Medical cannabis advancing through General Assembly

Now that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has decided to move forward with a medical cannabis initiative, the rest of North Carolina looks to the General Assembly to see if it will follow suit. 

Funding the fight

With a net pickup of four seats in the House or six in the Senate, North Carolina Democrats could break the Republican Party’s veto-proof legislative lock on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper this November. 

NC ‘Sanctuary Cities’ threatened with loss of school, road funding

north carolinaIn late October 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory signed the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act,” requiring state and local governments to verify the immigration status of potential employees and to prohibit interference in the relationship of local law enforcement with federal agents investigating immigration violations. 

State budget agreement reached

north carolinaThe North Carolina General Assembly reached the finish line a bit earlier than expected in their race to present GOP Gov. Pat McCrory with a budget before the long Independence Day holiday weekend.

The Raleigh roundup: Budget battle brewing

north carolinaThe North Carolina General Assembly continues to haggle over specific provisions in the proposed 2016-17 state budget as they race to present a compromise spending plan to GOP Gov. Pat McCrory before the long Independence Day holiday weekend.

General Assembly resumes; Local legislators to tackle key issues

fr sessionNorth Carolina Legislators are back in session in Raleigh this week with a full agenda, including unfinished items from last year’s short session. The local delegation is ready to tackle the budget, Medicaid, education, fracking and other local issues affecting Western North Carolina.

Legislature leading us down to new depths

op fr“Thank you sir, may I have another.”

The line by Kevin Bacon from the now-classic film “Animal House” kept popping into my head as I went down the list of what this year’s GOP-led General Assembly is doing to North Carolina. In the movie, Bacon is being hazed as part of a fraternity initiation, and every time he is hit with a paddle he asks for another painful blow. Here in the Tar Heel state, you think legislative leaders are done pushing the state toward the likes of Mississippi or South Carolina, and then something else almost ridiculous hits the news that they have passed or seriously considered passing.

Annexation and fracking and voter ID, oh my! A look at the General Assembly’s short session

While arguments over the state budget are likely to dominate everything in Raleigh as the General Assembly convenes for the next six weeks, there are certain bills and aspects of the budget making their way through the chambers that are of special interest to this region.

Annexation, automobile inspections and certain local bills will be considered during this short session. But the budget is definitely the gorilla in the room, the three lawmakers — Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva; and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — from this region unanimously agreed.

“That’s the major point of why you even have the short session,” Rapp said of the budget.

Aspects of the state’s financial plan as written by GOP House budget writers will be unveiled for the first time this week, Rapp said, which will undoubtedly set the stage for fierce debate between the two parties.

Education is likely to emerge as the hot-button issue in regards to the budget. Schools are losing federal stimulus money and are looking at steep budget cuts if things stay as they are. Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed increasing the education budget by $785 million using new sales tax revenue. But while Republicans have indicated they want to find more money for schools, that might be difficult in these fiscally austere times and with their promises of adhering to a fiscally austere budget path and stout opposition to a sales tax hike.

“This has major implications in education,” Rapp said. “There’s the possibility of losing more teachers and school employees — this is the frontline battle that will grab headlines (this) week.”

In regards to various bills that are moving through the General Assembly, Davis said the one on annexation is capturing a lot of attention.

“This is particularly aimed at some municipalities that have involuntarily annexed people in outlying areas. In some cases the people haven’t received services for 12 years,” Davis said.

The State senate last week approved two bills that were written in response to a judge who disallowed annexation rules passed in 2011, Rapp said.

One bill would kill certain annexations that have already taken place and the other gives people the ability to stop a municipality from annexing their land into the town limits against their will.

“That one says that if you want to annex an area you have to have a referendum and a plurality of people must say they want to have this happen,” Davis said.

One GOP-backed proposal that Davis supported did not make the cut. Under the proposal, new-car owners wouldn’t have to get safety inspections until the cars were more than three years old.

Davis said he favored the idea because the safety inspection of new cars seems unnecessary. The proposal went down in flames, however, under a barrage of phone calls and lobbying by garage owners who make money off the inspections.

