The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Mark Johnson, state schools superintendent, finds comedy in one troubled school system’s tragedy   (Commentary)

And what North Carolina Republicans, if they truly support public education, should do about it

If North Carolina Republicans are confounded by the notion that every last one of them disdains public education—and, surely, not all of them do—they should tune into Mark Johnson’s bro huddle with right-wing talk show host KC O’Dea last Friday to see where a North Carolinian might get such a notion.

Amidst the self-pity, the self-congratulation, the media-bashing and the repetition (I would go back and attempt to count the number of times Johnson spits the word “bureaucrat” like a slur, but really, honestly, this conversation is too much of a chore) our superintendent of public schools squeezes in an unmistakably hearty laugh at one county school system’s budget troubles. [Read more…]

2. Regulator, experts: State lawmaker’s explanation for incomplete ethics filing falls short

Law “is clear” Rep. Holly Grange should have reported on businesses owned by her husband even if they were inactive

Last week, Policy Watch reported that state Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) failed to disclose a business owned and operated by her husband on Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) forms for several years.

This week, as the North Carolina lawmaker offered a defense experts said is incompatible with the law, Policy Watch reviewed two more undisclosed Grange family businesses. [Read more…]

3. Surveys, interviews: Responses of Chemours and DHHS to Gen X and PFAS pollution falling short

Last summer, Chemours sent contractors to the Cumberland County home of Katrina Rubiera and tested her drinking water. Shortly afterward, the first shipment of bottled water arrived.

“Our well water tested positive for, well, I’m not sure, because I still don’t have my test results,” Rubiera told Policy Watch last week via email.

Although Chemours has regularly sent bottled water to her home since then, she still doesn’t know what contaminants are in her drinking water and at what concentrations.

The public mistrust of state officials and the alarming lack of information about toxic GenX and PFAS — perfluorinated compounds — in drinking water, fish and food were borne out in a community survey conducted by the NC Department of Health and Human Services; DHHS released the results Tuesday. [Read more…]

4. Environmental groups, scientists say DEQ’s air monitoring program fails the sniff test

Because DEQ limited air monitor sites to meet EPA criteria, they were too far from hog farms to accurately measure their emissions

When state environmental officials agreed to a historic civil rights settlement two years ago, neighbors of industrial hog operations hoped that their misery — detailed in court under oath but discounted by the pork industry, their lawyers and several legislators — would be further confirmed by data.

The settlement required the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a temporary air monitoring study to measure three pollutants — ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5 — in and around Duplin County. These are among the contaminants surfing on the wafts of stench emanating from open-pit lagoons and spray fields teeming with feces and urine.

Depending on the study results, the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) could continue to monitor the air and potentially enforce regulations on offending farms or other violators. [Read more…]

5. Governor’s commission adopts recommendations to improve state’s public schools

The Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education approved recommendations Thursday it hopes will help guide defendants and plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro case as they develop a plan to improve North Carolina’s public schools.

The recommendations came two days after Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order in which attorneys for the defendants and plaintiffs agreed to work together to bring the state into compliance with the Leandro ruling. The ruling reaffirmed North Carolina’s constitutional duty to ensure all children have an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

Lee gave litigants 60 days to submit a plan spelling out how they will meet short-terms goals in the WestEd report, which offers specific recommendations about how to bring North Carolina into compliance with the ruling.[Read more…]

6. At long last, a plan to comply with Leandro education mandate takes shape

More than two decades after a landmark state Supreme Court ruling, NC moves a step closer to assuring every child access to a “sound, basic education”

A North Carolina judge seemed to agree with an independent consultant’s report that says North Carolina needs to spend $8 billion over the next eight years to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education.”

That is one takeaway after Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order Tuesday in which defendants and plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro case agreed to work “expeditiously and without delay” to create and implement a plan.[Read more…]

Bonus read: There’s movement in the Leandro case. Attorneys for defendants, plaintiffs agree to work to improve K-12 education

7. Five important reminders for a crucial year in American history (Commentary)

And just like that, another critical election year is upon us – maybe the most important election year in modern American history.

