NCGA budget has millions in earmarks for parks, water infrastructure in mostly Republican districts

Updated: Jul. 18, 2019 at 6:01 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) – The budget written by Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly includes millions of dollars in earmarks for local park projects and water and sewer infrastructure improvements in communities across the state.

A study of the earmarks done by the nonprofit North Carolina Conservation Network, which was shared with WBTV, found nearly all of the earmarked money is slated to go to Republican districts if the current budget were to become law.

Currently, budget negotiations are at a stalemate after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the legislature’s budget, which was written by Republican legislative leaders and passed with the support of just a few Democrats in each chamber.

Grady McCallie is the policy director for the NC Conservation network and dug through the budget to compile the numbers.

“We’ve followed the budget for a number of years and, at least the last 10 years, we’ve been looking at line-by-line breakouts of environmental provisions,” McCallie explained. “We were really struck this year by the increase in earmarks in this budget.”

Specifically, McCallie gauged the use of earmarks—also known as directed appropriations—to local municipalities and counties to fund parks and water and sewer infrastructure. The earmarks for those projects in the budget passed by the legislature totals roughly $25 million; including a $15 million no-interest loan.

McCallie’s research found 91 percent of the earmarked dollars are targeted at districts represented by Republicans in the state house and senate.

McCallie said the fact that these types of projects are being funded through robust earmarked appropriations is unusual.

“The state legislature has traditionally appropriated money to the programs and then local government who have needs come in with their applications and they’re scored against the criteria,” he explained, referring to park programs administered by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and water and sewer infrastructure grants awarded by the Department of Environmental Quality.

“There’s never enough money for everything, so they’re competitive,” McCallie said of the grant programs.

Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) defended the earmarks and the fact that, largely, districts represented by Republicans benefited from the targeted money.

“We all know that in North Carolina, the places that are having the most difficulty with crumbling, aging infrastructure are our rural areas. We also know that the makeup of the general assembly is that Republicans represent rural and suburban areas, for the most part, and Democrats represent the urban and some suburban areas,” Berger said. “It’s no surprise that if there’s money that’s going to be going for water and sewer infrastructure, it’s probably going to districts that Republicans represent.”

The $15 million no-interest loan included in McCallie’s calculation went to the City of King—located in Berger’s district—for a water and sewer infrastructure project.

Berger’s remarks about rural areas having greater water and sewer infrastructure needs came the same morning as another major water line burst on South Boulevard in Charlotte; marking at least the third in recent weeks.

Additionally, the City of Charlotte is grappling with a multi-million-dollar shortfall on its Cross Charlotte Trail project and advocates for parks in Mecklenburg County are lobbying for the county to invest in more green space.

“There are water and sewer infrastructure needs all over the state but they find themselves really being addressed in districts largely represented by your party,” a WBTV reporter said.

“So, the other piece of that is that Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, has the most robust tax base in the State of North Carolina and has more of an ability to deal with those kinds of issues than many of our rural areas,” Berger said.

“I don’t mean to say that there aren’t challenges for water and sewer all over the state, I’m just saying those challenges seem to be, from a financial standpoint, a lot more acute in the more rural areas,” Berger continued.

But McCallie said the use of increased funding for these types of projects for earmarks also raises concerns about how the money is spent once it reaches the local government level.

“You've got communities where the need may be great and the project may be excellent but they don't get it because they don't know the right people and that's not how government's supposed to work,” McCallie said. “The other reason is, when we talk to the staff in the programs, when they have a grant to give through the competitive process, they have a standard contract and they have close oversight. They see the financials so we know the money is being spent properly.”

In his interview, Berger noted that the earmarks in question account for less than one tenth of one percent of the total budget.

He also noted that, in the senate, many earmarks were made at the request of individual members—including 23 of the 27 requests made by Democratic senators—and said no lawmaker from Mecklenburg County requested a directed appropriation for parks or water projects in the county.

“Part of it has to do with whether or not the members have asked as part of the negotiations,” Berger explained. “Part of it has to do with whether someone is going to support the budget or not.”

Berger said he is not aware of any other part of the budget that grants specific dollars to local governments for projects of this nature.

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