The State of the Environment: Good, bad and meh

Like a box of Cracker Jack, there is a surprise inside the North Carolina Conservation Network’s State of the Environment report: While North Carolina is failing to reach some basic environmental benchmarks, it is meeting others — despite a legislature that has at times been hellbent on favoring polluters over people.

The NCCN, a nonprofit that collaborates with more than 100 environmental and social justice groups statewide, released its first State of the Environment yesterday.

Based on 116 data sets, it’s a thorough assessment of the health of the state’s residents and ecosystems. The report also sets goals and priorities for the state at a pivotal moment in climate history. International scientists have given the world until 2030 to keep global temperatures in check or risk the precipitous and cataclysmic effects of climate change.

The report’s goals are simple, among them: Ensure we have safe and affordable drinking water. Maintain the health and resilience of our coastal habitats and estuaries. Require agribusinesses to be good neighbors. Eliminate racial health disparities and environmental injustices. Prevent “forever chemicals,” like perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) from entering the environment.

“We believe that a great majority of North Carolinians across the ideological spectrum would agree that each of the goals is desirable,” reads the executive summary. “… However, the goals and indicators leave aside the question of what policy interventions are needed … or whether government has a role in addressing a trend at all.”

Over the past 10 years in particular, though, state and local officials have been responsible for enacting policies that have contributed to sprawl, habitat loss, pollution and racial injustice.

Eighty-one percent of North Carolinians commute to work alone, the report states, and transportation is a main driver of greenhouse gases. Nonetheless, the state Department of Transportation and local officials in southern Wake County have pressed on with the proposed Complete 540 toll road, yet another mega-highway that would add congestion to arterial streets and roads, as well as spurring suburban and exurban sprawl. It’s on legal hold, though, thanks to several species of endangered and freshwater mussels that live along the route. (Thank you, Atlantic pigtoe.)

Hate sprawl? Thank the Atlantic Pigtoe mussel, a threatened species, for temporarily halting the Complete 540 toll road. (Photo US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Living shorelines better protect the coast from floods and erosion than hardened structures, such as terminal groins. But each year, a bill emerges from the legislature to allow yet another groin to be built.

Twenty percent of homes in coastal counties lie within a 500-year flood plains, the report goes on. The 500-year flood plain used to be considered a safe place to build, being that there was only a 0.2 percent chance of an inundation. Now we’ve seen three hurricanes since 2016 that drowned areas thought to be on higher ground. In other wordsd, 500 is the new 100.

On average, Black and Native Americans in North Carolina die at a younger age than whites, the report says. They are also more likely to live near hazardous waste sites, industrialized livestock operations and sources of air pollution, such as factories and highways.

Nonetheless, lawmakers have consistently passed Right to Farm Acts that all but prohibit neighbors of mega-hog farms from suing corporate giants Murphy-Brown and Prestage for nuisance.

Some conservative lawmakers seem intent on subverting the progress the state has made. They have introduced bills that are a sharp rebuke to Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, a clean energy mandate — among them, repealing the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, penalizing drivers of electric cars and hybrids with high registration fees, and  banning wind farms within 100 miles of the coast.

The impenetrable Senate Bill 559, written by Duke Energy, would likely hike customers’ electric bills by allowing the utility to deploy “alternate rate mechanisms.” That’s jargon for allowing Duke to set a base rate for multiple years and during that time, to avoid the requirement of a public rate case hearing.

These potential increases would further hurt low-income residents, especially those living at or below the federal poverty threshold. State of the Environment reports that these households spend at least 18 percent of their income on energy.

Now the surprise: some state and local officials have passed rules and laws to undo the damage. The NC Department of Environmental Quality is requiring Duke Energy to excavate its remaining unlined coal ash pits. The department has also worked with the Environmental Management Commission to establish rules regarding the toxic air pollutant methyl bromide.

State lawmakers Pricey Harrison, Chuck McGrady, Vickie Sawyer, Harper Peterson, Billy Richardson and Kirk DeViere have all introduced bills to improve our environment. (Whether this bills will be exiled in committee is up to the House and Senate leadership.)

And the report lists pages of possible solutions to the state’s most pressing problems. Fund land conservation. Stop building in the flood plain. Incentivize reforestation. Update groundwater and surface water standards. Phase out the antiquated lagoon and sprayfield system for swine farms. Implement regulations on poultry. Prioritize environmental justice. Ban bee-killing pesticides. Reduce plastic pollution. (Perhaps reinstate the plastic bag ban along areas of the coast?)

