Politics & Government

Budget reshapes state agencies

The budget expected to reach the governor’s desk at the end of the week includes some major rearranging of the furniture of state government, much of it at the governor’s behest, reflecting shifts in priorities among state leaders.

The biggest structural change is the creation of a new cabinet-level agency: the Department of Information Technology. It will undertake a massive effort to pull North Carolina’s state functions into the 21st Century, or somewhere close to it.

The state has been hobbled by outdated equipment and uncoordinated systems for a long time. Even its most recent upgrades have run into trouble, prompting stinging state audits.

Heading the effort will be a chief of information technology appointed by the governor.

The budget creates about $44 million in special funds to get the effort up and running, in addition to other technology-related funding across state departments.

In his state of the state address in February, Gov. Pat McCrory promised the new cabinet agency would be created. He said three-fourths of the state’s information technology projects have been over budget and behind schedule.

Environmental agency narrows focus

The state’s environmental agency will shed the N.C. Zoo, aquariums, the Museum of Natural Sciences and the state parks, which will move into the current cultural resources department, under the budget.

The new combination will result in the renamed N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. What has been known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, becomes the Department of Environmental Quality.

McCrory proposed the transfer in his budget, as part of a government efficiency drive. The Senate included the plan in its budget but the House did not.

Along with the transfer goes the $11.6 million Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Funding for the Natural Heritage Program is separated from the clean water fund in the amount of $760,000. Both transfer into the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Indigent defense reeled in

The state office that provides legal services to poor people accused of committing crimes will lose its independence.

Indigent Defense Services will be moved into the Administrative Office of the Courts, which holds the purse strings for all the judges, prosecutors and court clerks in the state.

The AOC would control its budget, under this plan. However, both the House and Senate budgets would have let IDS control its own budget. So there was no conflict on that issue for the conference committee to resolve. In other words, it was written into the budget at the last minute and could be a violation of the rules.

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Mark Martin, oversees the AOC. He appoints a director with independent responsibilities and an assistant director to run it.

The budget tries to reduce a shortfall of several years that has seen IDS unable to pay private counsel assigned to represent indigent defendants when funding runs out before the end of the fiscal year. Budget-writers noted that creates a hardship for small legal firms. The budget identifies $3.4 million for the current fiscal year and $4.4 million for the next.

Deer move ahoof?

If supervision of deer farming is moved from the state Wildlife Resources Commission into the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, as proposed in a pending bill, the budget provides $149,000 to add two positions to the program.

A wide-ranging bill, Senate Bill 513, the Farm Act of 2015, includes a provision to make that change, under the presumption that deer raised for antlers are more of a livestock commodity than game. Deer farming is small in North Carolina but the farmers involved want to expand.

Opponents, including wildlife conservationists, are concerned that the more penned deer allowed in the state the greater the risk of a devastating disease that has troubled deer populations in other states.

If that bill, which has been sitting in the House for two months, or one like it doesn’t pass this session, then the money reverts to the general fund. Lawmakers are moving dozens of last-minute bills as the session nears an end.

Shift for state Capitol Police

The budget moves the state Capitol Police from being a standalone force within the Department of Public Safety to a section under the State Highway Patrol.

The secretary of Public Safety will appoint a police chief for Capitol Police with the governor’s approval. SHP would be elevated from a section within Public Safety to a division of its own.

The current position of commissioner of law enforcement would be eliminated. The commissioner oversaw the law enforcement agencies in the Department of Public Safety.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO