The political hardball shadowing the 2019-2020 state budget negotiations may have struck out the $42.2 million funding request for renovating the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem.
However, a limited local wish list for projects appears to have avoided the same fate.
According to members of the Forsyth County legislative delegations, Republican leaders tied the Stevens Center funding to all six members agreeing to two pivotal stances.
They had to not only support the budget compromise.
They also had to commit to overriding an expected veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, which he exercised June 28.
Democratic House members Derwin Montgomery and Evelyn Terry declined to make the deal.
Meanwhile, a combined $21.8 million dedicated to seven local projects was kept in the budget compromise released June 25.
The biggest is the $15.02 million pledged in 2019-20 for a new regional autopsy center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
The 21,000-square-foot autopsy center would be built on vacant land on the Clarkson campus, near the Wake Forest primate center in southern Forsyth County. The total project cost is $19.8 million, with Wake Forest Baptist contributing at least $2.2 million.
Also surviving is a $5.2 million appropriation for the Forsyth County Veterans Home from the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs Department.
The other projects are: $500,000 over two years to ABC of North Carolina; $500,000 over two years to Salvation Army of Greater Winston-Salem; $400,000 over two years for Salem Pregnancy Care Center; $100,000 for the Enrichment Center for 2019-20; and $100,000 for Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance for 2020-21.
The Salem Pregnancy center is one of five statewide receiving funding for what the budget supplement referred to as “providing care to women experiencing a crisis pregnancy.”
Some analysts have said the Salem Pregnancy funding was meant as a counter to Planned Parenthood operations.
Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and the lead House budget writer, said “I think Forsyth got as much as was asked for with the two big exceptions and the Wake Forest University project for veterans, which was not funded in either budget.”
Lambeth was referring to the potential for $10 million in state funding to revamp the veterans memorial at the entrance to Joel Coliseum, renaming the main entrance as Veterans Plaza, and the $15.1 million toward renovating the Hauser building at Winston-Salem State University.
Legislators from Forsyth and Guilford counties introduced the Joel Coliseum-focused House Bill 922 on April 25. There was an expectation that the language would be added to the House budget proposal similar to how the Stevens Center legislation was included.
However, HB922 was not inserted, and it has not been heard in committee.
The money would go to the War Memorial Foundation, which created the Carolina Field of Honor at Triad Park in Kernersville as a memorial to veterans.
Wake Forest officials described the project as a partnership between the university as owner of the coliseum, the War Memorial Foundation and the LJVM Community Advisory Committee. The formal name of the coliseum is the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“The legislation never did gain much support,” Lambeth said. “In part, some legislators viewed it as just a Wake Forest project and they are a private university.
“So when the normal priorities were done within the funds available, they were low on the list. I believe it was more about the fact they were not a state facility than any other issue.”
This won’t mean the end of the project for Wake Forest.
“With the encouragement of Rep. Donny Lambeth, we plan to continue to work with the War Memorial Foundation and will make the request for 2020,” said Steve Shutt, associate athletic director, athletic communications for Wake Forest.
Although the budget compromise listed the Hauser building renovation and expansion as a future project, there are no monies included for the next two years.
That means it is up to a future General Assembly to follow through on the funding.
Rep. Derwin Montgomery, D-Forsyth, said the funding pledge rings hollow to him.
“It looks good on paper, but it’s not a real commitment,” Montgomery said.
The Senate budget proposal lacked $200 million in N.C. Education Bond capital allocations because the Senate did not approve the bond, according to Bill D’Elia, spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. The $42 million for the Stevens Center is part of the bond.
UNC School of the Arts owns the 77,500-square-foot Stevens Center.
House Bill 494, focused on Stevens Center funding, cleared just one of four committees since being introduced March 27.
Rep. Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth, said June 25 that “unfortunately, some members decided that allegiance to the governor was more important than a significant economic development project for Winston-Salem and a first-class training facility for UNCSA.”
“I am deeply disappointed, but I am committed to pursuing funding in the 2020 short session.”
Montgomery said June 25 that “I can’t tell you specifically why the Stevens Center was chosen as the key negotiating tool.”
Jim DeCristo, UNCSA’s vice chancellor for economic development and chief of staff, said the university is “disappointed that funding to renovate the Stevens Center was not included in the compromise budget, but we’re grateful to our Forsyth delegates for their advocacy.”
“We will continue to pursue all avenues for support, both public and private. The Stevens Center remains our top capital priority, and we are hopeful for future funding opportunities.”
Looking for votes
Even if all House and Senate Republicans support a veto override, they still need the votes of at least one Senate Democrat and seven House Democrats.
