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N.C. budget brings benefits to area

More doctors-in-training for Western North Carolina, money to solve the “doughnut hole” in DuPont State Forest, preserving historic tax credits, land conservation funding and the possibility of construction money for community colleges are among the positives for Henderson County in the state budget and bond issue as the state legislative session winds down, local lawmakers said.

State Sen. Tom Apodaca and Rep. Chuck McGrady were top architects of the $21.7 billion budget — Apodaca as second-in-command in the Senate and McGrady as one of the chief budget drafters in the House.
“Honestly I think it’s a good budget,” Apodaca said Wednesday, hours after the Senate gave its final approval. “I know we always say that but I think it’s a pretty decent budget. We are building reserves in the rain day fund. We didn’t spend all the surplus. We gave a decent raise or step increase. We funded teacher assistants and drivers ed.”
In negotiations over the K-12 public education budget, the House and Senate finally agreed on teaching assistants and drivers ed, which the Senate budget had eliminated. The Senate prevailed on tax cuts and a sales tax redistribution formula that shifts money from urban to rural counties by holding the bigger counties at zero growth.
“It’s a compromise,” McGrady said of the budget. “Neither the House nor the Senate got everything it wanted. Some of the highest priorities of the House were to fully fund teacher assistants and continuation of drivers ed.”
The House is expected to approve the conference report by Friday after the Senate adopted the measure in a 37-13 vote.

Among the highlights for Henderson County and the surrounding counties are:

  • A $16 million appropriations over two years to fund a program through the Mountain Area Health Education Center that recruits physicians for their residency. “The residents that come through Western North Carolina, 60 to 70 percent of them stay in Western North Carolina,” Apodaca said. “That’s what we liked about it.”
  • Construction money for Blue Ridge Community College. Now in the final stages of negotiations, a bond issue could authorize up to $2 billion in borrowing for universities, community colleges, water and sewer projects and potentially parks. If voters approve the bond issue in November, BRCC could receive $5-10 million for construction, Apodaca said. The bond issue would not include highway construction money, which Apodaca said was resolved by a Senate move to allocate $400 million a year for roads, or K-12 schools.
  • Sales tax money. Henderson County would gain $488,000 under the new sales tax formula. Other gains are Flat Rock, $5,000; Fletcher, $23,000; Hendersonville, $49,000; Laurel Park, $9,000; and Mills River, $6,000.
  • Historic tax credits. The city of Hendersonville had strongly supported the preservation of the tax credits, which help underwrite the cost of renovating historic structures for reuse. The availability of the tax credits could help a project like the Grey Hosiery Mill.
  • Money for land preservation and parks. “Most of my effort you’ll see is money that has been added back,” he said, including more funding for Clean Water Management Trust Fund and for the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The House added $5 million to the PARTF, which has awarded grants over the past five years to Henderson County, Hendersonville, Flat Rock and Mills River. Hendersonville, Flat Rock and Mills River all have pending applications at PARTF for funding in the 2015 cycle.

McGrady, a former president of the National Sierra Club, tends to specialize in land conservation.
“I am maybe the only big chair on the Appropriations Committee that can say with a straight face that there’s no earmarks in that bill that I put there,” he said. “I will admit to complicity in an allocation of $250,000 for an unnamed potential National Guard area in a state forest,” a reference to DuPont State Forest and the effort state leaders have been working on to buy the privately owned “hole in the doughnut” for public use. The money is to “cover the National Guard’s cost related to whatever it might be planning to do on the plant site at DuPont.”
McGrady said he had no other details on the guard’s plans, noting that state Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, had been working on the effort with state agencies.
“The National Guard, the Division of Emergency Services and Division of Forestry could all benefit from something that puts a functional use to state owned land,” he said. The training center “over time will bring more jobs to the area” and will also prepare first responders for rescues. “I appreciate the hard work of both Rep. McGrady and Sen. Apodaca for their help in shaping the budget.”
Overall, “I’m pleased with it,” Whitmire said of the budget. “We funded teacher assistants and drivers ed. We were able to give our Highway Patrol and corrections officers, clerks of court and magistrates some long overdue attention to their pay – those are huge things that have been for various reasons for a number of years needing some attention.”
Trimming the personal income tax and raising the standard deduction for families should help families, he added.
Next up for the Legislature after it finishes the budget this week are major bills on the bond issue, incentives to recruit job-creating industries and Medicaid reform and a decision on setting next year's presidential primary. The primary is likely to be moved up from May to March. In a major change affecting down-ballot races, the primary election for state and local offices would likely move to March, too, Apodaca said.