As legislators and the public eagerly await the Senate's budget proposal sometime early next week, this week saw several committees meet to consider local bills and bills for discussion only. One major piece of legislation was introduced in the House which was up for discussion only Thursday. We break down the week's biggest legislative updates from the General Assembly.
As of this morning, in the state of North Carolina, there were 362 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 485 individuals hospitalized, and sadly, 13,320 confirmed deaths. There have been 8,647,235 doses of the vaccine distributed in NC, which is about 55% of the total adult population.
As we all continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic and adjust to a new normal, we want to highlight a few ways our clients across North Carolina have worked to support residents and make this time a little easier for those throughout the state. Read more about what our clients are doing to help by clicking here.
For more information on COVID-19 in North Carolina, click here to visit the Department of Health and Human Services website, and be sure to stay up to date on the latest federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by clicking here.
North Carolina is in a better-than-expected economic situation coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. A new forecast announced Tuesday by a joint taskforce of the Legislative Fiscal Research Division and the Office of State Management and Budget showed revenue collections “surging” since the February 2021 forecast. The statement reads, “This June 2021 forecast expects FY 2020-21 collections to be $29.5 billion, which is $1.9 billion higher than the prior forecast. With this increase, current year General Fund revenue is expected to be 23.3% greater than FY 2019-20 collections.”
Governor Roy Cooper’s office said in a release that the new forecast amount is credited to the state collecting more individual and corporate taxes as the economy recovers and thanks to the economic boost from the federal American Rescue Plan. The additional $6.5 billion in state revenues would, according to the Governor, be enough money to pass his budget requests plus the Republican tax breaks recently introduced.
Republicans in the legislature took a different approach to the bright news. Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said in a statement that the surplus, “does not mean we’re spending too little. It means we’re taxing too much.” As the Senate prepares to unveil and vote on their budget next week, the revenue surplus could create another sticking point between the Governor and the legislature.
The Senate passed three bills Wednesday to reform the way elections are conducted in North Carolina. The bills come after frustration concerning the tactics used by the N.C. Board of Elections to conduct the 2020 election. Earlier this year, Senators questioned Karen Brinson Bell, the Executive Director of the Board of Elections, about a legal settlement reached between the Board and Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein’s office. At the center of the Republican Senators’ frustration was the extension of the deadline to return absentee ballots.
The three bills that passed the Senate this week are in direct response to their frustration. The first, S326: Election Day Integrity Act, would require absentee ballots to be returned to, and received by the county boards of elections by the end of day on Election Day, regardless of postmark. The bill as introduced originally had a deadline of 5:00PM, but an amendment by Sen. Toby Fitch (D-Wilson) passed that would move the deadline up to 7:30PM to conform to the time that polls close.
The second elections bill to pass was S724: Expand Access to Voter ID & Voting. The first part of the bill would authorize the State Board to provide a portal for visually impaired individuals to vote. The bill would also require the State Board to establish on its website the ability for an individual who is eligible to vote and who possesses a driver’s license to register to vote. Currently, the DMV offers this for its customers, and under this law, the Board and the DMV would work together to create a system for online voter registration. The final section of this bill states “the intent of the General Assembly” to fund a program for individuals to obtain photo ID’s for voting.
The final bill to pass was S725: Prohibit Private Money in Elections Admin. Perhaps the simplest of the three, this bill would prohibit the State Board, county boards of elections, and county boards of commissions from accepting private monetary donations for the purpose of conducting elections or employing individuals to assist with elections on a temporary basis.
All three bills passed along party-line votes, with 28 Republicans voting in favor, and 21 Democrats voting in opposition. The strict party line vote likely spells trouble for the legislation if Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoes the bills.
On Tuesday, House Republicans introduced a major energy bill that will have wide-ranging implications for consumers and energy producers. The bill comes after months of negotiations between legislators, industry representatives, consumers, and alternative energy advocates. H951: Modernize Energy Generation was converted from a study bill to a sweeping energy bill this week, and as of Thursday, the newly revised bill text was not yet published on the bill’s website. Many legislators saw the bill for the first time Thursday afternoon during a lengthy House Committee on Energy and Public Utilities, when it was up for discussion only.
Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union) introduced the bill in committee, remarking that it is, “a plan to modernize North Carolina’s energy infrastructure and ensure clean and reliable energy for our state.” Arp and fellow co-sponsor Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) answered questions for over an hour. They characterized the bill as a vehicle to transition the state away from coal generated energy by retiring coal plants by 2030. According to a statement by Duke Energy, who runs most of the coal power plants in the state, the proposed legislation will help the state reduce carbon emissions by 61% by 2030.
Essentially, a large portion of the bill would require energy producers to phase out their coal powered plants and replace the energy output with natural gas, solar energy and battery storage technology. The retirement of the coal plants would depend on the utility’s ability to meet reliability standards and would put an emphasis on increasing use of natural gas. To finance their long-term sustainability, the bill would allow energy utilities to seek rate increase approvals several years in advance without having to file rate cases every year with the Utilities Commission. The bill would also establish a mechanism to utilize securitization, similar to what was done in 2019 when the General Assembly authorized a securitization for storm recovery costs.
Reactions to the bill were mixed during debate and public comment through Thursday’s committee meeting. Rep. Michael Wray (D-Halifax) applauded the bill sponsors for their hard work but requested that it be heard for discussion in multiple hearings because of its significant implications on customers and businesses. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) shared multiple concerns from an environmental and consumer protection viewpoint and encouraged the bill sponsors to “move ahead carefully” and continue working with stakeholders to make the bill better. H951 was up for discussion only in the House Energy Committee. No timeline was provided for its next steps.
Upcoming Legislative Meetings
Monday, June 21
4:00PM House: Session
4:00PM Senate: Session
5:30PM Senate: Rules and Operations
Tuesday, June 22
10:000AM House: Health
1:00PM Senate: Commerce
1:00PM House: Education K-12
2:00PM House: Pensions and Retirement
2:00PM House: Commerce
3:00PM House: Judiciary 1