Legislative update for the week ending 7-28-06

Legislators made more progress last week on dozens of bills as we tried to finish our remaining work and adjourn for the year. As you know by now, we are back in Raleigh again for this week as members of the House and Senate try to resolve differences over ethics and lobbying reform bills, strengthening our sex offender laws, establishing a lottery oversight committee, creating a “first-in-the-nation” innocence commission for our judicial system, strengthening our state’s DWI laws, among others. At least 10 pieces of legislation were sent to conference committees this week, which are made up of members of the House and Senate. Legislators on these conference committees met through the weekend and are meeting this week in an attempt to reach an agreement on final bills to send to the Governor before we adjourn.

The House passed numerous bills this week on topics such as reforming our campaign finance laws, establishing a high-risk health insurance pool, protecting private property rights, cracking down on businesses for price gouging at gas stations, and several issues related to our environment.

The House held long sessions all week, especially on Thursday, the Senate held a rare Friday session, but all Senators were not expected to return until today (Tuesday) at the earliest.

Please remember that you can listen to each day’s session, committee meetings and press conferences on the General Assembly’s website at www.ncleg.net. Once on the site, select “audio,” and then make your selection – i.e. House Chamber, Senate Chamber, Appropriations Committee Room or Press Conference Room.

Legislators Hash Out Differences on Lobbying, Ethics Reform Bill
Following action by the House in recent weeks on numerous ethics, campaign finance and lobbying reform bills, the Senate approved HB 1843, which will overhaul the state’s ethics and lobbying laws by barring gifts and campaign donations from lobbyists and creating a more powerful state commission to monitor the behavior of state officials. The bill, which was slightly different than three separate bills passed earlier by the House, was not agreed to by the House on Wednesday and a conference committee was set-up to reach a compromise.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill restrict gifts from lobbyists to legislators, more clearly define conflicts of interest and establish tougher penalties for violations. Economic disclosure statements for legislators and other government officials would also be more comprehensive. But the Senate’s version gives more power to a central state ethics board, which exists now only due to an executive order. The Senate version also bans lobbyists from contributing to state candidates, which some legal experts have argued is unconstitutional.

However, the Senate legislation offers more exemptions and loopholes for when lobbyists or groups interested in public policy could offer gifts, which House members have raised serious questions about. The term “gift” is more narrowly defined in the Senate bill, essentially allowing legislators to avoid reporting gifts from anyone who isn’t a lobbyist or lobbyist employer. Lobbyists could also give to legislators when the gift is received as part of a personal relationship. The Senate did decide to reinsert language making clear that legislative liaisons are subject to the gift giving restrictions. Senate Republicans criticized Democrats for not doing more to prohibit lobbyists’ involvement in campaign fundraising.

House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said House and Senate negotiators have significant differences to work through in the coming days. The most difficult differences are likely to be the powers of the ethics board and how to craft no-gift ban provisions, he said. Hackney said a bill that had imperfections when it went to the Senate has even more on its return, but he promised legislators would pass a final reform bill before leaving Raleigh for the year.

Campaign Finance Reform Bill Goes to Governor
The General Assembly agreed to legislation (HB 1846), which lowers the maximum amount of cash candidates can receive from an individual and requires mandatory training of campaign treasurers. The bill also requires contribution checks to be completely filled out, specifically the “payee” line. The House had previously passed separate bills that addressed these issues, but the Senate decided to combine the measures into one bill, which the House accepted last Tuesday. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

Protecting Consumers Against Price Gouging
If another hurricane hundreds of miles away from North Carolina – similar to last year’s Hurricane Katrina – sends gas prices soaring here at home, the state will now be able to seek penalties against businesses for price gouging. Legislators last week approved legislation (HB 1231) that expands our price-gouging law so the Governor can declare an “abnormal market disruption” when supplies are cut off by events outside our state following an act of nature, labor strike, terrorist attack or power failure. North Carolina’s current law triggers only when the Governor declares a disaster inside the state. The state could not use the current price-gouging law to investigate pump prices that soared more than $1 a gallon in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The August storm did not strike North Carolina, but knocked out the state’s chief source of gas after slamming into Louisiana.

Sharply rising prices after an event, however, is not an automatic violation. Investigators must take into account rising supplier and commodity costs, according to the measure. Violators could be forced to make refunds and face fines up to $5,000 for each infraction. The bill, which now awaits Gov. Mike Easley’s signature to become law, also applies to wholesalers and distributors – not just retailers who sell directly to the public.

Officials will keep a close watch on gas prices over the next few months during the height of the hurricane season and as fighting escalates in the Middle East. It is estimated that North Carolina gas prices may soon average more than $3 a gallon, according to AAA Carolinas. The state average is currently $2.92.

Protests During Funerals Outlawed
The House has given its final, unanimous approval to a bill (SB 1833) aimed at protecting families from protests at funerals. The bill originally targeted military services, but now covers all funerals beginning Dec. 1. Anyone who displays visual images, yells or uses abusive language within 300 feet of the funeral or memorial site would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The protest ban would begin one hour before the funeral and end one hour after the conclusion of the funeral. According to bill sponsors, 31 states this year have filed similar bills, with 14 signed into law. The federal law, enacted earlier this year, applies only to national cemeteries. State laws would have a broader effect. The bill will now go to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

Lottery Oversight Committee Goes to Conference
The Senate agreed to create an oversight committee (HB 2212) that would ensure all lottery profits were being used for education and not replacing existing education funds. The House passed a slightly different bill two weeks ago, meaning the two chambers will have to work out differences in a conference committee before we adjourn. The House wants a 16-member panel made up of legislators, educators, school administrators and a county commissioner. The Senate’s proposal has a nine-member committee. The lottery is expected to provide $425 million in the coming year for early childhood education, reducing class size, school construction and college scholarships for needy students.

