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Advocates at the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Pamlico-Tar River Foundation have formally called on the state Environmental Management Commission to conduct a review of questionable circumstances surrounding the demise of rules designed to prevent water pollution.

According to a letter from the groups that was delivered to the Commission yesterday, proposed rules governing riparian buffer mitigation (i.e. the use of vegetated strips of land along side waterways to protect them from pollution) were scuttled last year when the Rules Review Commission received several letters of objection. Under state law, when the Commission receives 10 or more such letters, the rule(s) in question are forwarded to the General Assembly for additional review.

In this case, however, four of the 11 letters of objection ultimately submitted were from McCrory administration staffers employed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). As the environmental advocates note, this may well have been an unprecedented and highly questionable set of circumstances: Read More

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People_16_Teacher_BlackboardThe verdict on the confusing new pay structure enacted by the General Assembly and the Governor’s office continues to draw, at best, mixed reviews. As Raleigh’s News & Observer noted — somewhat charitably — last week:

Once again, the inexperience of Republican leaders is showing. Their teacher pay plan does address the need to pay less-experienced teachers more, and that’s good. But more experienced teachers aren’t getting much, which is going to encourage more of them to retire, and that’s not good.

Even if one gives state leaders credit for bumping up the pay for some of the state’s teacher workforce from its bottom-of-the-barrel status, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that their stubborn adherence to implementing new tax cuts is forcing the raises to be purchased at a very high price.

For the latest example of this troubling phenomenon, check out Lindsay Wagner’s story this morning over on the main PW site: “N.C. Department of Public Instruction forced to eliminate more than 50 jobs that serve struggling schools, technology infrastructure.” As Lindsay reports:

The agency tasked with implementing the state’s K-12 public school laws and policies is coping with a 10 percent funding cut handed down by lawmakers last week by eliminating more than 50 jobs, many of which are devoted to helping struggling schools.

“We’re abolishing approximately 54 positions out of roughly 450 state-funded staff positions,” said Dr. June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Public schools and head of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

It’s a 10 percent funding cut to DPI, the largest reduction to any state agency, said Atkinson.

And while defenders of the DPI cuts will argue that they’re all about slashing “bureaucracy,” the hard truth is that they are far from the only new “belt tightening” measures enacted in this year’s education budget. In other words, the pay raises remain essentially a fig leaf for what remains an ongoing, long-term war on public education waged by people committed to privatizing the single most important function of state government.

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Lennie and Pearl

Lennie Gerber and Pearl Berlin — Photo credit: ACLU of North Carolina

Michael Biesecker of AP has a wonderfully heartwarming story this morning that’s available in several news outlets about one of the couples leading the legal fight for marriage equality in North Carolina. Pearl Berlin and Lennie Gerber have been together for 48 years and the notion that they might taste victory in the near future as Pearl battles health problems is a very cheering notion.

(As an aside, it should also be pointed out that, in addition to being a plaintiff in the legal challenge to North Carolina’s marriage discrimination amendment, Gerber (on the left) was once one of North Carolina’s finest consumer rights attorneys — she managed the Winston-Salem legal aid office for years and helped save countless people of modest income from various financial predators.)

All that said, it should also be noted that when marriage equality does come, the fight for justice will be far from over. As a our panelists eloquently explained at last week’s Crucial Conversation luncheon on the subject (watch the video here), LGBT North Carolinians can still be summarily fired by their employers because of who they are.  In other words, if same sex couples get the chance to be married in the near future, many will still have to remain in the closet for fear that placing their wedding photo on their desk at work will still get them fired.

And rest assured, even if the courts soon order marriage equality, Paul Stam and the other theocrats in the General Assembly will be doing their utmost to prevent passage of a law banning discrimination in the workplace and/or public accommodations. In other words, there’s a heck of a lot of work still to do.

 

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Drone 2As Sarah Ovaska reported this morning in her story on some of the hidden gems in this year’s state budget bill, North Carolina now has – with virtually no meaningful public discussion — a new and flawed law on the use of those cute little aerial spying machines known as “drones.”

Unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, can no longer be used by people or state agencies to conduct surveillance without landowners’ consent. The law carves out some exceptions for law enforcement and media covering news event, and makes adding a weapon to a drone a felony. Outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen need to pay attention: using a drone to hunt or fish is now a misdemeanor. Some of the wording in the budget still leaves questions about how to legally use drones, and the new rules may make it difficult to use drones to take photographs or video for artistic purposes, said Sarah Preston, of the ACLU of North Carolina. “There’s still a lot of stuff that’s left up in the air,” she said.

One of the state’s most active and engaged critics of drone use and the backroom efforts of politicians with connections to the drone industry is Asheville activist/advocate Barry Summers. Yesterday, Summers authored a forceful critique of the new law in the Asheville Citizen-Times. As Summers notes:

During the final days of the budget train wreck in Raleigh, H1099 (Unmanned Aircraft Regulation) was slipped anonymously into the 2014 budget. This is the perfect, shameful and shabby end to a process where the GOP-led NCGA has failed to protect our civil liberties. Read More

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Frack-free-400This morning’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer tells it like it is with respect to the state’s pro-fracking forces and a little thing called “science.” As the N&O explains, compelling evidence on the dangers of fracking from experts at Duke University is being summarily ignored by the Mining and Energy Commission because it presents some inconvenient truths.

Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh of Duke University’s esteemed Nicholas School are viewed by some in the oil and gas industry as enemies. At Duke, they’ve done studies with compelling evidence that shale gas extraction, fracking, causes drinking water problems in other states.

The industry, which got North Carolina to lift its moratorium on fracking with drilling next year, has long made the case that drilling is absolutely safe.

Jackson and Vengosh have serious doubts about that, and given that the Nicholas School in the field of environmental science is considered among the elite in the county, it would be logical to assume that state officials developing rules to govern shale gas exploration would want to hear from them.

But the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission did not invite either Jackson or Vengosh to offer any views while commission members were in the process of determining the rules. Read More