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League Bulletin

August 9, 2019

WHAT HAPPENED: After a couple soft weeks at the General Assembly, items of high interest to cities and towns -- including adequate, local broadband service -- came to attention. A proposal to better enable local governments to build superfast internet infrastructure to lease to private companies for operation advanced through a legislative committee on a 13-9 vote. 
WHAT IT MEANS: Legislators need to hear your support of this proposal, the FIBER NC Act​, which has the potential to dramatically improve service in underserved or unserved areas and lead to better quality of life, economies and job opportunities as broadband now proves to be essential infrastructure. An article in this bulletin details what happened with the bill this week. 
ON TAP: Gov. Roy Cooper has on his desk a few more legislature-approved bills to consider that pertain to cities and towns, including one on billboards. But we're also still on the lookout for a budget agreement between the governor and legislative leaders. An update Friday from the Insider State Government News Service didn't seem to place an agreement closer to reality and noted that Republican legislative leaders still hope to gather enough votes to override Governor Cooper's veto of the budget they sent him earlier, which would put that plan into law.
THE SKINNY: A lot rose to the surface this week after what felt like downtime. Ordinance decriminalization, utility line relocations, cable service and cybersecurity were among other topics that saw legislative attention. Read on for the details.

HB 431 FIBER NC Act, legislation addressing a major League policy goal of improving broadband access through public-private partnerships, was approved by the House State and Local Government Committee​ on Wednesday. The 13-9 vote in the committee came after substantial debate in which supporters argued that the rural communities are falling behind economically and educationally without adequate broadband connections and opponents – including representatives of the major telecommunications companies – arguing against local government involvement in addressing the issue. The bill now goes to the House Finance Committee for consideration.
The legislation would better enable local governments to partner with private internet services providers in arrangements that could include building out local fiber networks and then leasing that fiber to the private providers. Those private-sector providers would provide the retail service to homes and businesses, and the legislation specifically does not allow local government to act as retail sellers of internet service. The bill includes a substantial review and public input process before local governments could enter into the arrangements.
The latest version of the bill also includes a limitation based on FCC mapping data of served and unserved areas that would mean only 70 of North Carolina's 100 counties and the municipalities in them could utilize the provisions. That limitation followed extensive discussion with representatives of the major telecommunications companies by the League, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and the primary bill sponsors.
Nonetheless, industry representatives remained opposed even as Rep. Josh Dobson of Nebo, a primary bill sponsor, described the changes as a compromise. Among those speaking against the legislation were Marcus Trathen of the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association, Brian Gregory of Charter Spectrum and Jason Soper of the NC Chamber. Primary bill sponsors Dobson, Kevin Corbin of Franklin, and John Szoka​ of Fayetteville pushed back strongly against the criticism. “Folks, what we’re doing is not working. Government is failing, the private sector is failing rural areas of our state. That’s just a fact,” Dobson said. Sarah Collins, NCLM Legislative and Regulatory Counsel, told committee members that the lack of adequate broadband is the most pressing issues that League officials hear about from NCLM member municipalities and that the public-private partnership model encouraged by the bill is one approach to address the digital divide​.
NCLM continues to encourage members to speak to their legislators to urge them to support HB 431 FIBER NC Act. We also want to thank the primary bill sponsors – Representatives Dobson, Szoka, Corbin and Rep. David Lewis​ – for their sponsorship and dedication in support of the bill. You can read more about the bill’s committee hearing in news coverage​.

Legislators took final votes this week on three significant measures for cities, moving to Gov. Roy Cooper bills related to billboards, ordinance decriminalization, and utility line relocation. Because the legislature remains in session, Governor Cooper must make a decision on each bill by late next week.
Billboards - Previously, the League reported​ on HB 645 Revisions to Ou​tdoor Advertising Laws. That bill would write into law a series of rules and restrictions for when billboards may be relocated. The House signed off on this bill Wednesday with a 60-54 split, mostly along party lines. The Senate’s final vote on the measure several weeks ago was 27-17, also mostly along party lines. 
Ordinance decriminalization - Provisions contained in SB 584 Criminal Law Reform would allow local governments to retain criminal enforcement of their local codes, with one major caveat: if the local government was a city over 1,000 in population, or a county over 20,000 in population, it would need to submit a report that lists all of its ordinances that were punishable by a criminal penalty. Hundreds of cities already submitted this report, though this legislation extends the deadline to Nov. 1, 2019. The final version of this bill passed the Senate unanimously Tuesday, while the last House vote garnered near-unanimous support last week. Check for your city or town’s report on the General Assembly's website​​. Read more about this effort in our prior Bulletin report
Utility line relocations  - In a boost to cities between 25,000-100,000 in population, SB 68 Relocation of Water/Sewer Line Costs​ would reduce the amounts those cities must pay when a state road project requires relocation of municipal-owned utility lines, such as water/wastewater lines. The Senate unanimously approved the bill in its final vote Wednesday, whereas the House’s sign-off on the measure last week was almost unanimous.

Numerous changes to state law affecting cities—mostly positively—became public Wednesday with the release of two compromise reports now headed for up-or-down votes in each legislative chamber. No further amendments to the proposals are possible at this point. 
The first compromise report is the omnibus agency bill for the N.C.​ Department of Transportation (NCDOT), HB 206 Various Transportation Changes, which contained a broadband provision of great interest to cities and towns. The language would authorize NCDOT to enter into public-private partnerships whereby a private partner could lease broadband infrastructure the agency built along interstates. Though the language differs, the policy it would implement mirrors that contained in HB 431 FIBER NC Act, an initiative supported by the League and detailed above in this week’s Bulletin. If both bills were to become law, there could be scenarios where infrastructure owned by both NCDOT and one or more local governments could come together in a larger deal with a private internet service provider. This bill also contained language that laid out a new funding program for the state’s commercial airports, which are key economic drivers in their communities. 
The compromise report for HB 217 DIT Changes.-AB held a surprise for local governments, which currently receive free cable connections to government buildings. This bill, which is the agency bill for the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT), would remove that requirement from state law. The requirement was placed into law when the legislature shifted from a system of local cable franchises to a state franchise, and it was intended as partial compensation to local governments for the privilege of operating in the state, including use of the public’s right of way for laying service lines. 
However, the DIT agency bill contained many other positive provisions for municipalities, including language that would require reporting of certain cybersecurity breaches, in return for assistance from the agency during those events. The measure also updated many of the state laws related to 911 emergency response procedures and funding formulas, changes requested by the 911 Board. Further, it contained police telecommunicator language backed by the N.C. Association of Police Chiefs. 

The N.C. Department of Transportation has released a final draft of the 2020-2029 State Transportation Improvement Plan​, or STIP. It includes more than 1,700 projects across all transportation modes and in all 100 counties. "The overall statewide list includes 1,319 highway projects, 86 aviation, 234 bike and pedestrian, six ferry, 23 public transit and 50 rail projects selected on statewide, regional and division levels," a news release said. "The projects were prioritized based on technical data as well as input from local officials and residents." The N.C. Board of Transportation may give it final approval in September. Complete information is on NCDOT's website