For caring and thinking people who find themselves aghast at the greed, dishonesty, violence, phobias, and contempt for the common good and planetary wellbeing that are the hallmarks of the Trump cult, it sometimes feels as if the very soul and long-term prospects of the human species are on the line.

And for those less inclined to harbor such apocalyptic assessments, it must still be conceded that there is a hell of a lot at stake this year – especially in states like North Carolina where essentially every important office, save for Richard Burr’s Senate seat and a handful of high-level state courts seats – is on the ballot. [Read more…]

8. Weekly Podcasts and Commentaries:

Click here for the latest interviews and commentaries with host Rob Schofield 

9. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:


Trump administration narrows clean water protections, NC wetlands likely to suffer

A restored stream in Forest Hills Park in Durham, conducted under the state’s mitigation program. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In case you missed it on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule that environmentalists say will gut long-established clean water protections.

Announced at a national home builders show in Las Vegas, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Navigable Waters Protection Rule delivers on President Trump’s promise of a revised definition for “waters of the United States” and results in economic growth.

But as Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg first reported last September, this rule change could hold dire consequences for North Carolina:

In North Carolina, wetlands cover 5.7 million acres of land, about 17 percent of the state. Most of the wetlands are in eastern North Carolina, where they provide crucial flood protection and wildlife habitat. In addition, 51,000 miles of streams — equivalent to two trips around the equator — are at risk from the WOTUS rollback. Some parts of the state, Gisler said, could lose protections for 50 percent of their streams.

Even with Clean Water Act protections, North Carolina’s waters are still polluted: from coal ash pits, chemicals, hog waste, raw sewage — 85 million gallons of which spilled into the state’s waterways last year. Repealing the federal protections would likely despoil the water quality we do have.

“We could see dramatic increases in number of streams plowed over, developed, paved,” if the repeal withstands legal challenges, said Geoff Gisler, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There’s going to be a visible and noticeable difference in the quality of our waters.”

And while the change is clearly intended to benefit developers and industry, the Southern Environmental Law Center notes:

…. the overwhelming majority of the 626,075 public comments EPA received weighed in against the proposed rule. The list of Americans from across the country that the rule drew criticism or concern from is long: floodplain and wetland managers, state wildlife agencies and international councils, state environmental agencies, associations representing family commercial fishing businesses, several fly-fishing-related businesses, river guides and paddling outfitters, outdoor apparel company Patagonia, outdoor recreational enthusiasts represented by several organizations, 59 craft breweries, 12 scientific societies that represent more than 200,000 scientists, numerous associations representing public and children’s health advocates, cities and counties, small and family farmers, environmental law professors, faith organizations, and conservation organizations too numerous to count.

So what’s next? According to Politico, you can expect a deluge of new lawsuits:

Legal experts say the Trump rule is likely to be placed on hold by federal courts in at least some states, if not nationwide, as the litigation works its way through the courts. In the meantime. developers and other industries will have to decide how much of a risk they’re willing to take.

For more, read Sorg’s full story: How a Trump attack on the federal “Waters of the United States” rule imperils the waters of North Carolina.


2020 Women’s March rally this weekend in Raleigh

This Sunday, thousands of women are expected to march and rally on Halifax mall and around the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.

In addition to organizing and focusing on select social issues, participants will rally around the right to vote and shifting the direction of our democracy.

The “2020 Raleigh Women’s March: Women Protecting the Future” began in response to the 2016 election.

Women Mobilize NC 2020 pledge:

…to defend and support communities under attack including women, immigrants, working families, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, Jews, refugees, & people with disabilities and indigenous people; to fight attempts to institute a Muslim ban and to reject Islamophobia; to oppose the attacks on the transgender community; to support #MeToo, holding people accountable for sexual assault, violence against women, and supporting survivors; to work for equal access to voting and voting rights, including challenging gerrymandering and voter suppression and disenfranchisement tactics, as well as supporting hand counted paper ballots and verified vote; to support living wages, affordable health care, abortion, reproductive health care, paid family & sick leave child care, adequately funded public education, and common sense gun regulations; to support investment in our public schools, health care, safety, and infrastructure, and opposing unfair taxes; to work to protect our air, water, and land; to oppose racially biased policing & mass incarceration, and deportations that tear apart families; to support DREAMers and fight for DACA.

