A bill to ease safeguards or replace out-dated regulations, mostly affecting the environment, drew criticism of almost all of its dozens of provisions at a two-hour hearing before a House committee Tuesday.
House Bill 765, which in April was sent to the Senate as a one-page bill restricting hauling gravel, earlier this month came back from the Senate as this year’s deregulation package with 58 pages of revisions.
The House, which has come up with its own deregulation proposals, isn’t going to sign off on the Senate plan. But leaders wanted to hear what people thought about it before they try to hash out a compromise that works for both chambers. The House Environment Committee voted Tuesday to recommend the full House not agree to the Senate version.
Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican from Emerald Isle, said senators told her they wanted to use her bill to include regulatory changes that have already cleared the House, in addition to what they’d like to see enacted. Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton who is on the House Regulatory Reform Committee, said he didn’t see much in the new bill that was something the House wanted.
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Close to three dozen speakers took issue with provisions that range from lowering the age for children allowed to drive all-terrain vehicles, ensuring the state receives reimbursement for attorneys’ fees when it wins lawsuits brought against it by private parties, giving companies that report their own environmental violations a break, eliminating funding for electronics recycling, allowing optional material to be used in stormwater projects, cutting back on air and water quality restrictions, and potentially making it more difficult to develop polluted sites that have been cleaned up.
Here are some highlights of the hearing:
ATVs — The bill would lower the age that a child could drive an ATV under adult supervision from 8 to 6. It would also conform state law to national safety standards by imposing a graduated scale that restricts the maximum speed depending on age. Children 6 to 9 could drive an ATV with a maximum speed of 10 mph, and then stepping up to 15 mph and 20 mph. Current law in North Carolina imposes restrictions from 8 to 16 years old based on engine size not speed.
“You are really defending that a 6-year-old can get on an ATV, even with a weak engine?” Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, asked incredulously.
McElfraft asked a lobbyist for the ATV industry if he could accept keeping the age limit at 8 if that becomes a sticking point in negotiations. The lobbyist said he would be willing to discuss it.
Attorney’s fees — The bill would require the losing side in environmental lawsuits to pay the state attorneys’ fees. Private parties that prevail would not automatically be able to collect those fees, and in fact would have to meet a higher bar than they currently do. The motivation is to deter frivolous lawsuits, but concerns are that it would discourage legitimate ones as well.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr said it would be a barrier to citizens seeking redress in court.
“This legislation is unfair in its application, it’s bad public policy favoring the government over its citizens, and I would submit, there’s a potential of its being unconstitutional,” Orr said.
Brownfields — The bill would amend the law providing federal resources for developing polluted land to conform with federal law. Benne Hutson, an attorney and former chairman of the state Environmental Management Commission, said he and 13 other leading environmental lawyers oppose the change.
“If this provision passes, fewer will be eligible to do brownfields,” Hutson said. “This provision needs to come out of the bill.”
The current law benefits those trying to sell their land for development, if they didn’t cause or contribute to the contamination, he said. The change would make them no longer eligible.