News

The week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

Logo for NC Policy Watch series 1. Hopeful signs for the path forward
Trump lights a fire under the American progressive movement; you can keep up and help

Well, this is it. The week that a sizable majority of Americans have been dreading is here and, come Friday at high noon, a morally bankrupt and utterly unqualified snake oil salesman will occupy the office of Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Obama.

Add the hard truth that this character has been and will be abetted in his contemptible mission by an unholy confederation of reactionary plutocrats, hypocritical preachers and conservative politicians willing to turn a blind eye to treacherous acts of a hostile foreign dictator (and that the President-elect is empaneling a coterie of advisors and cabinet officials that resembles nothing so much as a Third World junta), and it’s enough to make a caring and thinking person fear for the republic. [Read more…]

***Bonus reads:

2.  Wake County urged to remove school police officers following violent ordeal with teen

Ramiyah Robinson bristles at the idea that this—the shocking video of a violent altercation between a school resource officer and a teenage girl at Wake County’s Rolesville High School—is an “isolated incident.”

“It’s not something new,” says Robinson, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High. “It happens all the time. Just because this time was documented, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”

Robinson was one of a handful of rain-soaked protesters convening a small press conference at Wake County Public School System’s (WCPSS) Cary office Tuesday, demanding, among other reforms, that school leaders yank all police officers from the county’s schools. [Read more…]

3. Real lives at stake in the chaos in Washington

Never mind the bullying tweets that unnerve allied nations and reverberate through financial markets.

Put aside for moment the disturbing confirmation hearings that have revealed not only ethical conflicts of nominees, but people who either don’t understand the issues handled by the agency they will lead or have expressed open hostility toward the fundamental mission of the jobs they have been nominated to fill.

And for a moment try not to think about even the fact that every part of the U.S. intelligence infrastructure believes a foreign government interfered with the 2016 election to help one candidate win.

All those things are jaw dropping enough and deserve a lot more attention than they are getting.[Read more…]

4. The toxics in the water at Camp Lejeune can be found throughout North Carolina

There have been at least six major wars and nine smaller U.S. invasions since the drinking water became contaminated at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. Yet the cancer-causing contaminants are not limited to the military base. Benzene, which comes from petroleum and chemical industries; TCE, known as trichloroethylene, a metal degreaser; and PCE, short for perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning agent, have all been found at various concentrations in private drinking water wells throughout the state.

From 2000-2010, some drinking water wells in at least half the counties in North Carolina contain low levels of benzene, according to the UNC Gillings School of Public Health. However, there is no federal safe level of benzene in drinking water, only a the EPA’s “enforceable regulation” of 5 parts per billion. (States can enforce more stringent standards; North Carolina’s is the same as the EPA’s.) And there are wells in Edgecombe County that have tested twice that federal safe drinking water standard.[Read more…]

Margaret Spellings5. Just when conservatives thought the fallout from HB2 couldn’t get any worse…

At some point, you’ve got to think that Phil Berger, Tim Moore and their fellow conservative authors of HB2 will be saying to themselves, “What in the heck have we done and why? No matter how much the religious right fawns over us, this simply has not been worth it.”

Let’s hope both men moved another few inches closer to that moment yesterday when their own handpicked President of the University of North Carolina — an official who has her own history of dunder-headed stances toward LGBT equality — once again weighed in to remind them, politely but forcefully, of the need to repeal their discriminatory law.

In case you missed it, UNC boss Margaret Spellings told Emery Dalesio of the Associated Press that HB2 is driving away smart people who would have otherwise come to work for UNC. [Read more…]

Environment, Legislature

NC Policy Collaboratory: Solid science, but legislature’s timeline rushes process

Hurricane Matthew rainfall totals: Some parts of eastern North Carolina received more than 20 inches in the week prior to, and during the storm. Two projects funded by the NC Policy Collaboratory would study flooding and resiliency related to natural disasters. (Map: NASA)

The NC Policy Collaboratory has an enviable challenge, but a challenge nonetheless: How to spend more than $200,000 in a hurry.

Only six months old, the environmental think tank at UNC is charged with funding and sponsoring research related to natural resources and the economy, then delivering those findings to the General Assembly. In turn, the legislature will, well, we don’t know what they’ll do. But it is clear that in hastily establishing the collaboratory, lawmakers didn’t think the process through.

