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.

Cooper outlines bonuses for educators, extended unemployment benefits in COVID relief budget proposal

With the North Carolina Senate fast-tracking legislation to require a return to in-person instruction, Governor Roy Cooper rolled out an emergency budget plan Thursday aimed at easing that transition.

In addition to federal stimulus spending, the governor’s plan calls for $695 million dollars to be appropriated from the unreserved General Fund balance to address a number of immediate needs.

Topping the list, Gov. Cooper said educators left out of the last budget cycle deserve to be recognized with $468 million in bonuses for their hard work during the pandemic.

If approved, this would mean a one-time bonus of $2,500 for teachers and principals, $1,500 for non-certified public school employees, and $2,000 for UNC and Community Colleges personnel.

“We need this boost to keep them on board and to reward their hard work,” Cooper told reporters at Thursday’s briefing.

Another $30 million would be used to extend high-speed internet throughout the state, including 35,000 student hotspots to help improve educational access.

The governor’s budget would also earmark $50 million for hazard duty pay for frontline state employees, specifically law enforcement and corrections personnel.

The budget blueprint would provide $10 million more for North Carolina’s food banks, plus an additional $4.5 million for housing legal services support.

Gov. Cooper is also urging lawmakers to expand the duration and amount of state jobless benefits – increasing the maximum amount from from $350 to $500 per week with a maximum duration of 26 weeks.

“Even before the pandemic, North Carolina had some of the shortest and stingiest employment benefits in the country. Now is the time to fix this,” said the governor.

The Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund currently has a balance of $2.59 billion.

Click here to read the governor’s complete budget recommendations.

State Budget Director Charlie Perusse

State Budget Director Charlie Perusse said this nearly $700 million package will be considered as legislators also make decisions on the remaining $4 billion in federal COVID relief funds over they next few weeks.

Perusse said highlights from that federal allocation include:

  • Approximately $2 billion for emergency assistance for public and private K-12 schools and higher education institutions
  • $336 million for childcare and development block grants.
  • Approximately $700 million for access to vaccines and testing, tracing and prevention measures to slow the spread of the virus.
  • $546 million for emergency rental assistance, which will build on North Carolina’s current work.
  • $47 million for Community Mental Health Services.

The state’s consensus revenue package for the current fiscal year and a projection forecast through 2023 will be made available by the end of next week.

On Thursday, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed its own emergency COVID relief bill.

Cooper said many of the ideas in that bill are ones they mutually agree upon.

“We hope that we can come together on legislation that appropriates this money.”

Task force recommends new environmental justice positions at four key state agencies

The task force was named after celebrated North Carolina civil rights activist Andrea Harris, who died in May at age 72. (Photo: task force report)

One of the most striking disconnects between state agencies occurred last year when the Department of Commerce announced at a legislative committee that it supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Meanwhile, the NC Department of Environmental Quality, although it ultimately approved the permits, was concerned about potential damage to the environment and the communities that lay in in the pipeline’s path.

Duke Energy and Dominion eventually killed the project; DEQ has since rejected permit applications for an unrelated Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate proposal. But there has been a consistent lack of continuity among agencies in considering environmental and social justice implications of their projects.

In a report issued this week, a task force told the governor that permanent environmental justice and inclusion positions should be created at the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Natural and Cultural Resources, and the Office of Emergency Management.

The Department of Environmental Quality already has such a position.

If the four agencies create new positions, that would require funding, likely through the legislative budget process. Or an existing position could be converted or expanded to address environmental issues.

The group, officially named the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force, was created earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper to study how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming communities of color. The task force spent the fall pinpointing how the state needed to advocate for and assist these North Carolinians. Among them were expanding rural broadband, job creation, health care and environmental justice.

Polluting industries commonly locate in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And this pollution, particularly in the air, can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses. A Harvard study showed that exposure to fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 increases the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and risk of death from the disease.

At dozens of public meetings about various environmental projects, community members have clamored for clean jobs rather than those created by polluting industries. The task force posed a similar question: Could we improve the economic development and health outcomes of a Tier 1 county without causing additional environmental burdens?

The four agencies that would create an EJ position routinely make decisions that can further burden these communities with pollution — or in some cases alleviate it.

For example, the Department of Transportation’s new toll road extension, I-540, routes through a low-income mobile home park.
Active Energy, a wood pellet plant in Robeson County, received a $500,000 building reuse grant from the Department of Commerce.

The Office of Emergency Management is key to helping these communities after a hurricane or flood; many of these neighborhoods are located in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is consulted when major projects route through Native American land; that agency is also over state parks and the Division of Land and Water Stewardship.

A second recommendation is for state officials to conduct an inventory of aging buildings — schools, senior centers and hospitals — that have radon, asbestos, mildew and mold contamination. Cleanup of those buildings could create jobs, the task force wrote.

Schools in Robeson and Edgecombe counties have been selected to test the proposal.

The “sick building” problem caused by legacy pollutants is due to delayed maintenance. “Nowhere is this problem more apparently than in NC’s public schools, especially those in hyper-segregated, concentrated poverty communities,” the presort reads. “Due to aging and poorly functioning HVAC systems, young people attending these schools are exposed to a host of chemical and biological contaminants that adversely affect their health and overall well-bing and their ability to learn.

“Reopening these schools amid the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the problem,” the report continues, “as buildings with poor ventilation, already a crucible for building-related diseases, can potentially become hotbeds for the spread of the coronavirus.”

The task force also recommended what is bound to be a heavy lift: that the legislature change statutes and rules to incorporate environmental justice into regulations. Since conservatives gained control of the General Assembly in 2011, environmental justice has been eroded, not strengthen, particularly in the annual Farm Acts.

“Legislation will be paramount to ensure our environmental justice ideals come to fruition,” the report reads.

The legislature convenes Jan. 13.