For DEQ, a House committee’s budget saves more jobs, exacts less revenge

Postpone the DEQ bake sale, the House budget doesn’t cut funding for the department in the first fiscal year. (Photo: Creative Commons)

I t’s premature for Secretary Michael Regan to cancel the NC Department of Environmental Quality bake sale, but at least the House budget doesn’t force him to scrounge for millions of dollars in “efficiencies.” That’s lot of brownies.

DEQ’s budget has been clearcut so often over the past decade that the department has been reduced to stumps. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations committee seems to understand DEQ’s predicament — doing more work with fewer people. The committee appropriated $78.7 million, an increase of $923,000 over the base budget for 2017–2018.

For 2018–2019, the appropriation is reduced to $77.6 million.

The Senate, on the other hand, meted out just $70 million — a $7.8 million dollar reduction in the first fiscal year, and barely moved the dial in the second: $71.1 million.

The governor proposed more generous amounts, of $84 million and $83 million, respectively, and added 48 jobs.

House budget saves univ energy research, entire DEQ divisions; still cuts 6.75 positions but less than Senate's 56.5 Click To Tweet

The House cuts just 6.75 positions, compared to 56.5 in the Senate version. It saves the university energy research centers and the DEQ divisions that the Senate had eliminated wholesale: the Environmental Assistance and Customer Service and Environmental Education.

The budget adds a one-time $150,000 appropriation for the FerryMon program. That service, based at UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences, monitors water quality along ferry routes on coast and in the sounds. It ran out of money last year, and unfortunately, the program lay dormant when Hurricane Matthew struck. Water quality data would have been important for that historic storm.

Out of House budget: $$ for NC Policy Collaboratory, $$ for pet project in Havelock. In: $$ for pet project at Jordan Lake Click To Tweet

But what is missing from the House budget is as important as what it contains. These deliberate choices signal the House’s policy values. Missing is any mention of the $4.5 million that the Senate, alleging that there were too many idle department employees, had directed Regan to cut. (If workers are idle, it’s because they’ve collapsed from exhaustion.)

Also gone, the Senate’s $1 million de facto penalty on DEQ for withdrawing from a pointless federal lawsuit. The money was to be transferred to the Department of Agriculture so it could hire outside counsel to sue the EPA over the Waters of the United States rule. The Trump administration plans to revoke that rule anyway, so a lawsuit opposing it is moot.

Conspicuous by its absence is funding for the NC Policy Collaboratory. The legislature created this UNC scientific think tank — and a $ 1 million appropriation —- out of thin air in the final days of the previous session. Now the collaboratory would be dismantled unless it finds private or non-state money (or sponsors its own bake sale).

While the political motives behind the collaboratory are questionable, the group has launched a half-dozen legitimate scientific projects. It recently issued requests for proposals for future endeavors, now apparently in limbo until the final budget is hashed out.

DEQ jobs are more important than the collaboratory, but this situation exemplifies the risks inherent in funding pet projects — not everyone likes pets.

The Senate budget had assigned and/or funded several projects to the collaboratory, including digitizing environmental data (no money) and developing a tool to assess the health of municipal water systems ($100,000).

Those disappear from the House budget altogether. Research on the shellfish industry would now be assumed by the NC Sea Grant, with an $150,000 earmark. This could help NC Sea Grant, which is under NC State University, to continue at least some of its work. President Trump’s budget eliminates all funding for sea grant programs nationwide, including North Carolina’s.

Also gone: The $1 million gift to the City of Havelock to clean up the old — and low-risk — Phoenix Recycling site. This money would have been siphoned from one cash-strapped DEQ fund, allowing Phoenix to jump the line in front of hundreds and hundreds more critical projects.

And, although no exact dollar amount is attached to this language, House places stricter rules on owners of old landfills. (These dumps were built and operated before 1983, when the environmental laws were more lax.) There are roughly 667 of these pre-regulatory landfills with varying degrees of contamination.

The House at least requires property owners to evaluate what contaminants — and how much of them — lurk in the landfills. Owners would then clean up the site — with DEQ funds — based on the risk and the future use of the property. Old landfills and dumps, for example, can still be covered and redeveloped for industrial/commercial uses.

The Senate, though, lets property owners off the hook on a clean up as long as they continue to own the land and they accept financial and legal liability for any on-site or off-site pollution.

However, no state budget is without its hinky provisions. A holdover from the previous budget, $1.3 million to study chemical treatments to kill algae in Jordan Lake, returns. That money could directly benefit SePro, a company represented by Harold Brubaker, a powerful lobbyist and House speaker who has tried to ram through a contract between his client and DEQ.

The full House takes up the budget next week.

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