Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

DEQ budget still meager, cuts 16.75 jobs, but includes money for pet projects

“Reorganization Through Reduction”: George Orwell couldn’t have said it better.

The spirit of George Orwell must have been hovering over House and Senate conferees when they drafted the state environmental budget. “Reorganization through Reduction” is the very gentle term budget writers used to tell NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan to do a very dirty job: Find $1.9 million in savings over two years — somewhere.

Lay off employees, scale back programs, use fewer paper clips, whatever it takes.

At $77 million in the first fiscal year, the DEQ conference budget, unveiled yesterday at 11:10 p.m. by the House and Senate conference committee, is more generous than the Senate version — a low bar, indeed. It is stingier than the House‘s and it falls far short of the $84.8 million appropriation that Gov. Roy Cooper had recommended.

The second fiscal year is even leaner for DEQ, just $76.8 million, after the Reorganization program concludes.

“The budget cuts core functions beyond the bone,” said Grady McCallie, policy director for the NC Conservation Network. “And it will leave our rivers, lakes and drinking water sources exposed to more pollution while threatening the ability of DEQ to adequately inform the public about environmental health risks.”

The DEQ budget also contains a policy report, which also places further fiscal limitations on the agency.  This document includes restrictions on the allocation of Volkswagen Settlement Funds. North Carolina is due $87 million — certainly not chump change — from a federal lawsuit against the car maker because it cheating on its diesel emissions tests. The state can use the money on projects that will reduce air emissions from cars, trucks and trains. But the conference budget requires the General Assembly, not DEQ or the Department of Transportation, to approve distribution of those funds. Lawmakers, undoubtedly, will want some of that money spent directly in their districts on pet projects.

Speaking of pet projects, the budget’s big winners: SePro, the chemical company whose powerful lobbyist Harold Brubaker has convinced lawmakers to spend $1.3 million on a sketchy algae-killing treatment for Jordan Lake. The City of Havelock,  inexplicably jumps to the front of a very long line of needy projects and receives $1 million to “repurpose” the old Phoenix recycling site.

The budget’s semi-winners: Oysters, which will receive $1 million in recurring funds for necessary sanctuaries. Twenty-nine DEQ employees, including Chief Deputy Col. John Nicholson, whose jobs were saved from the Senate guillotine. NC A&T and Appalachian State universities, who can keep $200,000 each for energy research. (Check back on Thursday for a larger story about rearrangements to the state energy office and general provisions to the energy portion of the budget.)

The budget’s losers — and this is just the short list: NC State University’s energy program, whose funding was eliminated. The myriad other ways DEQ touches North Carolinians lives: fortifying coastal communities’ response to climate change, consistently monitoring water quality in the sounds, protecting people — usually low-income and minority neighborhoods — from contamination in old landfills. And the 16-plus DEQ employees, including seven in the vital regional offices, where much of the permitting takes place. They will have to pack their desks if the cuts survive the full House and Senate votes. Not to worry, lawmakers say, it’s only a reorganization.

Governor Roy Cooper, HB2, News

New Elon Poll on Cooper approval, HB2, medical marijuana

The latest Elon University Poll results give a look at North Carolinians’ views on Gov. Roy Cooper, the General Assembly, the effect of HB2 on the state’s reputation and the question of legalizing marijuana.

The live-caller, dual frame (landline and cell phone) survey of 506 likely voters was conducted from April 18-21. The latest released results feature responses from registered voters classified as likely voters in the Nov. 8 election and has a margin of error of +/- 4.36 percentage points.

The poll found that nearly half of respondents approve of the job Roy Cooper is doing as governor.

“Governor Cooper is clearly enjoying a honeymoon period of public support in North Carolina,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll, in a release Tuesday. “That he is 19 points net positive in an otherwise divided state gives him some leeway to use soft power even as the legal powers of the office have recently declined.”

“Governor McCrory had positive approval numbers very similar to Governor Cooper’s when the Elon Poll first asked about McCrory’s job performance in April 2013,” Husser said. “Governors have a tendency to become less popular over time. However, Cooper is currently in a strong position to craft a solid foundation of support in North Carolina.”

Of course, Cooper’s approval is split by party.

Seventy percent of Democrats said they approve the job he is doing while just 24 percent of Republicans said they approve. Half of independent voters – a large and growing group of voters in North Carolina – said they approve of Cooper’s performance.

