Action – or, Rather, the Lack of It – at the General Assembly

Action – or, Rather, the Lack of It – at the General Assembly

MTRaleigh Report

1/22/20

If you missed the General Assembly session last week, don’t feel bad. It lasted all of a day and produced, well, not much at all. 

Republican leaders in the House and Senate brought lawmakers back to the capitol, hoping to override Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of the legislature’s version of the state budget. House Republicans succeeded in overriding Governor Cooper’s budget veto last fall using tactics that left many Democrats crying foul.

But completing an override takes a three-fifths vote of both the House and the Senate. And Senate Republicans have had trouble finding even a single Democrat to join them in voting to override the Governor’s veto.

Governor Cooper and Republicans in the General Assembly have been at loggerheads over the budget since last summer. Cooper insists that the legislature expand healthcare coverage via the state’s Medicaid program. GOP leaders in the General Assembly have refused and put most of their political efforts into finding the votes to override Governor Cooper’s veto of their budget. 

That effort failed last week when Senate Republicans could not find the single Senate Democrat they need to collect a three-fifths majority for the veto. Without that single vote in the Senate, the effort to end the budget stalemate collapsed and the General Assembly adjourned until the beginning of the 2020 session, which will begin April 28. 

So, to review: North Carolina does not have a budget. The legislature went into session to address the budget issue. The session lasted a day. North Carolina still does not have a budget. 

In the absence of a spending plan for the state, any recurring funding from the last approved budget (fiscal year 2017-2018) continues. That’s why government offices are not shut down. But the absence of a budget leaves hundreds of millions of dollars unspent on education, health and human services and the environment – including open space conservation, water quality projects, clean water investments in the French Broad and other rivers, as well as new staffing needed to maintain the state’s environmental protection efforts. 

Prospects for an end to the budget stalemate are nowhere in sight. In fact, last week GOP Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said that the legislature may not even approve a budget for FY2020-21 – its most important task for the 2020 session. 

Instead, Senator Berger said, the General Assembly will leave the 2018 budget in place and, perhaps, approve smaller appropriations bills during the 2020 session. The bills could contain less controversial parts of the budget, such as the use of federal block grant funding. The General Assembly approved a number of these “minibudget” bills last year – some of which Governor Cooper signed, while vetoing others. 

Here at MountainTrue, we are already beginning to prepare our agenda for the 2020 session. We will share the details later this spring, but you can expect it to include new investments in water quality monitoring, improved public access for hiking and paddling, help for the region’s farmers to pay for fencing around streams and other water quality protections, and sustainable energy policies that protect consumers and address climate change. 

Thank you for making our voice in Raleigh possible!


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

Action – or, Rather, the Lack of It – at the General Assembly

MT Raleigh Report Yearly Wrap Up: The Budget, Wins for the Environment and Looking Ahead to 2020

MTRaleigh Report

Dec. 10, 2019

It’s been a strange year at the North Carolina General Assembly.

There have been lots of votes – and vetoes – on various budget bills, but no final state budget. There was just a smattering of problematic environmental bills, the worst of which either didn’t pass or were defanged before becoming law.

Then there’s the legislative session itself, which started in January but didn’t end until Halloween – only to be serialized in November and when the legislature is scheduled to come back in January.

Confused? No worries. We’re here for you with a quick rundown on what happened this year at the legislature and where things stand as the political stalemate between Governor Roy Cooper and the GOP-controlled legislature continues into the new year.

The Budget

You’ll recall that Governor Cooper vetoed the legislature’s budget for the 2019-2021 biennium earlier this summer. Governor Cooper wants the General Assembly to include expanded Medicaid coverage for more than 500,000 North Carolinians in the budget. Most Republicans in the legislature disagree. The result is a political and policy battle in which the two sides have been sparring about budget issues all year. In a surprise September vote, the House overrode the Governor’s veto, but the Senate has not been able to find the votes needed to complete the override. Thus the state’s budget stalemate.

With a budget deal stalled, the legislature has moved sections of their overall budget into separate “mini-budget” bills and sent them to Governor Cooper – some of which he has signed, while vetoing others.

