The next test for UNC’s President: Keeping politics out of science

The Wilmington Star-News lays it on the line today in its criticism of the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, a legislative-inspired environmental think tank to be housed at UNC-Chapel Hill.

As the paper’s editorial board explains there may be good reason to be skeptical of the new center:

….it was created in this year’s budget to provide research into natural resource management and new technology to make the Tar Heel environment nicer. It’s also supposed to advise the General Assembly.

The legislature ponied up $1 million for the project for the next two years. The university system, apparently, is expected to come up with up to $3.5 million more from, well, somewhere.

Now, for professors, a brand new, shiny research institute is like a brand new video game for Christmas. Over in Chapel Hill, however, faculty member are dubious.


UNC System President Margaret Spellings and Jeffrey Warren, Sen. Phil Berger science and energy advisor.

Why? Well, staffing of the Collaboratory is still supposedly up in the air, but word is, the new director is going to be Jeff Warren. Warren was science adviser to state Senate Republican leader Phil Berger. He was credited with writing the 2012 law that forbade state agencies from taking note of scientists’ predictions of sea level rise when drawing up coastal policy.

Berger, it happens, was one of the major sponsors of the Collaboratory concept. He’s gone on record as saying that the universities are all out of whack, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a 12-to-1 margin among faculty.

The suspicion is — and it’s a good one — that the Collaboratory will eventually turn into a think tank of tame scientists, who will come up with rigamarole to justify anything the Republicans in the legislature feel like doing.

Offshore drilling is good for fish and little children? Sure. Sea turtles spread the Zika virus? Durn straight. Let them bulldozers roll!

And the taxpayers will foot the bill.

The trouble is, scientists might be a bunch of wooly-headed liberals, but they also have this annoying habit of being right. Sea levels have been rising pretty much as Duke’s Orrin Pilkey said they would a quarter century ago.

Doctors said cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease. That was bad news for North Carolina’s tobacco industry, but as more folks quit smoking, tobacco-related lung cancer and heart disease rates plummeted.

Many politicians seem to think that reality is consensual. If your craven opponents say X equals Y, you find your own bunch of mouthpieces, label them experts and have them declare that, no, X equals Z.

These days, that’s a good way to win an election, but can be costly to make government policy this way. We need facts, genuinely unbiased facts.

This Collaboratory will be a major test for the new UNC president, Margaret Spellings. Let’s hope she gets it right.

Learn more about the man expected to head-up the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory in this piece by NC Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg.

Read the full editorial here in the Wilmington Star-News.


20 years after welfare reform, what have we really learned about alleviating poverty? (video)

If you missed it last week, the good folks at the NC Budget & Tax Center did a multi-part blog series about how poverty has changed in America in the 20 years since the passage of welfare reform.

BTC policy analyst Tazra Mitchell also talked about the consequences of reform and the need to address wage stagnation over the weekend on News and Views with Chris Fitzsimon.

Click below for a short video clip from Mitchell’s radio interview with NC Policy Watch or to access the full podcast.

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For more from the Budget & Tax Center’s blog series, check out the links below:


Back to school – by the numbers

school-bus-blue2As students head back to class this week, here are a few numbers about North Carolina’s public schools, according to the state Department of Public Instruction:

1,543,527 – the estimated number of the students starting a new school year in North Carolina this week

125 – the number of year-round schools across our state whose students returned earlier this month

6,000 – this year’s enrollment includes roughly 6,000 more students than one year ago

110,000 – more students attend North Carolina’s public schools now than ten years ago in the 2006-07 school year

2,477 – the number of traditional public schools in North Carolina

167 – the number of charter schools operating in North Carolina this year

89,000 – the estimated number of the students attending charter schools this year

60,000 – the estimated number of students who will enroll in online courses offered by the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the nation’s second-largest state-supported virtual school

Commentary, News

Last week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

charters_MarcusB1. Former state legislator adds fuel to the fire over how charter schools are funded

When North Carolina lawmakers heard proposals in June to dramatically revamp how charters are funded, public school advocates pleaded for more time.

