Courts & the Law, Legislature, News

Wake County leaders push “Raise the Age” legislation

As Policy Watch has noted in recent weeks, support for “raise the age” legislation seems to be growing in North Carolina among both political parties and law enforcement. This week, it’s getting another thumbs up from leaders in Wake County, which operates the state’s largest public school system.

The News & Observer reports today that county officials scheduled a Monday press conference to tout the bipartisan bill, which, in most cases, would require that the state no longer prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

North Carolina is one of just two states nationwide maintaining such a practice, which critics blame for youth leaving school with criminal records.

From The N&O:

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, earlier this month filed a bill known as the “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act,” which would move most crimes committed by 16- or 17-year-olds to juvenile court. Violent felonies and some drug offenses would still be considered in adult court.

Commissioner Jessica Holmes said she supports reform efforts because the current laws are “archaic” and create a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

“Evidence shows that adolescents who go through the juvenile justice system are less likely to keep committing crimes than their peers who are treated like adults in the system,” Holmes said.

“The juvenile justice system is best equipped to rehabilitate young people in a crucial stage of development,” she said. “Raising the Age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 will lead to safer communities, long-term financial savings and better outcomes for young people and their families.”

The effort, known as “raise the age,” has faltered in the past in part because sheriffs and prosecutors said the juvenile-justice system is inadequately funded to take on more teenagers. The group pushing for change this year claims support from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

Advocates say teen offenses can have impacts stretching far beyond schooling years. They add that relatively minor school-age infractions could seriously blunt a person’s ability to succeed later in life.

The legislature’s draft bill is currently assigned to a House judiciary committee. Policy Watch will track this bill as it progresses.

Environment, Legislature

Bidding reaches $7.5 million for state’s first offshore wind farm — and it could go higher

The federal government is leasing these 122,405 acres for the state’s first off-shore wind farm. North Carolina has the most wind energy potential of any Atlantic state. (Map: Bureau of Ocean Management)

[Update 2: In Round 17, one company bid $9 million. No other company has matched or exceeded it. Stay tuned for the BOEM’s announcement of the winning bid.]

 

[Update 1: There have now been 15 bidding rounds, for $7.5 million. The number of companies bidding just dropped to two.]

Twelve rounds of bidding, four companies and $5.3 million on the table — and so far, no one’s flinching. Since 9:30 this morning, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has been auctioning 122,405 acres of ocean for an off-shore wind farm 27.5 miles from Kitty Hawk.

The winning bidder would not own the acreage, but lease it from the BOEM, a division of the U.S. Department of Interior. This is an online lease sale, so there’s no wonderful soundtrack of an auctioneer (five-five-five— do-I-hear-five-point-three-million?!) Nonetheless, the bidding updates, which started at $244,000, have been interesting.

North Carolina has more offshore wind energy potential than any Atlantic state. This would the state’s first off-shore wind farm.

More than 35 people or groups commented on the proposed lease, indicating the many potential conflicts even clean energy can encounter. The World Shipping Council was concerned about the turbines’ interference of ocean traffic. The Town of Kitty Hawk wanted the farm farther offshore, plus was worried about visual clutter of farm-to-shore transmission lines.

Southern Environmental Law Center,  US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Marine Mammal Commission, while largely supportive of wind energy, urged the bureau to conduct thorough environmental assessments and offset potential harm to birds, sea life and ecosystems.

Eight companies filed paperwork with the bureau to participate in the auction: Avangrid Renewables, which owns an onshore wind farm near Elizabeth City; Enbridge Holdings/Green Energy in Houston; Shell WindEnergy; Wind Future LLC, Outer Banks Ocean Energy in Charlottesville, Va.; PNE in Chicago, a multi-international company Statoil; and WPD Offshore Alpha, based in Bremen, Germany.

Wind energy and its more popular renewable sibling, solar power, are key to a resolution filed today by State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat. HR 401  would shift North Carolina to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. If the resolution passes (unlikely, but Harrison gets points for chipping away at the fossil fuel block) the state could spend the next 33 years weaning itself off the coal/natural gas teat. Converting to 100 percent clean energy could help the planet avoid what the resolution describes as a “climate catastrophe.”

In addition to the enormous wind energy potential, North Carolina had 1,140 megawatts of solar electric capacity in 2015, placing the state second in the nation.  Of that capacity, the industry has installed enough infrastructure to power 260,000 homes — roughly equivalent to the population of Durham County. And In 2016, the solar industry invested nearly $1.7 billion on installations in the state, an increase of 159 percent over the previous year.

