Commentary, Legislature, News

Editorial: General Assembly was right to seat Rachel Hunt

Newly-seated state House member Rachel Hunt

A new editorial from The Charlotte Observer says the N.C. General Assembly was right to dismiss calls from a conservative advocacy group to block newly-elected lawmaker Rachel Hunt from a seat.

The opinion piece follows the N.C. Values Coalition’s last-minute plea to block Hunt after she ousted influential Republican Bill Brawley by a minuscule margin in November, claiming that they had zeroed in on hundreds of “questionable” absentee ballots.

But if the group was hoping for an outcry similar to the calamity in District 9, they’re surely disappointed. There’s a problem with their claim: The ballots they’ve targeted did not, apparently, clash with the state law.

The piece goes on to examine how North Carolina may approach the questions about absentee ballots, which clearly will be due for a once-over with state leaders in the coming years.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Rachel Hunt was sworn in as a member of the N.C. House on Wednesday, with a cloud hanging over her not of her own making. She earned the seat, and House leaders were right not to deprive her of it. But a challenge to her victory raises larger questions that go to the heart of voters having trust in North Carolina’s elections and that need to be addressed.

Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, knocked off incumbent Republican Bill Brawley by a mere 68 votes out of 38,000 cast in November. That caught the attention of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. It had a sister organization, the Institute for Faith & Family, comb through absentee mail-in ballots in Hunt’s district, House 103.

The group found more than 300 cases in which there was a discrepancy between the date the voter signed the ballot envelope and the date the witness to that vote did. That, the Values Coalition argued, suggests possible fraud and should have blocked Hunt from being seated.

One problem with that: State law does not require that the dates match. In fact, state law does not mention witnesses dating their signatures on absentee ballots. And the state board of elections had suggested to county boards last April that they not throw out a ballot just because the voter and witness dates differed. Given all that, the Mecklenburg board hand-inspected absentee ballots after Election Day, including the 300 in question, and approved them. The county board and the state board certified the results, making Hunt the legitimate winner.

Still, the whole episode suggests some changes are needed. Witnesses weren’t asked to date their signatures on absentee ballots until 2018. The state board of elections initiated that practice after the 2016 election as a tool to help identify voter fraud. After all, though it’s not illegal, a discrepancy between the voter and witness dates does raise questions about whether the vote was actually witnessed.

State elections officials say that date discrepancies may be fodder for an investigation. Yet at the same time, they emphasize to county boards not to pay such discrepancies much mind.

And so the Mecklenburg Board of Elections didn’t, and isn’t. Were the questionable absentee ballots only in Hunt’s House 103, or were there similar ballots in races across the county and state? Were there one or two witnesses signing the ballots in question, or many? Were these ballots mostly from voters of one party or the other?

Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson can’t say, because he hasn’t inspected the 300 ballots to look for patterns. He told the Observer editorial board Wednesday he’s happy to do so if the state or his board want him to.

By themselves, the differing dates found by the Values Coalition hardly suggest the House 103 results are tainted. It’s unlikely they are. But many voters at least want to know that nothing’s being swept under the rug. A state board spokesman said that office has opened an investigation into the ballots the Values Coalition flagged. That’s good; a closer look would be valuable, as would more consistent and precise guidance from the state.

HB2, Legislature, News

HB2 ‘Bathroom Bill’: Costly then, costly now

It’s been more than 18 months since the repeal of HB2, yet the controversial ‘bathroom bill’ that required transgender people to use the public restrooms that corresponded to their sex at birth, continues to tarnish North Carolina’s image.

An article in The Charlotte Observer notes that the city is still dealing with fallout from the legislation (and replacement bill), and earmarking millions to market itself to travelers.

Here’s an excerpt from the the report:

HB2 was passed in 2016 under then Gov. Pat McCrory.

Included in the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority’s current 2019 budget is $2 million in “Post HB2 Marketing/Sales support,” according to email records obtained by the Observer through a public records request.

The funding is for Visit Charlotte, a division of the CRVA. Visit Charlotte received $1 million last fiscal year for post-HB2 marketing/sales support, according to the report.

The $3 million total isn’t necessarily for one ad or creative approach, CRVA spokeswoman Laura White said. Rather, she said, it’s a “comprehensive place branding strategy” that includes more money spent on Charlotte’s branding, as well as consumer-facing media like TV ads in out-of-state markets and magazine ads.

