With a “sense of urgency,” lawmakers push disaster relief bill — without a timeline for fund disbursement

A photo of the Senate chamber, where lawmakers are milling about.

The Senate did little today, convening to establish rules and then recessing until Wednesday at 8 a.m. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The vibe in the halls of the Legislative Building today ranged from angry — protesters chanted “shame” outside the Senate gallery — to anxious — as lobbyists, lawmakers, the media and the curious wondered what shenanigans the special session might hold. Courtpacking? Regulatory reform? Something more sinister?

Gov. Pat McCrory had called the session so that lawmakers could pass the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016. That bill would allocate $200 million to help people whose lives were upended by Hurricane Matthew and the western wildfires. “These are the poorest of the poor. They are in desperate straits,” McCrory told the House Appropriations Committee. “This is why I called you back to Raleigh. We need to do it with a sense of urgency.”

While the sentiment is commendable, the initial draft of House Bill 2 (no, not that disastrous bill) contains no timeline for the disbursement of the money. Instead, there were only promises that the funds will be allocated “quickly.” Half of the money comes from the state’s rainy day fund and the other from an unappropriated balance in the General Fund.

“My question is about getting the money out,” said Rep. Verla Insko, an Orange County Democrat. “And then whether or not there is a level of collaboration involved to reach the local people.”

“There are different pots of money and different processes,” replied William Childs of the Fiscal Research Division. “I couldn’t tell you how quickly they’ll get the money. The assumption is as quickly as possible.”

The appropriations would be divvied up among housing, emergency management, infrastructure, public health and small business grants.

  • $20 million to the House Trust Fund to help low-income people find permanent homes.
  • $20.9 million to the Division of Emergency Management for short-term housing needs, “resiliency” planning and redevelopment, especially in rural areas where that expertise could be lacking.
  • $72.2 million to the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund to prepare for future emergencies and to provide a state match for federal funds.
  • $10.2 million to the NC Department of Commerce, which will funnel that money the Rural Economic Development Division. In turn, that division will provide grants to local governments for to build or repair infrastructure, such as sidewalks and sewers, and new residential development in areas that lie outside the 100-year floodplain. Roughly $250,000 of this money will be used to examine the need for business assistance funds.
  • $10 million to the NC Department of Environmental Quality for disaster-related infrastructure and cleanup needs including, repair of wastewater and drinking water systems, dam safety, emergency permitting, and solid waste cleanup. A portion of the funds will also go to local governments to repair cemeteries and burial sites and for public health protection.
  • $37.9 million to the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for dike and farm pond repairs and disaster-related timber restoration.
  • $1 million shall be allocated to the Department of Insurance, Office of the State Fire Marshal, to provide grants to volunteer fire departments for repairs that were not covered by federal assistance or by insurance policies.
  • $25 million to the nonprofit Golden LEAF Foundation for small business grants and infrastructure repair.

But $200 million is only a sliver of the money needed to fully restore the disaster areas to some sense of normalcy. “I know you’re trying to cover immediate needs,” Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democrat from Durham, said. “But more is needed.”

Appropriations Chairman Nelson Dollar said there will be a second disaster relief bill in the long session, which begins in January. Congress also approved an additional $300 million for North Carolina last week. In addition, FEMA just provided $664,000 for mental health counseling to disaster victims.

Rep. Shelly Willingham, a Democrat from Edgecombe County, one of the declared disaster areas, said his constituents “are hurting.”

“Many of those folks, it’s their second time,” he said, referring the last major storm, Hurricane Floyd in 1999. “I’ve been out in Princeville, on a boat in the water, looking at the devastation. Counseling is something that’s needed.”

The bill also would limit the number of make-up days for public schools to two — even though some districts in the hardest-hit areas canceled classes for nearly three weeks

Lawmakers added two amendments, one including Wilkes and Ashe counties in the wildfire disaster relief areas. The other would require a monthly expenditure and progress report to be delivered to committee leadership and the Fiscal Research Division. These reports are to track how — and how quickly — the money is being spent.

As of 5:30 p.m., no court-packing or regulatory reform bills, both rumored to be in the works, had been filed. Rep. Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat, did file measures to restore early voting days and to appoint a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Hall has been a vigorous proponent of both issues.

However, House Bill 4, filed by conservative Republican Rep. George Cleveland of Onslow County, seemed cryptic. It ostensibly addresses statewide employee compensation and classification systems. But it’s common for these vague bills to function as mere placeholders for substitute and entirely unrelated language.

The Senate reconvenes Wednesday at 8 a.m. Early Tuesday evening, the House was still in session and had not yet set a time to reconvene.

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