So what does the budget battle mean for the environment? For starters, important funding for open space conservation has not been approved. Also held up is funding for a variety of conservation and water quality projects that MountainTrue supported in the legislature’s budget this year. The budget stalemate has also stalled funding for expanded water quality testing in the French Broad River and other WNC rivers to address E. coli pollution that can make people sick.

The budget impasse also cuts off new investments in the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s ability to protect water quality. The Cooper administration requested 37 new water quality positions, of which the legislature funded five. DEQ Secretary Michael Regan described the legislature’s budget for the Department as insufficient to protect the state’s natural resources.

When will the budget battles in Raleigh end? That’s the $24 billion question. Senate Republicans need just one or two Democrats to join them in overriding the Governor’s veto. So far, the Democrats in the Senate are sticking with Governor Cooper, who continues to call on GOP lawmakers to negotiate a budget deal. Lawmakers will return to the legislature on January 14 to continue their 2019 work.

Environmental Wins

Without the veto-proof majorities necessary to easily override Governor Cooper’s veto, Republican lawmakers have significantly reduced the number of bills sent to the Governor for approval. This has resulted in fewer environmental bills being taken up, let alone approved, during the 2019 session.

The biggest environmental bill of the session, SB559, put renewable energy advocates as well as many industries on red alert over a provision to allow the North Carolina Utilities Commission to approve electrical rate increases up to five years in advance in a single proceeding. Advocates including MountainTrue were concerned that the bill would reduce public feedback and transparency about rate increases, making it easier for utilities to pass costs onto their customers. The bill would have also allowed utilities more cushion on their allowed earnings, including a “band” of allowed profit above and below a certain percentage.

After months of debate, a veto threat by the Governor, and weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating, the most controversial sections of the bill were turned into a study and the bill was signed into law by Governor Cooper. This was a big win for renewable energy supporters and consumer advocate groups.

This moderating trend for environmental bills also showed up in the debate about a bill reducing local governments’ regulation of billboards. After a veto by Governor Cooper this summer, supporters of the bill have been unable to muster the votes necessary to override the veto, essentially killing the bill altogether – and giving environmentalists and local governments another win.

And for those of you in need of an unarguably positive and feel-good environmental story, we give you the legislature’s authorization of the new Pisgah View State Park, which will preserve 1,600 acres in Buncombe and Henderson Counties. Three Republican Senators – Senator Chuck Edwards, R-Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania; Senator Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford and Yancey; and Senator Jim Davis, R-Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain, introduced the bill in April. It was passed unanimously by the Senate in June and by the House in early July, where it was championed by Representative Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, and Representative Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson. The park is expected to cost $18.1 million and to take five years to complete.

Looking Ahead

With the General Assembly out of session until January 14, its agenda in the new year is still unclear. Senate Republicans will almost certainly continue to try to find a few Democrats to help them override the Governor’s budget veto. If the Senate does not override the budget veto, the legislature may continue to send Governor Cooper more mini-budget bills. Some House Republicans, led by Rep. Chuck McGrady, would also like to invest state funding in a variety of strategies to make North Carolina more resilient to storms and flooding – not only on the coast but, hopefully, in the mountains as well. These strategies include increased funding to buy out industrial hog operations with a history of pollution problems in the flood plain, as well as assistance to local governments to improve flood control infrastructure. While the Senate’s appetite for these investments is unclear at the moment, MountainTrue will support these appropriations and remind all legislators that, like the coast, WNC needs new investments to prepare for the bigger and more frequent storms and fire seasons we can expect as a result of climate change.

Finally, a note of thanks. MountainTrue is the only WNC environmental organization with a lobbyist in Raleigh. This makes us a stronger advocate for our region in the state capitol, which wouldn’t be possible without your support. Thank you for your part in our 2019 policy work, and we hope you will continue to be part of our team here in WNC as well as in Raleigh in 2020.


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

Action – or, Rather, the Lack of It – at the General Assembly

MT Raleigh Report: The Latest on Conservation Projects in the State Budget

MTRaleigh Report

In our last report, we updated you about the status of several important Western North Carolina conservation projects included in the state budget negotiations in Raleigh.

