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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dangerous Days at the Sausage Factory

Posted by on Wed, Jun 1, 2011 at 2:18 PM

A couple of these items have moved forward since the original writing, so note the updates below.

With a budget deal all but done, more and more of Jones Street's attention will turn to the slew of bills that have been sitting in committee while bigger fish were fried.

These are the dangerous days at the state legislature, when bills — good, bad, in between and occasionally full of obscure unintended consequences — will move before a June 9 crossover deadline, or fade away as the session chugs toward its expected close.

We picked a few to focus on — a small sampling of the 70 bills slated for committee discussion Wednesday at the North Carolina General Assembly. Read on, but know this isn't for the weak of heart. Sausage making seldom is ...

House Bill 36: This bill used to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring government agencies their contractors to use e-verify, a federal program that tracks the citizenship of would be workers.

But a new version of the bill, introduced Wednesday morning, would expand the requirement to every large business in the state, whether it works with the government or not.

Businesses with fewer than 25 employees would be exempt — unless they get a government contract. There's also an exemption for businesses that employ seasonal workers for 90 days or less, which would give farms an out. Beyond that, employers would have to use the system to make sure they don't hire illegal immigrants.

The new bill got a hearing Wednesday morning, but no vote at the request of the speaker's office, sponsoring state Rep. Harry Warren. Warren said he expects plenty of amendment suggestions between now and Friday, when he predicts a committee vote.

"Everything seems fluid," he said.

House Bill 587: If you think government needs to get out of the way of businesses, you're going to love this bill. It requires a comprehensive review of 18,000 state rules and regulations — everything from environmental rules, to building codes that require fire sprinkler systems, to restaurant health codes. It hires four new attorneys to comb through state regulations and determine whether the cost businesses face in implementing them outweighs the rules' benefits.

The bill also slaps a new requirement on every agency in state government, forbidding them from making any new rules more stringent than what the federal government requires without permission from the General Assembly.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups are against this legislation. Even some business interests expressed displeasure with it Wednesday, despite it's awesome sounding name: the "North Carolina Jobs Bill."

The bill got a committee hearing Wednesday, with a potential committee vote next week. It has a number of Republican sponsors, and is a particular favorite of conservative freshmen House members. But state Rep. Glenn Bradley, R-Franklin, presented the bill in committee Wednesday. You may remember Bradley as the lone sponsor of this bill which seeks to increase the use of gold and silver coins, and makes a number of references to "state money" as "legal tender within the State of North Carolina."

Update: Most of the restrictions in this bill are also included in the state budget the legislature is likely to finalize this weekend. So this bill doesn't become fully irrelevant, but starting on page 167 of the budget bill, the state would restrict rule-making authority for the environment, labor and agriculture departments.

House Bill 654: Another bill with a great name — the "Homeowner / Homebuyer Protection Act." Sounds wonderful, except that consumer advocates and the state Attorney General's Office spoke against the bill Wednesday, saying it would erode protections put in place last year, when Democrats controlled the state legislature.

The bill makes a number of changes to the home buying process, doing away with a lien disclosure requirement and other rules. Liz Wiederhold, of the NC Real Estate Investors Coalition, told legislators the current rules have left her industry "basically strangled."

But Assistant Attorney General Harriet Worley said the new bill "basically provides a roadmap for scammers" because it "allows so much wiggle room" in the rules surrounding property sales. The bill passed committee easily Wednesday, and heads toward the House floor.

Update: This bill passed second reading in the House Thursday, 71-45. One more vote and it heads to the state Senate.

House Bill 813: This behemoth of a bill basically dismantles the state's existing Employment Security Commission, which oversees unemployment benefits, and transfers that power to the state's Department of Commerce.

The legislature's Republican majority has been highly critical of the ESC lately, and they're not alone. But the sheer mass of this bill, which moved forward Wednesday after a few minutes of committee discussion and little indication that legislators had actually read it, gave watchdog types pause.

For example, during the discussion state Rep. Stephen LaRoque asked whether the bill would stop North Carolina's practice of paying unemployment benefits to people who quit their jobs, or are fired for cause. "The liberal ESC" is just giving money away, said LaRoque, a Lenoir Republican whose opinion of North Carolina's unemployed has become pretty clear lately.

Just one problem: North Carolina's jobless can't get unemployment benefits unless they "have become unemployed through no fault of their own," according to the ESC's Web site. An ESC spokesperson confirmed that, yes, that means no benefits if you quit your job, or get fired for cause.

CORRECTION: It's not quite that simple. There are some cases where you can quit or be fired and still get benefits. For example, if your spouse gets another job and you relocate with him/her, you've quit your job, but it's not considered your fault, so you get benefits, according to Antwon Keith, deputy director for unemployment insurance at the ESC. If you are "fired for misconduct" you don't get benefits, but there has to be some determination of whether you should have been fired or not, Keith said. Caveats such as these could certainly explain LaRoque's comments, and it would have been better if I'd waited for these details to publish, instead of going with my own reading of the ESC's rules, and a very quick conversation with someone in the communications office. Since I didn't, I'm leaving the original post as is, with this clarification inserted.

Asked about this, LaRoque said he knows people who've been fired, or quit, and still got benefits. Harry Payne, senior counsel for the N.C. Justice Center, felt LaRoque's was simply mis-informed Wednesday morning, and said that's indicative of an overall lack of understanding of the ESC overhaul bill.

"Nobody knows what's in (the bill)," Payne said.

"(It's) a whopping change to a billion-dollar enterprise. ..." Payne told legislators Wednesday. "It affects drastically the way business is done. ... You're making a mega-mess."

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