Fracking, a method of extracting natural gas hydraulically, is another hot-button issue identified by area lawmakers. There are several bills that will be introduced promoting fracking that are expected to pass. If they do, North Carolina would form an oil and gas board to oversee the procedure. Conservationists oppose fracking as posing an unnecessary risk to the environment.

Davis also pointed to voter identification as another bill to keep an eye on. This is a holdover from the 2011 session. The bill would require that voters show photo identification at the polls before they could vote. Democrats have fought the bill as a voter-rights violation.

On a more local level, several bills are being introduced that are of special interest to this region.

In yet another step in a tangled tale, Haire is introducing a bill that would allow Jackson County to delay the implementation of legislation passed last year seeking an additional 3 tax on overnight lodging.

The county inadvertently triggered a mandate governing county tourism entities when it sought the room tax increase, requiring it to form a single tourism development authority. Jackson County has had two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of debate. In the meantime, the county learned recently that its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

Haire said that his bill would give Jackson County until Jan. 1 to make that change, giving county leaders the opportunity to best decide what structure the single countywide tourism agency should take.

Davis, for his part, is overseeing legislation that would finalize an agreement between Graham and Swain counties over Fontana Dam money.

Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam and hydropower generators. The dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators. This bill nails down the dividing line as an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam that surveyors discovered.

Rapp is introducing a bill that would restore funding to the N.C. Center for the Advancement for Teaching. The center would receive $3 million in recurring funds beginning July 1 from the Department of Public Instruction under the bill.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million last year.

The 25-year institution is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development. In Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated because of the budget cut.

The short session is expected to conclude July 4.

“The rumor down here was if you wanted to make plans for the Fourth of July you could do so,” Haire said.

Report will provide benchmark on health of WNC’s natural resources

A sweeping status report on natural resources in the mountains is being developed by a regional task force, serving as a tool for decision makers to understand the ecological context of issues they face.

The Mountain Resources Commission plans to issue the WNC Sustainability and Vitality Index by the end of the year.

“It is going to be a report card for Western North Carolina,” Jay Leutze, a board member on the Mountain Resources Commission. “This sustainability and vitality index is giving us that snapshot now of how we are doing.”

Leutze said the index will provide a benchmark that the health of the region’s natural resources can be measured against in the future. It is a massive undertaking, funded with a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of the data already exists, whether it is endangered species surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service or imparied waterways by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The breadth of ecological data on the region is enormous.

“We live in on one of the most progressive places in the world for understanding its natural resources,” Leutze said.

But it doesn’t reside in one place. The Sustainability Index will change that.

“It is going to be a major, big organic living document,” Leutze said. “We want to be a resource people can access across the mountains where people can get standard data sets.”

The Mountain Resources Commission was formed in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly and got to work in 2010. The 17-member commission was tasked with studying environmental issues facing Western North Carolina, particularly those brought about by growth and development.

The bill creating the Mountain Resources Commission narrowly made it through the General Assembly that year.

“It was the last bill that passed in that session of the General Assembly,” Leutze said.

It was well into the night on the last day of the lawmakers’ session when it slid through.

“They are bound by law not to go past midnight unless they climb up on a ladder and literally stop the clock. That bill passed with the clock physically stopped, and it was a miracle it got through. Mountain legislators are the key to it passing,” Leutze said.

Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville, was integral in the formation of the Mountain Resources Commission, helping to give birth to the idea and providing the heft to get it passed, Leutze said.

“There were a lot of fears raised over who these people were going to be and are they going to come into our communities and tell use how to be,” Leutze said.

That’s not the case, however.

“We are not regulatory,” Leutze said. The commission may recommend policies and other solutions to safeguard natural resources, but would have to convince state lawmakers or county commissioners to take them up on it.

Leutze spoke about the Mountain Resources Commission during the annual conference of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area held at Lake Junaluska Conference Center this week, bringing together players in the tourism industry from across WNC.

“A very important part of our mountain culture is agricultural and natural heritage,” Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, said by way of introduction. “It is vital we sustain that so we can continue to reap the benefits of being able to live and work in Western North Carolina.”

Leutze showed a series of maps depicting development over the past four decades. What was a thumb-print sized patch over Asheville in 1970 had spread like a ink blot over the map by the last slide.

