During the final days of the legislative session, while attention was divided among countless bills, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of legislation that props up a longstanding organization and pushes a recently formed competitor out of operation.
Senate Bill 738, which now sits on Gov. Bev Perdue’s desk, stipulates that bail bondsmen in the state receive their required training from the N.C. Bail Agents Association, a private nonprofit with an affiliated political action committee.
Bail bondsmen must have such training before they are licensed to operate in the state. Annual continuing education courses also are required. Two groups currently offer the training – the Bail Agents Association and the N.C. Bail Academy, a for-profit enterprise founded in January 2011 by the Rockford-Cohen Group and sanctioned by the state in October. Each group had its instructors and curriculum vetted and approved by the Department of Insurance.
Tim Mathis, a Bail Academy instructor, said the Bail Agents Association had gradually increased its rates since its inception 20 years ago. He said the group has grown inefficient because it lacked competition.
NCBAA charges $500 for a three-day course needed to become a licensed bondsman. Bail Academy charges $490 for a two-day course. “We saw an opportunity to provide an alternative, and we did,” Mathis said. “They (the Bail Agents Association) were losing business, so this is how they responded.”
Mathis accuses proponents of the bill of pushing a vote through without giving lawmakers a chance to study it. SB738 originally dealt with issues related to Alcoholic Beverages Control insurance. That language was stripped out and overhauled June 27 to focus on the training of bail bondsmen. It passed in that form a day later.
Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, the bill’s sponsor, did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.
Evan Hankinson, owner of Case Closed Bonds in Raleigh, licensed through the Bail Agents Association in 2007, said complaints about the association’s rising costs are common, but he believes the group is putting the money to good use. He said that “some people say costs have been out of control,” but the money used for lobbying has yielded legislation that’s good for business.
Lobbying efforts of the Bail Agents Association are coordinated by Bail PAC, which donated $17,300 to state legislators in 2011, in increments ranging from $200 to $4,000. Rep. Justin Burr, a bail bondsman by trade, received $4,000. Burr, a Republican who represents Montgomery, Stanly and Union counties, recused himself from the vote. Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, received a $1,000 donation. Moore, a lawyer who represented the association this year, also recused himself. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger received $2,000 each. Goolsby received $1,000.
The bill was approved 110 to 2 in the House and received unanimous support in the Senate. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, another bail bondsman, recused himself from the vote.
During floor debate, Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, questioned the bill, asking why the state should prevent groups from providing training if they have met the standards set by the Department of Insurance, which provides oversight of the industry.
“With lawyers, you have to take the continuing hours, but we don’t create a monopoly for the Bar Association to be the only entity that can offer the courses,” Stein said. “Why are we keeping anyone other than the association from offering a continuing ed course?”
Stein, however, voted in favor of the bill after learning that it had the support of N.C. Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin.
Stein, in an interview Tuesday, said Goodwin explained that his department does not have the resources to police multiple entities providing training. “Understanding the scarcity of resources in government agencies, I was sympathetic to that,” Stein said.
In an interview Wednesday, Goodwin said he supports the bill because it keeps his department from being stretched thin by trying to monitor too many classes. Two Department of Insurance staff members regularly attend training classes, which last one to three days and often are held nights and weekends all around the state.
He said the question of whether a monopoly exists is one to be answered by the General Assembly, and that Stein was the only legislator he heard raise the question.
Mark Black, attorney for the Bail Agents Association, said the legislation is another step toward making the industry more professional.
Bail bondsmen “are able to arrest, detain and transport people across state and county lines. There’s federal law that they must comply with, and complicated standards,” Black said. “It’s so significant what these guys do, and we don’t want the training to get diluted or to risk spreading (the Department of Insurance) so thin that there’s no oversight.
“People that are screaming the loudest, it’s obvious where they’re coming from – they’ve got the profit motive,” Black said.