The North Carolina General Assembly signaled action later this week on environment, education and possibly elections administration legislation, ending a nearly monthlong hiatus as lawmakers returned to Raleigh.
A Senate committee voted late Wednesday for legislation designed to address pollution discharge permitting and high-tech testing of unregulated contaminants in response to the discharge of the chemical GenX into the Cape Fear River, the primary drinking water source for Wilmington. A Bladen County plant released GenX, used to make Teflon and other coatings, into the river for decades, officials say.
The House approved a different version last month, and at the time Senate leader Phil Berger suggested action wouldn't be taken up until the year's primary work session begins in May. But now it appears the legislature will seek a compromise in the coming days.
"The Senate is going to move a bill and then we're going to try and work out the differences that are there," said Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, the House Rules Committee chairman.
The full Senate met briefly Wednesday and confirmed four appointments by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to the state employee pension trustee board. House Speaker Tim Moore told colleagues more votes were expected the rest of the week, including a joint House-Senate session Friday to consider Cooper's appointments to the State Board of Education. Lewis said a news conference abut an education announcement was expected Thursday, but he declined to provide details.
House and Senate Republicans have been talking privately about how to address concerns by school districts that a tougher student class-size mandate this fall in kindergarten through third grade could result in fewer music and physical education teachers — or in larger classes in other grades.
Lewis also said an election committee on Friday could discuss how to address a new state Supreme Court ruling favoring Cooper. A majority of justices found the legislature violated the state constitution by requiring him to pick half of the appointments on a combined elections and ethics board from a list created by Republicans. Lewis said he'd like to pass a new law addressing the ruling before it's returned a three-judge panel next week for review.
The legislature hadn't met to vote on legislation since Jan. 10. Lawmakers held perfunctory sessions every few days to keep the work session going while lawmakers tried to negotiate bills and awaited court rulings on redistricting and judicial primaries.
Senate Republicans rolled out a new GenX measure before Wednesday's committee. The House version of the measure approved last month included $2.3 million for the Department of Environmental Quality to test for GenX and additional contaminants in other rivers, cut an environmental permitting backlog and pay for high-tech equipment to locate chemicals in the water.
The Senate version provided $2.4 million to DEQ but it's not directed for the backlog or to purchase a mass spectrometer. Rather, the money is supposed to go to complete an audit of the state's permitting program for entities that discharge pollutants in the water and to cooperate with any audit of the program by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
As for testing equipment, the law directs an agency the legislature created at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to ensure spectrometers on UNC-system campuses are available if the EPA can no longer provide testing for free.
The Senate environment committee voted for the bill, although some Democrats who complained about the lack of permitting and equipment funds for DEQ voted no. The measure now goes to another Senate panel.