Environment, Legislature

Sen. Cook complains about politics trumping science, then votes for leachate bill, backed by no science

Photograph of Senator Bill Cook of coastal North Carolina

Sen. Bill Cook, who represents eight coastal counties, said politics, not science, is influencing the Marine Fisheries Commission. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

The Senate agriculture and environment committee introduced a blizzard of last-minute, controversial amendments to a bill this morning — including one that state regulators had not even reviewed.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality “still has issues with” the Senate version of House Bill 56, said Andy Miller, DEQ’s legislative director.

One Senate amendment would strike language requiring facilities to notify the public whenever any amount of untreated wastewater is spilled into lakes, rivers and streams. Current law requires notice when the amount is 1,000 gallons. The amendment essentially maintains existing law.

Why are there changes to revert it back?” asked Democratic Sen. Angela Bryant, one of the few committee members who publicly quizzes the bill sponsors for explanations.

“Well, this goes on daily at municipal wastewater plants, at Duke Energy,” replied Sen. Andy Wells. “We know it’s going on.”

(Real Facts NC has video footage of this discussion.)

Arguably, it is not widely known how much untreated wastewater is discharged into surface waters and who is responsible for it.

Miller of DEQ could not comment to lawmakers about the amendment because, he said, “We’ve not been able to review it.”

Skeptical: Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat from northeastern North Carolina

Another amendment would reduce the number of seats on the Marine Fisheries Commission from nine to seven. The governor would still have the power to appoint the members, but like Republicans’ attempts to shrink the Court of Appeals and other governmental bodies they disagree with, this decrease is not as benign as it seems.

“In the last few years, most people believe the Marine Fisheries Commission has gotten out of control,” said Sen. Bill Cook, not defining “most people.” “They’re not basing decisions on science, but politics. Maybe this will encourage the commission to make better decisions.”

If that’s truly the case, then changing the statute to add scientists to the commission could solve the problem. Currently, there is only one: Mike Wicker, a biologist with the US Fish & Wildlife Service. His term expires on June 30, although Gov. Cooper could reappoint him.

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2017 Fiscal Year State Budget, Legislature, News

NC Senate leaders tout tax cuts, education spending in budget proposal

Senate leaders gave a broad outline of their proposed 2017-2018 budget Tuesday afternoon, saying it shares a lot of the same priorities as Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposal – but has different priorities.

The $22.9 billion Senate plan is an increase of about 3.75 percent over the state’s projected spending for this fiscal year, which ends in June. But it’s about $600 million less than Cooper’s spending plan.

“We have not forgotten the mess we found in 2011, the result of years of spending growth at unsustainable levels,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) in a Tuesday press conference. “We feel strongly that when government collects more than it needs, some of that money should be returned to the taxpayers.”

The Senate’s “Billion Dollar Middle Class Tax Cut,” passed last month, was a priority, Berger said.

Under that plan, Senate Bill 325, the state’s income tax rate would drop from 5.499 percent to 5.35 percent in the 2018 tax year. The standard deduction, or amount on which no income tax is owed – would increase from $8,750 to $10,000 for single filers and from $17,500 to $20,000 for those filing jointly.

The tax changes will result in $324 million less revenue in the coming fiscal year, around $710 million less in 2018-2019 and $775 million less by the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

Critics charge that the Republican majority in the General Assembly have slowed or reduced spending in key areas while building up a $580.5 million surplus. Reducing state revenues as dramatically as the Senate proposes is unnecessary when the state has pressing needs, Democratic lawmakers have argued.

But Berger and other Senate GOP leaders said Tuesday they believe citizens will use their money more wisely than government.

Senators also touted education spending outlined in the plan, pointing to increases in areas of bipartisan agreement.

Among them:

  • A pay raise for teachers of 3.7 percent.
  • A raise for most other state employees of $750 or 1.5 percent, whichever is larger. It was not yet clear Tuesday whether retirees will also see a cost of living increase.
  • $150 million in disaster relief funding for victims of Hurricane Matthew
  • Provisions for the “raise the age” initiative, which would send minors under 18 to juvenile courts when charged with a crime rather than trying them as adults. Berger called the change a priority and said the Senate would like to see it in place by 2020.

The full budget bill won’t be filed until late Tuesday night. On Wednesday multiple committee hearings will be held with the two required floor votes expected Thursday and Friday. The bill will then go to the House, where members say they would prefer more modest tax cuts.

agriculture, Environment, Legislature

Vote on hog “nuisance” lawsuits happened so fast, some lawmakers’ heads were spinning

He’s a magic man: House Speaker Tim Moore (Photo: NCGA)

I n his next career, House Speaker Tim Moore should become a magician. On Thursday afternoon, a procedural sleight of hand wound up fast-tracking a controversial — and possibly unconstitutional — agriculture bill through its second reading.

House Bill 467 would limit the amount of damages plaintiffs could receive in litigation against hog farms. Under the measure, citizens could not sue over “quality of life” issues, such as odor. Payouts would be limited to the decrease in a property’s fair market or fair rental value. The bill would not only clamp down on future lawsuits but also the 26 that are pending against Murphy-Brown, which owns Smithfield Foods. It is being supported by several industry groups, including the NC Pork Council and the NC Farm Bureau.