White said the increase in marketing dollars is meant to deal with three concerns: cleaning up the city’s image post-HB2; improving its reputation following civil unrest from 2016 following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott; and promoting Charlotte in regional markets such as Austin, Texas, Nashville, Tenn., and Asheville.

In its annual report for fiscal year 2018 sent to Mayor Vi Lyles and Charlotte City Council in late October, the CRVA noted that although HB2 was technically repealed and replaced with House Bill 142, North Carolina still remains under a travel ban from six states, with California and New York having the largest impact.

States with the travel bans have indicated to local tourism officials that HB 142 “did not go far enough in protecting individuals against discrimination,” said the CRVA, which is a division of the city of Charlotte funded with local hotel/motel and prepared food taxes.

“The CRVA is still finding that conventions with a high percentage of public employees attending are choosing to not come to Charlotte because of the potential of decreased attendance, which is up to 15 percent in some cases,” the group said.

Even after the repeal, roughly one in four travelers had a negative perception of North Carolina because of HB2, according to a July 2017 study commissioned by Destinations International, a professional organization that represents destination management groups.

Read the full article here in The Charlotte Observer.

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Private firm to investigate Gov. Cooper’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal: “We have no political agenda”

A private firm formed by three former federal agents will investigate Gov. Roy Cooper’s controversial memorandum of understanding with Dominion Energy over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

At a subcommittee meeting today, lawmakers announced they had hired Eagle Intel, based in Wilmington, to conduct the investigation. The firm, composed of Frank Brostrom, Tom Beers and Kevin Greene, incorporated last year. Brostrom worked for the FBI, and Beers and Greene for the Internal Revenue Service. Their areas of expertise focused on tax evasion and financial and political corruption, as well as organized crime and terrorism cases.

This is not a criminal probe, but a civil one, prompted by legislative oversight, said Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County.

The firm charges $100 an hour for its services, but until the investigation is under way, it’s unknown what the final cost will be.

Under the non-binding MOU signed by Cooper and Dominion nearly a year ago, the Virginia-based utility and Duke Energy, co-owners of ACP, LLC, would pay $57.8 million for economic development and renewable energy projects along the 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina. The announcement of the MOU coincided by just hours with the Department of Environmental Quality’s granting of a key water quality permit for the project.

Republican lawmakers then introduced and passed House Bill 90, which funneled the money away from its original purpose and toward public schools in the affected counties. However, no money has been disbursed yet. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not issued its final construction permits for part of the route in North Carolina, which would trigger half of the amount to be due.

The other half of the money would be payable when the ACP is completed. That could take years. Last week, a federal appeals court halted all construction on the 600-mile pipeline over US Fish and Wildlife’s questionable assessment of the project’s potential damage to endangered species.

DEQ and the governor’s office have denied working in tandem on the timing of the permit and the MOU. But Republican lawmakers want Eagle Intel to determine if the MOU involved “pay-to-play” — that the voluntary monetary contribution smoothed the way for the water quality permit.

Lawmakers, led by a Republican majoriy, informally requested documents from the governor’s office and DEQ about the MOU, but never received them, despite multiple inquiries. They filed a formal public records request last month. (Environmental advocates and the media, including Policy Watch, likewise filed records requests from the governor and received no documents of significance; the requests have yet to be completely fulfilled.)

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat on the panel that hired Eagle Intel, said the governor’s office and DEQ are expected to provide documents by Dec. 20. “I think it’s premature to investigate,” McKissick said.

But the governor’s office, as if to say, “touche’,” filed its own records request with lawmakers. In a document dated today, Dec. 12, Kristi Jones, the governor’s chief of staff, formally asked for voluminous information that could reveal whether Republican lawmakers’ concerns are legitimate or merely a power play. Among the governor’s request is communications among legislators, staff and any third parties, including the state Republican Party, executive director Dallas Woodhouse and chairman Robin Hayes.

The agents, who were present at today’s subcommittee meeting, emphasized that they have “no political agenda, no dog in the fight.”

“We will follow where the facts lead us,” Brostrom said.

According to voter registration records, Brostrom and Greene are registered Republicans; Beers is unaffiliated.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session, Voting

The week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1. The next big battle in North Carolina politics is just days away

The 2018 election may finally be in the rear view mirror, but for better or worse, the next battle over the state’s future will commence very soon – on Tuesday, November 27. That’s the day that Republican legislative leaders will convene the latest of their endless stream of “special” legislative sessions.

