With the exception of a fourth-grade field trip that I don’t really remember because someone brought a Game Boy, I’d never been in the hallowed halls of the General Assembly. The place is hoppin’. Packs of lobbyists and representatives of numerous professions streamed down the halls. I saw physicians in white coats, Realtors and Fire Chiefs in full dress. I even saw Kevin Bryant!
Our delegation included TJCOG Executive Director Kirby Bowers — former manager of Loudon County, Virginia — TJCOG Assistant Executive Director Renee Boyette; Johnston County Commissioner Jeffrey Carver; Chatham County Commissioner Mike Cross; and Raleigh Councilman Thomas Crowder. We scored face time with state Senators and Representatives that we hope will support our goals, particularly the passage of the NC Sustainable Communities Task Force Bill (H1701). There were a few we couldn’t get a sit-down with, so we ambushed them at lunch.
The Sustainable Communities bill probably won’t fly through the General Assembly given all the budget woes the state is currently facing, but if it passes, it’ll form an interagency task force and provide a pot of money that COGs can use to draw down some federal funding.
Let me explain…
Last June, the Federal Government created a partnership between the DOT, HUD and EPA to help improve access to affordable housing, offer more affordable transportation options and protect the environment. The idea is pretty simple: All these organizations affect each other, so they should work together. New housing affects the environment, and people have to get to work, right?
The Sustainable Communities bill does the same thing at a state level. It creates an interagency task force of DENR, DOT, Commerce, Public Health and Administration. Plus — and here’s where the legislators get fidgety — it provides the task force with $500,000.
But this ain’t walking-around money. The Federal Government is offering more than $100 million in grants to fund sustainable community efforts. And like most grants, these will require matches. No guidelines have been released, but the grants should be about $2 million a piece, so the match won’t be small. Each COG can use a piece of the $500K to provide that match and leverage a substantial chunk of federal money to fund their programs.
Basically, Passage of bill = Task force and $ Money $ = COG Grant = Utopian Society.
There are some major challenges. The government will probably only dole out about 50 grants nationwide, and even though official applications haven’t been released, I’ve heard that there have already been more than 1,000 funding requests from across the nation. Also, some pretty powerful parties in NC oppose the bill because it involves development.
Legislators are already under intense pressure to keep the budget as lean as they can, and they’re all aware that Federal stimulus funding disappears next year, so the state could be hit by another recession if the economy isn’t chugging along when the training wheels are kicked off. Every penny counts.
Rep. Jennifer Weiss — UNC Alum! — and Sen. Floyd McKissick — MRCP Alum! — chair the Urban Growth and Infrastructure Study Commission, which produced the legislation, and were the most passionate supporters of the bill. Speaker Joe Hackney also seemed to back it, though he’s a hard guy to read. I guess time will tell.