Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Governor Cooper vetoes billboard measure

House Bill 645 is about as popular with the governor as the Edsel was to America.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 645 today, temporarily halting a measure that further limited local governments’ authority on where to locate billboards, including digital ones.

His veto message reads:

“Protecting the beauty and environment of North Carolina should be a top priority, but this legislation authorizes cutting down trees and other clearing work along roadways without the consent of nearby communities. Local governments should have more of a say in where their communities allow billboards.”

The legislation has long been controversial and had failed to advance during other sessions.

Among the bill’s opponents are environmental, conservation and wildlife groups, who are concerned that outdoor advertising companies would cut down trees to ensure their “right to be viewed.” A greater number of the giant roadside ads would also further clutter the natural landscape.

Many local governments, such as Durham, oppose the measure because it encroaches on their zoning authority.

Proponents argue that relaxed regulations are needed to support the outdoor advertising industry, which like many traditional media, is struggling. About 8,200 billboards in North Carolina are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted. Nonetheless, the industry has lost about 1,000 statewide in the past decade.

Based on the last vote count, the House lacks enough support to override the veto. On Aug. 7, the House voted 60-54 in favor of the measure; three lawmakers had excused absences and three did not vote. 

To reach the three-fifths majority for an override, the House would need 72 votes, presuming all 120 members were present. Even with the six excused absences and abstentions, the House would have only 66.

In the Senate, the bill passed 27-17, with six excused absences. If all members were present, the Senate would need 30 votes to override. But without the House, the veto would stand.

Commentary, News

Georgia takes a different approach from NC to smokable hemp

The North Carolina General Assembly is going ahead with its silly, behind-the-times plan (predicated on a host of specious reasons) to make smokable hemp illegal. Not surprisingly, the move is angering a lot of farmers who grow the stuff. Interestingly, North Carolina’s neighbor to the southwest is taking a different approach. This is from journalist Jill Nolin at the the Georgia Recorder:

Speaker Ralston vows new Ga. Hemp law won’t lead to recreational weed

JASPER, Ga – Some local agencies created a buzz recently when they said they would dismiss misdemeanor cases or no longer charge people for small amounts of pot, citing their inability to distinguish the difference between marijuana and now-legal hemp.

House Speaker David Ralston has a message for them: Not so fast.

The Blue Ridge Republican told a legislative panel focused on rural Georgia Tuesday that he was baffled by the metro Atlanta departments’ decision. He said a new testing system was in the works at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that will nip the situation in the bud.

“So if they want to legalize dope in their county, they need to come see us and talk about it on the state level, because I’m not going to support it but I will support hemp,” Ralston said.

“I don’t know how we got to this point, but we’re about to come out of it,” he said.

State lawmakers passed a hemp measure this year after 2018 federal farm bill legalized the cousin of cannabis in hopes of

Hemp plants being grown and researched in Oregon. Photo by Jay Noller, courtesy of Oregon State University.

giving Georgia farmers a new crop to grow. Hemp only contains 0.3% THC, which is the compound that causes a high.

The state Department of Agriculture has proposed rules for the program and is accepting public comment.

“We can all read the newspaper and see what’s going on in Gwinnett County and some of the things that I don’t think any of us ever saw coming,” said Jack Spruill, marketing director with the department. “And that causes us to have a little bit of a pause.”

Spruill was referring to news reports that some prosecutors and law enforcement agencies in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties had recently said they would back off minor pot possession cases because of the testing conundrum.

Ralston urged the department to “move on with those rules and regs.” He said in an interview with the Georgia Recorder afterwards that he believed the GBI’s new testing capability would address the confusion. Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Democracy NC asks Board of Elections to find missing sheriffs’ campaign finance reports

Immigration policy was front and center in North Carolina sheriff’s elections this past year — and pointed to as the deciding factor in many — but races in general have become increasingly scrutinized as individuals gain a better understanding about the crucial role the law enforcement officials play in shaping county policies related to public safety and the criminal justice system.

Democracy NC has been examining campaign finance data for the 2018 sheriff candidates as part of its commitment to ensuring the democratic process is open and transparent and to help the public understand how and by whom their campaigns are funded. Researchers took a special interest in the contributions and expenditures of unopposed campaigns.

