Gov. Cooper nominates former DEQ lobbyist Elizabeth Biser to lead agency

Elizabeth Biser

Elizabeth Biser, who previously served as the director of Legislative and Government Affairs for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, is the governor’s new nominee to lead the agency.

Biser also worked as a government relations policy advisor at the law firm Brooks Pierce, where former DEQ Secretary Bill Ross works. There, she successfully lobbied for the $78 million Connect NC bond package for state and local parks.

She also lobbied for North Carolina Forever, which includes not only the Environmental Defense Fund, NC coastal Federation, but also Smithfield Foods and the NC Farm Bureau.

She also served as vice president of policy and public affairs for the Recycling Partnership; she also ran her own environmental consulting business.

Gov. Cooper had originally nominated Dionne Delli-Gatti, but Senate leaders tanked her confirmation, allegedly because she was unfamiliar with the proposed MVP Southgate natural gas pipeline, which would route 50 miles through Rockingham and Alamance counties.

However, behind the scenes, it appeared that supporters of that project, including Sens. Paul Newton and Chuck Edwards, worked to derail there nomination. Given Biser’s previous work with agribusiness, her nomination might be more palatable to conservative lawmakers.

David Kelly, director of public affairs for Environmental Defense Fund, issued a statement in support of Biser. He characterized her as a “woman who has spent her career advancing smart environmental and natural resource policy. Through her policy expertise and strong network throughout the business community,Elizabeth possesses the right mix of experience, knowledge and relationships to serve as an effective leader” of DEQ.

Like Delli-Gatti, if confirmed, Biser would be the first woman to lead the agency.

Gov. Cooper says the $5.7 billion in federal rescue money can bring “transformational change” to NC

Governor Roy Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper’s ideas for spending the $5.7 billion coming to the state from the latest federal recovery package range from offering another round of direct payments to parents to improving local water and sewer systems.

Cooper presented his proposals for widespread investments to  – among other goals –  help individuals and businesses, expand high-speed internet access, improve rural downtowns, and pay for scholarships for community college and university students.

“This pandemic brought us a once in a generation challenge, and these funds a once in a generation opportunity,” Cooper said.  “Let’s use them to make transformational change for our state. We can revolutionize North Carolina.”

Cooper proposes using some of the money to continue a modified version of a program of direct grants to parents that legislative Republicans started last year.

The “extra credit grants” would go to low- and middle-income families based on their 2019 incomes, and would cost $250 million. Families would get $250 or $500, depending on their income, with people who make less money getting the bigger grant. The maximum eligible income would be set at $60,000.

Cooper said the pandemic levied the most harm to people with lower incomes. “We need to try to get the money to families who need it the most,” he said.

The state budget office estimated that 320,000 families would receive $500 and 340,000 families would get $250.

Cooper would use some of the money to continue efforts to expand high-speed internet by spending $1.2 billion on broadband access and affordability. High-speed internet became a necessity in the pandemic when students had to learn from home and medical offices pivoted to telehealth.

The spending will ensure “every home with a school-aged child will have access to high-speed internet,” Cooper said.

Other proposals include:

  • $835 million for community college and university scholarships and grants. The NC Guarantee Scholarship would offer at least $6,000 to UNC and state community college students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year. The scholarships would phase out as family income increases to $75,000.
  • $575 million for affordable housing.
  • $175 million for rural downtown transformation grants.
  • $350 million in grants to small hospitality and related businesses, including $50 million targeted to small business owners who closed or partially closed their businesses in the pandemic to help them reopen in the existing locations.
  • $800 million to fix water and sewer systems. Aging pipes in North Carolina are driving up user bills, straining local utility budgets, and contributing to water pollution. $440 million would be use for water, sewer, and stormwater projects for distressed and at-risk water and wastewater units and $360 million would be available for all units statewide, according to the supporting budget document.

Gov. Cooper proposes $145 million budget for DEQ, would include money to address climate change, PFAS in drinking water

These are the historical expenditures for the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The 2015-2016 figures reflect the McCrory administration’s shift of some divisions from DEQ to the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. (Source: Gov. Cooper’s budget)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality would receive $145 million in appropriations in 2021-22 under Gov. Roy Cooper’s new budget proposal, a 52% increase from his 2019 recommendations.

Under the governor’s proposal, in 2022-23 the department would receive $133 million.

This money includes salaries for 58 additional full-time positions.

DEQ would get a $3.3 million infusion to tackle the persistent of emerging compounds, such as PFAS and 1,4-Dioxane, in drinking water. The money would pay for 26 positions — chemists, hydrogeologists and engineers — to help contain these contaminant where no financially viable party can be located. A portion of the money would pay for alternative drinking water supplies to eligible people affected by emerging compounds.

Cooper’s staff presented his comprehensive $27.4 billion budget recommendation to lawmakers yesterday.

Many of the governor’s latest budget recommendations for DEQ address the existential crisis of climate change. Funding in Year 1 of the biennium includes $180,000 for additional coastal resilience staff, $35 million for flood mitigation and other water infrastructure projects, $369,000 for  landslide mapping and $255,000 for three new positions to help swine farmers manage their wastewater and comply with the law.

With in the Department of Agriculture budget, Cooper has recommended $9 million be appropriated each year for the swine farm buyout program. This voluntary program pays swine farmers to place easements on their land if their operations are in the 100-year floodplain. Demand for the program has outstripped funding.

Nearly $70 million from a separate Energy & Environment Reserve would pay for clean energy programs, including those that would help local governments and schools with energy efficiency, renewable energy and a transition to zero-emission school buses, which currently run on highly polluting diesel fuel.

