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UtilitiesNC Policy Watch followers will recall that last week we reported on a an recent and egregious giveaway to big utility companies in which the North Carolina Utilities Commission pulled a mysterious and unforeseen rabbit out of a hat to reverse its own previous ruling from earlier this year.

The case revolves around whether all of the 2013 tax cuts enacted by the General Assembly and Governor McCrory should be accounted for when it comes to computing the rates that regulated monopolies like Duke Energy are allowed to charge ratepayers. In May, the Commission ruled by a 6-1 vote that they must.

A few months later, however, in an abrupt and apparently unprecedented move, three McCrory appointees to the Commission changed their minds and signed on to a new opinion by the Commission chair, Ed Finley, in which the May ruling was summarily reversed and the “exceptions” (i.e. the appeal) submitted by two of the power companies upheld. Parties in the case were not even given a chance to submit arguments on the question.

According to the new majority, the cut to the state’s corporate income tax should not be factored into rates and companies should be free to keep the windfall if they like. According to the three overruled commissioners:

“The Majority’s decision, rescinding, in part, the Commission’s May 13, 2014 Order in this docket, allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay. The Majority’s decision errs with respect to fairness to ratepayers; errs procedurally with respect to due process and the limitations of the Commission’s right to rescind, alter, or amend an Order; and errs in its content with respect to its legal conclusions.”

As it turns out now — perhaps because of the adverse publicity here and elsewhere — most, if not all of the big utilities are now saying they will not keep the windfall.

This is good news for consumers but it should not be the end of the story. Even if the utilities are too embarrassed to keep their unearned money, the Commission majority’s heavy-handed action was and is still unacceptable and sets a terrible precedent — both with respect to substance and procedure.

Let’s hope that both the Utilities Commission Public Staff and Attorney General Roy Cooper stick to their guns, appeal the matter to the state judiciary and secure an order vindicating the rights of consumers ASAP.

Commentary

Medicaid expansionConservative political support for one of the central components of Obamacare continues to grow. The latest conversion: North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis.

This is from a story by reporter Craig Jarvis in Raleigh’s News & Observer about Tillis’  televised appearance on Time Warner Cable’s “Capital Tonight” show last evening:

Medicaid: Asked if he thought it would be likely that the state legislature would expand Medicaid coverage after refusing to do so previously, Tillis said it might make sense once the state has better control of the financing of the program, which is notorious for its cost overruns.

He said he didn’t have an ideological objection to expanding the coverage. But he said when the state auditor told the previous governor that money was being wasted on it, the appropriate response would not have been to make it bigger and more costly.

“I would encourage the state legislature and governor to consider it if they’re completely convinced they now have the situation under control,” Tillis said.

In other words, the Speaker is echoing the McCrory administration’s imperfect but mostly encouraging line on the issue. Let’s fervently hope that Tillis’ successor as House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem Berger adopt this same common-sense stance so that the matter can be disposed of as early in 2015 as possible.

Commentary

Though his background is in architecture, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest certainly does seem to fancy himself quite the constitutional law expert. Lately, he’s been tooling around the state with a far right activist who wants to rewrite the U.S. Constitution to return the country to the 18th Century by, essentially, giving the state’s the right to nullify federal laws with which they disagree.

Now, this morning, Prof. Forest has treated the visitors to his website with a cocksure lecture about how the North Carolina  Supreme Court should purport to defy the federal courts and, in effect, nullify their recent rulings on marriage equality. According to Counselor Forest, this will somehow force a “showdown” in the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue.

Maybe Forest has been talking with his buddy and fellow ideologue, Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, but whatever the source of his latest daft and inappropriate missive, let’s hope he keeps churning them out. After all, as long as we’re talking about “showdowns” in North Carolina public policy, it will be helpful for as many as possible to know that the state’s second-highest elected official is echoing the pro-discrimination/states’ rights values of George Wallace, Lester Maddox and the other mid-20th Century bigots.

Commentary

McCrory cartoonGov. Pat McCrory took a rather startling and troubling position the other day when he spoke at the behest of a tobacco lobbyist against efforts in France and Ireland to further restrict cigarette packaging to promote public health.

Apparently, kowtowing to the hometown industry is more important than protecting the lives and well-being of a bunch of anonymous furreners.

Having established the precedent, however, maybe the Guv could follow up by doing the industry’s bidding on another matter impacting the health and well-being of kids he’ll never meet — farmworker children.

As it turns out, the tobacco industry has — at least publicly — endorsed a policy change that would, once and for all, end the scandal of child labor in American tobacco fields. As Associated Press reported today:

Two years after the Obama administration backed off a rule that would have banned children from dangerous agriculture jobs, public health advocates and lawmakers are trying anew to get kids off tobacco farms.

The new efforts were jumpstarted by a Human Rights Watch report in May that said nearly three-quarters of the children interviewed by the group reported vomiting, nausea and headaches while working on tobacco farms. Those symptoms are consistent with nicotine poisoning, often called Green Tobacco Sickness, which occurs when workers absorb nicotine through their skin while handling tobacco plants.

The article goes on to say that:
Philip Morris International, which limits the type of work children can do on tobacco farms, says it would like to see stronger U.S. regulations in this area.
Whatta’ ya’ say Guv? As long as you’re gonna’ be in the pocket of big tobacco, how about staying there when it would actually support a good cause?
Commentary

The good folks at Inequality.org continue to do a great job of documenting America’s obscene and metastasizing wealth and income gaps. This week, in their online newsletter Too Much, they highlight as fascinating comparison between French and U.S. households when it comes to wealth. As you can see, Americans top the French when it comes to average wealth because the rich here are so much richer and all of their holdings gets factored in. When one looks at median wealth however (i.e. the wealth of the most typical adult) the French leave us in la poussière.  This graphic from the Too Much website tells the grim story.

US France wealth stats