In a letter sent this week to North Carolina Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, senior researcher Sunny Frothingham identifies nine 2018 sheriffs’ races with missing campaign finance data — all of which cross a $10,000 electronic reporting threshold.

“It is our understanding, per the State Board’s Campaign Finance Manual, that candidates who ‘show a cumulative total of more than $10,000 in contributions, loans, or expenditures during an election cycle must file electronically,'” the letter states. “Further, once a committee crosses that $10,000 threshold to file electronically, ‘the reporting requirement continues until the committee certifies as inactive or closes … even if all funds have been disbursed and the campaign has ended.'”

Frothingham states in the letter that there are a range of potential explanations for why there is missing data in the nine races, but asks the State Board to promptly review its files for any missing reports and to contact the candidate committees as needed to access the data, make them available to the public and assign any penalties as appropriate.

“Whatever the cause, this information’s absence prevents the public from fully understanding who has funded key office-holders in several North Carolina counties,” the letter states.

The following candidates and campaigns are who Frothingham identified in the letter as having missing campaign finance reports: The Johnson for Sheriff Election Committee, for Sheriff Terry S. Johnson (R-Alamance County); the Committee to elect Steve Whisenant for Sheriff, for Sheriff Steve Whisenant (D-Burke County); the Committee to keep Tony Durden Sheriff, for Sheriff Tony Durden Jr. (D-Caswell County); the Committee to Elect Kent Winstead for Sheriff 2018, for Sheriff Kent Winstead (D-Franklin County); the Campaign Fund for Jerry W. Jones, for candidate Jerry W. Jones (R-Franklin County); the Committee to Elect Lowell Griffin, for Sheriff Lowell Stewart Griffin (R-Henderson County); the Bizzell for Sheriff Committee, for Sheriff Roger Steve Bizzell (R-Johnston County); the Tracy Carter for Sheriff Committee, for Sheriff Tracy Lynn Carter (R-Lee County); and the Committee to Re-elect Sheriff Hans Miller, for Sheriff Hans Miller (R-Onslow County).

Some of those races show contributions and expenditures that are way over $10,000 that are unaccounted for in the online reports. Examples include the Alamance County race, which reported $48,081 in contributions in the first quarter, the Henderson County race, which reported $41,888 in total contributions in the second quarter and the Johnston County race, which reported $50,463 in expenditures in the third quarter.

The most extreme example, though, is in Burke County, where $124,316 in total contributions was reported by the end of the third quarter — $94,200 of those contributions were made prior to the only report available through the State Board.

The races in Alamance and Burke counties were both unopposed in the primary and general elections in 2018. Frothingham said in a phone interview Thursday that Burke County especially raised a red flag with a “shocking” amount of money not accounted for in reports.

“That just raises a lot of questions for us on what’s going on there,” she said.

It also raises some questions about the State Board’s resources, she added. Democracy NC did not file a formal complaint regarding the missing data, but Frothingham said they are wondering why so many gaps still exist this far after the elections. She added that the organization is happy to serve in a watchdog role, pushing for more transparency, but the missing data also shows the need for the State Board to devote more resources to investigating campaign finance.

As of Thursday, afternoon, the State Board had not formally responded to the letter.

“The State Board has received the letter, and campaign finance staff are reviewing it and will respond to the organization as quickly as possible,” said spokesman Pat Gannon. “We will forward you the response as soon as it is sent to the organization.”

Frothingham said she hopes Democracy NC will eventually be able to review all the campaign finance data to get a better sense of funding for sheriffs’ races. Read the full letter below.

Democracy NC Letter to SBE 8 20 19 (Text)


Lawmakers, citizens speak out against Affordable Care Act lawsuit

Lawmakers joined patient advocates and people sharing personal health care stories Wednesday to speak out against the the Trump administration lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

The event, held outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ office in downtown Raleigh, was part of Protect Our Care’s nationwide bus tour, which seeks to highlight what the group says is the danger to more than 100 million Americans protected by the ACA.

