Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

Powerful op-ed refutes Berger’s claims about a rosy NC economy

Be sure to check out NC Budget & Tax Center economist Patrick McHugh’s new op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer. In “As the NC GOP hails tax cuts, most incomes stagnate and poverty remains high,” McHugh offers a powerful rebuttal to a recent piece that appeared under the name of state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, in which he attempted to claim that everything is going swimmingly with the North Carolina economy, thanks to GOP tax cuts.

Here’s McHugh:

Most families in North Carolina aren’t getting ahead in the way Berger is portraying it. The typical family income is slightly higher than it was in 2010 when we were just exiting the Great Recession, but the median income still buys less than it did at the turn of the Millennium. Our labor market is increasingly segregated between handsomely-paying white collar careers and low-wage jobs that don’t bring in enough to get by. We’ve lost many of the middle-income jobs that used to be the pathway from entry-level positions to a more comfortable life. Berger’s tax cuts haven’t fixed that problem.

The lack of good job opportunities has an even more devastating impact on communities and families trying to escape poverty. Our state has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country and last year (the most recent figures available) over 1.4 million North Carolinians were under the incredibly low threshold the Federal Government defines as the poverty line (less than $26,000 for a family of four).

Poverty is widespread but imposes a particularly harsh weight on some communities. One out of every five children in our state was in poverty last year, which should be enough in-itself to stop any elected leader from claiming their economic policies are working. We have also failed to dismantle the long-standing obstacles to opportunity which trap Black and brown North Carolinians in poverty far more often than their white neighbors.

North Carolina’s economic growth under the current tax cutting regime has been remarkably unremarkable. Job growth since 2010 has been identical to the regional average and slower than South Carolina and Georgia. The low tax mantra is also hard to square with the fact states along the West Coast which aren’t as allergic to taxing wealthy people and corporations added jobs faster than North Carolina over the last decade. Clearly having the lowest corporate tax rate in the country hasn’t propelled us to the lead of the pack.

Meanwhile, as McHugh points out, repeated tax cuts are devastating core state services and structures that boost the middle class. McHugh’ on-the-money bottom line:
Senator Berger isn’t alone in spinning stories to defend his policies. The real question is how much truth gets sacrificed, and the consequences to people whose lives are written out of the story.
Click here to read the entire essay.
agriculture, Environment

Durham officials tighten loopholes on illegal dumping near Falls Lake, but enforcement remains lax

For a year, state officials have ordered Jim Puryear, the owner of 101 Southview Road in Durham, to plant vegetation on his land to curb erosion after an illegal dumping operation polluted a stream and wetlands near Falls Lake. This photo, taken Dec. 1, 2019, shows nothing has been planted. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Years of illegal dumping near Falls Lake finally prompted Durham County officials to strengthen rules on what constitutes “beneficial fill” — used to improve farmland — and what is merely trash disguised as dirt.

Durham County Commissioners last week approved changes to the Unified Development Ordinance that require more accountability from landowners who want to use beneficial fill. 

The commission passed the amendment by a 3-1 vote. James Hill voted no; Brenda Howerton was absent from the meeting.

Durham City Council had already approved the changes earlier in November. 

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs: “This is very serious.” (Photo: Durham County)

Landowners who want to use beneficial fill now have to apply to the county, said Ryan Eaves, Durham County’s Stormwater Control and Erosion manager. They must detail their proposed activity, including the source of the fill material, and how long the disposal will occur.

“Sedimentation sounds benign,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. But when dirt accumulates in waterways it leads to more flooding. Contaminants can also hitchhike on the sediment particles, further polluting the waterways. 

“iI’s an environmental issue and a safety issue,” Reckhow said.

However, several people who live near the lake and the illegal dump sites objected to the amendments, saying they are still insufficient to protect the water supply for a half million people downstream and those on neighboring private drinking water wells.

“The proposed changes aren’t going to stop the environmental abuse,” Ruth McDaniel, a farmer and soil scientist who lives on Benny Ross Road, adjacent to a former illegal dump site, told the commission. “It’s are not the best that our community can produce, and I ask that changes not be enacted until there is more stakeholder input.”

