Raleigh Report: The 2023 Session Kicks Off

Raleigh Report: The 2023 Session Kicks Off

Raleigh Report: The 2023 Session Kicks Off

While the North Carolina General Assembly officially kicked off its 2023 session with lots of pomp and circumstance earlier this month, January 25th marked the first real working day of the new legislative session. 

Beginning on that day and every week thereafter — with just a few exceptions — legislators will arrive in Raleigh on Monday evening and depart on Thursday until they have had enough voting, speech-making, and deal-making and finally shut the session down. Along the way, they are expected to approve a two-year $30 billion budget and take up a host of high-profile issues, including abortion, sports gambling, medical marijuana, redistricting, and that old favorite, Medicaid expansion, among hundreds of other bills. 

North Carolina does not limit the session length, so no one knows how long lawmakers will be plugging away. However long the session takes, MountainTrue will be there every step of the way, speaking up for Western North Carolina and the people who live here. Indeed, MountainTrue is the only WNC-based environmental organization with a year-round presence in Raleigh. 

Our work will be more challenging this year after WNC lost several important legislators. Former state Senator Chuck Edwards from Henderson County, of course, is now in the US Congress. We will miss him in Raleigh, where he was the chairman of a key natural resources appropriations committee, but we will be glad to continue working with him in his new role. Also gone is Senator Deanna Ballard, who lost her seat representing the High Country in a primary to fellow Republican Sen. Ralph Hise. The good news is that Hise remains a chairman of the powerful Senate appropriations committee. The WNC delegation also picked up some muscle in the House, where Rep. Karl Gillespie, who represents Cherokee, Clay, Graham, and Macon counties, was appointed co-chair of a House natural resources budget committee. 

This year as in past years, MountainTrue spent the political offseason preparing our list of legislative priorities for the new year. They include new investments in clean water, public access to rivers and streams, and policy changes that will protect the water we drink and the air we breathe. You can review MountainTrue’s key legislative priorities here.

We’ll keep you updated as the session progresses and our team works to advance funding and policies that benefit clean waters, resilient forests, and healthy communities in WNC!

2023 Western North Carolina Conservation Legislative Priorities

2023 Western North Carolina Conservation Legislative Priorities

2023 Western North Carolina Conservation Legislative Priorities

Protect Public Health – and the Jobs and Businesses that Rely on Clean Water

A recent report conducted by economists at Western Carolina University commissioned by the French Broad River Partnership found the total economic impact of the French Broad River and its tributaries is $3.8 billion annually, and river-reliant businesses create or maintain 38,554 jobs each year. In 2015, more than 55,000 people used a commercial outfitter to enjoy the French Broad, and thousands more used the river without an outfitter. 

Unfortunately, bacteria pollution threatens this economic engine by making the watershed unsafe for the thousands of people who play in it every year. Contaminated water poses health problems, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and infections. 

Water quality testing in the heavily-used French Broad River watershed indicates the presence of E. coli and fecal coliform at levels that are unsafe for human exposure much of the time. One of the most popular areas for recreation, a 19-mile section of the French Broad River – from the Asheville Regional Airport,  through the Biltmore Estate and the River Arts District in downtown Asheville – was added to NC’s list of impaired waterways in 2022.

To protect public health and the jobs and businesses that rely on safe recreational waters, MountainTrue supports the following initiatives to reduce bacterial pollution:

  • Increase local WNC funding to help farmers improve water quality. Agricultural waste is a significant source of E. coli and other bacterial pollution in WNC rivers and streams, especially the French Broad River which, as mentioned above, was recently listed as impaired for fecal coliform. Unfortunately, demand for state funding to help WNC farmers afford improvements that would reduce this pollution far outstrips the current budget. Expanding state funding for local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) to meet this demand is critical to improving recreational water quality in WNC. We would like to request a $2 million nonrecurring allocation to SWCDs in the French Broad Watershed, allocated through the existing Agricultural Cost-Share Program, specifically for livestock operation improvement projects.  
  • Help property owners reduce stormwater pollution. The Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP) allows WNC’s SWCDs to help property owners reduce stormwater pollution in impaired waters.  Like the cost share program for farmers, funding for CCAP assistance is insufficient to meet demand. Providing WNC SWCD’s with an additional $500,000 for the CCAP program will significantly reduce stormwater pollution in rivers and streams already impacted by bacterial pollution. 

