The General Assembly was buzzing this week while legislative oversight committees continued to wrap up business for the interim. We saw more legislative reports as well as presentations from key stakeholders on disaster relief, school safety, and new agricultural ventures.
Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Recommendations
The Legislative Research Committee on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD) met Monday to discuss and vote on the committee’s legislative report.
The draft report, which was passed without any changes, included four legislative proposals:
- An act to create a position within the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee administration and coordination of education and employment programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
- An act to direct the Government Data Analytics Center to establish a task force to study the collection and use of data on education and employment outcomes for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities through the North Carolina Longitudinal Data System.
- An act to allow for funds from the Parental Savings Trust Fund to rollover to an ABLE account without the funds being considered as income and to direct the ABLE program board of trustees to report on any legislative recommendations for modifications to the state ABLE Act.
- An act to direct the Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Office of State Human Resources, to study the development and implementation of a program to encourage the employment by state agencies of individuals with disabilities, including targeting employment of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Rep. Nelson Dollar indicated there may be additional recommendations proposed this short session regarding the Certificate of Accomplishment program for post-secondary education for I/DD. The issue he brought up is those students are not categorized as enrolled students for full-time equivalency (FTE) funding. He did not amend the report Monday, but he recommended taking a look at the issue and perhaps launching a pilot study with the two universities that already have the program in place. Rep. Dollar said the estimated cost would likely be around $826,000, and that the funds would allow the students to be funded with the FTE. This would, he said, provide additional data in order to justify the further expansion through the university system.
Disaster Relief Funding Probe
Monday afternoon, members of the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief met to ask questions about why displaced North Carolinians are still waiting on relief funds to help return them to their homes following the devastation of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Representatives from the Division of Emergency Management within the Department of Public Safety (DPS), the US Highway 70 Corridor Commission, the Neuse River Sport Shop, and the Division of Coastal Management within the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) came before the select committee to provide testimony and, for some presenters, to answer three questions:
- Why haven’t counties received their funding?
- Why haven’t citizens approved for buyouts received their money?
- What is the timeline for everyone to get their money?
Division of Emergency Management Questioned
Nicholas M. Burk, Assistant Director of Resiliency at the Division of Emergency Management in DPS, was called before the committee to present an update on housing funds. Burk notified members that his division expects award letters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to start late this spring and continue through early fall. He said they are awaiting Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) grants from FEMA for 800 properties. Concern was expressed by members that other states impacted by Hurricane Matthew, South Carolina in particular, have received their funding well ahead of NC. He explained that his agency, in collaboration with Governor Cooper’s office, decided to engage local operatives for procurement rather than issue a statewide Request for Proposal (RFP).
Members peppered Burk with more questions over temporary housing solutions, the six models counties are using for recovery, delays in responses from DPS, and why two years later, residents are still waiting for aid. He said while 1,500 survivors have submitted their applications for relief funds, only 500 have cleared the 8-step process necessary to be approved for those funds. It took the state, according to Burk, a whole year to begin the intake process with those applications. Burk, responding to a query from Rep. Brendan Jones, acknowledged he has submitted his resignation, and there is no one currently serving as director of the Resiliency section at the Division of Emergency Management.
Gary Thompson, Deputy Chief of Risk Management at the Division of Emergency Management, was also in attendance at the meeting to discuss basin-wide flood analysis and mitigation strategy studies.
Highway 70 Corridor Progress
Durwood Stephenson, Director of the US Highway 70 Corridor Commission, came before the committee to present on the Havelock Bypass study. He informed the committee that, after 40 years of study on the Havelock Bypass, this week an agreement was finally reached between stakeholders, allowing the project to move forward. Emergency Management is exploring options for flood mitigation in three river basins in the state: the Tar, Neuse, and Lumber river basins. After analyzing eleven different mitigation options, four have been selected for further analysis:
- New wet and dry detention structures
- Channel diversion and dredging
- Roadway Elevation/Clearing Spanning
- Community Buyouts/Elevation/Relocation
There will be three stakeholder meetings this month to gather relevant information from key community leaders and municipal staff about flooding and flood-related impacts in our communities. We can expect the final report in Spring of 2019.
Russel Rhodes, Jr., President of Neuse Sport Shop in Kinston, came to discuss the flood frequency problem and discuss solutions. He emphasized that district engineers have been clear that there is an immediate and urgent need for improvements to provide flood protection in the Neuse River Basin since 1964. Rhodes said the Flood Control Act of 1965 and the River and Harbor Act of 1965 were steps in the right direction, but he urged further action by the General Assembly to make sure business owners and residents in the Neuse River Basin do not face the same devastation they saw after Hurricane Matthew again. He had a number of suggested solutions for the committee:
- Build the other 12 flood control projects proposed in the 1965 Flood control act.
- Improve the onsite retention of water on new developments west of the flooded communities.
- Slow the water from Roadways heading toward rivers
- Lower the water level behind Fall Lake Dam during Hurricane Season
- Increase the River’s capacity to handle the volume within its banks by snagging, dragging or dredging the river, or by modifying the river’s banks
- Bore Slews under the “land bridge” on US 70 approaching the River.
The committee also heard from Braxton Davis, Director of the Division of Coastal Management at DEQ, on the impact of hurricanes on coastal communities. His division is conducting a number of studies up and down the coast and looking for effective flood mitigation solutions.