NCCN’s authors acknowledge these solutions are “not at all policy-neutral,” and “reflect an agenda for action from across North Carolina’s conservation and environmental communities.”

“It outlines an array of policy interventions that, if adopted, will improve North Carolina’s economy, environment, public health and resilience.”

Which beggars the question: Why are lawmakers incapable of doing this?



NC behavior health professionals speak out against “conversion therapy”

More than 150 North Carolina behavioral health professionals have signed on to a letter urging lawmakers to pass the Mental Health Protection Act, outlawing so-called “conversion therapy” that attempts to cure minors of being lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

The North Carolina Society for Clinical Social Work, which is partnering with the Born Perfect NC campaign, also released a formal position paper on the issue.

The society outlined a number of points in its opposition:

Medical and mental health Associations and Organizations have stated positions that prohibit the use of reparative or conversion approaches to work with people who are LGBT, and have made it unethical to do so in their codes of ethics.

* Research has shown the traumatic impact of shame and rejection on those who identify as LGBT. One study showed that LGBT young adults who experienced family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report attempting suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers who reported coming from families where there was no or low levels of rejection (Caitlin Ryan, et al., 2009).

* Children are our most vulnerable, because they lack the power, resources and developmental capacity to refuse the authority of the adults and have agency cover their lives. Mental health providers must be cognizant and sensitive to their unique position and role in either mitigating parental rejection and shame, or in contrast reinforcing these damaging messages, thus exacerbating attachment trauma prevalent in this vulnerable population. We know from research that this type of trauma can shape behavioral and mental health outcomes throughout the person’s life.

* Finally, we see it as an abuse of power and malpractice for mental health providers to use conversion or reparative therapy approaches, since they are coercive and impose the providers values on clients, run counter to medical and treatment standards and efficacy, violate professional ethics, ignore research demonstrating the traumatic effects of this intervention and represent emotional and sometimes physical abuse to adults, and especially children.

“As licensed clinicians we know the lifelong damage so-called conversion or reparative therapies do to those who identify as LGBTQ, especially minors and adults who are disabled,” the society said in a statement Monday. “Clinicians are required to treat diagnosable conditions according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and to use therapies that have proven efficacy. Currently, there is no training or evidence-based treatment offered or condoned by any of the mental health professional organizations that attempts to change sexual or gender identity.”

“The role of mental health providers is to heal, not increase distress or cause damage,” the society said. “Treatments that attempt to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity significantly increase issues related to mental and sexual health, substance abuse and suicide.”

Sixteen states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico have outlawed the practice in what has become the fastest growing LGBTQ rights movement in American history. Despite recent polling showing overwhelming bipartisan support for outlawing the practice in North Carolina, the bill is struggling to even get a hearing in the Republican dominated General Assembly.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Legislatures across the country see EITC expansion legislation

The New Mexico legislative session came to a close last week with a tax policy bill that included an expansion of the New Mexico state version of the Earned Income Tax Credit from 10 percent to 17 percent of the federal credit.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is considered an especially effective policy mechanism for driving down poverty. As a result, a number of state legislatures have seen bills during the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions that have sought to increase the percentage value of their complementary state credit.

The Michigan legislature is considering two such bills. HB 4298 seeks to increase the Michigan state EITC from 6 percent to 20 percent of the federal credit. HB4324 would seeks to increase that percentage to 30 percent of the federal credit.

A bill recently introduced in the Delaware legislature is a hybrid of refundable and nonrefundable EITC. The bill is designed to give recipients a choice between a fully refundable credit at 4.5 percent of the federal credit, or a nonrefundable 20 percent credit.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed legislation to increase the state EITC from 10 percent to 30 percent of the federal credit.

2018 was marked with EITC expansion in six states. California, and Maryland sought to expand their state EITCs through increased accessibility across populations. Maryland now has no minimum age requirement for EITC filers. Single California filers age 18-24 without dependent children, along with single filers older than 65 without dependent children are now eligible to claim the California credit.

Massachusetts expanded its state credit from 23 percent to 30 percent of the federal credit, while Vermont and New Jersey saw similar increases from 32 percent to 36 percent and 35 percent to 40 percent respectively. Meanwhile, Louisiana expanded its EITC from 3.5 percent 5 percent of the federal credit.