The North Carolina General Assembly did not fair as well in the poll. Fifty-four percent of respondents said they disapprove of the job the General Assembly is doing. While Democrats and black voters were the most likely to disapprove of the legislature, it’s worth noting that the poll found 38 percent of Republicans also disapprove of the job the GOP dominated legislature is doing.

In a related question, the poll asked respondents about HB2’s impact on the state’s national reputation. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they believe it has made North Carolina’s reputation worse.

There were also some interesting responses on marijuana legalization. Eighty percent of respondents said they would support legalizing marijuana for medical use while 45 percent said they would support its legalization for recreational use.

For more information from the poll – including questions on concealed carry gun permits and environmental questions – see the full poll, including more information on methodology.

Courts & the Law, Governor Roy Cooper, HB2, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Another look at Cooper’s doggedly impressive start

As the national pundits weigh in on President Trump’s first 100 days in office and the General Assembly careens toward its self-imposed crossover deadline for legislation, it’s worth considering how Governor Roy Cooper has fared in his first 100+ days on the job.

He reached that threshold a couple of weeks ago with little fanfare. There were a few news reports and an interview or two, but most of the political world was still assessing the fallout from the partial repeal of HB2 and monitoring the latest efforts by the General Assembly to take powers away from Cooper that previous governors have held.

The 100-day threshold also felt less noteworthy because of the way Cooper’s term began and what happened before he took the oath of office. [Read more...]

2. A flood of bad ideas
How the General Assembly is spending “crossover week” and what it ought to be doing

The last week of April arrived soggy and gray yesterday in North Carolina. It’s as if the weather gods had taken a sneak peek at the agenda for one of the busiest weeks of the year at the General Assembly and were shedding a steady stream of preemptory tears.

Yes, this is “crossover week” in Raleigh – one of those strange and obscure “inside the Legislative Building” phenomena that are, at once, difficult to fathom and highly impactful on the lives of millions of everyday North Carolinians.

Every other year, state lawmakers self-impose something known as the “crossover deadline.” The basic and not utterly unreasonable rule is that unless a bill is approved by at least one legislative body (either the Senate or the House of Representatives) by the end of this legislative week, it will be ineligible to become law this year. The idea behind “crossover,” of course, is that it provides a culling mechanism that can help a part-time legislature manage the deluge of bills (there have been 1,448 introduced so far in 2017) it needs to wade through. [Read more…]

3. Controversial charter growth bill sails through the state House

Despite criticism from the Republican chair of the State Board of Education, members of the state House of Representatives voted Thursday to clear speedy expansion for some North Carolina charters.

Under House Bill 779, charters would be able to boost their enrollment by up to 30 percent without seeking state approval, provided they have not been identified as low-performing.

The version that emerged on the House floor Thursday night included several modifications from the GOP-led bill, which had called for any charter, regardless of academic performance, to have clearance for expanding enrollment by up to 40 percent. [Read more…]

***Bonus stories from Crossover Week:

4. Republican judge on protesting bill reducing Court of Appeals: ‘There weren’t any other options’

On Monday morning, there was only one way left to save the Court of Appeals and a few hours with which to do it.

Just two days earlier, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 239, which would reduce the state’s appellate court from 15 judges to 12. It was expected that the Republican-led General Assembly would override that veto as soon as they could, despite a lot of opposition from both sides of the aisle.

“Every argument had been produced to no avail; statistics were provided to [legislators] by a judge from our court; … four chief justices told them this is a bad move, that this is going to hurt the courts, that this was ill-advised; our court had told them that,” said former Judge Douglas McCullough. “There was only one way left. There weren’t any other options.” [Read more…]

5. Investment firm CEO: Partial HB2 repeal was not enough

The political compromise that repealed HB2 was enough for the NCAA and ACC, both of which have returned sporting events to North Carolina.

But is disappointment with the compromise and a flurry of new anti-LGBT proposals from the General Assembly continuing to hurt the state’s reputation? And can it recover?

“I would say it’s definitely not all over with the repeal,” said Matthew Patsky, CEO of Trillium Asset Management.

