During the General Assembly's third special session of 2016 -- and just prior to an immediate, fourth special session for other matters -- lawmakers on Wednesday approved a $200 million relief package for North Carolinians and their local governments working to recover from Hurricane Matthew and the more recent wildfires out west. The aid won't stop there, they said; additional relief legislation is expected during the 2017 session scheduled to begin in January, with lawmakers noting that it could be months before damage costs are fully understood. House Bill 2 -- named for its order of appearance in the special session and not to be confused with the controversial "HB2" legislation from March -- began a swift trek through the legislative process on Tuesday and landed under the governor's pen by Thursday morning.
The bill's narrative points out that the recent disasters damaged local government infrastructure, public buildings and other facilities while hurting or destroying private property and businesses, as well as eroding local tax bases upon which many government services depend.
"Local governments already overwhelmed with storm-related expenses may not have the resources to repair damaged infrastructure and provide the new infrastructure necessary for families relocating out of the flood and landslide zones and for businesses that are in the process of rebuilding," the bill stated.
As signed into law, the bill included:
In a change from past procedures, Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery money will go through DEM rather than through the N.C. Department of Commerce. The bill also emphasizes that none of the appropriated state money may go to the construction of any new residence within the 100-year floodplain, "unless the construction is in an area regulated by a unit of local government pursuant to a floodplain management ordinance and the construction complies with the ordinance."
The League and its partners at the N.C. Association of County Commissioners recently held a series of input meetings on local governments' various post-disaster needs, resulting in letters to lawmakers that included a specific list of requests. This week, legislators including Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh suggested that for the second part of the relief discussion, in 2017, the General Assembly should consider local government input. Click here and here for news coverage.
With the additional legislative special session called this week, legislators filed several bills that could affect cities. At the time of publication, these bills had not passed and were not expected do so. However, some provisions of the bills have been seen in the past and some may again be the subject of legislation in 2017.
The bills of interest included:
HB 3 Regulatory Reform Act of 2016. This bill contained many provisions that the House proposed for regulatory reforms during the 2016 regular session; those provisions died in the final days of that session when the chambers failed to reach agreement. Provisions in the latest bill included:
Read League coverage of similar past regulatory reform provisions here.
HB 5 Municipal Broadband Service Area. This proposal would allow the City of Wilson to continue serving the Town of Pinetops and other nearby properties with its high-speed broadband service, called Greenlight. Those areas received the service prior to a federal appeals court decision earlier this year that reversed an FCC order permitting Wilson's expansion. Without legislative action, those areas will lose access to this essential service, affecting emergency response and business opportunities.
HB 10 Clarify Funding Eligibility/Charter Schools. Matching provisions of 2016 House proposal, this bill would restrict the types of street improvements that municipalities could require of schools and give the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) final approval of the design of any of those requirements. The costs of these improvements would be reimbursed by NCDOT. Read League coverage about the earlier bill here.
While legislators initially came to Raleigh this week to pass a hurricane relief package, that legislation was quickly overshadowed by two bills designed to limit the powers of incoming Gov. Roy Cooper. Each of the measures had been passed by one chamber of the General Assembly at the time of this writing, and both were expected to receive final passage later Friday. Legislators also planned to adjourn the fourth legislative special session called for 2016 by Friday afternoon.
Senate Bill 4 Bi-Partisan Ethics, Elections and Court Reform would bring significant changes to state and county boards of election in North Carolina, which are currently controlled by the political party of the governor. The bill would create even-numbered, rather than odd-numbered, boards and split the appointments evenly between the governor and the General Assembly. On the new eight-member State Board of Elections, six votes would be required to act. The legislation also places the powers of a separate state ethics panel with the State Board of Elections, sets up partisan elections for the state Supreme Court, and would allow the full 15 members of the Court of Appeals to decide cases, instead of three-member panels of that court.
A separate piece of legislation, House Bill 17 Modify Certain Appts/Employment, would limit the powers of the State Board of Education, now largely appointed by the governor, and shift gubernatorial appointments of UNC school trustees to the General Assembly. It would also reduce from 1,500 to 425 the number of state employees that the governor can hire and which are not subject to state job protections. Finally, the governor's cabinet appointees would be subject to Senate confirmation.
The proposed curbs on the governor's powers led to protests at the Legislative Building, with Democratic legislators and others accusing the Republican-led General Assembly of attempting to undo the will of voters who elected Cooper, a Democrat. Republican legislative leaders responded that they were taking actions similar to those of Democrats in past years.
Over the past 40 years, both political parties have taken actions that affected the number of at-will employees a governor can hire or fire, shifted judicial and state board appointment powers, and changed how appellate court judges are elected. Legal and political battles over the authority of the State Board of Education also have a long history. The proposed shifts in the state and local boards of election and a Senate confirmation process for a governor's cabinet are fairly unprecedented in recent North Carolina history. Read more about the special session and the legislation here and here.
Legislators examined ideas for transportation legislation Monday, including a measure that would increase local input on state-funded transportation project decisions. Such a bill would achieve a policy goal selected by League members in October. Currently, local officials and state transportation engineers have an equal say in those decisions. But at Monday's meeting of an interim transportation funding committee, committee chair Rep. John Torbett directed staff to draft a bill that would alter that ratio to a two-thirds/one-third breakdown, with the preferences of local officials weighing more.
Representative Torbett also asked staff to draft another provision that would meet a League member goal of increasing state funding for infrastructure, in this case, for a state infrastructure bank that would provide low-cost loans to local governments for transportation projects. The committee will debate these ideas and others at its January 9 meeting. Ultimately, the committee may approve draft language for introduction in the 2017 legislative long session. Contact: Erin Wynia
The N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has finalized its latest list of transportation projects to receive state funding. Tuesday's release of this list concludes a 15-month process that evaluated and scored the merits of projects across the state. To see how projects in your area fared, visit this page on the NCDOT website and scroll down to "latest information." The page also contains an interactive map for viewing the distribution of projects across the state.
Though the N.C. Board of Transportation must sign off on this project list in a June vote, the project scores will not change before then. The project rankings follow a data-driven prioritization process that includes input from numerous local transportation experts as well as League staff. NCDOT has already initiated discussions for the next prioritization round, which will incorporate suggestions for improving the scoring methodology. Contact: Erin Wynia
Roughly $35 million in grants will fund infrastructure at seven, large industrial sites in North Carolina. The Golden LEAF nonprofit and the N.C. Rural Infrastructure Authority (RIA) jointly announced the awards on Thursday. A number of city governments are among the recipients. "The goal is to increase site competitiveness and reduce the time needed for site development to attract major projects with substantial job creation and private capital investment," a press release explained. Here's a breakdown of where the money is going:
Click here for full details Golden LEAF and RIA.
The state Supreme Court has dismissed a challenge of a lower court ruling upholding a Town of Emerald Isle ordinance in a case that could have had far-reaching implications regarding beach access in North Carolina. As an insurer for the town, the League had been involved in the case from the outset.
The state's high court dismissed the case on Wednesday without comment. Its action followed a state Court of Appeals ruling in late 2015 that upheld a town ordinance allowing town vehicles to drive on the dry-sand portion of the beach and prohibiting private landowners from placing permanent objects that might impede public access on that section of beach. The dismissal ends a five-year legal battle that began after a couple who owned a beach-front home in the town sued and claimed that the public should not have access to dry-sand portion of the beach.
The decision preserves public and local government access to North Carolina beaches, with that access key to providing public safety in those areas. Read more about the case here.
On the next episode of Municipal Equation -- the League's biweekly podcast -- preview it here -- we ask a question: Does your community have a brand? If so, what impression does it give outsiders? Many municipalities in North Carolina and across the country in the past few years have gone through branding or rebranding initiatives with the hope of crafting a fresh message to the outside world about what makes the community a great place to live, work, visit or invest. We talk with a town that recently rolled out a new brand, another town that's just now embarking on a branding project, and a researcher who knows all the quirks. Click here to access the podcast's listening page and a preview of what's ahead.
We'd love your thoughts on the last episode, which looked at drones and the implications for local government, with commentary from public and private experts. Click here to listen if you missed it. And if you have ideas for future episodes, send an email to host/producer Ben Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You've requested your password and submitted your story of successful hometown economic development to Here We Grow at herewegrownc.org. Now, pump it out to your social media followers. "Like" Here We Grow on Facebook and follow on Twitter, and spread the word across the social media spectrum. When we all pull together, we can keep North Carolina’s economy moving in the right direction. Have a Twitter account and want to tweet your support for Here We Grow right now? Click here!
Haven't signed up yet for Here We Grow? If you're a member of the League, getting a login to join in the initiative is easy. Just email us at email@example.com and we'll respond quickly with a username and password. With your login, sharing your story and accessing a range of resources to promote your town or cities' efforts is just a few clicks away.
Save the date: March 16, 2017 will mark the 14th Annual Urban Design Conference in Raleigh, this time with a focus beyond the big downtowns. "In the past decade," the announcement says, "we have seen the resurgence of downtowns and a significant shift of investment and new development toward our cities’ centers. Yet the suburbs still represent the great majority of our developed landmass, dwarfing our urban cores in sheer land area. How will design professionals address this and what design opportunities do the suburbs offer?" Click here for registration and details about the conference, called "Designing Beyond Downtown," from the N.C. State University College of Design.
The suburbs' future was also in discussion on two recent episodes of Municipal Equation, the League's biweekly podcast. Listen to them here and here.