State law defines beneficial fill as dirt, asphalt and concrete, whose purpose is “to improve land use potential or other approved beneficial reuses.” 

Dumping has occurred at these five addresses near Falls Lake. With the exception of 2817 Baptist Road, the other locations have been shut down by either county or state officials — or both. Russell Stoutt is responsible for the illegal dumping at Kingsmill Farm, Benny Ross Road and Southview Road, according to state and county documents.

But at least one illegal dumper has outmaneuvered county officials for three years. Policy Watch previously reported on three parcels — 550 Benny Ross Road, 101 Southview Road and 201 Southview Road — where hundreds tons of dirt infiltrated with trash and other unknown substances had been dumped under the guise of beneficial fill.

All of the sites lie within a half-mile of Falls Lake; the acreage is also veined with streams that flow into the drinking water reservoir.

Russell Stoutt owns the eight-acre Benny Ross Road property. The county and the NC Department of Environmental Quality together fined him nearly $100,000 for erosion and water quality violations. However, Stoutt has yet to pay the penalty, and the case is in litigation.

McDaniel told the commission that the county has not enforced existing regulations regarding illegal dumping. For example, after county officials ordered Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he continued for another four months, McDaniel said. 

“We were calling for inspections because it hadn’t stopped,” she said. “Russell knows we’re watching him. It just starts somewhere else.”

After the county forced Stoutt to stop dumping on Benny Ross Road, he began hauling dirt and trash to the Southview Road parcels, which are owned by Jim Puryear of Wendell. Stoutt filled in parts of wetlands and streams that contribute to the environmental health of the Falls Lake watershed. 

Because property owners are responsible for activity on their land, Puryear was fined $22,000 by DEQ for the Southview Road violations. For nearly a year state officials have ordered Puryear to plant grass or other vegetation to keep the erosion in check. As of Dec. 1, there was none — just packed mud after a recent rain.

New language also limits the height of dirt stockpiles. At Benny Ross Road, Stoutt had piled dirt 40 feet high, with steep slopes that threatened to collapse.  Read more

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

This week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Trump and his allies: Channeling the true spirit of the original American Thanksgiving?

Americans, like the inhabitants of just about every country – especially the ones that find themselves having come out on top in a number of historical conflicts – have a penchant for rewriting history in a light that’s flattering to themselves.

Wars tend to get sanitized of their brutality, disasters and horrific mistakes.

Crass greed, materialism and acquisitiveness get recast as drive, ingenuity and the entrepreneurial spirit.

Social progress for women, racial and ethnic minorities and others long forced to endure discrimination is presented as more a matter of natural human progress and the beneficent acts of enlightened leaders than something that had to be wrenched from the hands of a selfish and narrow-minded ruling class.

Meanwhile, successful politicians – however real their human foibles and imperfect their works – are regularly lionized along with many of their creations.

Take, for instance, America’s much-beloved Thanksgiving holiday. [Read more…]

2. Five revelations in the controversy surrounding UNC board member Tom Fetzer

Text messages and emails point to questionable actions, claims and motives in rogue investigation of former ECU interim chancellor

If you’ve been following Policy Watch’s ongoing coverage of the recent East Carolina University controversy, you may be having some trouble keeping it all straight.

When videos of former interim chancellor Dan Gerlach drinking with students at bars near campus surfaced in October, they were quickly followed by rumors he had driven home drunk. Gerlach was placed on administrative leave while the UNC system hired the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson to investigate the matter.

But UNC Board of Governors member Tom Fetzer began his own investigation, utilizing Greenville-based attorney Peter Romary – a fact Fetzer kept from other board members and UNC system officials. [Read more…]

3. Trump administration: Poor immigrants need not apply

Carlos came to the U.S. looking to provide a safer and more financially stable environment for his family. Like thousands of others, Carlos crossed the border out of necessity. His wife, and one of his young daughters, joined him shortly thereafter.

