Last Sunday, after enjoying a hike on an isolated section of the Mountains-to-Sea trail, I returned to Raleigh intent on drafting more one-shot budget bills to fund various programs and projects impacted by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. My expectation for the week didn’t include helicopters in the sky and loud bursts of noise that sounded like gunshots, but were likely fireworks and other incendiaries. My expectation was there would be long hours huddled with colleagues on bills, but the reality would be a citywide curfew, requiring early closure of the legislative offices each day and once again relegating some part of my work to Zoom or WebEx video conferences.
Pulling monies from various cash reserves and unspent appropriations, budget writers continued their work on a diverse group of budget bills. In the House, one of those bills, House Bill 1087 [Water/Wastewater Public Enterprise Reform] addresses the problem of failing water and sewer systems across the state operated by local governments that lack the financial strength to fix the systems. If the systems fail, state waters could be polluted or drinking water could be unsafe to drink. However, water or sewer rates cannot be raised sufficiently to make the capital improvements.
Bills of a similar nature moving in the House—meaning bills directed at narrow budget issues, include HB1136 [Fund for NCSSM – Morganton Campus 2020-2021], HB1071 [Funds for DPI for ADM Growth], HB1218 [Salary Related Contribution/Debt Service Funds], HB472 [NCSU Match and NC A&T Match], HB1229 [UI Program Integrity/Temp. ABAWD Time Waivers], and HB1189 [Driver Education COVID-19 Response]. The Senate is moving a range of similar bills: Senate Bill 811 [Connect NC Park Facilities Operating Funds], SB812 [Agriculture Science Center Funds], SB814 [NC Promise Tuition Plan Fund] and SB816 [Funds for CC Enrollment Growth/FY 2020-2021].
Two of the bills are of statewide importance, HB1071 and SB816, which fund public schools and community college enrollment. Some of them have a specific impact on western North Carolina. For example, HB1136 funds the new North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, NCSSM, in Morganton and SB814 continues funding NC Promise, keeping tuition rates stable at Western Carolina University and two other university units.
What makes this process very confusing for anyone trying to follow it is that one doesn’t have one document, albeit a several hundred page document with all of the appropriations, showing what is being funded and where the funding is coming from. The source of funds for these bills are a variety of sources ranging from the federal CARES Act relating to COVID-19 to clawing back monies expected to be unspent at the end of this fiscal year on June 30, 2020.
Separate from the budget process, another set of legislators are working to balance NC Department of Transportation’s cash flow and budgetary issues. The revenues coming from gas taxes will not be adequate to fund transportation projects, and the trust funds are badly out of balance. As the House full chair with responsibility for transportation, my time is split between the one-shot bill process and the transportation funding reform process.
With one shot budget bills moving forward at a time when it is difficult to hold committee meetings and work with colleagues, there aren’t as many non-budget bills moving. One that is moving is SB390 [DuPont State Forest – Financial Study] which my senate colleague, Sen. Chuck Edwards, sponsored. The bill directs the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs to study DuPont State Recreational Forest’s operating model and create a plan to ensure a sustainable revenue stream for the forest.
At a minimum, the bill requires (1) a financial model based on North Carolina or other states, (2) an entry fee that favors North Carolina citizens and requires out-of-state visitors to contribute in proportion to their use of taxpayer facilities and amenities within the forest, (3) a recommendation for legislation needed to ensure that Forest receipts are used only for the Forest’s capital, maintenance and operational needs, and (4) recommendations for capital projects or operational changes needed to improve safety concerning roadside parking.
When a bill moves to the other legislative chamber, someone serving in the other chamber must carry the bill on the floor, and I handled this bill for Sen. Edwards. The only change to the bill relating to DuPont State Recreational Forest was changing the reporting date from February 1, 2021 to August 1, 2021. The bill was used as a vehicle for channeling additional monies from the sale of surplus lands into the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks & Recreation Trust Fund. I was glad to be complicit with this effort to add additional funding to those trust funds.
With all of the House Members from Buncombe County working from home this week, I also carried a Buncombe County-related bill sponsored by Sen. Edwards: SB267 [Buncombe 1/4 Cent Sales Tax Use Restriction]. This bill arose from the outcry of Buncombe County residents when it was learned that an additional sales tax approved by the voters for construction at AB Tech was used for other purposes. Local officials huddled, and this bill will rectify that situation. The bill is supported by all of the legislators — the two senators and three House members — in the delegation.
What will happen next? The first of the budget bills will hit Governor Cooper’s desk by the end of the week. Some of them — particularly early on — are noncontroversial, but some of them may trigger vetoes. The expectation is that we’ll stay in session in June and then adjourn, but I’d make no bets on our schedule over the coming month or months. While some colleagues have no appetite for taking up other non-budget related bills, others like myself, hope to take up some legislation introduced in the last year’s session.
My hope is we make time to take up other issues, including my bill for licensure for behavioral analysts who serve persons as the primary provider of services for children with autism, HB671 [Behavior Analyst Licensure]. One of my goals during my tenure in the legislature has been to increase insurance coverage of treatment options for this community.