‘Unloved bill' offers bad choice for North Carolina

From Mitch Kokai, director of communications for the John Locke Foundation:

“The poison that makes you sick is better than the poison that kills you.” That analogy hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement for legislation. But it was the best argument Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, found last week to support Senate Bill 1967.

She wasn't alone. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, called the legislation “one of the more unloved bills” circulating this year. Even the bill's drafter, legislative attorney George Givens, said, “There's hardly anybody that likes it entirely.”

So how did this Rodney Dangerfield of a bill win unanimous Senate support on its way to likely House approval? The answer involves a complex, confusing process.

S.B. 1967 sets more stringent development restrictions within our state's 20 coastal counties. The stated goal is reduced pollution from stormwater runoff. Lawmakers didn't initiate the restrictions, but if they hadn't acted, coastal residents would have faced even more stringent restrictions from the state Environmental Management Commission.

Appointed by legislative leaders and the governor, EMC members never face election. Taxpayers and property owners cannot take direct steps to hold EMC members accountable.

EMC stormwater rules adopted earlier this year sparked protests from coastal developers, property owners and local governments. Once opponents generated 10 protest petitions, state law delayed the EMC's plan and brought the General Assembly into the debate.

S.B. 1967 represents a compromise developed after regulators, environmental groups, developers, local governments, and others spent more than 30 hours haggling in public meetings (and even more hours in private discussions).

The bill tightens some existing restrictions but dilutes the EMC's proposals. Supporters say only this compromise can win halfhearted support from all stakeholders this year. Without acceptable legislation, the EMC rules will take effect as soon as lawmakers leave Raleigh for good.

It should disturb any property owner that he has no recourse to hold members of the Environmental Management Commission accountable. Equally disturbing is the fact that EMC rules so often run afoul of legislators who do face public scrutiny at the ballot box every two years.

The EMC stormwater standard is the “default setting.” Lawmakers can let it take effect or scramble to come up with something better. That's not a choice North Carolina ought to have to make.