Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Governor’s office agrees to allow employees to publicly answer lawmakers’ questions about Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The segments in red indicate where construction on the pipeline was to begin in 2018; construction scheduled for 2019 along the segment is in blue. Legal challenges have halted the $8 billion project co-owned primarily by Duke Energy and Dominion. (Map: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

Employees from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office soon could publicly testify before lawmakers about details of a voluntary $57.8 million mitigation fund involving the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The employees could appear before a subcommittee as early as the week of Nov. 4.

If built, the ACP would started at a fracked natural gas operation in West Virginia, traverse through Virginia and enter North Carolina in Northampton County before continuing 160 miles through the eastern part of the state. Tens of thousands of people oppose the project because it would harm waterways, wildlife habitats and air quality, as well as raise environmental justice issues. Many of the communities along the route are largely Black or American Indian, and low-income. 

These pipelines also leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas and major driver of climate change.

In January 2018, Cooper announced his office had brokered a deal that would require Dominion and Duke Energy, the majority co-owners of the natural gas project, to pay into a mitigation fund to help renewable energy and economic development projects in eastern North Carolina.

With two hours of the governor’s announcement, the state Department of Environmental Quality released a statement saying it had granted a key water quality permit that would allow the project to proceed. DEQ had delayed issuing the permit, known as a 401, for several months as it requested more information from Duke and Dominion.

The timing of the two announcements raised suspicions from some lawmakers and ACP opponents — who are rarely on the same side — that the permit approval was contingent upon the $57.8 million fund. Both DEQ and Gov. Cooper have repeatedly denied their respective offices coordinated such an arrangement.

Virginia cut a similar deal, but it was between state environmental regulators and the utilities; it was also binding.

North Carolina lawmakers subsequently hired Eagle Intel, an independent firm composed of former IRS investigators, to look into how the deal was struck.

Last Friday, un an acrimonious exchange of letters, Republicans Sen. Harry Brown and Rep. Dean Arp complained that the governor had instructed some employees “not to cooperate” with Eagle Intel.  Brown and Arp offered to allow the employees to answer questions from the Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline about the governor’s “participation in the ACP permitting process,” as well as inquiries regarding the fund between the executive branch, the solar industry and Duke Energy.

Kristi Jones, the governor’s chief of staff, responded that employees would answer lawmakers’ questions, but only publicly, and not privately, as lawmakers had originally requested. “The fact you intend to inquire about the propriety of the funds paid by Duke is hypocritical at best, given that you have already appropriated those funds. Clearly, you did not believe a mitigation fund was inappropriate. You simply want to control it.”

When Republicans had veto-proof control of both the House and Senate, lawmakers passed legislation redirecting the funds to public school districts along the ACP route. However, no funds have been disbursed because they are to be apportioned in stages, including when the pipeline begins operating.  Legal challenges have halted construction for nearly a year. Recently the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from the utilities, which are contesting a federal appellate court decision to revoke a US Forest Service permit allowing it to cross the Appalachian Trail.

 



Letter From Arp Brown on ACP Investigators Hearing (Text)



Letter From KristiJones to Arp Brown (Text)

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Governor Cooper vetoes billboard measure

House Bill 645 is about as popular with the governor as the Edsel was to America.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 645 today, temporarily halting a measure that further limited local governments’ authority on where to locate billboards, including digital ones.

His veto message reads:

“Protecting the beauty and environment of North Carolina should be a top priority, but this legislation authorizes cutting down trees and other clearing work along roadways without the consent of nearby communities. Local governments should have more of a say in where their communities allow billboards.”

The legislation has long been controversial and had failed to advance during other sessions.

Among the bill’s opponents are environmental, conservation and wildlife groups, who are concerned that outdoor advertising companies would cut down trees to ensure their “right to be viewed.” A greater number of the giant roadside ads would also further clutter the natural landscape.

Many local governments, such as Durham, oppose the measure because it encroaches on their zoning authority.

Proponents argue that relaxed regulations are needed to support the outdoor advertising industry, which like many traditional media, is struggling. About 8,200 billboards in North Carolina are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted. Nonetheless, the industry has lost about 1,000 statewide in the past decade.

Based on the last vote count, the House lacks enough support to override the veto. On Aug. 7, the House voted 60-54 in favor of the measure; three lawmakers had excused absences and three did not vote. 

To reach the three-fifths majority for an override, the House would need 72 votes, presuming all 120 members were present. Even with the six excused absences and abstentions, the House would have only 66.

In the Senate, the bill passed 27-17, with six excused absences. If all members were present, the Senate would need 30 votes to override. But without the House, the veto would stand.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

If Gov. Cooper won’t debate Berger on Medicaid, I know a few thousand who will

Prepare for the right to make hay about this. And prepare for Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to continue to pressure North Carolina legislative leaders behind the scenes to roll over on Medicaid expansion, an issue that may divide the Republican caucus, if virtually no one else.

