North Carolina legislators reconvened on Monday to kick off a full week of committee presentations and floor votes. House lawmakers held several floor votes this week, including an unanimous vote on HB 283: Conner’s Law, which increases penalties for assaulting law enforcement officers and emergency personnel with the use of a gun or deadly weapon. The list of approved House bills also includes one that would make an arts education credit a graduation requirement, regulate “mini-trucks”, and set the process for state board of community colleges appointments, to name a few.

Both the House and the Senate will reconvene on Monday, March 25th for no vote sessions, the House at 7:00pm and the Senate at 2:00pm.

Broadband Legislation

The latest in a series of bills aimed at improving access to high-speed internet was filed by House lawmakers Thursday. HB 431: FIBER NC Act would allow cities, towns, and counties to build broadband internet infrastructure and lease it to private internet providers. The N.C. League of Municipalities and the Association of County Commissioners back the bill, arguing that it would give more people access to high-speed internet through public-private partnerships. Kevin Austin, president of the county commissioners’ association, feels this bill would allow counties, especially those in rural parts of the state, the ability to connect.

A similar bill passed the House in 2017 but was not heard in the Senate, as then Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow) felt partnerships with local governments would not solve the problem because many municipalities already have broadband. Instead, Sen. Brown has supported grants to internet providers in hopes of making it economically feasible to offer high-speed internet to less populated areas of the state. Through what is known as the GREAT program, an initial $10 million in grants will soon be awarded to parts of the state, with several additional proposals in the legislature to add more funds.

Opponents argue that the measure would be a poor use of taxpayer dollars, particularly given the serious need across the state for more funding for schools and infrastructure. Most municipalities already have multiple options when it comes to choosing a broadband provider, leading some to see a government-run broadband option as redundant. Under North Carolina law, municipalities already have the authority to provide broadband services to the few remaining areas of the state without broadband access.

Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) proposed $150 million for the “GREAT” program over the next decade through HB 398: Growing GREAT-Rural Broadband Funding. The bill would allocate $15 million to the program each year for 10 years and would adjust the formula used to evaluate grant applicants. Rep. Arp has also sponsored HB 381: School Construction & Broadband Investm’t Act., a bill that would add $15 million each year to the GREAT program from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund. Governor Roy Cooper’s budget proposal, released earlier this month, includes $30 million for the GREAT grant program.

Charter Moratorium

Senate Democrats are looking to place an indefinite moratorium on new charter school applications while a proposed study committee looks into the effectiveness of the growing school alternative. SB 247: Charter School Study/Moratorium on Growth calls for a joint legislative study committee on the impact of charter schools on local school administrative units to make recommendations on topics such as the potential benefits and harms of charter school expansion on public school districts.

Members of the Wake County and Durham County school boards joined Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) at a news conference Wednesday to express support for the bill. It is not clear how long the proposed moratorium on new charter school applications would last, as the bill would leave it in place until legislation is enacted using the report and recommendations of the study committee. The bill would give the study committee a deadline of March 1, 2021. SB 247 would also prevent current charter schools from expanding their allotted enrollments or adding additional grades. 39 counties in North Carolina do not yet have a charter school and a moratorium may delay those counties the ability to get that option.

UNC Board of Governors Election

Both House and Senate legislators elected members to the UNC Board of Governors this week. Wednesday, House members were asked to vote up or down a slate of six candidates put together by chamber leadership. Democratic members urged their Republican colleagues to consider the importance of racial and ideological diversity among members of the board, which oversees the state’s public university system. Republican House members defended their candidates and the election process, resulting in the passage of the slate in a 63-52 vote.

The approved House appointees are:

  • Pearl Burris-Floyd
  • C. Phillip Byers
  • James Holmes Jr.
  • Hilton Terry Hutchens
  • J. Alex Mitchell
  • David Powers

During session on Thursday, it was the Senate’s turn. Members were tasked with electing six members of the board. While 11 people were nominated for the positions earlier this month, four had removed themselves from consideration, leaving the chamber with 7 candidates to choose from. Senate Democrats voiced their concerns on the rules of the election, which required each senator to vote for six candidates or their votes would be thrown out. Senate Republicans replied by pointing to the unanimous resolution establishing the process for this year’s election earlier in this year’s session.

The approved Senate appointees are:

  • Darrell Allison
  • Thomas Goolsby
  • Martin Holton
  • Anna Spangler Nelson
  • Temple Sloan
  • Michael Williford

Hemp Crop

North Carolina Lawmakers are looking to hemp production as the cash crop of the future. The annual Farm Act, rolled out on Wednesday, used 10 of its 16-page proposal to outline the necessary infrastructure the state would need to make the most of the federal government’s loosening of hemp production restrictions. Following a two-year government-sponsored pilot project, the state’s hemp production has boomed to 634 licensed farmers on about 8,000 acres of land and 3.4 million square feet of greenhouse space. The Farm Act calls for establishing a nine-member state commission to license growers who would have to agree to allow state and local law enforcement on their property to conduct spot inspections, ensuring farmers are not trying to grow marijuana instead of hemp.

The Farm Act also includes branding North Carolina-grown sweet potatoes for both domestic and international markets, allows hunting, fishing, and shooting to be added to agritourism use, and would allow farmers the ability to post promotional signs on their property.

This week, the Senate Judiciary committee moved SB 168: Expand Allowed Medical Uses/Cannabis Extract along to the Rules and Operations committee. This bill would allow CBD oil treatments for all individuals who experience autism, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, and mitochondrial disease. This same bill was filed during the 2017 session but did not receive action by the Senate Health Committee.