“It is a challenge to us to handle well what is coming our way,” said Leutze, who is also on the board for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a land conservation trust.

Those from this area on the commission include Tom Massie of Sylva and Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Regional Commission.

By air, by land and by water: General Assembly rolls back environmental protections

Back in January, a group of environmental advocates gathered for after-work beers at Craggie Brewery in Asheville where they heard a sobering message from one of their green-minded compatriots. In just a couple weeks, new leadership would take the reins of state government in Raleigh, and things probably weren’t going to be pretty on the environmental front.

“That has certainly been born out in spades,” said Julie Mayfield, who was the invited speaker that week at Asheville Green Drinks, a standing meeting for those in the environmental community.

While they were bracing for less-than-friendly legislation from the new Republicans majority, Dan Crawford, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters, said they were “shocked with what we got.”

SEE ALSO: Loss of regulators means fewer inspections, say environmentalists

“To see the environmental assault that took place this session was quite surprising,” Crawford said. “It is like a game of whack a mole — there are all these new laws popping up that we’ve been trying to fight. I call this the 87-day war on the environment.”

Keeping up with the so-called assault was more than a one-person job. Close to 2,000 bills were introduced this session, and the League of Conservation Voters flagged about 200 to watch. Crawford’s group pays for a bill tracking service to keep on top of what’s being introduced or amended.

But that wasn’t what made this year one of the worst in history for environmental lobbyists.

“It was very hard to get the ear of our legislators on anything related to the environment,” said DJ Gerken, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville. “There was very little interest from the leadership or bill sponsors to hear concerns from counter viewpoints.”

When the writing was on the wall and there was no hope of stopping a bill, they at least tried to lessen its blow.

“It is better to drink the poison that makes you sick than the poison that kills you,” Crawford said. “There were many times in the session that we went down fighting.”

What environmentalists have dubbed rollbacks, however, others consider needed reform. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said environmental regulations in the state have run amok, and it is time to reassess many of them.

“For myself and my kids and my grandkids, I want clean water and I want clean air as much as the next person. But regulation, in my opinion, some of it is onerous and in some cases it is counter-productive,” Davis said.

The new Republican majority in the General Assembly has overturned a host of environmental policies. Some bills are a direct answer to request from industry, like a repeal of the state’s toxic emission standards specifically sought by Evergreen paper mill in Canton. There’s even the vaguely worded “Act to amend certain environmental laws,” a catch all where legislators seemingly inserted fixes to address pet peeves of constituents — from increasing the size of dams that need a state permit to lifting the ban on incinerating plastic bottles.

Meanwhile, new rules are being blocked from going on the books. Bills in the General Assembly have barred any new environmental rules that are more stringent than federal limits. And environmental agencies can no longer set their own policies.

“The more regulations we have means more regulators and the more hoops we have to jump through, so I think it is time to take a breather and sit back and examine them,” Davis said.

Sometimes, environmental rules bear an uncanny resemblance to a make-work program for regulators. Davis pointed to emission limits for arsenic imposed on Jackson Paper. As soon as one target was met, regulators raised the bar.

“It ensures their job for one thing. If all these goals are met, then we have to find another goal to impose on people,” Davis said. “Frankly, we have a lot of business in the United States that just says The heck with this. I am moving to Malaysia or Mexico or China where we don’t have to deal with these issues.’”

But Gary Wein, executive director of the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, doesn’t want to see the state move backwards in its environmental protections.

It may make it easier for industry to operate, but society will bear the cost in the long run, said Wein.

“We are still cleaning up messes from 50 to 60 years ago when there were no environmental regulations,” Wein said.

On the Highlands-Cashiers plateau, a scenic beauty and a healthy environment is vital not just to tourist but a healthy second-home economy, said Michelle Price, director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance.

“I think a lot of folks come to North Carolina because of the environment,” said Price. “If we are not protecting our environment, they will go somewhere else.”

George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant in Haywood County, said the environment is actually valued by companies.

“When businesses are looking to relocate, they are looking for places with high quality of life and the environment is part of it,” Ivey said.