In 2011, while living in Cary, Carlos was held up at gunpoint near his home by a man who demanded money. Fortunately, when the man realized Carlos did not have any money on him, he left. But the experience understandably left Carlos and his family traumatized. Happily, as part of an effort to encourage vulnerable immigrant communities to report crimes, the U.S. government provides a special visa to victims of crime known as the “U visa.”

While there is technically no cost to apply for the U visa, applicants often need to pay for a separate application, an “I-192,” if the government identifies any reasons why they should not be admitted into the country. Submitting the I-192 to the government costs $930 per person, but immigration regulations provide for a waiver of the fee for low income families. Carlos, who was making about $1,600 per month working as a short order cook while his wife stayed home to avoid child care costs, got a waiver of this fee based on his limited income. [Read more…]

4. The extreme danger in not holding Trump accountable for his actions

Donald J. Trump used the power of his office to blackmail a foreign ally into undermining a political foe here at home. Nothing in U.S history approaches that abuse of presidential power, yet the gravity of the charges apparently does not matter.

The overwhelming evidence proving those charges – the sworn testimony, the emails and direct messages, the de facto public confessions by President Trump, his personal attorney and his acting chief of staff, explaining that yes, they did pressure Ukraine to produce political dirt – that too does not matter.

It does not matter because over the course of the past month, GOP officials have made clear their grim determination to protect Trump from all consequences for his actions, and that doesn’t seem likely to change. So the question arises: Then what? [Read more…]

**BONUS READ: Back in their districts, here’s how Democrats are talking about impeachment

5. Dems battle Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over student loan forgiveness

WASHINGTON — A long-simmering feud between U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and congressional Democrats over student loan forgiveness is heating up as hundreds of thousands of borrowers continue to wait for help on loans they claim were fraudulent.

DeVos narrowly avoided a congressional subpoena earlier this month after a lengthy fight with the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor. Her critics in Congress say they still intend to haul her in for questioning over the Trump administration’s controversial loan forgiveness rule, and some lawmakers are pushing an effort to upend her policy entirely.

In late September, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced resolutions to overturn DeVos’ decision to reverse of an Obama-era student loan forgiveness policy. In a statement issued at the time, Senate sponsor Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that “This rule is another Trump-DeVos giveaway to the notorious for-profit colleges at the expense of defrauded student borrowers.  Senators will now have a chance to go on the record: Are you with the students or the predatory industry that defrauded them with worthless degrees and a lifetime of debt?”

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams has been a frequent and longtime critic of numerous Trump administration higher education policies. She co-sponsored the House version of the resolution that would overturn the DeVos rule. [Read more…]

6. Weekly Radio Interviews and Micro-podcasts:

Click here to listen to this week’s newsmaker interviews and commentaries with Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield.

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:


Pete Buttigieg in Goldsboro this weekend to discuss poverty with Rev. Barber

Rev. William Barber – Image: Twitter

Mayor Pete Buttigieg – Image: Wikipedia

Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg will be in Goldsboro this Sunday. Buttigieg will join the Rev. William Barber II for a discussion of poverty at Greenleaf Christian Church — the church Barber has pastored for many years.

This is from a press release distributed by the national Poor People’s Campaign that Barber leads:

Mayor Pete Buttigieg will join a post worship conversation on the gripping poverty that impacts over 140 million Americans: 66 million whites, 24 million Black Americans and 38 million Latinos. He requested to come to worship and Rev Dr. Barber said “sure” all people are welcome but let’s have a conversation on policy and poverty and the Mayor agreed.  After worship impacted persons along with Rev Barber will ask questions.

When:  Sunday, December 1, 2019, 10:00 AM Morning Worship

Post Worship Conversation 12:30

Where: Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina 2110 N. William Street Goldsboro, NC 27530

What: On the 64thth anniversary of Rosa Parks’ historic protest that launched the Montgomery bus boycott, Reverend Dr. William Barber will lead a justice communion liturgy,  Rev. Dr. Renita Weems, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in the Old Testament, will preach.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg will join a conversation on the gripping poverty and low wealth that impacts over 140 million Americans, 66 million whites, 24 million Black Americans and 38 million Latinos. Impacted persons will ask a question similar to the format used at the Moral Poverty Action Congress held this past summer in DC that Mayor Pete couldn’t attend.

