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Update: The state Senate voted this week to pass this budget proposal.
The $20.6 billion budget the Senate proposed Sunday is a massive 413-page bill that is as much a policy document as it is a spending plan with specific measures that could impact Western North Carolina.
After years of reducing the number of special provisions directing policy in the state budget, the Senate plan [PDF] is full of directions to state agencies on how the money is to be spent as well as structural changes to departments and state boards and commissions.
Senators heard briefings on separate parts of the bill Monday, and the full Senate Appropriations Committee met Tuesday to take up amendments. Senate leaders expect to vote on the bill today and Thursday.
Leaders of Senate appropriation committees said a recently announced additional shortfall in the state’s Medicaid budget and the program’s continued growth led to tight budgets and cuts to programs through state government.
“Medicaid is an out-of-control federal entitlement program, and it is impacting what we can do across the state,” Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, co-chair of the subcommittee on Health and Human Services, told his colleagues at a hearing on the budget bill Tuesday morning.
At the hearing, Sen. Martin L. Nesbitt Jr., D-Asheville, said that despite claims to the contrary, the budget still cuts education too deeply. Budget writers could have restored cuts made in the last budget cycle, he said, but instead put the money into tax cuts and other priorities.
“This is going to permanently take these positions out of our school systems,” he said.
The budget passed out of the Appropriations Committee late Tuesday morning with few amendments and debate. “It is yours,” Nesbitt, the Senate minority leader, told the committee co-chairs. “You own it.”
The Senate’s budget proposal calls for spending levels close to the total proposed in March by Gov. Pat McCrory. It also uses several budget-cutting strategies employed by the governor’s budget writers, including cuts to the number of teaching assistants and the elimination of dedicated funding streams to several programs and trust funds.
If approved by the Senate, the bill would then go to the House, which is readying its own version of the budget. The two bills will then would go to a conference committee to work out differences between the two chambers.
Prison closures, trust fund mergers, preserving local state historic sites
The Senate budget cuts deeper than the governor’s version in some areas, including the closure of seven prisons and two juvenile detention centers, a list that includes facilities in Buncombe County.
There are several differences between the two, including a change in how the state provides for water quality projects ranging from conservation to infrastructure. The Senate plan creates a new system for distributing planning and support grants to local governments for wastewater infrastructure and for the merger of two state conservation trust funds — the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund — into a Water and Land Conservation Fund administered by a new board appointed by the governor and the legislature.
Previous reporting by Carolina Public Press showed that the Clean Water Management Trust Fund has faced dramatic funding cuts in recent years. Since its inception in 1996, it has distributed more than $200 million in grants in the region.
The move brought praise from a coalition of state environmental groups because it increases both the amount of funding called for by the governor’s proposal and puts the funds — $12 million in the first year, $14 million in the second — in the recurring budget, which makes continued funding much more certain.
“Conservation funding was hit hard when the economy went into recession several years ago. We thank our friends in the Senate for finding a creative solution to protect conservation funding and streamline land conservation in North Carolina,” Bill Holman, North Carolina director of The Conservation Fund, said in a statement issued by Land for Tomorrow, a coalition of environmental organizations, citizens, businesses, interest groups and local governments.
The Senate’s proposed budget would also reduce funding but not close state historic sites. The governor’s proposed budget called for closing the Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center in Old Fort and the Vance Birthplace in Weaverville. The proposals also differ in outlining plans for a new crime lab based in Western North Carolina.
Other highlights and WNC-specific proposals in the Senate budget include:
Health and human services
• Provide funds for equipment and personnel for the expansion of Broughton Hospital in Morganton, a psychiatric hospital which serves the state’s 37 westernmost counties.
• Establish a statewide telepsychiatry program to extend services to rural regions.
• Raise Medicaid co-pays and drop the number of allowable doctor visits per month; reduce Medicaid payments to providers; and require the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a Medicaid reform plan.
Natural and economic resources
• Merge the Natural Heritage Trust Fund and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund into a new Water and Land Conservation Fund, administered the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and guided by a new Water and Land Conservation Authority.
• Create a new Water Infrastructure Authority to provide planning and matching grants to local governments for wastewater infrastructure and to administer the state’s drinking water funds.
• Reduce funding and transfer responsibility for grants, funding and oversight of the state’s Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative — which includes the Highlands Nature Center, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, also known as PARI, and the Western North Carolina Nature Center — to the state’s Museum of Natural Sciences.
• Restore $6 million in annual funding for state parks operations.
• Cut $9 million from the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission.
• Eliminate funding for the Rural Economic Development Center.
• Cut $142 million each year in funding for teaching assistants in the second and third grades.
• Cut $48 million in the first year of the budget and $75 million in the second year from the University of North Carolina system.
• Add $698,962 in start-up funding for a new engineering degree program at Western Carolina University’s Biltmore Park Town Square location. The program would receive $719,844 in the second year and four full-time positions.
• Hold current tuition rates for the UNC system and increase tuition at community colleges by $2.50 per credit hour.
• Transfer the property of the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching to Western Carolina University, both of which are in Cullowhee.
• Transfer 2,500 Pre-K slots in the first year and 5,000 in the second year to the childcare subsidy program, reducing the number of students in the more rigorous pre-Kindergarten program.
Justice and public safety
• Transfer the State Bureau of Investigation from the Office of Attorney General to the Department of Public Safety.
• Add 19 full-time positions, $111,424 in start-up money and $1.5 million in recurring funding for the western crime lab. The lab would also get $1 million for equipment purchases and $750,000 to provide toxicology services for the western region.
• Close the Western Youth Institution in Morganton and eliminate 323 full-time positions. The center’s offender population would be transferred to the Foothills Correctional Institution also in Morganton, which would add 55 full-time positions.
• Close the Buncombe Correctional Center, eliminating 48 full-time positions, and the Buncombe County Detention Facility, eliminating about 19 full-time positions.
• Provide $650,000 in each of the next two years for a new multipurpose group home in the western district to provide youth services.
• Send $100,000 in operating assistance funds for visitor centers in Watauga, McDowell and Transylvania counties.
• Fund new construction and improvements to Department of Transportation facilities in Graham, McDowell and Clay counties and for salt storage sheds in Nantahala and Lake Junaluska.