This story has been updated.
RALEIGH — The elimination of 45 positions at the Department of Environmental Quality and a moratorium on wind-energy projects through 2020 are among items raising concerns among environmental groups following the release Tuesday of the Senate’s two-year budget blueprint.
The wind-energy moratorium could be a sticking point as the House and Senate begin negotiations on a final spending plan.
The $22.9 billion budget, which includes a raise for schoolteachers and state employees and a major reduction in corporate and personal income taxes, was released late Tuesday night and approved on second reading by the Senate Thursday in a 34-15 vote. A final vote came Friday, a little after 3 a.m., with the budget passing 32-15.
The DEQ cuts proposed in the plan include several highly targeted job eliminations, including those held by DEQ Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson and senior adviser for Policy and Innovation Mary Penny Kelley. The Senate proposal also eliminates the department’s Environmental Education Program and the Environmental Assistance and Customer Service, or DEACS, program, which leads the department’s waste-reduction and recycling efforts, cutting its more than 32 positions.
To some close observers, the budget is reminiscent of earlier fights between the department and legislators and moves in the opposite direction of Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal. Cooper and DEQ Secretary Michael Regan had asked the legislature for additional help at DEQ, mainly to address a backlog in permit applications.
“We’re disappointed to see the cuts proposed for DEQ programs and DEQ staff,” Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, told Coastal Review Online. “A lot of that seems to be sort of petty sniping at the administration.”
McCallie said the Senate had failed to address Cooper’s request for help dealing with permit requests, which are steadily increasing as the economy grows.
“We are hopeful that the House will focus on actual program needs and provide the staff for the agency to keep up with permit demand,” McCallie said.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Regan said DEQ has a significant permit backlog that has built up in the past few years as the department shifted resources to deal with stepped-up regulation of coal ash. He asked legislators for additional help in regional offices to deal with the backlog and reduce turnaround times for permits, which now average about two years.
Instead, the Senate budget cuts 14 regional office positions, two each from the seven regional offices.
“We have significant concerns that the Senate’s budget won’t provide the resources needed to balance the protection of North Carolina’s natural resources and economic competitiveness,” DEQ spokesperson Jamie Kritzer responded in an email. “The current proposal eliminates programs in our agency necessary to educate schoolchildren, enable environmental permitting to keep pace with economic development and help the business community navigate the regulatory process. We look forward to making our case to legislators during the budget negotiations.”
A statement issued by the Sierra Club after the budget rollout noted that DEQ’s regional offices have already seen significant cuts in recent years.
The statement said the Senate “appears determined to also eliminate non-regulatory programs that help business and industry reduce waste. Those programs save money, reduce the regulatory burden on businesses and protect the environment.”
The House is expected to begin work next week on its version of the budget and although the two chambers have been coordinating through much of the budget-writing process, House leaders expect to make several changes to the Senate’s plan.
Among the other changes proposed by the Senate are:
- Overall budget reductions of $4.5 million each year, partly to cover costs of litigation with the Environmental Protection Agency over the Waters of United States rule.
- A reduction of $1 million per year in funding for three university energy research centers.
- Elimination of three currently vacant positions with the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.
- A $250,000 increase each year for the Dam Safety Program.
- A move of the On-Site Wastewater Program from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Wind Projects Questioned
In addition to the budget cuts, the Senate bill also includes several environmental policy provisions, including a moratorium on wind-energy projects pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow.
In hearings on the budget Wednesday, Brown said a moratorium is needed to prevent projects from being built in areas that would interfere with military training. Proponents of tighter rules on wind projects have said the threat to training increases the likelihood that one or more bases in North Carolina could be shut down under the military’s next round of base realignment and closings.
Brown said the moratorium, which would extend until Dec. 31, 2020, would give mapmakers working the state’s Military Affairs Commission time to complete work on detailed exclusion zones for the projects.
“Those maps will pretty much lay out where wind energy is acceptable and doesn’t interfere with military training,” Brown said. “I think until you do that we will be back every single session arguing on what’s a good place for a wind project to go and what’s not good place for it to go. As soon as those maps are completed and it’s laid out, that argument goes away.”
Brown said having the maps is the only way to solve the long-running debate. “This will get some certainty to it,” he said.
The wind provision is likely to become one of the sticking points between the House and Senate as the budget moves forward. The two chambers have disagreed about the right path for wind energy projects for several years and last year failed to pass a major regulatory package after negotiations broke down over wind energy provisions pushed by Brown.
Rep. Bob Steinberg, R-Chowan, said the wind projects represent a major opportunity for struggling counties in the northeastern region and it’s unfortunate that a fight over wind and renewables has become a regular occurrence toward the end of every session.
Steinberg said the move by Brown could be just a bargaining chip once the House and Senate being negotiating a final version. The House has already signaled that a moratorium could not pass in a stand-alone bill, he said.
“They couldn’t get a stand-alone bill through so they decided to just put it in the budget,” he said. The provision, he said, could spell trouble if it remains in the budget and the House is faced with a veto override vote.
“I think there are enough members in the House who would hold out on approving the budget if this provision remains in the budget,” he said.