Environment, Legislature

Much ado about nothing: DEQ Sec’y Michael Regan has potential conflicts of interest; so did John Skvarla

Before Republican lawmakers get lathered up over State Ethics Commission findings that Michael Regan, nominee for NC DEQ Secretary has “potential for a conflict of interest,” they should re-read history.  The commission made the same findings in 2013 for former NC DEQ Secretary John Skvarla, nominated by Gov. Pat McCrory.

ABC11 reported the findings about Regan today.

Unlike Skvarla, though, Regan faces confirmation by the state senate on March 8.

High-ranking state officials, cabinet appointees, many state board members are legally required to file Statements of Economic Interest with the commission. Considering there are dozens of state boards whose members are subject to ethics rules, it is not unusual for the State Ethics Commission to find potential conflicts of interest in appointees’ disclosures.

The commission cited Regan’s previous job with the Environmental Defense Fund and his environmental consulting business as potential, but not actual conflicts.

“Because of these associations, Mr. Regan should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should issues or entities related to his consulting practice, or the Environmental Defense Fund, come before Department for official action or otherwise seek to conduct business with the Department.”

The potential conflicts do not “prohibit service” with DEQ, the letter said.

The commission noted that Skvarla had been the CEO of Restoration Systems, LLC, a stream and wetland restoration firm. That company also owned financial interests in several mitigation companies that had business dealings with DEQ, the 2013 letter said.  Skvarla replied that he would sell  his ownership interest or place it in a blind trust.

As with Regan, the commission advised Skvarla to “exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should any entity in which he has a financial interest come before the department for official action.” In those cases, the commission said Skvarla and Regan should recuse themselves.

 

Legislature, News

North Carolina House reconvenes with action possible next week

There have been 18 bills filed so far today by North Carolina lawmakers in the House, but as expected, there was no action in chambers as they reconvened for the first time since the long session started Jan. 11.

House Speaker Tim Moore said there wouldn’t be any votes this week but that he expected committees to have a “robust schedule” next week, with some action possible depending on how fast things move. After some housekeeping and a moment of silence for the late former Rep. Ruth Samuelson, the House adjourned in her memory until 10 a.m. tomorrow.

New House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes) said she expects to see lawmakers dealing with class size early on this session. House Bill 13 was filed today and seeks to change the class size requirements for kindergarten through third grade.

Stevens said she didn’t know what other bills might be filed.

“I don’t know that we can expect any big surprises the next few days,” she added.

When asked about the relations between her Republican colleagues and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Stevens said she thinks thing will be fairly amicable this session.

“We typically work well with him,” she said. “We have certain things we just might disagree on but for the most part, we’re able to sit down and typically work through some of those issues.”

As for House Bill 2, the sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation the two branches of government failed to repeal during a special session in December, Stevens said she hasn’t had a single conversation with Cooper about it despite being in a House leadership role.

“I’m not privy to any of those discussions at this point,” she added.

Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) spoke after the House adjourned about a bill he is a sponsor on to strengthen the state’s savings reserve.

“We want make sure that we put the structures in place so that moving forward, savings is a top priority right off the bat,” he said.

He said he believes the package they put together will make North Carolina one of the leading states in being financially sound.

You can see all the bills filed in the House by day here. You can see the Senate bills filed by day here.

Environment, Legislature

NC Policy Collaboratory: Solid science, but legislature’s timeline rushes process

Hurricane Matthew rainfall totals: Some parts of eastern North Carolina received more than 20 inches in the week prior to, and during the storm. Two projects funded by the NC Policy Collaboratory would study flooding and resiliency related to natural disasters. (Map: NASA)

The NC Policy Collaboratory has an enviable challenge, but a challenge nonetheless: How to spend more than $200,000 in a hurry.

Only six months old, the environmental think tank at UNC is charged with funding and sponsoring research related to natural resources and the economy, then delivering those findings to the General Assembly. In turn, the legislature will, well, we don’t know what they’ll do. But it is clear that in hastily establishing the collaboratory, lawmakers didn’t think the process through.

