It’s a volatile time in the state budget process, and North Carolina’s main environmental agency can do little but watch as legislators, led by a recently installed GOP majority, work to close an estimated $2.4-billion shortfall through sharp cuts to its budget.
North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which addresses everything from forest and wildlife conservation to issuing permits that limit air and water pollution, has been one focus for Republican leaders looking to make the cuts they say are needed to meet their goal of closing the budget gap through spending reductions alone, with no added revenue to soften the blow.
This week’s negotiations included a proposal to cut DENR’s Asheville office by two thirds, and eliminate the Mooresville office (in the Charlotte area) altogether. Among other functions, the Mooresville office houses the western division of the state’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, whose mission is to protect the public from exposure to accidental releases of hazardous materials into the environment (see “Hidden Hazards,” Jan 12 Xpress). Closing that office would not bode well for the cleanup of the hundreds of sites that agency already handles, including some 50 hazardous waste sites in Buncombe County alone.
Fortunately for DENR’s Mooresville office, the House subcommittee currently developing its budget proposal decided late this week to preserve the office — instead subjecting it to the same criterion applied elsewhere: namely, if an environmental regulation doesn’t come from a federal mandate, don’t fund it.
What’s at stake in that approach is funding to help farmers keep their cows out of area streams (through the work of each county’s Soil and Water Conservation District); the state’s Air Toxics Program, which monitors air quality and issues public reports on emissions of toxic pollutants; and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which helps fund the purchase of undeveloped natural areas to preserve their role in providing clean water to local communities. The House subcommittee proposes slashing the budget for the latter fund from $50 million to $10 million.
Julie Mayfield, director of the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, tells Xpress: “The legislative majority has made it clear through a number of bills, through regulatory reform efforts, and through this budget, that they are interested in doing only the very minimum needed to comply with federal law. Stripping DENR of anybody who isn’t absolutely critical to federal environmental programs is one way to do that.”
“You don’t even have to touch the authorizing legislation—you just get rid of the people,” Mayfield adds.
Particularly distressing to environmental advocates is the proposal to slash the environmental health side of DENR, which provides testing and related assessment services when citizens call in complaints of possible environmental violations. Mayfield worries about a future in which property owners discover contaminated ground water, for instance, and “no one answers the phone” when they call DENR to make a report.
Lawmakers have argued that severe cuts are necessary, but comments from some suggest a general hostility toward environmental regulation. A Republican House member from Cherokee, Rep. Roger West, co-chairs the committee that develops DENR’s budget, but was not available to comment after several phone calls from Xpress. As reported in the Raleigh News and Observer, West has had prominent run-ins with environmental regulators at the agency, including a bill he offered in 2003 that would have cut the jobs of two wetland enforcement staff who had cited a friend of West’s for clean water violations.
Legislators who did make themselves available for comment sounded worried. “Being the environmental tree-hugger that I am…it just brings you to tears almost,” Rep. Patsy Keever tells Xpress. “What are these people thinking? It’s such a different mindset from what I’m used to — I’m used to my beloved Asheville, where people care about the environment. I’m here with people who have just a way different way to look at things. And it’s strictly along party lines,” she adds, “which is sad, because I came here [to Raleigh] to work both sides of the aisle, to negotiate and to listen to reason, and I’m not finding that happening so much.”
At this stage, proposals can move on and off the table overnight, as the budget process is fairly flexible in the subcommittee phase. As the process moves forward, the various House committees will finalize their proposals, and offer the package for review as the Senate develops its own budget proposal; the two will have to hammer out a reconciliation later this spring. The legislature as a whole will vote on the final budget package in June.