Legislative session closes while campaigning, work remain
RALEIGH - North Carolina lawmakers headed home Aug. 20 after a protracted short session in Raleigh that, for some, delayed campaigning for the fall elections as the possibility hung in the air that Gov. Pat McCrory would call them back this year to address unfinished business, like economic development opportunities he wanted the state to enact.
The final day for legislators saw an unemployment confidentiality fix, a plan approved for the cleanup of coal ash ponds -- a "first in the nation" law, said Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford -- along with an expansion of the Job Maintenance and Capital Development Fund to give Haywood County employer Evergreen Packaging grants as it invests in environmental upgrades.
It follows on the session's first installment, in 2013, with the most talked-about points including a major change to North Carolina's voting laws with a voter ID requirement at the polls in 2016 -- still in a legal challenge because of an appeal filed Aug. 18 -- and changes to the state's tax structure to bring down income tax rates and subject more transactions to sales taxes. Legislators also passed, and overrode a veto of, a bill requiring drug testing of welfare applicants. (Gov. Pat McCrory wrote in his veto message that "there are better ways to fight addiction and prevent criminal drug abuse.")
The legislature repealed the authority of municipalities to levy a privilege license tax on businesses -- what the N.C. League of Municipalities called a "fiscal cliff" for local governments, estimated to cost $62 million beginning next year. McCrory said the taxes were applied inconsistently across the state and were confusing and costly to business owners. Lawmakers did, however, say they would work with cities to recover from their revenue gaps. The full repeal begins July 1, 2015.
When the last measures passed Wednesday reach the governor's desk, they'll join three other bills awaiting executive review. If all are chaptered, the legislature would have created 572 new laws during the two-year session -- 540 session laws and 32 chaptered resolutions -- and met for 162 legislative days on the House side and 163 legislative days for the Senate. Both chambers ended 2013 with 106 legislative days.
Coal ash was a priority this year, as was increasing teacher pay, which too made the "done" list. The chambers also presented the governor the primary reason for the short session -- an adjusted budget, this one worth more than $21 billion.
As for what didn't pass:
- Medicaid reform - It was one of the end-of-session topics to cover, but it didn't make it by the close because of disagreements. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, called that "a significant shortcoming of this General Assembly," while others called it a better topic for the scrutiny of the 2015 session. The Associated Press reported Aug. 18 that a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report found North Carolina could miss $51 billion in federal money in not expanding Medicaid.
- Autism insurance coverage - The House passed a bill in last year's long session to require health benefit plans to cover autism treatment, but it never re-emerged from the Senate Insurance Committee.
- Teacher assistants - Legislators were nearing what House Speaker Thom Tillis called a "budget fix" to lift restrictions on school districts in funding teacher assistants, but the Senate made it conditional on passage of an incentives bill the House didn't support. The legislature never resolved the issue.
- Puppy mills - A bill to set standards for large commercial dog breeders, in an effort to fight puppy mills, passed the House but didn't receive a Senate vote.
- Job Catalyst Fund - A plan to set aside $20 million to lure businesses -- a "closing fund," many called it -- failed when the House voted down a conference report on H1224. The bill included a proposal to limit the local sales tax rate for counties.
- Crowd funding - Also in H1224 was a provision that would have allowed companies to raise capital via crowd funding, seen as a valuable opportunity for North Carolina's growing startup community.
- Tanning beds - The North Carolina Dermatology Association was disappointed that a provision banning teens from tanning beds didn't pass. "It's a sad irony that we received the news about North Carolina's tanning bed bill the day after the U.S. surgeon general issued a national call to action on skin cancer," wrote the group's president, Dr. Brent Mizelle. Language in a regulatory bill passed the House this year but didn't move in the Senate.
- Film incentives - The legislature did, with the budget, pass a film grant program that will go into effect Jan. 1with $10 million. But it isn't what the film industry lobbied for: an extension to the tax credits that are set to expire at the end of this year. The $10 million available for the new program contrasts with the $60 million-$80 million that reports have shown the film industry receiving under the current credit.