RALEIGH – State House and Senate leaders reached a deal on a $20.6 billion state budget over the weekend releasing a plan that like its prior versions is filled with policy and structural changes.
Key environmental provisions in the budget include a reorganization of the state’s conservation trust funds, the creation of a new state Water Infrastructure Authority and the wholesale replacement of members of the Environmental Management Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission and the Coastal Resources Advisory Council.
Both House and Senate leaders expect to take up the bill starting today with a possible final vote later this week. Since it is a conference report, the bill cannot be amended.
The trust fund restructuring includes moving the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, now an independent agency, to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The trust fund would absorb the Natural Heritage Trust Fund, but would no longer provide grants to treat wastewater and stormwater, a function that will move to the newly created Water Infrastructure Authority.
Richard Rogers, executive director of the clean water fund, said yesterday that in addition to coordinating the organizational changes, the fund will also be taking direction from a new governing body. The budget provision ends the fund’s current 21-member board and replaces it with a new nine-member board with three members each appointed by the Senate president pro-tem, the governor and the speaker of the House. The budget says that those appointed should be knowledgeable in acquisition and management of natural areas, conservation and restoration of water quality, wildlife and fisheries habitats and resources or environmental management.
Rogers said he is not sure how the changes will affect the current grant cycle. He said they will likely affect wastewater and stormwater applications, which represent about 30 percent of trust fund grants, because those would move to the new authority.
“There are a lot of questions,” Rogers said, “but that’s to be expected with this kind of change.”
Rogers said the funding provided in the budget was a welcome sign this year and going forward. The trust fund will see recurring funding of $10,426,976 in 2013-14 and $13,657,530 in 2014-15.
For nearly two decades, the fund has contributed nearly $1
billion to projects that do everything from prevent encroachment of the state’s
military installations to help small towns with modest coffers improve water
quality and ultimately quality of life. Created by the the legislature in 1996, the fund issues grants that specifically address water
But the program that has aided so many has suffered massive budget cuts in the
past two years – nearly 90 percent below the $100 million the General Assembly
allocated to it in 2008. Legislators allocated about $12 million to the fund
last year and also dropped it from the state’s recurring budget. Gov. Pat
McCrory in the proposed budget that he released earlier this year slashed that
appropriation in half.
“The upside is that there are recurring funds in (the budget),” Rogers said, “and it’s more than we have had to work with in the last few years.”
In addition to recurring money, the fund will also receive proceeds from specialty license plates and will no longer have to cover its own debt service, which currently costs roughly $1.6 million a year.
With the wastewater and stormwater component out of its portfolio and the natural heritage fund’s mission incorporated into its own, the new clean water fund would likely be able to focus more on land acquisition projects to protect critical watersheds, Rogers said. He expects DENR leadership to be closely involved in planning the new phase of the program and merging the two funds’ staffs. The budget limits the administrative costs for the clean water fund to $1.2 million and budgets $750,000 for heritage fund’s administrative costs.
The state’s Parks and Recreation Trust Fund also sees a change in its structure and will no longer receive the bulk of its money from a deed stamp tax, which will now go directly to the state’s General Fund. The parks fund does receive recurring funding of $11 million in 2013-14 and $13 million in 2014-15.
Changes in boards and commissions
Another top policy provision in the budget settles a long running dispute between the House and Senate on major changes to the state’s environmental oversight boards.
Eager to get new nominees in place to reflect the changeover to the McCrory administration, the state Senate early on in the session proposed firing all current members of several state boards and commissions including the Environmental Management Commission, the Coastal Resources Commission and the Coastal Resources Advisory Council. The House countered with a proposal that dialed back the scope of the change, citing concerns about loss of institutional memory and expertise with ongoing issues.
In the new budget, the Senate appears to have won most of the argument. Terms of all current members of two of the commissions would expire on July 31 to be replaced by a new round of appointees. Four members of the Coastal Resources Commission would keep their seats until July 2014.
Members of the EMC would decrease from 19 to 15 members with nine appointed by the governor and six by the legislature. The CRC would drop from 15 to 13 with nine appointed by the governor and four by the General Assembly. The advisory council would drop from 45 to 20 members with all members appointed by the Coastal Resources Commission.
Dredging and boat fees
Sen. Harry Brown
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, managed to see through one of his priorities for the year — funding for inlet dredging. After running into headwinds in both the House and the Senate in separate legislation using higher boat licensing fees and a portion of the motor fuels tax, Brown, a chief budget writer for the Senate, got the language in the final budget. The bill doubled the fee for boats under 26 feet from $15 to $30 and $50 for 26 and over. Under the provision the funds, estimated to be around $5 million per year, would go to cover a dredging program for shallow draft inlets of 16 feet or less and give DENR final say-so on the projects.
Also included in the budget:
- Requires DENR to develop a plan to raise private funds for support of the state’s aquariums
- Reductions in funding to the Shellfish Rehabilitation Program;
- Elimination of the Fishery Resource Grants
- Provides funds to start up an observer at sea program for fisheries