U.S. Supreme Court taking up LGBTQ discrimination cases

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will take up the question of whether a federal anti-discrimination law applies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex. In agreeing to hear two cases dealing with LGBTQ discrimination, the nation’s highest court will address the question of whether that protection extends to sexual orientation and being transgender.

The court will hear three cases:

Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, a New York case wherein a skydiving instructor claims he was fired because he is gay. In its ruling on the case, The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found “sexual orientation discrimination is motivated, at least in part, by sex and is thus a subset of sex discrimination.”

*  Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, a case wherein a child welfare services coordinator claims he was fired for being gay. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found against him, stating “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII” in an unsigned opinion that cited a previous decision from 1979.

R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the case of a transgender woman fired from a funeral home in Michigan after after coming out as transgender and letting her employers know she would start working in feminine clothing. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found in her favor, saying  “It is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”

Last month, North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill that would extend discrimination protections for housing, employment and accommodations to LGBTQ people.

A similar bill died in committee when it was last introduced. But Sen. Terry van Duyn, D-Buncombe, said its time has come.

“We’re seeing attitudes change across the state,” she said. “Sometimes it takes legislators a little while to catch up with the people they represent.”


Senate committee gave nods to K-12 bills, including Read to Achieve reboot

The Senate wrapped up last week by sending several key K-12 education bills to the rules committee, including one aimed at retooling the state’s controversial early childhood literacy initiative, Read to Achieve.

After spending more than $150 million on Read to Achieve since 2012, Senate leaders have  acknowledged the program hasn’t lived up to expectation.

Read to Achieve was supposed to ensure all North Carolina students are reading on grade level by end of third grade, but that hasn’t happened.

Sen. Phil Berger, a Rockingham Republican, introduced Senate Bill 438, or the “Excellent Public Schools Act” last month, billing it as a new initiative to improve Read to Achieve.

Berger appeared before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday to ask colleagues to support the bill.

“Read to Achieve is working in some places and needs improvement and adjustments in others,” Berger said. “This bill is an effort at those adjustments.”

A statewide report on Read to Achieve program found more than 43 percent of third-graders tested during the 2017-18 school year did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

There were bright spots like Mooresville City Schools and Watauga County Schools where the pass-rate was roughly 72 percent. But in places like Edgecombe County Public School and Thomasville City Schools, the percentage of third graders not reading at-grade level exceeded 63 percent.

“We might as well acknowledge there are some disappointments as far what we’ve seen in terms of outcomes,” Berger said. The key things is that we recognize that and are trying to work to make those corrections.”

Superintendent Mark Johnson also appeared before the committee to ask committee members to support for the bill.

SB 438 would focus on improving classroom instruction, reading camps, educator training and data collection. And the state’s higher education community would be asked to help streamline literacy instruction in both K-3 classrooms and in teacher preparation programs.

More specifically, the four-pronged strategy would involve:

  • Developing individual reading plans for K-3 students not reading at grade level.
  • The development of a Digital Children’s Reading Initiative that parents could use to access online resources to help children improve reading.
  • The creation of a task force to improve literacy instruction.
  • The development of summer reading camp standards.
  • Berger doesn’t anticipate the reboot will cost additional money.

The Senate Education Committee also gave a nod to:

Senate Bill 399, which would allow retired teachers to return to work in “high-needs” schools without financial penalty.

If approved, retired teachers could be reemployed to teach at a high-need schools such as a Title I school or one that has received a school performance grade of “D” or “F.”

It would also apply to educators hired to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses.

Reemployed teachers would be paid on the first step of the teacher salary scheduled. If they teach STEM and special education courses, both of which are hard to fill, they would be paid on the sixth step of the salary schedule.

That means teachers could earn $35,000 to $40,000 a year and continue to collect their state pensions.

And changes made to the bill last week would allow teachers to also receive a local salary supplement. A supplement is money school district’s pay teachers on top of their state salaries.

Senate Bill 621 , which would eliminate the use of the NC Final Exam as part of the statewide testing program beginning with the 2020-2021 school year.

Test reduction has been a major topic of discussion this legislative session. The House has already approved a bill that would eliminate end-of-grade exams in grades 3-8 and replace them with NC Check-Ins. The bill would also eliminate end-of- course exams for high school students and ACT WorkKeys tests.