Commentary, News

This Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

McCrory-Medicaid1. Misleading Medicaid rhetoric instead of expansion

One of the most frustrating things about this General Assembly session was once again what lawmakers did not do.

They actively chose not to join the 31 other states that have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, not to provide health care coverage for several hundred thousand low-income adults who are currently uninsured, not to create thousands of jobs over the next ten years and not to help struggling local hospitals stay open.

Gov. Pat McCrory has waffled some about expanding Medicaid but never come up with a plan. Legislative leaders have remained steadfastly opposed, putting their dislike of President Obama above access to health care for people they represent and the jobs expansion could create.

That doesn’t mean legislative leaders didn’t talk about Medicaid this year. They talked about it plenty, repeatedly touting the merits of the “reform” plan they passed last year and boasting of an unprecedented surplus in the Medicaid budget thanks of course to the decisions they made and the stellar management of McCrory’s Department of Health and Human Services. [Continue reading…]

wb-flag7192. Making our state and nation “safe again”
Despite claims in some corners, big talk, limiting rights and ever more killing machines are not the answer

The recent horrific episodes of murder and violence that have struck the western world have clearly sent shockwaves through the body politic. Whether it’s in the United States, France or any number of other nations, millions of people are rightfully horrified at the senseless killing and understandably fearful that they or someone they love might somehow fall victim – be it to a law enforcement officer with a racial or ethnic bias or a suicidal killer with a twisted worldview. Add in the festering divisions of race, religion and politics that afflict our society these days (and that the killings have helped accentuate) and it’s no surprise that so many people feel a profound sense of anger and sadness and a deep desire for normalcy and “safety.”

Given this backdrop, it’s also no surprise that elected leaders and politicians have been seeking to address the matter – some helpfully and some not so much. Lately, speaking at tragedies and comforting victims seems to be the main vehicle by which President Obama addresses the nation. In Congress, the mostly powerless Democrats got more publicity for their recent effort to force votes on the passage of gun safety legislation than just about anything else they’ve done in months. Meanwhile, politicians of both parties have been rattling sabers in an effort to appear tough vis-a-vis perceived threats – both real and imagined, foreign and domestic. [Continue reading…]

Secretary Donald van der Vaart3. Dissecting the McCrory administration’s defense of the new state coal ash law
A detailed look at what DEQ officials claim and what they leave out in their new video

The state’s coal ash crisis is under control.

That’s what the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality wants viewers to believe, in a recently released a five-and-a-half minute video on the agency’s website and YouTube channel.

In the video, Secretary Donald van der Vaart and Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder tout what they view as protective provisions in the new coal ash law that Governor McCrory signed earlier this month. However, while the presentation is in many ways factual, it’s not necessarily truthful. Omissions of fact, slippery language, and industry jargon combine for misleading reassurances that North Carolinians are protected by the full force of the law.

Van der Vaart plays the good cop, telling viewers that the law establishes firm deadlines for providing water connections to households and businesses with wells contaminated by chemicals and compounds found in coal ash. What van der Vaart doesn’t say is that Duke Energy has as late as the fall of 2019 to connect those households, and that he, as Secretary, has the power to extend deadlines to the utility. [Continue reading…]

Budget-squeeze1-4004. North Carolina’s incredible shrinking state budget

Short-changing public investments is no way to grow a state

[Editor’s note: North Carolina’s conservative elected leaders have changed their tune in recent months. After railing for years about “runaway spending” and having slashed state budget appropriations in virtually every area of government service, this year – an important election year – officials have suddenly started bragging about teacher pay raises and other efforts to boost essential services like mental health programs. Unfortunately, while the change in rhetoric is a welcome one, the hard reality is that it is only that – rhetorical. A look at the actual budget numbers reveals that appropriations for essential public services and structures will continue to slide in North Carolina.

In the coming days, fiscal policy experts at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center will release a detailed report on the Fiscal Year 2017 budget that was approved by state lawmakers last month and signed into law by Governor McCrory last week. [Continue reading…]

education-budget-4005. Why I won’t be accepting my teacher bonus

Dear Gov. McCrory and members of the North Carolina General Assembly:

This may not be a popular opinion, but it is one that is a matter of principle to me.

I will be receiving $2,000 in bonuses this year for having a certain number of students pass the AP English Language and Composition Exam for the 2015-2016. Many of you may think that it will somewhat ameliorate tensions with public school teachers like me. I do not think it will at all. I feel that it just exacerbates the real problem: lack of respect for all public school teachers.

I am not going to keep my bonus. To me it’s just academic “blood money.”

I have read about this provision of bonus money frequently in the summer. It’s in the budget that the governor is expected to sign this week, a provision adding bonus pay for teachers of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, CTE, and 3rd grade. As the News and Observer reported last week: [Continue reading…]*** Upcoming event on Wednesday, July 28th ***

Crucial Conversation — Predatory payday lenders: Is North Carolina rid of them for good or will they make a comeback?

