Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

Commentary:
1. Make no mistake. The budget failed because Republicans failed to compromise.

There is a temptation—and believe me, I understand it—to celebrate the fleeting nature of this week’s special session of the North Carolina state legislature as some sort of coup.

Resist that temptation, even if the sight of an ostensibly frustrated Phil Berger is a new one to these tired eyes.

Berger and his compatriots in the Republican caucus enjoyed near unchecked power in the last decade. A post-Obama surge of conservatives played a modest part in that, although the gerrymandering did its part too. [Read more…]

2. Pipelines, roads and railways: This is why you should care about Trump’s rollback of NEPA, a key environmental law

By the time the new Interstate 885 opens in Durham later this year, some of the people who conceived of the original project will have been long dead.

In the works for 60 years, the East End Connector, as Durhamites call it, funnels traffic over four miles from NC 147 to US 70 and onto I-85, to reduce congestion on surface streets.

But environmental laws did not slow-walk the project. In fact, when the highway was first conceived in the early 1960s, there was no EPA. There was no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act. There was no NEPA — National Environmental Policy Act. All those laws were passed in the 1970s. [Read more…]

3. NC’s new “Raise the Age” law appears to be off to a promising start

New facilities and policies offer hope to 16 and 17 year-olds once consigned to the adult corrections system

Tall trees and a rocky, woodsy landscape envelop the C.A. Dillon juvenile detention campus in Butner. Save for the tall metal fence that rings the confinement building, the area could be mistaken for a summer camp or private school grounds.

The feeling that greets the visitor of wanting to go for a group hike or play flag football with old pals quickly diminishes inside, however, as the smell of fresh paint permeates the building and barred windows and concrete walls remind you that this isn’t a fun trip away from home. But it won’t be like that forever – after all, this isn’t jail.[Read more…]

4. State lawmaker’s failure to disclose business ties highlights broader ethics enforcement problem

State Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) failed to disclose a business owned and operated by her husband on state Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) forms for several years, according to documents reviewed by Policy Watch.

In North Carolina, public officials are required to disclose connections to all non-publicly owned companies by which they or their immediate family members are employed or in which they have an interest.

Grange’s husband, David Grange, registered his “consulting” business Osprey at Compass Pointe LLC with the state Secretary of State’s office in July 2015. Yet the business did not appear on Grange’s SEI form in 2016, when she was first appointed to a state House seat to replace incumbent Rick Catlin. She ran unopposed for the seat in that year’s election. Rep. Grange also did not list the business on her SEI forms in 2017 or 2018. In February 2018, the business was administratively dissolved by the Secretary of State’s office for failure to file an annual report. [Read more…] Read more

Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors silent on Silent Sam, calls on legislators to pass state budget

In its first full, in-person meeting since its controversial Silent Sam settlement, the UNC Board of Governors made no comment on the issue or the lawsuits and legal actions stemming from it.

Citing pending litigation, board Chairman Randy Ramsey and Interim UNC System President Bill Roper declined all questions on the matter.

Instead, at its Friday meeting, the board took aim at another contentious political issue: the state budget stalemate.

The UNC Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long stalemate between Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislators who have been unable to overturn his budget veto.

The legislature adjourned this week without resolving the budget stalemate, with Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger saying it’s possible no new state budget will be passed this fiscal year or next.

The board’s resolution lists the ways in which the current budget would be beneficial to the system and the potential harms of continuing without a new budget.

The resolution goes on to say that the proposed budget would provide an approximate four percent raise to faculty and staff over the next two year while the absence of a new budget “hurts UNC System institutions, faculty, students, and the communities we serve, and threatens the ability of the University to serve the citizens of the State and contribute to the economic vitality of North Carolina.”

The board’s resolution “strongly encourages all elected leaders who support and value the world class higher educational systems inNorth Carolina to move swiftly to enact House Bill 966 and approve with the provisions originally included inSenate Bill 354. Further, we call on all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Board member Marty Kotis pushed for the resolution — something he said had been discussed during the budget fight but seemed essential with the legislature adjourning without a solution.

Forget Rs and Ds,” Kotis said. “This is about the university system right here. This really isn’t a political issue.”

The resolution does urge lawmakers to pass the budget promoted and passed by Republican lawmakers rather than to compromise and find a solution that would allow the state to expand Medicaid, as Gov. Roy Cooper and Democrats in the General Assembly would prefer. But Kotis said that’s because the proposed budget is very advantageous to the university system and it’s not clear what a different budget would mean for the system.

