Pardon Our Dust
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This week kept the House of Representatives busy with special House SelectCommittee meetings on Disaster Relief, School Safety, and North CarolinaRiver Quality. There was also a joint meeting of the House and Senate forthe Agriculture and Forestry Awareness Study Commission. Rounding thingsout with the executive branch, Governor Cooper’s Prison Reform AdvisoryBoard 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, aswas discussed Monday in the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief. Theeastern part of NC is still dealing with fallout from Hurricane Matthewwhile the western part of the state grapples with lingering damage frompast wildfires. The committee heard from various state agencies on how theyare getting on with damage remediation.
A disaster recovery programreportfrom David Williams, Deputy Director of Soil and Water Conservation,detailed the progress the Department of Agriculture has made with the2016-2017 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 destructionof 53 beaver dams. A total of $7.2M was allocated for agricultural pondrepair in a program called AgWRAP. Farm road repair received $2M andpasture renovation received $1M. Leftover disaster funds are to be used tosupport voluntary swine buyout with a goal of removing five to ten activeswine operations from the 100-year floodplain.
Statisticspresentedin the committee showed 2016 was a devastating year for wildfires inwestern NC. Just that fall, the state saw 1,107 wildfires with nearly 4,000landowners directly affected and an estimated damaged timber value of over$3.5M. Some critical machinery was damaged battling the blazes and the fireservice will be needing funding to help replace some aging bulldozers.
Department of Commerce
The committee heard apresentationon how the Department of Commerce appropriated $10M through the DisasterRecovery Act of 2016 to provide grants to local governments to repair orreplace existing infrastructure as well as construct new infrastructure inareas outside the 100-year floodplain. Included in the construction werenonresidential buildings that serve the public water, sewer, stormdrainage, and other public utilities and works.
Department of Transportation
The Department of Transportationpresentedtheir disaster relief efforts as well as how they prepare for disasterslike Hurricane Matthew. They outlined their pre-storm, during the storm,and response and recovery efforts. They have a system of partneringdivisions to shift resources to the areas that need it most which allowsthem to mobilize equipment and resources all over the state. They also runa critical 511 response and recovery call center. Financial recovery wasdiscussed including FEMA fund reimbursement and Federal HighwayAdministration aid. In all, 97% of the roads and facilities damaged duringHurricane Matthew have been fixed.
Reform Discussed for Prison Safety
ThePrison Reform Advisory Board, which is housed under the NC Department of Public Safety, held theirfirst meeting Tuesday. Army Major General Beth Austin was appointed bySecretary Erik Hooks as the chairperson for the new board, which consistsof eight experts in the field of corrections, all of whom were selected toserve by Sec. Hooks. The board was formed to provide ongoing expert adviceon best practices for maintaining prison safety.
John Madler, Associate Director of the NC Sentencing and Policy AdvisoryCommission, gave a history of sentencing in NC and the original goals thestructured 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 hasviolated a condition of probation supervision, empowers probation officersto use swift and certain jail sanctions in response to violations ofconditions of supervision, and helps to divert misdemeanants from prison.
Michelle Hall, Executive Director of the NC Sentencing and Policy AdvisoryCommission gave the committee a snapshot of the current prison populationas well as some recent changes including moving DWIs out of prisons andsome changes the NC General Assembly made to the felony punishment chart.Kenneth Lassiter, Director of Prisons, gave an overview of the NC PrisonSystem including the organizational structure, inmate demographics, staffdemographics, training, and health and staffing issues.
Incidents Audit Findings and Response
Pam Cashwell, Chief Deputy Secretary of Professional Standards Policy andPlanning presented findings from the audit. She went over a few tragicincidents in the state’s prisons that resulted in the injury or death ofcorrections officers as well as lessons learned and new goals that camefrom those incidents. The corrections system is making changes to improvefacility safety, utilize more communication tools, modernize training,focus on retention during recruitment, reduce contraband, enhance securitypolicies, and fill staffing vacancies. The board will meet again this Juneto discuss next steps.
