A bipartisan education bill passed in the Senate Friday ensures that nearly $58 million provided to Gov. Roy Cooper for environmental projects from energy companies involved in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, following the approval of a permit to move forward with the project from the state, will go to education funding in the areas affected by the pipeline.
The bill, HB90, was approved by nine Democrat senators joining the 28 Republican senators present on Friday morning.
Cooper announced the fund on Jan. 26, the same day that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved the water permit for the project to move forward, months ahead of the expected timeline, allowing construction to begin on the project. The timing caused some lawmakers and media outlets to question whether the fund was a bribe to get the project moving.
Legislators also questioned why the fund would be under the control of the governor, and not the legislative body, which directs how funds are spent in the state.
“Gov. Cooper’s deal looks like a payment-for-permit and doesn’t pass the smell test, and the right thing to do is to take this ‘voluntary contribution’ to the state and use it to fund the educational needs of children in the poor, rural communities impacted by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Brown (R-Onslow) said.
Brown co-chairs the Senate Appropriations/Base Budget Committee.
Cooper’s public relations team has however characterized the fund as a “voluntary contribution” drawing parallels to the fund formerly under Cooper’s control as attorney general for environmental research and projects funded by hog farmers in the state under the Smithfield Foods agreement.
A legal challenge calling for those funds to go to the Public School fund by the Civitas Institute and the New Hanover County School Board was shot down in court last year.
A three-page memorandum of understanding on the fund says the money will be held in escrow by a third party the governor picks and that the money will be spent on environmental mitigation, economic development and renewable energy projects along the pipeline’s route, with the details of how the money is to be spent to be hammered out later, vie executive order from the governor.
The money for the fund is set to come from Duke Power and Dominion Energy.
The legislation passed in the Senate splits the funds up between the school districts in the affected counties, which include, Cumberland, Halifax, Johnston, Nash, Northampton, Robeson, Sampson, and Wilson counties.
There is also funding set aside for the Roanoke Rapids, Weldon City and Clinton City school districts within the affected counties.
According to a release from Senate Leader Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), “House Bill 90 ensures that students and families impacted by the placement of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline receive the direct benefit of Cooper’s special fund. The roughly $58 million will be distributed to eight eastern North Carolina counties, partly on the basis of the number of students in each district and partly on the miles of pipeline
going through the district.
“State and federal law already requires utilities building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to meet environmental mitigation requirements before the project can receive approval.”
The legislation was approved in a bill including language regarding phasing in smaller class size limits in the state to ensure higher teacher-to-student ratios and enhancement teacher allotments.
The legislation has been calendared in the House for the Feb. 13 session on Tuesday.