Recently, lawmakers gave final approval to their version of the state’s $24 billion spending plan. Governor Cooper vetoed the legislature’s proposed budget last Friday, as was widely expected.

While we hope Governor Cooper and legislative leaders will come to a resolution on a final budget soon, we are grateful that the General Assembly included a number of important investments for WNC in their version. These include:

  • $200,000 to allow the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) to investigate and clean up hazardous spills from unknown sources. When an angler alerted our Watauga Riverkeeper to a fish kill and sheen on the Watauga River two summers ago, state regulators were unable to respond immediately because the origin of the spill was unclear. Responsibility for such spills falls largely to NC DEQ’s Underground Storage Tank cleanup program, whose funding is restricted to contamination that is clearly associated with an underground storage tank. This additional funding will allow the Department to respond more quickly and to protect North Carolina’s aquatic life and rivers, and the tourism and recreation industries that depend on them.

  • $150,000 to improve public access to a popular recreation area in the Green River Game Lands in Henderson and Polk Counties. Access to the Green River is of great importance to the paddling and angling communities, but the parking area for an iconic section of the river is under a temporary lease agreement that can be terminated at any time – putting recreational access to the river at risk. This appropriation will support and leverage further grant funding for permanent public access and trail improvement projects that protect the Green.
  • $100,000 to provide state funding to monitor popular WNC rivers and streams for E. coli and other pollutants that can make people sick. WNC river recreation areas in the French Broad and other watersheds routinely fail EPA standards for E. coli, especially after it rains. This funding will help inform the public of when it’s safe to swim.
  • $100,000 to expand fishing and camping tourism with improvements to the French Broad River Paddle Trail in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison Counties. This investment will allow paddlers and others to more easily and safely access more than 150 miles of the French Broad, and will bring new economic development opportunities to communities in small towns along the river.
  • $100,000 to improve fish habitat and hunting and fishing access by providing matching funds to remove the Ward’s Mill Dam on the Watauga River in Watauga County. Removing the dam will result in 140 more miles of connected stream and improve free-flowing aquatic habitat for species like the Eastern Hellbender and the Green Floater Mussel.
  • $100,000 to expand camping and fishing tourism with investments in the Watauga River Paddle Trail in Watauga County. The Watauga is one of WNC’s most beautiful rivers, and this funding will expand public access and recreation opportunities.

This funding represents months of legislative advocacy across our region and in Raleigh by a team of MountainTrue staff and volunteers – thanks to all of you who have supported these efforts with your time and donations. Thanks also to the WNC legislators who worked with us – including Senators Chuck Edwards and Deanna Ballard, as well as Representatives Chuck McGrady, Josh Dobson, Brian Turner and Kevin Corbin.

We also hope you’ll mark your calendars for a community discussion of MountainTrue’s legislative work, which will happen at the Wedge at Foundation on July 17 at 6:30 PM. Our lobbyist, Rob Lamme, will share his main takeaways from the legislative session and answer questions on how to impact environmental issues in Raleigh from our mountains. Until then, thank you again for your support!


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

Action – or, Rather, the Lack of It – at the General Assembly

MT Raleigh Report: Update on Conservation Projects in the Budget

MTRaleigh Report

The legislature’s months-long debate of the new state budget is coming to an end, and there are some key Western North Carolina conservation investments at stake this year.

The budget process for the state’s biennial (AKA two-year) budget began in March, when Governor Roy Cooper delivered his proposed budget to the General Assembly. The House of Representatives followed with weeks of budget meetings that culminated in approval of its version of the state’s $24 billion spending plan. In recent weeks, the Senate has developed its own version of the budget.

Now comes “conference” – the process the House and Senate use to reconcile their budgets and send a final version to the Governor for signature or veto.

