GOP infighting derails coal-ash bill

August 4, 2014

It turns out the long “short” summer session of the General Assembly did not end this weekend. Instead lawmakers are just taking a congressional-like recess and reconvening in August and again in November. So much for limited and efficient government.

There are plenty of surprising things about the 2014 session, from the public sniping between Senate leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory to the newly discovered election-year appreciation of teachers and the overdue admission that Medicaid is not a bloated “welfare” program, but a vital health care safety net.

But the biggest surprise might be that House and Senate leaders cannot agree on legislation to respond to the massive coal ash spill into the Dan River six months ago.

Both House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said before the session began that a coal ash bill was a top priority and senators especially were talking tough about forcing Duke Energy to clean up the coal ash ponds.

The Senate and House passed different coal bills, and despite the tough talk, both fall well short of what’s needed to address the environmental damage being caused by the 33 ash ponds at 14 locations across the state, all of which are leaking into the groundwater.

Neither bill bans Duke Energy from passing the cost of the cleanup on to ratepayers. That’s not much of a shock considering the lobbying power and campaign contributions of the company, but it’s astounding that the House and Senate couldn’t even agree on which weak bill to pass.

It’s the biggest environmental disaster in a generation in North Carolina. The public is demanding a response and Republicans who control the House and Senate and governor’s office can’t come up with one, even a weak one.

The harshest public words between the House and Senate came during the heated budget negotiations but if you are looking for evidence of acrimony and division among Republicans, the floundering coal ash debate is the most telling.

Hypocrisy on the House floor

You don’t have to look very hard at this General Assembly to find examples of hypocrisy, but none is more startling than the House passage of a one-year extension of the film tax credit desperately sought by lawmakers from the Wilmington area who see it as a key economic development strategy.

The House approved the extension after a passionate plea from House Speaker Thom Tillis.

The Republicans took over the General Assembly in the 2010 in a campaign marked by a series of attack ads in swing districts from outside groups, several funded partially by current State Budget Director Art Pope.

One of the ads repeated most often accused Democrats of “giving Hollywood fatcats up to $20 million for every movie they produce in North Carolina,” referring to the expansion of the tax credits for companies making movies in North Carolina.

It is not a stretch to say that the well-funded ads played a significant role in the Republican takeover of the legislature four years ago. Now just four years later, the speaker of the House, the leader of the Republican majority elected partially because of blistering ads against the film tax credit, convinced the House to renew the credits for another year.

Senate leaders do not seem inclined to go along so the credit’s days may be numbered, but the House vote was a startlingly hypocritical moment nonetheless.

Less transparent than ever

Last-minute maneuvering and late night shenanigans are nothing new in the General Assembly, but it’s a safe bet that this session reached new heights — or lows — in terms of secret back-room deals and an almost completely anti-transparent process.

Local tax changes appeared, then disappeared, then appear again with no notice. Provisions never seen before popped up in conference committee reports that no one had seen until a vote on them was called on the House or Senate floor.

The process was next to impossible for reporters and lobbyists to follow and they are at the legislative building every day. The public has no chance to keep up with what their lawmakers are doing.

It’s a safe bet that things have passed in the last few days that no one will discover for weeks. It doesn’t have to be this way of course. We could have a more open, transparent process, one where at least every legislator has an idea about what they are voting on and what it will mean for the people they represent.

But that would make it harder for the folks in power to exert their will, to reward their friends and ideological allies and financial supporters. The truth is, for all the lip service about transparency, the folks running things in Raleigh like things this way. Don’t look for it to change any time soon.

Christ Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.