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Meet North Carolina Conservatives’ New Plan to Rein In Government 

If you're a Republican in the state legislature, you have to know two things. First, you'll eventually lose your supermajority. Second, there's a decent chance that Pat McCrory won't be governor in 2017, and the next administration might not be so obsequious to business interests.

So what do you do? If the Art Pope–founded John Locke Foundation gets its way, you simply render the next governor impotent.

On February 2, JLF representatives gave a presentation before the Joint Legislative Administrative Procedure Oversight Committee. There they pitched what Jon Sanders, JLF's director of regulatory studies, called a "state-based REINS Act." (REINS stands for "Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny.")

In short, such a law would block state agencies from enacting "major administrative rules" and require the General Assembly to sign off on many executive actions before they're implemented. The REINS Act would affect new regulations or rules with a "substantial economic impact"—meaning, in Sanders's view, a state rule or regulation that costs industry over $1 million.

"The underlying aim of REINS," Sanders wrote in a presentation, "is a regulatory process that is more transparent, more circumspect, and more accountable to the people, who are the ultimate authority in America."

The JLF's premise, based on a study from economists at the Beacon Hill Institute in Massachusetts—a far-right think tank that has been funded by the Koch brothers and worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council—is that state regulations cost North Carolina businesses as much as $25.5 billion a year. (The economists admit they didn't factor in any economic benefits these regulations might have.)

Currently, North Carolina has more than twenty-three thousand rules and regulations, which cover everything from environmental protection to workplace safety to hunting and fishing restrictions. In 2013, the state's codifier of rules told this same joint legislative committee that some five thousand new rules are reviewed every year by the state's Office of Administrative Hearings. Of these, Sanders wrote in his presentation, "99.9 percent of agencies' proposed new regulations take effect."

"Regulations and red tape in North Carolina are almost a fait accompli the moment they're proposed," Sanders told the INDY.

The Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 already requires a comprehensive review of the state's regulations over the course of a decade, with the potential for them to be repealed or amended, but the JLF doesn't think that goes far enough.

While almost every proposed regulation takes effect, Sanders argues, only one in five bills do, and while the legislature can pass laws to block new executive-level regulations, this process is difficult.

The JLF wants to flip the script: instead of voting to block regulations, the legislature will vote to enact them—and that will mean far fewer regulations.

No bill has been introduced yet. But this isn't a new idea. The JLF's proposal is modeled after a federal REINS Act that has passed the U.S. House three times since 2011 but never cleared the Senate. That bill would require Congress to pass a resolution to approve any proposed rule that "would have a major impact on the economy, cause significant cost or price increases on consumers, or significantly harm competition, employment, productivity, and other healthy economic activities," according to the JLF.

State Representative Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, a committee member who attended the hearing, doesn't think the REINS Act stands much of a chance in the upcoming legislative short session.

It is, after all, an election year.

"If there may be a controversy, they'll stay away from that so we can spend time adjusting the budget and on local bills that are noncontroversial," he predicts. Such sweeping change is more likely to come up in next year's long session—unless, that is, Republicans lose both their supermajority and the governor's office.

Still, Floyd adds, "Given the General Assembly, you never know what's going to come up."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Reined In"

  • The REINS Act would make the legislature vote to enact regulations, not to block them

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