Legislative roundup

Senate tinkering with 'ag gag' bill on undercover investigations

July 2, 2013 

Senators are still tinkering with a bill that would make undercover investigations of companies illegal in North Carolina.

The Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday took a look at the latest version of the bill, Senate Bill 648, but members had concerns, which will be addressed in another revision. Not all of the concerns had to do with the undercover investigations provision. The bill includes several unrelated provisions, including a new section outlawing the lawsuit loan industry.

Tuesday’s version of the bill clarifies that making false representations on a job application for the purpose of conducting an undercover investigation at a business would be a criminal offense. So would failing to turn over to law enforcement within 48 hours any recordings or records obtained in such a probe.

Both offenses would be misdemeanors and carry a hefty minimum fine of $10,000. Subsequent convictions would bring fines of $25,000.

The bill also now specifies that state employees would still be protected under the whistleblower law in reporting improper government activity. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Brent Jackson, a Republican from Autryville, said it would also protect the news media from prosecution for materials given to it by undercover investigators, but the legislation doesn’t specifically say that.

Although it would apply to any business or industry, the legislation has its roots in “ag gag” bills seen in other states aimed at preventing animal welfare groups and journalists from exposing cruelty in livestock operations. Ashley Perkinson, representing the ASPCA and the Human Society of the United States, told the committee the organizations still oppose the bill.

The new section of the bill outlawing “lawsuit loans” drew opposition from an industry representative. These companies loan money to people who have sued someone to pay their legal expenses. In exchange, the companies collect a portion of whatever money they receive from the lawsuit.

Staff writer Craig Jarvis

Senate agrees with House on teaching abortion

The Senate quickly concurred on a bill that requires educators to instruct students in seventh grade and above on a link between pre-term births and abortion during health classes. It also requires education on other factors such as smoking and alcohol abuse.

The bill inspired lengthy arguments and several changes in the House, but the Senate concurred without debate Tuesday in a 32-12 vote. Gov. Pat McCrory, who has spoken in support of the bill, now has the final say.

Staff writer Annalise Frank

Bill would let charters add grades more easily

Charter schools would have an easier time growing by adding grades under a bill the Senate approved Tuesday.

The bill also weakens the language on the racial and ethnic diversity that charters would have to achieve.

The grade expansion helps the Arapahoe Charter School, which wants to add three high school grades. The Pamlico County school district is fighting the request. In a letter to the State Board of Education, the district said it was not big enough and doesn’t have enough money to support two high schools.

The bill would allow schools to add one grade a year without asking the State Board of Education for permission.

The bill also waters down language requiring new charters within a year to reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the surrounding school district. The bill instead says it’s something new charters will try to do.

Charters can’t guarantee they’ll meet enrollment targets for race and ethnicity, said Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican. “This just says they’ll make every effort to do so,” he added.

The bill passed 34-11 and goes back to the House for a final vote.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner

Senate votes to let energy companies keep secrets

Energy companies could withhold information about industrial chemicals used in fracking under a corporate trade secret exemption in a bill passed by the Senate, despite objections from the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission.

The bill passed 35-11, just two days after the mining commission wrote to all lawmakers warning that a trade secrets exemption would be abused by the energy companies, would rally anti-fracking opponents and would undermine public confidence in the state’s oversight of shale gas exploration.

House Bill 94 now heads back to the House, where the trade secrets provision is likely to be scrutinized and revised, said Rep. Mike Hager, who sat in on the Senate debate. Hager said a major concern is that first responders should have immediate access to data about industrial chemicals in case of a spill, inhalation or other accident.

Hager, a former engineer manager at Duke Energy’s Cliffside Steam Station, said he is very familiar with industry standards required for protecting the safety of workers and the public. He said the bill currently falls short because it gives energy companies too much leeway to withhold information and gives companies too much time to disclose the data in an emergency.

Staff writer John Murawski

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