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N.C. expected to vote on boater bill

LAKE WYLIE -- To concur, or not to concur? That question could be the only one separating Lake Wylie from a new rule that eventually could impact almost all boaters on the lake.

Following months of discussing, amending and rescheduling, legislators in North Carolina marked their calendars for past press time Monday night in what would be--if approved--the final vote to make mandatory boater education a reality.

Senate bill 43, which would require all North Carolina boaters born on or since Jan. 1, 1984 to complete a certified safe boating course before operating a vessel of 10 or more horsepower, is the result of legislation bounced back and forth from the state House and Senate since February. Last week the House approved third and final reading of the bill, but added an amendment requiring the Senate--which already passed third reading--to take one more look.

"It's just to concur or not to concur," said Paul Curry with the Senate principal clerk's office. "It's not a second or third reading."

Last week's House vote passed by a 91-26 count. The amendment, a second from the House side in as many weeks, stated that anyone leasing a personal watercraft must provide "basic safety instruction" prior to an agreement, that directions on use and review of safety provisions must be provided and that failure to do so is a misdemeanor offense. The amendment also stated that any local boating laws that are more specific than the new law still apply.

"It's a good bill," said N.C. Rep. Michael Wray, who signed the amendment and introduced the original House bill version of what became SB 43. "It's going to save lives."

Wray was confident prior to the scheduled Monday night vote that the change would be approved by the Senate and be made law. Changes from the original bill, which would have phased in boaters of all ages by July 11, 2016 and included a $100 penalty for violators, now include a much slower phase-in to all boaters with the 1984 requirement and list only court costs to be paid by violators.

Some proponents of the original bill said in the past month that the latest version is "watered down," arguing that older boaters are more likely to cause wrecks on the water than younger boaters and that the penalty should be a mandatory education class if the intent is safe boating.

"It's not as strong as we would hope it to be, but it's a good start," Wray said. "That's what can happen with a bill from the time you introduce it to when it goes through, but it's a step toward protecting the citizens of North Carolina."

As for the younger boaters or older boaters argument, Wray sees the latest legislation as a way to promote outdoorsmanship among young North Carolinians, teaching them how to enjoy the water and be responsible on it.

South Carolina currently has no such mandatory boater education bill, and state leaders from the Department of Natural Resources stated throughout the North Carolina process that there are no plans to introduce a similar bill in South Carolina. North Carolina lake enforcement officers say a new law in North Carolina would require the safe boating certificate on their state waters regardless of where the boat launches, where the operator lives or where the boat docks.

As for plans past deadline Monday night, Curry gave two options for what might happen with the bill. If the Senate did not concur, or agree to the bill with House changes, then both groups would set up a conference committee to iron out the differences in versions that passed both legislatures. If the Senate concurred, which Wray expected to happen, the new bill becomes law in May of 2010.

"Once the Senate concurs on the committee substitute with the House amendments on it, that's it," Curry said.

The only other plausible option is one not unfamiliar to this legislation in recent months, Curry said. The Senate could decide to hold off the vote for a later date.

"That happens all the time," Curry said last week. "As we know right now, though, they're scheduled to vote Monday night."