Today the group, composed of a well-rounded advisory board of scientists and public policy experts, recommended funding all three research projects that it received: two that would explore hurricane impacts and rebuilding, and another that would study wildfires. The two hurricane projects included requirements that researchers get input from local governments and emergency management directors.

The concept of “input” was lost on the state legislature when its leadership concocted the collaboratory last June. Without information from UNC faculty and administrators, lawmakers didn’t consider how the state’s financial deadlines could collide with the university’s. For example, money for all the projects must be not only allocated, but also spent by June 30, the end of state government’s fiscal year.

And because there was no guidance on how to set up the collaboratory, the establishment of which was inserted into the state budget, the group couldn’t hold its first meeting until last November.

“This legislation was developed in a vacuum without understanding the academic calendar,” said Brad Ives, interim director of the collaboratory. He is also the UNC chief director of sustainability and an associate vice chancellor. “Working with new vice-chancellor [Clayton Somers, formerly House Speaker Tim Moore’s chief of staff] we can help the legislature understand that we have to have graduate students and professors lined up to fit into the cycle.”

The legislature appropriated $1 million in annual recurring funds for the collaboratory through at least Fiscal Year 2017-2018. Lawmakers also approved matching funds of $3.5 million. But the budget language is vague, Ives said, regarding how quickly the that money would have to be spent or if the funds could be carried over into the next budget year.

“Even if we raised the money, we might not get the match to use unless we can spend it before the end of the year,” Ives said. “Hopefully that wasn’t anyone’s intent when the language was written.”

Ives added that he would seek clarification from lawmakers and the state budget office.

The tight turnaround also didn’t allow enough time for a lot of proposals to come before the collaboratory. There were only three for this round of funding. Although all met the scientific, academic and policy requirements, collaboratory members did weigh the implications of their recommendations.

“What we fund in 2016 will signal to researchers what we’re interested in in 2017,” said member Anita Brown Graham, UNC professor of public law and government. “We don’t want to send the wrong signals.”

Ives said the process has been “very ad hoc and rushed.”

“We have to ask ‘Is this a project that UNC wants its name associated with? Does the project set the tone we want?'” Ives said. “There’s not a lot of the fiscal year left, but let’s not put the money to work just to put the money to work. We’re not trying to shovel money out the door.”

In addition to checking off all of the scientific and methodology boxes, the projects must have real-world applications — satisfying the sweet spot between policy and research.

“Once we get this money spent and close the books on this year, we’ll look to next year so we can hit the ground running,” said collaboratory chairman Al Segars, a distinguished professor and faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise. “The project criteria will be more stringent.”

Here are the projects:

  • James Johnson Jr. of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School would lead research in rebuilding communities after Hurricane Matthew. The focus would be on senior housing and aging in place. This project would be folded into an existing one that explores resiliency and natural disasters. The budget is $45,000.
  • Chris Lenhardt, a domain scientist with the Renaissance Computing Institute has asked for $100,000 to develop near-real time flood mapping data and inland flood maps of North Carolina. The coastal plain received the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Matthew. First-responders, emergency management staff and policy-makers could use the maps and data for evacuation plans, for example.
  • Uma Shankar, a researcher with the UNC Institute for the Environment would study what are known as “fuel loads” and their effect on wildfires. In other words, drought dries out the forest floor and part of the understory. That parched brush, wood and vegetation can ignite, either naturally or intentionally, and contribute to the spread of wildfires.
    Land managers could use this information to increase public awareness about wildfire causes and help communities cope with the smoke and poor air quality. The project budget is $58,000.

 

 

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

House Speaker Tim Moore names committee leaders, some with dubious environmental histories

House Speaker Tim Moore announced his appointments for committee chairs today, the people in charge of herding the membership and their bills. All of the top posts for the environmental and agriculture committees went to Republicans.

In addition to the chairs specific to the environment and agriculture, the Regulatory Reform committee leadership also bears watching. Many environmental laws are chopped, crushed  and pureed in the R &R.