The editorial boards of the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh’s News & Observer have called upon Cooper and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, North Carolina’s Medicaid miser-in-chief, to debate the issue. Berger’s office has indicated its willingness, but Cooper’s office says legislators should focus instead on responding to his budget proposal.

Cooper should debate Berger, no question, but in his absence, I can imagine hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, those blockaded by the GOP’s political stranglehold over Medicaid, would be happy to step in.

Berger and the governor have spoken quite a bit, but it’s those residents of this state continually dehumanized by the blockade who deserve a microphone.

For the better part of a decade, Republicans have insisted that the federally-funded expansion is a financial liability in waiting, even if the expansion’s healthcare and economic benefits are about as nebulous as simple arithmetic.

I know it may seem as if the federal government will not endure the smoking crater in the White House, but it will, and so will Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Holding out, as North Carolina Republicans have, is intractable buffoonery. It’s mindless and heartless.

Here’s a portion of the Observer’s editorial from this morning:

The governor and other advocates believe expanding Medicaid here would provide health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, increase jobs and help struggling rural hospitals. Cooper has intensified his public push for expansion by meeting affected parties in Raleigh and across the state. “I believe straight up Medicaid expansion is the best option,” he said earlier this month, “but I’m willing to discuss concerns of leaders in both chambers to ensure that more North Carolinians can get access to affordable health care.”

Berger, in an op-ed last month, said he thinks expanding Medicaid is an economic risk that would result increased health care costs and increased wait times at medical offices. He and House speaker Tim Moore have declined to give their blessing to compromise legislation that Democrats believe might get enough Republican votes to pass.

Yes, it’s possible that a debate won’t change the immediate political dynamic. It might even cause each side to dig in further on Medicaid rather than risk the impression of a debate loss. But there’s also the possibility that the debate could reveal to each side — and North Carolinians — at least a little common ground that could provide a foundation for compromise.

We’ve given the governor’s and Senate leader’s offices a heads up on our debate invitation. Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told the editorial board Monday that the senator is agreeable to debating the governor. Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told us the governor is not going to debate, and that Republicans should respond to Cooper’s compromise budget proposal. We agree. But we also think the the governor has a good case to make and defend on Medicaid expansion. We hope he decides it’s one that worth debating.

Commentary, Education, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

After budget passes, Gov. Cooper goes on the offensive in promising a veto

Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plans to veto the budget bill Friday.

Facing, for the first time in his term, some hope of sustaining a veto of Republican lawmakers’ budget, Gov. Roy Cooper wasted little time Friday.

Cooper — flanked by teachers, health care officials, influential progressives and, perhaps, a few key swing votes in the Democratic caucus — slammed legislators’ $24 billion spending plan as a “failure of common sense and common decency” at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.

A few blocks away, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — perhaps the most powerful Republican in the state — held a press conference in the legislative building, chiding the governor for his decision. Berger argued that Cooper is holding up the state’s spending plan over Medicaid expansion.

“If (Cooper) says he’s willing to compromise, I’m more than happy to have our members engage with him,” Berger said. “I will tell you I’m not optimistic about his willingness to compromise based on his track record.”

It’s as if, eight months ago when Democrats broke Republicans’ veto-proof majority in both the state House and Senate, we could have written this contrived script out entirely then.

Cooper demands Medicaid expansion, a mostly federally-funded initiative expanding health care access for low-income North Carolinians.

And Republican lawmakers, who’ve rarely faced even a fleeting necessity for compromise in the last decade, scoff.

It’s only a matter of resolving whether the remaining negotiations last days, weeks or, gulp, months.

“Overall, this budget is bad, it prioritizes the wrong things,” Cooper told reporters Friday. The budget values tax breaks over public schools, he insisted, and “political ideology over people,” likely a reference to Medicaid.

Cooper was joined at the mansion Friday by Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Cohen has urged lawmakers to adopt Medicaid expansion since Cooper appointed her to the role in January 2017.

The governor’s budget also breaks sharply with Republicans on K-12 spending, teacher raises, and school construction. Facing an $8 billion tab for school infrastructure, Cooper, like House Speaker Moore, has supported a statewide bond committing billions. Berger and Senate legislators emphasized a “pay-as-you-go” approach, pledging to spend more than $4 billion on school buildings in the next decade.

Ask a teacher whether they’re willing to trust lawmakers’ promise of future action, particularly given the infrastructure bill owes to years, not months, of neglect from state leaders.

Overriding the governor’s veto will require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. And while a handful of Democrats voted with Republicans on the budget bill this week, it’s unclear whether any would go so far as to join Republicans in the override.