The bill before the chamber, a state Senate draft authored by a staunch charter supporter would have bound traditional K-12 schools to grant charters access to more pots of public funding. Lawmakers, concerned about the precedent of authorizing such a major change in funding during the chamber’s short session, deferred until next year.

Some said the additional time meant a better chance of compromise in North Carolina’s annual tilting match between traditional schools and charter supporters, who claim that publicly-funded charters are being short-changed by their traditional school counterparts. [Continue reading…]

FF-TeachingFellows-4002. Successful Teaching Fellows program is back…in Indiana?

State lawmakers have finally taken a bold step toward addressing the looming teacher shortage in public schools. The Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate worked with Democrats to create a scholarship program to encourage bright high school students to enter the teaching profession.

Students in the top 20 percent of their high school class can apply for a scholarship of up to $7,500 a year for their four years in college if they agree to spend at least five years after graduation in the classroom as a teacher.

The bill passed the House and Senate nearly unanimously and was signed by the conservative Republican governor with great fanfare at a ceremony in April surrounded by students, teachers, and lawmakers.

The program will gear up this year with the first scholarships awarded for the 2017-2018 academic year.

But there’s a problem. [Continue reading...]

Current land use near polluted Holtrachem site3. In Columbus County, mercury, PCBs and a long-overdue Superfund cleanup point to a larger problem: accountability

The air smells acrid in Riegelwood, where a faint breeze scours your sinuses with the scent of sulfur coming from the International Paper plant. All day long, dozens of semi-trucks, loaded with logs, pull onto John Riegel Road headed for the factory. Here, the wood will be chemically boiled and bleached to make fluff pulp, a material used in disposable diapers.

What you can’t see or smell is nested within International Paper’s property: one of the most contaminated areas in North Carolina. A facility formerly owned by Holtrachem is a hotbed of mercury and cancer-causing PCBs, dioxins and furans. For decades, toxic chemicals from these 24 acres have intermittently drained, at times, even gushed into the nearby Cape Fear River, which runs through Columbus County on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Mercury has poisoned workers and fish. PCBs, so dangerous their manufacture was banned in the U.S. in 1983, still stain the soil.

Now, after 14 years of being on the National Priorities List — an ignoble register of polluted places known as Superfund sites — Holtrachem is scheduled to be cleaned up. Not pristine, but to the point at which some day, federal and state regulators hope, the land might be safe for industrial use.[Continue reading…]

Timeline: The Holtrachem Superfund site: A long, dirty legacy in Riegelwood

TANF-40024. A major failure for conservative policymaking

Nation’s 20-year experiment with “welfare reform” simply hasn’t worked

One of the greatest strengths of President Franklin Roosevelt – especially in the early days of his first administration when he was conducting what amounted to lifesaving CPR on the American economy (and maybe even preserving the nation’s experiment with democratic government itself) was his candid willingness to try new things. Though he is often castigated by conservatives and lionized by liberals for having birthed the New Deal and the idea that the federal government has a duty to combat poverty, FDR was, at heart, a genuine pragmatist. His ultimate objective was always less about vindicating a particular ideology, and much more about championing action and unleashing what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Roosevelt wasn’t against capitalism; heck, his family fortune was a byproduct of it. What he was against was slavery to an ideology that elevated the pronouncements of musty old Englishmen in powdered wigs and knee britches over the real world experiences of average people trying to survive in modern society. He saw the horrific suffering that his predecessor’s unwillingness to tackle the Great Depression had wrought and vowed to keep trying new things until conditions improved. [Continue reading…]

Great Tax Shift5. They cut taxes on the top 1% by how much?!!

Sometimes, the brazenness of conservative politicians in crafting public policy to benefit themselves and their rich patrons is just too much to be believed. Take, for instance, Gov. Pat McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly. A new brief from the fiscal policy wonks at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center paints a truly remarkable portrait of what can only be described as “government of, by and for the top 1%.”

According to the latest BTC calculations, the tax cuts enacted between 2013 and 2016 in North Carolina will produce, among many other travesties, this remarkable result:

Say you had seven North Carolinians in one room representing the following income groups: [Continue reading…]

Commentary, News

This week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

voterhere41. The GOP effort to suppress the African-American vote continues

An extraordinary thing happened three weeks ago when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit threw out most of the massive voter suppression law passed by the General Assembly in 2013 and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

The court found that legislative leaders asked for data broken down by race about how people vote and then as the court put it, with “surgical precision” changed the voting methods used disproportionately by African-Americans.