The appropriations committee leaders are also key. Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, often is the main budget writer for environmental bills. Reps. Jimmy Dixon and Pat McElraft, who hold dual chairmanships, have a history of sponsoring anti-regulatory legislation.

Rep. Mark Brody

Rep. Mark Brody

  • AGRICULTURE

Mark Brody (Anson, Union) co-sponsored the Industrial Hemp bill last session, which is intended to support the burgeoning textile. Note this industrial hemp, and limited to cultivation by state universities. The SBI and local law enforcement can inspect the plots.

  • Rep. Jimmy Dixon (Duplin, Wayne) consistently criticizes the media, which increases the entertainment value of committee meetings. He’s a staunch defender of industrialized farming and co-sponsored a bill prohibiting counties from regulating the care of farm animals. By care, the bill means housing, feed, medicine, and exercise and socialization requirements. In other words, local animal welfare laws that apply to dogs and cats don’t extend to cattle, oxen, bison, sheep, swine, goats, horses, ponies, mules, donkeys, hinnies, llamas, alpacas, lagomorphs (a type of hare), ratites (flightless birds) and poultry.
    Dixon was the lead sponsor on more than a half dozen environmental bills that would have weakened regulations, had they passed.
  • Bob Steinburg, who represents six counties in northeastern North Carolina, sponsored five environmental or agricultural bills last session. Of those, one would have extended tax credits to those buying, leasing or building renewable energy facilities. Another would have relaxed regulations on billboards. (See below under Rep. Jeff Collins.)
    A successful bill to boost the state’s industrial hemp program became law. His colleague Mark Brody co-sponsored that bill, as well.

APPROPRIATIONS SUBCOMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE AND NATURAL AND ECONOMIC RESOURCES

  • Jimmy Dixon (see above)
  • Pat McElraft (see below)
  • A real estate broker, Kyle Hall (Rockingham Stokes) is in his first full term as a House member. Thus, he sponsored few bills last session. In November 2015, the then-25-year-old was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of Rep. Bryan Holloway. Holloway resigned to become a lobbyist with the NC School Boards Association.
  • Stephen Ross (Alamance) co-sponsored the renewable tax credit bill and with Chris Malone (see below), a bill to help protect the public from the environmental and public health hazards of fracking.

ENERGY AND PUBLIC UTILITIES

  • Four-term representative Jeff Collins (Franklin, Nash), co-sponsored the anti-renewables bill Energy Policy Amendments. It would have plateaued the required benchmarks in the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard.
    He also was a primary sponsor of House Bill 304, which would relaxed regulations regarding the placement of billboards, including the digital variety. Some jurisdictions, like the City of Durham, don’t allow digital billboards; others, such as Research Triangle Park, prohibit them altogether. This bill could have usurped that authority.
  • On the up side, John Szoka (Cumberland) co-sponsored a bill that would have provided people who built, bought or leased renewable energy a 35 percent tax credit on the cost of property. It didn’t pass, but a study bill of the Cape Fear water resources did.
Rep. Pat McElraft

Rep. Pat McElraft

ENVIRONMENT

  • Pat McElraft (Carteret, Jones) has been responsible for several bills that weakened, or would have weakened, environmental regulations. Last session, she wa also a primary sponsor of “Energy Policy Amendments.
    McElraft also was the primary sponsor of House Bill 576, which would have studied the feasibility of discontinuing TV recycling. Instead, televisions and their attendant heavy metals could do directly to a municipal landfill. The bill did not pass.
    Another of her bills would have weakened stormwater and stream buffer requirements. The clock ran out on the session before the bill could be reconciled in conference committee.
    House Speaker Moore also named McElraft to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources.
  • Larry Yarborough (Granville, Person) led the House in sponsoring a bill that amended the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014. The 2016 legislation was criticized by environmental advocates because it allowed Duke Energy to reclassify its coal ash dams as low-risk if the utility provided permanent water to eligible residents and repaired the dams. That in turn, permitted Duke to keep the coal ash onsite at those facilities in a lined, capped landfill.
Rep. Jay Adams

Rep. Jay Adams

WILDLIFE RESOURCES

Legislature, News

2017 legislative session convenes with glimpse of what’s to come; call for bipartisan effort among lawmakers

The North Carolina Senate unanimously passed its rules Wednesday for the 2017 legislative session, including how it will consider confirming gubernatorial nominations or appointments. The rule does not state any sort of timeline for the process.

