One of the most troubling aspects of the budget the Senate passed earlier this summer was the decision to stuff the 500 plus page appropriations bill with dozens of controversial policy changes that deserve more scrutiny and debate than they received as part of the larger budget document.
Many of the policy changes were not discussed in public at all and only came to light in news stories after the budget had passed. It’s a safe bet that many Senators themselves weren’t aware of the changes that included proposals like ending retiree health benefits for new teachers and state workers and creating new exemptions to the state’s open records law.
Some of the controversial polices in the budget were more well-known, like reforming Medicaid and changing the way local sales tax revenue is distributed.
As part of budget negotiations with the House, the Senate agreed to remove those two issues from the budget and passed them as separate bills, which seemed like progress at the time, though Senate leaders have made clear that the fate of both bills are still connected to any final budget agreement.
But at least there was some recognition that controversial issues ought to stand on their own where they can be fully debated in open committees with public comment. That’s the way the legislative process is supposed to work.
But this week the Coastal Federation reported that House and Senate budget negotiators had agreed to insert a new and never before seen provision into the final budget that could lift the cap on the number of terminal groins allowed to be constructed off the North Carolina coast to protect specific areas of the beaches from further erosion.
After years of intense lobbying from wealthy beach communities and developers, the General Assembly voted in 2011 to change the state’s 30-year ban on hardened structures like terminal groins and allow four pilot projects to be built.
Environmentalists opposed the move, pointing to the bad experiences of other states and the beach erosion that increases down the shore from where the terminal groins are built.
But the four pilot projects were approved anyway, with the understanding that they would be test cases for how well the terminal groins work and how they affect the adjacent parts of the coast.
That was the agreement anyway.
None of the four pilot projects have been built yet but that doesn’t matter to House and Senate budget negotiators.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown told the Insider “I think it’s time to lift the cap. A lot of communities want it.”
Apparently Sen. Brown thinks he and a few other lawmakers in the backrooms can decide among themselves if the cap on terminal groins should be lifted.
Never mind that neither the House nor the Senate budget included such a provision. He’ll just sneak it into the final agreement.
And never mind the consensus four years ago that the state needed to see how the pilot projects worked before allowing unlimited hardened structures up and down the coastline.
Rep. Pat McElraft, a House negotiator, said she’s confident that the environment will be protected. That’s reassuring.
No need then for full and open debate or testimony from geologists or other experts. And certainly no need for lawmakers to honor their word and wait and see how the pilot projects turn out.
Inserting policy in the state budget is bad enough. Inserting a new provision that’s never been passed by the House or Senate into a final budget agreement is worse.
And using a secretive backroom deal to break a commitment made four years ago takes the cake.
The beaches aren’t the only things eroding in North Carolina. The credibility of the legislative leaders is washing away.