Community groups taking part in this weekend’s event include: Read more

News, public health

Must watch documentary on the troubling rise in NC youth suicides premieres Thursday

North Carolina’s teen suicide rate has doubled in the past decade. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of deaths among children ages 10-17 in our state.

It’s a troubling fact that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

This Thursday, WRAL-TV will premiere its latest documentary on the subject in which a young woman shares her own story of overcoming depression, anxiety and an attempted suicide while highlighting the lessons she learned along the way.

Clay Johnson, the documentary’s producer, recently sat down with NC Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield to preview “Out of the Darkness”:

The documentary “Out of the Darkness” premieres on WRAL-TV as well as its web and streaming platforms this Thursday, January 23 at 7 p.m.

For more on this topic, be sure to listen to our recent interview with Michelle Hughes, Executive Director of NC Child, in which we discussed what policymakers should do to address the crisis.

For those who may be seeking help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Make no mistake. The budget failed because Republicans failed to compromise.

There is a temptation—and believe me, I understand it—to celebrate the fleeting nature of this week’s special session of the North Carolina state legislature as some sort of coup.

Resist that temptation, even if the sight of an ostensibly frustrated Phil Berger is a new one to these tired eyes.

Berger and his compatriots in the Republican caucus enjoyed near unchecked power in the last decade. A post-Obama surge of conservatives played a modest part in that, although the gerrymandering did its part too. [Read more…]

2. Pipelines, roads and railways: This is why you should care about Trump’s rollback of NEPA, a key environmental law

By the time the new Interstate 885 opens in Durham later this year, some of the people who conceived of the original project will have been long dead.

In the works for 60 years, the East End Connector, as Durhamites call it, funnels traffic over four miles from NC 147 to US 70 and onto I-85, to reduce congestion on surface streets.

But environmental laws did not slow-walk the project. In fact, when the highway was first conceived in the early 1960s, there was no EPA. There was no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act. There was no NEPA — National Environmental Policy Act. All those laws were passed in the 1970s. [Read more…]

3. NC’s new “Raise the Age” law appears to be off to a promising start

New facilities and policies offer hope to 16 and 17 year-olds once consigned to the adult corrections system

Tall trees and a rocky, woodsy landscape envelop the C.A. Dillon juvenile detention campus in Butner. Save for the tall metal fence that rings the confinement building, the area could be mistaken for a summer camp or private school grounds.

The feeling that greets the visitor of wanting to go for a group hike or play flag football with old pals quickly diminishes inside, however, as the smell of fresh paint permeates the building and barred windows and concrete walls remind you that this isn’t a fun trip away from home. But it won’t be like that forever – after all, this isn’t jail.[Read more…]

4. State lawmaker’s failure to disclose business ties highlights broader ethics enforcement problem

State Rep. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) failed to disclose a business owned and operated by her husband on state Statement of Economic Interest (SEI) forms for several years, according to documents reviewed by Policy Watch.

In North Carolina, public officials are required to disclose connections to all non-publicly owned companies by which they or their immediate family members are employed or in which they have an interest.

Grange’s husband, David Grange, registered his “consulting” business Osprey at Compass Pointe LLC with the state Secretary of State’s office in July 2015. Yet the business did not appear on Grange’s SEI form in 2016, when she was first appointed to a state House seat to replace incumbent Rick Catlin. She ran unopposed for the seat in that year’s election. Rep. Grange also did not list the business on her SEI forms in 2017 or 2018. In February 2018, the business was administratively dissolved by the Secretary of State’s office for failure to file an annual report. [Read more…] Read more