North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

April 8, 2022

Pardon Our Dust

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A clown car came to the General Assembly this week – sort of. Three joint oversight committees met this week to hear from department and division leaders about programs previously authorized by the legislature. Members of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee looked at photos and videos of rail cars that once belonged to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that caught on fire earlier this year. The oversight committees on General Government and Administrative Procedure also met earlier this week.

Transportation Oversight Committee

Members of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee met Thursday to hear presentations on a state asset purchased by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) in 2017. The asset, a set of nine railway cars previously owned by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was initially purchased by NCDOT for $383,000. The goal was to repurpose the railway cars into usable passenger cars on the Amtrak Piedmont line which makes daily trips from Raleigh to Charlotte. That plan was scrapped by the agency in late 2020 when they received a federal grant to order new cars instead. The cars were put on the state’s surplus property website to auction.

The railcars were left on an unused rail in a dense wooded area in Nash County. In March, four of the nine rail cars caught on fire. During Thursday’s presentation, Nash County Sheriff Chief Deputy Brandon Medina told legislators he suspected the cause of the fire was arson due to the discovery of two gas cans nearby. Lawmakers asked about the department’s plans for the remaining four cars. According to Jason Orther who oversees the NCDOT Rail Division, the department hopes to find a buyer by April 18. If no one places a bid by then, they will organize a live online auction.

Some legislators pressed the department to extricate. Senator Mike Woodard (D-Durham) said, “it’s time to just cut our losses and get rid of these things.” He jokingly said, “I’ll bring the marshmallows if somebody would bring the igniter.” Lawmakers brought up concerns about the potential of a future fire that diverts resources from local law enforcement and fire departments, and the potential of a forest fire or an injury if it were to catch fire again. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed House Bill 243: Budget Technical Corrections which spells out how a department like NCDOT should sell off surplus equipment, including the train cars. Senator Tom McInnis (R-Richmond) pressed the rail division to continue following that law.

General Government Oversight Committee

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on General Government met this week to hear presentations about programs to help struggling businesses and homeowners recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the committee heard from Andrew Furuseth with the Department of Revenue, and Scott Farmer who leads the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency. Both presenters spoke about the timelines for programs that were authorized by the General Assembly.

Furuseth presented on the Business Recovery Grant Program which was established through the state budget that was signed into law in November 2021. He told lawmakers that $280 million was disbursed in the first phase of the program which began in December 2021. Most of the funds went to businesses in the hospitality industry to cover 20% of their pandemic operating losses. The next phase of the program should launch on May 2, said Furuseth, which will be expanded to non-hospitality businesses that had received previous help. No businesses who received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans or state pandemic relief aid were eligible in the first phase of the program. Lawmakers said they had heard from businesses in their districts who could benefit from this program and implored the department to provide them with information and social media messaging to help their offices disseminate the program’s details to their constituents.

Likewise, the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency manages the North Carolina Homeowner Assistance Fund and the Workforce Housing Loan Program. The state budget appropriated additional funds to both programs to help struggling homeowners. Payments for the Homeowner Assistance Fund do not go directly to a mortgage payer but rather to a lender or tax agency to prevent foreclosure. Because foreclosures were halted throughout most of the pandemic due to state and federal moratoriums on foreclosures, Farmer indicated that most applicants are just now becoming eligible.

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

Monday, April 11

1:30PM: Joint Legislative Committee on Access to Healthcare and Medicaid Expansion

Tuesday, April 12

10:00AM: Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services
2:00PM: Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice

Wednesday, April 13

1:00PM: Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Capital Improvements
1:00PM: Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety