Rep. Howard’s bills on debt settlement, muscadine grape juice in schools advance
By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — A bill related to prohibiting debt settlement practices in North Carolina and one that requires schools to purchase and make available muscadine grape juice from Rep. Julia Howard made it to the other chamber — a necessary step in the process to passage.
Howard, a senior Republican representing Rowan and Davie counties, is sponsoring nearly 20 bills in the House currently, and two have advanced from the House. On March 3, House Bill 76, which declares debt settlement an unfair trading practice and expands civil remedies available to debtors, passed the House unanimously. It’s another attempt at cracking down on the practice as a similar bill of Howard’s passed the House and Senate during the short session in June but was ultimately rejected for a vote on the Senate floor.
Debt adjusting is taking money and promising to pay it to someone else’s creditor. Debt settlement is going between the debtor and creditor to negotiate on behalf of the debtor. Both are misdemeanors under current law. Howard’s proposed bill aims to give the attorney general “more teeth” to stop such activity, and it helps the debtor who might want to sue.
Both Reps. Harry Warren and Wayne Sasser — Republicans representing Rowan County — have signed on as sponsors of the bill.
Howard told the Post that she’s optimistic it will pass from the Senate this time based on what she’s been told from members in the other chamber. She added that it’s normal for bills to remain stagnant in the Senate at this point of the legislative session.
Another bill of Howard’s did not pass the House as smoothly. H.B. 136 is an act that requires the State Board of Education and local boards to make available 100% muscadine grape juice at public and charter schools as well as community colleges and the UNC system. The bill would also require muscadine grape juice to be added to the state’s Farm to School Nutrition Program and the “Got to be NC” marketing program.
H.B. 136 passed the House 91-22 on March 23 after much debate from Democrats and Republicans. Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican who represents Cabarrus County and represented parts of Rowan until the 2020 election, was the lone Republican to vote against the bill.
During the bill’s debate, Pittman said he appreciates the effort to support farmers and provide healthy options, but he opposed legislators placing a mandate on schools because it’s not “their responsibility to create a market.”
“I find the suggestion that I’m voting against farmers to be personally insulting,” Pittman said. “Being the descendant of a long line of farmers and having done a lot of work when I was a teenager … I’ve always been very supportive of farmers. That’s not the point here. The bill does not give the schools an option.”
Rep. Julie von Haefan, a Democrat from Wake County, also spoke in opposition to the bill, citing concern for the requirement without any supplemental funding to implement. She added the juice will ultimately go to waste if not used by students.
Howard said she’s sponsoring the bill because it’s the state fruit and a way to promote North Carolina farmers.
“We don’t grow oranges in North Carolina. We grow grapes,” Howard said during the bill’s debate in the House.
Howard also sponsored H.B. 107, which holds the unemployment tax rate for employers at 1.9% for 2021 rather than raising it. Additionally, the bill extends provisions that expedite the filing of unemployment claims as the pandemic continues. Following the announcement of Executive Order 200 from Gov. Roy Cooper on March 1, House members told the Senate to continue with its version — Senate Bill 114 — because it will be easier for House members to make the appropriate changes to comply with Cooper’s order. That order outlined the reinstatement of work search requirements for unemployment insurance benefits for new claimants.
Howard added it’s pertinent to get the bill signed by the governor before April 1 because that’s when the rate is set to automatically increase.
S.B. 114 has passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. It has been placed on the calendar to be debated and voted upon on Tuesday.
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.
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