News

Attorney General expands opioid investigation, calls for more funding to battle crisis

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein at a Tuesday press conference on the opioid epidemic.

Attorney General Josh Stein is joining 40 other state attorneys general in an expanded investigation of five opioid manufacturers and three opioid distributors, he announced in a Tuesday press conference.

The investigation will look into how the companies may have contributed to the national opioid epidemic through their business, advertising and marketing practices.

Approximately 1,600 North Carolinians died of drug overdoses last year, making it the number one cause of accidental death in the state, Stein said. That’s nearly four a day. According to the latest data, one in 100 newborns in the state begin life with opioid dependency.

“A crisis of this magnitude deserves our attention,” Stein said Tuesday.

That means more funding, more education and treatment, Stein said – but it also means looking carefully into the origins of the epidemic.

“As millions of Americans were becoming addicted to prescription pain killers and communities were struggling to respond to this crisis, drug companies were reaping enormous profits,” Stein said.

“Our investigation will determine whether the drug manufacturers and drug distributors unlawfully created and fueled this crisis,” Stein said. “And if they did, I will hold them accountable.”

The expansion of the investigation, which began earlier this summer, will include Purdue Pharma, Endo, Janssen, Teva/Cephalon, Allergan and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

Stein was joined at Tuesday by a half-dozen people with expertise in and personal knowledge of the opioid epidemic and its costs. They included Nashville, NC Police Chief Thomas Bashore, N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen and Dr. Ashwin Patkar of Duke University Medical Center. Read more

Courts & the Law, News, Tracking the Cuts: The Dismantling of Our Public Schools

State, not local government, to blame for poor school conditions, Appeals Court rules

The local government in one eastern North Carolina county can’t be held responsible for “serious problems” with chronically underachieving local schools, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Responsibility for Halifax County’s lagging district falls instead on North Carolina’s state legislature and its executive branch, judges argued.

That ruling comes after five students in the county and their parents or legal guardians accused Halifax County commissioners of unequal funding for the county’s three school districts, slighting two districts largely composed of minority students.

It’s a pivotal ruling related to the state’s long-running Leandro case, which began in 1994 when plaintiffs in several low-wealth counties, including Halifax, argued students were not afforded the same chance to succeed as their peers in more affluent North Carolina counties.

In the Leandro case, the court found the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” to students.

The plaintiffs in Tuesday’s ruling said decisions made by local county commissioners infringed on that right, although two out of three judges found that the local board of commissioners cannot be solely blamed for the districts’ myriad issues with facilities, supplies and performance listed in the case.

Mark Dorosin, an attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights who represented the Halifax County plaintiffs, called the decision “disappointing.”

“The court’s ruling in the Halifax case really tries to narrow the scope of the constitutional right to a sound basic education in a way that I don’t think the court that decided the Leandro case intended,” said Dorosin.

Issues in Halifax’s minority-dominated districts include flagging test scores, deteriorating facilities and marked difficulty in hiring quality, experienced teachers—all in contrast with a third, primarily white local school district.

The majority sided with an earlier trial court dismissal in the case, finding “serious problems in the schools in Halifax County, but because this defendant—the Halifax County Board of Commissioners—does not bear the constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education, we affirm the trial court’s order dismissing this action.”

Instead, the court found that responsibility rests with state leaders in the N.C. General Assembly and the executive branch, including Gov. Roy Cooper, the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

However, one dissenting judge, Chief Judge Linda McGee, wrote in her opinion that local governments have a “role to play” when it comes to the financial backing of the public schools.

Because one judge dissented, the plaintiffs will have the right to appeal their case to the state Supreme Court. Dorosin said Tuesday he would be speaking to his clients in the coming days to discuss further appeal.

Look for more on this pivotal case later this week from Policy Watch.

Environment

Illegal oil and gas commission postponed, one statement of economic interest still missing

Jim Womack (File photo: Lee County government)

The state oil and gas commission, which had planned to meet, albeit illegally, in Sanford tomorrow, has been postponed for at least a month. Jim Womack, whose chairmanship is in dispute, told Policy Watch that he decided to cancel the meeting because the state ethics commission didn’t have adequate time to review the members’ statement of economic interest reports.

“We want to make sure there’s no legal challenge” to the meeting Womack said. The meeting has been postponed until late October or early November.

The ethics commission must review and approve SEIs, as they’re known, before a board or commission can pass rules, take action or even call a quorum. Five of the six annual reports, including Womack’s, had been filed late. Stanford Baird filed his report yesterday afternoon after Policy Watch reported it was missing. Charles Taylor has yet to file his, according to the ethics commission website.

However, Lee County Manager John Crumpton said that last night county commissioners voted to make sure the oil and gas meeting was legal before allowing it to be held. Crumpton said he was still investigating the legality of the meeting when Womack decided to cancel it.