It’s unlikely that DEQ will receive the full funding as recommended by the governor. For more than a decade, state lawmakers have slashed the agency’s budget and workforce. In 2019-20, Cooper proposed a $95 million base budget for DEQ; the legislature approved about $80 million.

This is just the first step in the months-long and fraught budget process. The legislature drafts its own proposals, which are typically amended dozens of times. House and Senate leadership appoint members to a budget conference committee that negotiates on a final draft for a vote by both chambers.

Gov. Cooper can also veto the legislation, which he did in 2019, objecting to a lack of adequate funding for schools and health care. That year, the legislature overrode the veto.

 

Rural interests on a health coverage council want Medicaid expansion, countering expansion deemphasis in a final report.

YouTube Preview ImageFive members of the NC Council on Health Care Coverage who were among those representing rural interests in the group asserted this week that some form of Medicaid expansion is “the fix that will provide insurance options for those in the coverage gap and that will benefit rural economies.”

Their statement came as the nearly 40-member Council tied a bow on the guiding principles it hopes the legislature will use to get more North Carolinians insured. Those principles look beyond Medicaid expansion to other ways to get more people insured and to improve access to medical care.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, created the Council late last year after he failed in his first term to get the Republican-led legislature to agree to a form of Medicaid expansion. The Council represented a range of interests and views.  Members included some of the staunchest expansion opponents in the legislature along with Medicaid expansion’s strongest supporters, local elected officials, large and small business owners, the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC, the head of the NC Chamber, and others.

North Carolina tied with Arizona at 41st in a state ranking of uninsured residents.

The group met under the auspices of the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

The principles the group produced is a long list that starts with “maximize health care coverage,” and includes an array of approaches may be required, such as association health plans for small businesses, allowing new mothers to keep their Medicaid coverage longer than the current 60-day post-birth cut off, allowing low-income parents to keep their Medicaid coverage if their children are placed in foster care, Medicaid expansion, and tax credits for employers.

A bill moving through the Senate would allow low-income parents who need court-ordered mental health or substance abuse treatment and whose children have been placed in foster care to keep their Medicaid coverage.

A prepared statement from Patrick Woodie, president of the NC Rural Center, Pastor James Brigman of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Rockingham, Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority CEO Casey Cooper, Granville-Vance Public Health District director Lisa Macon Harrison, and Graham County Commissioner Dale Wiggins said that Medicaid expansion was the strongest option the Council considered.

“There is no other single policy solution that the legislature can enact that will bring this level of funding to our local economies, help small businesses, stabilize our health care system, and offer quality insurance coverage options for the people of North Carolina. The pandemic has further highlighted the need for better access to whole-person care for all ages in all corners of our state.,” their statement said.

Medicaid expansion would allow hundreds of thousands of residents to get health insurance, with the federal government paying most of the costs. Senate Republicans have objected, saying that costs to the state could balloon.

Two members of the Council, celebrity chef Vivian Howard of Kinston and Don Flow, founder and CEO of Flow Automotive Companies, said in a media briefing Thursday that members with differing opinions had to find common ground.

Howard said she thought all business owners would be in the group, and that everyone would want Medicaid expansion.

“I thought we would all be on the same side,” she said. However, members represented diverse viewpoints and professional backgrounds.

“We all wanted something a little different,” she said. “It was a very grown-up conversation. I was proud of everyone.”

North Carolina could be a model for incorporating “a wider range of possibilities” toward the goal of getting more people insured, Flow said.

The options “may allow us to effectively break out of the log-jam we’ve been in and do something really distinctive and unique in North Carolina,” he said.

Gov. Cooper nominates Dionne Delli-Gatti, another EDF alum, to lead Department of Environmental Quality

Dionne Delli-Gatti (Photo: Environmental Defense Fund)

This is a developing story.

Dionne Delli-Gatti, who previously worked as for the Environmental Defense Fund, is Gov. Roy Cooper’s pick to head the NC Department of Environmental Quality, his office announced today.

Delli-Gatti was EDF’s director of Regulatory and Legislative Affairs and Southeast Climate and Clean Energy Initiatives. Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, now on his way to becoming EPA administrator, had also worked for EDF, focusing on clean energy.

According to her EDF bio, Delli-Gatti “focused on maintaining North Carolina’s position as a clean energy leader and on promoting clean energy goals in other southeastern states. Their emphasis is on advanced energy solutions that create jobs, attract investors, reduce pollution, and provide affordable and reliable power to the region.”

Delli-Gatti’s areas of expertise include energy policy, government affairs, and environmental justice.

She also serves on the board of directors for nonprofit Advanced Energy and the advocacy group the North Carolina Conservation Network. She has earned multiple recognitions from the USEPA, including three EPA Bronze Medals for her work to address water quality, indoor air quality, and coal ash pollution, and an EPA Notable Achievement Award for efforts to ensure protection of vulnerable communities.

In 2019, Delli-Gatti posted a commentary on the EDF website that addressed the dual issues of environmental justice and clean energy.

“North Carolina must tailor climate solutions for a just transition to a zero-carbon future,” she wrote. “It’s critical that strategies are crafted to not inadvertently burden front line communities by simply swapping environmental concerns for economic ones. We support DEQ’s recommendations to address equitable access and energy affordability, especially as they pertain to low-income and energy burdened communities that have historically been disproportionately impacted by electric power generation.”

Her nomination must pass through legislative committee before going to the full state senate for approval.