Other policy and funding initiatives that MountainTrue supports:

  • Abundant Housing Legislation – Opportunities for dense, energy-efficient housing located close to jobs reduce energy demand and transportation emissions. We support legislation to address housing availability and affordability.
  • Dam Removal Fund Implementation – The NCGA previously allocated $7.5 million to remove antiquated dams on waterways across WNC. MountainTrue is committed to advancing policies that give state agencies the support they need to advance dam removal projects efficiently.
  • Expand Transportation Funding – NC’s transportation funding relies on the gas tax, which is diminishing as people drive less and vehicles become more efficient. We support legislation that creates new sources of funding and expands the use to include stand-alone bike-ped projects.
  • Stormwater management reform for redevelopment projects – Recent amendments to G.S. 143‑214.7 deny local governments the option of requiring stormwater mitigation on redevelopment projects. We support legislation to repeal those changes.
  • Safe Passage Fund – As roadway construction creates new barriers to long-established wildlife corridors, inevitably, animals are increasingly encountering humans and their vehicles. We are joining a coalition of organizations seeking $10 million to support wildlife crossing projects.
  • Agency staffing needs and pay equity – State agencies across the board are struggling to hire and retain staff due to budget constraints and competition with the private sector. MountainTrue supports maximizing investments in state agency staff positions and salaries.

WNC Public Access and Recreation Investments:

  • Expand the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail to include one publicly-accessible site in each WNC county, along with educational materials ($150,000 nonrecurring to Mainspring Conservation Trust).
  • Improve River Walk in downtown Murphy by building a boardwalk for Fisherman’s Loop, and extending the path to a housing development ($250,000 nonrecurring to the Town of Murphy).
  • Improve public access to the Watauga River Paddle Trail by purchasing an additional access point in Watauga County ($500,000 nonrecurring to Watauga County).
  • Expand access to the Green River and adjacent lands by developing a new access point at South Wilson Hill Road ($150,000 nonrecurring to Polk County Community Foundation).
  • Enhance Chestnut Mountain Nature Park by expanding paths and trails and improving the playground and creekside park ($450,000 nonrecurring to the Town of Canton).

Raleigh Report: Reviewing the Primaries and Looking Ahead to the Budget

Raleigh Report: Reviewing the Primaries and Looking Ahead to the Budget

Raleigh Report: Reviewing the Primaries and Looking Ahead to the Budget

Congratulations to all of us for getting through a particularly energetic and crowded primary election season. 

In this update, we will get you up to speed (quickly) about who in WNC won and lost on Tuesday, then turn our attention to the North Carolina General Assembly, which began its so-called “short session” on May 18.

For Western North Carolina, the primary season was dominated by the Republican nomination in the 11th Congressional district, where state Senator Chuck Edwards defeated incumbent Madison Cawthorn. But, there were a few other races of note as well. Perhaps the most closely watched was the GOP primary for the 47th state senate seat, where incumbent GOP Senators Ralph Hise and Deanna Ballard faced off. Hise won the race narrowly – by 311 votes. In other races, GOP state Senator Warren Daniel likely earned a return to the Senate after defeating Mark Crawford in a Republican-leaning 46th Senate district. In Buncombe County, incumbent Julie Mayfield (and MountainTrue co-director) defeated Asheville City Council member Sandra Kilgore and entrepreneur and community activist Taylon Breeden in the Democratic primary for the heavily democratic 49th Senate district. In the House, Rep. Jake Johnson defeated Rep. David Rogers for the GOP nomination after redistricting forced them to run in the same heavily Republican 113th district

With primary elections complete, lawmakers will come into the capital as focused on the general election as any bill or budget. For the last few years, Republicans — who control both the state Senate and House — have been unable to find the votes to override Gov. Cooper’s numerous vetoes. The GOP leadership hopes to pick up enough seats in both chambers in the general election to secure veto-proof supermajorities for Cooper’s last two years in office. 

With so much at stake in November, the 2022 session is expected to be short, and many lawmakers have talked about adjourning for the year by July 4. So look for the General Assembly to avoid controversial issues and pass relatively few bills. 

The major work of any short session is to revise the second year of the state’s biennial budget. This year, lawmakers have more money than ever before to accomplish this task. State revenues are expected to be at least $5 billion more than projected when the two-year budget was approved last year. Whether and how to spend that money will be the major issue of the session, along with expanding Medicaid eligibility for the approximately 600,000 North Carolinians without health insurance. 

On spending, look for the Senate Republicans to push to put most of the surplus in the state’s strategic reserve. House Republicans will also support increased savings, but will want to spend more to win votes in November and keep rank-and-file members happy with investments in their districts. 