“If the Trump administration and the coalition of Republican-led states backing this suit have their way, the courts will do what President Trump and the U.S. Senate have tried and failed to do — overturn the Affordable Care Act,” said Felicia Burnett, Healthcare Director for MomsRising.

“This will threaten protections for 130 million people living with pre-existing conditions,” Burnett said. “People like me, many of you and moms all across this country.”

Burnett shared the story of her son Ethan, who was born with a vascular tumor that required chemotherapy and an external port placed in his heart that needed constant monitoring to avoid infection. Burnett had to leave her job and forego her health insurance to care for him.

“I am one of countless parents in North Carolina who can say that our Medicaid program literally save my child’s life,” said Burnett.

But once Ethan got better, Burnett found it difficult to find insurance on the individual marketplace because she had a pre-existing condition and a gap in coverage.

The Affordable Care Act changed all that, she said. Insurance companies could no longer refuse to offer coverage to her family because of she and Ethan’s pre-existing conditions.

But that guarantee — that Americans won’t find themselves denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition — isn’t the Affordable Care Act’s only virtue, Burnett said. It also prevents insurers from charging women more than men for coverage, prevents caps that deny coverage when patients who have paid into their plan need it most and allows young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance coverage until age 26.

“If the Trump lawsuit succeeds, all that goes away,” Burnett said. “More than 20 million Americans — including a half a million North Carolinians — will lose their health insurance.”

Read more

Education, News, public health

Editorial: Time to roll up our sleeves and strengthen the laws that require vaccinations for school children

With a new school year right around the corner, the editorial board of the Greensboro News & Record reminds us of the need to listen to our medical professionals when it comes to vaccinating our children.

The numbers won’t be crunched for a few months, but officials fear that the disturbing trend of the last few years will continue. The percentage of children who have not been vaccinated is rising, despite the efforts of public health and school officials and despite reams of evidence from medical professionals showing that vaccinations are safe and effective.

Exemptions to the law are allowed for two reasons: medical and religious. Medical exemptions require documentation that the child has an allergy or some other condition that makes vaccination unsafe. Only about 1 in 1,000 children have a medical exemption.

The alarming increase is in the exemptions for religious reasons. All parents need to do to obtain a religious exemption is write a statement of their religious objections.

Last year, about 1 out of 300 North Carolina students were granted such exemptions.

We’ve already seen what can happen. Buncombe County, with the highest rate of parents requesting religious exemptions, had the largest outbreak of chickenpox in North Carolina since that vaccine became available. Buncombe County also had an outbreak of pertussis, called whooping cough in the bad old days when it was sometimes fatal to infants.

Officials consider the vaccines that prevent many childhood diseases to be one of the greatest public health success stories of recent decades. These diseases are not to be taken lightly.

Measles used to kill children and leave others blind or with neurological problems. Chickenpox can necessitate amputations, cause shingles later in life, and even kill infants and people with weakened immune systems. The list goes on.

Why would parents deliberately not take advantage of vaccines to prevent these diseases? Sincere religious beliefs probably figure in a few cases, but it’s likely that junk science, conspiracy theories and social media play a much bigger role.

Many of the so-called anti-vaxxers have bought in to the misinformation campaign started by the thoroughly discredited research of Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician who in 1998 published a “study” in The Lancet, a medical journal, claiming a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — often simply called MMR — and autism. The Lancet later retracted the “study” as false, and Wakefield lost his medical license. But the myths keep circulating, despite extensive new research showing there is no link, and that the MMR vaccination saves lives.

Some parents selfishly decide not to have their children vaccinated, believing that since most others are vaccinated, their children will be safe. That’s a false assumption, as the outbreaks in Asheville prove.

The very success of vaccinations makes some parents think they aren’t necessary. Today’s parents grew up without experiencing those diseases or having known friends who died or were permanently damaged by them. They don’t see the diseases as a real threat, despite what public health officials try to tell us.

But skipped vaccinations endanger not just their own children but also others — infants, pregnant women and those who legitimately can’t take vaccines.

State officials should strengthen the sensible laws that require vaccinations for children to attend any school, whether public, charter or private.

Today’s children face enough dangers; why add an easily preventable disease to the list?

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