School Safety Subcommittee Meets
The House Select Committee on School Safety’s Student Physical Safety and Security Working Group held their inaugural meeting Tuesday. The working group heard from many school safety stakeholders, from school directors to law enforcement.
Private School Safety
Joe Haas, Executive Director of the NC Christian Schools Association, came before the committee to discuss the funding issues facing non-public schools when it comes to school safety and infrastructure. He told members that, in his experience, non-public schools have a harder time protecting their students than public schools because they do not have the same access to School Resource Officers (SROs) or the same relationship with local law enforcement. Haas believes that having unmarked armed individuals in schools would provide not only protection, but a deterrent to potential shooters. He argued for a voluntary opt-in program for non-public schools to partner with local law enforcement to train teachers and staff at schools and set up conceal carry standards. He said that the solution is not as simple as finding funding to hire SROs, because the schools that are members of his association do not accept public funds. In his opinion, the only way is to make it lawful for those school boards to authorize personnel to work in conjunction with local law enforcement.
Task Force on Safer Schools
Chip Hughes, former Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Safer Schools, gave the committee some insight into his experience on the Task Force. During his time in the unpaid, volunteer position, he told committee members he visited about 80% of the schools across the state. The main problem he saw was with SROs in schools. In his time, he saw many SROs who were not in their role by choice. They were put in a school rather than out on the road or doing administrative work either as a punishment or as a way for them to ride out the last of their time until they were able to retire. He said that instead, being an SRO should be a specialized, distinguished position that is highly sought after and respected. His position was that protecting children is of the utmost importance, so an SRO position should be reserved for the state’s very best officers and have a specialized training program.
Center for Safer Schools
Mike Anderson, Community Development and Training Manager of the NC Center for Safer Schools at DPI, spoke to the committee about his over 25 years of specialized study on school and mass shootings. He said that most schools are doing all they can to prepare their teachers and students, but it is still not enough. He argued for a more uniformed system across all counties. He also suggested a legislative change to include all charter schools in the public school safety requirements. In terms of law enforcement, he expressed to members what he sees as a serious need for more realistic critical response training.
School Resource Detective Program
A new program in Carteret County has caught the attention of members looking for innovative options to improve school safety. Sheriff Asa Buck of Carteret County told the committee about their innovative program to improve communication and efficiency in Carteret County school safety operations. The county established a School Resource Detective (SRD) to be a single point of contact for school officials and the community to identify threats to school. This SRD conducts investigations and works with all Carteret County SROs. Following the Parkland events, it was apparent a lot of information was available but it was not properly shared amongst law enforcement agencies. Sharing information among key partners, he explained, is incredibly important, but it is also a challenge. All relevant information is routed to to the county’s SRD. It is his responsibility to make sure it is investigated and all relevant parties are notified. Sheriff Buck requested funding to create this position and assigned a veteran detective from his office. Part of the program also allows the county communication center to have immediate access to the school camera feeds in case of an emergency so law enforcement can pinpoint the threat and address it quickly.
Sheriff Sam Page of Rockingham County also had a few suggestions for the working group. He expressed his hope that the legislature will consider additional funding for SROs through DPI in the very near future. He expressed that ideally he would like to see funding for a full-time paid SRO, dedicated to each public school in NC, along with more counselors and phycologists in the schools. He also suggested allowing former law enforcement officers or military police officers to volunteer as SROs. In his plan, these volunteers would go through training administered by the NC Justice Academy, answer to the county sheriff or city police chief, and have training in search and seizure, shooting, tactical drills, and active shooter response, among other qualifications.
Agriculture and Forestry
The Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Commission, in their last meeting of the interim, heard from the industrial hemp industry, from the Department of Ag’s Price-Scanning Inspection Program, and received legislative recommendations from the Department of Ag.
The Commission heard various industry perspectives on industrial hemp growth in NC. Bob Crumley, Chairman of the NC Industrial Hemp Association, Blake Butler, founder of HempX Asheville, Gary Sikes, President of Bio-Regen, and Marty Clemmons, President of the NC Industrial Hemp Association provided the Commission with information on the industrial hemp industry as well as testimony of their experiences since the industry began in NC in 2015. According to the presenters, NC is poised to become the national leader in the hemp industry. NC’s climate and soil conditions make it ideal for hemp growth. One of the hurdles the presenters said they need to clear is restrictive Federal regulation. US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Congressman Comer (R) from Kentucky are working to ease those restrictions with the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. The presenters asked for the Commission members to publicly support the Act. They also asked for the legislature’s help with building infrastructure the industry will need to thrive, including a food-grade seed cleaning facility.
The Commission voted to approve their legislative report, but Sen. Brent Jackson indicated there will be quite a few changes made to it before it is voted on this session. The bill will make multiple changes to agricultural laws, but Sen. Jackson said that it is a work in progress and the language will look very different before it is finalized.
A Look Ahead to Next Week
Monday, April 23
9:00 AM Select Committee on School Safety
Tuesday, April 24
9:00 AM Task Force on Sentencing Reforms for Opioid Drug Convictions
Wednesday, April 25
10:00 AM Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform
Thursday, April 26
9:30 AM Select Committee on North Carolina River Quality
Friday, April 27
9:30 AM Joint Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting