From healthcare to hemp, members of the North Carolina General Assembly pushed through another week of long floor sessions and packed committee meetings. A number of bills that have been waiting for their day in committee finally had their chance this week as committee chairs and legislative leadership tried to exhaust the bills left in their docket and make it home with some of the summer left. This also meant tackling some of the more controversial issues of the session, including the establishment of a Gaming Commission and updates to the state's ABC regulations, both of which made it through the House this week and have been sent over to the Senate.
While the end of session may be getting closer, members have not made it to the finish line yet. Both the House and the Senate will reconvene for a voting session on Monday, July 15 at 7:00PM.
The buzz around the legislative building over what will happen with this year's state budget proposal has yet to cease as House leadership has been pulling out all of the stops in hopes of capturing enough votes to override the Governor's veto. Last week, shortly after the HB 966: 2019 Appropriations Act conference report made its way across Governor Roy Cooper's desk, the Governor held a press conference to announce his veto of the bill. Gov. Cooper was surrounded by members from both the House and the Senate while he spoke. Front and center stood some of the few Democratic members who voted in favor of the budget.
The last few weeks of budget debates and negotiations have resulted in a blame game among members on opposite sides of the aisle over who was and was not willing to compromise and the tactics used by both parties throughout the session that have put legislators in the position they are in today.
Republicans and others who support an override of the veto argue that one single issue not being included in the budget is not worth the harm the stalemate will cause for people all throughout the state, especially teachers and rural communities, as salary increase and specific project funding is on hold until a new budget is passed. Democrats argue that they have been left out of the budget negotiations from the beginning and are not hesitating to show their support for their party and the Governor's push for Medicaid expansion, the reason many say Gov. Cooper refused to sign the budget.
As Republican leadership works to capture enough votes to hold a successful vote to override the veto, the move of the Department of Health and Human Services has been tossed around as a bargaining chip in hopes of swaying Democrats with the ability to bring jobs and revenue to the people of their districts. The department was originally set to be moved out of Raleigh to Granville county, but that is now up in the air as several potential swing Democrat votes have been offered the new facility in exchange for a vote to override.
In the meantime, legislators moved forward this week with HB 111: Supplemental Appropriations Act in order to fund the most critical projects that, without a budget, will not receive the money needed. Most of the provisions deal with the programs' ability to draw down federal dollars, which cannot happen without the matching funds provided by North Carolina. The stopgap budget bill moved through the House Wednesday afternoon in a unanimous vote.
The end of session is finally in sight for Senate lawmakers as an adjournment resolution was filed by Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick) Wednesday afternoon. SJR 688: Adjourn 2019 Session to Date Certain wraps things up for the summer on Monday, July 22 to return again at the end of August, on Monday the 27th. The Senate wrapped things up for the week after session on Wednesday afternoon followed by several failed attempts to push back the start time in hopes of getting some crucial legislation sent over from the House.
House members may not be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel quite yet. With crucial and controversial legislation awaiting House action, like the budget bill, the Farm Act, and a public utility rate-making bill, members may be sticking around Raleigh longer than they expected.
A bill to bring healthcare to thousands of North Carolinians is finally moving through committee after having a substantial amount of bipartisan support since being filed earlier this session. HB 655: NC Health Care for Working Families would provide Medicaid coverage for at least 300,000 people throughout the state. Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forysth), the bill's primary sponsor, argues that this bill provides the state with an alternative to Medicaid expansion, an issue that has been at the center of Democrats' legislative agendas all session, which is currently stalling the passage of this year's budget proposal.
The bill would provide coverage to those whose income is less than 133% of the federal poverty level and are not currently eligible for Medicaid coverage. Participants would be billed each month at 2% of their annual income. The bill quickly made its way through committee this week and now awaits a hearing on the House floor.
The annual Farm Act faced another setback during committee this week. The House Finance committee took up the bill on Thursday, but ran out of time before members could wrap up their discussions and take a vote on the bill. While some members had questions on other sections of the bill including hog farms, agritourism, skeet shooting, record confidentially and more, hemp provision once again stole the show. After the federal government eased regulations on the hemp industry, farmers in North Carolina wanted in. An earlier version of the bill in the Senate pushed back the smokable hemp ban until December 1, 2020 in order to give the hemp industry and law enforcement time to work together on a solution. But many argue that is not soon enough. The House moved the ban up to December 1, 2019.
Because smokable hemp looks and smells just like marijuana, opponents to the delayed version of the provision feel as though it would be a de facto legalization of marijuana as law enforcement does not yet have a way to test THC levels out in the field. Supporters of the later ban effective date argue that this would drastically hurt the hemp industry and farmers across the entire state of North Carolina.
The next stop for SB 315: North Carolina Farm Act of 2019 remains unclear. During the House floor session Thursday afternoon, Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin) attempted to bring the bill back to the House committee on Agriculture, which he chairs. Rep. Julia Howard (R-Davie) wanted to keep the bill in the House Finance committee, arguing that since the bill did not go through an entire hearing, the committee deserves to have another meeting to finish asking questions and hearing from the public. Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said the decision was technically up to him and that he would deal with it at a later time.