Raleigh, N.C. — With little debate and no public notice or public comment, the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday approved a 61-page package of changes to state regulations.
Senate Bill 734, which first emerged in the Senate's Agriculture and Environment Committee on Tuesday, is a Christmas tree of changes to areas of state law ranging from air quality and drinking water to beer sales and child care inspections.
Senate leaders say there are few new or controversial items in the bill, but several have had little public notice, including a provision that would exempt non-public schools from child care regulations or licensing by the state.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, said some church schools have run afoul of state rules while supervising students before and after school.
Another section would require larger landscaping contractors to pay yearly fees to be tested and licensed. Fines for parking in a handicapped space also would be doubled, from a range of $100 to $250 to $300 to $500.
Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, questioned the need for the increase.
"There’s been a lot of complaints that people still park in handicapped spaces that do not have a license to park there," said sponsor Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford. "The difference between $100 and $500 might deter that."
Most of the bill deals with environmental regulations, continuing a trend Republican leaders have pursued since 2011. Environmental advocates say some are troubling.
One provision would allow regulated businesses to avoid civil fines or penalties for a leak or spill as long as they report it and correct it. Molly Diggins with the North Carolina Sierra Club says that's a return to the 1990s, when regulatory enforcement was far more lax.
As written, Diggins says, "It arguably would allow Duke Energy, if they did voluntary site cleanups and inspections, to have that information be confidential and to get blanket immunity from fines."
Diggins says the proposal is similar to model legislation from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. "If you acknowledge you've had a violation, you don't get a penalty."
Other provisions in the bill would cut protections for wetlands, make it nearly impossible for citizens to challenge an air toxics permit and require the state to remove any operating air quality monitors that aren't specifically required by federal regulations.
"If you monitor, you may find air quality problems, and then you may have to require further reductions in air pollution," Diggins said. "No monitors, no information, no need to act."
After the meeting, Brock defended the lack of public notice about the bill's hearing, saying the notice and bill documents were sent to "all interested parties" Tuesday night.
Asked whether the public might be considered an "interested party," Brock answered yes, but countered, "Where was that question when the Democrats were in control?"
Many items had been discussed in other committees, he said, some as long ago as last year. He said leaders don't believe anything in the bill is controversial.
"This is the crossing the T's and dotting the I's bill," he said. "Most everything that's in there is pretty vanilla.
"We've tried to put out as much [information] as possible," he added.
The bill passes the committee on an apparently unanimous bipartisan vote. The legislation now moves to the Senate floor for a full vote, which is expected sometime next week.