Raleigh, N.C. — House and Senate lawmakers voted Friday to approve a compromise deal on a package of regulatory changes – over the protests of environmental advocates.
The wide-ranging omnibus includes provisions dealing with Venus flytraps, speed limits in state parks and the regulation of fireplaces in private dwellings. But most of the bill's provisions are aimed squarely at environmental regulations.
Senate Bill 734 bans state regulators from passing any rules more stringent than federal minimum standards without the approval of state lawmakers, an extension of the so-called Hardison amendment.
It also eases the permitting process for coastal developers, slashes protections for isolated wetlands, cuts regulations for septic systems and restricts the Coastal Management Commission from designating inlet hazards near some developments.
"Overall, this bill, I think, does more for the economy than maybe even tax reform. Certainly more than incentives," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. "This sets people free to do business in a business-like way while protecting the environment."
"This bill is not regulatory reform. It is regulatory repeal," protested Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham. “Our environment is hurt by the contents of this bill.”
As an example, Luebke pointed to the Hardison amendment limit on state environmental rule-making.
"Why, members, would we want to handcuff ourselves? What if the federal coal ash regulation is weak by our standards? What this – 734 – does is say we may not pass tougher coal ash regulations," he argued. "We have shackled ourselves, handcuffed ourselves with this portion of the bill."
Some Republicans objected to a provision that would allow community colleges to set up training programs for beer brewing and sell the beer at retail or wholesale as well as at campus events.
Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, said he understands that the state's growing brewery industry needs workers, "but this goes far and beyond what we ever envisioned."
Starnes said the provision would give community colleges an unfair advantage in competing with commercial breweries, violating the Umstead Act, which bars the state from directly competing with private industry. He warned it would also undermine the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control system and contribute to the growing problem of underage drinking on North Carolina's college campuses,
"Folks, this is not good for the state of North Carolina," he argued. "When the Republicans were elected to the majority in this state, this is not what we promised the people we would do."
Rep. Carl Ford, R-Rowan, also spoke against the brewing provision, noting that 15-year-olds attend Early College on his local community college campus.
“So, are we going to drop off the kids at the brewery today?" Ford asked.
But Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, said it's no different than the wine-making program at her local community college.
Stevens said Surry Community College officials maintain tight control over the alcohol, even requiring students to spit out the wine after tasting it, so underage drinking "is not going to be an issue."
"It’s been great for the economy. The students are taught responsibility along with wine consumption," she said.
The measure passed the House Friday afternoon, 64-27. It passed the Senate Friday morning 35-1 with no debate, despite an 11th-hour push against it by environmental advocates.
“In what seems to have become an annual tradition, the bill contains a number of provisions sought by regulated industry at the expense of the environment," North Carolina Sierra Club spokesman Dustin Chicurel-Bayard said in a statement. "This year’s regulatory giveaways primarily benefit coastal developers at the expense of water quality."
Chicurel-Bayard singled out a provision weakening protections for wetlands.
"Builders east of I-95 will now be allowed to destroy isolated wetlands of one acre or less without having to do mitigation, as is now required," he said.
He also took aim at a provision that allows the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to waive the 25-mph speed limit in state parks or forests for special events.
The provision first surfaced because a classic-car club had expressed interest in holding a race to the summit of Pilot Mountain, shutting down most of the state park for a day. The group decided not to pursue the special permit after the purpose of the legislation was exposed.
“Without debate or discussion of this specific provision, the House cleared the way for the McCrory administration to open up state parks for car races,” said Chicurel-Bayard. “The question now is how the administration plans to use this new authority and if they will involve the public in making changes to the public’s access to their parks."