Cooper: Legislature endangering pipeline fund
Posted February 13, 2018 4:06 p.m. EST
Updated February 13, 2018 4:59 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper suggested Tuesday that the legislature's vote to reroute money from a $57.8 million fund tied to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline might endanger the fund's very existence.
Cooper didn't elaborate, and he acknowledged that he hadn't heard warning signals from the pipeline's chief partners in North Carolina. The governor also didn't say whether he'll ultimately sign the Republican-backed bill at issue, which also includes new funding for public schools and pre-kindergarten programs around the state.
But Cooper did accuse Republicans of taking credit for the fund's largesse, which they would spend on schools in the eight North Carolina counties the pipeline is expected to traverse, while also bashing it as "slush fund" set up by his administration.
"If they think this fund is so bad, why are they spending it and sending out press releases to their counties?" Cooper asked during a brief question-and-answer session at an event on workforce development that he held at the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy in Raleigh.
The legislature gave final approval Tuesday to House Bill 90, which not only addresses state class size issues and education funding but also takes control of a mitigation fund the Cooper administration announced the same day his Department of Environmental Quality said it had signed off on a crucial pipeline permit in the state. The memorandum of understanding on that fund states that the governor will decide where the money will be deposited and that he will use an executive order to distribute grants along the pipeline's path for environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy projects.
GOP leaders questioned whether the fund was tied to pipeline approval and labeled it a "slush fund," which Cooper denies. They also pointed to the state constitution, saying only the legislature can appropriate state money. They used House Bill 90 to draw this future funding into the state treasury. Approval votes were solidly bipartisan, though Democrats complained about class-size funding being mashed together with the pipeline issue and a provision about the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement.
Cooper said Tuesday he was concerned the legislature's move could cause the fund to go away.
"What they have done is they've hurt the chances for North Carolina ever getting this money," the governor said. "What we want the money for, what eastern North Carolina wants the money for, is jobs, and by passing this legislation, they have put those jobs at risk. This can potentially be a job killer."
Cooper acknowledged that he hasn't heard threats on the money from Duke Energy or Dominion Energy, two of the four utilities developing the 600-mile pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. Duke is the dominant electric utility in North Carolina. Dominion owns the largest percentage of the project and is responsible for pipeline construction and operation.
Asked for clarification on the governor's fears later in the day, Cooper spokesman Jamal Little said only that "the allocation in the legislature's bill is outside the three areas laid out in the MOU." Aaron Ruby, spokesman for the pipeline project, didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger wondered how the fund could be a voluntary offer from the pipeline consortium, as the Cooper administration has said, and also be in danger.
"We’re sure the Atlantic Coast Pipeline owners will be thrilled to see their generous gift help children in the poor, rural counties the pipeline impacts," spokeswoman Shelly Carver said in an email. "However, if the “voluntary contribution” isn’t really a gift, but instead is tied to the permitting and construction of the pipeline, then Gov. Cooper has misled the citizens of North Carolina and has a whole lot of explaining to do."
The General Assembly sent House Bill 90 to Cooper's desk Tuesday, then adjourned until May. The governor declined to say whether he'll sign the bill, saying that decision will be made "in the coming days." He also declined to answer specific questions about the fund, such as how it was negotiated and how the $57.8 million figure was determined.
Instead of answering, Cooper criticized Republican legislators for rerouting the funding.
Queries about how the fund was negotiated are among the 15 questions Republican leaders sent Cooper in a letter Monday, seeking answers by Thursday afternoon. That letter followed a grilling for the governor's legislative liaison, who was five days into his new job when GOP legislators meeting in committee on the class size bill peppered him with questions about the pipeline fund instead.