RALEIGH, N.C. — Republican legislative leaders agreed Wednesday with Gov. Pat McCrory that there’s no need for the North Carolina General Assembly to reconvene now to address Hurricane Matthew’s destruction, potentially by tapping into the state’s savings reserves.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger cited McCrory’s comments that emergency officials believe there will be enough money available to cover immediate needs and repairs through early next year.
There was nearly $18 million in the two funds as of Wednesday, according to McCrory’s office. President Barack Obama’s federal disaster declaration more than one-third of North Carolina’s counties also means more financial assistance ultimately heading to state and local governments, individuals and businesses.
McCrory said Tuesday he would call lawmakers back if conditions change, but that there are sufficient resources to get by through February for now. The legislature begins its two-year session in January.
Several Democratic legislators from eastern North Carolina have called for McCrory to hold a special session, possibly within the next seven to 10 days, saying their constituents are hurting and the $18 million won’t go very far. They want to approve legislation to let McCrory spend from the state’s $1.6 billion savings reserve while awaiting federal disaster funds.
“Our state response should be swift and it should be substantial,” Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, who represents part of hard-hit Fayetteville, said Wednesday at a Legislative Building news conference. “Let’s come back to Raleigh and give the people some hope that they and their communities can indeed recover from this catastrophe.”
In December 1999, then-Gov. Jim Hunt called back lawmakers to approve an $836 million recovery package three months following Hurricane Floyd, whose flooding has been compared with Matthew’s destruction. One-third of funds back then came from the state’s savings.
More storm damage is ahead — the Tar and Neuse rivers had yet to crest Wednesday in Greenville and Kinston.
“It would be imprudent to try to determine long-term needs until floodwaters recede and immediate threats to safety are controlled,” Berger and Moore said in a news release praising McCrory’s storm response so far.
Moore said in an interview state agencies already had available funds to address recovery needs and could be reimbursed for any shortfalls through the savings reserve during the 2017 work session. McCrory can also use emergency powers to shift around money for operating government toward the storm response.
The 1999 Floyd package included money to put displaced residents in permanent housing, match federal disaster spending, and help small business owners, farmers and commercial fishermen.
Funding the hurricane response has entered the fall gubernatorial campaign.
Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is challenging McCrory, criticized the governor at their debate Tuesday for a law that took $500,000 from a disaster recovery fund to help the governor with legal fees associated with defending House Bill 2, which limits non-discrimination rules for LGBT people.
McCrory let the budget-cleanup bill become law without his signature because he didn’t like that transfer and has said he won’t use the $500,000 for legal fees.
Cooper told reporters after the debate McCrory should have vetoed the bill. Otherwise, he said, “it sends the wrong signal to the people in our state.”
McCrory and his campaign have focused on recent comments by Cooper raising concerns about Republicans focusing on building up the savings reserve so high at a time when public education needs remain great. The reserve, commonly known as the “rainy-day fund,” fell during the Great Recession and was at $150 million in early 2011, when Republicans took over the legislature.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a lot of rain lately,” McCrory said during the debate. “It’s responsible fiscal responsibility.”
Asked whether Cooper supports a special session for Matthew, campaign spokesman Jamal Little said Wednesday in an email “we need to keep all options open as we go forward.”