HB2, Legislature, News

For some legislators, a personal fight for LGBTQ rights

When Democratic state lawmakers introduced a package of bills to protect LGBTQ North Carolinians  this week, they knew it would be a difficult road to passage.

The current Republican majority hasn’t let similar bills come to a vote when they were introduced in previous years.

A bill that would completely repeal HB2 will be a non-starter with many of the GOP legislators who passed it still in their seats.

A non-discrimination bill that explicitly protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and accommodation died in committee when last introduced.

The new bill outlawing “conversion” therapy for LGBTQ youth is likely to face stiff opposition from conservatives who believe such treatment is part of their religious freedom.

But for several of the lawmakers sponsoring the bills, it is not just important legislation – it’s personal.

“This is so deeply personal,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). “I was a judge for 18 years, listening to cases and affording peoples’ rights when my rights couldn’t be afforded. The hypocrisy of that…and probably one of the happiest days of my life was when the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, same-sex couples can be married.'”

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham)

Morey’s voice was thick with emotion as she emphasized the importance of the LGBTQ community — and legislators who are part of that community — pressing forward even in the face of a GOP majority that dismisses progress for them.

“So we keep talking about this community — well,  the community is here too,” Morey said of the legislature. “And it matters to respect everyone and for us to say everyone is  equal, everyone should be afforded their rights. And finally, after 60 years, to come out and say ‘Yes I am part of this community.’ Without the shame – because our laws are changing and our attitudes are changing. And love conquers hate and discrimination.”

Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) agreed. Calling herself “a gay member of this big body of government,” Dahle said she remembered LGBTQ constituents being encouraged by her running for office. Those same people – and many more – are now in the fight with her for equality, she said.

“It’s a blessing to have all these people behind me pushing forward and saying that we’re all human beings and we all deserve respect,” Dahle said.

The environment of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the state that continues to generate new bills against same-sex marriage can make LGBTQ North Carolinians feel isolated, Dahle said.

“It’s ostracizing but ostracizing in a very subtle way,” she said. “There are places you don’t want to go. We don’t have that big problem here in Wake County. But I hear reports from people in smaller counties that it just cuts off their social life, it cuts them off from being out in public.”

Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake)

The Mental Health Protection Act would protect LGBTQ people – especially youth – from being targeted in by harmful programs that have been disavowed by every major medical association, advocates said this week. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all condemn the practice as harmful.

Though some religious organizations support the practice – meant to “cure” people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – critics say it can’t be defended as an expression of religious freedom.

“This is a practice only an adult who has the mental capacity to consent should engage in, if they so choose,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC. “You cannot support electric shock therapy to change someone’s person, you cannot support sleep deprivation, starving children – all of those different things. Child abuse is not a parental right.”

More than 700,000 people have been subjected to the practice, which Johnson said has a strong correlation to suicide. Information on the number of North Carolinians who have undergone it is not readily available, she said, because the individuals and organizations who practice it are often not very transparent about it. Read more

Environment, Legislature

And the wind cried Harry: Sen. Brown introduces anti-wind energy bill — again

Sen. Harry Brown received $4,000 in campaign contributions last year from Koch Industries, which opposes wind energy and other renewables. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Sen. Harry Brown, who last year received $4,000 in campaign contributions from anti-wind energy billionaires, the Koch Brothers, has filed a bill that would cripple the wind energy along the North Carolina coast.

The Onslow County Republican yesterday filed Senate Bill 377, the “Military Base Protection Act,” which would prohibit wind farms in areas that could present a high risk for military training exercises. Based on Department of Defense maps, the bill essentially outlaws wind farms within 100 miles of the coast — a prime area for wind energy.

Sens. Paul Newton, a former Duke Energy employee, and Norm Sanderson are the other primary co-sponsors of the bill.

Brown and other coastal wind energy opponents say wind turbines present an unacceptable risk to the military and could jeopardize the state’s bases in the next round of base closings. However, the Department of Defense Site Clearinghouse reviews all energy project proposals that could interfere with military missions, and works with states and energy companies to mitigate potential problems.

Federal law states that the Defense Department “may only oppose development of an energy project when impacts cannot be feasibly and affordably mitigated, and may significantly degrade or impair military operations.”

However, at least one military base, Otis Air National Guard in Massachusetts, has built its own independent microgrid using a wind turbine, solar energy and battery storage.

No military crashes have been reported with wind farms as the cause. In 2014, a Piper civilian plane crashed in South Dakota near a wind farm, but the FAA attributed bad weather, including dense fog, as the cause. In 2008, a Cessna crashed near a wind farm in Minnesota during bad weather. Federal investigators determined the pilot didn’t have the proper instrument training to fly in those conditions.

