News: CJ Exclusives

Hurricane relief session may mark only temporary break from partisan fights

Damage in Brunswick County linked to Hurricane Florence. Photo from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Damage in Brunswick County linked to Hurricane Florence. Photo from the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law the $793 million Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Act on Tuesday, Oct. 16, following unanimous legislative passage. An N.C. State University political science professor says not to expect the good vibrations to last.

“We see these things fairly frequently, crises or challenges that emerge that generate quick and pretty large actions by government that are built upon bipartisan cooperation,” Andy Taylor told Carolina Journal.

“And then we resort to polarized, normal politics. That happened repeatedly at the state and national levels the past 20 years or so,” Taylor said. “It to some extent demonstrates that government can do stuff, and it need not be gridlocked,” he said.

Hurricane relief isn’t an ideological issue, so it’s hard for either party to gain advantage politically.

That doesn’t mean officials don’t genuinely want to help. The governor has spent much of the past month visiting devastated portions of the state. He and lawmakers have churned out photos and news releases praising volunteers, consoling victims, and promising help.

But Taylor said Republicans would be hard pressed to turn that into support in the Nov. 6 general election, because voters likely won’t distinguish between action of the entire legislative body and the majority party. And Cooper’s not up for re-election.

“My sense is his approval ratings are going to increase, but I’m not entirely clear how that helps legislative Democrats in the elections,” Taylor said.

One certainty is that the hurricanes displace many of the political narratives and campaign messaging.

Many people are focused on hurricane recovery, not elections. Taylor believes that will most hurt underdog candidates, along with any of the six constitutional amendments lacking robust support.

Senate Bill 3 passed the House and Senate unanimously Monday. It directs funding for myriad operations, including housing assistance; road and municipal infrastructure repairs; aid for public schools, universities, and community colleges; scholarships for affected students; community hospital support; mental health services; small business loans; and agricultural recovery.

The plan immediately OKs $398.4 million to meet the most pressing needs and $394.5 million to be spent later after relief officials set priorities. In addition to $56.5 million previously appropriated, the total Hurricane Florence state relief funding now stands at $849,430,477.

Of the current round of funding $700 million will come from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. The reserve, built over a period of years under Republican-led budgeting to cushion the blow of emergencies, had about $2.1 billion.

“Yes, we are taking a large withdrawal from the Rainy Day fund for Florence Relief, but this is exactly the reason that the Rainy Day Fund exists,” said a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

“Moving forward, we plan to rebuild it using the same responsible budgeting formula that allowed us to build it to $2 billion in the first place and create economic success across North Carolina for the past eight years,” the spokesman said.

Recovery fund money will come from the state Highway Fund, $65 million; Education Lottery Reserve, $25 million; Shallow Draft Navigation Channel Dredging and Aquatic Weed Fund, $2 million; and $930,477 to the state Department of Insurance for Hurricane Matthew relief.

“Many people are rebuilding their life from scratch,” Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee, said during floor debate. “It’s sad to ride down the country roads and see people’s belongings for miles lined up and down the street.”

He said the state was battered by two 500-year floods in two years. Two school systems remain closed, and “we’re trying to get our businesses opened, and we’re trying to get our roads fixed.”

Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, recounted stories of young children crying at night and elderly women in shock. She said she was glad the recovery act includes swift measures to deal with food assistance.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, the senior House budget writer, praised lawmakers and the Cooper administration for swiftly securing a recovery package.

“This legislation today is a historic response to a historic crisis,” Dollar said. “We are moving more rapidly than this state has ever moved” on a disaster recovery bill.

Monday’s action came 31 days after Florence smashed into the North Carolina coast. In contrast, the first funding bill for Hurricane Matthew disaster recovery came in December 2016, two months after the storm slammed the state, and that initial funding bill was just $200 million.

Dollar said budget writers and the Cooper administration have laid out a five-year plan partly based on lessons learned from Hurricane Matthew. It is difficult to get all the relief money into the field at once — about one-third of Matthew recovery money remains unappropriated — and hasty decisions might target money for a specific use that is less pressing than other needs.

Relief workers are still assessing damage.

Dollar said one goal of future spending plans would direct money where it would attract the greatest federal matching shares.

Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, was among lawmakers pushing to clean debris and dredge channels in creeks, streams, and rivers. The lawmakers say the debris has worsened flooding in recent years. He recommended collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We’ve got some major, major cleanup to do in our streams and rivers. It’s been neglected for years,” Graham said. “This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It’s a survival issue.”

Dollar said a committee to study the state’s waterways will be appointed soon.