Of course, a revised budget requires the Governor’s signature, and last year reaching a budget deal took months of negotiation. With a budget already in place for FY22-23, another long stalemate is very unlikely. If they cannot get a budget deal, the GOP leadership is more likely to shut the session down, proceed to electioneering, and return to pass a bill in 2023 when they hope they won’t need Cooper’s signature to pass a budget or a bill. 

For MountainTrue, our priorities for the session are simple. We’d like lawmakers to use some of that surplus to help farmers, property owners, and local governments keep our rivers and streams clean. That means investing more to help farmers pay for fencing and other strategies to keep animal waste from causing spikes of E. coli in WNC waters. Like this agriculture assistance money, demand for state funds to help homeowners and local governments keep their runoff and wastewater out of rivers and streams is also far outstripped by demand. We’d like to see those funding shortfalls addressed. 

Finally, MountainTrue has developed a list of shovel-ready, noncontroversial projects for river and stream access, trail development, and dam removal across the region that we hope rank-and-file lawmakers will support as part of their budget priorities in their districts. 

Providing WNC with a voice in Raleigh for clean water, clean air, and a sustainable future is a cornerstone of MountainTrue’s mission. For more information about our advocacy efforts, visit our website and, as always, thank you for your support – we could not do what we do in the mountains or in Raleigh without you. 

Shovel-Ready Projects for WNC

  • Polk County – Expand public access to the Green River by developing a new public river access point on property owned by the Polk County Community Foundation at S. Wilson Hill Road ($150,000 nonrecurring to Polk County Community Foundation).
  • Watauga County – Improve public access to the Watauga River Paddle Trail by purchasing an additional access point ($500,000 nonrecurring to Blue Ridge Conservancy).
  • WNC – Promote eco-tourism in Western NC by creating the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail – includes at least one publicly-accessible site in 24 WNC counties, a website, a printed trail map, and an educational panel at each site ($150,000 nonrecurring to Mainspring Conservation Trust).
  • Cherokee County – Improve public access to the River Walk & Canoe Trail on the Valley and Hiwassee Rivers in downtown Murphy by fixing erosion under the bridge at Leech Place, building a boardwalk for the Fisherman’s Loop, and extending the path to a new workforce housing development ($250,000 nonrecurring to Town of Murphy).
  • Jackson County – Improve public access and water quality by constructing green infrastructure in Sylva’s Bridge Park. This project is recommended in the Scotts Creek Watershed Action Plan and is shovel-ready ($700,000 nonrecurring to the Town of Sylva).
  • Haywood County – Enhance Chestnut Mountain Nature Park by building new hiking, biking, and walking paths and trails and installing a playground and creekside park. This project is shovel-ready, including a detailed budget and construction plans ($600,000 nonrecurring to the Town of Canton).
  • Transylvania and Henderson Counties – Help manage a steep increase in public use at DuPont State Recreational Forest by creating one additional recreation staff position ($70,000 recurring to NC Forest Service).

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Raleigh Report: Reviewing the Primaries and Looking Ahead to the Budget

Raleigh Report: With District Maps in Place, We Preview the Primary Election

Raleigh Report: With District Maps in Place, We Preview the Primary Election

Now that the months-long political mud wrestling match known as redistricting is over, it’s a good time to take a look at what the state’s new legislative and congressional maps mean for Western North Carolina. 

We won’t go over the legislature’s – and the courts’ – torturous path to finalizing districts maps. Suffice to say that the process reached its inglorious end with decisions by both the NC and US Supreme Courts. The House and Senate maps will remain in place for a decade, but the congressional map will be redrawn next year because it was imposed by a court rather than adopted by the legislature. 

By far, most media attention has focused on the adventures of Congressman Madison Cawthorn, who has been a politician in search of a district in which to run. With congressional districts finally settled, Cawthorn decided to run in his current district in the state’s westernmost – and GOP-leaning – counties, where he faces a crowded field of other Republicans in the primary, including state Senator Chuck Edwards and Michele Woodhouse, both of Henderson County. 

Whatever his prospects in the congressional race, Edwards’ departure from the legislature has to be judged as a loss for WNC conservation interests. A staunch conservative, Edwards is the chair of a key Senate appropriations committee and has used his influence to direct millions of dollars in conservation, restoration, and water quality protection to our region. We will miss his strong work in Raleigh. 