If it becomes law, the legislation would not affect the 104-turbine Amazon Wind Farm, which has operated in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties in northeastern North Carolina since 2017. That same year, Brown at the last minute inserted language into a clean energy bill that established an 18-month moratorium on new wind farms. The measure was controversial, and nearly hijacked months-long negotiations among Duke Energy, lawmakers and the clean energy sector. The bill eventually passed and became law. The hiatus expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

According to 2018 campaign finance reports, Koch Industries, which is run by the Koch Brothers, contributed $4,000 to Brown’s campaign. The Koch Brothers have made their fortune in fossil fuels.

Although the Trump administration has said the next closings could occur in 2021, that is speculative. Congress often opposes the closings, known as BRAC for short, to protect bases in their home districts.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration has several renewable energy opponents among its ranks. Christine Harbin, a senior adviser for external affairs in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, came from Americans for Prosperity, a longtime foe of renewable energy. According to DesSmogBlog, which coves climate science, in 2012, Harbin organized Koch Brothers-backed groups to send an anti-wind letter to Congress asking federal lawmakers to end wind production credits.

Commentary, Legislature, News, The State of Working North Carolina, Trump Administration

Trump’s overtime proposal leaves behind almost 300,000 North Carolina workers

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposal to change the salary threshold under which workers are entitled to overtime pay — to $35,308 a year from $23,600 a year.

Under federal law, people who work more than 40 hours per week are supposed to be paid 1.5 times their regular hourly rate for each overtime hour unless they fall into one of the many overtime exemptions.   The so-called “white collar” exemption allows employers to exempt salaried workers who make above the salary threshold from overtime pay if they are engaged in executive, administrative or professional duties.  Once the proposed rule takes effect, anyone making under $35,308 per year (or $679 per week) will not qualify for the exemption.

If you are experiencing déjà vu reading this, that’s because we have been here before.  Well, kind of.  In May of 2016, after two years of research and public input, the Obama DOL also published a new rule updating the salary threshold to $47,476 per year (or $913 per week).  That rule, however, was blocked by a federal court in Texas shortly before it was due to take effect.

The Trump Administration is taking credit for this proposed change, touting it for bringing “common sense, consistency, and higher wages to working Americans,” but they are actually leaving behind millions of Americans who can be required to work 50, 60 or 70 hours per week with no additional pay.

Because the 2016 rule included automatic increases every few years, by January 1, 2020 the salary level would be about $51,000 – $16,000 higher than the Trump proposal.   According to the Economic Policy Institute, the difference in salary levels means about 278,000 people in North Carolina who would have benefited from the 2016 rule are left out by the 2019 rule.  Nationally, that number is over 8 million.

Jumping to $35,308 from $23,600 may seem like a decent increase – and going from $23,600 all the way to $47,476 may strike you as extreme – but it is important to consider those numbers in context.

DOL used to periodically update the salary threshold to reflect changes in the economy and inflation, but the only time it has been updated since 1975 (setting aside the 2016 rule which was blocked) was in 2004.

According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), in the 1970s, about 65% of salaried workers earned under the threshold and were entitled to overtime pay.  The value of the salary threshold has eroded over time such that today, at the 2004 salary level, only 7% of salaried workers are under the salary threshold.

If the 1975 level was updated for inflation, it would be $55,000 today and would, likely, have the effect that the overtime requirement was originally intended to have: ensuring that overtime exempt employee are getting fairly compensated for extra  hours.

Between now and mid-May, the public can and should comment on the current salary proposal.

Clermont Ripley is a senior attorney at the N.C. Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. 

Environment, Legislature, News

Cancer study bill advances; protections against leaking trash trucks introduced

(Illustration: University of California San Francisco)

Suspected cancer clusters would get closer scrutiny, according to a bill that passed with a favorable report from the Senate Ag, Environment and Natural Resources Committee today.

Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Sen. Vickie Sawyer, a Republican from Iredell County, would direct the NC Policy Collaboratory to assemble a Cancer Research Advisory Panel to review and analyze statewide cancer data.

The Collaboratory would then use the panel’s expertise to recommend ways for the state to establish a “credible research program” to determine “if and where statistic significant clusters of cancer exist.”

Sawyer mentioned the bill last week at a Mooresville town meeting about preliminary findings on a suspected cancer cluster in southern Iredell County.

“We need more help to find more answers,” said Sawyer, whose drinking water well lies within 2,000 feet of a structural fill site that contains coal ash. “This bill is the first step to find more answers for all of our backyards in North Carolina.”

Eleven other counties, primarily in the southeastern part of the state, have higher than expected rates of thyroid cancer.