Primary co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. John Autry, Jean Farmer-Butterfield and Susan Fisher.

Environment, Legislature

Renewable energy popular among voters, regardless of party. Duke Energy, not so much.

 

W hile Republican state lawmakers are crafting bills to stall or roll back renewable energy, that could cost them votes in the next election — even among hard-core conservatives. A new poll sponsored by Conservatives for Clean Energy reveals that more than 83 percent of North Carolina voters polled said they would be more likely to support a lawmaker or candidate who supports policies that encourage renewable energy options such as solar, wind, and swine and poultry waste.

Broken down by party, 79.1 percent of Republican voters and 73.5 percent of Trump supporters would support a clean-energy candidate.

Conservatives for Clean Energy hired Republican consulting firm Strategic Partners Solutions to conduct a telephone poll of 600 North Carolina voters on Feb. 26 and 27. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent. This is the third year for the poll.

There was also strong support for keeping — and even strengthening — the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. Currently, public utilities have to provide 6 percent of their energy from renewable sources; that benchmark is scheduled to rise to 10 percent in 2018 top out at 12.5 percent in 2021. House Bill 267 would flatline that threshold at 8 percent. Republicans Jimmy Dixon and John Bell are the primary sponsors of the bill.

Sixty percent of Democrats, 59 percent of unaffiliated voters, and 45 percent of Republicans would support doubling the renewable energy threshold to 25 percent.

But even skeptical voters warm to the REPS when they learn more about its benefits: 34,000 new solar jobs, and additional tax revenue for local government, the poll said. Nearly 56 percent agree that multi-acre solar projects positively impact communities.

E nergy efficiency legislation was also popular among respondents. Eighty-eight percent of all voters would more likely support a candidate who promoted energy efficiency legislation. That includes 82.7 percent of Trump voters.

Filed last week, Senate Bill 236 would encourage energy efficiency with several new programs to reduce the state’s electricity consumption by 40 to 60 percent over the next 10 years. First, the bill would require the state utilities commission to establish a tiered rate system. The proposed rate structure would charge high-use customers more than low-use. Low-income families could receive an exemption.

The bill would also create an Energy Efficiency Bank. The funds, which would be administered by a third-party, could be loaned to electricity customers to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Customers would repay the loan through monthly installments on their electricity bill. Low-income households would receive grants, which would not need to be repaid.

The bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats Mike Woodard, Erika Smith-Ingram and Valerie Foushee.

Read more

Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Roy Cooper’s $23.4 billion budget: new programs, 5% raise for teachers next year

Gov. Roy Cooper released his first budget today. At $23.4 billion, more than half of that money would be spent on public education. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

At one point in his press conference, Gov. Roy Cooper grabbed a copy of his 161-page budget booklet from a nearby table, and pointed to its cover for emphasis. “This is a balanced budget” he told a group of reporters, who had gathered at Durham Technical Community College for the announcement. “We did it without raising taxes or fees, cutting services or dipping into special funds.”

Released at 10:30 this morning, the $23.4 billion budget will require more analysis to learn what’s been nipped and tucked to achieve that goal. But Cooper’s first foray into a state budget as governor focuses on education, emblematic of his vision of propelling North Carolina into the top 10 educated states by 2025:

  • new programs for continuing education students and community colleges to increase the number of adults with a higher education degree from 38 percent to 55 percent;
  • an increase in the number of pre-K slots to eliminate the 4,700-child waiting list;
  • financial incentives for new schoolteachers in the form of a $10,000 student loan forgiveness in exchange for a 3–4 year commitment to teaching in North Carolina public schools;
  • salary hikes for all state employees, including a 5 percent bump for public school teachers in 2017-18 and another 5 percent in 2018-2019

Including one-time expenditures, the total amount is a 5.1 percent increase over 2016-17, hammered out by the legislature and former Gov. Pat McCrory. Without those non-recurring funds, the budget is 3 percent higher than the previous one.

Cooper is counting on Medicaid expansion to help offset state health care costs in a “cost-neutral manner.” The governor is counting on hospitals to  cover the state’s portion, which he said would ultimately save those institutions money it would otherwise spend on providing care for the uninsured.

Another 624,000 North Carolinians would be covered under Medicaid if it were expanded, Cooper said.