Over the past few months, MountainTrue has been working with lawmakers to support a number of conservation projects that are now being discussed in conference. Specifically we are asking lawmakers to support funding to:

  • Allow the NC Department of Environmental Quality to investigate and clean up hazardous spills from unknown sources – as occurred recently in the Watauga River (included in the Senate budget, $200,000 one-time funding)

  • Improve public access to a popular recreation area in the Green River Game Lands in Henderson and Polk counties (included in the Senate budget, $150,000)

  • Provide state funding to monitor popular WNC rivers and streams for E. coli and other pollutants that can make people sick (included in the Senate budget, $100,000)

  • Expand fishing and camping tourism with improvements to the French Broad River Paddle Trail in Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and Madison counties (included in the Senate budget,  $100,000)

  • Improve fish habitat and hunting and fishing access by providing matching funds to remove the Ward’s Mill Dam on the Watauga River in Watauga County (Included in the Senate budget, $100,000)

  • Expand camping and fishing tourism with investment in the Watauga River Paddle Trail in Watauga County (Included in the Senate budget, $100,000)

MountainTrue – and our region – is fortunate to have a number of lawmakers who have been willing to support these projects. Thank you to Representatives Chuck McGrady, Josh Dobson, Kevin Corbin and Brian Turner for your help. On the Senate side, Senators Chuck Edwards and Deanna Ballard have been immensely helpful.

MountainTrue staff will travel to Raleigh next week for the last of this year’s monthly lobbying trips to support these budget items. Look for an update in the coming weeks about our trip, the final budget and its investments in Western North Carolina.


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

MT Raleigh Report: Crossover Week, Rate Hike Bill and Our Legislative Advocacy

MT Raleigh Report: Crossover Week, Rate Hike Bill and Our Legislative Advocacy

MTRaleigh Report

MountainTrue in Raleigh to speak with legislators on May 1. From left to right: Green Riverkeeper Gray Jernigan, Co-Director Bob Wagner, Watauga Riverkeeper Andy Hill, Development Director Adam Bowers and volunteer Robert Udashen.

Last week was “crossover week”, which might as well be “chaos week” in the legislature.

That’s because “crossover” refers to the legislature’s deadline for most bills to move from one chamber of the legislature to the other in order to remain eligible for consideration for the rest of the two-year legislative session. The official crossover deadline occurred last week, with both chambers pushing dozens of bills through the legislative process before the deadline kicked in.

As with all rules and deadlines at the General Assembly, there are a number of ways for lawmakers to get around the crossover rule. Gutting a bill that has passed one chamber and re-writing it to address a different issue altogether is a popular strategy. But for the most part, a bill that is subject to crossover but doesn’t meet the deadline dies a quick death.

Thus the mad scramble of crossover week.

Perhaps the most important bill with implications for the environment that passed in crossover week was SB559, which would remove the need for utilities to come before the NC Utilities Commission and the public on a yearly basis when rate increases are proposed. Instead, utilities would be able to get rate hikes approved for up to five years all at once.

Supporters of the bill argue that the NC Utilities Commission already has the power to approve rate hikes for future costs, and that the law would only make this power more explicit.

But a broad coalition of bill opponents – including environmental groups, business organizations, manufacturers and consumer groups – worry that multi-year rate plans will give them less input in the process the commission uses to set rates.

MountainTrue opposes the bill for this reason and more. SB559 reduces the opportunity for the public to have a say about rate hikes on a year-by-year basis and, by increasing the likelihood of the Utilities Commission considering rate hikes to pay for future costs, makes it harder to ensure that these costs are reasonable and prudent. Neighboring states have experienced this firsthand: In South Carolina, for instance, the Base Load Review Act empowered utilities to charge customers for large power plants before they were built. This resulted in customers being charged $37 million per month for the cost of the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station before it was abandoned in 2017.

We are also concerned that SB559 will limit discussion on how much Duke investors – not consumers – should have to pay for the cost of cleaning up the company’s multi-billion dollar coal ash mess.

Unfortunately, the objections of so many interest groups did not prevent the Senate from approving the bill, which collected the support of most of its GOP majority as well as a small number of Democrats. Several Republicans also voted against the bill.