While the new maps have altered many legislative districts, they have not produced many newly competitive districts. One of the exceptions is state Senate District 47, where two GOP Senate incumbents – Ralph Hise and Deanna Ballard – will battle it out in the primary for the right to run in the general election. This newly drawn district includes Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Haywood, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga, and Yancey counties. The district leans strongly Republican, so the primary winner is very likely to win the general election. Both Hise and Ballard are strong legislators who chair important committees in the Senate, so this race is being billed as a sort of clash of Senate titans. 

Aside from Ballard vs. Hise, there is surprisingly little political drama left in the WNC primary season in either the GOP or Democratic races. Rep. Tim Moffit will run unopposed in the GOP primary to fill Edwards’ seat in the state Senate in a district that leans heavily Republican. In the Senate’s far west District 50, incumbent GOP legislator Kevin Corbin is unopposed in the primary for this conservative district. Barring an upset, Corbin will also return to the legislature in 2023. 

Buncombe incumbent Senator (and MountainTrue co-director) Julie Mayfield faces a primary challenge from Asheville City Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore and two-time candidate in other races, Taylon Breeden, in a district that leans heavily Democratic. 

In House District 93, which includes Ashe and Watauga counties, incumbent GOP Rep. Ray Pickett and Democratic challenger Ben Massey are both running unopposed in the primary. This seat has changed hands between the two parties in recent years and is expected to be a bit of a dogfight again this fall. 

In House District 113, two incumbent Republicans – Rep. Jake Johnson of Polk County and Rep. David Rogers of Rutherford County – face off in the GOP primary for another conservative-leaning district. 

In House District 114, which includes a portion of Buncombe County, Eric Ager is running unopposed in the Democratic primary to replace his father John, who is retiring his liberal-leaning House seat. 

In another Buncombe House seat, District 115, Lindsey Prather will run unopposed in the Democratic primary for the right to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Brian Turner in a district that favors Democrats. 

And in Buncombe House 116, Democrat Caleb Rudow will run unopposed to hold the Democratic-leaning House seat he was appointed to when long-time Buncombe Rep. Susan Fisher retired in January. 

Over in Henderson County, two Republicans – Jennifer Balkcom and Dennis Justice – are running to fill Tim Moffit’s House seat, which is likely to remain in GOP control. 

Farther west, incumbent GOP House members Mark Pless (District 118) and Mike Clampitt (District 119) are running unopposed in Republican primaries. Barring unexpected upsets in the general election, both are likely to return to the legislature in these safely conservative districts. Likewise, incumbent GOP House member Karl Gillespie in District 120 is running unopposed in the primary and will have a free ride in the general election as no Democrat filed to run in the opposing party’s primary. 

For a complete list of House races and candidates, click here. Senate races and candidates can be found here. 

So the upshot is that in WNC, most of our delegation will remain solidly Republican, with most incumbents likely to return. Known exceptions are our primary GOP environmental champion, Sen. Chuck Edwards, either Sen. Ralph Hise or Sen. Deanna Ballard, and either Rep. Jake Johnson or Rep. David Rogers. Democrats are likely to win all of the Buncombe County legislative races, with new members in all of the county’s three House seats. 

Again, most of these races will be won in the primary, so we will be back in touch after May 17 to report on these races again.

MountainTrue Wins Historic Investments for WNC

MountainTrue Wins Historic Investments for WNC

MountainTrue Wins Historic Investments for WNC

As you may know, lawmakers at the North Carolina General Assembly finally approved a budget in November after months of wrangling among themselves as well as with Governor Cooper. The new spending plan represents the first full budget approved by the legislature and signed by the Governor since 2018.

The budget makes substantial investments in Western North Carolina, including many of the funding priorities MountainTrue has been promoting since this time last year — when lawmakers began their 2021 session.

Every year, MountainTrue makes a list of priority projects and programs for funding in the state budget. We then work with WNC legislators and our various partners — including our members at the grassroots level — to help convince lawmakers to invest in our rivers, streams, mountains, and forests. 

Here’s a quick look at MountainTrue’s budget victories in Raleigh: 

  • Funding for removal of dams across WNC — $7.2 million.
  • Recurring funding for landslide mapping in WNC — $370,000.
  • Restoration of the successful Waste Detection Elimination Program (WaDE) to help property owners identify and remedy failing septic systems on their property — $200,000 in both years of the biennial budget.
  • Recurring funding for water quality testing in the French Broad and other WNC rivers and streams — $100,000.

