Coastal Review Online will post a roundup of coastal legislative news every Friday while the N.C. General Assembly is in session.
A new bill aimed at eliminating idle state boards and commissions and streamlining others would revamp dozens of state panels including the Coastal Resources Commission, Environmental Management Commission and Coastal Resources Advisory Council.
Senate Bill 851, the Boards and Commissions Efficiency Act of 2012, would eliminate about 50 boards and commissions, many of which have not met for years, and modifies membership requirements for dozens of others.
Under the legislation, the Environmental Management Commission, or EMC, the state’s top environmental board, drops from 13 to seven members appointed by the governor. The legislature would still appoint six members. The lost appointments are seats designated for people with experience in public health, fish and wildlife conservation and the effects of air and water pollution.
Membership in the state’s Coastal Resources Commission would drop from 15 to nine, with the elimination of seats designated for commercial fishing, wildlife or sport fishing, coastal agriculture and three at-large members.
The bill drops the number of members of the Coastal Resources Advisory Council from 42 to 24 members and requires 10 of the representatives to be nominated by boards of county commissioners in coastal counties and six by coastal cities.
Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina and South Carolina region for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the legislation is troubling. “It’s very clear to me that particular positions if not individuals were singled out,” he said.
Carter said the EMC changes would have a serious effect on how well the commission can do its job. The changes to the coastal boards, he said, reduce expertise in science, eliminate fishing representation and hands more clout to development interests.
“This is a targeted effort to not just change the composition but to make [the boards] less representative of the broad range of interests in the coast,” he said.
Carter said the changes at the EMC are significant because they give the legislature more clout on an executive branch board, a move that may violate constitutional requirements on separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
The bill has been in the Senate’s Program Evaluation Committee since it was introduced early in the session, but on Thursday, Sen. Harry Brown, the majority leader from Onslow County and one of its chief sponsors, told his colleagues to file their comments by Monday afternoon in preparation for moving forward on the bill.
Environment Suffers Again in House Budget
As expected, the state’s top environmental agency saw its budget trimmed further but did not face the wholesale elimination of its regional offices, which were spared from the chopping block after a favorable review this spring.
The N.C. House passed its adjustment to the state budget Wednesday night after a daylong debate that centered mainly on education funding and the closure of state facilities. The 73-46 vote fell mainly along party lines with Democratic Reps. Dewey Hill of Columbus County, William Brisson of Bladen, Bill Owens of Pasquotank, Jim Crawford of Granville and Timothy Spear of Washington voting for the GOP-crafted budget as they did last year.
The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ seven regional offices passed a justification review ordered in last year’s budget and saw $12.6 million in funding restored. The offices were dealt a $350,000 cut, but legislators left it up to the department to decide where to find the savings. Under a special provision in the budget, the department is also required to centralize its management of the regional offices.
The House kept in place record low funding for the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund for second year in a row, but they loosened language in last year’s budget directing how the money could be spent. The new directive includes prioritizing projects that border military lands, but also allows the trust fund’s board to consider infrastructure projects where funds would leverage federal grants.
The fund will receive $11.25 million this year. The appropriation was also changed from recurring to non-recurring, meaning fund supporters will have to make their case again next year to receive any funding.
The budget also dials back a proposed cut in the number of erosion and sedimentation specialists eliminating four positions instead eight.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, tried to amend the bill to add back money for two more erosion specialists, but the move was defeated. Harrison said the state needs to add more inspectors not cut them back.
Reps. Vera Insko, D-Orange, and Deborah Ross, D-Wake, also argued against the cuts at the environmental agency. Insko said environmental rules are useless if there isn’t money for enforcement.
House budget writers also restored $50,000 in funds for Fishery Resource Grant program and $100,000 for the Oyster Sanctuary Program although like the trust fund, the funding was changed from recurring to non-recurring.
Sea-Level Rise Plan Draws Fire
Although the new bill language has not been introduced, a proposal to prevent the state from planning for accelerated sea-level rise because of climate change continues to be the subject of withering criticism from scientists in North Carolina and ridicule from bloggers across the country.
“We’re throwing this science out completely, and what’s proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science,” Stan Riggs, a geologist at East Carolina University and one of the Coastal Resource Commission’s science advisors, told the Charlotte Observer. “You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”
Wilmington officials are worried about the proposed bill’s ban on local governments doing their own planning for sea-level rise. In an email to the N.C. League of Municipalities, Philip Prete, Wilmington’s senior environmental planner, said not only does the proposal mean the city cannot use the best available science but that the rules may jeopardize a key pilot project on water and sewer infrastructure in conjunction with New Hanover County, the Environmental Protection Agency, NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This proposed legislation could jeopardize that pilot project and result in a lost opportunity as well as potential future economic losses to our community,” Prete wrote.
Bloggers have been having a field day portraying North Carolinians as a bunch of backwoods hayseeds intent on outlawing science that they find inconvenient. Blogs about the bill have appeared in the Huffington Post, Science, TPM, the Chicago Sun-Times, Grist, the Progressive Pulse and Scientific American, to name just a few. Even Forbes, not exactly a hyperventilating, tree-hugger journal, had its say. Under the headline “North Carolina’s Climate Change Follies,” John McQuaid, a science writer and Forbes contributor, had this to say about the bill’s directive that planners only use past sea-level rise as their gauge:
“This is folly. They’re basically making a bet that the future will be just like the past. The sad facts of the matter, confirmed by more data every day, are that the future will not be like the past.”
The BBC’s Word Wide Service is planning a radio show on the bill at 3:20 p.m. today.
Other Items of Interest
- Regulatory Reform Moves Ahead: The Senate yesterday passed the Regulatory Reform Act of 2012. Among other things, it tightens rule-making and eliminates air contaminants that get into a water source from being considered an emission.
- Air Toxics Changes Passed: Coastal Reps. Carolyn Justice of Pender County and Danny McComas of New Hanover County were the only Republicans to join Democrats in voting against changes to how the state regulates air toxics. The legislation, which passed the House 70-46 on Tuesday, exempts emissions subject to federal regulations from state rules. The bill, backed by industry groups and the N.C. Chamber of Commerce, moves to the Senate for consideration.