Act. This bill would amend the state constitution and take redistricting authority away from elected politicians. Rather, an outside, temporary advisory commission appointed by legislative leaders of both parties, would draw district lines once every decade. The temporary advisory commission would be banned from using political data, such as previous election results or voter registration, and would prohibit appointed members from being anyone in politics or with relatives in politics.
North Carolina’s current system gives elected state lawmakers the responsibility of drawing district lines. These districts are used to elect members to the state House of Representatives, state Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives. Lines drawn by both Republicans and Democrats have been ruled unconstitutional in recent years.
Redistricting reform proponents believe a change such as this is needed to allow for more moderate politicians to hold office and decrease polarization between parties. District maps must be re-drawn in 2021, and with uncertainty of which party will control the legislature in 2020, supporters believe this year is the best chance they have to bring together both sides.
The House Judiciary Committee moved forward with a proposal that would limit the use of eminent domain through a constitutional amendment Wednesday morning. HB3: Eminent Domain would give voters the chance to decide in the March 2020 primary if the state constitution should be amended to include a line stating that private property should not be taken by eminent domain except for public use, just compensation should be paid, and any party may request a jury to determine what just compensation would be.
Similar legislation has been passed by the House during previous sessions, only to go nowhere in the Senate. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Destin Hall (R-Caldwell) hopes this amendment would bring clarity to North Carolina law as the state is one of a few that does not expressly discuss eminent domain in the constitution.
While Rep. Hall hopes the bill will bring clarity to the law, others voiced concerns on Wednesday that it does not provide enough certainty. Rep. Billy Richardson (D-Cumberland) suggested that the amendment needs a clearer definition of what would be considered public use. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) voiced concern about facilities used in the distribution of natural gas being an acceptable use for eminent domain. The bill moves to the House Rules Committee next.
Small Business Healthcare
An estimated 110,000 North Carolinians could take advantage of a new bill filed in the rel="noopener noreferrer" Senate this week. SB86: Small Business Healthcare Act was unveiled during a press conference earlier this week. Under this bill, small businesses would have more flexibility to come together for better health insurance rates for employees. Association Health Plans, which allow business associations or sole proprietorships to develop employee insurance plans for their members business who employ less than 50 people.
This bill comes following a new set of federal Department of Labor regulations that give states more flexibility in allowing Association Health Plans. Businesses could be part of an association of businesses in a similar professions or industries, or be part of a broader group that serves a similar geographic location. Previously, an association would have to meet both requirements. Associations must be established for at least two years to be eligible.
A similar bill supported by the N.C. Farm Bureau that sought to offer cheaper association plans did not pass the House last year. Many House members were concerned that the new plans would deny coverage for too many people. Conscious of this, SB86 sponsors ensure that Association Health Plans would need to offer the same consumer protections as other plans do under the Affordable Care Act. Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), one of the bill’s sponsors, believes the bill answers any questions or concerns members may have had last year.
School Construction Bond
In a 33-14 vote, the Senate passed SB5: Building North Carolina's Future, sending the bill over to the House. This bill allows money from the state budget to be used to help pay for school construction. Under this plan, a special fund established back in the 2017 budget that receives 4 percent of state tax revenue will increase to a 4.5 percent tax revenue contribution. Over the course of nine years, legislators expect the fund to hold $2 billion each for K-12 schools, UNC and state community colleges, and state agencies without the state adding $1.2 billion in debt.
The pay-as-you-go style plan comes as an alternative to a proposal that puts a school construction bond on the ballot in 2020 introduced by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland). Proponents of SB5 believe avoiding the bond debt is one of the biggest reason to go with this alternative. In addition, the money would be available to schools starting this year, rather than two years from now if passed in 2020.
Opponents of the bill believe a statewide school construction bond would provide the money schools desperately need for construction without taking money out of the annual budget that teachers rely on to purchase textbooks and other classroom materials.
State Health Plan Changes
The first of what will likely be many spirited debates on how or whether changes should be made to the State Health Plan began this week. The State Health Plan determines how thousands of North Carolinians pay for their health care and prescriptions.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell believes more than 700,000 people who get their health insurance through the State Health Plan are being charged too much by hospitals. Folwell proposed a change in the way providers are paid when state employees have a visit, saving on out-of-pocket expenses for those on the plan and more than $300 million a year in taxpayer dollars. Folwell's plan will be put into effect January 1st, 2020, unless further action by lawmakers is taken.
The North Carolina Healthcare Association (NCHA), which represents hospitals and other medical care providers, believes the $300 million would cause about a 15 percent cut in hospitals budgets throughout the state. Rural hospitals already face greater financial challenges than most. Since 2013, six rural North Carolina hospitals have closed. The NCHA believes the Treasurer's plan will only make this problem worse.