RALEIGH – A bill that revamps the state’s regulatory commissions emerged from a N.C. House committee yesterday without many of the provisions that have drawn criticism since the bill first passed the state Senate almost three weeks ago.
The greatly modified version of Senate Bill 10 that the House’s Commerce and Job Development Committee passed on a 34-24 vote drew praise from environmental leaders but may touch off the first fight between the House and Senate in the new legislative session.
Like the Senate bill, the committee substitute reduces the size of the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, or CRC, and the state Environmental Management Commission, or EMC, but the cuts are smaller. The CRC in the Senate bill would be cut from the current 15 members to 11. The House version reinstates two seats.
Rep. Rick Catlin
Rep. Pat McElraft
Neither does the committee bill fire all commission members at the end of the fiscal year, as Senate bill does. Removing all the members at one time instead of allowing their staggered terms to expire over the next several years would give the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory, also a Republican, the opportunity to quickly appoint GOP majorities to the commissions.
To preserve some institutional knowledge, the House version would retain four currently serving members on both the CRC and EMC.
It would also reinstate seats on the CRC that are now reserved for agriculture, commercial and sports fishing and wildlife management. All are eliminated in the Senate Bill.
The substitute also requires that all CRC members live or own property on the coast and that a majority of members not earn a “significant” portion of their income from activities that the CRC regulates. The Senate bill drops all residency requirements and income limitations.
Todd Miller, the executive director of the N.C. Coastal Federation, had been very critical of the Senate Bill. The House committee deserves praise for making a terrible bill better, he said.
“What the House committee passed today is much better than what the Senate passed,” Miller said. “The House bill retains some of the expertise that the CRC needs to do its job and fashions a commission that is more reflective of the broad interests along the coast.”
The House changes were hammered out in negotiations this week that included freshman Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover. Catlin said he had fought for the changes out of concern that both the CRC and the EMC stood to lose so much institutional knowledge.
“I would have preferred to keep it the way it is,” he said after the committee meeting, adding that under the current system 60 percent of the board would turn over within a year and a half anyway.
He also said there was a real worry that the Senate’s proposed changes to the CRC would affect the state’s agreements with federal agencies and possibly put federal funding at risk.
Officials at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources think that the new language offered by the House would likely ease those concerns, Catlin said.
“I think we’re OK,” he said. “I think we were in jeopardy with the Senate’s version.”
The House changes were panned by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee and is the chief sponsor of the original bill. He attended the committee meeting yesterday and had intended to speak in support of the Senate bill.
“This is not a good way to start the session,” he said to the committee during a contentious cameo appearance. “We sent a good piece of legislation over that we have worked hard on and we put a lot of effort into and thought it was mutual. Mr. Chairman I don’t know what to say. This is nothing like what we sent over so I’d be wasting the House’s time if I spoke about it. I just look forward to seeing the conference committee.”
Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, said she expects tough negotiations once House and Senate representatives meet to settle their differences, but said the changes were necessary.
Sen. Tom Apodaca wasn’t pleased with the changes the House committee made to Senate Bill 10.
“We made it a much better bill,” she said.
The residency requirements and the conflict of interest language, she said, were important additions. “Those two, to me, are non-negotiable,” she said.
Opposition to the bill heated up after its surprise introduction in late January, drawing fire on editorial pages across the state for the wholesale replacement of key boards and commissions.
Bob Emory, the chairman of the CRC, was among those who expressed deep concern about the consequences of the bill. Speaking in Chapel Hill at a recent UNC Law School seminar on coastal policies, Emory said the bill had the potential to sap the commission of expertise at a critical time.
He said the Senate’s decision to strip away positions designated for people with areas of expertise as well as those representing local governments and other stakeholders put the diversity of experience on the CRC at risk of being lost. He also took aim at the initial version’s lack of geographical requirements.
“You could have a Coastal Resources Commission without a single person who lives on the coast,” Emory told the group of lawyers in Chapel Hill.
He argued that replacing all of the members at once, as the Senate bill would do would eliminate not only the expertise, but could lead to the kind of policy swings that staggered appointments are aimed at preventing.
“That kept the commission from whipsawing, going from one extreme to another, because you always had a mix,” Emory said, “and you had people on there with institutional knowledge from past service. My fear with Senate Bill 10 is that you could a 180 degree change in course.”
Miller yesterday telephoned Catlin, McElraft and Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, to thank them for their work on the bill. But regardless of which version of the bill is finally approved, the commissions are only as good as the people on them, he said.
“In the final analysis, the ability of these boards to do their jobs will depend on who actually gets appointed,” Miller said. “It will be up to the governor and lawmakers to pick people that will truly serve the public interest, and not their own interests. We will watch these appointments closely.”
The bill next heads to the Rules,Calendar and Operations Committee today. The House will probably vote on it early next week. If it passes the House, representatives from both chambers of the legislature will meet to try and fashion a compromise bill from the two very different versions.