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RALEIGH — It’s budget week for the North Carolina House, which is expected to hold the first vote on its proposal on Thursday. Once passed, the spending plan goes back to the state Senate and, eventually, a conference committee to work out the differences between the two chambers.
There’s likely to be plenty of discussion — especially on issues ranging from health care to education.
House leaders have said their teacher pay plan would be substantially different from the Senate passed plan. And Gov. Pat McCrory said last week that he’ll make a strong push to scrap a plan spelled out in the Senate budget proposal that would spin off the state’s Medicaid and children’s health insurance programs into a new department outside of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. McCrory, who emphasized his disagreement during a meeting with doctors at the Executive Mansion last week, said the administration is working on its own overhaul plan.
His announcement came on the heels of an acknowledgement that federal officials had nixed a DHHS strategy to draw down an additional $60 million in federal Medicaid funding, leaving a new hole in the state budget and irritating lawmakers who had been assured the strategy would pay off.
Spruce Pine Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, the chief Senate budget writer for health and human services programs, said he was particularly frustrated that the administration apparently waited until the last minute to seek a federal OK for the plan, which was announced by DHHS two years ago.
Coal ash legislation moving
An administration-backed plan to deal with coal ash got its first formal hearing in the legislature last Thursday, starting the process of developing a new legal framework for dealing with ash deposits like those at Duke Energy’s Asheville Generating Station.
The Asheville plant is one of four sites statewide identified for immediate action under both the governor’s plan and an alternative Democratic proposal filed last month. Duke Energy officials also have acknowledged the ponds on near the French Broad River as a top priority.
Legislators, led in the Senate by Hendersonville Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca and in the House by Hendersonville Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady, agreed to introduce the governor’s proposal as a starting point for legislation in the short session. The two lawmakers have said they are working specifics to be included in a final version of the bill.
In an email to Carolina Public Press, McGrady said Saturday that he expects to see new coal ash legislation introduced in the Senate “in the next week or so.”
During Thursday’s discussion-only meeting of the Senate Agriculture Environment and Natural Resources, senators heard a strong defense of the administration’s plan and its actions on coal ash from N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary John Skvarla and his top deputies.
Tom Reeder, who heads up DENR’s Division of Water Resources, said that, once passed, the administration’s plan would require Duke to submit cleanup plans for Asheville and the Riverbend site near Charlotte within 60 days. The timeline would require cleanup to begin in a little more than a year, he said.
But legislators, along with members of citizen groups and environmental organizations, said the governor’s plan falls short in enforcement and requiring similar timetables for other sites around the state, including the company’s Cliffside facility in Rutherford County.
Anna Jane Joyner, a coordinator for the Western Carolina Alliance, told Senators that she appreciated that closure of the Asheville site is being fast-tracked, but reminded them that there’s a lot of concern about the rest of the ash ponds.
“I want to thank you for being proactive on (the Asheville) site,” she said. “Our concern is that we also have Cliffside in our region. North Carolina citizens want to make sure that all of these 14 sites and 33 pond across the state get cleaned up and get equal protections in place.”
McGrady, who attended the meeting along with House leaders from the joint Environmental Review Commission, said he has heard similar criticisms of the governor’s plan.
“I was happy to see how engaged the Senators were in the coal ash discussion,” he said in the email. “I continue to be hopeful that the Senate and the House will be together when legislation is unveiled.”
Evergreen gets a break
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, modified a bill in committee last week to add state backing for an emission reduction project at Evergreen Packaging’s facility in Canton, in Haywood County.
Davis’s legislation would allow the company to use $10 million in state Job Maintenance and Capital Development funds to convert two of its five coal-fired boilers to natural gas.
He said support for the company’s $50 million project would help keep jobs in the region and help the company meet new EPA air quality requirements.
The plan received unanimous approval in the Senate, with a 48-0 vote. The state House must consider a version of the bill as well.