Well Water Protections Sent to Governor
The General Assembly agreed to require all 100 counties to create testing and inspection programs for new private drinking water wells. The House voted 101-2 to accept the Senate version of the bill (HB 2873) and moved it along to Gov. Mike Easley, who is expected to sign the bill into law. About a third of the counties now have some kind of plan to oversee well construction or well testing, with only Wake County offering the kind of comprehensive program that the state wants to replicate in all counties. About 2.7 million state residents rely on well water. Each county would now have to develop a permitting, inspection and testing program for new wells and enforce minimum standards set out in the bill and by the Environmental Management Commission. Water would be tested by the state public health lab for review of 17 different elements and compounds, as well as for bacteria and acidity. The Senate vote was 29-19, with most Republicans voting no. The House concurred to the minor changes, 101-2.

House Approves High-Risk Insurance Pool
The House gave final passage to legislation (HB 1895) that would create a health insurance instrument to assist the uninsurable get affordable coverage. The North Carolina Health Insurance Risk Pool would cover people who can’t afford health insurance or can’t qualify under traditional plans. The pool would guarantee coverage to patients with premiums of no more than 150 percent the rate of an individual covered by a standard health care plan. Premiums and a fee on insurers of up to $2 – phased in through 2012 – per each traditional customer it serves would go into the pool to pay the health care costs of the high-risk patients. Supporters of the bill said this was a first step toward providing affordable health care to an estimated 1.3 million North Carolinians who do not have health insurance. The House voted 95-11 in favor of sending the idea to the Senate, which has yet to take up the measure.

Protecting Citizens Against Identity Theft
Local and state governments that suffer a security breach that could lead to identity theft would have to inform citizens of the breach under legislation approved by the General Assembly. The bill (HB 1248) would require governments and public agencies to follow the same requirement that businesses must alert customers when confidential information is compromised. The corporate requirement passed last year as part of a broad identity theft prevention law. The bill exempts the Secretary of State’s Office for a year from a requirement to keep personal identifying information off of its website, which currently contains an estimated 500,000 online records. During that time, the office would be required to study how to redact personal data from documents already available through its Web site. The measure now goes to Gov. Mike Easley’s desk for his signature.

Protecting Private Property Rights
The House and Senate both unanimously approved legislation (HB 1965) last week barring local governments from using condemnation procedures to take land for economic development purposes. The bill would repeal at least nine limited uses of condemnation for economic development granted to local governments by previous legislatures. A House study committee, which was chaired by Reps. Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) and Wilma Sherrill (R-Buncombe), met earlier this year to examine the state’s eminent domain laws in response to U.S. Supreme Court decision last year. The high court ruling allowed the town of New London, Conn., to take houses on property that developers wanted to use for a hotel and convention center. A number of state governments have strengthened their eminent domain laws after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While a few states have passed laws similar to the one we approved, Michigan is the only one in the nation to change its Constitution. The eminent domain restrictions bill now goes to the Governor.

Compromise Approved on Eye Exams for Kindergarteners
The General Assembly agreed last Thursday to modify instead of eliminate a program that requires incoming kindergarten students to receive an eye exam to enter school. The compromise proposal (HB 2699), which was approved by the House several weeks ago, was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, and given final approval by the House and sent to the Governor on Thursday. Legislators decided that only children who fail an initial vision review would be urged to get a comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. The more thorough exams wouldn’t be mandatory, although parents would be alerted that money may be available to help pay for one. The state budget set aside $500,000 for exams of low income children.

Last year’s budget sought to require all kindergarteners to get a comprehensive eye exam before starting school. Proponents of the comprehensive exams argue that vision screenings can miss serious eye problems that can only be detected by instruments used by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Nationwide studies have shown that even the best vision screenings can miss as much as 30% of treatable eye problems and these eye problems are often misdiagnosed as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder in children.

The bill passed this week creates uniform standards for vision screenings already done as part of a child’s pre-kindergarten heath assessment. If a child fails a vision screening, the child would then be referred for a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. For parents who don’t follow through on the process, schools will send out information, including material explaining that funding is available to pay for the exams if needed. Further, if a teacher thinks that a child should get an eye exam, funding will also be made available for those exams. Those opposed to last year’s law – the NC School Boards Association, North Carolina Prevent Blindness, and the NC Medical Society – are in support of the compromise bill.

Creating Jobs, Strengthening our Economy
Legislators gave final approval last week to an expansion of the William S. Lee Act and Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program, which have helped create more than 16,000 new jobs across North Carolina during the last five years. The JDIG program will now double in size – from $15 million to $30 million in grants – as well as be extended through 2009 and allow motorsports manufacturing facilities to qualify for grants. Since JDIG’s creation in 2002, more than 40 companies have been accepted for the grant program, which gives back to companies cash grants equal to up to 75 percent of state withholding taxes generated by jobs they have created. The bill (HB 2744) now goes to the Governor.

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The House was back in session on Monday night at 7 pm. Several House committees, including conference committees, met on Monday afternoon in order to move the remaining unfinished bills through our chamber.

As I’ve said many times before, I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues that are being debated by the North Carolina Legislature and the challenges you and your family are facing each day.

By working together, we can make Buncombe County and all regions of North Carolina a better place to live, work and raise a family.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.

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