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RALEIGH -- A bill to reclaim some state authority over North Carolina land acquired by the federal government sailed through the state House of Representatives Tuesday.
The 109-9 vote caught observers by surprise, with the handful of opposing votes cast by lawmakers representing areas with military interests. The voice vote that followed revealed no audible dissenting votes. Only one lawmaker attempted to debate the bill, failing to get the floor from Speaker Jim Black.
House Bill 236 had been introduced by Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, and had been shepherded by House Rules Chairman Rep. Bill Culpepper, D-Chowan.
"It was an amazing vote," said Doris Morris, North Carolinians Opposed to the Outlying Landing Field communications director. "At least we're halfway there."
Opponents of the Navy's proposed OLF site in Washington and Beaufort counties have advocated for passage of the bill as a means of holding the Navy at bay on property it has not been able to secure for the site.
The bill now will go to the Senate, where it either will supplant its companion, Senate Bill 355, or go to committee for reconciliation. Word from the Senate, say observers, is that the rules chairman, Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, will hold the bill in limbo until at least the first base closure list is released. Base Realignment and Closure decisions must go through lengthy reviews before final decisions are announced.
Rand and Sen. Scott Thomas, D-Craven, have been vocal opponents of any effort to revise General Statue 104-7, the 1907 law that turned over all control of state land purchased or condemned by the federal government. Both have claimed the bill is unfriendly to the military.
On the House floor, Culpepper explained to lawmakers the bill before them would restore the intent of the 1907 law, while limiting the blanket handover of jurisdiction on all acquired land, regardless of size. If it becomes law, the revision, will require legislative approval on tracts of 25 acres or more before sole jurisdiction is transferred on federally acquired land. The default would be joint jurisdiction in the absence of state approval.
That, said Culpepper, will allow the state to enforce its own laws and regulations on the environment, public health and other interests under concurrent jurisdiction.
"That brings us into line with modern thinking," he said, ensuring the state has "the same jurisdiction it has over any other person."
Only a handful of other states, say observers, have handed over jurisdiction guaranteed to states under the federal constitution. Virginia's state property rights remain intact.
To quell concerns of lawmakers fearful of offending military interests, Culpepper reiterated that nothing in the bill will prohibit the federal government from buying or condemning state land.
The bill, as drafted, grandfathers in existing military installations, guaranteeing no change other than the required approval should the base expand more than 25 miles beyond existing boundaries. A minor amendment, also exempting New River Marine Corps Air Station, passed unanimously.
"This is as good as it possibly can be," said Kathy Hartkopf, legislative liaison for Citizens for a Sound Economy, noting the tally included a "nice mix of Democrats and Republicans."
A fixture at the General Assembly, Hartkopf has made no secret of CSE's intent to grade lawmakers on their votes. The North Carolina CSE chapter, said Hartkopf, has property rights at the top of its agenda.
"We score votes that are important," she explained. "This is one that I guaranteed them we would score."
Property rights as an issue, added Hartkopf, resonates with "most of the Republicans" and "more than a handful of conservative Democrats."
"I think this overwhelming majority of the vote in the House puts the pressure on the Senate to take a close look at this bill, particularly as it relates to protection of constitutional property rights," said Joel Raupe, administrative assistant to the Senate minority leader, Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. Raupe is closer than most to the issue, as he lives in Beaufort County.
Given the bill's support in the House, Raupe said, "They'll consider the House bill as the primary bill, I think, especially with this overwhelming vote."
If the Senate companion bill is shunted aside in favor of the House bill, Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, would take the lead in sponsoring the bill, said Raupe.
If the Senate votes to concur on the House bill, he explained, it goes to the governor for his signature.
"If they vote not to concur," noted Raupe, "it goes to conference. I don't see a conference committee; it's pretty simple."
Raupe concurred with Culpepper's message to the House -- backed up by Pentagon civilian leadership -- that revising 104-7 has no bearing on the state's standing in the BRAC process.
"Naturally, there's some fear about how this affects the BRAC commission," he noted. "That's nervousness; that's not rational."
The bill's fate now, said Raupe, is the hands of Rand and Democratic Sen. Marc Basnight, president pro tem of the Senate.
The interplay between Rand's Fayetteville military interests and Basnight's coastal interests -- the senator is from Manteo in Dare County -- should hold the attention of legislative observers.