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When the former Secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought a way to boost employee’s morale last summer, his agency ordered up several hundred commemorative coins engraved with both his and the agency’s name.

DENR commemorative coin

DENR commemorative coin

The environmental agency spent $1530 in June buying 500 coins engraved with former DENR Secretary John Skvarla’s name etched on them, in addition to the agency logo and the state seal on the back.

The coins, also referred to as challenge coins, were outdated within a few months.

Skvarla left the agency in December at Gov. Pat McCrory’s behest to lead the N.C. Commerce Department. Donald Van der Vaart, a longtime DENR employee, how heads the state environmental agency.

John Skvarla

Commerce Sec. John Skvarla (formerly DENR)

A number of the coins, but not all, were handed out to DENR employees as a way for Skvarla to recognize exemplary performance, said Drew Elliot, a spokesman for the agency.

Elliot said he did not know how many of the coins remained. N.C. Policy Watch has requested, but not yet received, a copy of a spreadsheet detailing how the coins were distributed under Skvarla’s leadership.

The $1,530 purchase of the coins this June comes as the agency has had to trim many of its programs and lay off environmental regulators in response to deep budget cuts, including 225 jobs lost between 2011 and 2014, according to this February 2014 news article. Some environmental groups say the cuts have left the state unable to protect its natural resources and prevent future disasters like last year’s toxic coal ash spill in the Dan River.

Challenge coins like the ones ordered by DENR are a well-known tradition in the nation’s military branches, as explained in this Mental Floss article. The coins are sometimes handed out by secret handshakes, as they were during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan by then Defense Secretary Robert Gates who passed them out to servicemen and servicewomen.

Probably one of the most popular uses of the coins in the military is to settle up bar tabs.

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Commentary

We’ve reported on several of the unwise cuts imposed or forced by state lawmakers and Governor McCrory in the past year — from cuts in child care to the courts to basic school supplies. This morning’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer highlights another ill-conceived and likely dangerous decision: the cuts to driver’s education in our schools. As the editorial notes:

“It is one of the most foolish budget-cutting tricks pulled by the Republican-led General Assembly. To help balance the state budget – a budget in serious trouble, thanks to shortfalls in revenue from taxes – GOP lawmakers intend to cut state funds for driver’s education.

The responsibility to pay for the lessons will fall to local school districts, which can ill-afford to make up the difference. Some will have to charge each student $65 for the program, which won’t cover the cost, so districts will have to dig into their budgets for the money. And this for a program required by the state. Districts must offer driver’s ed to every student in public, private and home schools. In Wake County, about 12,000 students a year go through the program.

Offering the training is a no-brainer. Statistics show a higher incidence of fatal collisions for those who don’t take driver’s education. That alone should have made driver’s ed hands-off for lawmakers. But paying for driver’s education also provides a good safety service for families and a reasonable hope that better-educated drivers are better drivers and more familiar with the rules of the North Carolina road….

The problem is that with excessive tax cuts, Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. If they stand by their cuts, they’re going to not just have to defend what they’ve already done, they’ll have to find new places to save money, and those places are most likely to be in public education….

So the tax-cutters in the legislature will create tax-raisers in the counties. The people of North Carolina are smart enough to know a shell game when they see one.

School systems and parents will pay for drivers ed one way or the other. But by passing the funding obligation downward, the state fosters a system that will help fewer young drivers.”

Read the entire editorial by clicking here.

NC Budget and Tax Center

The Charlotte Observer reports of the strain on the state’s court system in the wake of state budget cuts in recent years. The state’s court system is expected to run out of funding for juror pay by April of next year, the Charlotte Observer highlights.

The ability of the state’s court system to operate effectively has been increasingly challenged amid cuts in state funding over the years. While other states have adopted technology and incorporated electronic filing systems, North Carolina continues to use a paper-based system, which slows down the judicial process. The time taken to complete civil and criminal cases has increased in recent years, the Charlotte Observer article notes, resulting in a judicial system that is inefficient, more costly, and less customer-friendly.

State lawmakers quoted in the article note their unawareness of the pending funding shortage for juror pay and state that the General Assembly is being asked for money that it doesn’t have. This is increasingly clear as stories throughout the state have highlighted yet another announcement that the state’s revenue collections are below projections.  Official estimates now put the revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year at $190 million.

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Commentary

Tillis_McCrory_Berger-400It seems like a long time ago, but it was just the beginning of last year that North Carolina’s newly-elected governor promised state “tax reform” that would be “revenue neutral.” In other words, while the Guv was promising tax cuts, he was also calling for tax modernization that would enhance revenues in other areas — thus assuring that government would have the money it needed to fund core services in a fast-growing state. So, while it was always clear that a McCrory plan would enact regressive changes that favored the well-off, there was at least some hope that the state could at least avoid going backwards in the provision of basic services that undergird the middle class

We all know what happened next. Legislative leaders deep-sixed McCrory’s revenue neutrality idea in a New York minute and, instead, quickly acted to make big tax cuts for the wealthy and profitable corporations a vehicle for slashing core services like education, environmental protection and the courts system.

Now, less than a year since the Tillis-Berger tax package went into effect (with full McCrory approval), the chickens are coming home to roost. As this Public News Service story highlights this morning, 2015 is almost certain to bring North Carolina yet another damaging and wholly unnecessary budget crisis: Read More

Commentary
Driver's ed

Photo: WRAL.com

The practical, everyday examples of the the General Assembly’s and Governor McCrory’s penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to education funding keep emerging. As Chris Fitzsimon explained last week, one of those areas is driver education — an area in which the very lives of North Carolinians have been placed at greater risk because the tax-cuts-over-common-sense-spending approach.

This morning’s Fayetteville Observer editorial weighs in on the subject just a couple of days after Raleigh’s News & Observer did likewise. Here’s the Observer:

Educators would like the General Assembly to restore the $26 million in driver-ed dollars to prevent a crisis next year. Cumberland County Superintendent Frank Till says the district will come up with the additional $700,000 it needs if the state doesn’t act. Not offering driver ed isn’t an option under state law. But Till warns that money will have to come from somewhere else.

Lawmakers could decide to go a different direction and eliminate the requirement that schools offer driver education. That would alleviate the funding shortage. Given some of the moves from the legislature in recent years, it wouldn’t even be surprising. But it would be incredibly shortsighted. Driver education makes for better drivers and safer streets. The best way forward is to restore state money.

And here’s this weekend’s N&O:

A bad car accident Monday on Capital Boulevard in which one teenager was killed and four were hurt was not the only accident involving teens in recent weeks. The accidents have prompted the N.C. School Boards Association to call for more funding for driver education.

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