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VacationThere has been a lot of talk in recent years about how the North Carolina General Assembly is starting to look and sound more and more like Congress — especially when it comes to the influence of big dollars from corporate fat cats and plain old, general dysfunction.

Today, we got another persuasive indicator: Legislators announced plans to take an “August recess.” Oh, they may not be calling it that, but this morning’s news that House and Senate leaders plan to pass a FY2015 budget this week, adjourn temporarily and then come back in mid-August to deal with the coal ash crisis that’s been simmering for months — years, really — and then recess again and come back in November after the election signifies a change in how business gets done on Jones Street.

Traditionally, when North Carolina lawmakers conclude the second-year-in-the-biennium “short” session in early summer, they adjourn until the following January. This may not be the best set-up, but it does force lawmakers to wrap up their business and maintain the General Assembly’s status as a “part-time” legislature.

This new development is enough to make a body suspicious as to the motives of those behind it. Read More

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Buried deep in a House technical corrections bill unveiled yesterday is a provision to allow staff of for-profit charter school management groups to serve on the boards of the public charters schools that contract with them.

The N.C. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the 55-page technical corrections bill today. The legislation would also have to gain approval in the Senate. (UPDATE: The House voted and passed the bill Friday, and it is now headed to the Senate.)

Baker Mitchell of Roger Bacon Adademies

Baker Mitchell of Roger Bacon Academy, Inc. (Photo by Sarah Ovaska)

The technical corrections bill unveiled Thursday is supposed to be way for lawmakers to tweak laws but it often becomes an under-the-radar way to push through controversial changes and “asks” from powerful lobbying groups.

The one-sentence addition to charter school rules would prohibit the State Board of Education from dictating who can and can’t sit on the board of the publicly-funded charter schools.

That issue popped up last year when the N.C. Department of Public Instruction told a politically-connected charter school operator he couldn’t sit on the board of the school he works for.

“The State Board of Education shall no impose any terms and conditions that restrict membership of the board of directors of the nonprofit corporation operating the charter school, but shall require the board of directors to adopt a conflict of interest policy,” the new language in the technical corrections bill states. (Click here to view the corrections bill, charter school language on page 39.)

Baker Mitchell, who founded Charter Day School in Brunswick County, owns an education management company called Roger Bacon Academy that is contracted to run four charter schools in the southeastern part of the state.  Last year, the State Board of Education told Mitchell that neither he nor other Roger Bacon staff could be voting board members of the charter schools, a decision that bothered both Mitchell and the charter school board members.

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Former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque will wait until February for a jury trial on charges of stealing $300,000 from two federally-funded economic development groups he ran.

LaRoque-PC

Former N.C. Rep. LaRoque

LaRoque, a Kinston Republican, was scheduled for an October trial in a federal criminal courtroom in Greenville. The trial was pushed back to Feb. 2 because of delays in getting transcripts from a previous trial, according to an order filed in federal court this week.

A jury had convicted LaRoque in June 2013 of a dozen charges related to the theft, but U.S. Senior District Court Judge Malcolm Howard set aside those verdicts and ordered a new trial after finding out a juror in the case did home Internet research, a violation of court rules.

LaRoque, a former co-chair of the powerful House Rules committee and a self-declared “right hand man” for N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, has maintained he is innocent of any criminal wrongdoing, and said he was owed the money federal prosecutors contend he stole.

He resigned from the state legislature in 2012, after an indictment of federal charges accusing him of taking $300,000 from two federally-funded nonprofits he ran and using the money to buy cars, a Greenville skating rink, expensive jewelry and replica Faberge eggs for his wife.

The federal investigation began after N.C. Policy Watch published a 2011 investigation into LaRoque’s non-profit work, which found that he was paid generous salaries as high as $195,000 a year to run organizations that for years only had one or no other employees. The boards of his non-profit were also stacked with immediate family members and he signed off on giving low-interest loans of federally-sourced money to close business and political associates.

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It might be time to stock up on bug spray.

North Carolina is poised to do away with what remains of its state-run mosquito control program, if proposals to eliminate $185,992 in funding are adopted in the final budget.

The likely elimination of the vector control program in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t gotten much – or really,  any – attention as lawmakers contend with major policy shifts in the $21.1 billion budget like kicking off thousands of elderly and disabled off of Medicaid rolls and eliminating thousands of teachers aides.

But this year’s proposed cuts to the mosquito program could be the final step in dismantling what was once a top-notch state program to combat diseases spread by insects like mosquitoes and ticks, said Dennis Salmen, a retired Mecklenburg County environmental health director who now monitors legislation for the N.C. Mosquito and Vector Control Association.

“We were considered a model state for this,” Salmen said. “Not anymore.”

The $186,000 cut was included in all three budget proposals for the 2014-2015  fiscal year from Gov. Pat McCrory, the House and the Senate. The money has been  distributed in past years to various towns and counties to help support existing efforts to spray and prevent mosquito outbreaks.

Counties and cities have long supported their own spraying and prevention programs, but the state funding, even if minimal, made a big difference to towns in the coastal plains with small budgets and lots of mosquitoes,  he said.

The more significant blow to North Carolina’s mosquito and pest control programs came in 2011, when the newly-empowered Republican legislature passed a budget that eliminated $500,000 in funding for the Pest Management Control Program . The program in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources was made up of two entomologists and three environmental scientists that tracked and monitored diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes in the state.

Those state-funded positions that are now gone, though a position to monitor bed bug infestations was absorbed by the state agricultural department.

This year’s proposed cuts, on top of the 2011 cuts, is leaving North Carolina unprepared to handle any outbreaks of diseases that mosquitoes can carry, a risk to public health, Salmen said.

“We’re going to use humans as diseases sentinels,” he said. “If my son or daughter dies, I’m not going to be too happy with that.”

.Source: CDC, 2010 data

RMSF reports (from tick bites). Source: CDC, 2010 data

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If there’s been one area in which the current leadership of the General Assembly has been at its most cynical when it comes to directly contradicting past promises and rhetoric, it’s almost certainly in the area of legislative process. It’s gotten to the point at which it seems that scarcely an important piece of legislation advances on Jones Street without some kind of abuse of legislative rules (or, at least, the spirit thereof). Whether they’re crafting budgets in secret,  holding unannounced, middle-of-the-night sessions, providing lack of time and opportunity for public comment or just springing entirely new legislation out of thin air as last-minute  amendments, both the House and the Senate have frequently seemed intent of bending every guideline of fair play and open government.

And, of course, the amazing thing about all of this is that it’s not even necessary even from a crass, down-to-brass-tacks political perspective. The leaders in both Houses have huge, rubber-stamp majorities that make such shenanigans utterly unnecessary.  Sometimes it feels as if leaders are engaging in such exercises just because they can.  See for example, last week’s decision by House leaders to spring a last-minute, out-of-nowhere amendment on Senate Education Committee chairman Jerry Tillman on Common Core legislation.

So, with the final days of the 2014 session apparently upon us, observers of the General Assembly will do well to pay very close attention over the next week or two. Indeed, the House Finance Committee meets at 5:00 pm today to take up a bill that’s been sitting on its calendar since last summer and that will almost certainly be gutted and entirely rewritten with a “committee substitute.”

The bottom line: Notwithstanding the Senate’s just-for-show talk of making budget negotiations open, it’s almost a certainty that the upcoming days will  feature loads of secrecy and bad, behind-closed-doors lawmaking. Stay tuned and watch closely if your stomach can take it.