Buried on Page 166 of the N.C. House budget proposal is a provision that could direct $5 million to Speaker Tim Moore’s hometown of Kings Mountain.
The Cleveland County town of 10,000 people isn’t mentioned by name in the budget bill. But the provision establishing a rural water and sewer infrastructure grant has very specific requirements: It must go to a town of less than 12,000 people that received a state loan in 2013 “to replace water distribution lines.” No other 2013 loan recipients appear to meet the requirements.
It’s one of three items in the House budget that – if included in the legislature’s final budget compromise – would likely direct funds to Cleveland County.
Another would provide a $200,000 grant to the American Legion World Series, which operates an annual baseball tournament in Shelby, the county seat.
A third provision would establish a $10 million grant fund for libraries. The budget bill doesn’t dictate how the money would be allocated, and state library officials say they didn’t request it; Moore had unsuccessfully sought to get $1.5 million for a new library in Kings Mountain in 2013 when he was House Rules chairman.
Moore did not agree to an interview for this story, but his spokeswoman, Mollie Young, issued a statement in response to questions about the budget provisions.
“As a representative for and lifelong resident of Cleveland County, the speaker will always advocate for projects that his constituents need,” she said. “I would hope and expect the same of all elected officials. The fact is that the House compiled a balanced, conservative budget that was able to pay teachers and state employees more, invest in our infrastructure and roads, and help kickstart projects in local communities across North Carolina.”
Donald Bryson of the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity said the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“I think little carve-outs for special legislators aren’t a good thing,” he said, suggesting the funds could instead help increase pay for state troopers. “I don’t know that a baseball tournament falls within the core functions of government.”
Others, however, point out that budget provisions benefiting a powerful legislator’s home district aren’t unusual.
“They’re going to throw their elbows around a little bit, and the longer you’re (in the legislature), the better position you’re in to make sure your district is fairly represented in whatever the budget priorities are,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a House budget writer and Hendersonville Republican. “That’s sort of how the system works.”
Moore isn’t the only legislator with district-specific spending in this year’s budget. Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca sponsored a budget amendment that would move $3 million from the UNC School of Law to the Mountain Area Health Education Center, which serves Apodaca’s district near Asheville.
The Senate budget also includes $50,000 to move a house at Averasboro Battlefield in Harnett County, which is represented by Republican Sen. Ronald Rabin. And the House would give $50,000 to the Brevard Station Museum, which is in House Transportation Chairman John Torbett’s hometown of Stanley.
It’s unclear which, if any, of the earmarks will make the cut in the final budget compromise, which Senate and House negotiators hope to release next week. If all three of Moore’s projects get funded, he’ll have directed about $6.7 million to his home county.
Kings Mountain lies about 30 miles west of Charlotte. Moore, who grew up in Cleveland County, practices law in Kings Mountain and has served in the House for over a dozen years. The 44-year-old Republican became speaker in January after Thom Tillis was elected to the U.S. Senate.
McGrady, one of the co-chairs of the House Appropriations Committee, was elevated to his position by Moore earlier this year, and is one of the speaker’s negotiators in the budget discussions with the Senate.
McGrady said the water and sewer grant fund remains alive in budget negotiations. In addition to the $5 million tailored toward Kings Mountain, the fund would have $5 million for projects in counties categorized as the state’s poorest.
“It’s sort of been flagged to have a decision made on it later in the process when we have an understanding of all the various needs that are out there,” McGrady said Thursday. “While there’s broad philosophical support for it, the issue is they’ve got a budget target, and that money is certainly in danger of going away.”
McGrady supports the fund and says it’s needed for rural communities with aging pipes and facilities. “The town or city might be almost functionally bankrupt if they don’t have some way to fix their sewer infrastructure,” he said.
Kings Mountain City Manager Marilyn Sellers did not return phone calls seeking information about possible grant projects there.
A few miles away in Shelby, the nonprofit group that hosts the American Legion World Series each August would receive $200,000 in the House budget. Budget documents don’t explain how the money would be used, and the group’s leader, Eddie Holbrook, could not be reached for comment.
“I know it is a request that Speaker Moore forwarded; where it got inserted, I don’t know,” McGrady said. “It’s been baked into the budget for a very long time.”
It’s not the first time Moore has sought state funding for the event. In 2014, The Shelby Star reported that he’d requested $500,000 to build a new access road to the baseball stadium. The funding has not been approved.
The third budget item that could help Cleveland is a $10 million “competitive grant” program for libraries. McGrady said the grants are designed to help rural libraries, but the budget bill doesn’t explain how the program would work or what types of projects it would fund.
“We had no clue that this was going to be in the legislation,” said state librarian Cal Shepard, who administers federal and state funding to local libraries. “If this gets passed, we’re going to have to scramble to figure out how to use it for the benefit of all the libraries in the state.”
The N.C. Public Library Directors Association was also surprised by the $10 million. “Not only did we never think it would fly (in budget negotiations), we viewed it as a potential nightmare to administer” because some libraries could get left out, said Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for the group.
Kings Mountain’s public library is housed in a mansion built in the early 1920s that was donated by a local family nearly 70 years ago.
A new building for the library was in the 2013 House budget but didn’t make the final cut. Asked if the grants would fund the building, McGrady said, “I think you have identified a library project that I know the speaker was interested in, but I don’t really remember the specifics.”
Bryson said AFP wants to see more transparency surrounding earmarks in the state budget. His group plans to push for an “earmark transparency” bill next year that would require legislators to attach their names to their budget provisions in public documents. Several other states already require such disclosures, he said.
“If it’s important enough to put it in the state budget, it’s important enough to put your name beside it,” he said.
In her response to questions about the earmarks, Moore’s spokeswoman stressed his commitment to his constituents back home.
“It can be easy for some to forget about the real people of this state when you live and breathe Raleigh politics, but I can assure you – Speaker Moore does not forget why he is here and for whom he serves,” Young wrote.
Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter