agriculture, Commentary, Environment

The Great Recession was a “wonderful blessing” and other bizarre takes from an oversight committee

(Photo: taxrebate.org.uk)

Except for the people who benefit from others’ misery — Wall Street short-sellers, pyramid schemers and prosperity gospel profiteers — the Great Recession was difficult, painful, even life-altering.

But not for Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County. The chairman of the Joint Oversight Committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources, Dixon proclaimed yesterday afternoon that the “Great Recession was a wonderful blessing.” His point was that a sudden financial belt-tightening in 2008-09 benefitted state government, turning it into a lean, mean machine, albeit one that left several departments running on fumes.

The Great Recession was a wonderful blessing Click To Tweet

“Our bad decisions come when the money is flowing,” said Dixon, who, over the past 20 years, has received $21,000 in federal farm subsidies to help cushion him against life’s ups and downs.

As a hypothetical, let’s say that Dixon’s pronouncement is true. The logic follows that, flush with a $550 billion surplus this year, the legislature made a very poor decision in cutting the budget of NC Department of Environmental Quality by $1.8 million through 2019.

The recent budget bill directed DEQ to achieve this by Reorganization through Reduction program. Stripped of its Orwellian overtones, RTR means doing more with less, begging employees to take early retirement, shifting workloads so one person does the work of two, and probably shaking the printer cartridges to milk every single precious drop of cyan.

These cuts have occurred while the state budget overall has increased and the environmental crises facing North Carolina — GenX, coal ash, emerging contaminants — have become more complex. Forgive North Carolinians if they forget to count their blessings.

Assistant Secretary of the Environment Sheila Holman told the oversight committee that to reach the required RTR benchmark, DEQ will pay nearly $468,000 in severance and $58,000 in health insurance to 12 employees who took the buyout and whose positions are state-funded. This equals an average of $39,000 each in severance, which is based on length of service, plus $4,833 apiece for health insurance.

Even with the payouts, the RTR is projected to save $446,400 in appropriated funds.

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from Nash County, asked for an “upfront and transparent report of the impacts.”

Such details weren’t available at the meeting, but Holman told the committee that positions within administration, coastal management, customer service, waste management, and energy, mining and land resources were eliminated.

The Division of Water Resources remained unscathed because the budget directive came down in June as the GenX crisis was escalating. The resources required to grapple with the contaminated drinking water ” highlighted the shortages” in that division, Holman said.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, noted that 31 positions throughout the agency have been redirected to deal with GenX and emerging contaminants. Those employees, in water resources, waste management and air quality now spend 70 percent of their time working on that issue and 30 percent on their usual duties, Holman said.

“How are we covering for current obligations?” Harrison asked.

“Permitting and inspections aren’t being done as quickly,” Holman replied.

That backlog of permitting — 40 percent — is in part how the GenX problem went unnoticed. Chemours was operating on an administratively continued permit when DEQ learned it was discharging the chemical into the Cape Fear and drinking water supplies.

The company’s five-year permit had expired, but since it had applied for a renewal by the deadline, it was allowed to operate as usual until DEQ was able to review and renew the permit. A portion of the company’s permit is now being revoked because of an unreported GenX spill in October.

The Division of Marine Fisheries also was untouched, other than funding five positions from fee receipts rather than state appropriations. If approved by the state budget office, the change will save more than $316,000.

If the state budget office does not approve of the funding shift, Holman said the department will have to start another round of RTR, likely in the divisions that had previously been spared. The decision is expected before the holiday break.

Some employees nearing retirement were nudged out the door, allowing DEQ to hire younger, less experienced people at lower salaries. However, that also comes at a cost. “We’ll lose institutional knowledge,” Holman said.

We'll lose institutional knowledge Click To Tweet

That point seemed lost on Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican representing Carteret and Jones counties. She congratulated Holman for her progress on carrying out the legislative directive. McElraft, though, took issue with the buyout amounts. “Why are we paying people severance if they were nearing retirement?” she asked. “We would have lost them anyway and hired cheaper people.”

We would have lost them anyway and hired cheaper people. Click To Tweet

Yet even with the financial chopping and mincing, DEQ is still $65,000 shy of its required budget cuts for the year.

Meanwhile, though, the Department of Agriculture is sitting on a $250,000 nest egg — a gift from the legislature to “protect” North Carolina from the federal Waters of the United States rule. The plan was to use the quarter-million dollars for outside counsel to sue the EPA over WOTUS, as it’s known. Under the rule, the definition of Waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act expanded, sparking outcry from opponents who erroneously claimed it would soon be illegal to pollute so much as a mud puddle.

However, the Trump administration is withdrawing the rule. Although it will take time for a full repeal, the rule is “never going to go into effect anytime soon,” said Jeff Cherry, staff attorney for the General Assembly.

“Since we’ve been using in-house counsel, have we spent any of the $250,000?” asked McElrath.

Laura Kilian, the agriculture department’s legislative liaison replied: “No.”

The Department of Agriculture must be blessed.

DEQ by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

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