NCGA Week in Review, 3/21-3/25

March 26, 2011

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Fair Competition for Municipal Broadband Services

The House is one step closer to passing a measure to ensure fair competition for municipalities providing broadband services. The measure (H129) would ensure that municipalities providing broadband services abide by the same regulations as the private sector. For example, towns and cities supplying broadband service would not be able to subsidize their rates with general taxes or fees from electricity customers. Municipalities would be required to pay fees in lieu of the state and county taxes that private systems would otherwise be paying. The bill exempts municipalities which already offer the services from the majority of the restrictions.

While much of the debate has centered on rural areas, the bill in fact does not deal with those areas and provisions included encourage public-private agreements to bring high-speed internet service to those areas. Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) commented on what the bill in fact deals with: “The bill will protect taxpayers who could be asked to subsidize a service that they don’t receive.” 

The bill passed (80-32) the first of two required floor votes this week with a final vote scheduled for Monday night.

Changes to the State Health Plan Being Debated

In the face of a $2.4 billion state budget shortfall and a $515 million hole in the health insurance plan for state workers, legislators are working diligently to fill the budget gap. Under consideration is a measure (S 265) that will require state workers, teachers and retirees to pay a monthly premium of $11 for basic plans and $22 for a higher tier plan. Additionally the measure would change the governance of the plan from the state legislature to the state Treasurer’s office.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson) stated, “We don’t want to charge a premium but we have to… we were looking at a $515 million hole and we don’t have the finances to plug that.” Opponents of the measure argue that the premiums unfairly shift the burden on employees and teachers, not state agencies that also share the expense of premiums.

The bill was tentatively approved by the Senate this week along a party line vote (30-17) and will be given a final floor vote on Monday night where amendments are expected to be introduced by opponents.

House Begins Discussion on Tort Reform

The House Select Committee on Tort Reform began discussion on draft legislation this week that includes the medical malpractice provisions provided in S33 (which has already passed the Senate) as well as general tort reform issues.  Committee Chairman Johnathan Rhyne, Jr. (R-Lincolnton) stated that the legislation is “not to make it easier or harder to sue, but to balance the impact lawsuits have on society and the economy.”

The draft legislation includes tort reform provisions on:

  • Non-Economic Damages: Lower the cap on non-economic damages, i.e. pain and suffering to $250,000 for each defendant (Senate version caps the damages at $500,000)
  • Product Liability: Protect drug makers and sellers from liability in lawsuits so long as their projects have been approved by government regulators.
  • Medical Malpractice Suits: Require a finding of gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing to recover damages in claims against emergency-room physicians.
  • Punitive Damages: Split punitive damages awards exceeding $100,000 with one-fourth going to the plaintiffs and the remaining into a state fund used to protect public schools.

The committee is scheduled to meet every Wednesday for the next three weeks to debate the legislation.

Debate Heats Up on No Talking & Driving

Lawmakers are trying to keep our hands on the wheel and away from our cell phones. Debate began this week on new legislation that would help reduce inattention while driving – by prohibiting talking on a cell phone while driving unless a hands-free device is used. Fines would be in the range of $100 but would not lead to driver’s license points. Exceptions are provided for 911 calls, law enforcement officers, and first responders performing official duties.

State law already bans texting while driving and prohibits teenagers from talking on the phone while driving.  If the new measure passes North Carolina would join eight other states that have already banned the use of hand-held phones while driving. Proponents argue that studies overwhelming prove that cell phone use is a primary cause of inattention contributing to automobile accidents and increased insurance rates. On the other side opponents question how the law would be enforced and argue the regulation intrudes on personal freedoms.

Leaders Rally in the Capital to Protect Smart Start

Former Gov. Jim Hunt and business leaders across the state gathered in the state’s capital this week to urge lawmakers to protect Smart Start, the early childhood and education program. Gov. Hunt created Smart Start in 1993 hoping it would become a legacy as well as a model for other states.  The program provides several vital things making it possible for children to be ready to learn when they start kindergarten, including health screenings, parent training and high-quality child care to families. 

The Governor and business leaders acknowledged the budget challenges lawmakers face but linked the program to jobs creation, arguing that jobs depend on education and a marketable education must have a good foundation.