UPDATE: Gov. Roy Cooper has called for the General Assembly to reconvene Oct. 9 in Raleigh for a special session tied to hurricane relief.
The General Assembly could convene a special session to allocate Hurricane Florence recovery money from the state’s rainy day fund, although some money is available for use without the legislature’s approval.
“We stand ready to do whatever is necessary to help this recovery move forward if there are legal or financial roadblocks,” including returning to Raleigh for a third extra session this year, Pat Ryan, spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, told Carolina Journal Thursday, Sept. 20.
The State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund has $103.7 million, according to the Office of State Controller. That money can be spent even if the legislature is out of session. The Rainy Day Fund has more than $2 billion, most of which is available, but can’t be tapped without a vote of the General Assembly. Federal aid also will be flowing into the state quickly.
“We are already scheduled to come back into session in November after the election. Part of the timeline [for a potential special session] depends on the damage assessments, on what specific needs arise that are currently unmet, and all of that is an open question right now,” Ryan said.
“It takes a long time to do these assessments, and come up with real numbers,” Ryan said. It took about two months for the legislature to receive a concrete funding request after Hurricane Matthew before the legislature met in special session in 2016.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, issued a related news release Thursday.
“What I can tell you is the General Assembly is looking at coming back in to special session,” Moore was quoted as saying. “We’re all prepared to come back in and do it, and make sure the money, once it’s appropriated, that it actually gets out to where it’s supposed to be.”
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said: “Smart investments in our rainy day fund over the past five years have prepared us to rebuild in times such as this. I will work to ensure our community has the resources that we need to recover and rebuild from this storm.”
“The devastation of Hurricane Florence validates the legislature’s insistence on building up the state’s saving reserves over the past seven years despite criticism from Gov. [Roy] Cooper when he was a candidate in 2016, and continued criticism from left wing organizations,” said Joe Coletti, a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation who researches tax and fiscal policy.
“Fortunately, Governor Cooper reversed course once in office, and has proposed contributions to savings that have been similar to what eventually passed each of the last two years,” Coletti said.
House Bill 7 sets the terms for use of the Savings Reserve, the rainy day fund’s official name.
It authorizes the legislature, by majority vote, to spend up to 7.5 percent of the 2017-18 appropriations, for emergency relief and assistance. That’s $1.725 billion this year. The rainy day fund is $2.011 billion.
“Clearly they’re not going to take that much,” Coletti said.
A $250 million withdrawal seems possible given the scale of damage from this storm compared to the $100 million for Matthew in 2016, Coletti said. That would leave 7.36 percent of 2017-18 appropriations in the rainy day fund.
After Matthew, the General Assembly replenished the reserve in the next budget and added $263.9 million to it. Money for Matthew relief went to housing, infrastructure, drinking water, redevelopment, federal matching dollars, small business loans through Golden LEAF, and the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund for future emergencies, Coletti said.
The governor can use the emergency and disaster fund, created by GS 166A-19.42, without legislative approval. Money for that fund came from the rainy day fund, the disaster relief fund, and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Coletti said Cooper frequently attacked his predecessor, Pat McCrory, in 2016, once criticizing him for “building up the rainy day fund in excess of what’s necessary for the state.” As governor, Cooper proposed setting aside $300 million in 2017 — the legislature passed $363.9 million — and $185 million this year — the legislature passed $221.5 million.
Coletti projects the budget should finish the year with an unreserved balance of $648.7 million.
Republican lawmakers, who have accused Cooper of dawdling with Hurricane Matthew federal relief money distribution, have been touring flood-ravaged counties. But Ryan doesn’t expect the legislature to get involved directly with Hurricane Florence relief operations. Disaster response is an executive function of government at the federal level and state level.
The Joint Legislative Committee on Governmental Operations formed a subcommittee in late August to investigate Cooper’s handling of Hurricane Matthew relief money. Ryan said with Florence response still in the early stages, it’s too early to discuss the subcommittee’s role, meeting agendas, and schedules.
“I think that every person in government has the same goal, which is to help these people who are in need,” Ryan said. “To the extent that there are lessons that we can learn from some of the reasons for the delays in Hurricane Matthew aid, and apply those lessons to make things work a little bit better this time around, I think that’s an outcome that everybody should agree is a desirable goal.”