COVID-19, News

As state Treasurer seeks to rescind moratorium on utility cutoffs, NC Auditor raises another red flag

Treasurer Dale Folwell

State Treasurer Dale Folwell pressed members of the NC Council of State Tuesday to rescind Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order that extended a prohibition of utility shut-offs and implemented a moratorium on evictions.

Folwell said the order was placing a huge financial burden on cities and municipalities as citizens have refrained from paying their utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Folwell offered his own resolution to rescind the executive order, and return the decision-making power of utility shut-offs to local governments.

“My comments do not apply to stockholder-owned utilities. This resolution only applies to citizen-owned utilities,” Folwell explained. “If we don’t do this, I believe we are signing a death certificate for many rural North Carolina communities, especially those in the East.”

Folwell said local officials were better suited to know the financial hardships of residents, and provide compassion if a utility bill could not be paid on time.

Attorney General Josh Stein acknowledged that Elizabeth City recently received a waiver to the executive order, but extending it to others town at this time could be a problem.

Auditor Beth Wood

“People are struggling,” said Attorney Josh Stein in voicing continued support for the prohibition on utility shut-offs put in place during the pandemic.

Auditor Beth Wood called a continuation of the utility protections ‘unsustainable’ but added that many local governments are in no better position to manage the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

“We have so many cities and counties that are not going to run well, and to say that they have the ability to make the right decisions is not a true statement,” advised Wood.

“I am investigating the goings-on in several cities right now, who have absolutely no financial controls in place. I will tell you in my investigation of the City of Rocky Mount, they have written off a million dollars a year in electric bills and the city council says they were never aware. A million a year for 20 years. That’s $20 million.”

Wood warned once the executive order expires, the state could not afford to simply walk away without offering some financial structure.

“We’ve got 150 local governments on a financial watch list, not because they can’t pay their bills, but because they are not being run well. We have finance officers who don’t have a clue what they are doing, city managers who don’t have a clue what they are doing.”

Wood said local governments need alternatives and guidance before the power to regulate utility shutoffs and delinquent bills is turned over to them.

“I see this month after month after month.I know exactly what I’m talking about when I say that many elected officials can’t run their local governments.”

(Click below to hear Auditor Beth Wood discuss the issue.)

Governor Cooper said his office would be willing to talk with the state auditor’s office after July 31st for additional recommendations for municipalities managing their utilities.

Cooper stressed the current order, which expires at the end of July, did not offer debt forgiveness.

Customers will still be responsible for the utilities that they used, and will have extended repayment plans of at least six months.

While no vote was taken on Folwell’s resolution on Tuesday, Governor Cooper and members of the Council of State expressed reservations that the utility shutoff moratorium would be extended beyond this month.

Commentary, News

Anti-gun violence advocates: Cooper veto of gun bill should be sustained

In case you missed it, one of the vetoes issued by Gov. Cooper in recent days addressed the subject of gun violence. House Bill 652 is a bill that originally dealt with vehicle registration fees and penalties when it passed the House back in 2019, but a week prior to the end of the 2020 short session, it was converted into a bill to make it easier to carry concealed weapons into sensitive locations and dubbed the “Second Amendment Protection Act.”

The governor’s veto message was short and sweet: “This bill allows guns on school property which threatens the safety of students and teachers. Therefore, I veto the bill.”

The NRA says the governor was in error and that all the bill does is allow law abiding citizens to carry guns when attending religious services in buildings that are both a school and a place or worship.

Advocates North Carolinians Against Gun Violence disagree and distributed the following memo yesterday explaining their assessment of the measure:

North Carolinians Against Gun Violence applauds Governor Cooper for supporting gun violence prevention by vetoing H652, the Second Amendment Protection Act. We call on all lawmakers to vote to sustain Governor Cooper’s veto for the safety of school children, teachers and for people in emergency situations.The bill would legalize the carrying of concealed firearms at places of worship associated with schools, weaken our concealed carry weapons permitting system and allow EMS personnel to concealed carry when on the job with police.

To protect children, current state law prohibits concealed firearms at places of worship that have an associated school. This belief remains sound public policy. Removing this protection puts school children at increased risk regardless of whether the firearms are allowed during curricular and extracurricular activities.   Read more

Education

Social studies teacher continues quest to strip name of UNC Chapel Hill founder from Halifax County school

Social studies teacher Rodney Pierce on Monday asked the Halifax County Board of Education to remove the name of UNC Chapel Hill founder and former governor William R. Davie from a middle school in Roanoke Rapids.

Pierce cited Davie’s enslavement of Black people on plantations in Halifax County and Chester County in South Carolina as the reason the name should be removed from William R. Davie Middle STEM Academy.

Davie was a Founding Father, accomplished statesman and military officer who served in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Pierce noted.

“Davie was also someone who enslaved people who not only look like the folk on this board, but also [people who look like] a vast majority of the students and employees of this district,” Pierce said.

He told the board that the U.S. Census shows Davie owned 36 slaves in Halifax County in 1790 and 116 slaves in 1820 while living in South Carolina.

