Raleigh, N.C. — The Senate's spending proposal appears to be headed for a smooth and speedy passage later this week.
After leaders released the highlights of their spending plan Tuesday, the bill moved through committees Wednesday without any substantive amendments and is scheduled for its two required floor votes Thursday and then just after midnight Friday.
However, there are some major policy moves buried in what's known as the bill's "special provisions," released just before midnight.
One major change, embedded in the Natural and Economic Resources section, would throw out water quality rules aimed at restricting pollution flowing into reservoirs such as Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.
In a sweeping set of legislative "findings" beginning on page 111, the measure calls for the creation of a statewide "comprehensive management strategy to protect and improve water quality," replacing rules in place in the Neuse, Tar-Pamlico, Falls Lake and Jordan Lake watersheds.
"Existing nutrient management strategies have shown little to no improvement in water quality, have created an increased regulatory and economic burden in the billions of dollars to the State, its municipalities, and its citizens, and have rendered thousands of acres of public and private property useless," the section reads. "Instead of continuing a regulatory solution that is not improving, nor may ever improve, water quality standards, a new comprehensive management strategy that includes in situ treatment of impaired water bodies must be developed to replace the current flawed, economically irresponsible, and scientifically unjustified approach."
The section designates the Environmental Management Commission, a politically appointed body, to rewrite the nutrient management rules passed into law under Democratic leadership. The laws currently in effect would remain in effect until the EMC passes new ones under a 2019 deadline.
The Jordan Lake Rules were the product of years of stakeholder meetings and compromises but have never been fully implemented. Lawmakers voted in 2013 to delay the effective date of the most stringent provisions after developers and local governments upstream complained the cost of complying with them would be too high.
It also earmarks $500,000 for a study of freshwater mussels by the Division of Wildlife Resources, specifically looking at their potential use in pollution mitigation in Falls Lake and Jordan Lake.
Environmentalists blasted the proposals.
"Where these rules have been implemented, they reduce pollution. Repealing them would harm water quality across North Carolina and would violate the federal Clean Water Act," said the North Carolina Conservation Network's Grady McCallie
Neuse Riverkeeper Matthew Starr compared the mussel study to the unsuccessful and recently terminated SolarBee project to stir up water in Jordan Lake to prevent algal blooms.
"Introducing non-native freshwater mussels into North Carolina’s lakes would be a recipe for disaster and is no substitute for controlling pollution at the source," said Starr. "These provisions are just another attempt by the legislature to delay any actual clean up. It’s a waste of money."
The Senate budget also makes big changes to state regulation of marine fisheries.
It cuts two at-large members from the Marine Fisheries Commission, which would shrink from nine to seven, and would require a super-majority of five to take any action, including rule-making. It would also strictly limit what temporary changes the commission could make to existing fishery management rules.
That change is in response to a long-running battle between recreational fishermen, who want state regulators to ban the use of gill nets, and commercial fishermen, who say such a ban would put them out of business. That battle has flared up in recent years, leading to changes in the membership and leadership of the commission.
There was no discussion of any of those policy proposals in early hearings on the budget.