Friday, July 21, 2006

Approved Bills Awaiting Govorner Easley's Signature

Campaign Finance Reform

The General Assembly agreed to legislation (HB 1846), which lowers the maximum amount of cash candidates can receive from an individual and requires mandatory training of campaign treasurers. The bill also requires contribution checks to be completely filled out, specifically the “payee” line. The House had previously passed separate bills that addressed these issues, but the Senate decided to combine the measures into one bill, which the House accepted on Tuesday.

Protection For Consumers Against Price Gouging
If another hurricane hundreds of miles away from North Carolina – similar to last year’s Hurricane Katrina – sends gas prices soaring here at home, the state will now be able to seek penalties against businesses for price gouging. Legislators this week approved legislation (HB 1231) that expands our price-gouging law so the Governor can declare an “abnormal market disruption” when supplies are cut off by events outside our state following an act of nature, labor strike, terrorist attack or power failure. North Carolina’s current law triggers only when the Governor declares a disaster inside the state.
The state could not use the current price-gouging law to investigate pump prices that soared more than $1 a gallon in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The August storm did not strike North Carolina, but knocked out the state’s chief source of gas after slamming into Louisiana.

Sharply rising prices after an event, however, is not an automatic violation. Investigators must take into account rising supplier and commodity costs, according to the measure. Violators could be forced to make refunds and face fines up to $5,000 for each infraction.

Officials will keep a close watch on gas prices over the next few months during the height of the hurricane season and as fighting escalates in the Middle East. It is estimated that North Carolina gas prices may soon average more than $3 a gallon, according to AAA Carolinas. The state average is currently $2.92. The bill also applies to wholesalers and distributors – not just retailers who sell directly to the public.

Protests During Funerals Outlawed
The House has given its final, unanimous approval to a bill (SB 1833) aimed at protecting families from protests at funerals. The bill originally targeted military services, but now covers all funerals beginning Dec. 1. Anyone who displays visual images, yells or uses abusive language within 300 feet of the funeral or memorial site would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The protest ban would begin one hour before the funeral and end one hour after the conclusion of the funeral. According to bill sponsors, 31 states this year have filed similar bills, with 14 signed into law. The federal law, enacted earlier this year, applies only to national cemeteries. State laws would have a broader effect.

Well Water Protections Approved
The General Assembly agreed to require all 100 counties to create testing and inspection programs for new private drinking water wells. The House voted 101-2 to accept the Senate version of the bill (HB 2873) and moved it along to Gov. Mike Easley, who is expected to sign the bill into law. About a third of the counties now have some kind of plan to oversee well construction or well testing, with only Wake County offering the kind of comprehensive program that the state wants to replicate in all counties. About 2.7 million state residents rely on well water. Each county would now have to develop a permitting, inspection, and testing program for new wells and enforce minimum standards set out in the bill and by the Environmental Management Commission. Water would be tested by the state public health lab for review of 17 different elements and compounds, as well as for bacteria and acidity. The Senate vote was 29-19. The House concurred to the minor changes, 101-2.

Protecting Citizens Against Identity Theft
Local and state governments that suffer a security breach that could lead to identity theft would have to inform citizens of the breach under legislation approved Monday by the General Assembly. The bill (HB 1248) would require governments and public agencies to follow the same requirement that businesses must alert customers when confidential information is compromised. The corporate requirement passed last year as part of a broad identity theft prevention law. The bill exempts the Secretary of State’s Office for a year from a requirement to keep personal identifying information off of its website, which currently contains an estimated 500,000 online records. During that time, the office would be required to study how to redact personal data from documents already available through its Web site.

Protecting Private Property Rights

The House and Senate both unanimously approved legislation (HB 1965) on Thursday barring local governments from using condemnation procedures to take land for economic development purposes. The bill would repeal at least nine limited uses of condemnation for economic development granted to local governments by previous legislatures. A House study committee, which was chaired by Reps. Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) and Wilma Sherrill (R-Buncombe), met earlier this year to examine the state’s eminent domain laws in response to the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision last year. The high court ruling allowed the town of New London, Conn., to take houses on property that developers wanted to use for a hotel and convention center. A number of state governments have strengthened their eminent domain laws after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While a few states have passed laws similar to the one we approved on Thursday, Michigan is the only one in the nation to change its Constitution.

Compromise Approved on Eye Exams for Kindergarteners
The General Assembly agreed Thursday to modify instead of eliminate a program that requires incoming kindergarten students to receive an eye exam to enter school. The compromise proposal (HB 2699), was sent to the Governor on Thursday. Legislators decided that only children who fail an initial vision review would be urged to get a comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. The more thorough exams wouldn’t be mandatory, although parents would be alerted that money may be available to help pay for one. The state budget set aside $500,000 for exams of low income children.

The bill passed this week creates uniform standards for vision screenings already done as part of a child’s pre-kindergarten heath assessment. If a child fails a vision screening, the child would then be referred for a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. For parents who don’t follow through on the process, schools will send out information, including material explaining that funding is available to pay for the exams if needed. Further, if a teacher thinks that a child should get an eye exam, funding will also be made available for those exams. Those opposed to last year’s law – the NC School Boards Association, North Carolina Prevent Blindness, and the NC Medical Society – are in support of the compromise bill.

Creating Jobs, Strengthening our Economy
Legislators gave final approval this week to an expansion of the William S. Lee Act and Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program, which have helped create more than 16,000 new jobs across North Carolina during the last five years. The JDIG program will now double in size – from $15 million to $30 million in grants – as well as be extended through 2009 and allow motorsports manufacturing facilities to qualify for grants. Since JDIG’s creation in 2002, more than forty companies have been accepted for the grant program, which gives back to companies cash grants equal to up to 75 percent of state withholding taxes generated by jobs they have created. Several of us had concerns about the $2 billion of state taxpayer money committed to these programs over the next ten years.

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