By Patrick Woodie
Those of you who follow the biennial budget process are familiar with the progression: the governor proposes a budget and then the N.C. House (because it was its turn to start the process this year) passes a budget. Next, the N.C. Senate takes its turn and passes its own budget, and finally, the differences in the House and Senate versions are resolved in conference committee.
Then, a final budget passes and makes its way to the governor's desk. The governor can sign it, veto it (in which case three-fifths of the members present in each chamber must vote to override — and if they don't, they go back to the drawing board), or the governor can let it become law without his signature.
Well, the House has finished its work and we've officially arrived at halftime in the current session of the N.C. General Assembly. Here are the rural highlights of the state budget passed by a bipartisan majority in the N.C. House of Representatives:
Community development tools
• Division of Water Infrastructure (N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources) — Appropriated $11.27 million in fiscal year ’16 and $12.7 million in FY ’17 for water and wastewater infrastructure grants for “rural, economically distressed areas,” plus $9.7 million for state matching funds to draw down federal water and wastewater revolving loan funds. Of the FY ’16 money, there is $10 million from non-recurring funds for infrastructure grants, of which $5 million is limited to Tier 1 counties and $5 million for Tier 2 counties, but the Tier 2 funds are earmarked. Additional provisions change the priority system for these non-federal loans and grants.
• The Rural Economic Development Division in the N.C. Department of Commerce will receive $9.6 million in FY ‘16 and $10.9 million in FY ‘17. It appears from the special provisions that this money is to fund a new grant program, "Underserved & Limited Resource Communities/Economic Development Grants." (Commerce is to develop the criteria for these grants).
• Subject to federal funds availability, Commerce will receive $15.7 million to make economic development grants and DENR will receive $26.7 million for infrastructure grants, each year, from Community Development Block Grant funds.
• Clean Water Management Trust Fund will be separated from the Natural Heritage Program and would receive $14 million in new funds — $50 million in availability for the biennium (including $4 million that only can be spent on military buffers).
• Commerce’s Main Street Solutions Fund is slated to receive $1 million in FY ’16 from non-recurring dollars to provide matching grants to local governments to revitalize downtowns.
• The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund is to receive an additional $12.5 million in FY ’16, to bring the funds available to $42.5 million for the biennium.
• Money is set aside to finance several pending House bills, including $1 million for the Healthy Food, Small Retailer Corner Store Act.
• The Support Center is to be allocated $2.5 million/year from non-recurring funds.
• N.C. DOT will get $2 million/year for its Rural (public transportation) Capital Grant Program.
• Budget provisions create a pilot program to assist community colleges in establishing new programs for workforce development. The pilot program is limited to Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties and will be financed by $2 million each year from non-recurring money.
• The Tobacco Trust Fund Program is to receive $1.559 million from non-recurring money to increase the program to $2.5 million in FY ’16 and $3 million in FY ’17.
Business assistance tools
• The One N.C. Small Business Fund is to receive $5 million each year of the biennium.
• Commerce will receive funding to establish two competitive grant programs: 1) Rallying Investors & Skilled Entrepreneurs for N.C. (RISE NC) is to focus on increasing start-up companies, especially those that are high-tech ($2.5 million/year for each year of the biennium). 2) A University Innovation Commercialization Grant Program is to aid in commercializing research from universities and nonprofits ($2.5 million in FY ’16 and $5 million in FY ’17).
• The N.C. Venture Muliplier Fund will tap resources in the Escheats Fund (about $40 million) to fund innovations and inventors that have potential commercial value.
• The budget targets $1.85 million to aid shellfish and oyster rehabilitation and research.
• The Film Grant Fund is to get an additional $40 million in FY ’16 from fund balances and $40 million in FY ’17.
• The Jobs Development Investment Grant program will receive $57.8 million in FY ’16 and $71.7 million in FY ’17, while the One N.C. Fund has $6.9 million available for FY ’16 and $9 million in FY ’17.
• The Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund is slated to receive $2.5 million in FY ’17.
• A school connectivity initiative is to bring broadband connectivity to all K-12 public school buildings (a school-level internal Wi-Fi network). The budget adds $12 million each year to expand the funds available ($60 million in E-rate funds, plus $7.9 million in state base budget funds).
• Special provisions will permit the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to expand the Rural Health Loan Repayment programs to use state incentives for general surgeons practicing in Critical Access Hospitals, and to offer loan repayment program funds for providers using telemedicine to serve rural and underserved areas.
• The budget eliminates apprenticeship fees.
• Additional funding and/or authority is provided to specific rural areas and facilities (such as $8 million per year to provide sustainability for the East Carolina University medical school, and dollars for specific counties to provide federal grant matching money).
Stay tuned for the second half.