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House OKs cellphone ban, billboard measure before deadline

By GARY D. ROBERTSONMay 7, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — One North Carolina legislative chamber wrapped up its work on Tuesday before a deadline the General Assembly imposed on itself this week so that the universe of bills filed during this two-year session can be narrowed.

The House approved nearly 30 bills, including measures designed to discourage hand-held cellphone use while driving and to address apartment and house renters who say they have emotional support pets. Another approved bill gives billboard companies the option to move signs when they’re removed due to the construction of new roads.

The Senate planned to take up more bills before Thursday’s actual “crossover” deadline. Any measure unrelated to taxes or spending that doesn’t pass one chamber by then is considered dead until 2021. There are ways around the deadline, however.

CELLPHONE CHALLENGE

A watered-down bill originally designed to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones survived a House floor vote despite complaints it either lacked teeth to combat distracted driving or was an example of improper government intervention into people’s lives.

Although the measure advanced by a 92-23 vote, the bill’s future remained in doubt after several representatives said the bill fell short or wouldn’t make the state’s roadways less dangerous. Drivers who use a hand-held device would face a $100 fine, but only if it’s determined the phone use contributed to careless or reckless driving.

“It’s a feel-good bill,” said Rep. David Rogers, a Rutherford County Republican who voted no. “Reckless driving is already against the law.” Bill supporters said the bill was a start and promised Senate allies would work to find better language to combat accidents and fatalities related to cellphone use while driving.

“In this case, doing nothing is worse than doing something,” said House Rules Chairman David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, in urging passage.

HELPFUL PETS

Media reports of abuses by people who say they need animals for emotional support while traveling or in rental properties that otherwise bar animals are the impetus for a measure approved overwhelmingly by the House.

The bill creates a nondiscrimination provision for people living in an apartment or other rental who use such animals. But those without an obvious disability would have to give their landlord a document from a doctor, psychologist or social workers affirming this need. And the measure would make it a misdemeanor for someone to lie to a landlord or a health care provider about their need to obtain verification.

BILLBOARD BARRIERS

After defeating legislation on the same topic in 2017, the House approved a measure that would allow outdoor advertising companies to relocate billboards that must be removed because the land upon which it sits is being condemned to build a highway project.

The previous session’s bill failed because House members said the changes took away local control of billboard sites within cities and towns.

This week, the billboard industry and North Carolina League of Municipalities hammered out some changes that bill sponsors used to get enough support to advance the measure through the House. The measure would require replacement billboards to sit nearby in similarly zoned areas and prohibit their upgrades to digital boards.

SENATE MEASURES

The Senate voted Tuesday for more than 20 bills, including those that would rework how state regulators manage coastal fisheries and seek to encourage improved shellfish harvests. A bill designed to improve child abuse reporting and prosecute offenders passed unanimously, as did a measure expanding when veterinarians or their workers can be punished by state regulators for impairment.

OFFICIAL DESIGNATIONS

The House advanced measures giving special superlative state designations. North Carolina’s official state cookie would be the thin Moravian cookie. The U.S.S. North Carolina, now docked in Wilmington as a floating museum, would be the official state battleship. The Senate would have to go along.

WHAT’S NEXT

The House decided to wrap up Tuesday in part because of a national Republican Legislative Campaign Committee conference starting Wednesday in Asheville, and won’t take votes again until next week. While Senate leader Phil Berger has a significant role in the conference as the committee’s chairman, the Senate will continue to work at least through Wednesday.

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