MountainTrue Raleigh Report | July 7, 2017

Greetings! We hope you enjoyed a fun and safe Fourth of July weekend. ICYMI, the legislature recessed late last week; so here’s a quick rundown of what happened and what’s next at the General Assembly.

Legislature Serializes Its 2017 Session

Last week the legislature wrapped up its 2017 session — sort of.

Typically, lawmakers approve the state budget some time in late June or July and sometimes even later. Then it takes a week or two (or more) of long days and nights of committee meetings and debates in the full Senate and House to approve a flurry of bills before they recess for the year.

This year, all of that took place, but, instead of ending the session for the year, lawmakers scheduled follow up sessions on August 3 and September 6.

The August session is intended to allow the legislature to override any vetoes by Gov. Cooper and take up any unfinished business from the regular session. The September session is intended to focus on the legislature’s long-delayed redrawing of legislative districts. But under the rules approved for both sessions, the General Assembly has given itself wide latitude to take up just about any issue it chooses. The rules also provide for the possibility of a third special session in November.

Effectively, the General Assembly didn’t end the 2017 session last week so much as it simply took a July recess. For reasons we’ll get to in a moment, that’s especially frustrating for environmentalists.

Last Minute, Not So Good Deal on Clean Energy

Before suspending the session, lawmakers approved HB 589, “Competitive Energy Solutions for NC” — a rewrite of state laws guiding the development and use of clean energy in North Carolina for millions of customers, businesses and clean energy companies. You can find previous updates about this important bill here.

The Republican-controlled House overwhelmingly approved the compromise bill several weeks ago with the backing of both Duke Energy and clean energy advocates, including MountainTrue. The GOP-controlled Senate, unfortunately, loaded it with a number of anti-clean energy amendments, the worst of which was a four-year moratorium on new wind energy projects. Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jones and Onslow counties pushed the moratorium. Brown is a long-time critic of wind energy on the coast. He fears that it will limit aviation at important coastal military bases and undermine the state’s efforts to protect the bases from future federal base closures, despite repeated statements from military leaders as well as studies that conclude otherwise.

After a good deal of behind the scenes negotiation in the last hours of the session, GOP leaders agreed, over the objections of the clean energy industry, to an 18-month moratorium on wind projects. Both chambers quickly approved the legislation just past 1:00 a.m. on Friday and shut down the session a few minutes later.

It was a startlingly fast resolution to a complicated bill that left clean energy supporters grim-faced and angry after months of good-faith negotiations with both lawmakers as well as Duke Energy. The final bill puts two large wind energy projects in two poor rural counties at risk and sends a terrible message to the industry about the state’s long-term interest in wind and other sources of sustainable energy. You can read more about the final bill here.

As of now, it is unclear if Gov. Cooper will sign or veto HB589, or simply allow it to become law without his signature. Many of the clean energy stakeholders on the bill have been careful to outline their concerns with the legislation but have stopped short of calling for a veto. In part that may be because they know the GOP legislature has the votes to override any veto. It also reflects the fact that the legislation includes important policy changes that the solar industry needs to keep solar viable in North Carolina. For its part, Duke Energy says it opposed the moratorium but continues to support the bill.

What’s Next?

The legislature’s rolling, on-again, off-again session is particularly maddening for environmentalists. That’s because much of the most important legislation that was left in limbo when the legislature left Raleigh last week are the so-called “regulatory reform” bills. These are bills that are chock full of various changes to environmental rules and standards, a few of which are of great concern to environmentalists. With so much unresolved about these bills and lawmakers at home for the next few weeks, we fear that the already imperfect process for finalizing these bills will be even less accessible to the public, the press and environmental groups during the recess. One provision MountainTrue is particularly concerned about would greatly limit local governments’ authority over asphalt plants, including plants in Ashe and Watauga counties. We’ll be meeting with legislators from those areas as well as local government leaders before the August session on this proposal.

Finally, Some (Really) Good News

The “end” of the 2017 session was bleak for the environment in many ways, but there were some victories. Perhaps the most surprising was the defeat of a House bill that would have greatly expanded the power of the billboard industry at the great expense of local governments and the public’s ability to regulate them. The bill was sponsored by House Rules chairman David Lewis of Harnett County, who faced off with WNC Representative Chuck McGrady on the House floor in what was a polite, but long and no-holds barred debate on the bill. Most political watchers thought the best McGrady could hope for was to take enough votes away from the Lewis bill to allow it to survive a veto in the future. To everyone’s surprise, the debate convinced a good number of House Republicans to vote against the bill. The GOP votes combined with overwhelming opposition from House Democrats to defeat the bill outright. Thanks to McGrady for his leadership on the bill and to all of the MountainTrue supporters who called our legislators encouraging them to oppose this bill.

Another piece of good news: many of you also responded to our requests for calls and letters about a provision in one of the Senate regulatory reform bills that would have greatly limited the ability of citizens to appeal permits for big polluters like cement plants and quarries. We are happy to report that senators heard you on this issue, revised the provision and eliminated much of the language we objected to. We still hope the entire provision is struck before the overall bill is adopted, but we thank you for doing your part in helping with this interim victory.

Thank you so much for your support! Stay tuned as we will keep you posted on the final sessions of 2017 in the coming months!

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Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.