Raleigh, N.C. — Speed legislating is pretty common each legislative session in the weeks leading up to crossover, the date by which, in most cases, a bill must pass one or the other chamber of the General Assembly to remain viable for the remainder of the two-year session.
However, a controversial bill that would intervene in pending lawsuits against the world's largest pork producer may have broken some speed records as it zoomed through the House on Thursday, leaving many lawmakers scratching their heads.
House Bill 476 would limit the damages that a court could award to a property owner who claims nuisance damage by a nearby agricultural or forestry operation to no more than the actual market value of that property. While the bill doesn't name any specific operation, discussions in a House Judiciary committee Wednesday made it apparent that a group of 26 federal lawsuits against Smithfield Foods is at least one target of the bill. If passed, it would be applicable to pending litigation, a rare step for lawmakers to take.
But the bill's sudden appearance for a House floor vote Thursday caught some members unaware of what they were voting on.
Returning to the dais after an absence, House Speaker Tim Moore deviated from the calendar order and skipped ahead a dozen bills to call House Bill 467 onto the floor for consideration. In the video at the top of this story, House members can be seen scrambling back to their seats in the few seconds available between Moore's call for the bill and the vote.
At 1:15:21 into the video at the top of this story, Moore calls up House Bill 467. It takes the reading clerk 10 seconds to locate the bill, since it's out of order, but he finds it and reads the title as "House Bill 467, a bill to be entitled an act to clarify the remedies available in private nuances against agriculture and forestry operations." The actual title of the measure refers to "nuisance actions," not "nuances."
Departing from standard House procedure, Moore does not recognize the bill's sponsor to explain the measure and does not call for discussion or debate. He simply calls the vote at 1:15:50 in the video.
"The question before the House is the passage of House Bill 467 on second reading. Those in favor will vote aye, those opposed will vote no," Moore announces, directing the clerk to "open the vote" at 1:15:57.
Thirty-four seconds later, Moore calls on the clerk to "lock the machine and record the vote," which was initially 70-42. Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, objected to third reading, so Moore announced the final reading would remain on the calendar for Monday night.
The entire thing took 73 seconds.
Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, who represents parts of big hog-farming counties, asked Moore, "Was there discussion or debate on the bill?"
"There were no lights on," Moore responded, "and right after I put the question, Rep. [Jimmy] Dixon turned his light on. He was the sponsor of the bill, so I proceeded."
After one Democrat and three Republican lawmakers asked for their votes to be changed from aye to no, Rep. Larry Pittman, R- Cabarrus, who voted for the bill, made a motion to reconsider the vote.
"I knew we were on 467, but I think a lot of others didn’t. So, I’ve been asked to ask for reconsideration," Pittman told the speaker.
Pittman's motion failed, 45-66.
After two more Republicans changed their yes votes to no, leaving the final tally at 64-48, Moore moved onto the next bill at 1:19:08 in the video.
At the end of session, Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, made a request to the House, referring to "one bill I had questions about and was undecided and wanted to hear some debate and discussion about, and that didn’t happen."
"If we’re going to skip around on the calendar," Blust said, the sponsor "should at least get up and say something about what the bill is about and not assume everybody knows.
"We do need to remember that what we’re doing here in making the law of the state is a serious function," he told the House. "We have to make sure our members know what they’re voting on and can make an informed decision."
Moore, who often speaks to reporters after session, disappeared into his office before the session even adjourned.
"I haven't seen anything like that since the days of [former Speaker] Jim Black," Pierce said after session.