N.C. Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, glances at his seat mate, state Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, on the House floor in April 2011. Photo by Travis Fain.

RALEIGH — The latest proposal for the state budget slices up the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and hits education harder than Gov. Bev Perdue suggested, partly because the Republican-controlled legislature is dead set against continuing a penny sales tax now on the books.

Overall the general fund plan, generated by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, totals about $19.3 billion, some $600 million less than the governor’s proposal. Charity nonprofits would take big cuts, and Planned Parenthood would lose all of its state funding.

Thousands of state and local jobs — and likely tens of thousands — would be eliminated, including teacher’s assistant jobs in second and third grades. Public school class sizes would probably go up, as would tuition for community colleges and, likely, universities.

Generally speaking, tax increases would be avoided, though numerous court filing fees and other user fees would increase. That includes a potential new driver’s education class fee of up to $75 for high school students.

The budget makes sweeping changes in a number of areas, but many of the biggest shifts would be in the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources, which would shed roughly 200 jobs in the coming year and potentially another 600 the year after that.

Nearly 100 of those jobs would come out of the department’s seven regional offices, which handle environmental permitting and inspections. The budget also requires these offices to justify their existence or face complete elimination in fiscal 2013.

The budget also cuts the state’s clean water management trust fund by 90 percent, shrinking annual funding to $10 million. It cuts back heavily on land acquisition for parks and conservation, essentially limiting those purchases to buffers around to military bases.

Cuts in the regional offices would target administrative and inspection positions, according to state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, an appropriations chairman in the House. Generally, permitting jobs would not be cut because legislators don’t want to hamper business growth by slowing that process, Gillespie, R-McDowell, said Thursday.

Gillespie has been a civil engineer and developer for many years in Western North Carolina. He said DENR is not generally “business friendly,” and he singled out the Asheville office, saying regulators there “are spending more of (their) time on frivolous inspections than what needs to be done.”

Gillespie said his own troubles getting permits preceded these budget proposals. At one point, he said, it took eight months to get septic permits for six lots.

“Can you imagine what it would have taken an average citizen?” he asked.

“We’re not going to harm the environment. …” Gillespie said. “But we are focused on regulatory reform. And the over-reaching power and authority that DENR has … we’re going to reign that in.”

Diana Kees, communications director for DENR, said Asheville staffers deal with a range of issues, largely focused on protecting water from pollution and runoff.

“While there may be cases where customers feel that their needs for service have not been met, improving customer service throughout DENR has been a priority of Secretary (Dee) Freeman,” Kees commented via an e-mail.

Kees also noted that DENR doesn’t issue septic permits. Local health departments handle that, though they get technical assistance from the department’s Division of Environmental Health. That’s one of the divisions that would be stripped out of DENR under the House budget proposal.

“The budget is awful for North Carolina’s environment,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina.

Ouzts called some of the cuts “draconian,” and said clean water management and other department functions aren’t just good for the environment, they’re important for the economy because of North Carolina’s popularity with tourists.

The budget also shifts several programs out of DENR, including the state’s Division of Forest Resources, which would move to the Department of Agriculture. A shellfish and water quality program would move to the Division of Marine Fisheries, and DENR’s Division of Environmental Health would move into the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some smaller programs would be eliminated, including a tick control program and a private well program.

This version of the budget is expected to be voted on by the full House this week. It will then move to the Senate, where more changes will be made. Eventually a budget will be sent to Perdue, who has has already used damning language to describe the House plan, saying it would do “generational damage” to the state.

Perdue has proposed fewer cuts by extending 3/4 of a current penny sales tax past its July 1 expiration date, something Republicans in control of both the House and Senate have promised to oppose. They’ll have to find middle ground by July 1, or much of the state will shut down without a budget.

In the mean time, Republicans will likely try to get a handful of Democrats in the House to abandon the governor and vote for the Republican budget. They have a veto-proof majority in the Senate but are four votes shy of that in the House.

Many legislators are expecting a long and difficult debate.

“Do I think we’re going to be going home any time soon? I really don’t,” state Rep. David Guice (R-Henderson, Polk, Transylvania) said Thursday.

More highlights of the House budget

  • About $400 million less for K-12 education than Perdue proposed in February.
  • About $217 million less for the university system and $25 million less for community colleges.
  • $250 million less for health and human services.
  • $122 million more for courts, law enforcement and prisons, an increase largely due to an accounting change that moves the highway patrol out of the transportation budget.
  • Significantly higher investments in various pension and retirement funds. Republicans have said these are needed to keep the plans well funded, even though a recent study showed that North Carolina’s pension fund is one of the best-funded public plans in the country.
  • The budget includes several prison reforms being championed by state Rep. David Guice (R-Henderson, Polk, Transylvania). Perhaps the biggest change would be keeping people who commit misdemeanors out of state prisons, unless their sentence runs more than six months. Those people would serve time in local jails, instead.
  • In addition to letting the temporary penny tax expire, the House budget preserves Perdue’s proposal to lower the corporate income tax rate by 2 percent. A broader tax relief package is also being developed but hasn’t been unveiled. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis said this week that package will “relate to job creation, most likely tax relief for small businesses, maybe some for corporate filers.”

To learn more about the current budget proposal, check out:

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Travis Fain is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ctfain@yahoo.com.

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