Bill Would Ax Water, Park Trust Fund Boards

RALEIGH – A state Senate bill that would eliminate the oversight boards for the Clean Water Management and Parks and Recreation trust funds and four other boards passed the Senate Thursday.

The 950-acre McLean Tract in Pender County is an example of a natural heritage area purchase funded in 2017 by the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Photo: CWMTF

Sen. Andy Wells, R-Catawba, who last week introduced the measure, Senate Bill 821, said it was necessary due to a recent court ruling that the six boards are unconstitutional because they do not give the governor a majority of appointments.

In addition to Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, or PARTF, and Clean Water Management Trust Fund, or CWMTF, the bill would dissolve the boards of Private Protective Services, Rural Infrastructure Authority, the State Building Commission and the Child Care Commission at the end of the fiscal year on June 29, 2019.

Wells said his main beef was with the parks and clean water boards. “We’ve learned that the parks and recreation funding serves the Raleigh community extremely well,” Wells said during a hearing of the Senate Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources Committee Thursday morning. “Those of us that live in and around Mecklenburg County are at a significant disadvantage.”

CWMTF has a problem with its scoring for projects, he said, because it “favors those areas, particularly in the mountains, that are under no threat of development.”

Sen. Andy Wells

In an interview Wednesday evening, Wells said he supports the mission of both boards but has concerns with how the funds are being distributed. He said park funds have been too heavily weighted toward projects in the central Piedmont and clean water projects use a scoring system that favors protections for already pristine waters in the mountains, rather than for projects in areas where waters are more threatened.

Wells said he has been trying to work with the parks board to develop a park along the Catawba River, but the lack of progress had been frustrating.

During discussion in Senate committees on the bill Thursday, Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northhampton, pressed Wells on whether the bill was in reaction to the court ruling or out of his frustration about funding from the two programs.

Sen. Erica Smith

She pointed to legislation introduced late Tuesday by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, that instead of eliminating the boards would reconfigure the number of appointments to comply with the court ruling.

She said Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order issued after the court ruling takes care of any legal issues with the boards and gives the legislature time to work out any difficulties with the structure.

“It is not the existence of the boards that is at error here, it is the composition of the appointments,” Smith said. She said Wells’ bill was “unnecessary and unwarranted and seeks to solve a problem that does not exist.”

Wells acknowledged that McGrady’s bill would solve the problem with the composition of the boards, but he said it would not address concerns about the regional disparity in funding or the project scoring for CWMTF.

Wells said neither bill would stop the functions of either organization and that any long-term solution would be worked out during the General Assembly’s 2019 long session.

The court ruling in McCrory v. Berger, a long-running, separation-of-powers case between the executive and legislative branches, affirms the governor’s right to appoint a majority on the boards and commissions that serve executive branch functions.

Rep. Pricey Harrison

“Those boards serve an important function,” said Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. “They offer a variety of expertise in the decision-making process both on land conservation and water quality protections.”

Based on her own experiences serving on the Coastal Resources Commission and other boards, Harrison said it’s important to have the additional layer of review.

“There’s much better decision making when you have all parties at the table and that’s what these boards do.”

McGrady said Wednesday he did not think his bill would move, but that he expected the overall issue “to reach a resolution.” He noted that more than 20 GOP colleagues had signed on to his legislation.

Wells’ bill, which passed the Senate 21-8 on a mostly party-line vote, moved to the House, where it has been sent to the rules committee, the main gatekeeper for legislation during this year’s post-election legislative session.

If it is taken up by the House, the legislature will have little time to reach a compromise as it winds up a session aimed mainly at passing another round of hurricane-relief funding and enacting a Voter ID bill, which was a result of voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment to require photographic identification to vote.

Cooper is expected to veto the Voter ID bill and House and Senate leaders are likely to keep the legislature in session in order to override the veto.

With time growing short for the lame-duck session, Cooper would be able to run out the clock on any bill passed after Dec. 21. State law allows the governor to hold a bill for 10 days before deciding to veto it, sign it or let it become law without his signature.

The two-year legislative session ends Dec. 31. A new legislature is to be sworn in early January.

About the Author

Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist based in the Triangle. In addition to Coastal Review Online, he covers the legislature and state government for Carolina Public Press and The Washington Post. He can be reached at kirkrossreport@gmail.com.