In budget battle, Rural Center will be a point of contention

From staff reportsJune 16, 2013 

Billy Ray Hall maintains a file in his office full of bright red folders, for every lawmaker, complete with a running tabulation on which projects have gone in their districts. It is a sign of how politically dependent the Rural Center is.

J. ANDREW CURLISS — acurliss@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

State legislators and the governor have competing ideas about how much taxpayer spending should continue to pass through the Rural Center.

The Senate, in its budget plan, proposes a major overhaul that would stop funding the center and give the money to new grant-making authorities within the state commerce and natural resources departments. Senators do not point to any one problem, talking instead about overall feelings that it is time for a new approach and more accountability.

Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican in his first year in office, has proposed giving the Rural Center about $7 million for the upcoming fiscal year, down from about $17 million a year ago.

The House, however, has proposed increasing funding for the center, passing a budget Thursday that would give it $36 million over the next two years. Rural Center president Billy Ray Hall praised the House for backing the agency.

Last year, the Rural Center was an important chess piece in the budget negotiations, which are often fast-paced and play out in secret.

The House came to the Rural Center’s rescue then, according to email messages, restoring $2 million that would have been cut. Emails show that the $2 million was taken from the Golden Leaf Foundation, which administers tobacco settlement money.

Senate leader Phil Berger’s chief of staff, Jim Blaine, received a message afterward from Dan Gerlach, Golden Leaf’s director. Gerlach wrote that he wished Golden Leaf had not been caught up in the final budget talks.

Blaine responded that both the Rural Center and Golden Leaf are “engaged in gross pork-barreling, boondoggle ‘economic development,’ and political patronage.” Blaine wrote he is convinced Hall prays five times daily “as providence (and a few House members) seemingly deliver him in the final hour of each of his tribulations.”

Hall disputed Blaine’s comments, calling them “false words.”

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