Politics & Government

Millions of dollars for water and parks projects going to GOP districts in NC budget

NC Senate leader Berger responds to Gov. Cooper’s veto of budget

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger talks about his response after Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference announcing he would veto the budget Friday, June 28, 2019.
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N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger talks about his response after Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference announcing he would veto the budget Friday, June 28, 2019.

Millions of dollars in the state budget are going to mostly Republican districts for water infrastructure and parks projects. While Republicans defend the allocations as needed help to rural areas, an environmental group questions the process and oversight.

The North Carolina Conservation Network analyzed the budget and found that 91% of $25 million in parks and water infrastructure earmarks went to Republican districts. Most were in Senate leader Phil Berger’s district, which includes Eden, Yanceyville and King.

As first reported by WBTV, the Conservation Network found that about $23.4 million in direct appropriations, known as earmarks, went to Republican-held Senate districts, and within that a $15 million loan to the city of King in Berger’s district.

Republicans lead the General Assembly House and Senate and wrote the budget, which is currently at a standoff with the Democratic governor.

Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said Friday the environmental organization has been following the state budget for years and earmarks have been “creeping up.”

Rather than going through a competitive grant process for parks and water projects, direct appropriations don’t have the same kind of oversight for each project, he said.

Berger spokesperson Pat Ryan said rural areas have sewer systems that are in the worst shape and have the least ability to fix them, and most rural areas are represented by Republicans.

“A lot of these communities are relatively poor, and don’t have the tax base like Wake or Mecklenburg [counties] to overhaul sewer systems,” Ryan said Friday.

“The fact is, a lot of the rural towns request state funding for things they just cannot afford themselves,” he said, and that includes parks projects.

Ryan said Senate Democrats requested only one water infrastructure project, in Granville County, which was funded.

Meanwhile, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced $112 million in water projects this week.

The State Water Infrastructure Authority approved loans for 26 drinking water and wastewater projects across North Carolina — literally from Murphy to Manteo. Projects include almost $800,000 to Murphy for sewer repair, $1.1 million to Manteo to move its pump station, $22.5 million to Fayetteville and other projects.

Cooper said in a statement the loans address water infrastructure projects based on greatest need.

“To close the remaining funding gaps, I have proposed an education and water bond in this year’s budget so that more town and counties can get the foundation they need to grow and attract jobs,” Cooper said.

The $112 million came from the state’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan programs.

McCallie said the earmark projects should go through that process, too.

“There’s a better structure in place,” he said. “I would be equally skeptical if 91% [of projects] were in Democratic districts.”

McCallie said he hopes earmarks are part of the overall negotiations on the budget.

So far, budget negotiations between Cooper and Berger have not been going well.

Budget standoff

Cooper vetoed the conference budget, which is the House and Senate compromise budget, on June 28. The House has had a budget veto override vote on its calendar since July 8, but House Speaker Tim Moore has yet to call for a vote. While Republicans have a majority in both chambers, a supermajority is needed to override vetoes. In the House, that means at least eight Democrats would need to vote with every Republican to override Cooper’s budget veto.

However throughout July, the governor’s office and Republican leaders have traded barbs over Twitter and in letters saying that it is the other side who won’t negotiate. At the center of the standoff is Medicaid expansion, but other issues are also at stake, like raises for state employees. Democrats have also complained that repeatedly putting an override vote on the House calendar but not taking it wastes time that could be spent on negotiations.

The House budget veto override is on the calendar again for its session Monday night.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
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