MT Raleigh Report — A State Budget. Finally.

MT Raleigh Report — A State Budget. Finally.

MT Raleigh Report — A State Budget. Finally.

After weeks away from Raleigh and countless promises about when a new state budget will be approved, lawmakers finally passed a new two-year budget last week.

Here’s our take on good and bad in the spending plan that has taken the legislature all summer and then some to send to Governor Cooper. For his part, the Governor opposed the budget but allowed it to become law without his signature in order to move forward on Medicaid expansion.

The Good.

The final budget includes new investments in state parks, farmland preservation, and land and water protection supported by the state’s land trusts and other conservation groups. Recurring funding for state trust funds for land and water conservation, as well as state parks, is now budgeted at a generous $28 million for each fund annually. Funding for farm preservation and trails also received substantial increases. The budget also provides $12 million over the next two years for the Saluda Grade Trail, a rails-to-trails project that includes 16 miles in WNC.

In especially good news for WNC water quality, the budget includes $2 million in funding to help farmers in the French Broad Watershed with fencing and other measures to keep livestock and their waste out of streams to reduce bacteria pollution across the watershed. This funding is a victory for MountainTrue, which has advocated for additional funding to reduce agricultural waste runoff in the French Broad for several years.

MountainTrue will also be the steward of another round of funding to develop and improve the French Broad River Paddle Trail thanks to renewed investments in the NC Trails Program, a unit of the NC State Parks system that designates and supports State Trails. 

The Bad.

Tucked away in the final budget is policy language that essentially strips local governments of any authority to reduce or control food packaging waste – including plastic bags – at the local level. This end-run on local authority comes at a time when an increasing number of local governments in North Carolina – including Buncombe County – are considering ways to reduce single-use plastic and styrofoam from entering the waste stream. We can all thank (or blame) the well-funded NC Retail Merchants Association for this outdated approach to plastics reduction at a time when the public and many retailers are looking for more ways to cut down on plastic waste.

The environment is best protected when government and politicians are subject to robust public scrutiny, so we are also concerned with new rules in the budget that shield lawmakers from public records requests. But while shielding lawmakers from scrutiny, another concerning provision in the budget gives a General Assembly oversight committee new powers to investigate state and local governments, private companies, and charities, including the power to charge people who the committee feels aren’t cooperative with a crime. One of lawmakers’ key roles is to hold government agencies accountable, but we worry that these news powers may be used to intimidate individuals and agencies, not to improve their performance. 

Less critical but also disappointing was the lack of funding for a variety of small but important conservation projects MountainTrue has supported along with local partners. These projects include funding to expand the new WNC Snorkel Trail to all WNC counties; complete the River Walk in Murphy; improve public access to the Watauga River Paddle Trail; develop a new public access point and riverwalk in Polk County; and improve Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Nature Park by expanding trails and improving a playground. We’re disappointed that these went unfunded, but we will be back in Raleigh next year to support them.

Your support of MountainTrue makes our advocacy in Raleigh possible. Thank you, and look for more information about the final days of the 2023 General Assembly in future updates.

MT Raleigh Report — A State Budget. Finally.

MT Raleigh Report — The Beginning of the End of the 2023 Session

MT Raleigh Report — The Beginning of the End of the 2023 Session

The arrival of spring means that things are heating up in Raleigh, as the General Assembly begins what lawmakers hope will be the beginning of the end of the 2023 legislative session.

Legislators have already cleared several important hurdles on their way to adjournment. Last month the House approved its version of the new state budget. And on May 4, they completed “crossover” – the deadline by which most bills must “cross over” from one chamber to the other to remain eligible during the two-year session. The Senate released its version of the state budget this week and should approve it in the coming days. Then the House and Senate will begin the budget conference process to finalize a spending plan and send it to Governor Cooper for approval or veto. 

Approval of a final budget typically means that the legislative session is close to ending. 

While the legislature is not required to have a new budget in place by the beginning of the new fiscal year – July 1 – this year there are unusual circumstances pushing them to do so. Missing the July 1 deadline would mean missing out on more than $1 billion in federal incentives to expand Medicaid. So lawmakers are particularly eager to get the budget in place, collect the federal Medicaid bonus money and go home for the summer. 

While MountainTrue welcomes lawmakers’ efficiency, the budgets put together by the two chambers are very light on details. Many of the specific projects and appropriations are left to be determined behind closed doors in conference negotiations to build the final version of the budget that will be sent to the Governor. 

We have several priorities that we hope will be addressed before lawmakers leave for the summer. At the top of this list is funding to help livestock farmers keep cattle out of rivers and streams in the French Broad watershed. Last September, environmental regulators declared the main channel of the French Broad River in Asheville and upstream, including several major tributaries, to be impaired for fecal coliform bacteria, which can make people who swim in or paddle the river sick. Thanks to WNC Senators Tim Moffitt, Kevin Corbin and Julie Mayfield for introducing legislation to provide $2 million to help these farmers defray the cost of farm upgrades — and help keep the French Broad clean and safe for the thousands of people who play in it every year. 

Other MountainTrue priorities include funding several projects to improve public access to our rivers and streams, including expansion of the newly created Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail to all WNC counties. 

With the budget close to completion, MountainTrue staff will be going back to Raleigh next week to meet with key legislators in support of our priorities and to ensure that they are included in the final budget approved by the General Assembly. You can learn more about MountainTrue’s work in Raleigh here. And as always, thanks for your part in helping us speak up and out for our mountains in the state capitol. 

MT Raleigh Report — A State Budget. Finally.

MT Raleigh Report – Going Back to Raleigh

MT Raleigh Report – Going Back to Raleigh

Some of MountainTrue’s most important work is accomplished Raleigh, where we maintain a year-round advocacy effort aimed at protecting and preserving Western North Carolina’s natural resources.

As part of this effort, five MountainTrue staff traveled to the North Carolina General Assembly earlier this month for the first of several lobby days. Our message to lawmakers: invest in clean water, improve public access to rivers, streams and open space, and address housing costs without compromising on building rules that protect the environment. You can find the specifics of MountainTrue’s 2023 legislative agenda here.

From left to right: MountainTrue’s Deputy Director Gray Jernigan, Healthy Communities Director Chris Joyell, Southern Regional Director Nancy Diaz, Broad Riverkeeper David Caldwell, and Western Regional Director Callie Moore. 

A big thank you to all the legislators who took time to meet with us, including Senators Warren DanielTim MoffittKevin CorbinTed Alexander as well as Representatives Jennifer BalkcomCaleb RudowEric AgerDestin HallKelly Hastings and Lindsey Prather, and staff with Speaker of the House Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger. Thanks also to all the WNC legislators who stopped by MountainTrue’s evening reception. 

We’ll be back in Raleigh next week to continue our work and catch up with the legislature’s budget process. As of now, the House is on schedule to approve a budget and send it to the Senate by early April, far ahead of schedule in comparison to recent sessions. This year both the Senate and the House leadership have made quick approval of the budget a priority. The sooner the budget is done, the sooner the legislature can adjourn and lawmakers can return to home. You may recall that in 2021, the session lasted until December and there is no appetite in Raleigh for another marathon like that this year. 

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).

MT Raleigh Report — A State Budget. Finally.

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).

Sing up to get the Raleigh Report in your inbox