Sawyer’s bill, though, would direct the Collaboratory to study not only the rates of thyroid cancer, but of all types of cancer diagnosed statewide. There have been 18 cases of a rare ocular melanoma in young women living in Huntersville.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services and the NC Department of Environmental Quality would consult on the panel, as well  as major medical schools and centers at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and East Carolina universities.

Draft recommendations would be due no later than Dec. 31.

No appropriation has yet been included in the bill. It now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

Several other environmental bills were introduced in the Senate this week:

SB 356 (Andy Wells, Harry Brown, primary sponsors): The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund would each receive 12.5 percent of the net proceeds from the sale of state-owned property outside of the Capital District in Raleigh. Both funds run on gaunt budgets. Lawmakers routinely have cut the CWMTF budget, from $40 million in 2000 to as low as $6 million. In 2017, the CWMTF received $18 million, but that amount was 18 percent lower than the previous budget allocation.

SB 358 “Protect Citizens From Leaking Garbage Trucks” (Michael Garrett, Natasha Marcus, Mike Woodard, primary sponsors): This bill would repeal a portion of a dreadful 2013 Session Law that required solid waste trucks to only be “leak-resistant,” rather than “leak-proof.” (Section 59.2 for those of you playing along at home.)

So if garbage juice containing who-knows-what dripped, flowed or otherwise left the collection truck — and ended up on the road or the street in front of your house — that was legal. At the time, then-Sen. Trudy Wade had inserted in the language into the bill as a favor to her waste industry supporters.

And in the House, House Bill 479, “Study Solar Facility Decommissioning Requirements,” (Jimmy Dixon, sponsor) addresses some  conservatives’ opposition — disguised as environmental concerns — about utility-scale solar farms. (Dixon even opposes calling them “farms,” when Merriam-Webster allows for such usage.)

The bill language is technically reasonable in that it requires a study of performance bonds and the accounting of hazardous material that the panels could include.  According to the NC Sustainable Energy Association, while the panels themselves are not usually considered hazardous waste, some of the chemicals inside them must be properly disposed of in compliance with federal law. It is true that North Carolina lacks statewide rules regarding their disposal, but that authority is generally left to local governments.

Other industries that produce hazardous material rarely receive this level of scrutiny. The Coal Ash Management Act, for example, could have required Duke Energy to excavate every unlined impoundment and to then place the ash in dry, lined and capped storage. But the law didn’t.

The EPA doesn’t classify coal ash as “hazardous,” but that designation was influenced by political pressure, not science. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, chromium, radium and other hazardous and toxic chemicals, but the non-hazardous designation allows the material to be used as structural fill or disposed in solid waste landfills.

Education, Environment, Legislature, public health

Bill would require schools, day cares to test for lead in drinking water

A new bill would appropriate $8 million in non-recurring funds for public schools and some day cares to test for lead in their drinking water, as well as providing alternate water supplies for buildings that exceed federal action levels for the chemical.

House Bill 386 would require all public schools, including public charters, and those day cares located in commercial buildings to test for lead in water used for drinking, including fountains and drink stations.

Schools and day cares where lead levels are 5 parts per billion or higher — the federal action level for drinking water — would then have to immediately shut off fixtures where the elevated concentrations were detected. In addition, the bill lays out requirements for public notification — no more than 48 hours to all parents, faculty and staff in the affected school, as well as those governing alternate water supplies.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can harm the central nervous system, particularly in children, whose brains are developing. Chronic exposure to elevated lead levels can lower IQ, cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, nerve damage and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia, according to the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health.

Last year, two school districts in North Carolina reported elevated lead levels at some of their facilities. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, 27 schools tested above the action level. 

In Guilford County, three schools — Allen Jay Elementary, Frazier Elementary and Southeast Guilford Middle — all had lead in drinking water above the EPA’s action level for schools: 20 ppb. HB 386 would require schools and daycares to adhere to a more stringent federal standard set for drinking water.

The district did replace the plumbing responsible for the lead but waited four months to notify principals and parents of the findings.

Elevated lead levels are often the result of old plumbing, which has leached the chemical into drinking water. Aging schools and commercial buildings that haven’t been renovated can be affected.

Data on the age of North Carolina public schools wasn’t immediate available, but the National Center for Education Statistics reported that about a third of all public schools in the US had plumbing systems in their permanent buildings that were rated either fair or poor.

The bill establishes water testing deadlines for schools, depending on the age of the building and when the plumbing had last (or ever) been completely removed and replaced. Schools whose plumbing is new or has been renovated after Dec. 31, 1990, are exempt, as are schools that already monitor for lead.

Schools constructed on or before Dec. 31, 1960, must test by June 30, 2021. Those constructed between Jan. 1, 1961, and Dec. 31, 1990, must test by June 30, 2022.

The $8 million appropriation would provide matching funds for districts based on need.