Given that four Senate Democrats voted for the budget compromise, the onus on upholding Cooper’s veto may depend on House Democrats holding firm.
“I would approach analysis of legislative pork in a different way,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.
“Rather than look at big counties ‘losing’ pork projects, look at the locations where pork actually flowed in the budget.
“There seems to be at least some correlation between these types of projects and the Democrats who were targeted for yes votes on the budget,” Kokai said. “Most of those Democrats live in rural eastern districts, rather than the larger urban counties.”
Among the capital projects cited by analysts as being potentially influenced by the budget debate is a combined $28 million over two years toward construction of a $215 million medical school at East Carolina University.
Support for the ECU Brody medical school project already had been made conditional by GOP legislative leaders.
They wanted a pledge that ECU would not breach an agreement allowing the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors to appoint at least 45% of the medical school’s board of trustees.
Rep. Kandie Smith and Sen. Don Davis are Democratic representatives from Pitt County. Davis voted for the budget compromise.
The Daily Reflector of Greenville reported that Smith is the subject of dueling billboards — one supporting the state budget, the other supporting the governor’s veto of that budget.
“This is politics. I guess everyone wants to make sure I hear their voice,” Smith told the newspaper.
Progress NC Action, a left-leaning advocacy group, said its billboard campaign in Cumberland, Guilford, Hoke, Pitt and Wayne counties is “aimed at urging some wavering House Democrats to support public schools by upholding Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the Republican state budget.”
Another capital project cited by analysts as potentially influenced by the budget compromise is $2.5 million for a crime laboratory at Elizabeth City State University.
The university is in the district of Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, who was the lone House Democrat to vote for the compromise.
Hunter was quoted in The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City as saying “I’m not telling anybody what I’m doing. I’m not telling the Democrats and I’m not telling the Republicans. I’m still negotiating. I don’t want anybody to know how I’m going to vote.”
Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, also voted for the compromise. He told the Fayetteville Observer it’s clear that special projects for his district that include $15.1 million over two years for a Civil War & Reconstruction History Center and $1.5 million for a Martin Luther King Jr. Park “could be gone” if Cooper’s veto is sustained and new budget negotiations commence.
“Bottom line, I don’t like the budget,” Floyd said, citing his desire for higher pay for state employee and Medicaid expansion.
“But when you look at over $100 million collected in projects — needed projects — sometimes you just got to look at it from a different perspective,” Floyd said.
Sen. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland, told the Fayetteville newspaper that while his vote in favor of the compromise was to support residents of his district, “I will stand firmly with Gov. Cooper to fight for the inclusion of Medicaid expansion and more funding for education.”
Cooper is insisting that some form of Medicaid expansion be included in the budget, along with additional education and environmental funding.
Montgomery said that even though other Democratic legislators have been presented with similar funding choices in the budget compromise, “I believe there will be enough support to uphold the governor’s veto in the House.”
Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, has said securing about $3 million in state funding for 12 High Point-area projects persuaded him to support the budget compromise. It is not clear whether Brockman would vote to override Cooper’s veto.
Those projects include: $1 million for the John Coltrane Jazz and Blues Festival; $250,000 each for the High Point Arts Council and High Point Preservation Society; and $100,000 apiece for High Point-based social or economic programs, including D-Up, Greater High Point Food Alliance, Growing High Point and the Southwest Renewal Foundation.
“This was a difficult decision, and one that may be seen as politically unpopular,” Brockman told the News & Record when discussing his budget vote.
“However, when I was elected to the House of Representatives, I vowed to work for the people of my district and do what is best for them.”
Altogether, the News & Record reported there is more than $43 million in spending for special programs, projects and initiatives across Guilford County in the budget compromise, headlined by the first $10 million toward an $84 million renovation of UNC Greensboro’s Jackson Library; almost $28 million in construction and new programs at N.C. A&T State University and $7.7 million for a new mental health crisis center affiliated with Cone Health.
The N.C. A&T funding and tornado disaster relief funding persuaded Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, to vote for the budget compromise.
However, Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, told N.C. Policy Watch that he was confident Senate Democrats would vote to uphold Cooper’s veto.
Patrick McHugh, policy analyst with left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said “it’s no secret that leaders in the legislature are trying to buy votes on the budget by funding pet projects in members’ home districts.”
“Clearly budget writers are resorting to some old political tricks to get around the fact that their spending plan fails to close the Medicaid coverage gap and gives even more tax breaks to big corporations that don’t need them.”
firstname.lastname@example.org 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.