North Carolina’s rural and underserved areas would also receive an infusion of funds. About $30 million is included for the redevelopment of “NC Ready” sites. Those are tracts of 50 to 200 acres that could be repurposed for economic development. To attract good-paying manufacturing jobs, Cooper proposes spending $20 million to build infrastructure for new factories.

Although North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in December, 59 of 100 counties reported rates higher than the statewide average. Eastern North Carolina is particularly hard-hit, with Hyde County at 11.6 percent of eligible adults out of work and Tyrrell County at 10.3 percent.

Low wages, a lack of education and opportunity — in a word, despair — has led to a sharp increase in opioid deaths nationwide, and North Carolina is no exception. In 2015, 735 deaths were attributed to prescription opioid overdoses, more than the number of caused by heroin and cocaine, combined. In 1999, the state reported fewer than 100 such deaths. To combat the state’s problem with opioid abuse, Cooper has requested $12 million next year.

The Department of Environmental Quality would also receive a boost, adding four full-time positions in water resources permitting staff and another four full-time jobs in dam safety. “DEQ has been decimated for the last four years,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure we have the people who can do the job.”

There is also $100 million allocated for hurricane and disaster relief reserve.

We are catching up. We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority. Click To Tweet

Other notable, although easily overlooked line items include $1 million to help keep the state’s military bases open when the next round of closures begins in 2018. Those bases, including Camp Lejeune, Seymour Air Force Base, Pope Field, Cherry Point and Fort Bragg, are key to the economy in their communities.

As part of the “Raise the Age” campaign — it would prohibit 16- and 17- year olds from being tried as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime — Cooper said another juvenile center would need to be built. That could raise concerns among juvenile justice advocates who want to keep these kids out of institutions. Nonetheless, he is requesting $1 million the first fiscal year and $5 million in the second to accommodate those teens into the juvenile justice system.

The 895,000 people in North Carolina without access to high-speed internet could be helped by a $15 million broadband grant program. It would help deliver what’s known as “last mile” and “middle mile” high-speed internet to rural areas, particularly in the mountains. Another $5 million would be used to assess the state’s broadband needs.

The House and Senate are meeting tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the governor’s budget before each chamber draws up its own version. (They will meet in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, so a live audio stream will be available.) Republican State Sen. Pro Tempore Phil Berger already disapproves. He tweeted that Cooper’s budget contains “reckless spending.”

“We are catching up,” Cooper countered. “We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority.”

 

Legislature, News

Bipartisan group of lawmakers introduce redistricting reform bill to end gerrymandering

Rep. Chuck McGrady

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) leads a press conference Tuesday about redistricting reform. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Lawmakers have taken the first step toward ending gerrymandering — introducing a bill that would take the politics out of redistricting.

It’s not an unprecedented bill and there’s no guarantee it will actually make it to committee, but lawmakers present at a press conference Tuesday showed a commitment to getting it passed.

“When we were in the minority, this bill was something that Republicans generally rallied around and what I’d say to that is, if it was the right thing then, it is still the right thing now,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson). “We have to serve the people of North Carolina and we have to make sure they have full confidence in the integrity and fairness of our elections.”

House Bill 200 is almost identical to 2011’s HB824. Instead of lawmakers drawing their own districts for partisan advantage, a nonpartisan legislative staff would create congressional and legislative maps without political consideration.

McGrady is sponsoring the bill, along with Representatives Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga), Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes). There are Democrats co-sponsoring the bill.

Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) said the bill is not a cure for all the problems of redistricting, but rather, “a wonderful treatment to a bipartisan problem from which our democracy suffers.”

“Redistricting is one of the most inherently partisan activities that we do as a body. There will always be partisanship in it,” Martin said. “But this bill would put a layer of insulation between the partisan hacks, like all of us up here, and the drawing of our districts. Regardless of which party is in charge, I think that’s the best way forward.”

Common Cause North Carolina Executive Director Bob Phillips was at the press conference. He said the real push for the organization and legislators will be to get legislative leadership to allow the bill to be heard.

So far, legislative leaders haven’t been receptive to redistricting reform but they have supported it in the past, Phillips said.

Wednesday is an official redistricting reform lobbying day. There will be a rally at 1 p.m. at Bicentennial Plaza to end gerrymandering.

Keep an eye on NC Policy Watch Thursday afternoon for a more in depth story about redistricting reform and coverage of Wednesday’s rally.