Among Western North Carolina legislators, Senator Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) voted against the bill; Senators Chuck Edwards (R – Henderson, Buncombe, Transylvania), Jim Davis (R – Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain) and Deanna Ballard (R – Alleghany, Ashe, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes) voted in support.

SB559 now moves on to the House, where its prospects for approval are less certain.

In other legislative news, MountainTrue staff and volunteers were in Raleigh on May 1 to talk to lawmakers about our legislative priorities, which include increased funding for the French Broad Paddle Trail and support for climate resilience planning in WNC.

Look for an update about these issues in an upcoming report, and as always, thanks for the support that makes our legislative advocacy in Raleigh possible!


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

MountainTrue Raleigh Report: It’s Road Trip Season!

MountainTrue Raleigh Report: It’s Road Trip Season!

MTRaleigh Report

MountainTrue staff were able to thank the Department of Environmental Quality’s Chief Deputy Secretary John Nicholson (far left) and Secretary Michael Regan (center) in person for their recent historic decision to require Duke Energy to dig up all of its remaining coal ash ponds in North Carolina.

This time of year, protecting Western North Carolina’s shared places means taking road trips to Raleigh.

With the General Assembly now running full steam, MountainTrue staff are making regular visits to the state capitol to speak up for our mountains. We made our second visit of the year last week to have conversations with a number of key legislators as well as the leadership at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

At the General Assembly, we had good visits with Representatives John Ager, Kevin Corbin, Josh Dobson, Susan Fisher, Cody Henson, Chuck McGrady and Ray Russell, as well as Senators Deanna Ballard and Chuck Edwards.  Thank you to all of these lawmakers for making time for us.

Much of our conversation focused on funding for a variety of conservation efforts in Western North Carolina. These include improvements to the French Broad Paddle Trail, creating permanent public access to the Green River and removing a dam on the Watauga River to improve water quality and fish habitat  improving public recreation and reducing flooding.

Another priority for MountainTrue this year is to increase the state’s investment in water quality testing in our region. While North Carolina regularly tests its beach waters to protect public health, there is no comparable effort for WNC’s rivers and streams. This is true despite our region’s rapidly growing population and the increasing number of tourists who now swim, paddle, wade and tube in our untested rivers and streams. Unfortunately, these waters are often of lower quality than we’d like them to be. In 2017 and 2018, more than three-quarters of the streams monitored by MountainTrue did not pass the EPA safe water quality standard for E. coli at some point in the year.

We’re also calling on lawmakers to re-establish the Wastewater Discharge Elimination (WaDE) Program, which before its demise reduced bacterial pollution by identifying pollution associated with straight pipes and failing septic systems in Western North Carolina. Between 2002 and 2010, the program surveyed 28 separate areas, visited 13,379 homes and identified 2,016 violations.

Then at the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), we had a brief few moments with Sec. Michael Regan and were able to give him two thank you cards – one for him and another for Gov. Cooper – signed by MountainTrue staff for the administration’s recent, historic decision to require Duke Energy to dig up all remaining coal ash ponds in North Carolina.

Then we got down to business, with conversations about MountainTrue’s legislative agenda, concerns about several water quality issues in the North Toe and Green Rivers and some ideas about improving the process the Department uses to engage and educate the public during public meetings.  Overall we’ve found that Department officials have consistently been willing to listen to our concerns and, in most cases, work with us to find shared solutions.

MountainTrue’s next Raleigh road trip is scheduled for early May. If you would like to plug in and help support our policy agenda, please contact our Advocacy & Communications Associate Eliza Stokes at eliza@mountaintrue.org. And as always, thanks for the support that makes our legislative advocacy efforts possible!


Western North Carolina is blessed with more than 1.5 million acres of public land, including Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and several state-owned parks, forests and natural areas. These public lands support the headwaters of our rivers, beautiful mountain vistas, one of the most diverse temperate forests on the planet, and a thriving economy in tourism, crafts and recreation.
During its 30-year history, WNCA (now MountainTrue) has twice prevented logging in the Asheville Watershed, first in 1990 and again in 2004. Eventually the City of Asheville placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.