Commentary, News

ICYMI: Last week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. Federal court appoints special master to decide if NC racial gerrymanders remain unconstitutional

A federal court has found it to be likely that lawmakers did not remedy unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in nine state House and Senate districts, and has appointed a special master to help it make a final determination.

Stanford Law School professor Nathaniel Persily will “assist the Court in further evaluating and, if necessary, redrawing the [districts in question] by developing an appropriate plan remedying the constitutional violations,” according to an order filed Thursday.

The Senate districts are 21, in Hoke County, and 28, in Guilford County. The House districts are 21, in Sampson and Wayne counties, 36, 37, 40, 41, in Wake County, 57, in Guilford County and 105 in Mecklenburg County.

The three-judge panel in North Carolina v. Covington wrote that, after careful review, it is concerned that the nine districts “either fail to remedy the identified constitutional violation or are otherwise legally unacceptable.” [Read more…]

 *** Bonus read: Berger appoints mostly GOP committee to look at judicial reform, redistricting

2. Missing elephant in the room? State lawmakers to examine education finance without considering overall funding sufficiency

When state lawmakers meet next week to begin the weighty task of reforming North Carolina’s knotty method of financing public schools, the sufficiency of the state’s K-12 funding will not be on the table.

Rep. Craig Horn, an influential Union County Republican who co-chairs a pivotal joint legislative task force on education finance reform, told Policy Watch Tuesday that he considers adequacy to be an altogether “separate issue.”

“In my view, you need a plan on how you distribute the money,” Horn said this week. “Then go fight over how much money there is.”

It’s a contentious point as Horn’s task force begins its work November 1, taking on reforms that most North Carolina political observers acknowledge to be one of the defining public education issues of our time. [Read more…]

*** Bonus read: N.C. charter school leader hosts Dan Forest fundraiser attended by controversial evangelical minister

3. Hate rears its ugly head yet again
As Cooper moves to curb discrimination, the Right goes ballistic

In the age of Trump, there seem to be few limits on the depths to which purveyors of fear and hate will sink. Even conservatives who disliked or opposed Trump initially seem to have been emboldened in recent months by the President’s serial dishonesty and willingness to break long-established rules of decency in public behavior.

It is with this backdrop that the saga of North Carolina’s infamous discrimination law, HB2, and the seemingly never-ending conservative war on equality for transgender individuals entered their latest phase last week.

A small step forward

As has been reported by Policy Watch and others, Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein took a modest and positive step last Wednesday to chip away at some of the discriminatory aspects of state law that have remained in effect in the aftermath of last spring’s partial repeal of HB2. This is from Melissa Boughton’s story: [Read more…]

4. Awash in pollution: Restoring North Carolina’s sick rivers to health will require a major policy about-face

Like most people who grow up on the water, Kemp Burdette is different from his landlocked friends. Undeterred by dampness, wary but not terrified of alligators, he is in tune with the calm and the fury of the Cape Fear River. He has paddled its entire 202-mile length. He knows every bend from its headwaters in Hayward, at the border of Lee and Chatham counties, to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

He grew up in Wilmington and has spent nearly his entire life there, drinking the city’s water, which comes from the river, every day. The river literally is part of him. His family is raising their two young daughters in Wilmington. The river is also part of them.

His experience with the Cape Fear brought him to Raleigh yesterday, where he urged the House Select Committee on River Quality to more stringently regulate industry and the contaminants they routinely discharge in the state’s waterways. “The way we regulate contaminants is like Russian roulette,” Burdette said. “We should require industry to show their waste streams don’t endanger human health and the environment. The state may warrant stronger protections than at the federal level.” [Read more…]

*** Bonus read: A third of 110 private drinking water wells near Chemours tested high for GenX

5. Civil liberties advocates wary of campus free speech bill under consideration by UNC Board of Governors

As the UNC Board of Governors moves toward creation of a policy to “restore and preserve free speech” on public campuses, civil liberties advocates are worried it may have the exact opposite effect.

