N.C. Republican lawmakers move to shrink state's environmental agency

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverMarch 24, 2011 

RALEIGH — There is a move in the Republican-controlled legislature to downsize and make more business-friendly the state's leading environmental agency, a move that has set off alarms among environmentalists.

A measure moving through the Senate would strip the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) of several of its functions. And Senate budget writers are considering further downsizing measures.

Lawmakers have also begun holding hearings across the state to review the state's rules and regulations, with environmental regulations a particular area of interest.

"I'd like to see DENR downsized," said Sen. Don East, a Republican from Pilot Mountain and co-chairman of the budget committee that controls DENR's purse strings. "I'd like to see them be a kinder, gentler agency. I'd like to see DENR be a help, not a hindrance to business and industry."

The Republican push is likely to win some backing in the business community, but it has caused concern among environmentalists and their allies.

"What I perceive is a generalized attack on all parts of DENR," said Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill, the House Democratic leader, who has longtime ties to the environmental movement. "There are some people who want to dismantle it and reduce it to little or nothing. There are others who want to neuter its regulatory side, which the public will not like. The public places a high value on clean water and clean air."

Environmental regulation has long been a target of conservatives, particularly in Washington, where Republicans often portray the Environmental Protection Agency as overreaching.

In North Carolina, many federal environmental regulations - as well as the state regulations - are managed by DENR.

The debate comes at a time when the state faces a $2.4 billion budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1, and lawmakers want to reorganize state government as a way to save money. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue announced her own reorganization plan in December, and she is expected to put elements of that plan into place shortly.

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