Pork, the other budget meat

Posted July 9

Final state budget plan outlined

— Budget pork is like barbecue: People disagree what qualifies, often based on geography.

One analysis of the budget that North Carolina legislators just approved put its pork content at $123 million. Another saw $45.6 million worth in a two-year general fund that totals about $23 billion a year.

Gov. Roy Cooper's office put the tally at $73.6 million in the general fund, plus another $6.7 million in highway projects.

But however you slice, chop or pull it, legislators tied up millions with highly specific purse strings. They'll bolster local projects, pay for a controversial new pollution treatment at Jordan Lake and fund a 3-D movie program for school children that, among other things, aims to prevent drug abuse.

There's money for family counseling, pro-life pregnancy centers, girls and boys clubs and for a major game lands expansion in the home county of one of North Carolina's most powerful politicians. Some language is so specific it essentially amounts to a state contract.

Joseph Coletti, who worked in former Gov. Pat McCrory's budget office, said there are more than 100 line items in this latest budget directing more than $30 million to private entities by name. At least one other section doesn't name the company but is so specific there can be little doubt of the intent.

"This is a criticism of the process, not the goals or the groups," Coletti wrote last month for the John Locke Foundation, where he's now a senior fellow.

Coletti said he'd prefer to see competition for these sorts of grants, with tracking of what the group is trying to accomplish and whether they do so.

"Any time a private vendor is named in the budget, it is a setback for open government and budgeting," he wrote. "There is no reason for a $23 billion budget to direct $20,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Greene County."

Game lands expansion

A few lines in the middle of the budget sidestep the state's usual grants process for land conservation, ordering a $2.66 million purchase of property in Rockingham County.

This would add 1,100 acres of game land to an existing 600-acre tract. The budget doesn't say this land is in Rockingham County, home to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, but the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said this tract is the only one that fits the budget's specific description.

This land, referred to as Galloway Farm, has been a priority for the Piedmont Land Conservancy, which applied for funding last year and again this year. The request is one of 135 pending now for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

That fund has staff and a board that typically decide whether to fund projects, and there are always more requests than it can afford, according to Reid Wilson, DNCR chief deputy secretary. Projects in recent years have typically been capped at about $1.2 million each, he said.

Wilson said he didn't have any details on how the project ended up in the budget. Berger's spokeswoman said the senator did not request it, though he certainly supports the purchase.

Kevin Redding, the Piedmont Land Conservancy's executive director, said Berger and state Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, were both aware of the group's interest in the project, but he's unsure how it won funding.

"They knew we were applying," Redding said, "and then I got a call the day the budget was coming out."

Jordan Lake cleanup

One of the more complicated earmarks to suss out in the budget is a reference to "in situ treatments" at Jordan Lake, "including algaecide and phosphorous-locking technologies."

The budget says $1.3 million can be used only for this program, and the language fits a product produced by SePRO, a water treatment company with a research outpost in Nash County and a lobbying team in Raleigh that includes former House Speaker Harold Brubaker. Its chemicals would be used in an attempt to clean the lake, though the Army Corps of Engineers would have to sign off first.

The language emerged in the House's version of the budget. It's part of an ongoing effort to put off development rules passed in 2008 to cut down on nutrient runoff into the lake, which supplies drinking water to Cary, Apex and Morrisville and other locales in central North Carolina. GOP legislators tried something similar several years ago, mandating use of solar-powered water mixers called "SolarBees" in an unsuccessful effort to churn lake water enough to prevent the growth of algae that flourish off the excess nutrients.

SePRO did not respond to emails or a telephone seeking comment.

Origins misty

Just how do these and other projects make it into the budget? We don't always know.

The budget gets hammered out largely in secret by top legislative leaders who are not required to sign their names to earmarks. Geography offers suggestions, though.

Cooper's press office flagged some $16 million in earmarks in Berger's Rockingham County, most of which will go for a new juvenile justice center the budget requires to be built there. The Governor's Office also counted $5.8 million in projects for Cleveland County, home to House Speaker Tim Moore. Most of that money goes to Cleveland Community College for its new advanced manufacturing center.

An analysis by Insightus, a left-leaning data group, concluded that urban Republican counties reaped most of the pork in this budget, on a per-capita basis. That was followed, though, by rural counties that lean Democratic. Urban counties that lead toward Democrats were in the rear by a sizable margin in this analysis, which looked at projects county-by-county and put the total earmarks in the budget at $123 million.

Programs for students, families

The two-year budget has $360,000 in it each year for a "traveling three-dimensional, interactive, holistic and evidence-based multimedia education" program.

This "Life Changing Experiences Pilot Program" is run by the Children and Parent Resource Group, whose website describes a 3-D interactive program that turns school auditoriums into "sophisticated cinemas to deliver a powerful 3-D narrative." The nonprofit did not return a call seeking more information.

The state plans to fund a pilot program with the group in Pitt County, Wayne County and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools, and the project promises to address social issues facing students, including drugs, alcohol and violence.

An existing pilot project for paramedics also got funding in the budget, which earmarks $350,000 a year to keep people out of the emergency room. The plan is to train paramedics to treat patients on site or divert them to a crisis facility when appropriate. The project started in 2015 but took longer than expected to stand up, yielding insufficient data on its efficacy thus far, according to a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services report.

The budget has $100,000 in it for Pisgah Legal Services, which has 20 attorneys on staff and helps low-income people in western North Carolina. Youth Villages, which has locations around the state, gets $500,000 a year to provide counselors to families in an effort to keep at-risk children out of the state foster system.

GiGi's Playhouse, a Raleigh center for children with Down syndrome, gets $400,000. Mountain Island Education State Forest, which is not yet open, gets $3.17 million.

There's also $250,000 earmarked, as previously reported by The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh, for an expansion at NASCAR legend Richard Petty's garage in Randolph County.

Pregnancy care centers funded

The General Assembly upped its funding this year for pro-life pregnancy centers around the state.

The state approved funding for these centers in 2011, creating a "Choose Life" license plate to raise money. In 2013, it started providing money from the state's general fund, and this year brings a significant increase.

There's $1.3 million a year for the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, which gives grants to pregnancy centers and also trains the people who work there. The money will help these centers, which sometimes offer ultrasounds and testing for sexually transmitted diseases, to purchase medical equipment. In addition, the H.E.L.P. Center will get $450,000 to work with pregnant women who don't have prenatal health care, the budget states. The Coastal Pregnancy Center in Beaufort County gets $100,000.

The appropriations caused some consternation for pro-choice groups that have complained in the past about pregnancy centers providing misleading information about abortion. Those criticisms come from national reviews of centers, not inquiries into specific centers included in the state budget, said Tara Romano, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina.

Bobbie Meyer, the state director for Carolina Pregnancy Fellowship, said her group doesn't like the anti-abortion label "because it sounds like we are protesting."

"We are not so much against as we are for life," Meyer said. "Our goal is to give women the education they need to make an informed decision about a pregnancy. ... We are not in the practice of arm-twisting women to carry a baby to term."

The new funding, Meyer said, is "enormous" for the group.


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