Rev Dr. William Barber Senior Pastor/Bishop, is president of Repairers of the Breach, is also co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival. This movement, established in over 43 states and DC is conducting a 25 state WE MUST DO MORE registering people for the movement who vote tour to open America’s eyes to the heart-wrenching issue of poverty which affects over 140 million Americans.  The tour will culminate in a massive Poor People’s Assembly and March in Washington D.C., June 20, 2020.

The Poor People’s Campaign is galvanizing poor people across racial lines in a message of racial unity as part of a movement that votes.  Most recently the work of the campaign – which is nonpartisan but organizes people around a moral policy agenda – helped result in the surprising electoral outcome in Kentucky where poor white coal miners joined African Americans from urban and rural areas to elect a Democratic governor.

The campaign identifies five issues of interlocking injustices: systemic racism and poverty, the militarization of the federal budget, ecological devastation, and the false narrative of white nationalism and religion. The Campaign’s audit of the federal budget found that in reordering priorities, there is enough money in the existing budget to provide six homes for every homeless person in America. The Moral Budget, developed by the campaign is available at

Though he is a newcomer to national politics, Buttigieg has been faring well in recent polls – especially in Iowa where the first presidential caucuses will take place February 3.


Thanksgiving holiday humor from Celia Rivenbark: OK boomer!

Some of you will read this column before Thanksgiving and, because of varying deadlines, others may read it a week or so later. A few unlucky souls won’t read it at all because they suspect I’m going to bash Dear Leader again. They’ll get their MAGA’s in an anticipatory wad and huff off to read “Snuffy Smith” or “Blondie.”

I got one thing to say to them: OK, Boomer.

Oh, that felt good. Now I know why the kids are enjoying it so. It’s such a deliciously fine-tuned put down – dismissive but not cruel.

I mention Thanksgiving because where better to witness the clashing of generations than around the family table? There’s Grandpa, all “Pass the cranberry sauce and build that wall.” There’s the adult chirren all “No politics at the table, Grandpa!” and here’s the lanky nephew, a freshly woke vegan who responds with the battle cry of his Generation Z: “OK, Boomer(s).” He will then mutter his suspicion there’s GMO’s in the green bean casserole and Grandma will say “No, honey, that’s just onion straws.”

With any luck at all, they’ll agree to disagree but, the way I see it, these days, civility is evaporating faster than alcohol on a skeeter bite.

“OK, Boomer” isn’t helping the sitch but it’s also not the worst thing in the world. That would be the maniac in the White House. Wait, sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.

The rapscallion in me would like to suggest we turn “OK, Boomer” into a drinking game during the holidays this year. For every utterance, you gotta take a shot. (Woke nephew can sub in kale juice as needed.)

I seriously love Thanksgiving but fully expect to hear “OK, Boomer” directed at me at least a half dozen times. (Where did I put that Fireball?) Guilty as charged. I’m a boomer by the calendar but, I swear, I’m a Gen X at heart and a millennial in overall maturity.

Much of the time “OK, Boomer” is deserved from what I can tell. A little background for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about because, well, Boomer. The expression went viral via TikTok (ask your grandkids; I can’t do everything for you) depicting an elderly man in a baseball cap and polo shirt whining that younger generations have Peter Pan syndrome, never wanting to grow up.

Ahem. While every generation has rebelled against their elders, this “OK, Boomer” response has galvanized teens around the world. At the heart of all the angst is Gen Z’s belief we’ve handed them a stinking pile of dying planet, no health insurance, insane rent and unaffordable college tuition.

To which unenlightened Boomers say: “Yeah, but your hair is 18 colors and just use that tattoo money for your rent, you little ….”

I’m just warning you things might be a little more tense than usual this Thanksgiving. You could get angry. Or you could smile softly and think about your 401k they’ll never have. All better?

Celia Rivenbark is a New York Times-bestselling author and columnist. Visit