Crawford said he doesn’t know how long it might take to undo the anti-environmental policies promulgated this session. If a new legislature takes over next election, it’s doubtful they would burn precious political capital restoring environmental policies.

“The environment is not the only area that has been attacked by this General Assembly. There are plenty of other things that have to go into the fix bag,” Crawford said.

The environmental community is pinning modest hopes on a governor’s veto, but was selective in which bills it is looking for help with.

“It would be unrealistic to ask her to veto everything. We are one interest group of many and she has her hands full,” Crawford said.

Read on for a snapshot of a few of the budget cuts and bills that environmental advocates are fretting over.


Senate Bill 781

This is environmentalists’ public enemy No. 1. Environmental agencies would lose their ability to enforce regulations and adopt rules, instead placing that power with the General Assembly and falling back on federal standards.

“The regulatory authority of our state agencies is under assault by this bill,” said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The General Assembly would have to sign off on anything that resembles an environmental standard, from designating trout streams to determining emissions standards for factories.

“It really handcuffs the ability of agencies to do their job,” said Tom Bean, lobbyist with the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

The Wildlife Commission couldn’t even adjust innocuous hunting laws, like setting a new opening day for squirrel season, since it classifies as a “rule making” by an environmental agency. Bean said the General Assembly probably doesn’t realize exactly what they’ve bitten off.

“There would be a bottleneck initially and they will have to undo some of this because it will be so unworkable,” Bean said. “Program by program, they are going to have to have broader authority reinstated.”

The bill, which passed both chambers, is billed as “regulatory reform.”

Backseat to federal standards

An environmental provision in the budget forbids new environmental rules that are stronger than federal minimum standards. North Carolina has several environmental laws that go beyond the bare minimum required at the federal level.

“Here in the west, trout buffers, the Clean Smokes Stack Act and the Ridge Law have made an extraordinary difference in our environment,” said Julie Mayfield, director of the WNC Alliance. “If the philosophy is, we should only protect the environment to the extent the federal government tells us we should, we wouldn’t have any of those things.”

Catch-all regulation rewrite

House Bill 119, a loosely titled act to “amend certain environmental and natural resource laws” is chock full of technical rule changes that provide loopholes and exemptions from environmental permits. One of the many changes in the bill would allow even larger dams to be built without a permit, doubling the threshold for how big it must be before triggering state oversight.

In Jackson County, when an earthen dam on the golf course of Balsam Mountain Preserve collapsed three years ago, it sent a torrent of muddy water downstream, wiping out the aquatic ecosystem and filling the water with sediment for miles downstream. That dam was barely large enough to need a state permit, but even at its size wrought major environmental damage when it collapsed due to faulty design.

Loss of conservation funding

Less money for conservation this year means special tracts of lands won’t get protected but instead will be sold for development.

“We have interested land owners with high-quality, high-priority lands, but the grant money is not there to protect those assets so they remain at risk of development, losing the potential to be a source of fresh food, fresh water, food production, scenic views, flood protection, all of those values, even tourism,” said George Ivey, a farmland specialist and conservation consultant and grant writer in Haywood County.

Land trusts rely on state trust funds to help with the cost of preserving special places. But this year, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund — the primary source of money for land conservation in the mountains — has been cut from to $11.5 million from last year’s amount of $50 million, and a precipitous drop from historic levels of $100 million up until two years ago.

“It really has been a bumpy ride for Clean Water (trust fund),” said Gary Wein, executive director for the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust.

Wein was working with a landowner in Jackson in hopes of protecting a tract of several hundred acres, but the loss of incentive funds will likely sideline the effort.

Another project to improve trout habitat in the Cullasaja River will be stopped in its tracks as well. A two-part plan was hatched to cool down the water, which was unnaturally warm and unable to support trout.

A channel flowing through the Cullasaja golf course would be redesigned from its shallow, slow-moving course to a deeper swifter one. And, the flow coming off a reservoir would be altered so the river runs out of the bottom of the pond where the water temperature is cooler instead of flowing off the top.

Other pots have been reduced too, like the Farmland preservation Trust Fund, Parks & Recreation Trust Fund and the Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

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