RALEIGH — The state House begins debate today on its version of the biennial budget, which features a hefty boost in spending for conservation and clean water projects.
The $22.1 billion proposal was released Tuesday morning as the House Appropriations Committee convened for an all-day meeting that saw 104 amendments, a possible record for one bill.
Among the provisions in the budget plan likely to have broad impact for the coastal region are significant increases in the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and other funds for water and wastewater infrastructure, a major oyster initiative and more money for inlet dredging.
One initiative not in the House budget was a proposal by Gov. Pat McCrory to move the state park system, the zoo and aquariums from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to the state Department of Cultural Resources. The House plan does make cuts at both DENR and the parks system, eliminating a total of 63 positions, most of which have been unfilled for six months or more.
Will Morgan, director of Government Relations with the N.C. Nature Conservancy, said after a slow climb out of historically low funding the parks and clean water trust funds would see a burst of money.
“Those two trust funds basically doubled in the House budget,” Morgan said.
The clean-water fund, which fell to about $10 million in 2013 and has built back up to $13.66 million last year, got a $12.5 million boost to $26.41 million in the House budget. The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund jumped from $13 million last year to $25.5 million this year.
Morgan said he doubts that the clean-water fund, originally conceived to provide as much as $100 million a year for infrastructure, stormwater, stream restoration and land conservation, will ever get back to historic highs.
The trust fund, established in 1996, has seldom been fully funded and last reached the $100 million target in 2007. With a drop in support and a huge demand for funding statewide — last year there were around $60 million in applications — the fund has had to avoid large projects in recent years.
The House proposal, Morgan said, gets it back to levels where more can happen. “I don’t think we’ll ever see it back at $100 million,” Morgan said. “But it’s reached a funding level where we’ll be able to do some real significant conservation.”
Parks Unmoved, Not Untouched
The proposal to move all state attractions, including the state parks system, remains a possibility once the House plan gets to the state Senate. Although the move isn’t in the budget, staffing changes are. The park system would be second only to the N.C. Department of Transportation in positions cut.
The majority of the cuts, scattered around the state, are mainly in vacant mechanic and office positions. In all, 27.5 positions, all of which are unfilled and have been for at least six months, would be cut under the current plan.
DENR itself would lose 35 positions, including four positions at the Division of Marine Fisheries, four and a half position at state aquariums and several science specialists. Nearly all the positions have been unfilled for six months or more.
The budget includes a number of special provisions related to oysters and the oyster industry including an extensive rewrite of shellfish cultivation leasing laws and the establishment of an oyster sanctuary program.
The potential oyster leasing in Core Sound is back on the table with a requirement that the Division of Marine Fisheries study the idea and consult with representatives of the commercial fishing and shellfish industries and federal agencies. A report on the prospects for leases is due back to the legislature in April 2016.
The bill also would also outlaw the use of oyster shells in landscaping effective Oct. 15.
Odds & Ends
Other significant coastal items in the budget include:
- $900,000 over two years for cultch planting for shellfish rehabilitation;
- $750,000 to contract with UNC-Wilmington for oyster brood stock;
- A $3.3 million increase in 2015 and a $4.3 million increase in 2016 for the state’s shallow draft dredging fund due to an increase in the amount of motor fuel tax transferred to the fund;
- $21.9 million in 2015 and $53.7 million in 2016 for modernization of the state ports in Wilmington and Morehead City including roadway, railroad and dredging projects;
- $2.1 million each year for the new Hatteras ferry route and training for spill responses;
- $700,000 for a new ferry service water tower;
- A portion of $2 million annually in the state education budget to finance “game-changing research” in marine and coastal sciences;
- A joint DENR and N.C. Department of Commerce study of coastal restoration, including wetland restoration, oyster-bed restoration, living shoreline and stormwater retrofit efforts contribute to the costal economy. The study would also look at ways to maximize federal money for oyster restoration, wildlife enhancement and wetland restoration.