Unfortunately, there’s little indication that there will be anything very special about this particular convening – unless, that is, one places a high priority on voter suppression, dishonest schemes to amend the state constitution, and rump, lame duck governance in which unaccountable decision makers attempt to foist lasting change upon a mostly uninformed public.

As usual, we know very little about the specifics of the planned session at this point, but multiple news outlets have reported that it will feature the adoption of legislation to implement (i.e. flesh out the details for) some or all of three constitutional amendments approved by voters last week. That means that we could see legislation related to the amendments on voter ID, victims’ rights and hunting and fishing. The tax cap amendment requires no new legislation.[Read more…] ===
2. With the supermajority doomed, North Carolina should reconsider Medicaid expansion

Despite the manufactured panic of the migrant caravan, despite the midterm’s so-called “referendum on Trump,” despite the nation’s nonsensical gun laws, despite an election that often seemed a direct rebuke of misogynist GOP leaders and policies, the pollsters told us the 2018 election would begin and end with healthcare.

Prevailing wisdom held that, in 2010, voters were rankled by Obamacare when they tossed Democrats and other supporters of former President Obama’s signature legislation.

If past is prologue, 2018’s bad-tempered midterms would spell similar problems for Republicans, who’d, according to the polls, irritated voters by meddling with Obamacare. These days the law, warts and all, enjoys broad support in the general public, and enthusiasm for the GOP’s “repeal Obamacare or bust” campaign seemed to wane even before the late John McCain’s dramatic thumbs down.

Remarkably, a full-throated 41 percent of voters told exit pollsters last week that health care was their most important issue this year, according to NBC News, dwarfing even the economy, gun reform, and immigration. To twist Clinton strategist James Carville’s words, it’s Obamacare, stupid. [Read more…]

3. Partisan gerrymandering will be North Carolina’s next big court battle

Breaking the Republicans’ veto-proof legislative majorities was the short game for North Carolina Democrats and many voting rights activists this year. Their long game? Ending partisan gerrymandering for good in North Carolina.

Common Cause, the North Carolina Democratic Party and a group of individual voters filed a lawsuit earlier this week in Wake County Superior Court challenging the redrawn 2017 maps used in the election last week. They are using the state constitution’s Equal Protection and Free Election clauses as well as the free speech and association guarantees to make their case.

“There is nothing ‘equal’ about the ‘terms’ on which North Carolinians vote for candidates for the General Assembly,” the 69-page lawsuit states. “North Carolina’s Constitution also commands that ‘all elections shall be free’ – a provision that has no counterpart in the federal constitution. Elections to the North Carolina General Assembly are not ‘free’ when the outcomes are predetermined by partisan actors sitting behind a computer.” [Read more…]

***Bonus read: Trump nominee Farr could be confirmed to Eastern District judgeship by end of year

4. Republican legislators pledge to probe Cooper Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

The Joint Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline voted Wednesday to launch an investigation into Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, albeit one without an investigator — and without any notion of how much the inquiry would cost.

The investigation, spearheaded by Republican Sens. Harry Brown and Paul Newton and Rep. Dean Arp, will look into whether Gov. Roy Cooper’s $57.8 million Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Duke Energy and Dominion Energy was a “pay to play” deal to construct a segment of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina.

The lawmakers have implied that, in exchange for ponying up the money — which Cooper would control via an escrow account — the utilities would receive key water quality permits from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). [Read more...]

5. High-powered trial lawyers joust as latest hog trial commences

Robert Thackston, who is tall, bald, with a trunk as straight as a redwood’s, removed his midnight-blue suit jacket to reveal a white twill shirt so crisp it threatened to shatter.

On the seventh floor, in Room No. 2 of the federal courthouse in Raleigh, the Texas lawyer sat at the head of a scurry of attorneys hired by Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer. He rocked in his chair and flipped through his thicket of notes, as if perusing a wine list. He raised his eyes and gazed at the grid of lights in the ceiling. He seemed to be rehearsing.
Robert Thackston

Behind him, in the gallery, fellow Texas attorney Michael Kaeske, graying but boyish, smiled and shook hands with each of the plaintiffs. The eight Black neighbors of a 6,000-head industrialized hog farm near Rose Hill in Sampson County had entrusted him with their story. It seemed to weigh on him. Flanked by lawyers from the Salisbury firm Wallace and Graham, which hired him as the lead attorney, he approached his desk and turned around to face the packed courtroom. He touched three fingers to the side of his neck, as if measuring his pulse.

