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North Carolina lawmakers made clear this week that the short session would not prevent them from rolling out a long list of legislation. Determined to check off a lengthy ‘to-do’ list, members at the General Assembly worked around the clock to confront big-ticket items on this week’s agenda. Lawmakers focused in on industry growth, commerce reorganization and education and budget reform.
INDUSTRY & COMMERCE
By midweek, it was clear that progress is being made in the North Carolina government. Governor Pat McCrory signed major energy legislation into law Wednesday, setting the stage for preliminary exploration of North Carolina’s shale gas potential.
The state-sponsored drilling is expected to take off this fall in the eastern part of North Carolina. Prompted in part by a $550,000 state effort approved last year to help the energy industry assess fracking prospects, the state is moving full speed ahead to catch up in an industry that is well-established in many states.
The Energy and Modernization Act, enacted into law this week, clears the way for issuing fracking permits 61 days after safety rules are adopted. The Mining and Energy Commission has responded to critics, attempting to appease environmental concerns, with its prepared rules that highlight the importance of safe practices. Permits could be issued as early as March and almost certainly by fall 2015. The Governor sealed the deal and signed the law at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus surrounded by key lawmakers and cabinet secretaries involved in developing an energy sector for the state.
The House continued the theme of promoting innovation to stimulate economic activity when it unanimously approved a measure Tuesday, designed to crack down on “Patent Trolls.” House Bill 1032 is designed to reduce frivolous lawsuits by allowing civil penalties against people wrongly challenge company’s patents by non-practicing entities. “It seeks to protect the innovators in our state,” said Representative Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican who sponsored the measure.
The bill headed over to the Senate, passed its first reading and was referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations.
Similar, but competing bills made their way through the General Assembly this week aimed at revamping commerce. The bills would transfer many Commerce Department functions to a private nonprofit corporation. Rep. Murry said the nonprofit Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina would be the marketing and recruiting arm of business in the state. Officials in the Commerce Department had stated they believe the shift will make the state more competitive to attract business at a lesser cost to the state.
Senate Bill 743 and House Bill 1031, NC Economic Development Partnership Modifications, require the partnership to raise funds over five years with a $250,000 start up threshold. A 17-member board will be formed and another seven-member panel is charged with ensuring the corporation is doing its job. The differences among the two bills will have to be negotiated to send to the Governor’s desk as both versions are expected to receive final approval next week.
Included in the Senate’s version of the NC Economic Development Partnership Modifications bill, was a new incentive grant program for the film industry. The Senate tentatively approved the new program on Thursday, despite a good bit of opposition. The new program would limit the availability of funds for companies that shoot movies, TV series and commercials in the state. The “Film and Entertainment Grant Fund” would replace the 25 percent refundable tax credit set to expire at the end of 2014.
McGuireWoods’ own Katy Feinberg, spokeswoman for the N.C. Production Alliance, said the plan is “not necessarily a finished product.” “Hopefully there will be further modification before the end of session,” she said.
Common Core Standards
On Thursday, lawmakers came closer to replacing Common Core learning standards in math and language arts. While the House voted on bill H1061 to repeal Common Core, the Senate voted on S812, to replace the national standards and write new ones. All NC public schools have used the standards for two years and the Governor wants to continue using Common Core. Also backing the Governor’s opposing view to the House and Senate is the broad business community, including the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and several education groups.
The House is on track to pass its version of the budget next week, according to comments made Thursday by senior budget chairman Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake County. The House will take its first budget vote on Thursday, followed by a second vote just after midnight or later next Friday morning. Rep. Dollar said appropriations subcommittees would meet Tuesday and Wednesday to consider their individual budgets followed by a full House Appropriations committee meeting when the subcommittees finish their work.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said the House would have a skeleton session Monday and begin session at 4:00 p.m., with votes on Tuesday. He noted that Thursday’s session to take up the budget would be at noon.