RALEIGH — Two things happened when Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a seven-term Republican from Marion, became the point man for environmental legislation in the House following the Republican takeover of the General Assembly last year.
First, he compiled a list of 10 regulatory bills the GOP caucus wanted to pass and stuck it in his pocket. Second, he moved into a new office on the third floor of the Legislative Office Building that had a dirty window.
One day Gillespie drew a circle in the dirt with his finger and, as he contemplated the view, realized he was looking out at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. So he placed a red sticker in the center of the circle.
“I made a bull’s eye out of the dirty glass,” Gillespie recalled Friday. “It was like a joke – I’m going to leave the dot there after they clean the window so I can remain focused on getting my job done. The dot is still there.”
Gillespie’s list – he still carries it – has also grown from the original 10. His list and his bull’s eye say something about the unabashed assault on regulations that Republicans in the General Assembly have taken this session.
Scores of environmental issues have been wrapped up in a handful of bills during the session that began last year and concludes near the end of this month. Most of the bills wouldn’t bring sweeping changes, but cumulatively represent a steady march toward fewer regulations and, environmentalists say, fewer safeguards.
“This year’s legislative session is shaping up to be worse for the environment than last year’s, which was one of the worst ever,” said Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“Polluters and developers seem to have found an audience, and are working with their champions in the legislature to take the state backwards on air pollution, on protecting our rivers, on using sound science to inform coastal management policies,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, director of Environment North Carolina.
Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, said the legislature has ignored legislation promoting clean energy sources. “For the last year the legislature has focused narrowly on a two-fold agenda: rolling back environmental regulations and promoting oil and gas development,” Diggins said. “Our concern is that the citizens of the state two years later have fewer environmental protections and safeguards in place than they have previously. We don’t see that these changes in the law have generated any jobs.”
There are six key environmental bills the legislature has taken up this year, on top of several last year. Budget cuts have also had an impact, such as reductions to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and slashing a clean-water fund from $100 million for two years to $10 million for one year.
Last week, a bill went to the governor easing restrictions on paper mills and power plants requiring they only meet federal air-toxic standards and not stiffer state restrictions. “This program has one purpose: to protect the health of people,” Carter said. “If this bill is enacted, people who live around these facilities are going to be exposed to toxic chemicals that are emerging as major threats to public health.”
Gillespie has been the torchbearer for the Republican caucus’ aggressive agenda of deregulation, while not antagonizing his opponents. Diggins of the Sierra Club says he has been willing to listen and discuss.
For his part, Gillespie considers the past two years a big success. He estimates that he has included what could have been 80 separate pieces of legislation into four or five bills. “Ninety-five percent of them I have run through the department (Environment and Natural Resources) and asked for their comments,” he said in an interview Thursday after shepherding his final bill through the House. “It’s not like I was just shooting from the hip.
“Most of the time I took their recommendations. So for someone to say we have harmed the environment in our two years now I would say that’s absolutely false.”
Gillespie waves off criticism over budget cuts to DENR, pointing out it still has more than 100 vacant positions it can fill. “Now, are we targeting DENR? Well, I am. I’m actually targeting regulatory reform,” he said. “It just so happens that DENR is the issue that I’ve been involved with all my life, as far as regulations go.”
Gillespie has worked in surveying, civil engineering and land development. His financial supporters include political action committees tied to Duke Energy and Progress Energy, as well as PSNC Energy and the Asphalt Pavement Association. He readily admits that as a small business owner he benefits from the GOP mission of regulatory reform.
“It’s been a major issue for me and my life,” he said. “It’s cost me tens of thousands of dollars over the years.”
Sounding a familiar refrain among veteran GOP lawmakers who are finally in charge, Gillespie said he spent a dozen years helplessly watching Democrats layered on unneeded regulations.
“I’ve not even scratched the surface,” he said. “It would take me a decade to get to where I would see us as being even for what’s been done to me and the private property rights of citizens throughout this state.”
Gillespie describes his approach as incremental and common sense, and says politically he is center-right. He said he’s been trying for 10 years to get the air toxics bill passed, and another 12 years on a bill passed last year relaxing standards on cleaning up contaminated sites.
“I got middle ground on both of those,” he said. “That’s major reform – just middle ground is major reform down here.”
Nice guy or not, that’s not how the state’s environmental organizations see it. The Southern Environmental Law Center this month launched a campaign with a website and full-page newspaper advertising urging people to tell their legislators they don’t want GOP reform.
“It’s based on a belief that we have that North Carolina has always adopted a moderate approach to environmental protection,” the group’s Carter said. “That we want economic growth but we want it done in a way that protects our environment, protects our natural resources. We’ve managed to do that over several decades. This legislature is veering far off that course.”