Already hobbled by years of budget slashing, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) faces new cuts as the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic dries up revenues.
The current legislative majority spent much of the past decade starving North Carolina’s environmental protection programs of the funds needed for research, analysis, and enforcement staff and equipment. In fact, only three states cut their environmental enforcement budget more than North Carolina did. That raised DEQ’s reliance on permit fees to pay for essential program staff.
Now the pandemic’s economic depression of permit applications and sales tax revenues for the state general fund have combined to threaten DEQ’s budget even further.
Environmental attorney Robin Smith called the current situation even worse for the agency’s funding than during the Great Recession, when she was assistant secretary for environment at DEQ’s predecessor agency. “You’re already talking about a limited budget based on 2018-19, and now at some point the need for cuts in response to the pandemic and the loss of revenue is really going to hit.”
DEQ was already told to cut travel and training costs, keep unfilled positions open, and delay salary increases. Furloughs and layoffs of existing staff could be next if new resources aren’t made available.
State and federal legislators need to hear that continued cutbacks of our capacity to deal with threats to water, air, and public health are unacceptable.