Today the group, composed of a well-rounded advisory board of scientists and public policy experts, recommended funding all three research projects that it received: two that would explore hurricane impacts and rebuilding, and another that would study wildfires. The two hurricane projects included requirements that researchers get input from local governments and emergency management directors.

The concept of “input” was lost on the state legislature when its leadership concocted the collaboratory last June. Without information from UNC faculty and administrators, lawmakers didn’t consider how the state’s financial deadlines could collide with the university’s. For example, money for all the projects must be not only allocated, but also spent by June 30, the end of state government’s fiscal year.

And because there was no guidance on how to set up the collaboratory, the establishment of which was inserted into the state budget, the group couldn’t hold its first meeting until last November.

“This legislation was developed in a vacuum without understanding the academic calendar,” said Brad Ives, interim director of the collaboratory. He is also the UNC chief director of sustainability and an associate vice chancellor. “Working with new vice-chancellor [Clayton Somers, formerly House Speaker Tim Moore’s chief of staff] we can help the legislature understand that we have to have graduate students and professors lined up to fit into the cycle.”

The legislature appropriated $1 million in annual recurring funds for the collaboratory through at least Fiscal Year 2017-2018. Lawmakers also approved matching funds of $3.5 million. But the budget language is vague, Ives said, regarding how quickly the that money would have to be spent or if the funds could be carried over into the next budget year.

“Even if we raised the money, we might not get the match to use unless we can spend it before the end of the year,” Ives said. “Hopefully that wasn’t anyone’s intent when the language was written.”

Ives added that he would seek clarification from lawmakers and the state budget office.

The tight turnaround also didn’t allow enough time for a lot of proposals to come before the collaboratory. There were only three for this round of funding. Although all met the scientific, academic and policy requirements, collaboratory members did weigh the implications of their recommendations.

“What we fund in 2016 will signal to researchers what we’re interested in in 2017,” said member Anita Brown Graham, UNC professor of public law and government. “We don’t want to send the wrong signals.”

Ives said the process has been “very ad hoc and rushed.”

“We have to ask ‘Is this a project that UNC wants its name associated with? Does the project set the tone we want?'” Ives said. “There’s not a lot of the fiscal year left, but let’s not put the money to work just to put the money to work. We’re not trying to shovel money out the door.”

In addition to checking off all of the scientific and methodology boxes, the projects must have real-world applications — satisfying the sweet spot between policy and research.

“Once we get this money spent and close the books on this year, we’ll look to next year so we can hit the ground running,” said collaboratory chairman Al Segars, a distinguished professor and faculty director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise. “The project criteria will be more stringent.”

Here are the projects:

  • James Johnson Jr. of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School would lead research in rebuilding communities after Hurricane Matthew. The focus would be on senior housing and aging in place. This project would be folded into an existing one that explores resiliency and natural disasters. The budget is $45,000.
  • Chris Lenhardt, a domain scientist with the Renaissance Computing Institute has asked for $100,000 to develop near-real time flood mapping data and inland flood maps of North Carolina. The coastal plain received the brunt of the damage from Hurricane Matthew. First-responders, emergency management staff and policy-makers could use the maps and data for evacuation plans, for example.
  • Uma Shankar, a researcher with the UNC Institute for the Environment would study what are known as “fuel loads” and their effect on wildfires. In other words, drought dries out the forest floor and part of the understory. That parched brush, wood and vegetation can ignite, either naturally or intentionally, and contribute to the spread of wildfires.
    Land managers could use this information to increase public awareness about wildfire causes and help communities cope with the smoke and poor air quality. The project budget is $58,000.

 

 

HB2, News

GOP committee kills Virginia bathroom bill similar to House Bill 2

Bathroom signA GOP-led committee in Virginia killed a bathroom bill yesterday that was comparable to House Bill 2, according to a report in the Daily Press of Newport News, Va.

The bill was apparently dispatched without debate and with only one vote for saving it. Similar to HB2, the legislation would have prohibited transgender individuals from using restrooms of the gender they identify with in government-owned buildings.

Unlike HB2, though, Virginia’s bill would also have requires schools to notify parents if a student requests to be recognized as a gender different than what is on their birth certificate.

Both Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican leadership had voiced objections to the legislation, which was supported by one of the General Assembly’s most outspoken conservative lawmakers, Del. Bob Marshall.

Proponents of the legislation said it was needed as a safety measure to protect children, particularly students who play sports and use locker rooms, according to the report.

