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How the home building industry got a bill to delay new energy efficiency standards in NC

 home under construction in Cornelius NC
David Boraks
Home builders want to delay updated energy efficiency standards for new homes proposed by the state Building Code Council.

The North Carolina Home Builders Association and the governor-appointed state Building Code Council have battled all year over proposed updates to energy efficiency standards for new homes. With the council poised to adopt the changes, the Republican-controlled legislature stepped in to pass a bill that would block any new standards. Email messages show that the home builders lobby helped write the legislation. Energy efficiency advocates are crying foul on the bill, which the governor vetoed and could come up for an override vote this week.

The council wants stricter standards for things like insulation, windows and doors, and heating and cooling systems. Supporters argue it would save homeowners money as energy costs rise and help the state reduce its reliance on burning fossil fuels for electricity.

But the home builders' group says the changes would make houses more expensive. So the builders' lobbyists helped craft a bill to delay any updates until 2031. It easily passed both houses.

That's just the way it works in the General Assembly, said the association's executive vice president, Tim Minton.

"The legislative process is, you know, you've heard, is always like making sausage. You throw everything in the mix, and you see what product comes out at the end," Minton said last week.

In this case, the home builders association didn't have to wait to see what was in the bill. Emails show that association lobbyists spent months writing and rewriting House Bill 488directly with legislative staffers and the bill's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Mark Brody of Union County.

The emails were obtained through a public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility and fossil fuel industry watchdog group, which shared them with WFAE. Itai Vardi is the institute's Boston-based research and communications manager.

"In some places, Representative Brody [is] just letting the industry's representatives and lobbyists work directly with the legislature staff and taking a backseat," Vardi said.

Vardi said Brody served as a "conduit" between the association and legislative staff, from January until the bill came up for final votes last month.

"Unfortunately, it's not unusual to see industry's fingerprints on harmful bills, anti-climate bills, throughout the country. However, I think this case is pretty brazen, where you see the industry really taking charge," Vardi said.

Bill drafts and thank yous

In multiple email exchanges, home builders' lobbyist Steven Webb and other association executives exchanged language or drafts of the bill directly with legislative staff. In one March exchange, a legislative staff lawyer sent Webb a draft of the bill. Webb responded: "Thank you for all your hard work on this bill." In another, a legislative staffer asked the lobbyist if the bill is ready to send to committee chairs. In other emails, the builders offered edits on the bill.

As Minton said, it's not unusual for outside groups to suggest changes in legislation. But the evolution of House Bill 488 shows just how much power the home builders have in Raleigh, said Brooks Rainey Pearson, a lobbyist with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who has been on the other side of this debate.

"It is unusual for an outside group to direct and guide policy to the degree that we have seen homebuilders do this legislative session," Rainey Pearson said.

Rainey Pearson has been a lobbyist in Raleigh for 11 years and said she has been able to suggest changes in legislation.

"But I've never been able to tell a committee chair to show me a draft of a bill beforehand. We simply don't wield that much power over there. And apparently the homebuilders do," she said.

The home builders association has been a frequent campaign contributor to Brody and other legislators. Brody himself is a home builder. In an interview, Brody said he often works with industry lobbyists, as he did on this bill.

"I worked with them, yeah, to draft parts of it … Sometimes it's best, I found, that when the lobbyists want to suggest something, I'll put them in contact with the research (division) and have them draw up some language," Brody said.

Some inspections also blocked

Besides delaying energy code updates, the bill also blocks another new rule that would require home sheathing inspections. Those inspections make sure new houses can withstand hurricane-force winds of up to 150 mph. Without those inspections, home buyers won't know if their homes are safe, said Kim Wooten, an electrical engineer and member of the Building Code Council.

"Category 1 (through) 4 hurricanes, those homes that are built that would be subjected to those winds, they are prohibited from having exterior sheathing inspections," Wooten said. That could lead to damages in a major storm, and Wooten said, "That would be the kind of negative publicity that just would not be good for North Carolina or home builders in general."

The bill also reorganizes the Building Code Council into separate commercial and residential councils, and limits the governor's appointments to the councils.

The Building Code Council has scheduled a vote in December on the building code updates, though that's likely not to include the sections the builders association doesn't want.

The bill passed both houses with veto-proof majorities of all Republicans and a few Democrats. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it, saying it stops efforts to make home construction safer and deprives homebuyers of years of cost savings.

The home builders association says the proposed changes would add $20,400 to the average cost of a single-family home in North Carolina, but that's only based on a survey of eight homebuilders.

An analysis for the Building Code Council by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory says the added cost is far less — $4,763 to $6,057 for single-family homes and $1,552 to $2,029 for multi-family units. The laboratory also said annual savings on energy bills would begin in the first year, and those savings would pay off the additional upfront costs in a few years.

Cooper also said failing to update building codes could block North Carolina from getting millions of dollars in federal grants for hurricane and flooding protections.

The state House is expected to vote on the veto override this week.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.