With more than $2 billion under management, Trillium has offices in Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and Durham. They were part of a group of investing firms handling more than $2 trillion that warned against the economic impact of HB2 in September of last year. [Read more…]

Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Roy Cooper’s $23.4 billion budget: new programs, 5% raise for teachers next year

Gov. Roy Cooper released his first budget today. At $23.4 billion, more than half of that money would be spent on public education. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

At one point in his press conference, Gov. Roy Cooper grabbed a copy of his 161-page budget booklet from a nearby table, and pointed to its cover for emphasis. “This is a balanced budget” he told a group of reporters, who had gathered at Durham Technical Community College for the announcement. “We did it without raising taxes or fees, cutting services or dipping into special funds.”

Released at 10:30 this morning, the $23.4 billion budget will require more analysis to learn what’s been nipped and tucked to achieve that goal. But Cooper’s first foray into a state budget as governor focuses on education, emblematic of his vision of propelling North Carolina into the top 10 educated states by 2025:

  • new programs for continuing education students and community colleges to increase the number of adults with a higher education degree from 38 percent to 55 percent;
  • an increase in the number of pre-K slots to eliminate the 4,700-child waiting list;
  • financial incentives for new schoolteachers in the form of a $10,000 student loan forgiveness in exchange for a 3–4 year commitment to teaching in North Carolina public schools;
  • salary hikes for all state employees, including a 5 percent bump for public school teachers in 2017-18 and another 5 percent in 2018-2019

Including one-time expenditures, the total amount is a 5.1 percent increase over 2016-17, hammered out by the legislature and former Gov. Pat McCrory. Without those non-recurring funds, the budget is 3 percent higher than the previous one.

Cooper is counting on Medicaid expansion to help offset state health care costs in a “cost-neutral manner.” The governor is counting on hospitals to  cover the state’s portion, which he said would ultimately save those institutions money it would otherwise spend on providing care for the uninsured.

Another 624,000 North Carolinians would be covered under Medicaid if it were expanded, Cooper said.

North Carolina’s rural and underserved areas would also receive an infusion of funds. About $30 million is included for the redevelopment of “NC Ready” sites. Those are tracts of 50 to 200 acres that could be repurposed for economic development. To attract good-paying manufacturing jobs, Cooper proposes spending $20 million to build infrastructure for new factories.

Although North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in December, 59 of 100 counties reported rates higher than the statewide average. Eastern North Carolina is particularly hard-hit, with Hyde County at 11.6 percent of eligible adults out of work and Tyrrell County at 10.3 percent.

Low wages, a lack of education and opportunity — in a word, despair — has led to a sharp increase in opioid deaths nationwide, and North Carolina is no exception. In 2015, 735 deaths were attributed to prescription opioid overdoses, more than the number of caused by heroin and cocaine, combined. In 1999, the state reported fewer than 100 such deaths. To combat the state’s problem with opioid abuse, Cooper has requested $12 million next year.

The Department of Environmental Quality would also receive a boost, adding four full-time positions in water resources permitting staff and another four full-time jobs in dam safety. “DEQ has been decimated for the last four years,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure we have the people who can do the job.”

There is also $100 million allocated for hurricane and disaster relief reserve.

We are catching up. We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority. Click To Tweet

Other notable, although easily overlooked line items include $1 million to help keep the state’s military bases open when the next round of closures begins in 2018. Those bases, including Camp Lejeune, Seymour Air Force Base, Pope Field, Cherry Point and Fort Bragg, are key to the economy in their communities.

As part of the “Raise the Age” campaign — it would prohibit 16- and 17- year olds from being tried as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime — Cooper said another juvenile center would need to be built. That could raise concerns among juvenile justice advocates who want to keep these kids out of institutions. Nonetheless, he is requesting $1 million the first fiscal year and $5 million in the second to accommodate those teens into the juvenile justice system.

The 895,000 people in North Carolina without access to high-speed internet could be helped by a $15 million broadband grant program. It would help deliver what’s known as “last mile” and “middle mile” high-speed internet to rural areas, particularly in the mountains. Another $5 million would be used to assess the state’s broadband needs.

The House and Senate are meeting tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the governor’s budget before each chamber draws up its own version. (They will meet in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, so a live audio stream will be available.) Republican State Sen. Pro Tempore Phil Berger already disapproves. He tweeted that Cooper’s budget contains “reckless spending.”

“We are catching up,” Cooper countered. “We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority.”