“This one happens to favor the university system very well,” Kotis said. “But it’s a budget – it’s about spending money and there’s only finite resources. If you don’t pass this and someone else wants something else, things can shift. If it changes and there are other priorities, I’d hate to see that.”

Kotis said he hopes a Democratic Senator will break with with the party and vote with Republicans to overturn the governor’s veto.

I am hopeful there will be one Senator out there that puts the budget over politics and supports the university,” Kotis siad. “Maybe that’s because I’m more of a Maverick and I break ranks every day. But this is important for the university and impacts so many areas throughout the state. There are so many wonderful things for so many areas and so much that will be hurt if we don’t pass it. So I would hope there would be one person.”

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

A “Raise the Age” breakdown by districts across the state

North Carolina officially implemented Raise the Age legislation Dec. 1, 2019 — the change in law means that most 16- and 17-year-olds no longer have to go through the adult criminal justice system and anyone under the age of 18 no longer goes to adult jail.

The Department of Public Safety’s Juvenile Justice division has been hard at work making sure law enforcement, court staff and stakeholders are updated about how the change is coming along. Part of its implementation process involves keeping close track of the numbers — how many Raise the Age complaints are made, how many juveniles are detained, and at some point, trying to figure out the rate of recidivism.

The first set of numbers associated with the new law was released earlier this month at the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee meeting as part of an initial interim report to lawmakers about Raise the Age.

As reported by NC Policy Watch yesterday, so far, the projections the committee made have generally been close to, or a little under, what was expected. It’s a trend Deputy Secretary William Lassiter hopes holds.

The committee projected 1,683 Raise the Age complaints in the month of December – the first month of implementation – but preliminary data shows there were only 407. It was anticipated there would be 60 juveniles detained that first month, and reports show there were 78.

The numbers can and probably will change, after all, investigations are still ongoing. The committee will complete another interim report in May, though, to give lawmakers and the public a more accurate picture of how implementation is taking off.

Check out the table below for a preliminary district breakdown of Raise the Age complaints in December.

Raise the Age complaints by district

The age of juvenile jurisdiction was officially raised as of Dec. 1 to include 16- and 17-year-olds. The following table reflects preliminary data from the month of December in 2019 and shows how many Raise the Age complaints were made to each district in the state. A Raise the Age complaint is defined as complaints received on juveniles ages 16 and 17. The data was provided by the Department of Public Safety's Juvenile Justice division and is current as of Jan. 8, 2020.
District numberNumber of Raise the Age complaints
District 01<5
District 026
District 0312
District 0410
District 05<5
District 06<5
District 0710
District 08<5
District 09<5
District 1024
District 1112
District 12<5
District 13<5
District 149
District 1510
District 166
District 175
District 189
District 1916
District 206
District 215
District 229
District 235
District 24<5
District 25<5
District 2616
District 2716
District 2811
District 2911
District 30<5
Environment

Fence at Umstead would be “permanent eyesore,” says NC Parks to RDU Airport Authority

The proposed fence would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, shown at the bottom of the map. Airport officials contend the fence is necessary to keep trespassers off nearby RDU property — land that has been leased to a quarry company for a controversial stone mine. (Map: NC Parks)

The RDU Airport Authority today delayed a vote on an 8-foot high, 8.3-mile fence that would cut through parts of Umstead Park, after meeting with state parks officials who have serious reservations about the project.

The Authority has proposed building the security fence, which would be topped with three rows of barbed wire.

It would abut parts of the Reedy Creek Multi-Use Trail, bisecting it in two places. The trail  is used by tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists and equestrians every year. The fence’s purpose is to keep trespassers off airport property, which intersects with the park.

Bill Sandifer, the Authority’s chief operating officer, told the board that the airport would be seeking a “compromise” to the fence.

“There’s more conversation to be had,” Sandifer said. “We’re taking a short pause. But the fence isn’t going away. We have needs on that side of the airport.”

However, the fence is clearly unpopular not only with park lovers — Umstead is one of the state’s most popular park destinations — but also state officials, who were frank about their opposition to the project.

In a letter dated Jan. 15, D. Reid Wilson, chief deputy secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which is over the parks system, told the Airport Authority that the proposed fence would create “a permanent eyesore and marring the look and ‘feel’ of the park.”

The proposed fence also “would greatly harm a fundamental purpose of the park, namely to provide public access to a natural setting for people to enjoy nature and improve their physical and mental health,” Wilson wrote. It would also hurt water quality and wildlife habitats.