As Policy Watch reported yesterday, Chief Deputy Secretary of the Environment John Nicholson sent a letter to Womack questioning both the legality of the meeting his legitimacy as chairman of the nine-member oil and gas commission. Womack had originally been appointed to the commission by Sen. Phil Berger. But after a state Supreme Court case, the legislature created a new commission with new appointees. Womack was not one of them.

Womack told Policy Watch that Nicholson is wrong, and that he was “validly appointed by Sen. Berger.”

The governor appoints four members and the House and Senate leadership each appoint two.

According to a roster of the oil and gas commission, in July 2016, House Speaker Tim Moore appointed Ray Covington — who told NC Policy Watch yesterday he is no longer serving on the commission — and Karen Glaser. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger appointed John Lucey in August 2017. He did not reappoint Womack.

Within days of leaving office last December, former Gov. McCrory appointed Randall Williams, Charles Taylor, Ronda Jones, Stanford Baird and Victor Gaglio to the commission. Williams resigned two weeks ago, after taking a job with the state of Missouri in March.

Environment

NC appeals court rules against NC WARN in Greensboro solar power case

NC WARN installed a 5.25-kilowatt solar system on the roof of Faith Community Church and sold it the electricity as part of a leasing agreement. The state appeals court ruled NC WARN can’t sell the power because it in doing so it is acting as a public utility. (Photo: NC WARN)

The nonprofit environmental group NC WARN was acting as a public utility when it provided solar power to a Greensboro church, the NC Appellate Court ruled 2-1 today.

The decision favored Duke Energy, Dominion Energy and the NC Public Utilities Commission public staff, which had argued that NC WARN’s financial arrangement was infringing on the utility companies’ regulated monopoly.

Judges Hunter Murphy and Donna Stroud concurred on the ruling; Judge Chris Dillon dissented.

As Policy Watch reported in March during the original court hearing, NC WARN had entered into a “power purchase agreement” with Faith Community Church in Greensboro. The church leases a solar power system from the nonprofit by paying 5 cents a kilowatt hour for solar-generated electricity.

NC WARN stopped selling power to the church while the court weighed its decision.

“In this case, NC WARN was clearly and unlawfully acting as a public utility without following the rules of being a public utility,” said Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless.

Jim Warn, executive director of NC WARN, said third-party financing arrangements such as this one are ‘in the public interest and are in accord with state policy promoting clean, affordable energy.”

The question before the court was whether NC WARN produced electricity for “the public” in doing so for the church. State statute doesn’t allow third parties to sell electricity to the public because it infringes on the regulated monopoly that is in place. However, House Bill 589, recently passed by the legislature, does allow for limited third-party leasing, which had previously been illegal.

Judge Murphy, wrote the majority opinion, stated that if NC WARN were allowed to generate and sell electricity to “cherry-picked nonprofit organizations” in North Carolina, “that activity stands to upset the balance of the marketplace.”

“Specifically,” Murphy went on, “such a stamp of approval by this court would open the door for other organizations like NC WARN to offer similar arrangements” to other nonprofits or commercial enterprises. That “would jeopardize regulation of the industry itself.”

Judge Dillon, though, disagreed. He wrote that NC WARN wasn’t acting as a public utility because one church doesn’t meet the definition of “public.” Nor does the nonprofit’s financial arrangement of leasing the system — basing it on a kilowatt hour basis rather than a flat monthly rate, Dillon wrote.

He compared the NC WARN arrangement with a hardware store that rented a portable generator based on the power it used rather than only a daily rate.

The NC WARN viewed its appeal as a test case, Warn said, “a challenge to Duke Energy’s blockade against competition from companies that install solar systems on rooftops with little or no up-front cost to the customer. Such financing arrangements have been a key to the growth of rooftop solar in many other states.”

Warn said the organization is “strongly considering” appealing the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court.  

NC WARN Appeals Court by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

News

Cooper blasts latest Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act

Add Governor Roy Cooper to the list of lawmakers speaking out against the so-called Graham-Cassidy health care bill. In a statement released by his press office Tuesday, Gov. Cooper said the latest effort to repeal and replace the ACA would leave many North Carolinains worse off:

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper

“The latest proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act may be even worse than previous proposals: raising premiums, weakening protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and slashing over $1 billion from North Carolina’s Medicaid program. North Carolina’s middle-class families will be worse off if this passes.

“Senate Republicans in Washington must work with Democrats to reach a bipartisan solution that expands health care coverage and makes it better.”

Republicans tout that the proposal introduced by Senators Bill Cassidy and Lindsey Graham would give states more flexibility. Democrats and consumer advocates warn the legislation would eventually end Medicaid block grants in 2027.

Senate Republicans will need 50 votes to advance the legislation.