Environment, Legislature

After coastal towns complain about Resource Institute, lawmakers could rescind its $5 million windfall

The Atlantic Reefmaker is a wave-breaking technology used in inlets, but not oceanfronts. After receiving $5 million from the legislature last year, the Resource Institute proposed using the technology — sold by one of its primary contractors — for hurricane resilience. North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach officials have objected to both the Reefmaker and the Resource Institute, the latter of which they say has little expertise in coastal projects. (Photo: Atlantic Reefmaker)

[Update: On Tuesday afternoon the Senate passed this bill, the bulk of which deals with veterans’ memorial funds, but includes language to revoke funding for the Resource Institute beach projects. The measure now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper.]

One year you have $5 million, the next year — poof — it’s gone.

Funding for the politically connected Resource Institute is on the brink of being eliminated in Senate Bill 95 after several coastal towns complained to lawmakers that the Winston-Salem nonprofit didn’t have the expertise to tackle hurricane resilience and recovery projects.

If the bill becomes law, the money would be divided equally among Topsail Beach, North Topsail Beach and Surf City for hurricane recovery projects.

Squeak Smith, chairman of the Resource Institute board of directors, told Policy Watch he is waiting for the final bill language to determine the next steps.

The Resource Institute, Smith said, “will continue to advocate for additional funding for the coastal communities to help address resiliency after future storm events. We are fully prepared and qualified to carry out projects in conjunction with future funding sources and communities wanting our assistance and services.”

The Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill last night, but the measure was pulled from the calendar and rescheduled for 4 p.m. today.

The $5 million appropriation for the Resource Institute originated in last year’s budget bill, ostensibly to work with coastal governments on alternatives to beach nourishment. But as Policy Watch reported at the time, the appropriation occurred after leadership at the Resource Institute, as well as several of its contractors, contributed more than $115,000 to key lawmakers. Later contributions increased that total to $150,000.

After Hurricane Florence hit the coast in September, a subsequent bill changed the funding purpose to storm recovery.

Earlier this year, North Topsail Beach officials successfully lobbied their legislator, Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, to redirect $1.6 million to them. According to emails obtained under the Public Records Act, North Topsail Mayor Dan Tuman also objected to the Resource Institute’s 12 percent administrative fee.

“$600K to folks who don’t do or know anything, who will insert meaningless pet projects that they promote for consideration …” Tuman wrote. The pet project he referred to is the Atlantic Reefmaker, a wave attenuator that has been used in inlets but not ocean fronts. One of the Resource Institute’s contractors, North State Environmental, markets, sells and installs the technology.

Subsequently, Topsail Beach and Surf City officials asked another lawmaker, Sen. Bill Rabon, who represents four coastal counties, to divert the remaining money to them.

The Resource Institute also received scrutiny in March from the legislative Program Evaluation Division. Similar to the federal Government Accountability Office, the PED analyzes and investigates the effectiveness of state programs. The PED found that the Resource Institute had duplicated more than 50 invoices to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The duplication resulted in a $20,000 overpayment to the Resource Institute for stream restoration in the western part of the state.

The Clean Water Management Trust Fund administers grants for the streams program.

In 2013, the Resource Institute, with the backing of the US Department of Agriculture, pitched the idea of a Western Stream Restoration program to former lawmaker Mitch Gillespie, then the assistant secretary of the environment. Since then 96 percent of the funding — $8.16 million — has been awarded to the Resource Institute. Of the 67 grants, the group received 65 of them.

Commentary, News

NY Times features powerful video highlighting NC Medicaid vigils

In case you missed it yesterday, the New York Times featured a powerful four-minute video (see below) highlighting the Medicaid blockade in North Carolina and the recent vigils in 22 locations across the state to demand that lawmakers close the coverage gap. As the article that accompanied the video explained:

Millions of Americans fall into the Medicaid gap, earning too much to qualify for Medicaid yet too little to afford private insurance or receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Across the country, 4.5 million would stand to benefit from Medicaid expansion. In North Carolina, the Democratic governor is championing Medicaid expansion for 500,000 people, while Republicans in the State Legislature are blocking the measure. In this video Op-Ed, those affected argue that Medicaid expansion is necessary. If the Legislature continues to block health care access, Republicans risk votes in 2020.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Report: Most U.S. citizens would likely fail Trump administration’s “public charge” proposal for immigrants

A new report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities describes the widespread harm that would be caused if the proposed rule released last year by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — that would substantially change the way some immigrants are assessed as a public charge — if it becomes a final rule. Specifically, the rule would negatively affect many immigrants’ ability to apply for admission to the United States or for current lawful immigrants to seek an extension of stay or change of status.

To illustrate the widespread harm the rule would impose, the report details the number of U.S. citizens that might be deemed a public charge if the rule applied to them, using data that captures public benefits use by U.S.-born citizens over a 19-year period. Researchers approximate that more than half of the U.S.-born population participates in a benefit program over the course of their lifetime that may result in them being deemed a public charge, if the proposed rule was applied to U.S.-born citizens.

