Raleigh Report: Behind-the-scenes budget, coal ash talks underway

Written by on July 7, 2014 in Buncombe, Henderson, Open Government, Politics, Region, State Budget Impact, Top News Comments Off
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All quiet in Capital City as session wrapping up

Coal ash legislation sponsors Reps. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) and Ruth Samuelson (R-Charlotte) speak during a hearing last week in the House Environment Committee. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

Coal ash legislation sponsors Reps. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville) and Ruth Samuelson (R-Charlotte) speak during a hearing last week in the House Environment Committee. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

Just before bringing down the gavel prior to a long weekend, House Speaker Thom Tillis suggested to his colleagues in the N.C. General Assembly that if they weren’t directly involved in the final budget negotiations they should stay home this week — and maybe longer.

Tillis said House members would get 48 hours notice when a budget deal is ready and, in a sign that the session really is coming to an end, suggested anyone staying home consider returning their per diem.

After a rocky two weeks of not negotiating, during which House and Senate conferees met formally only once, the two sides got together in an open meeting last Wednesday and hashed through a few differences.

By close of business last week, it appeared that an agreement on Medicaid — the biggest difference in actual dollars between the two chambers — was doable. House negotiators indicated they would move closers to the Senate’s estimates.

This week, budget conferees take up teacher pay and the fate of more than 7,000 teaching assistants who would lose their jobs to cover the cost of a larger pay raise in the Senate plan.

The House plans to meet in skeleton sessions all week, while senators plan to show up mid-week.

Coal ash compromise

Early on the Senate’s agenda this week will be a formal vote on the House version of the Coal Ash Management Act. Unless the Senate accepts House changes, which is not expected, the bill will go to a conference committee.

The legislation passed the House 94-16 last week after a marathon two-day debate that saw 23 amendments on the House floor and many more in committee hearings.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a chief sponsor in the House and one of the floor managers of the bill, likened the effort to the response to hog lagoon spills in the 1990s, when the legislature had to move quickly in response to a crisis.

“Six months ago, no one expected us to be talking about coal ash,” he said. “But something happened, and we’re responding to it.”

He said the law was a comprehensive approach to the problem that starts by stopping the creation of new ponds while prioritizing the  closure of the remaining sites. McGrady defended the decision to reject amendments requiring Duke Energy not to pass costs for cleanup on to rate payers saying the issue “was not ripe for decision” and would likely be settled later.

During legislative debate, McGrady and House leaders fended off several efforts to add other coal ash ponds to the list of four high priority sites, which includes ponds near the French Broad River at Duke Energy’s Asheville plant.

McGrady said many of the issues in the bill were a “moving target.” He noted that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources continues to adjust policy on the coal ash ponds and predicted that while there’s solid agreement on the overall bill, the negotiations on a final product could be difficult.

“There’s a lot in dispute between us and the Senate and we’re going to be dealing with changes of position and fact right up until we finish our conference,” he said.

Tillis praised McGrady for his work and lashed out at critics of the bill.

“This is unlike anything that’s been done in any other state,” Tillis said. “You have an opportunity to vote for something that is truly historic.”

Those opposing the bill because it didn’t go far enough or include other specific sites on the priority list were rejecting an important first step in addressing coal ash, he said.

“I just don’t get that,” he said. “We come back every year. We can fight over the cost issue and other things next year if we get more data. But get this process going and be on the side of actually stepping up and addressing this problem and leading the nation in the process.”

Environmental advocates said they would press for changes during House and Senate negotiations on the bill. Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the North Carolina Sierra Club, said the House version makes some troubling changes that could overturn a recent court decision on contamination cleanup.

“Not only does the bill fail to add protections missing from the Senate version of the bill, but it appears to undermine a recent court ruling stemming from a citizen suit that would require Duke Energy to immediately eliminate the source of its groundwater contamination,” Chicurel-Bayard said in a statement released after the final House vote.

“After weeks of expectation and speculation, the House missed the opportunity to build on the Senate’s good start and to address key shortcomings in the legislation,” he continued. “There are no clear requirements in this legislation to ensure it does what it’s intended to do: remove the threat of coal ash to all our waters, and all our communities.”

Voting legislation in court

A federal judge will hear arguments for a preliminary injunction stopping the state from enacting new voting law changes passed last year by the General Assembly.

The legislation, which eliminates same-day registration and shortens the state’s early voting period, is being challenged by the state NAACP, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department.

The groups are asking that the new rules be stopped while the case is under review. The hearing is scheduled for this morning (Monday) before Judge Thomas D. Schroeder in federal district court in Winston-Salem.

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About the Author

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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