Courts & the Law, News

District Judges Association hires well-known lobbyists

Charles Neely Jr. and Richard Zechini

The North Carolina Association of District Court Judges hired two well-known lobbyists earlier this month, according to paperwork filed with the Secretary of State.

The lobbyists are Charles Neely Jr. and Richard Zechini, of the Williams Mullen law firm. Neither were immediately available for comment Friday.

Neely is a former Republican member of the General Assembly. He was elected three times from 1995 to 1999 and during his tenure served as chairman of the House Judiciary II Committee, a member of the House Finance Committee and as co-chairman of the Revenue Laws Study Committee. You can read more about his background here.

Zechini was a former a staff attorney at the General Assembly. He was director of public affairs with Progress Energy prior to joining Williams Mullen. He has been regularly ranked by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy as one of “North Carolina’s Most Influential Lobbyists,” according to the law firm. You can read more about his background here.

They are both lobbyists for several area organizations and entities, including the Alliance for North Carolina Nonprofits, Duke University, NC Equal Justice Alliance, North Carolina Association of Realtors and CSX Transportation Incorporated.

Judge Elizabeth Heath of Lenoir County, who is President of the Association of District Court Judges, was not immediately available for comment about why the group hired the lobbyists. There also is not a lot of publicly available information about the Association.

The news comes just before lawmakers are expected to take up House Bill 717, a measure that would change the way judges and district attorneys are elected in North Carolina.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Justin Burr (R-Montgomery, Stanly), is a redraw of the superior and district court and prosecutorial districts. It was announced by Burr without any input from the judicial or legal community and came as a surprise to many.

There have also been several other bills introduced and passed this legislative session aimed at changing the judiciary, despite potential negative consequences. Two examples include HB239, also introduced by Burr, which reduced the state Court of Appeals judges from 15 to 12 and HB100 which made superior and district court judicial races partisan again.

Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Company that benefited from secret budget provision refuses to disclose chemicals it proposes to introduce into Triangle’s Jordan Lake

The SePro Corporation is receiving as much as $1.3 million in taxpayer money to chemically kill the algae in Jordan Lake, but the company is keeping key details of its proposal — including a full ingredient list of the products and the amounts to be released — secret from the public.

The proposed chemical treatment of a drinking water source for 300,000 people is yet another questionable technique backed by some lawmakers and business interests, who have been reluctant to instead enforce rules limiting development in the Jordan Lake watershed.

SePro’s proposals were marked “confidential,” but Policy Watch obtained them under the state’s public records law. However, more than half of the eight-page document had been redacted by SePro, under a state statute allowing companies to refuse to divulge material they deem as proprietary or a trade secret. [Read more…]

2. The scandalous special sessions that subvert our democracy

The General Assembly will convene a special session next week but most people in North Carolina, including the vast majority of the members of House and Senate, have no idea what legislation they will consider while they are in town.

Last week lawmakers met in a one-day special session supposedly to consider overriding a series of vetoes by Governor Roy Cooper. That was the stated purpose anyway.

But a number of lawmakers didn’t make the session so votes on the vetoes were delayed and instead the House and Senate considered a series of bills, including one that would make it far more difficult to enact new environmental or workplace safety regulations no matter how desperately they are needed. [Read more…]

3. Republicans and Democrats disagree on a lot at redistricting criteria meeting

Less than a month after publicly stating that he “sincerely” hoped Democrats would engage in the redistricting process, Rep. David Lewis kiboshed all of the minority party’s suggestions for map-making criteria Thursday.

Democratic Senators and Representatives offered several amendments throughout Thursday’s meeting to adopt criteria submitted by Republican committee chairs. None of their amendments were adopted, despite many reflecting the public comments from last week.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson said after the meeting that he didn’t feel like his party has been part of the process at all, not only in voting but also in the presentation of the criteria.

“The Democratic criteria were submitted in advance of today’s date, so that they were prepared, whereas we were handed theirs this morning,” he said, adding that they did get to caucus but didn’t have time to prepare beyond that. “I think if you want people to be included, you don’t wait til the last minute.” [Read more…]

*** Bonus video: Republicans reject the consideration of race in redrawing legislative maps

4. The fight for democracy gains momentum
Despite lawmakers’ latest big stall, redistricting reformers are on the offensive

“The dog ate my homework.” If you thought this old cliché of an excuse lost all currency in the world after about the fourth grade and/or when students start turning in their assignments online, think again. Unfortunately, the phrase also pretty much sums up the position of North Carolina Republican legislative leaders as they do everything they can think of to delay the process of redrawing the legislative district maps that a three-judge federal panel struck down as unconstitutional because of their “surgical precision” in discriminating against African-American voters.

That’s because the legislators’ excuse for their ongoing failure to draw lawful maps in the face of repeated findings that they have failed to do so and directives to get to work boils down to what one major North Carolina newspaper labeled yesterday as “pitiful stall tactics.” As Chris Fitzsimon observed in last week’s “Monday Numbers” column, the magnitude of the stall is pretty startling: [Read more…]

5. Hotly contested local races set to take the political stage in NC

Across the state, this year’s historically crowded municipal elections have drawn new types of candidates.

Young candidates. First time candidates. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates.

And, importantly, many more non-white candidates.

In each of North Carolina’s three largest cities – Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh – white female mayors are facing minority challengers.

That does not mean the races are all of one stripe.

In Charlotte, where the mayoral race is on track to be the most expensive in history, Mayor Jennifer Roberts faces two very different black challengers – both Democrats, like Roberts. [Read more…]

NC Budget and Tax Center, Trump Administration

Why does the President tweet about stock market levels but not our poverty rate?

