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NC House and Senate differences on coal ash legislation cloud session’s end

By Dan Kane
dkane@newsobserver.com
Coal Ash Spill
Gerry Broome - AP
Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden in February. A measure to impose tougher regulations on coal ash disposal hit a wall Friday when House and Senate leaders couldn’t agree on a compromise bill.

RALEIGH In the end, there was no end.

On Saturday morning, the N.C. House finished what appeared to be the last big piece of business for the 2014 session – passage of a $21.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

But then the House put forward its own terms for adjourning the session, different from those passed in the Senate a day earlier. One of the big sticking points: The House wants to pass legislation in the coming weeks to resolve the environmental and public health risks surrounding open-air coal ash pits at 33 sites around the state, while the Senate would push the issue to after the November election.

“I think our folks would like to resolve this in August,” said Rep. Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee. “Both sides have put in a lot of work … and it seems a shame to let that one go unresolved.”

Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said the Senate’s position remains unchanged.

“With Gov. McCrory’s decision to sign the budget, the Senate has concluded its business until the previously agreed-to session on Medicaid reform in November,” Auth said.

On Friday, Berger told reporters that three members of the House assigned to work on a compromise bill to deal with the coal ash problem went “rogue” at the last minute, putting forward a weaker proposal than he and other Senate leaders found unacceptable.

Berger’s district includes Eden, the site of the February coal ash spill on the Dan River, and he has pressed hard for cleanup legislation. He is a primary sponsor of the Senate’s coal ash management plan, which was filed on the opening day of the session.

Until the adjournment impasse is resolved, the House and Senate will likely hold “skeleton sessions” with no legislation being moved until Aug. 14 at the earliest, when they might return to deal with any legislation Gov. Pat McCrory might veto. The impasse would also mean no potential resolution on the coal ash issue until after the election.

That could pose a problem for House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, who is seeking to knock Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan out of her seat on Election Day. Environmental groups and others opposed to his candidacy have spent heavily on campaign ads seeking to sting him on the coal ash issue.

Tillis said he supports keeping the session alive to resolve the issue, but he did not view it as crucial to his Senate hopes.

“The interests who are spending money on me, they’re going to try to use all kinds of fictions to try to work against me in the campaign, that’s just the nature of campaigns,” he said.

The House also wants to return in two weeks to try to resolve other legislation with the Senate. That legislation includes some high-profile issues: economic development incentives such as those used to lure film and TV productions, measures to streamline regulations and health care coverage for those with autism. The House on Saturday also took no action on a bill that would limit Wake County’s sales tax options, and the measure remains in committee.

The Senate has reserved the Aug. 14 date only to deal with any potential gubernatorial vetoes.

Both chambers have agreed to come back after the November elections to get a handle on Medicaid costs, another issue they could not agree on.

Kane: 919-829-4861; Twitter: @dankanenando
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