The fence would cross four large streams, 19 small streams and 29 temporary streams or ditches. “It would damage stream banks, wetlands, and water quality downstream in Umstead Park,” Wilson wrote. It would also “block movements of wildlife, effectively trapping them between airport fences.”

The proposed fence perimeter Map: RDU

To accommodate the fence, RDU would clear cut forested areas and ecological valuable understory for 15 feet on either side of the fence, for a total of 30 feet along the length of the barrier.

The fenced area is also part of a larger 105-acre tract the airport has leased to Wake Stone for a controversial quarry.

Sandifer has justified the need for the fence by saying trespassers are creating legal liabilities for the airport. In addition, Sandifer alleged that trespassers have damaged stream and riparian buffers — 16.5 miles, according to the airport. The airport’s engineering and environmental consultants estimated it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to repair the damage.

Policy Watch has requested documents showing the extent of the damage and how the costs was calculated.

The Reedy Creek Trail predates the airport and has been part of Umstead Park for 85 years, said Umstead Coalition member Jean Spooner, who opposes the fence and the rock quarry that would be built adjacent to it. The airport over time has expanded its land holdings and infringed on the trail, not the other way around, Spooner said.

“Every park map since the airport was built shows that the trail goes into the airport property,” Spooner said. “We’ve had two major  projects to improve that trail. It’s no secret that it’s there. We didn’t move the trail.” 

Wilson wrote that it would be far too expensive for State Parks to move the Reedy Creek trail, but offered several alternatives to a fence for further discussion. These include hiring additional park rangers, at airport expense, although the cost, Wilson said, would be less than the $2 million to build a fence.

“We believe that enhanced law enforcement presence, coupled with strong public communication alerting bikers that citations will be issued to those illegally accessing RDU property, can serve as an effective deterrent,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson suggested the department could also work with RDU and state and federal agencies to buy or lease nearby 151-acre airport property, known as the “286 tract” and to add it to the park. Federal law prohibits RDU from selling the land that is used for aeronautical use, but it can lease it. RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

Airport spokeswoman Crystal Feldman issued a statement saying RDU is seeking a third party to lease 151 acres of land for mountain biking – “a proposal originally included in RDU’s Vision 2040 master plan.”

The Airport Authority is already under public scrutiny for leasing other nearby land to a quarry company, and the fence has further soured some members of the public on the airport’s operations. “This degradation of the visitor experience would likely create among trail users an ongoing negative impression of the airport,” Wilson wrote.

This post has been updated to clarify that RDU can sell property that is for non-aeronautical use.

News

Virginia lawmakers vote to become pivotal 38th state to ratify ERA

In case you missed it, the newly Democratic Virginia legislature has voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The measure passed, however, with the support of 11 Republicans. Reporter Ned Oliver of the Virginia Mercury reports:

Advocates erupted in cheers as the Virginia House of Delegates adopted the Equal Rights Amendment on Wednesday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Cheers erupted at the Capitol as the Equal Rights Amendment cleared both chambers of the General Assembly on Wednesday, making Virginia the 38th and final state needed to ratify the amendment enshrining gender equality in the Constitution.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who sponsored the ERA resolution as one of the first women to attend the previously all-male Virginia Military Institute, spoke about the uneven history of equality in Virginia, a state that fought against women’s suffrage, desegregation and interracial marriage. The ERA vote, she said, was “the vote of a lifetime.”

“It’s Virginia again on the battleground of equality,” Carroll Foy said. “I don’t know about you, but I think it’s right on time for Virginians to finally be on the right side of history.”

For now, the vote remains largely symbolic. The National Archives and Records Administration, which is responsible for certifying the ratification of constitutional amendments, said it will abide by a legal opinion issued by the Justice Department last week that said the ERA is no longer a valid amendment because a deadline imposed by Congress has expired, according to the Associated Press.

Advocates plan to challenge the deadline in court. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are pursuing legislation to remove the deadline

The uncertainty did not dampen celebration at the Capitol.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

ERA proponents in North Carolina welcomed the news. This is from the League of Women Voters of Wake County:

League of Women Voters Applauds Virginia for Ratification of ERA

RALEIGH, NC, January 15, 2020 – The League of Women Voters of Wake County (LWV-Wake) applauds the state of Virginia upon its ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Virginia is now the 38th state to have ratified the ERA, which meets the threshold for adoption of an amendment under Article V of the US Constitution. Read more