Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

“Frankenstein’s monster”: House Bill 90 heads to governor’s desk

Note: NC Policy Watch education reporter Billy Ball is blogging about the class-size portion of the bill. 

Over the past week, House Bill 90, originally titled “NC Truth in Education,” earned a new nickname: Frankenstein’s monster.

The difference between the literary Frankenstein’s monster and the legislative one is that the former had translucent skin that, as Mary Shelley wrote, “barely disguised the workings of the arteries and muscles underneath.” The latter had no such transparency. In fact, fashioned behind closed doors, the clunky legislation fused class-size requirements, changes to elections and ethics boards, and a rebuke of the governor’s deal over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline into a form likely unrecognizable even to its creators.

Nonetheless, the House passed the bill this morning 104-12. One Republican, Hugh Blackwell of Burke County,  joined 11 Democrats in voting against it. Last Friday, the Senate passed it 37-5.

Attached at the last minute, the environmental portion of the legislation reallocates $57.8 million from a mitigation fund related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In late January, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he had brokered a  deal with Dominion Energy, co-owner of the controversial project with Duke Energy, to create the fund. Its purpose is to offset the pipeline’s many environmental impacts, jumpstart economic development in eastern North Carolina, as well as create renewable energy projects. Now, the bill requires the money to be used instead for local school districts in the eight counties along the pipeline’s 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina.

“That money could be used for natural gas distribution lines and creating jobs,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat who voted against the bill. “Now we’re killing jobs” in rural North Carolina.

It’s also possible that by diverting money to the eight school districts  (the complex formula to calculate the amounts should be an Algebra test question)  that lawmakers could justify cutting education funding in the future. That could backfire because the deal between the state and Dominion is not binding. Since it’s voluntary, Jackson noted, “they can walk away without putting any money into the fund.”

Last week, Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing Northampton County, where the pipeline will enter the state, said it was “unfair” to tie the fund to a much-needed class-size fix. Smith compared the trade-off to “keeping your arm but losing your leg.”

Few people, other than perhaps the governor, utilities and the Chamber of Commerce boosters, support the agreement. Republicans don’t like it because they believe it usurps their appropriation authority, thus stoking the acrimony between them and Cooper. Environmental advocates disapprove because it’s looks like a quid pro quo: Cooper announced the fund within minutes of DEQ’s approval of a key water quality permit for the project. Although the governor’s office has vehemently denied any connection between the two, the optics are hard to argue with: “Pay money into this fund and receive state environmental approval.”

Moreover, the agreement contains an economic development provision that contradicts earlier statements by Dominion and Duke — more evidence that their promises were part of an elaborate public relations campaign. The utilities touted that the pipeline as an economic boon to an underserved part of the state.  However, federal documents showed that most of the natural gas is going to the utilities’ own power plants. The remaining energy would be too expensive for businesses to access. It costs millions of dollars to simply hook onto the pipeline, not including the price of the natural gas. The mitigation fund, it seems, allows the utilities to deflect criticism about the economic promises.

Republican lawmakers seized on the dissent and presented Democrats with a difficult choice. “I’m upset that all this is wrapped into one bill,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat. “They should be debated on own merits as free-standing separate issues. The areas adversely impacted by pipeline need economic development — and they have educational needs.”

HB 90 now goes to Gov. Cooper. If he vetoes it, the bill certainly will be reminiscent of Frankenstein. A story of revenge, in the end Frankenstein’s monster heads off to die.

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