This week kept the House of Representatives busy with special House Select Committee meetings on Disaster Relief, School Safety, and North Carolina River Quality. There was also a joint meeting of the House and Senate for the Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission. Rounding things out with the executive branch, Governor Cooper’s Prison Reform Advisory Board had their first meeting as well.
Disaster Relief Ongoing for Much of NC
Much of the state is still dealing with damage from natural disasters, as was discussed Monday in the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief. The eastern part of NC is still dealing with fallout from Hurricane Matthew while the western part of the state grapples with lingering damage from past wildfires. The committee heard from various state agencies on how they are getting on with damage remediation.
A disaster recovery program report from David Williams, Deputy Director of Soil and Water Conservation, detailed the progress the Department of Agriculture has made with the 2016-2017 disaster relief appropriations. In total, they were allocated $21M for stream debris removal in counties impacted by Hurricane Matthew. They have made great headway on this project which included the destruction of 53 beaver dams. A total of $7.2M was allocated for agricultural pond repair in a program called AgWRAP. Farm road repair received $2M and pasture renovation received $1M. Leftover disaster funds are to be used to support voluntary swine buyout with a goal of removing five to ten active swine operations from the 100-year floodplain.
Statistics presented in the committee showed 2016 was a devastating year for wildfires in western NC. Just that fall, the state saw 1,107 wildfires with nearly 4,000 landowners directly affected and an estimated damaged timber value of over $3.5M. Some critical machinery was damaged battling the blazes and the fire service will be needing funding to help replace some aging bulldozers.
Department of Commerce
The committee heard a presentation on how the Department of Commerce appropriated $10M through the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016 to provide grants to local governments to repair or replace existing infrastructure as well as construct new infrastructure in areas outside the 100-year floodplain. Included in the construction were nonresidential buildings that serve the public water, sewer, storm drainage, and other public utilities and works.
Department of Transportation
The Department of Transportation presented their disaster relief efforts as well as how they prepare for disasters like Hurricane Matthew. They outlined their pre-storm, during the storm, and response and recovery efforts. They have a system of partnering divisions to shift resources to the areas that need it most which allows them to mobilize equipment and resources all over the state. They also run a critical 511 response and recovery call center. Financial recovery was discussed including FEMA fund reimbursement and Federal Highway Administration aid. In all, 97% of the roads and facilities damaged during Hurricane Matthew have been fixed.
Reform Discussed for Prison Safety
The Prison Reform Advisory Board, which is housed under the NC Department of Public Safety, held their first meeting Tuesday. Army Major General Beth Austin was appointed by Secretary Erik Hooks as the chairperson for the new board, which consists of eight experts in the field of corrections, all of whom were selected to serve by Sec. Hooks. The board was formed to provide ongoing expert advice on best practices for maintaining prison safety.
John Madler, Associate Director of the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, gave a history of sentencing in NC and the original goals the structured sentencing act. He also explained the Justice Reinvestment Act, which ensures mandatory supervision upon release if convicted of a felony, limits the length of a time a person can be incarcerated when he or she has violated a condition of probation supervision, empowers probation officers to use swift and certain jail sanctions in response to violations of conditions of supervision, and helps to divert misdemeanants from prison.
Michelle Hall, Executive Director of the NC Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission gave the committee a snapshot of the current prison population as well as some recent changes including moving DWIs out of prisons and some changes the NC General Assembly made to the felony punishment chart. Kenneth Lassiter, Director of Prisons, gave an overview of the NC Prison System including the organizational structure, inmate demographics, staff demographics, training, and health and staffing issues.
Incidents Audit Findings and Response
Pam Cashwell, Chief Deputy Secretary of Professional Standards Policy and Planning presented findings from the audit. She went over a few tragic incidents in the state’s prisons that resulted in the injury or death of corrections officers as well as lessons learned and new goals that came from those incidents. The corrections system is making changes to improve facility safety, utilize more communication tools, modernize training, focus on retention during recruitment, reduce contraband, enhance security policies, and fill staffing vacancies. The board will meet again this June to discuss next steps.