In addition to observing the use of public benefits in public charge determinations, the proposed rule introduces an income test among other additional criteria for making an admissibility determination. If implemented, immigration officials would be asked to make a prediction as to whether an immigrant below 125 percent of the federal poverty level may, at some point in the future, use one or more public benefits, or otherwise become dependent on the government for support. This broadening would subject immigrants to the biases of immigration officials and, as the report describes, would have a racially disparate impact on the immigrants allowed in the United States. Read more

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

We haven’t seen it yet, but North Carolina’s budget has veto written all over it

As of this moment, we — the huddled people, press and politicos of North Carolina — haven’t seen a draft of lawmakers’ agreed upon budget, but given the latest dispatch from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, this one has veto written all over it.

Which is to say that our turgid budget process, which was supposed to wrap before the July 1 beginning of the fiscal year, may last weeks and even months.

Stated Cooper spokesperson, Ford Porter, Monday morning:

“We want a budget that invests in teacher pay instead of more tax cuts for corporations, that has a school and infrastructure bond instead of a slush fund, and that includes Medicaid expansion to insure 500,000 more North Carolinians. Right now, legislative Republicans are not interested in serious negotiations on these issues, but we hope they will change their minds and agree to put everything on the table as Governor Cooper has.”

Cooper’s office spoke out, with many expecting a proposed budget from House and Senate conferees in a matter of hours. Of course, no one’s seen the thing, a trademark of North Carolina’s surreptitious budget “process.” But the stagecraft squabbling by lawmakers and Cooper’s reps leaves little reason for optimism.

As The Insider‘s Colin Campbell reported, even a sausage biscuit confab Friday at the Capitol with Cooper, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and House Speaker Tim Moore, was a blunt failure.

From The Insider:

On Friday morning, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger walked to the old Capitol building to meet with Cooper and House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake. Berger was spotted carrying a bag of Bojangles’ sausage biscuits, while both legislative leaders were carrying binders labeled “budget compromise options.” One of those proposals involves agreeing to a special legislative session “to address health access issues, including Medicaid expansion,” according to a joint statement from Berger and Moore.

“The governor previously proposed a ‘two-track’ solution and wants Medicaid to be ‘part of the conversation,'” the joint statement said. “This meets both of those requests. The governor rejected the proposal. We’ve asked for concrete compromise proposals from the governor for nearly two weeks now. He has refused to provide them.” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Friday that during the meeting Cooper and Jackson “made clear to Republican leaders that they oppose corporate tax cuts, unaccountable school vouchers and the SCIF slush fund and said that any budget compromise has to include discussion of Medicaid expansion, a school and infrastructure bond and significantly higher teacher salaries. Gov. Cooper indicated today that these items are negotiable, but Republican leaders have nearly completed their budget and are unwilling to discuss all of these important priorities that benefit our state.”

With legislators’ veto-proof majority torpedoed last year, this is the first time Cooper and legislators have been forced to haggle over the budget. Which is to say that we’ve never seen this negotiation before. Which is to say that the only thing we know is what we don’t know.

Every indication is legislators are intractable on Cooper’s biggest prize, Medicaid expansion, a damnably durable position for GOP legislators that’s as cold-hearted as it is illogical. But it’s clear that another round of GOP-authored tax cuts, school choice spending and a K-12 bond are on the table too.

The latter may be a key wedge in these deliberations. Moore’s already specified his tardy support for a statewide bond, while Berger retains his trademark acerbity on the subject. To recap, North Carolina faces billions in school facility demands. Moore has been willing to create a bond for at least a portion of those needs, but Berger’s more conservative Senate is loathe to take on the debt.

The tit-for-tat deliberation is just beginning. Miles to go, it seems.

Education

Educators call state House Bill 370 a ‘terrible and reprehensible idea’

Calling it a “terrible and reprehensible” idea, National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen and N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) President Mark Jewell issued a statement Monday urging state lawmakers to vote against House Bill 370, which would require county sheriffs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers on detainment requests.

Eskelsen and Jewell were also critical of President Donald Trump who they said has “weaponized” ICE.

“North Carolina lawmakers are playing politics with the lives of children by proposing an ill-designed, inhumane measure that would in essence make local law enforcement officials an extension of Donald Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),” the two wrote.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill later today. If approved, it will go to Gov. Roy Cooper.

Eskelsen and Jewell also said HB 370 has frightened immigrant communities across the country.

“It has wreaked havoc in our schools and immigrant communities across the country. In North Carolina, students are already living in fear due to recent ICE raids,” Eskelsen and Jewell wrote. “They are fearful of going to school. As anxious families turn to educators for solace, comfort and advice, we will continue to raise our voices to defend and protect our students from these inhumane policies which run contrary to the values that we hold dear as a nation.”

HB 370 has received major pushback from the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.

Here is a memo released by the sheriff’s organization said last.

“House Bill 370 would compel duly elected sheriffs to participate in a voluntary federal law enforcement program,” it states. “The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association opposes such mandate. The people of each county, as reflected by the decision of their elected sheriff, should retain the ability to decide which lawful method they will utilize in complying with existing federal and state law. Just as the Association opposes any state law requirement to participate in the ICE detainer program, it would also oppose legislation prohibiting sheriffs from participating in the ICE detainer program.”