Predatory payday lenders: Is North Carolina rid of them for good or will they make a comeback?

Featuring Tom Feltner of the Consumer Federation of America [Register today…]


HUD report: Former Sanford Housing Authority director responsible for financial irregularities totaling $418,000


In early November 2014, Sanford Mayor Chet Mann read a proclamation honoring Ken Armstrong, the outgoing executive director of the Sanford Housing Authority for his “exemplary service.”

“There is a general feeling that the Sanford Housing Authority has performed flawlessly,” Mann went on, according to town council minutes.

But a federal investigation released this week alleges that Armstrong, who had lead the housing authority for 12 years, violated HUD regulations and improperly used $418,000 in funds. The report, issued by the Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General, specifically states these financial irregularities are the “fault of the former executive director and former accounting managers.”

The report recommends not only that the money be reimbursed to HUD, but also that the agency “take appropriate enforcement action against the former Authority officials responsible for the noncompliance with Federal regulations.”

Enforcement could range from civil action, including fines, or even criminal penalties, according to HUD.

Armstrong is now the executive director of the Alachua County Housing Authority in Gainesville, Florida. NCPW called that office to speak with Armstrong, but received only a recording.

However, Armstrong “felt very confident in his accounting knowledge and skills” according to a letter from Armstrong to the housing authority board. HUD quoted Armstrong’s letter in which he said he “checked all financials every month and made all final decisions.”

Yet those decisions led the Sanford Housing Authority, which has an annual budget of $8 million, to lose “adequate control over its financial records,” the investigation found. Armstrong didn’t maintain a ledger for the housing authority’s general funds. And the housing authority’s former fee accountant used a personal financial system, not official software, to track funds, which included transfers from different bank accounts to the general fund.

While the lack of transparency made it difficult to trace how some monies were spent, investigators did find that more than $400,000 in contracts were at issue — many of them weren’t put out for bid and had little documentation — including $118,000 for door replacements and $88,000 in lawn maintenance.

Armstrong also used more than $7,000 in federal funds for improper expenses and spent another $3,000 on housing authority credit cards or its line of credit. In addition, the housing authority paid its IT contractor $180 to retrieve text messages from a personal cell phone and gave another $200 to a housing authority resident to pick up the trash each month.

Armstrong also allegedly used housing authority money to pay for two flights for a “traveling companion.” Two employees also spent $1,000 on a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with housing authority residents, the report said.

Armstrong also arranged for part of a housing authority maintenance shop to be renovated into an apartment to house one homeless person, in violation of HUD rules. Federal funds were illegally used to install a shower and pay for utilities in that unit. Armstrong told the board in a letter “that getting families out of cold cars and saving lives was the bottom line,” and that “it was appropriate to focus on performance over compliance for accountability.”

The Sanford Housing Authority manages 450 public housing units and 756 Section 8 vouchers in Lee and Harnett counties, and has built 151 affordable units. HUD launched its investigation two months after the housing authority board hired a new housing authority director, Shannon McClean. She alerted HUD to 35 issues she uncovered, and asked the agency for help.

McClean was out of town Friday and couldn’t be reached for comment.

On Friday, Sanford Mayor Chet Mann distanced himself from Armstrong. He told NCPW that the city “doesn’t have a role in the housing authority” other than to appoint members to the board. Mann did appoint a new board in 2015, after Armstrong resigned.

“I had no knowledge of any irregularities,” said Mann, who added he had heard about the HUD report, but not yet read it. “The Sanford Housing Authority got awards for its program. Armstrong’s performance was really good, but his compliance was not.”


Edenton Bay afflicted with hazardous algae — again

Edenton Bay algae 160719_Page_1The water is as green as a sheet of nori in Edenton Bay, as potentially toxic algae is blooming in the waterway near the Albemarle Sound in Eastern North Carolina, according to state environmental scientists.

The state Division of Water Resources received a report of green water on July 19 from a Chowan County environmental group. DWR staff collected samples and found dense concentrations of blue-green algae called Dolichospermum planctonicum, which can produce cyanotoxins.

Cyanotoxins can make people sick — affecting the gastrointestinal tract, liver, nervous system and skin — and even kill animals, including livestock, that ingest water tainted with it. There have been no reports of illnesses or deaths attributable to this algae bloom, but the state health department advises people to avoid the affected water, and to keep their pets away from it.

The Chowan River, which flows into bay and the sound, is not a drinking water source. However, farmers do use it for irrigation. The area is also popular among boaters, fishermen and water-skiers.