During the regular House session, the first five bills slated for their second or third reading were being voted on in order. Suddenly, Moore broke with protocol and skipped over the next 11 bills, quickly calling for a vote on HB 467. As a result, several lawmakers were confused about the bill they were voting on.

“Was there discussion or debate on the bill?” asked Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat, after the vote.

“There were no lights on,” replied Speaker Moore, meaning no lawmaker had signaled he or she would like to speak on the measure.

Even after several lawmakers dialed back their support, the bill passed 64-48. A third reading will be held on the bill, most likely on Monday. If it passes the full House, it will head to the Senate.

B ut even if HB 467 clears the General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper, its execution could be delayed by legal action. Two prominent Republicans, retired Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr and former House Majority Leader Paul Stam both wrote letters to lawmakers stating that the bill was unconstitutional and could be struck down by the courts.

The News & Observer reported on the existence of the letters yesterday. In that report, Orr and Stam told the newspaper they had not been paid to write the letters, which they filed on behalf of the legal firms representing neighbors of industrialized hog farms.

“I would submit that this proposed legislation would … violate the N.C. Constitution in that it is specifically targeted at benefiting a particular industry,” Orr wrote. “It would appear to attempt by legislative action to favor one litigant over another and deny the plaintiffs the remedies to which they are currently entitled under N.C. law.”

Stam, a conservative Republican, agreed. He has historically favored private property rights and opposed eminent domain.

In his opinion, Stam wrote that “if passed into law, it would amount to an inverse condemnation of these property rights, not for a public use, but for the private purposes of a corporation. No matter how well-intentioned, it is not constitutional.”

Most states, especially those with strong agribusiness interests, have passed or introduced similar “nuisance bills.” Some have even enshrined Right to Farm bills in their state constitutions. And in Michigan, environmental groups performed their own magic with that state’s nuisance bill: including wind farms in the class of uses that could not be sued over quality-of-life issues.

But most of the time, big agriculture is seeking the special treatment. The National Conference of State Legislatures cited a Reuters article that quoted an Oklahoma cattle lobbyist calling for “extra protection” for agriculture, “so our farmers and ranchers can continue to produce affordable, abundant food.”

The lobbyist, however, did not mention protection for people living near these large farms and their waste lagoons.

Environment, Legislature, Trump Administration

Between Trump and the NC legislature, it’s been a rough week for those who like living on Earth

The Rubber Stamp Rebellion, so called because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rarely meets a pipeline it doesn’t like, shut down a scheduled talk by Acting FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

I t’s only Thursday morning and already the Earthlings are in trouble.

First, a disturbing public meeting occurred on Monday about Duke University‘s controversial proposed natural gas power plant (more on that issue later today). It was disturbing because the level of transparency about the $55 million plant has been akin to wearing eyeglasses coated with Vaseline.

Also at Duke University, on Tuesday afternoon, Cheryl LaFleur, acting chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was essentially run out of town on a rail by protesters demonstrating against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, 160 miles of which will pass through eastern North Carolina. FERC is responsible for approving energy infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines. It never fails to please — the energy companies.

The entire event was FUBAR: at a capacity of 134, the room at Gross Hall was too small to accommodate the crowd. Attendees were required to register in advance — although NCPW spotted one man in a suit say he “meant to register,” and then was allowed in with a guest. One protester was arrested when he tried to barge into the room without registering. Alas, he wasn’t wearing a suit. (And it should be noted that FERC banned the media, including NCPW, from hearing public comment at “listening sessions” on the ACP last month.)

Depressed yet? Here’s a rundown of the week’s bad news for planet (so far):

  • On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order revoking the Clean Power Plan. The CPP, which would have authorized the EPA to more stringently regulate carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s environmental legacy.
    But natural gas could also get a pass under Trump’s unilateral move. By rolling back the CPP, the Trump administration likewise could rewrite rules to allow more methane — an even more potent greenhouse gas — to enter the atmosphere.
    Obama set a goal of reducing these emissions 40 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Without these checks, the White House announced in 2015, emissions from the oil and gas sector are projected to rise more than 25 percent by 2025.
  • Then on Wednesday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Science, Space and Technology held a hearing that threw shade on the mainstream science of climate change. The hearing was led by conservative Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, who claims to be very, very concerned about the scientific method. His opening salvo included this statement: “Before we impose costly government regulations we have to be certain of human contributions [to climate change]. Far too often we get alarmist theories from scientists operating beyond the scientific method.”
    Ninety-seven percent of the established scientific community have used the scientific method to conclude that human-caused climate change is occurring, altering the Earth’s weather patterns and events to the detriment of the planet. Yet Smith’s subcommittee hearing featured three fringe scientists — go-to’s for conservative climate change deniers — whose credibility is suspect. Some of the work of at least one of them, Judith Curry, has been partially funded by the fossil fuel industry.Scientist Michael Mann tells House committee you find implications of the research inconvenient… Click To TweetThe fourth panelist, Michael Mann, is a respected establishment climatologist frequently attacked by the deniers. “Climate change is real,” Mann said, “and it’s having effects on economy and planet.” He criticized lawmakers who are “going after scientists because you find implications of the research inconvenient to the funders of your political campaigns.”

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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.