agriculture, Environment

Quick hit: Senate’s environmental budget cuts key positions, services at DEQ

You can’t get blood from a turnip, but the Senate is trying, via enormous cuts to the NC DEQ budget. (Creative Commons)

F ew people have had time to take a deep dive into the hours-old, 857-page Senate budget and accompanying policy document. But at first glance, the Senate appears to be punishing the NC Department of Environmental Quality with sharp cuts to staff and services.

The most breathtaking reductions include the elimination of 45.5 full-time equivalent positions in an agency that has been decimated over the last six-plus years. DEQ isn’t just down to the bone, but the bone marrow.

The budget also directs Secretary Michael Regan to find $4.5 million somewhere (maybe in the waiting-room couch cushions? In the fountains at the Legislative Building?) for “efficiencies.”

Where will this money go? Well, $1 million of it would walk over to the Department of Agriculture to hire outside counsel to fight the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule.

It’s not too strong to say that this is legislative payback for Regan and Gov. Cooper’s decision to withdraw from the WOTUS lawsuit. North Carolina was one of 27 states suing the EPA, alleging clean water rules exceeded federal authority. The Trump administration has already signaled WOTUS, a leftover from the Obama administration, is dead. So Cooper and Regan decided not to waste taxpayer money on a lawsuit that would go nowhere.

The budget further calls for a 50 percent decrease in staff — 14 positions total — from the seven regional offices, and the entire environmental education department (two positions).

Lest you think only the plankton on the organizational chart are at risk of a mass die-off, so are the whales: The budget eliminates two positions closest to Secretary Michael Regan: that of Chief Deputy John Nicholson, whose duties would transfer to an unnamed existing position, and the Senior Advisor for Policy and Innovation, held by Mary Penny Kelly.

(Meanwhile, former DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart is still employed in a job he demoted himself to in the Division of Air Quality. Salary: $97,000.)

Three vacant positions in the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources vanish, as does a filled post of Senior Advisor for Policy and Innovation. Also gone: the legislative affairs program manager and a communications specialist.

Other jobs, one in water quality and 1.5 in water supply, plus operating expenses in coastal management will be funded by the federal government and some permit receipts. Considering the tenuousness of environmental money flowing from the feds, this is one way the Senate can abdicate responsibility for these positions and services, should they evaporate.

Programs that help the environment fare no better. Environmental Assistance and Customer Service programs, such as waste reduction and recycling efforts — vamoose!

The Senate pulled the plug on the entire funding, $1 million, for energy research at three state universities — NC State, Appalachian State and NC A&T. And in the commerce department, the Senate reduced matching funds ($300,000) to RTI International, also for energy studies.

There’s more to parse — and to compare with Cooper’s proposed budget. Look for a story tomorrow with more analysis.

 

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