“We worry about things that are overly broad, vague and open to interpretation,” said Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

The concern stems from a working draft of the policy discussed earlier this month at a board subcommittee meeting. The work-in-progress policy is the result of a bill, which initially stalled in the House before changes allowed it to become law in July. [Read more…]

The bill calls for the creation of a uniform system for punishing any student, faculty or staff member who “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others, including protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity when the expressive activity has been scheduled pursuant to this policy or is located in a nonpublic forum.” [Read more…]

Commentary, News

Lunch & Listen: NC Conservation Network sounds off on water safety, DEQ funding (Audio)

If you missed it over the weekend, be sure to take a few minutes today and listen to Grady McCallie with the NC Conservation Network discuss the need for more state funding at DEQ to fully investigate elevated levels of GenX and other emerging contaminants in our water.

McCallie explains in clear terms why it is not enough to offer a fraction of the funding requested by Governor Cooper to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and UNC-Wilmington and hope the problem goes away.

Once you finish listening to the interview, take time to read today’s editorial in the Wilmington Star-News on the same topic. Here’s an excerpt:

The state’s water quality problem isn’t going away; it’s only growing.

Another lawsuit against Chemours and DuPont was filed Monday — by a Brunswick County woman with high levels of GenX in her water heater. The chemical is being found in more private wells near the Fayetteville Works industrial site, and the state is testing water at three Cumberland County schools.

After the state found elevated levels of GenX in the well water of a home near Chemours, the owner paid a lab $800 for further analysis. The tests found about 15 “emerging contaminants.”

Meanwhile, we are hearing from people who recently moved here and found their first big decision was whether or not to drink the water.

That’s not good, folks.

But don’t fret — the General Assembly is all over it. When Gov. Roy Cooper asked for an extra $2.6 million — out of a $23 billion budget — to shore up the state’s understaffed water-quality agency, the Honorables more or less told him to get stuffed.

Instead, they gave $185,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, $250,000 to UNCW, and then washed their hands of the problem — maybe with bottled water.

We hope the money will help in some way with GenX, but it’s far too little and does nothing for the folks in Cumberland and Bladen counties, where much more than GenX is turning up in the water. The Cape Fear River, meanwhile, is one big chemical-laden mess.

Read the full editorial here in the Star-News.


Chief Justice labels GOP plan to shorten judicial terms a disruption of justice

Add Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to the list of critics who oppose a proposed Constitutional amendment that would reduce all of North Carolina judges’ terms to two years and force them to run for reelection next year.

As the Associated Press reports:

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin

The head of North Carolina’s court system is against a proposal by some GOP legislators to reduce elected judges’ terms to two years, saying it “would disrupt the administration of justice.”

The statement by Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin on Wednesday to judicial workers marks another key state leader opposing the idea, along with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Appeals Court and Superior Court judges serve eight years and District Court judges four. Any proposal would need statewide voter approval.

Martin says two-year terms would force constant campaigning and fundraising upon judges whose primary job is to be accountable to the law.

Martin does support a referendum on “merit selection” which is being advanced by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Policy Watch Courts and Law reporter Melissa Boughton has more on merit selection here and Sen. Bill Rabon’s constitutional amendment to shorten all judgeships to two years here.


Must-see documentary on rising sea levels on North Carolina’s coast premieres tonight

Scientists predict about a three-foot rise in sea level along North Carolina’s coast by the year 2100. But coastal dwellers have already seen increased erosion and more frequent flooding.

Tonight WRAL-TV will air its latest documentary “Sea Change” further examining what sea level rise will mean for coastal communities in the not-to-distant future.

Documentary producer Clay Johnson recently sat down with Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon to give us a preview of the doc that airs at 7:00pm.

If you miss this evening’s live broadcast, you can check it out on-demand at

Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Former GOP Supreme Court justice: 2 year terms amendment continued effort to ‘intimidate judiciary’

The North Carolina Senate filed a Constitutional amendment Tuesday that would shorten all judges and state Supreme Court justices terms to two years and end all sitting judges terms in December 2018.

Bob Orr, a prominent Republican who served as a justice on the state Supreme Court and as a candidate for governor, described the Constitutional amendment, Senate Bill 698, as a “continued effort to try and intimidate the judiciary.”

“It’s just wrong,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Orr said the amendment sends the wrong message to the judiciary that if judges won’t rule the GOP’s way, lawmakers will retaliate.

