State lawmakers may come together with a final budget bill this week, but environmentalists say there is plenty of work to do on a final coal ash management bill before legislators wrap-up the session.

Grady McCallie, policy director for the NC Conservation Network, says both the House and Senate versions of the coal ash bill (now in conference committee) are weaker than current law.

Click below to hear McCallie discuss the shortcomings in Senate Bill 729, and click here to hear his full 10 minute radio interview with Chris Fitzsimon.

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A new poll by Public Policy Polling commissioned by the NC League of Conservation Voters finds that 76% of voters surveyed think the General Assembly should require all coal ash ponds to be removed from waterways. Just 16% think they should be allowed to be capped and left in place.

Fifty-eight percent of those polled says they consider the environment be ‘very important’ in determining how they will vote in the next election.

To view the crosstabs on that poll, click here.

A deal between two North Carolina electricity providers could finally give some Eastern North Carolina residents relief from monthly electricity bills that rank among highest in the state.

The N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency and Duke Energy announced Monday a plan for Duke to buy $1.2 billion worth of assets held by the municipal power group, which is managed by the Raleigh-based Electricities group.

The municipal power group that serves 32 Eastern North Carolina communities has long been saddled with high levels of debt taken on when the cities bought into nuclear and coal-power plant projects decades ago and costs soared during construction. That led to high levels of debt with the costs passed on to consumers through higher electricity rates.

The N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency and Duke Energy deal, if given final approval, would lower the debt owed by the towns from $1.9 billion to $480 million, according to a news release from the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency.

The drop in electricity costs for consumers would still vary by community, depending on how much outstanding debt is still owed by each community.

“When we entered these negotiations, we knew it wasn’t feasible to expect to completely eliminate the debt by selling our assets. But this agreement has the potential to reduce our current debt by more than 70 percent,” ElectriCities CEO Graham Edwards said, in a written statement “That’s a significant decrease in our costs and the savings would be directly passed along to NCEMPA members.

Electricities

Towns in the 32-city Electricities network include Lumberton, Kinston, Selma, Smithfield, Apex, Elizabeth City, Wilson, New Bern, Washington, Tarboro and Edenton.

Many of the communities that depend on Electriticies for electricity also have stagnant economies, with high levels of impoverished residents.

As part of the plan, Duke Energy would buy the municipal power group’s stakes in four power plants – the Brunswick (County) Nuclear Plants, the Mayo and Roxboro plants in Person County and the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in Wake County, according to the press releases form the companies.

The move would still need approval from state and federal energy regulators.

Do you live in one of the communities affected by this? We’d like to hear from you about how high your electricity bills are now and what you think of today’s news.

Leave a comment below, or you reach reporter Sarah Ovaska at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenberg) sent a letter on Monday to Gov. Pat McCrory, asking him to veto legislation sent to him last week by the General Assembly that allows private, for-profit charter school operators to keep their employees’ salaries secret, even though they are paid with public funds. 

“While this bill requires that charter schools disclose the salaries of direct employees, including teachers, it creates a dangerous loophole that would allow Charter School Management Companies to take advantage of taxpayer funds by hiding payments to the very people and entities for which disclosure is most necessary,” Cotham wrote to McCrory.

Governor McCrory has previously said he would veto any legislation that shielded charter school salaries’ from the public eye.

“I still share my previous concerns with transparency for charter schools, not just for teachers, but for board members and all employees. Lawyers are currently reviewing the interpretations of this new law and I won’t take action on the legislation until we have a clear interpretation on transparency,” McCrory said in a statement last Friday.

Rep. Cotham delivered an impassioned plea to fellow House lawmakers last week to reject SB 793, ‘Charter School Modifications’. Not only did the bill suddenly contain a provision that shielded the salaries of charter school staff who are employed by the parent for-profit company of a school, it also jettisoned an earlier version of the bill that contained protections for LGBT students.

The additional provision to SB 793 comes following months of fighting between prominent Wilmington-based charter school operator, Baker A. Mitchell Jr., and local media outlets that have asked him to fully disclose the salaries of all employees associated with his charter schools—teachers as well as those who work for his for-profit education management organization (EMO), Roger Bacon Academy. Mitchell has refused to disclose his for-profit employees’ salaries.

In addition to operating four charter schools in eastern North Carolina, Mitchell is also deeply involved in charter school politics at the state level. He sits on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board, which approves and monitors new charter schools across North Carolina. 

Mitchell has also given thousands of dollars in campaign donations to Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph), a key proponent of charter schools.

In her letter to McCrory, Rep. Cotham asked McCrory to keep his word about transparency.

“Now is not the time to play politics, to play word games, or to only listen to donors. Now is the time for ethical leadership and for unwavering commitment to the principles you earlier said you support. I call on you to keep your word and veto this bill.”

Last week as the Budget & Tax Center released its analysis of the impact of unemployment insurance changes on jobless workers one year later, the Department of Commerce Employment Security Division announced that the unemployment insurance debt will be paid down early.

The resolution of the debt in August 2015 rather than November 2015 will mean that employers will no longer have to pay an additional federal tax that resulted when the Trust Fund came due for the following year. That federal tax represented the primary contribution employers were making to address the debt that was created as a result of tax cuts that they received in the 1990s and the historic job loss of the Great Recession.

As we wrote about in our report released last week, the vast majority of the savings that allowed for this accelerated repayment came from benefits cuts that primarily have reduced the maximum available weeks and the average weekly benefit amount. Both of these changes have hurt jobless workers as they have fewer dollars to make ends meet and continue their job search.

BTC - Changes to UI Benefits

Moreover, because jobless workers have fewer dollars to spend in local communities, these cuts have a ripple effect in local economies. Estimates suggest in this recession and recovery that for every $1 of unemployment insurance payments, $2 in economic activity is either sustained or generated. Each month the fewer dollars for jobless workers is impacting their spending and ability to participate in local economies twofold.

This economic impact and the harm to jobless workers and costs to the state to help these families in other ways are reason enough for policymakers to change the most harmful aspects of current law. By delinking the number of weeks from the unemployment rate to 26 weeks like the majority of states offer and by changing the benefit calculation formula to the two highest quarters of previous earnings while also seriously reforming the state financing of unemployment insurance through a forward financing model, the system can be put back into balance and the debt can still be repaid.

SmokeIn an allusion to the signal that’s seen in the Vatican when the leaders of the Catholic Church elect a new Pope, at least one news media report this morning is talking about “white smoke” being visible on Jones Street. The story accompanying the headline, of course, is that leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly signaled over the weekend that they have agreement on the framework of a state budget deal. Assuming it really comes to fruition, the agreement comes a full month into the 2015 fiscal year.

A closer look at those puffs of smoke, however, reveals them to bear a notably blue tinge — that is, the kind one typically see with an engine that’s leaking oil and about to blow. As Alexandra Sirota details in the post immediately below and Chris Fitzsimon highlights in this morning’s “Monday Numbers,” one important impetus for the agreement would appear to be the latest calculations of the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division staff that the income tax cuts enacted last year are harming state budget revenues even more than had been officially forecast – i.e. more along the lines of what the Budget and Tax Center has been predicting all along.

So, keep in mind a couple of things this week as lawmakers and the Governor are falling all over themselves to issue statements of  self-congratulations:

1) Notwithstanding their rosy claims, the engine driving state government — the tax system — remains cracked and badly in need of an overhaul.

2) The current proposed solution — rolling up the window and ignoring the smoke — will provide only a temporary solution at best.