The state Senate’s budget bill would eliminate a Department of Labor division that provides federally mandated training for workers at mines and quarries – a provision that drew criticism in a House committee Tuesday morning.
The proposal would save the state $346,492 a year by laying off five safety and health consultants that staff the Mine & Quarry Inspection Division. Jennifer Haigwood of the Department of Labor asked the House budget subcommittee to oppose the plan.
“If the Senate budget prevails and we lost the federal grant fund, our entire bureau would go away,” she said. “There are private companies out there that provide this training, but it’s not cheap. You would see an impact financially on the smaller firms, and you’d see an impact on safety.”
The change is part of a 3 percent cut for the Department of Labor in the Senate budget. By contrast, the House budget calls for a 0.5 percent increase in funding to the agency.
While the division is authorized to inspect mining operations, “that duty is left primarily to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration,” department spokeswoman Dolores Quesenberry said.
Jay Stem, director of the N.C. Aggregates Association, said many businesses that benefit from the training are small operations that can’t afford to lose the state’s help.
“A lot of the quarries in North Carolina are small, family-owned quarries,” he said. “They don’t have the resources to get the training at market prices.”
Stem also pointed out that small businesses that work on quarries – landscapers, welders and the like – are also required to take the safety training provided through the Department of Labor. He said the Mine & Quarry Division has been a “model agency.”
“The (national) fatality rates have increased in the past couple years,” he said. “Ours has still stayed low, and that’s because of the good training.”
The Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources Appropriations Committee also heard from other state agencies about budget proposals:
▪ Wildlife Resources cut: Gordon Myers, director of the Wildlife Resources Commission, said the budget knives will hit his agency hard. He said he recognizes that legislators want the agency to fund itself through fees, and it’s “prepared to take more steps toward efficiency.” The Senate budget includes a 21 percent cut, or $2.7 million, while the House proposes a 23 percent, $3.1 million cut. Myers told legislators that “may be a little too much, too fast.”
▪ Spay and neuter program rules: The Department of Agriculture is lobbying against a provision in the Senate budget that would ban counties from contracting with companies for state-funded pet spay and neuter programs. Of the 41 counties using state funds, about half would have to switch service providers under the Senate budget. They would have to run the program themselves or pay veterinarians – which might prompt some to leave the program, department liaison Joy Hicks said. “We have wanted to expand the number of counties participating,” she said. “We don’t want any more unwanted pets.”
▪ Storage tank fund: The Senate budget calls for saving $3.4 million a year by eliminating funds to help homeowners who discover a leaky petroleum storage tank under their land. The storage tank fund gives homeowners grants to pay a portion of the removal and decontamination costs. Under the budget bill, the state would catch up on a backlog of claims but wouldn’t serve anyone who applies after Aug. 1. The N.C. Association of Realtors wants the program to continue. “Please always consider the homeowners that are trying to sell their house ... and have assistance from the state when they run into a problem that’s huge,” association member Lolita Malave told legislators.