Five policy, spending items in the NC state budget draft

The seal of the Supreme Court of North Carolina is seen in their courtroom at the Justice Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 9, 2022.

The seal of the Supreme Court of North Carolina is seen in their courtroom at the Justice Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 9, 2022.

A $30 billion budget is expected to be voted on by the state House of Representatives after months of stalled negotiations between the House and Senate. The Republicans who dominate both chambers disagreed over a plan to add new casinos to the budget.

The News & Observer obtained a 611-page draft of the budget. Our reporters are still reviewing the document, which could be updated as lawmakers negotiate. However, House Speaker Tim Moore confirmed to reporters on Tuesday that most policy provisions would stay the same in the final budget.

Here’s a roundup of eight of the most notable provisions we’ve found in the budget so far.

Lets more judges carry guns in court

If passed, the budget would allow judges on the Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court justices to carry a concealed handgun while in court.

District and superior court judges are already allowed to do so in North Carolina.

This comes after the legislature passed a bill loosening requirements to obtain a handgun back in March.

Funds a new hospital in the Triangle

UNC Health is slated to receive millions of dollars from the state to build a new children’s hospital in the Triangle, according to the draft.

The hospital would include behavioral health beds to address a growing need for inpatient mental health treatment in North Carolina. A recent report from an NC child advocacy group gave the state failing grades for meeting children’s mental health needs.

News reports have also detailed several problems plaguing the youth mental health system, including months-long waits for space in a mental health hospital and unsafe conditions in privately owned psychiatric facilities.

Details about the hospital, like where it will be built and how many beds it will open, are still unclear.

“UNC Health appreciates state lawmakers’ support to help begin planning a new, freestanding hospital that will improve children’s care in North Carolina for generations to come,” a spokesperson for the health system wrote in a statement.

Last year, the state also partnered with UNC Health to convert a substance abuse treatment facility in Butner to a psychiatric hospital for children.

House Speaker Tim Moore on Tuesday called it “a great project.”

“We know that behavioral health is a critical need. We know that our children are facing a huge behavioral health crisis across the state. And so equipping UNC hospitals with the ability to provide that, I think is critical,” Moore said.

Cements UNC’s School of Civic Life and Leadership

The budget would solidify the development of a School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill, with the university receiving $2 million in “start-up funds” in each of two years. The funds would support hiring initial staff for the school, according to a breakdown of funding also obtained by The N&O.

The bill states the school must hire between 10 and 20 faculty members from outside the university. The faculty would be tenured or be eligible to receive tenure. At a May meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the university had approved personnel policies for the school’s fixed-term faculty, or faculty who are hired under a contract for a set amount of time and not given tenure.

The bill also directs the university’s provost to name a permanent, inaugural dean for the school by the end of the calendar year. Guskiewicz said in May he hoped the school would name an interim “director” of the school during the fall semester, adding that a permanent director would “ideally” be named by the spring 2024 semester.

Per the bill, courses offered in the school, which will be housed in the College of Arts & Sciences, would center on the “development of democratic competencies informed by American history and the American political tradition, with the purpose of fostering public discourse and civil engagement necessary to promote democracy and benefit society.”

The school has been a point of contention among faculty at the school since the Board of Trustees first announced it in January. Faculty have said they were not consulted on the school ahead of time, which is contrary to the traditional model of shared governance at the university, in which faculty, not trustees, typically come up with ideas and propose changes to the curriculum.

Adds legislative appointments for judicial oversight board

The Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates complaints against judges, would get an overhaul to its appointment structure in the budget.

Currently, the State Bar Council is responsible for appointing four members to the commission. The budget removes all four of these appointments and gives them to leaders in the General Assembly.

State Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is currently suing the commission in federal court, arguing that its investigation into her comments about diversity in the courts system violates her First Amendment rights.

Provides money for putting hog waste to use

North Carolina has more than 2,000 permitted hog farms, nearly all of which store the waste from their animals in lagoons on their farms.

The budget appropriates $4 million to the N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation, a nonprofit, to work on converting the sludge that builds up inside those lagoons into fertilizer.

That sludge often contains high amounts of phosphorous, copper and zinc, according to N.C. State University. Hog farm owners need to pump it or dredge it from their lagoons to avoid buildup of those nutrients and metals.

Figuring out how to convert more of that sludge into fertilizer would allow farmers to find another revenue stream from waste. In recent years, there has also been a legislative effort to allow farmers to cap their lagoons and capture the methane wafting off of it, converting it to a pipeline-ready natural gas alternative.

Anyone receiving a grant from the program would need to match it. Funds could be used for engineering, installing or buying equipment that gathers the sludge from lagoons or the equipment that would be used to turn it into fertilizer.The program would also apply to waste generated by cattle, sheep, goats and bison.

Provides long-requested funds to implement voter ID

With the implementation of the state’s voter ID law now fully in effect, election boards have been waiting for state money to help make the massive change run as smoothly as possible.

The budget includes $2.7 million to implement voter ID and publicize the new requirement for photo ID. This money is also expected to be used to implement new election changes in Senate Bill 747, which passed the General Assembly earlier this session but was vetoed by the governor. Republicans are expected to override that veto before session ends.

SB 747 would eliminate the three-day grace period for receiving absentee ballots, ban the use of private money in election administration and empower partisan poll observers to watch the voting process. It also creates a nonbinding pilot program for signature verification in 10 counties across the state.

Under the budget draft, $5 million from an older voter ID project is also freed up for the State Board of Elections to use for any matters relating to voter ID and SB 747.

Raises mandatory retirement age for judges, likely to help Newby

The budget raises the mandatory retirement age for appellate judge from 72 to 76, a change likely aimed to help Republican Chief Justice Paul Newby.

Currently 68, Newby will be 73 by the time his term ends in 2029. This change allows him to serve out the rest of his term without having to retire.

It also means Republicans will have more time to maintain the 5-2 majority the GOP currently holds on the Supreme Court.

Changes how NC decides on permits

The draft budget also provides new guidelines to what the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is allowed to consider when deciding whether to issue permits.

Regulators would not be allowed to deny a permit “solely” on the grounds that other permits for the same project have not been obtained. That could have some bearing on the permits MVP Southgate will almost certainly be seeking from DEQ, as a Virginia compressor station that would link Southgate to MVP’s mainline will be seeking air quality permits in that state.

North Carolina regulators previously denied key stream crossing permits for the 73 miles of pipeline that would run through Rockingham and Alamance counties. They cited uncertainty about the pipeline’s main segment in their decision, with one hearing officer saying Southgate would potentially be a pipeline “from nowhere to nowhere.”

Under the new law, the key consideration of North Carolina regulators would need to be the environmental impacts from MVP Southgate’s stream crossing certification and Jordan Lake buffer authorization. It could not be the fate of the project upstream, as it was in the previous denials.

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Kyle Ingram is a politics reporter for the News & Observer. He reports on the legislature, election administration and more in North Carolina politics and produces the daily Under the Dome newsletter. He has previously worked for NC Newsline, States Newsroom and The Daily Tar Heel.

Korie Dean covers higher education in the Triangle and North Carolina for The News & Observer. She was previously part of the paper’s service journalism team. She is a graduate of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill and a lifelong North Carolinian.

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