RALEIGH — Another $500,000 hit to the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund was among the last round of adjustments made during negotiations between state House and Senate leaders, who reached a budget deal this week.
Both chambers approved the new $20.2 billion budget yesterday. Gov. Beverly Perdue has 10 days to either sign or veto the bill.
The budget sets funding for trust fund at $10,750,000, the lowest level in its 16-year history. It was originally budgeted to repeat a previously low of $11,250,000 until budget negotiators moved $500,000 to a Department of Commerce program for areas hurt by military base closures.
The new low marks a sharp drop from the fund’s pre-recession funding, which rarely fell below $40 million and often hit the $100 million target in the statute that created the program.
Although the budget bill does loosen restrictions placed last year on which projects could be funded, the fund’s leadership is concerned about what the budget spells for the future.
“It leaves some concern from our perspective about the future of the program,” Richard Rogers, the trust fund’s executive director, said yesterday.
During floor budget debate on Thursday, Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, the House Appropriations Committee co-chair, acknowledged the funding cut and said he and others were disappointed they were unable to add money to the fund.
“We would like to have done more for that,” he said.
In addition to the amount of funding, the legislature’s change in designating the money as non-recurring rather than recurring is also a concern, Rogers said, especially since the program has ongoing staff and debt service costs. This year, the program will review $124 million requests spread out over 160 applications.
“It gives you pause,” Rogers said. “It leaves in question their commitment.”
Another late addition to the budget was the addition of $250,000 for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It’s to be for specialists to assist the state’s new Mining and Energy Board, which is established in legislation passed this week that clears the way for hydraulic fracking.
Department officials said last week that they would need at least seven staffers dedicated to the job of have a set of rules on fracking ready by year’s end. Gillespie told House members the department was satisfied with three additional staff positions and the flexibility to shift other positions to the project if needed.
Regulation Reform Moving
The week was not completely dominated by the budget compromise and the highly controversial fracking legislation. Several bills that sponsors say are aimed at reforming the state’s environmental regulations made their way to the floor.
New air toxics legislation cleared both chambers with little contention. The legislation requires the state defer to the federal standards for federally-regulated air toxics.
Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, said she supported the compromise measure reluctantly. She said it still left 17 toxics unregulated and bill’s last resort clause, which allows DENR’s director to shut down a plant deemed dangerous, is too weak.
The other key piece of regulatory reform legislation was the omnibus Regulatory Reform Act of 2012, which covers a number of changes ranging from groundwater to food trucks.
Key aspects of the bill include requirements for an audit and tracking system for permit processing by DENR and other agencies and a controversial change in water quality regulations that exempts air contaminants from being considered as a source of contamination.
The bill also delays the implementation of a change in final decision making on new rules that was objected to by federal regulators.
In regulatory reform legislation passed last year, the state requires an administrative law judge to make the final call in cases where rules are disputed, but federal officials have insisted that it be made by DENR, the regulatory agency charged with enforcing the federal environmental statues. The delay gives negotiators more time to reach an agreement on the proposal.
During the House debate on the new package of reforms on Thursday, Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, the minority leader, decried the bill as too varied and loaded up with amendments and sided with Republicans in a procedural matter to get to a final vote.
“The longer this bad bill lies around, the more flies it attracts,” he said.
Sea-Level Rise Bill Ebbs
When the Senate’s version of House Bill 819 made it to back to its originating chamber, Rep. Pat McElrath , R-Carteret, the bill’s original sponsor, asked her colleagues not to concur with the Senate’s version, diplomatically noting the controversy over the sea-level rise language the Senate had added.
Sen. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, took the opportunity to ask McElraft if it was the same bill that had been on “The Colbert Report.” She said she believed it was. The vote was 114-0 to reject the Senate version.
A committee of state senators and representatives will meet to try an iron out a compromise. A plan that seems to be favored would prohibit the state’s Coastal Resources Commission from fashioning regulations on future sea-level rise until the state completes a study on the subject by 2016.
Omega Protein wins another season
A last-minute addition by Sen. Don East , R-Surry, the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee chair, to a bill that bans factory fishing of menhaden off the N.C. coast, grants Virginia-based Omega Protein another season in the state’s waters.
Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, who has pushed for the end of large-scale purse seine netting of menhaden, agreed to the compromise, but said he’d support no more extensions beyond January 1.