Opponents said the legislation unfairly targeted the transgender community and were quick to point out the economic backlash such a bill created in North Carolina.

There were eight states that prefiled or introduced legislation this session restricting transgender access to restrooms, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Bills are still pending in Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

North Carolinians remain hopeful for a full-repeal of the states sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation at this years legislative session. A panel of experts recently commented that the repeal is inevitable and the long-term backlash was too great to risk.

Commentary

Attempted giveaway puts exclamation point on Pat McCrory’s pathetic departure

Pat McCrory

Pat McCrory

Has anyone checked to see if there are any missing towels or dishes from the Governor’s Mansion? Given the latest revelation about the last minute efforts of former Governor Pat McCrory to bestow $166,000 in publicly-funded parting gifts on some of his cronies during his final hours in office, it seems as if it might be worth checking. This is from a story in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer by reporter Craig Jarvis:

“On his way out of office, Gov. Pat McCrory ordered accrued vacation and bonus leave payouts to his 10 Cabinet secretaries — money they would not otherwise have been entitled to receive.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has tentatively halted the payments, which could have amounted to as much at $166,000.

The top executives were exempt from state personnel regulations, and so were not eligible to receive the payouts under typical circumstances.

McCrory on Dec. 29 wrote to the state controller and the interim director of the Office of State Human Resources telling them to send the payouts “as if they were regular state employees,” retroactive to their first day of employment in the exempt position.

‘These irregular payments have been brought to the attention of the administration and halted pending further review,’ Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in an emailed response when asked about the letter on Thursday.

The Cooper administration says the payments authorized by McCrory could have totaled as much as $166,000.”

Of course, McCrory’s embarrassing and tone deaf actions are not terribly surprising. One of his first acts as Governor in 2013 was to bestow large pay raises on several of high-level appointees, even as he soon thereafter proposed and approved budgets that left rank and file state employees woefully underpaid. And, of course, just days before his latest act, McCrory took the craven step of approving legislation that sought to strip powers from the office he occupied — all to abet the legislature’s newly launched war on his successor.

All in all, this latest revelation should be seen as a fitting conclusion to four desultory years in office for a small and perpetually over-matched politician who never really fully grasped the office he held — much less mastered it. Whether or not his buddies get their cashola, this story should serve as one last powerful reminder of how lucky North Carolina is to have the McCrory era in the rear view mirror.

Courts & the Law, News

NC Court of Appeals: Charter school operator can’t sue former superintendent for libel

The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled earlier this week that charter school operator Baker Mitchell Jr. cannot sue former Brunswick County superintendent Edward Pruden for libel.

Mitchell is a founder of Charter Day School in Leland and his company Roger Bacon Academies receives millions in public dollars to run four charter schools in the Wilmington area. He sued Pruden in 2015 for more than $100,000 in damages over statements he made to third parties about charter schools.

Pruden has openly questioned the amount in public funding that went to schools run by Mitchell. The Brunswick County school board fired him in late 2014 without publicly disclosing why, seven months before his contract was set to expire.

The Court of Appeals opinion characterizes some of Mitchell’s accusations against Pruden in the libel lawsuit as follows:

Defendant, acting outside of the scope of his employment as Superintendent, falsely stated to third parties that the public charter schools were “dismantling” North Carolina’s public education system and that they have “morphed into an entrepreneurial opportunity.” On 4 December 2013, a video entitled “Dr. Pruden Superintendent of the Year Video” was published on YouTube. In that video, defendant falsely stated that BCS was superior to the “competition” because BCS “does not operate schools for a profit.” Plaintiffs alleged that defendant’s reference to “competition” was “clearly a reference” to the public charter schools for children of Brunswick County.

The second amended complaint further alleged as follows: In 2013, RBA submitted an application to the Office of Charter Schools for a new public charter school named “South Brunswick Charter School” (“SBCS”). Defendant began an “obsessive public campaign to derail approval” of the new school, “viciously defaming the character and reputation” of Mitchell.

Pruden sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, which a lower court did not do. The three-judge Court of Appeals panel unanimously concluded that the lower court erred in that decision.

Judge Douglas McCullough wrote, with Judges Donna Stroud and Valerie Johnson Zachary concurring, that Mitchell’s allegations are “legally insufficient to overcome [Pruden’s] public official immunity.”

[Pruden’s] actions were consistent with the duties and authority of a superintendent and constituted permissible opinions regarding his concerns for the approval of a new charter school.