Case in point: Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat awaiting confirmation for an appointment to the state Utilities Commission, stood directly behind Cooper Friday. McKissick voted with the GOP to approve the budget Thursday, but it seems most unlikely he’d support the override.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

Berger repeated his assertion Friday that lawmakers were open to a conversation about Medicaid expansion, provided it’s held in a special session, something of a ludicrous delaying tactic given the issue’s front-burner position for most of the decade.

Republicans leaders are expected to woo Democrats to their side with “pork” spending on local projects in the budget, a point Berger seemed to hint at Friday.

“I believe every member should vote on this bill based on what they believe is best for their districts and their constituents,” he said. “And not what is best for their political party.”

Berger claimed that he has not asked for nor received any pledges from Democrats to vote with the GOP.

Still, the Senate leader acknowledged there may be lawmakers in his party willing to consider expansion, but not enough to pass it. Berger added that he would not support the expansion, repeating the claim that the increased Medicaid spending could “blow a hole in the budget” if the federal government reneges on its promise to pay the lion’s share of the tab.

Far-right Republicans have made that argument for years now — even if moderate conservatives saw the innate logic and humanity in expansion — and that provision of Obamacare seems no more likely to be scrapped today than it did when the GOP first rebuffed expansion in 2013.

The House is expected to consider an override vote first. The haggling, I assure you, is already underway behind closed doors.

What happens from here on out is decidedly less predictable.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

We haven’t seen it yet, but North Carolina’s budget has veto written all over it

As of this moment, we — the huddled people, press and politicos of North Carolina — haven’t seen a draft of lawmakers’ agreed upon budget, but given the latest dispatch from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, this one has veto written all over it.

Which is to say that our turgid budget process, which was supposed to wrap before the July 1 beginning of the fiscal year, may last weeks and even months.

Stated Cooper spokesperson, Ford Porter, Monday morning:

“We want a budget that invests in teacher pay instead of more tax cuts for corporations, that has a school and infrastructure bond instead of a slush fund, and that includes Medicaid expansion to insure 500,000 more North Carolinians. Right now, legislative Republicans are not interested in serious negotiations on these issues, but we hope they will change their minds and agree to put everything on the table as Governor Cooper has.”

Cooper’s office spoke out, with many expecting a proposed budget from House and Senate conferees in a matter of hours. Of course, no one’s seen the thing, a trademark of North Carolina’s surreptitious budget “process.” But the stagecraft squabbling by lawmakers and Cooper’s reps leaves little reason for optimism.

As The Insider‘s Colin Campbell reported, even a sausage biscuit confab Friday at the Capitol with Cooper, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and House Speaker Tim Moore, was a blunt failure.

From The Insider:

On Friday morning, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger walked to the old Capitol building to meet with Cooper and House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake. Berger was spotted carrying a bag of Bojangles’ sausage biscuits, while both legislative leaders were carrying binders labeled “budget compromise options.” One of those proposals involves agreeing to a special legislative session “to address health access issues, including Medicaid expansion,” according to a joint statement from Berger and Moore.

“The governor previously proposed a ‘two-track’ solution and wants Medicaid to be ‘part of the conversation,'” the joint statement said. “This meets both of those requests. The governor rejected the proposal. We’ve asked for concrete compromise proposals from the governor for nearly two weeks now. He has refused to provide them.” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Friday that during the meeting Cooper and Jackson “made clear to Republican leaders that they oppose corporate tax cuts, unaccountable school vouchers and the SCIF slush fund and said that any budget compromise has to include discussion of Medicaid expansion, a school and infrastructure bond and significantly higher teacher salaries. Gov. Cooper indicated today that these items are negotiable, but Republican leaders have nearly completed their budget and are unwilling to discuss all of these important priorities that benefit our state.”

With legislators’ veto-proof majority torpedoed last year, this is the first time Cooper and legislators have been forced to haggle over the budget. Which is to say that we’ve never seen this negotiation before. Which is to say that the only thing we know is what we don’t know.

Every indication is legislators are intractable on Cooper’s biggest prize, Medicaid expansion, a damnably durable position for GOP legislators that’s as cold-hearted as it is illogical. But it’s clear that another round of GOP-authored tax cuts, school choice spending and a K-12 bond are on the table too.

The latter may be a key wedge in these deliberations. Moore’s already specified his tardy support for a statewide bond, while Berger retains his trademark acerbity on the subject. To recap, North Carolina faces billions in school facility demands. Moore has been willing to create a bond for at least a portion of those needs, but Berger’s more conservative Senate is loathe to take on the debt.

The tit-for-tat deliberation is just beginning. Miles to go, it seems.