The fourth hog nuisance case against Smithfield Foods began in US District Court on Wednesday. Yet even before the trial, its methods and strategies contrasted with the previous three. The farm in question, Sholar, is owned and operated by Smithfield Foods. Although in all of the cases the defendant is Smithfield, the company has often used its growers — family farmers contractually bound to corporate whims — as a public relations tool to elicit sympathy. This time, there is no family farmer. There is just Smithfield. [Read more…]

6. Folwell, State Health Plan swim against rising tide with denial of insurance coverage to transgender individuals

North Carolina is not the only state whose transgender state employees and dependents are without insurance coverage under their state’s health plan.

But the state’s blanket exclusion of treatments for gender dysphoria—from counseling and hormone treatment to gender confirmation surgery—puts it firmly in the minority.

Only 12 states in the U.S. currently have explicit exclusions of transgender and transition-related health care in their state employee health benefits. Seventeen states and Washington D.C explicitly provide for this type of care as part of their employee health benefits. Twenty-one states don’t specifically cover the treatment but do not have a blanket exclusion, making it easier for patients to appeal for some treatments and for the coverage to expand to include them.

“Generally speaking, it’s a positive trend,” said Logan Casey with the Movement Advancement Project, a Colorado-based group that tracks state stances on LGBTQ rights issues. [Read more…]

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

Environment, Legislature

Sen. Trudy Wade: Her loss, should it stand, could be a win for the environment

Photo of Senator Trudy Wade of Guilford County

In 2017, Sen. Trudy Wade, a Republican of Guilford County, toured the Sweeney treatment plant in Wilmington, where GenX had been detected in the drinking water. Wade, long an environmental antagonist, appears to have lost re-election. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

Throughout her three terms, Sen. Trudy Wade earned a reputation as a faithful ally of polluting industries, consistently reliable for a vote against environmental regulation.

But if current election results hold, those industries, particularly waste management, will have lost their best friend in the legislature.

According to unofficial results from Guilford County, Democrat Michael Garrett beat Wade by 763 votes. Provisional ballots aren’t included in that total. Given the margin of less than 1 percent, Wade could request a recount.

Nonetheless, Wade, who serves on the Environmental Review Commission and key oversight and appropriations committees over the environment and agriculture, has left a legacy in the legislature, even for her support of bills that didn’t pass.

She has sponsored bills to relax protective buffers between landfills and wildlife refuges, to allow garbage trucks to be only “leak-resistant” rather than leak-proof, and to discontinue electronics recycling.

On June 29, 2016, in the final days of the session, Wade was on the Senate ag/environment committee when suddenly, language for an ill-advised and untried “leachate aerosolization technology” appeared in an omnibus environmental bill. On June 30, the Wade campaign received $5,000 from Kelly Houston, its inventor, as well as another $5,000 from Houston’s wife.

Leachate aerosolization quickly became known as “garbage juice in a snow blower” because the technology sucked landfill leachate from tanks and sprayed it into the air. Ostensibly, the contaminated particles would fall harmlessly to the landfill surface. That contention was false; the particles can travel for miles, depending on the wind and topography.

That bill ultimately failed, but was resurrected in the next session by Rep. Jimmy Dixon, when it failed again — but came closer to becoming law.

She also supported House Bill 56, a grab-bag of environmental laws, containing a controversial section that sharply limits public input once state environmental officials issue a mining or landfill permit. These permits are known as “life-of-site” and are valid for as long as a company wants to operate. The maneuver also blunts opportunities for public comment, because hearings for permit renewals are generally when that comment is taken.

As a member of the Environmental Review Commission, Wade refused to recommend emergency funding for the NC Department of Environmental Quality to combat the GenX problem in the Cape Fear River and drinking water in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.

Instead, she and fellow senators Mike Lee (who trails by 36 votes to Harper Peterson, according to unofficial election results), Bill Rabon and Andy Wells sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency to audit the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of discharge permits. While there have been legitimate questions about how DEQ handled the GenX drinking water crisis, the request to the EPA amounted to political posturing. The EPA already audits DEQ, and concluded it was appropriately operating the program.

Garrett’s apparent victory over Wade is in part the result of a redrawn district. Two years ago, Garrett lost by 6 percentage points. But after maps were changed to remedy gerrymandering, the district became more hospitable for Democrats. However, Wade is not one to go gently into the good night. In 2004, she lost her Guilford County Commissioners seat by fewer than 300 votes. She appealed to the state Supreme Court and stayed in office for 18 months before ultimately having to concede it.