Select Committee on School Safety Covers Multitude of Issues
The House Select Committee on School Safety held their first meetingWednesday with a full agenda. Numerouspresentationswere heard, including many from members of the Task Force for Safer Schoolsas well as from healthcare and public safety professionals.
State Bureau of Investigation
One of the manypresentationsheard was from Acting Special Agent in Charge Elliot Smith, Director of theFusion Center. He provided a snapshot of statistics for NC’s schoolsincluding threats and incidents our school systems have seen over the lastfew years. There has been a dramatic uptick in school-related threats ofviolence since the tragic Parkland shooting, and Smith explained what theFusion Center and the SBI are doing to help curtail those threats in NC. Healso explained how social media is now taking a large role in thesebehaviors. He emphasized the importance of proactive measures to identifyand stop the individuals who may make threats or carry out attacks beforeit ever happens.
Group Presentation from NC Center for Safer Schools
Multiple members from theNC Center for Safer Schoolspresentedon the various components of their operation. The Center is an inter-agencycollaboration housed within the NC Department of Public Instruction’sDivision of Safe and Healthy Schools Support. Their main goals are toemphasize the value and need for School Resource Officers (SROs), encouragecollaboration among agencies, and facilitate a better system ofcommunication between students and school personnel. The presentationcovered school risk and response management and the School Risk ManagementPlanning (SRMP) tool, comprehensive school-based mental health, Speak Up NC(SPKUPNC), which is an app being piloted that provides an anonymous tipline to students, bullying legislation and protocol, the Student Tutoringand Mentoring Program (STAMP), and testimony from high school students whoare involved in the Center.
Dr. Jim Deni, a school psychology trainer and past president of the NCSchool Psychology Association (NCSPA)presentedon the problems facing students with psychological and mental healthissues. He argued there is limited support for students with mental health,behavioral, and substance abuse problems in NC schools. One in five NCchildren have a mental health or substance abuse disorder and one in threeadolescents have a mood or anxiety disorder, but up to 75% of thosestudents will never receive treatment in the current school system. He alsocovered suicide statistics in the state explaining that suicide was thesecond leading cause of death among students ages 10-24 in NC. He outlineda few solutions including a balance between physical and psychologicalsafety, proactive approaches, early intervention, trauma-sensitive schoolenvironments, anti-bullying initiatives, and importantly, access to a fullcontinuum of mental, behavioral, and substance abuse services within allschools.
Committee members also discussed other options for increasing safety inschools such as arming teachers, providing funding for additional SROs, andfunding more mental health professionals in schools. They also discussed“if you see something, say something” initiatives for students and retiredlaw 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 tohear multiple updates from the NC Department of Environmental Quality(DEQ). They received apresentationon the GenX update for environment, water resources, waste management, andair quality.
Assistant Secretary Sheila Holman went through a presentation updating thecommittee on GenX water measurements. She stated that there appears to be acorrelation between storm water runoff and spikes in GenX in the water. TheDepartment is in talks to help mitigate this and believes the spikes willphase out as a result of mitigation efforts. Filter installation isscheduled 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 agendaThursday. Presenters coveredproperty tax abatementfor aging farm machinery,recommendationsfor changes to the NC Handler’s Act, an update on the activities of theIndustrial Hemp Commission, and an update on the implementation of thefederal Food Safety Modernization Act.
Industrial Hemp Update
Laura Kilian of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Servicespresented an update on the activities of the Industrial Hemp Commission. The pilotprogram has shown very high interest levels but a number of challenges forgrowers, including soil types, pests, the drying process, and marketplaceopportunities. Import permits are required in order to acquire theindustrial hemp seed. She also detailed a few legislative recommendationsincluding changing the definition for “certified seed” and adding adefinition for “verified seed,” as well as setting fees in rule, not instatute.
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 SchoolAdministrative Units
12:00 PM Committee on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (LRC)
1:00 PM Select Committee on Implementation of Building Code RegulatoryReform
1:00 PM Committee on Dispute Resolution Options for Homeowners,Associations and Governing Entities (LRC)