NCGA Week in Review: February 11-15th

February 15, 2013

Pardon Our Dust

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House Passes Medicaid Bill
On Thursday the House passed Senate Bill 4, sending it back to the Senate so that a few small changes can be approved before the bill is sent to Governor McCrory’s office. The bill blocks the Medicaid expansion called for under the federal Affordable Care Act. The proposed expansion would cover 500,000 low-income adults in North Carolina. The federal government would cover the entire cost of the expansion for the first three years, and then 90 percent of costs after three years. The North Carolina Institute of Medicine estimated that the expansion would save the state $65 million over eight years. The Governor has stated that he plans to sign the bill. Those in favor of the bill believe that Medicaid needs a complete overhaul before the system expands, and that there are too many unanswered questions about the Affordable Care Act to spend millions of dollars of state funds. Opponents of the bill argue that it hurts the unemployed, the poor and the uninsured. The bill also blocks the state from creating a health insurance exchange, which would allow people to shop online for an insurance policy that fits their needs for the best price.
State Audit Reveals Improper Overtime Paid in Department of Health and Human Services
Twelve Department of Health and Human Services employees received $580,758 in improper overtime pay over the last five years. The employees collected the overtime while upgrading the Medicaid billing system. Angie Sligh, program director for the Medicaid Management Information Systems, collected 41 percent of the overtime pay. Eight other managers received a combined 47 percent of the pay, while three other employees collected the remainder of the extra pay. DHHS received verbal approval to pay overtime to employees who were not allowed to earn overtime pay. Due to the lack of documentation, there was no control or monitoring of the overtime payments. The upgrade to the Medicaid billing system was not completed on time or on budget. The audit shows that administrative costs in North Carolina are much higher than other states with similar Medicaid spending. The program exceeded its budget by hundreds of millions of dollars each of the last three years, while directives to save funds were not followed. DHHS is working quickly to solve the issues uncovered in the audit.
Senate Passes Unemployment Overhaul
The Senate passed a bill that would retire $2.5 billion in debt to the federal government by 2016 through an overhaul of the unemployment insurance program. The bill would decrease the amount and duration of unemployment benefits after July 1, 2013. The bill now heads to Governor McCrory’s desk, who has stated that he would sign it. Those in favor of the bill believed it will allow businesses to get rid of debt that would stifle job creation. Opponents of the bill argued that it favored businesses paying into the unemployment system over workers who benefit from it. Under the bill, the length of unemployment benefits would be shortened from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 12 and 20 weeks. The maximum unemployment benefits would also be reduced from $535 to $350, a reduction of one-third.
Proposed DWI Legislation Would Close Loophole
Proposed legislation would close a loophole that kept people with numerous drunken driving offenses to not be considered habitual offenders. The new legislation comes from a Forsyth county case where a man, convicted of killing three people in a drunken driving accident in 1980, is not considered a habitual offender despite numerous DWI charges and prison sentences since that point. Currently the law requires a person to receive four DWIs in a ten year period to qualify as a habitual offender. The new law would allow the courts to convict a person for habitual DWI if they have had four DWIs in a 10 year period or if the person already has a habitual DWI conviction on his record. The bill currently has 22 sponsors in the House.
House Regulatory Reform Committee Proposes New Review Rules
The newly formed House Regulatory Reform Committee discussed two proposals this week regarding how to review rules in the North Carolina Administrative Code to determine if they are necessary. House Bill 74 proposed that all rules in the administrative code would be reviewed once per decade. The rules would then have to be reapproved or they would expire. Those in favor of the bill see it as a way for burdensome regulations to be removed from the code. Currently the administrative code has nearly 23,000 rules without expiration dates. Some legislators urged that public support be taken into account during the reviews, so that the public could inform leaders as to which rules it supports and which are unwanted. A similar bill has been filed in the Senate. Opponents of the bills claim that the review of certain rules could lead to uncertainty for businesses in North Carolina and businesses considering coming to the state.
Senate Finance Committee Approves Fracking Bill
The Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that would allow state regulators to issue permits for natural gas hydraulic fracturing by March 2015. The committee approved the bill after ensuring that local governments could levy property taxes to industry facilities as they do with other property. The bill would also create the tax structure for the hydraulic fracturing industry. There would initially be a one percent tax on extracted shale gas that would rise to six percent by 2020. Supporters of the bill claim that the tax’s sliding scale is designed to encourage drilling and to bring jobs to North Carolina. Opponents of the bill believe it is premature, as the Mining and Energy Commission has not completed a study looking at the effects of the industry on state and local government infrastructure. This legislation comes on the heels of a 2012 bill that put North Carolina on the path to remove the ban on horizontal drilling.
Strange Bills Fill General Assembly Calendar
The House approved House Bill 66 Wednesday, which approves a change to state law allowing Brasstown to continue its annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop. The bill gives the Wildlife Resources Commission authority to license qualified individuals to capture a wild animal and keep it at a specified location for scientific, educational, exhibition or other purposes. Brasstown gradually lowers a caged possum to the ground at midnight on New Year’s Eve in similar fashion to the ball drop at Times Square in New York City. The possum is released back into the wild after the celebration. The bill arose as a response to a lawsuit filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals arguing that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources does not have the authority to issue permits to trap and temporarily hold wild animals. The bill will be heard on the Senate floor next week.
House Bill 34, which defines a woman’s nipple as indecent, has been sent back to committee. Some legislators are concerned that the bill could turn misdemeanor violators into sex offenders. The bill was on course to move swiftly through the General Assembly before being sent back to committee Thursday. Asheville officials requested the bill after a second annual topless protest last summer. North Carolina law forbids “indecent exposure,” but the law is vague and does not specifically define what is indecent.



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