News: CJ Exclusives

House passes Matthew, wildfire relief by unanimous vote

McCrory testifies in favor of disaster package; no other legislation discussed during first day of special session

Gov. Pat McCrory testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during Tuesday's legislative session dealing with disaster relief. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Gov. Pat McCrory testifies before the House Appropriations Committee during Tuesday's legislative session dealing with disaster relief. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

The state House on Tuesday unanimously approved a $200.9 million disaster relief package for North Carolinians whose lives were uprooted this fall by Hurricane Matthew in the eastern part of the state and wildfires in the west.

“There are still voids left,” House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, told the House during a special session called to address recovery efforts. “Today is the day we start filling those voids.”

Matthew struck coastal North Carolina in October and caused, according to some estimates, $2 billion in damage, as well as 28 deaths. This placed Matthew among the worst natural disasters in state history, surpassed perhaps only by 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, which resulted in several billion dollars in damage and 35 deaths.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the measure Wednesday.

The House took the action after hearing from outgoing GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who made a rare appearance before the House Appropriations Committee earlier in the day.

“During the past year it rained, and it rained, and it rained, and it rained, and it rained in Lumberton, in Fayetteville, here in Raleigh, in Tarboro, in Princeville, in Greenville, in Fair Bluff, in Kinston, in Windsor for the second time, in Clinton, the towns go on and on and on,” McCrory said.

Then after a lull, “God threw us a curve ball,” McCrory continued, referring to the November wildfires that burned in the western part of the state.

McCrory compared the fires in North Carolina to those that often ravage California and called the first responders in both the east and the west “true heroes.”

The packaged includes $20 million to the Housing Trust Fund for people or families affected by the hurricane or wildfires. The money could also go to families hit by Tropical Storms Julia and Hermine.

An additional $9 million would go to the Division of Emergency Management to meet short-term housing needs for people affected by the storms and fires.

Another $11.5 million would be used for “strategic resiliency planning” for 49 counties that received a presidential disaster declaration as a result of the storm, as well as five economic development regions affected by Matthew.

Other money allocated includes:

  • $66.2 million from the state matching funds from federal disaster assistance programs.
  • $10 million for the State Emergency Response Disaster and Relief Fund to ensure that money is available for future disasters.
  • $5 million for the Golden LEAF Foundation for small businesses affected by the storms and fires.
  • $20 million to the Golden LEAF Foundation to provide grants to local governments for new infrastructure outside the 100-year floodplain or to repair existing infrastructure.
  • $10 million for the Rural Economic Development Division of the Department of Commerce to provide grants to local governments to develop infrastructure for new residential development outside the 100-year floodplain. The money can be used for water and sewer facilities, sidewalks, and storm drainage in areas affected by storms and fires.
  • $10 million to the Department of Environmental Quality for infrastructure cleanup, including repairing drinking water and wastewater systems, dam safety, emergency permitting, and solid waste cleanup.
  • Nearly $38 million to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for forest service repairs, debris removal, and dike repairs.
  • $1 million for repairs to volunteer fire departments.
  • $250,000 to the Department of Commerce to assist businesses affected by the disasters.

In a statement issued after the bill passed, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said fiscal discipline under GOP leadership enabled state officials to meet these immediate needs quickly. “North Carolina is well-prepared financially to provide disaster victims with relief thanks to a $1.6 billion Rainy Day Fund and substantial budget surpluses,” Moore said. “Our state can fund the Disaster Recovery Act without borrowing money or raising taxes because legislators spent responsibly and saved taxpayer dollars in our emergency fund over the last four years.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said that $25 million of the total package would pay for relief efforts in the western part of the state, most of it to pay for firefighters from across North Carolina and 40 other states battling the wildfires.

The bill also gives leeway to school systems that had to cancel classes because of the disasters. It requires schools to schedule two make-up days and allows them to forgive the remaining canceled days. Some schools were closed up to 18 days because of the disasters, lawmakers said.

That provision of the bill stirred the most controversy in committee and on the House floor. Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, proposed an amendment allowing school systems to not have to make up any of the missed days.

“It’s unfortunate we had this tragedy,” Graham said. “It’s an act of God.” He said he thought teachers would appreciate the gesture.

Other lawmakers argued against Graham’s amendment, saying that the two days in the bill was a compromise.

The money to pay for the recovery efforts comes from two sources — $100.9 million from the state’s rainy day fund and $100 million from unappropriated general funds. Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House Appropriations Committee’s senior chairman, said the money comes from revenue surpluses.

Dollar said that the state money would be added to roughly $300 million in disaster relief money approved by Congress earlier this month.

“This is phase one,” Dollar said, noting that lawmakers will put together another package when they return during the 2017 session of the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, nothing came of speculation that the GOP-controlled General Assembly would add two justices to the N.C. Supreme Court on the first day of the special session — a move that could be made by legislative action and not require a constitutional amendment. Such a proposal would have allowed McCrory to appoint two Republicans to the state’s high court before he leaves office, allowing the GOP to maintain a majority on the state’s high court. No bill affecting the courts was filed.

However, House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, did file two election-related bills — one would restore days to the early voting period and another would establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission to redraw future congressional and legislative districts.

Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, also filed a bill that would speed up compensation for some state employees.

It’s unclear if any of these bills will be acted on during the special session.