agriculture, Commentary, Environment

Crossover hangover: hog farm lawsuits, privatizing utilities and other environmental misdeeds

It’s a new legislative day. Did the crossover deadline ruin your appetite? (Photo: Creative Commons)

G ood morning. Does your head hurt? Eyes feel like two fists that spent the night punching a wall? A tinge of nausea as the eggs are frying? Yes, me too.

Crossover — when most bills must pass either the House or the Senate to proceed this session — is always a Herculean feat of enduring long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of outrage, and ultimately, depression at what our lawmakers hath wrought.

Although most bills were considered during yesterday’s marathon, crossover deadline is officially today. Both chambers are tidying up some brief unfinished business this morning. Then the legislative staff will publish a full list of bills that are eligible for further consideration this session. Beware: The contents of the loser bills can be grafted onto the winners. So an idea, bad or good, isn’t dead until the final gavel drops later this summer.

That means the billboard measures, HB 579 and 580, which were withdrawn from yesterday’s House calendar, could still reappear in other forms. At their core, these measures would allow outdoor advertising companies to mow down trees to erect their ginormous billboards. You, the driver, instead of being visually soothed by greenery inhabited by songbirds, could then get an uncluttered look at the dates of the Dixie Gun & Knife show or the auditions for Actors, Models & Talent for Christ.

Two notable bills did pass:

  • In the Senate, the controversial HB 467, which restricts the amount of money people can receive if they sue hog farms in nuisance lawsuits, sailed through along party lines, 30-19. It had previously passed the House 68-47.
  • HB 351, which would essentially encourage cities and towns to sell their water utilities to private companies, passed the House 89-30; 16 Democrats voted yes. (NCPW provided an explainer of the bill yesterday.)
    The consequences of this bill are far-ranging. Those companies — such as Aqua NC — would hike the rates, and if past is prologue, provide low-quality water and poor customer service.

I can see you pushing away your plate of eggs.

Even though some committee amendments to H467 “improved” the bill, it still infringes on the private property rights of those living near industrialized hog farms. Jamie Cole, policy advocate at NC Conservation Network, issued this statement after the vote last night:

“If enacted, H467 would strip property rights away from North Carolinians who suffer odors, flies, and health harms from nearby industrial hog operations. This pollution disproportionately affects low-income communities of color, many having had their property in their families for generations — long before any hog operations came into the area. This bill, which protects only agricultural and forestry operations, will deprive those communities the compensatory damages allowed in every other tort against every other class of defendants.”

As for H351, the bill co-sponsor, Rep. Sam Watford, did amend it to ostensibly make it more palatable to the utilities commission public staff, whose job is to represent the customer.

The new language says that when a municipality sells its water system, the fair value must be determined by two appraisers, including one hired by the city or town. The 5 percent commission for the private company’s appraiser was struck from the bill; with that language, there would have been an incentive for the appraiser to jack up the price.

“I’m still concerned about the lack of consumer protection,” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said during the House debate. “There have been complaints about the quality and price of water” under private companies.

Rep. Jeff Collins, a Nash County Republican, said he has heard no such complaints. (May we gently suggest he attend the next Aqua NC rate case before the utilities commission.) “A municipality can buy another municipality’s system for whatever price. This levels the playing field.”

Collins is overlooking the fact that  local governments are charged with keeping utility rates as low as possible, while private companies are obligated to pay a dividend to their shareholders through higher rates. And water is not a luxury, but a necessity. With this bill, the playing field just tilted away from the customer.

Now then, let’s brew another pot of coffee for another legislative day.

 

 

 

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