RALEIGH – The minimalist budget that Gov. Pat McCrory released last week cuts money to a grant program that protects water quality and sensitive land and continued the whittling of the state’s major environmental agency.
As promised in his State of the State speech, McCrory included a proposal in his budget plan to move state parks, aquariums and other attractions from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the Department of Cultural Resources.
The budget, released at a briefing Thursday in Raleigh, would shift 1,037 state employees, the largest restructuring in state government since what is now the N.C. Forest Service was moved from DENR to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in 2011.
McCrory said he wanted to make the move, which also includes the N.C. Zoo and state science museums, to save money by putting all of the state’s attractions under one roof. Some worry that the protection of natural resources, the main mission of state parks, will get shortchanged if parks are moved to a state department more geared toward attracting customers.
At Thursday’s briefing, State Budget Director Lee Roberts said in addition to the shift, Cultural Resources would undertake a full review of how the state markets and funds the parks and other attractions, including admission prices.
A spokesperson for the Office of State Management and Budget said that the transition plan is still being worked out between the departments. The move more than doubles the size of Cultural Resources.
“We are still in the early planning stages, however we are working toward a July 1 effective date (the beginning of the fiscal year), realizing that there are some steps that would need additional time to complete,” Melanie Mathews, communication manager for the state budget office said in an email.
The budget, which McCrory described as “still tight,” balances a $271 million deficit estimated for the current fiscal year through reversions from departments and agencies and offers few large spending initiatives.
More Cuts to Trust Fund
Cuts to the proposed budget include an annual reduction of $233,000 to the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The fund makes grants to protect sensitive land and water. During its heyday when Democrats controlled the N.C. General Assembly, the trust fund received $100 million. Its budget was cut drastically when Republicans took over the legislature in 2011. McCrory is proposing further cuts to $11.4 million a year.
New spending in the budget includes matching funds for several coastal projects with $5 million in spending allocated for a dozen Water Resource Development Projects aimed at navigation, water management, ecosystem restoration and coastal storm damage reduction.
More than half of the projects are targeted for the coastal region. Beach re-nourishment money would go for projects at Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, Wrightsville Beach and Ocean Isle Beach.
Also on the list are the next phase in work on the Cape Fear Lock and Dam No. 2 fish ramp and the next phase of the shoreline protection project at North Topsail Beach.
Individual amounts for the matching funds available for the projects have not yet been broken out.
Fish Tanks and Ferries
The spending plan includes restoration of $250,000 in annual state funding for the Roanoke Island Commission and an additional one-time $250,000 in funding for the Roanoke Island Festival Park this year provided the commission can show it has raised at least $325,000 from private sources.
And the state aquarium at Fort Fisher would see a major upgrade to its saltwater exhibits with the $1.18 million in funding for a new natural saltwater storage tank to replace the use of municipal water and salt mixtures.
The state ferry service would see an additional $700,000 this year for upgrades to the ferry service shipyard and an additional $850,000 each year to cover the costs of newly-mandated spill response training and to pay for additional fuel for the newly-designated Hatteras Inlet route, which increased from four to 10 miles, because of shoaling at the inlet.
While the legislature ultimately decides on the spending plan, McCrory’s proposal gives legislators a starting point and an outline for the administration’s priorities.
After two weeks of weather related delays, House and Senate appropriations committees returned to their regular meeting schedule last week. Legislators have until June 30 to pass a state spending plan.