The motives could not have been clearer.

The General Assembly leadership created a photo ID requirement, ended same day registration at early voting sites, ended pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds, and shortened early voting by a week—all to make it less likely that African-Americans would vote. [Continue reading...]

NagsHead_4002. Meet Jeffrey Warren: The mastermind behind the state’s bad environmental laws could get a plum job at UNC

In mid-August, the high season’s last hurrah, the packed beach at Nags Head is veiled with blue umbrellas that match the color of the ocean and the sky. Yet at just three feet above sea level, Nags Head is sinking, and portions of the beach are receding, both natural geologic occurrences that have shaped the coastline for thousands of years.

But what’s not natural is the sea level rise that will eventually engulf the area where beach-goers relax under their umbrellas. What’s also unnatural is the state legislation that jeopardizes the environmental and economic viability not only of the coast but the entire state, as well.

These laws were partially crafted by Jeffrey Warren, a geologist by trade and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s powerful science and energy advisor by anointment.

“I can’t think of an individual whose had more of an impact on the environment in a negative way than Jeffrey Warren,” said State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a six-term Democratic lawmaker from Guilford County. [Continue reading…]

Bonus read: Jeffrey Warren’s Greatest Hits

Hawkes23. Tempers flare among charter school supporters as state tightens vetting process

It was 13 days ago that the State Board of Education signed off on just eight of 28 aspiring new charter schools in North Carolina, a stunning flip for a board that’s approved dozens of new charters since state lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on charters in 2011.

Today, Alan Hawkes, a Greensboro charter leader who sits on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), is still hot.

That’s because five schools tapped for opening by Hawkes’ board, which makes recommendations on charter applicants to the state board, were overwhelmingly voted down by the State Board of Education (SBE).

Board members cited typos, weak applications and publicly questioned whether some schools’ academic plans were ready for prime time despite the CSAB’s support. Typically, state board members heed the counsel of the CSAB, but not this month.

“Don’t get me started about public charter school no-nothings (sic) on the NC State Board of Education,” Hawkes wrote in an email to Policy Watch this week. [Continue reading…]

BB-HB2-6294. Uncertainty, anxiety overshadow new school year for transgender students
LGBT advocates, Republican leadership await court ruling on HB2 injunction

As North Carolina families load up at back-to-school sales this week, a looming question remains for North Carolina students:

Will they be returning to public schools and universities where House Bill 2 still dictates which restrooms they can use?

Two weeks ago U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder held a four-hour hearing to consider a preliminary injunction against the law. Keeping in mind the swiftly approaching school year, he said he would rule as soon as possible. His decision could still come any day.

The law, known as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, requires people to use restrooms, showers, locker and changing rooms that correspond to their birth certificates in public buildings, schools and universities.

This leaves transgender people – of whom it is estimated there are about 40,000 in North Carolina – with a dilemma. [Continue reading…]

Learn more: A glossary of terms for Transgender discussions

McHenry-Forest-Locke-AdobeS5. The Olympics of right-wing whoppers
NC pols and advocates hit some medal-worthy new lows

With so much attention being paid to the presidential race and the reliably controversial comments of one of the major party candidates in recent weeks, it’s been tough for state-level politicians and advocates to break through and garner much attention for their own inane comments. Like the badminton and trampoline athletes at the Rio Olympics who find themselves constantly overshadowed by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, these hard right North Carolina voices are no less serious about their work and over-the-top reactionary views; it’s just a matter of a crowded election year news environment in which there’s only so much mainstream media coverage to go around.

Here then, as a service to some local voices of reaction that might’ve otherwise gotten lost in the media shuffle, are some of their recent “medal worthy” takes that deserve to be recognized and held up to the light of day – even if it’s just to remind caring and thinking North Carolinians what it is that they’re up against.

The bronze medal: Congressman offers heartfelt defense of corporate loan sharking [Continue reading…]