The State’s budget comes in two parts: Senate Bill 257 [The Appropriations Act of 2017], the actual law, and the so-called “Money Report” which shows all of the various appropriations by the numbers. SB257 is 438 pages long, and although not sequentially numbered, the Money Report is even longer. The Money Report is relatively easy to read, since it shows how monies are spent. Conversely, the bill that actually becomes law is very difficult to read.
After folks get an overview of the budget, their next question is what is in the budget that relates to me or how will the budget effect where I live? Well, the budget has many provisions that relate to Henderson County and western North Carolina. Moreover, a large number of my legislative priorities are reflected in the budget, which shouldn’t be surprising, since I’m a co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
Here is a listing of some expenditures affecting western North Carolina:
Western School of Medicine (Asheville). The budget allocates $8 million this year and $7.6 million next year for a medical school which will teach some students who have completed their first two years at UNC-Chapel Hill. Experience has shown that where one receives one’s medical education can influence where one chooses to practice medicine. The budget puts money towards medical schools in both eastern and western North Carolina hoping doctors will choose to locate in rural counties in both parts of the state.
Hemlock Restoration. $200,000 will go fight the hemlock woolly adelgid killing off hemlocks, mostly in western North Carolina. Some of the work will be done on public lands such as DuPont State Recreational Forest.
Inpatient Behavior Health Beds. Mission Hospital got a $4 million grant for additional beds for mental health patients.
Asheville Regional Airport. The airport will receive more than $4 million over two years for capital improvements or debt retirement.
Hendersonville Downtown Revitalization Grant. Hendersonville was awarded $100,000 to continue work on improving public facilities in the downtown area.
Assistant District Attorney. The judicial district that includes Henderson County was allocated one additional assistant district attorney who will join District Attorney Greg Newman’s office.
Additional Deputy Clerks. Similarly, there were 67 new deputy clerks added to the Clerk of Courts offices across the State. The positions are not specifically allocated by county, but it is likely that a position will end up with Henderson County Clerk of Court Kim Gasperson-Justice.
DuPont Forest Training Center. Rep. Cody Henson (R-Transylvania) secured $100,000 for the NC National Guard for the Joint Use Training Center at DuPont State Recreation Forest, a joint headquarters with the NC Forest Service.
Muddy Sneakers. This is an educational program operating in Henderson County, and the nonprofit received a $500,000 grant to support its program utilizing outdoor classroom experiences to teach science and math courses to 5th graders in other areas across the state.
Hickory Nut Gorge Trail. The partially constructed trail in Henderson, Rutherford and Buncombe counties was added to the States Parks System as a state trail. There is no direct funding related to this designation but the Park Service at Chimney Rock State Park can now provide some services in completing construction of the trail and non-profit partners, like the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, can better seek private funding for trail construction.
WCU Energy Plant. Signaling a much larger, upcoming project, $750,000 was allocated to start planning for a new energy plant at Western Carolina University.
As the senior budget chair from Western North Carolina, I know each of these appropriations has its own story. The Western School of Medicine funding was probably the hardest to secure, not simply because of the amount, but because of its funding history. Last year, it received all of its funding from monies allocated by the Senate. This year, it was seeking funding as part of the UNC appropriation, and had a difficult time competing given that legislators really wanted to fund K-12 education. Because of its funding history, House Members were not familiar with the project and viewed it as a low priority. I spent many hours building support for funding the medical school.
My colleagues know of my interest in Muddy Sneakers, and sometimes that isn’t a good thing. As a House Appropriations Chair, the easiest way for senators to hassle me is to target something of importance to me, and Muddy Sneakers is an easy target. While it made it into the House budget, I couldn’t get the Senate to agree to fund it. Ultimately, I had to go to Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) to put money towards the funding of Muddy Sneakers.
The latest developing provision in the budget was the designation of the Hickory Nut Gorge Trail as a state trail. That actually was brought forward by Peter Barr at the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, shortly before the House took up its budget. I wasn’t sure I could get it in the budget because typically state trail designations are done in a bill. However, the time for introducing such legislation had passed, and if anything was going to happen this year, the only realistic option was adding it into the budget. I asked Rep. David Rogers (R-Rutherford) to run an amendment to the House budget to add a provision designating the state trail. Since it was his amendment, I hoped to avoid it becoming some sort of political football like the funding for Muddy Sneakers.
Aside funding projects in western North Carolina, my primary role was to negotiate the budgets for the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural & Cultural Affairs (generally known as the AgNER budget). Since there were significant funding differences between the Senate’s and House’s budget for these departments, my Senate counterpart, Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson) and I sat in a room and negotiated those departments’ budgets—budgets which were subsequently largely accepted by our House and Senate colleagues. I also had some responsibility for the Department of Transportation’s budget. Since the revenues for transportation infrastructure flow outside the state budget, in some ways that budget was easier, although it involved a broader debate about transportation policy.
Typically, my mantra is “don’t put policy in the budget,” but I’m almost embarrassed when I look at the number of my bills that ended up in the budget. Most noteworthy, is House Bill 280 [Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act] or “Raise-the-Age.” The bill ends North Carolina’s practice of treating 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the criminal justice system, rather than as juveniles within the juvenile justice system. The Raise-the-Age policy change is in the budget bill, and there is money for the construction of a new juvenile facility to house additional 16 and 17 year olds who will now be confined in a juvenile facility versus an adult one.
Additionally, House Bill 10 [DHHS Eating Disorder Study], House Bill 307 [Board Cert. Behavior Analyst/Autism Coverage], and House Bill 718 [Study Rates and Transfers by Public Enterprises] all made it into the budget bill. With respect to the Raise-the-Age bill, the Senate had passed a very similar bill as part of its budget. It seemed easier to include and fund it in the same bill. The autism-related bill had been the subject of numerous conversations with Senate colleagues and, when it seemed clear that the bill would never be heard in the Senate as a free-standing bill, Senate leaders indicated they had no objection handling it as part of the budget. The other two bills are “study bills,” and it is a fairly common practice to include study bills in the budget. So by passing the budget bill, the legislature is also passing four of my bills.
Since House Democrats consented to waiving the House Rules and allowing votes on the conference budget today, the expectation is that the House will complete work on the budget on Thursday. The one piece of the budget that remains is disaster relief funding, mostly related to Hurricane Matthew. There is $100 million in a reserve in the conference budget, but there is still work to be done in specifying exactly how the monies will be spent. I’m the House-lead on that part of the budget, and my expectation is the disaster relief monies will be allocated in a separate bill that the chambers will take up in the coming days.