MountainTrue also went to bat for several important projects to improve public access to and/or protect water quality in rivers and streams throughout our region. New state funding for these projects included:

  • Watauga River Paddle Trail in Watauga County — $150,000. 
  • Permanent public access to a popular recreational area on the Green River Game Lands in Henderson and Polk counties — $150,000.
  • Removal of the Ward Mill Dam on the Watauga River in Watauga County — $100,000 
  • Outdoor recreation improvements at Island Park on the Tuckaseegee River in Swain County — $200,000. 
  • Expanded fishing, canoeing, and kayaking on the Valley River in Cherokee County — $125,000. 
  • Improved access to and stream restoration on the Bakersville Creekwalk in Mitchell County — $200,000. 

Some other budget items that MountainTrue supported include $12.2 million for Pisgah View State Park in Buncombe County and $750,000 for planning and improvements to DuPont State Forest. 

Of course, no one gets everything they want in the state budget process. Two of MountainTrue’s priorities — additional funding to help livestock producers reduce water pollution from their farming operations and communities to manage stormwater runoff — did not make it into the state’s spending plan. MountainTrue will continue to work in support of these investments in 2022.

We at MountainTrue extend our gratitude to the WNC legislators from both parties for their help with these budget victories. A big shout out to Sen. Chuck Edwards of Henderson County — from the beginning of his time in the Senate, Edwards has shown a consistent commitment to water quality issues in our region and used his position on a key Senate budget committee to address them. We are especially grateful to him for his partnership with MountainTrue.

But you, our supporters, are still MountainTrue’s most important partner. We are the only WNC environmental organization with a year-round presence in Raleigh. Your support makes our work in the capital possible! Thank you and cheers to an impactful 2022!

Raleigh Report: Reviewing the Primaries and Looking Ahead to the Budget

Houston, We Have a Budget

Houston, We Have a Budget

After almost a full calendar year in session (to say nothing of a three-year delay since the last budget was approved) the North Carolina General Assembly has approved — and Governor Cooper has signed — a complete spending state plan, which now totals more than $25 billion annually.

If you have been following the budget, uh, “process”, you already know that despite generous revenue in the state’s coffers, legislators and Governor Cooper have been unable to reach an agreement on the budget since 2019. (If you are not familiar with the details of this impasse, here is a good overview).

We will spare you the gory details of how we arrived at a budget in November – almost halfway through the fiscal year, which officially started in July.

Much more important is the what of the budget. And on that front, the news for the environment is good. And particularly good for Western North Carolina.

For starters, the budget makes very generous investments in open space conservation. Major trust funds for state parks, land and water conservation, and farmland preservation all received substantial new funding. Legislators also went big on funding for trails — long overlooked in our opinion — with $29 million in new funding. And there is $15 million for Pisgah View State Park in Buncombe County.

With state funding plentiful as a result of a robust economy and generous federal funding for post-pandemic economic recovery, legislators also opened up the bank to better protect the state from flooding and extreme weather. Indeed they invested close to $300 million to help the state become more storm resilient — a good start to help the state adapt to the effects of climate change.

For MountainTrue, advocating for WNC investments is a major part of our 2021 legislative agenda, and we’re pleased to report success. The new budget includes funding for landslide mapping in our region, water quality testing, pollution cleanup, and dam removal for our rivers and streams. We have spent the last year lobbying in Raleigh for these priorities. Some of our other victories include a variety of smaller investments in stream improvement, paddle trails, and public access that will make it easier to enjoy some of the most beautiful places in the mountains.

As you know, MountainTrue is the only environmental organization located in WNC with a year-round advocate in Raleigh. So, thank you to all of you who make our lobbying efforts possible.

The budget received strong bipartisan support — a rarity these days in Raleigh. So another thank you to all of the legislators who made this fiscal win possible. We also want to include a special shoutout to Sen. Chuck Edwards of Henderson County, who chairs a particularly important budget subcommittee and was critical to MountainTrue’s budget success this year.

Of course, no budget or bill is perfect and this year’s budget is no exception. While the new spending plan is generous when it comes to one-time funding, its new recurring investment in the Department of Environmental Quality, — while very welcome — is still too modest. Yes, there is new recurring funding to address “emerging contaminants” like GenX and to do the landslide mapping we mentioned earlier; but NC DEQ has suffered from more than a decade of continuous budget-cutting even as the environmental issues facing our state have become more numerous and complex. We would have preferred a more ambitious investment to address this years-long shortfall.

Having said that, there is a great deal more to like than dislike in this budget — one, which despite all the delays, was well worth the wait.