Select Committee on School Safety Covers Multitude of Issues
The House Select Committee on School Safety held their first meeting Wednesday with a full agenda. Numerous presentations were heard, including many from members of the Task Force for Safer Schools as well as from healthcare and public safety professionals.
State Bureau of Investigation
One of the many presentations heard was from Acting Special Agent in Charge Elliot Smith, Director of the Fusion Center. He provided a snapshot of statistics for NC’s schools including threats and incidents our school systems have seen over the last few years. There has been a dramatic uptick in school-related threats of violence since the tragic Parkland shooting, and Smith explained what the Fusion Center and the SBI are doing to help curtail those threats in NC. He also explained how social media is now taking a large role in these behaviors. He emphasized the importance of proactive measures to identify and stop the individuals who may make threats or carry out attacks before it ever happens.
Group Presentation from NC Center for Safer Schools
Multiple members from the NC Center for Safer Schools presented on the various components of their operation. The Center is an inter-agency collaboration housed within the NC Department of Public Instruction’s Division of Safe and Healthy Schools Support. Their main goals are to emphasize the value and need for School Resource Officers (SROs), encourage collaboration among agencies, and facilitate a better system of communication between students and school personnel. The presentation covered school risk and response management and the School Risk Management Planning (SRMP) tool, comprehensive school-based mental health, Speak Up NC (SPKUPNC), which is an app being piloted that provides an anonymous tip line to students, bullying legislation and protocol, the Student Tutoring and Mentoring Program (STAMP), and testimony from high school students who are involved in the Center.
Dr. Jim Deni, a school psychology trainer and past president of the NC School Psychology Association (NCSPA) presented on the problems facing students with psychological and mental health issues. He argued there is limited support for students with mental health, behavioral, and substance abuse problems in NC schools. One in five NC children have a mental health or substance abuse disorder and one in three adolescents have a mood or anxiety disorder, but up to 75% of those students will never receive treatment in the current school system. He also covered suicide statistics in the state explaining that suicide was the second leading cause of death among students ages 10-24 in NC. He outlined a few solutions including a balance between physical and psychological safety, proactive approaches, early intervention, trauma-sensitive school environments, anti-bullying initiatives, and importantly, access to a full continuum of mental, behavioral, and substance abuse services within all schools.
Committee members also discussed other options for increasing safety in schools such as arming teachers, providing funding for additional SROs, and funding more mental health professionals in schools. They also discussed “if you see something, say something” initiatives for students and retired law enforcement officers being trained to become volunteer armed guards.
House Continues Work on River Quality
On Thursday the House Select Committee on NC River Quality met again to hear multiple updates from the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). They received a presentation on the GenX update for environment, water resources, waste management, and air quality.
Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman went through a presentation updating the committee on GenX water measurements. She stated that there appears to be a correlation between storm water runoff and spikes in GenX in the water. The Department is in talks to help mitigate this and believes the spikes will phase out as a result of mitigation efforts. Filter installation is scheduled to begin this week and sampling data will be available online. Fish testing began this month and samples are still being analyzed.
Agriculture and Forestry Commission Meets
The Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission had a full agenda Thursday. Presenters covered property tax abatement for aging farm machinery, recommendations for changes to the NC Handler’s Act, an update on the activities of the Industrial Hemp Commission, and an update on the implementation of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
Industrial Hemp Update
Laura Kilian of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services presented an update on the activities of the Industrial Hemp Commission. The pilot program has shown very high interest levels but a number of challenges for growers, including soil types, pests, the drying process, and marketplace opportunities. Import permits are required in order to acquire the industrial hemp seed. She also detailed a few legislative recommendations including changing the definition for “certified seed” and adding a definition for “verified seed,” as well as setting fees in rule, not in statute.
A Look Ahead to Next Week
Monday, March 26
10:00 AM Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee
2:00 PM Committee to Study Rates and Transfers/Public Enterprises (LRC)
Wednesday, March 28
9:00 AM Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units
12:00 PM Committee on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (LRC)
1:00 PM Select Committee on Implementation of Building Code Regulatory Reform
1:00 PM Committee on Dispute Resolution Options for Homeowners, Associations and Governing Entities (LRC)