United States: June 19, 2015 Womble Legislative Update

A contentious week on Jones Street ends on a sad note.  As the General Assembly takes up (or doesn't) issues relating to abortion, economic incentives, access to guns, access to healthcare, tax fairness, Medicaid reform and other high stakes issues, the Legislative Building fills with passionate protesters seeking to influence the outcomes. Moral Monday arrests continue – although you can't guarantee it will be on a Monday – and emotions are running high.  Now every legislative office contains a "panic button" that alerts on-site police. Now there are velvet ropes between the public and the 14 foot high brass doors to the legislative chambers. And for the first time we can remember the Fire Marshall is actually enforcing the occupancy limits in those overstuffed, sweltering committee rooms. This week Jones Street had that uneasy feeling.

Guns

The divide in the State House over access to handguns is a deep one.  After a number of starts, the House passed a much-softened version of HB 562 – Amend Firearms Laws largely along party lines.  A bipartisan coalition successfully amended the bill eight times during a floor debate that lasted hours.  Those amendments included rejecting a new provision to end the pistol permit application system run by sheriffs, as well as rejecting a proposal to allow legislators and staff at the General Assembly with concealed carry permits to carry their guns at the General Assembly. Rep. Jeff Collins argued that allowing legislators and staff to carry concealed handguns would serve as a deterrent to those wanting to incite violence in the halls. Rep. Leo Daughtry suggested that the legislature is where issues are decided by debate, "there are some places we don't need guns." (whew!) The bill is now in the Senate Rules Committee.

NC Connection to Charleston Tragedy

After a lengthy and emotional week of debate over the gun bill, members cheered when they learned that the suspect in the Charleston church shooting had been apprehended in North Carolina. But word spread quickly that the sister of former state senator Malcolm Graham was one of the nine victims. It was a sad end to the week.

A Blue Law Topples

A conference committee report for HB 640 – Outdoor Heritage Act will allow for lawful Sunday Hunting with a firearm on private property except between the traditional church hours of 9:30-12:30. Hunting on private hunting preserves is exempted from the hours restrictions. The House voted this week to approve the compromise and the Senate vote is expected next Tuesday.

Senate Budget

The Senate released its budget late Monday, reviewed it in three committees on Tuesday, then held floor debate and votes on Wednesday and Thursday.  It will now go to conference committee where House and Senate members will work together on a compromise budget.  But, don't start holding your breath just yet, House Budget writer Chuck McGrady was heard to say we will be here until Labor Day.

Here are some of the differences between the House and Senate budgets that will need to be worked out in conference committee:

  • House: $22.2 billion (an increase of about 5%)
  • Senate: $21.47 billion (an increase of about 2%)
  • House: Includes the historic preservation tax credit and $40 million a year for film grants
  • Senate: No historic preservation tax credit and $10 million a year for film grants
  • House: 2% raises for all teachers and state employees
  • Senate: Raise starting teacher salary to $35,000; No across the board state employee raises
  • House: $73 million on textbooks and digital curriculum resources
  • Senate: $29 on textbooks and digital curriculum resources
  • House: 30% increase in DMV fees
  • Senate: 20% increase in DMV fees

The Senate plan also included several policy proposals that weren't in the House budget, including:

  • A Medicaid reform plan- see below
  • A plan to redistribute the sales taxes from more populous and affluent counties to more rural counties
  • A tax plan that will reduce personal and corporate income taxes, reduce tax exemptions for nonprofits and expand the sales tax base

Here are links for the Senate Budget Money Report and accompanying bill language.

Dueling Medicaid Reform

As we had heard, the Senate budget proposal did, in fact, include a Medicaid reform proposal to transition the program to full-risk capitated health plans.  In their version, Medicaid would be removed from the Department of Health and Human Services and would be overseen by a new Health Benefits Authority which would be run by an appointed board.  The appointed board would contract with three private healthcare management providers who would serve Medicaid patients state-wide.  In addition, the state would be divided into six regions and offer contracts to two local provider-led organizations in each region.

Meanwhile, as the Senate's Medicaid reform proposal was presented in the budget this week, the House was busy getting its own proposal through the committee process.  HB 372 – 2015 Medicaid Modernization – received approval in the House Appropriations Committee this week and is scheduled to be voted on by the full House next week.  In contrast to the Senate plan, the House plan leaves Medicaid within the Department of Health and Human Services.  Provider-led entities would be the only organizations allowed to operate health plans, with full capitation being phased in over five years.  This plan has the support of the Department of Health and Human Services, the North Carolina Hospital Association, and the NC Medical Society.

Voter ID

HB 836 was originally filed with the title "Local Government Regulatory Reform."  However, once it got to the Senate, it was given a new title: "Election Modifications."  When a compromise emerged this week, it included provisions for local government regulatory reform AND provisions for election modifications.  It ALSO included brand new language softening the Voter ID law passed in 2013 -- currently the subject of state and federal lawsuits.

The new language creates a new exception for presenting photo ID at the polls, allowing a voter to cast a provisional ballot if he or she can't comply with the photo ID requirement due to a reasonable impediment.  Eight reasons can be claimed, including lack of transportation, disability or illness, lost or stolen photo ID, and lack of a birth certificate to obtain a photo ID.  The voter must also present identification in the form of a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, other government document, voter registration card, or the last four digits of the voter's social security number and the voter's date of birth.

Democrats in both chambers were caught off guard by the change and unhappy with the process, but then voted overwhelmingly with Republicans to approve it given the improvement over current law.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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