By J. Andrew Curliss
Leading lawmakers in the House and Senate would cut off any new state funding to the troubled N.C. Rural Economic Development Center as part of settling the next state budget.
In striking a deal to wind up budget negotiations, legislators announced Sunday they are steering the state toward a new approach on rural assistance.
They would cut off the Rural Center from a proposed $36 million in the next two years -- an amount sought by the House.
Instead, using about that same amount of money, they would create several new initiatives under the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory that have traditionally been a focus of the taxpayer-funded but nonprofit Rural Center.
* A new Rural Economic Development Division in the state Department of Commerce that would focus on rural needs. It would receive $24.2 million over the next two years and its mission would include grant making. It would also handle a one-time $350,000 to assist with extending broadband connections to rural areas.
* A new Water Infrastructure Authority. It would address critical water needs in rural counties. It would receive $9.5 million over the next two years.
* A new Limited Resource Communities grant program. It would be a competitive grant program for rural areas and would be funded with $2.5 million in the second year of the two-year state budget.
In joint news releases, House and Senate officials said the idea would provide more accountability and invest in a "streamlined and efficient program where our rural communities can get support and resources they need without regard to political connections."
A News & Observer series last month documented a host of problems at the Rural Center, which was created by lawmakers in 1987, including how political influence steered some grants.
A state audit last week found a lack of adequate grant monitoring and a lack of internal financial controls, but auditors said they did not conduct a broader performance review.
The McCrory administration last week halted the Rural Center from spending state money, citing the audit and the center's response to the audit, which State Auditor Beth Wood said was inaccurate.