This is the third reported algae bloom in North Carolina this summer. On June 23, the state Department of Environmental Quality investigated a potential bloom in Lake Fontana, in Graham and Swain counties. And from May 31 to June 8, Greenfield Lake in Wilmington also had a bloom.Edenton Bay algae 160719_Page_2

Blue-green algae blooms are common in the summer, although not all algae — some is actually a form of bacteria — is toxic. Sunlight and intense heat combine with nitrogen, such as that from the runoff of fertilizer used on fields and lawns, to stoke its growth, says Steve Gabal of the Chowan County Cooperative Extension. The algae form dense mats, which block sunlight and consume oxygen in the water, and can result in fish kills.

Algae also bloomed in the Albemarle Sound last summer.

Storms or cooler weather can clear the water of much of the algae, Gabal says.

Algae blooms have long plagued Jordan Lake in central North Carolina, a drinking water source for more than 300,000 people in the Triangle. But instead of implementing stiffer restrictions on development in that watershed, state lawmakers, over the objections of environmental advocates, voted twice to fund a deployment of solar bees to stir parts of the lake. After two years, the water quality had not improved, and this spring, DEQ ended the  $1.5 million project.

The blooms in the Edenton Bay are not as severe as the algae in south Florida. Described as “guacamole thick” the algae is proliferating off the Atlantic Coast, prompting Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in two counties.


Charlotte Observer sportswriter swings and misses with comments about failed HB2 “compromise”

Scott Fowler is a fine sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer and he’s right on the money this morning when he opines that:

“I won’t retrace all the steps this depressing saga has taken, but I would agree with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s recent comment that House Bill 2 is an ’embarrassing’ bill. The way HB2 limits protection for LGBT individuals is a stain on our state. It makes us seem intolerant and foolish.”

Unfortunately, Fowler then goes on in the same column (which is featured on the “front page” of the Observer website) to betray an obvious lack of understanding of the law and the political situation in North Carolina. According to Fowler, both sides in the dispute over HB2 should be ashamed for failing to “compromise.”

“Both sides simply entrenched themselves deep inside their own foxholes. You would think they were trying to negotiate the end of a world war with how impossible so many people made it seem to forge a reasonable compromise. Of course a compromise could have happened.

You can have a backbone and still be able to bend.”

This is nonsense for several reasons.

First off is the matter of the political situation in North Carolina. HB2 was passed by an overwhelmingly Republican legislature and signed by a Republican governor into law in 12 hours. Not only was there no compromise when it was passed; there wasn’t even any discussion with opponents. Raleigh is a long way from Charlotte so Fowler may have missed the fact that essentially all of the power to decide what would happen to HB2 resided with three men — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and Governor Pat McCrory. The law was their creation and they always held (and still hold) all the cards to decide whether it would be repealed or amended.  To claim that opponents of the law were ever at all responsible for some “failure to compromise” is preposterous.

Second, is the notion that “compromise” was or is even possible. What exactly would that “compromise” look like Scott? About the only thing getting any discussion at all in the waning days of the 2016 legislative session was the milquetoast idea that the matter would be “studied” in the months ahead and that the law would remain on the books, essentially unchanged. What the hell kind of a compromise is that? Apparently, Fowler believes that the opponents of HB2 should, after having been run over multiple times by the authors of the law, have acquiesced to and endorsed a plan that offered little more than a promise to discuss the matter until after the All-Star game (i.e. a point in time at which much of the political pressure for change would have evaporated). If Fowler thinks there should have been some “compromise,” he needs to speak up and say exactly what it would/should have entailed.

That Fowler then goes on to quote, unquestioningly, Hornets owner Michael Jordan’s inaccurate assertion that “There was an exhaustive effort from all parties to keep the event in Charlotte” give further evidence that Fowler’s not paying attention. Jordan may want to be nice to everyone involved, but the fact of the matter is that there was no “exhaustive effort” by the authors of HB2 to reach a compromise. Their plan was and remains to keep the law on the books for as long as the possibly can.

The bottom line: Fowler is playing a game here that too many sportswriters are allowed to get away with (though not often on the front page of the news section). He’s purporting to criticize actors in a political/policy debate for not “working things out” (and thereby ruining his fun) without really understanding the details of the issue or the actors involved.

While Fowler’s pain and frustration are certainly understandable (heck, lots of North Carolinians feel that way about the loss of the game), that is, ultimately, the reason for the NBA’s action: to inflict punishment on our state for its outrageous and discriminatory actions via one of the few tools at its disposal. No doubt, many South Africans felt frustrated back in the day when international sports competitions boycotted their country because of apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. Fortunately, those bodies and others kept up the pressure until change was achieved. It will happen here too — hopefully in time for the 2019 All-Star Game.


Fouling out: Social media reaction to the loss of millions as #HB2 costs state NBA All-Star game