Rodney Pierce

Pierce also pointed out that Davie helped to shape the Three-Fifths Clause in the original U.S. Constitution that counted Blacks as three-fifths of a human. The clause gave the South disproportionate representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Why after nearly 80 years would the board allow that man’s name to remain on the building when he wouldn’t have even recognized the majority of the people who pass through it daily as human beings?” Pierce asked during a remote meeting of the school board.

Pierce attended Davie as a student and taught social studies at the school from 2015-19. He has two children who will attend the school in the fall.

“When I attended Davie [school], I didn’t know who he was,” Pierce said. “When I came back as a teacher and learned who he was, I made sure that I taught my students about him.”

Pierce now teaches in the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools district.

The board took no action on Pierce’s request.

Newly elected board Chairwoman Joyce Lashley told Pierce that the board would address the matter later.

Pierce wants Davie’s name replaced with that of James Cheek, a native of Roanoke Rapids and a respected educator who served as president of Howard and Shaw universities.

“Dr. [James] Cheek was named ‘Washingtonian of the Year in 1980 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, in 1983,” Pierce said. “No one else from Halifax County can claim that. Not many people from North Carolina can claim that.”

Pierce told Policy Watch last month that the Cheek family approved of renaming the school in honor of the patriarch.

Meanwhile, a petition Pierce started on change.org has nearly 2,000 signatures.

William R. Davie

“I’ve been trying to get this name changed for over three years,” Pierce said. “I was asked to wait and to drum up community support … I did what I was asked. I waited and gathered community support.”

Pierce’s request comes as statues and monuments across the nation that honor white supremacists and racists and Confederate heroes are being removed from public squares.

In Raleigh recently, a statue of white supremacist Josephus Daniels waving at the old News & Observer building from Nash Square was removed by the Daniels family. Josephus Daniels used the paper to promote white supremacy after gaining control of it in the 1890s.

News

NC House committee approves repeal of controversial death investigation records legislation

Bill would also remove “sunset” on law that allows wearing of face masks

The North Carolina House Committee on Rules and Operations voted today to remove controversial language in Senate Bill 168 involving death investigations records.

The otherwise uncontroversial bill, which adds some technical modifications to laws pertaining to the Department of Health and Human Services and its block grant funding, passed nearly unanimously in the House and Senate. (Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, was the sole “no” vote.)

The controversial portion of the bill would prevent “all information and records provided by a city, county, or other public entity to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, or its agents, concerning a death investigation” from becoming public record unless the records “otherwise constituted public records while in the possession of the city, county, or other public entity.”

In a press conference last Wednesday, Governor Roy Cooper called the provision “concerning.”

As public knowledge of the death records provision grew over the last week, Cooper has faced pressure to veto the bill in its entirety. If Cooper does not veto it by midnight tonight, it will become law with or without his signature. It should be noted, however, that the bill would not become effective until October 1.

A petition started by the Triad Abolition Project of Winston-Salem calling on Cooper to veto the bill received more than 8,000 signatures and was delivered to the governor’s office earlier today.

**[UPDATE: Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill Monday evening, saying that while he believed the provision had not been proposed with any “ill intent,” the concerns raised subsequent to its passage “make it clear this provision should not become law.”]**

“We believe SB168 not only obfuscates law enforcement involvement in the deaths of those they have in custody, but it also shields and protects law enforcement from being held accountable for deaths of civilians who are incarcerated, arrested, and detained,” the petition states.

The bill has also been the subject of protests in Winston-Salem and Raleigh as national debate around police accountability continues to rage.

Senate Bill 232, a bill that was originally written to require tracking of information on services provided to veterans, service members, and their families, was placed on today’s calendar for the House Rules Committee with the intent to replace the bill’s text with language that would repeal the death investigation records provision. It passed the committee without debate.

If both SB 168 and SB 232 become law, the death investigation records provision in SB 168 will immediately be repealed.

An amendment to the new SB 232 also extends the law that would allow people to wear masks for public health reasons.

A 1950s North Carolina rule targeting the KKK forbids wearing a mask in public. Lawmakers voted to suspend that law until August 1 earlier this year because of public health mandates to wear a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19. An early morning vote on June 26 removed a provision to extend that suspension, raising concerns that it might be illegal to publicly wear a face mask in the middle of a pandemic.

The new amendment removes the August 1 date of expiration on the suspension.

SB 232 now goes to the House floor.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, immigration, News

Students in U.S. on visas will not be able to stay if campuses go online-only

Students in the U.S. on student visas will not be able to enter or remain in the country if their courses are online only, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday.

None of the UNC System’s 17 campuses plans to begin the Fall semester online-only. UNC-Chapel Hill is reserving spaces in its Carolina Away online program for foreign students who can’t procure visas.  But the change in policy could mean that such students already in the U.S. whose semester begins on campus would have to leave the country if, as happened last semester, the universities close to in-person teaching because of  the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With North Carolina still experiencing record COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, many of the system’s students, faculty and administration consider a return to online-only education before the end of the semester a strong possibility.