For the first time in North Carolina history, the General Assembly passed a bill during one of the special sessions in December requiring Senate approval over Cabinet Secretary appointees.

You can find many of the appointees Gov. Roy Cooper has announced here.

There was no discussion from Senators about the new rule and it remains unclear when the process will get underway. The Senate adjourned until Jan. 25.

RULE 49. Consideration of Gubernatorial Nominations or Appointments. – When received by the Principal Clerk, written notice of a gubernatorial nomination or appointment that requires confirmation by the General Assembly or the Senate shall be read in session and shall be referred by the Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, or in his absence the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, to the appropriate Senate committee. The Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate may file an appropriate resolution for consideration of the nomination or appointment. For statewide or at-large nominations or appointments, the Principal Clerk shall transmit a copy of the notice of nomination or appointment to the Senator or Senators representing the county in which the nominee or appointee resides. For nominations or appointments of persons to represent a particular district or region of the State, the Principal Clerk shall transmit a copy of the notice of nomination or appointment to the Senator or Senators representing all or a portion of the particular district or region to be represented. The chair of the Senate committee receiving referral of any nomination or appointment shall determine the procedure by which the committee shall consider that nomination or appointment and may make a report of its recommendation to the Senate.

In other news from the meeting Wednesday, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) was again elected President Pro Tem. Sen. Louis Pate (R-Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne) was elected Deputy President Pro Tem.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

In his address to fellow legislators, Berger thanked them for placing their confidence in him and said he would do the best job he could. He commended the General Assembly for increasing jobs across the state, cutting the unemployment rate, reducing taxes for North Carolinians and increasing teacher pay to more than $50,000 per year for the first time in the state’s history.

He also said that most of what the General Assembly works on is not controversial and most laws passed with “overwhelming bipartisan support.” He said no matter what legislators’ political party, they are all there to help the state thrive and citizens reach their full potential.

“Members, as we consider the task ahead at the start of this session, let us remember all that we can accomplish when we work together,” Berger said. “And let us remember all that can be achieved as we continue down this new path for our state.”

Berger also gave a glimpse of what’s to come this session, noting intentions to maintain budget and spending discipline and a commitment to tax policies that will help return North Carolina to good fiscal health.

Let me be clear, we will not under circumstances return to the failed tax and spend policies of the past that gave us the mess that we had in 2011,” he said. “We’ll continue to look for ways to reduce the tax burden on families, small businesses and other job creators, helping them keep more of their earned money. We’ll continue efforts to reform and improve public education for our students and have already committed to raising the average teacher pay to $55,000 over the next two years. We’ll remain focused on providing a bright future for our children and helping build a stable workforce that will attract businesses to this state.”

Senators will work, he said, to foster a better business climate and to continue building state reserves to be well-prepared for the future.

Working across the aisle

After a series of tense and contentious extra sessions last month, the N.C. House officially convened the legislative session Wednesday on a more hopeful note.

Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) was elected to a second term as Speaker of the House and called for a renewed sense of

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

congeniality.

“We will not always agree, but let us disagree respectfully and with kindness,” Moore said.

Strained by election season and divided by a number of important social and political issues, bipartisanship was in short supply in 2016.

But new Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) extended a hand across the aisle Wednesday to second the nomination of Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) for speaker pro tempore. Jackson praised Stevens’ own spirit of bipartisan cooperation and said she will lead the House well on occasions when Moore is absent.

Beyond the housekeeping of electing new leadership, welcoming new members and taking their oaths, the House did little beyond the ceremonial Wednesday. Like the Senate, they adjourned until noon on January 25 – a move telegraphed earlier this week by a fundraising e-mail from Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), the powerful chair of the House Rules Committee.

Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch contributed to this report.