N.C. House budget cuts are jeopardizing our environment | Exile on Jones Street | Indy Week

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N.C. House budget cuts are jeopardizing our environment



Early in this legislative session, environmental advocates warned that the new Republican majority was prepared to go much further than expected in putting its mark on state environmental policy.

The state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources was in the crosshairs, they said, and would be stripped of everything but its regulatory functions, and then those would be bled dry.

Any doubts about those predictions were erased with the recent passage of the House budget, which was rife with ideologically driven defunding. DENR's budget could be cut by as much as 23 percent, and, coupled with extensive changes in rule writing and land conservation, these cuts promise to roll back decades of progress in protecting the state's natural resources.

Senate committees are expected to start voting on sections of the budget as early as this week.

If you measure the success of the GOP leadership in the General Assembly by its ability to turn back the clock, there are few triumphs that will top what has happened to environmental policy, especially the dismantling of the lead agency, DENR, charged with protecting it.

At risk is not just the regulatory framework that protects our air, land and water resources, but some of the "goodliest lands" the state has proudly sworn to protect and conserve.

Environmental groups recently compiled a partial list of what natural resources could be lost: key lands identified for preservation adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway, around Chimney Rock and Roan Mountain, along the Waccamaw River and adjacent to the Green Swamp—all places emblematic of our natural heritage and, apparently, now expendable.

The House budget not only slashed DENR's funding, it also parceled out chunks of it to other departments. Under the plan, the divisions of Forestry and Soil and Water Conservation move to Agriculture and Consumer Services; the Division of Environmental Health—or what will be left of it after a couple dozen job losses—goes to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In all, nearly 1,000 employees are shifted around, with an estimated 100 jobs axed for good. DENR, which won a last-minute amendment allowing it some flexibility in reaching the House's budget targets, will come up with its own plan going into the next round of negotiations.

Dan Crawford, director of government relations for the League of Conservation Voters, said what's being done to DENR is clearly more driven by ideology than cost cutting.

"It's an outright attack. The facts don't matter to these guys," he said.

Some of it doesn't even make sense.

In their zeal to get government off the backs of business, House budget writers want to phase out DENR's seven regional offices, a move Crawford and others point out will hurt businesses trying to get permits. The people in the regional offices work with applicants to tailor permits, and closing those offices would slow the permitting process, Crawford said.

Some of the budget's awkward language in sections on shifting forestry to the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Department, Crawford said, is evidence that some of the efforts to reshape environmental policy are being done on the fly—doing it for the sake of doing it.

"There's been such a rush to do these god-awful things," he said.

With the budget process finally moving, the main goal shared by environmental advocates and DENR is to save the regional offices, an idea they think is sellable because it can be pitched as business friendly.

DENR spokesperson Jamie Kritzer said department officials will try to make the case that the cuts to the regional offices will undermine DENR's customer service, monitoring and protection of the state's natural resources.

Kritzer added that while the department recognizes it has to play its part in budget reductions, the new cuts, on top of a 24 percent decrease in funding over the past three years, will seriously hurt DENR's ability to do its job.

Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said DENR's own cost-cutting may help save some positions and programs, but it won't be enough.

"It's a good idea to let the departments decide, but the cuts are too deep. They just can't distribute them in a way that will let the department do its job."

With the budget fight centered on maintaining the regional offices, some of the proposed defunding and dismantling of DENR is all but certain.

Gov. Bev Perdue's budget proposal contains clues to what might be conceded. Although the General Assembly quickly rejected Perdue's budget, her plan established some low-hanging fruit for GOP budget cutters.

"Unfortunately some of the bad environmental cuts came from the Governor," said state Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. "Those are not in good shape."

Harrison added that Perdue will likely veto the budget, and there will be enough Democrat votes to thwart an override.

Some programs may be protected by individual legislators, McCallie says, but not many.

The projects that could be killed range from oyster bed rehabilitation and shellfish protections on the coast to landslide hazard mapping in the mountains.

A combination of policy changes and funding cuts will also have a major effect on land conservation and protection, due mainly to the sheer size of the hit to the state's Clean Water Trust Fund, one of several state trust funds raided in both the House and governor's budgets.

Perdue's budget took $50 million of the $100 million set aside for the fund. The House budget dings it for $90 million.

That money is the main source of funding for land acquisition, clean water and sewage treatment projects. Such drastic cuts worry Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina.

In addition to slashing DENR's budget, Ouzts says the Legislature is greatly restricting how the money can be spent.

"We know the cuts are necessary and we've all got to tighten our belts, but to make these cuts and then further restrict land conservation is bad news for protection of the environment in this state."

The state's land protection programs under the proposed budget would dwindle to about $1 million and be restricted to land purchases for conservation adjacent to military bases. Ouzts says there are lands near the bases that are good candidates for conservation, but they represent only a fraction of the need.

When it comes to the state's resources, remember that timing is everything. Once they're gone, they're gone.

Rep. Harrison, who until the GOP takeover served as vice chair of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, said the House budget is only the most recent attempt to undo years of environmental protections.

Earlier, the Legislature stopped DENR from drafting new regulations and, in the name of regulatory reform, promises to make it difficult to implement any new restrictions.

Harrison said she's concerned that something akin to the Hardison Amendments era of the 1980s may be in the offing. At that time, the Legislature prevented the state from adopting environmental standards that exceeded federal standards.

No matter what the final compromise will be for the budget, the session has already proved to be a major turning point for environmental protection in the state and one that will have lasting consequences.

It's a future in which developers are free to gobble up prime lands, jetties dot the coast, polluters go unchecked, and there's an emphasis on fracking and offshore drilling rather than renewable resources.

By eliminating the programs designed to protect our environment, the people doing the work, or both, the new leadership will leave a mark on this state. Unfortunately, it may be one that's impossible to scrub off.

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