“That’s just fundamentally repugnant to everything I believe,” he said.

He added that when the 1868 state Constitution was being discussed — it was the first one with a requirement for judges to run for election — the issue was how long a term judges should serve, not how short. He said some lawmakers at the time wanted 16-year terms. [Read more…]

2. A new low in the dismantling of democracy
The folks running the General Assembly reached a new low this week in their efforts to dismantle our democracy—-and that is no small feat given their actions in the last few years.

Senate Rules Chair Bill Rabon filed legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to shorten the terms of all judges in the state to two years and end every current judge’s term at the end of 2018. They would all have to run for reelection this fall and every two years after that.

That would literally turn judges into partisan politicians spending as much time much raising money and campaigning as they do hearing cases. There are currently 403 judges serving, when you add up district court, superior court, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The idea is absurd on its face and makes a mockery of the judicial branch of government.  District Court judges currently serve four-year terms. Every other judge and justice serve terms of eight years, the idea being that they will be less affected by the shifting political winds. [Read more…]

3. NC Senate appoints industry front group member to Oil and Gas Commission slot reserved for conservation voice

Jim Womack has a reputation in North Carolina for being many things, but a conservationist isn’t one of them.

An outspoken fracking proponent, of course. A blogger who, under the pseudonym James Madison, likened President Obama to a Marxist Muslim imam, sure. A Tea Party supporter and Lee County Commissioner who voted to dismantle the environmental board — yes, that happened.

It was because of this background that many environmental advocates and political observers were puzzled earlier this month when Senator Phil Berger reappointed Womack to the state’s oil and gas commission to fill a seat reserved for a “nongovernmental conservation interest.”

Womack’s purported conservation bona fides stem from his membership on the board of science and policy advisors of the American Council on Science and Health. However, a review of the group’s position papers, books and the backgrounds of all 300 advisors shows that ACSH performs no conservation activities.[Read more…]

4. Facing charter takeover, Robeson County leaders tell state to stay out

Just days after a North Carolina official tapped a Robeson County elementary for a controversial charter takeover district, local leaders say the state isn’t welcome in Southside-Ashpole Elementary.

“The governor of North Carolina and the legislators cannot justify that, as far as I’m concerned,” Jerry Stephens, a Robeson County commissioner, told Policy Watch Tuesday. “It’ll be such a great fall-out.”
Commissioner Jerry Stephens

Members of the county’s Board of Commissioners and Board of Education unanimously approved a joint resolution Monday night opposing Southside-Ashpole’s selection for the state’s Innovative School District (ISD), which could allow charter or education management organizations—including, possibly, for-profit groups—to seize control of operations and staffing in hopes of turning around lagging test scores.[Read more...]

5. Our rogue General Assembly returns to Raleigh for yet another rump session
Why the legislature now operates this way and why it’s a big problem

The North Carolina General Assembly (or, at least, a goodly portion of it) returned to town last night. Nearly four months after having passed a new state budget—the event that used to signal the conclusion of an annual legislative session—lawmakers are back yet again.

The top agenda item this time for our “part-time” lawmakers: to override Governor Cooper’s veto of a bill to alter state elections passed during their last cameo appearance in the state capital. At least, that’s what we think the plan is. Though the Senate acted last night, no one knows for sure. The move comes just days after legislative leaders had stated publicly that no such action would be taken until at least January of 2018.

This makes roughly a half dozen times this year that lawmakers have convened, departed and returned. Though legislative leaders have wised up (at least from a P.R. perspective) and stopped always referring to their serial returns to Jones Street, as “special sessions,” (there were at least five of such sessions in 2016—remember the HB2 session and the pre-holidays session to undermine Roy Cooper?) that is, effectively, what’s been going on with great regularity for several years. Rather than coming to Raleigh for a single annual session and then returning upon its conclusion to their homes, jobs and families as was long the tradition in the state, lawmakers—especially since Republicans assumed control back in 2011—now operate under a new model. [Read more...]

*** Bonus read: Searching for the ‘Holy Grail’ in partisan gerrymandering standards: An update from the federal trial in Greensboro