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State Budget: Good, Bad, and Ugly?

After an interminable 2021 session that technically still hasn’t ended, the General Assembly held a relatively brief short session that just wrapped ahead of the July 4th holiday. The final item on their agenda was passing adjustments to last year’s bipartisan budget, which was the first state spending plan Gov. Cooper signed into law in a few years. Late this afternoon (July 11), Gov. Cooper signed the new budget into law as well.

That’s not to say the budget doesn’t still stink from either a process or substantive angle. As usual, it was drafted in secret by a small group of partisan leaders, and rushed through with minimal time for public review or debate. Technically the budget was a conference report, which is normally a process only used to iron out differences between the versions of a bill passed out of each chamber. One of the rules for conference reports is no amendments are allowed; it gets either an up or down vote. Legislators and the public had a matter of a few days from first seeing the bill to having to vote yea or nay.

Despite appeals from Gov. Cooper, us, and environmental allies, Republican budget writers left the Department of Environmental Quality underfunded and understaffed, and largely ignored proposals to boost clean energy, clean transportation, and environmental protection other than those that came with federal funding from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.

In a more positive move, the budget replaces some one-time funding for the state Land and Water Fund (NCLWF) and Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) with recurring funding of $8 million for PARTF and $11 million for NCLWF, bringing the recurring funding for both funds up to $24.2 million. The funds will also receive the balance of the $50 million in non-recurring funds approved in last year’s budget. Among other uses, this money buys land for recreation and conservation purposes.

The budget also allocates federal funding to weatherization, low-income energy assistance, and energy efficiency revolving loan fund programs, as well as funding for electric vehicles and public transit grants. Additional federal money is routed to several state clean water, wastewater treatment, and clean drinking water programs. 

However, the budget also includes $1.5 million to help corporate hog farms install anaerobic digesters to produce biogas. Environmental advocates oppose these projects as merely shoring up an unsustainable system of massive waste cesspools and sprayfields that primarily pollute communities of color that live near these factory farms.

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