Environmental Agencies May Face Smaller Cuts
By Kirk Ross
RALEIGH -- The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources will retain all seven of its regional offices, under a plan reviewed this week by budget writers in the state House.
Legislators are putting the finishing touches on plans for a 1.5 percent across the board cut for state agencies, including DENR, which took a substantial hit in the two-year budget passed last year by the General Assembly.
A new set of options for DENR funding, released this week during a hearing of the state House's Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Environmental Resources, restores a potential $12.6 million cut in funding for the offices.
The elimination of the offices was a key concern of environmental groups after the legislature, led by Republicans for the first time in a century, last year cut roughly $23 million from environmental programs and chopped more than 150 positions, including 27 in DENR’s regional offices. All told, the department's budget was cut by 12 percent, more than double the cuts proposed by Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat. Since 2009, DENR’s budget has been cut by 35 percent.
Last year’s budget also put further funding for DENR’s regional offices contingent on a justification review by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division. The review, released Monday, recommends restoring full funding for the offices along with new oversight, management and reporting requirements.
“We’re obviously very happy to see that,” said Diane Kees, DENR’s spokesperson. Losing the regional offices, she said, would have had a significant effect on the department’s ability to adequately review permit applications, inspect projects and issue licenses.
“The folks in the regional offices are our people on the ground,” Kees said, “so it was very, very important that that happen.”
The offices would see some reduction this year, though. Cuts proposed this week include eliminating four vacant positions in the offices for an estimated savings of about $261,000.Two would be in the Raleigh office, one would be in Mooresville and one in Wilmington.
Grady McCallie, policy analyst for the N.C. Conservation Network said in their attempt to hit budget targets legislators aren’t taking a thoughtful approach to what’s best for the state and what people who use DENR’s services need.
“They did the big cuts last year,” he said. “This year, the cuts are smaller but they do have an impact. They’re not well thought out. They don’t save a lot of money, but they do hurt programs and consumers.”
Cutting the regional offices further, he said, doesn’t make sense given the impact on customer service from last year’s reduction of office positions.
“Cutting those administrative positions was a mistake in terms of good government,” he said.
The additional cuts in personnel in the regional office are part of roughly $1.7 million in cuts to DENR’s 2012 budget identified so far. The biggest slice comes in the form of a $400,000 savings through the elimination of eight sedimentation and erosion inspectors.
The budget plan also eliminates the last $100,000 in annual funding for Fishery Resource Grants, a program that saw a substantial cut last year as well. The move effectively ends all funding for the grants, but does not specifically call for eliminating the program, which is run by the N.C. State University-based North Carolina Sea Grant.
Michael Voiland, Sea Grant’s executive director, said yesterday that it’s an important program for the future of the state’s fisheries and deserves another look.
"With there being no other state programs that are explicitly designed, under state law, to help the N.C. commercial and recreational fisheries industry in testing and developing new ideas to advance and conserve, the General Assembly may wish to rescue the very unique and highly effective Fishery Resource Grant Program from the budget chopping block," he said.
DENR also plans to leverage $4.16 million in the Clean Water revolving fund and the $4.36 million in the Drinking Water revolving fund for $42.6 million in federal matching funds. That money would come through the agency’s Loan Origination Fee fund.
A decision on this year’s appropriation for the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund, is expected to be hashed out next week when the full appropriations committee meets. The $11.25 million annual appropriation approved in last year’s budget is the lowest amount in the fund’s history. Richard Rogers, the trust fund’s executive director, told Coastal Review Online last month that the fund was at risk if levels stayed that low indefinitely. By statue, the fund’s annual target is set at $100 million. Environmental and conservation groups are asking that the trust fund’s budget be increased to at least $40 million this year.
A new bill could put drilling off the N.C. coast in play again.
In addition to the budget one major piece of legislation set for the short session is already promising to be controversial. Before the session begins May 16, the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Commission is expected to review its energy subcommittee’s recommendation that sets up a new state oil and gas board to oversee the permitting and regulation of hydraulic fracking and potential offshore gas exploration.
The draft legislation also modifies portions of last year’s Energy Policy Act, which would have opened up the state’s coastal waters to drilling. So far, the state House has failed to override Perdue’s veto of the energy bill, but if the changes, some of which were demanded by the governor, satisfy enough legislators’ concerns, both fracking and offshore drilling could move forward.
Expect whatever happens in this year’s short session to happen fast.
Compared to previous years, the short session is on an accelerated schedule, with the package of adjustments to the biennial budget slated to be introduced on the first day and committee hearings over the following week. According to a timeline released last week a final vote on the plan could come as early as May 23.
Perdue is also expected to release her budget proposal soon. Chris Mackey, Perdue’s spokesperson, said DENR funding has not been finalized and would be rolled out along with the rest of the package prior to the start of the short session.