Since July 1, President Trump has tweeted to celebrate the results of the U.S. stock market nine times and has tweeted about strong jobs numbers thirteen times. His frequent tweeting about these two metrics appears to indicate that they are his key indicators for assessing how we are doing as a country. It is worth noting, however, that during this timeframe not once has he tweeted about the “poverty rate” in the U.S. Why not?

Yes, the U.S. stock market, as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, seems to be doing well as the Dow posted record closing highs all of last week. This, however, should not be too surprising. Since 2013, the U.S. stock market has hit a new high closing record 157 times (123 times under President Obama, 34 times under President Trump). Here’s another way of looking at it: The U.S. stock market has hit an all-time high in 30 of the last 54 months. In other words, the U.S. stock market has been doing well for quite some time now, meaning the record-breaking numbers that the President is tweeting about aren’t quite as rare as they might seem.

What should be surprising and alarming is the fact that the President does not seem to view the U.S. poverty rate as a key indicator of how America is doing.

In a recent article Politico points out that economists have frequently found little relationship between returns on stock investments and real economic growth. Instead, it appears that a strong stock market helps the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, through the increasing income inequality gap. The article points out, “about 80 percent of the value of the stock market is held by the richest 10 percent of the nation; the vast majority of gains in share value accrue to the rich, not to most Americans.”

Understanding and tracking the poverty rate in the United States and in North Carolina is important because it is an indicator of whether the economy is delivering opportunity for all. It goes without saying that the greatest country in the world, and the one with strongest economy, should not have a high number of people that are poor.

Unfortunately, Read more

Environment

Score in Manteo: OBX 34, offshore drilling 0

About 125 people gathered in Manteo to comment on a proposal to open the North Carolina coast to offshore drilling. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Sun-kissed and sandal-clad, the people who assembled at the Dare County Government Center in Manteo Thursday night wore the calm demeanor of those who fall asleep to the murmur of the sea and wake up to resplendent sunrises.

They arrived to try to protect that way of life on the Outer Banks. This life is not the gaudy carnival of Myrtle Beach (although there is a Dirty Dick’s Crab House in Avon), but that of a fragile national seashore. A mere sandbar jutting into the ocean, the Outer Banks is home to marshes, estuaries, inlets, sounds, porpoises, whales, sea turtles, all manner of birds and marine life, plus the tourists who flock here to enjoy them and the residents who would rather be nowhere else.

The threat of offshore drilling, which many here thought had been put to rest once and for all when the Obama administration reversed itself, has re-emerged as a possibility. The current leasing plan, which excludes the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and thus, North Carolina, could be replaced by a new version proposed by the Trump administration.

This is a national seashore. It's a sacred place. Click To Tweet

If the plan, managed by the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, clears all the hurdles — and it’s unclear if the proposal will — oil rigs could sit just three miles off the North Carolina coast. A spill — considering the weather conditions in the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” so named because of the number of shipwrecks there — could sully the beaches for decades. There would be seismic air gun testing, sonic blasts that harm, even kill marine life, from the top of the food chain — whales — to the bottom — plankton.

For an hour and a half, 34 residents of the Outer Banks — commercial fishers, ocean scientists, small business owners, environmental advocates and dolphin naturalists — told state environmental officials that under no circumstances should offshore drilling be permitted near the North Carolina coastline.

The public hearing was the third hosted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the other two being in Morehead City and Wilmington earlier this week. The agency will forward the comments, which includes support from the NC Petroleum Council and opposition by Gov. Cooper, to BOEM.

The Outer Banks business community isn’t biting on the financial chum the fossil fuel industry is dangling before them. No amount of oil and gas royalties, which are not even guaranteed under federal law, would compensate for the $1 billion that tourists spend every year in Dare County. Elected officials in Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Dare County government, along with the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, “vehemently” opposed the plan. “Do we want to risk destroying a national treasure?” said Susie Walters, mayor pro temp of Nags Head.

Read more

Commentary

School voucher pork: Editorial calls on Cooper to review, crack down on waste

This morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com has a new and creative idea for getting some kind of rein on the legislature’s currently unfettered spending on private school vouchers.

This is from “More questions, more answers needed on worth of private school vouchers”:

“Anyone who might be looking for an assessment of or justification for North Carolina’s private school voucher program won’t find them in two new studies from N.C. State University. The information isn’t there and subsequent studies will analyze early academic impact. These studies shed NO light on the performance or value of the taxpayer-financed ‘Opportunity Scholarship’ program.

That doesn’t mean that private school voucher fans won’t twist the findings to show the program which helps make private schools more affordable for low-income families, is working.

But in both reports, it is the questions that weren’t asked along with the facts and answers that were not gathered, that are the most significant. There is NOTHING in either report that shows the program is achieving any of its goals. Nor do they provide ANY EVIDENCE that the voucher students are better or worse off, learning any better, more or less, than at their previous public schools.”

After detailing some of the researchers’ findings and the almost complete lack of oversight and accountability that accompanies the current voucher scheme, the editorial makes this eminently reasonable recommendation:

“While the legislature won’t hold the schools that receive voucher funds accountable, we urge Gov. Roy Cooper to follow the example of former Gov. Jim Martin, who in 1985 ordered his budget director to review every pork barrel spending item in the state budget. Cooper should have his budget office assess whether the private schools getting state funds are proper businesses, appropriately accredited and using the funds as intended.

North Carolina taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. The legislature should require appropriate accountability and transparency from the schools. The governor needs to display the determination and independence to demand it himself if the legislature won’t.”