Under the Dome

NC Senate panel rushes energy bill through

Senate finance chairman Sen. Bob Rucho pushed through a bill freezing renewable energy rates on Wednesday, cutting off discussion and refusing to allow a head count instead of a voice vote.

He declared the bill had passed, despite a louder and possibly more numerous chorus of "no" votes. The meeting ended with several senators, including at least two Republicans, openly complaining about the way Rucho had handled it.

"It wasn’t even close," Sen. Jerry Tillman, a seven-term Republican from Archdale, told Rucho afterward.

Freshman Sen. John Alexander, a Republican from Raleigh, also expressed his irritation after the meeting, and said he voted against the bill.

Democrats were livid. Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte tweeted that it was “a crass abuse of power.”

House Bill 332 would freeze the amount that utility companies must buy from renewable energy sources at 6 percent of retail sales, instead of increasing to 10 percent in 2018. It would also reduce the guaranteed market for renewables by requiring utilities pay a standard rate for power from much smaller plants.

Sponsor Rep. Mike Hager, a Republican from Rutherfordton, put the provision into an unrelated bill on Tuesday, and it was approved in the Senate Commerce Committee after a discussion. Rucho announced at the start of Wednesday’s meeting that further discussion would only be about the financial implications of the bill, which effectively precluded the renewable energy provision.

But he still allowed amendments to the renewable energy section to be introduced, opening the door for at least some discussion. At least two committee members, both Democrats, said they wanted more information about the renewable section. Four members of interest groups in the audience were not allowed to speak about that section.

In light of the questions, Democratic Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh told Rucho he wanted a "division" of the vote, which would allow for an individual tally rather than just by voice. Rucho refused, and when Blue asked him by what rule he was refusing, Rucho said it was his prerogative as chairman and then called for the vote.

The rules the Senate adopted earlier this year say the presiding officer shall conduct a division if it is called for prior to the vote, which in this case it was.

After the meeting, Rucho emphasized to Blue that he had the authority not to allow a division.