For the last six years, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has served as a budgetary piñata. Republican lawmakers, and for most of that time, Gov. McCrory, often took a whack at the department, spilling personnel and programs all over the House and Senate floor.
But in his first budget as governor, Roy Cooper has proposed increasing the department’s funding by 3.3 percent, which includes an additional 20 positions in 2017-2018 and 28 in the second year.
The total appropriation would be $84.8 million including one-time and recurring funds. Another $150 million is projected to be collected in fees, the lion’s share of the DEQ budget, bringing the total to $235.7 million.
“It’s a forward-thinking budget,” said Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network. “It’s not extreme. It’s very moderate.”
Many of the additional personnel would work in the permitting sections of water resources, dam safety and sediment control, where they are badly needed.
According to former DEQ Assistant Secretary Robin Smith’s blog, there has been a 41 percent decrease in water quality/water resources staff in DEQ’s regional offices since 2011. Another 45 percent reduction occurred in state sedimentation program staff between 2008 and 2016.
“DEQ has been decimated over the last few years,” Cooper said at his budget unveiling yesterday. “I’ve heard complaints that the permitting process takes too long. We have to make sure we have people there who can do that job.”
These staffing losses have played out on the ground in concrete ways. Environmental advocates want a thorough, yet timely permitting process to ensure the state’s water, air, land and public health is protected. And industry needs a smooth process to launch their projects; unnecessary delays cost businesses money.
For example, it has taken an average of two years for DEQ to process a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which are federally required for projects that emit pollutants into public waterways.
“Those programs need to bolstered,” McCallie said. “But this only gets there part way.”
Some of the previous cuts occurred during the Gov. Perdue administration as a result of the recession. Housing and commercial development slowed, and with it, a dip in fee receipts, which compose two-thirds of the DEQ budget. But even as the economy recovered, lawmakers didn’t restore the cuts they had made to the agency.
Cooper’s budget, though, includes an additional $2.15 million for the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, plus another $3 million in recurring money. (This falls under the agriculture department budget.) That’s important because North Carolina is a leading state in farmland loss. Between 2002 and 2007, total land in farms in the state decreased by 600,000 acres, about 7 percent.
The Clean Water Management Trust Fund helps protect and restore rivers and lakes. Its coffers would be boosted by nearly $19 million annually, plus a one-time $10 million infusion.
(In 2013, the fund moved from DEQ to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Environmental advocates saw that transfer as a way for the McCrory administration to dilute its environmental importance.)
And under DEQ’s budget, $1.35 million would be pumped into oyster sanctuaries, and $1.1 million for shellfish rehabilitation. Both those programs are key not only for coastal ecosystems but also for that region’s economies.
President Trump’s budget proposes a 24 percent decrease in the EPA budget. Congress is unlikely to embrace that deep of a decrease, but some reductions are likely. The Week reported that projects under the guillotine include brownfields, energy efficiency and climate change resilience.
Any major cuts would gut not only the EPA but also strip states and local governments of vital funding. EPA money accounts for $39 million of the DEQ $84 million budget, about 46 percent. That money pays for some staff positions as well as environmental clean up and protection programs such as brownfields, energy efficiency — the very programs targeted by the president — and drinking water quality.
“There’s a lot of noise about the EPA,” McCallie said. “If the money goes away or if it will make state’s responsible. The last thing lawmakers would want is federal fiscal responsibility.”
State legislators will now begin to hash out their budget priorities. Considering both chambers are held by Republicans, it’s unlikely that Cooper’s budget will remain intact.
“It’s a good proposal,” said Bill Holman, former DEQ secretary under Gov. Jim Hunt from 1999 to 2000. He and was assistant secretary from 1998 to 1999. “The legislature has always viewed the [DEQ] staff and infrastructure with skepticism. The governor’s proposal recognizes that the economy is doing well, the demand for permits is increasing and the department needs more people. It’s timely.”