Commentary, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Coal ash flowing like pudding in Neuse River near Duke’s Goldsboro power plant
Matthew Starr had paddled only a half mile of a stretch of Neuse River near Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant in Goldsboro when he saw initial signs that something had gone very wrong.

“There was exposed coal ash on trees, floating in the river, on the road,” said Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “There was coal ash lying the ground. We scooped it up out of the water.”

Flooding from Hurricane Florence had drowned two inactive coal ash basins in five feet of water. The active basins, according to state regulators, were structurally sound, but the Half Mile Branch Creek, according to images published by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was flowing through the inactive basin complex, which is covered in trees and other vegetation.[Read more…]

2. Tillis, Burr and other Kavanaugh supporters must cling to one or more of four very troubling beliefs
The sordid saga of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his nomination to serve a lifetime appointment on the United States Supreme Court is quickly careering toward some sort of very explosive and disturbing conclusion. Either the conservative jurist will be confirmed despite repeated allegations of dishonesty and past incidents of sexual violence or his nomination will be withdrawn or rejected based on those same allegations. In either instance, it’s a sad and remarkable state of affairs.
It’s the sexual assault allegations that have really seized the news headlines in recent days. The first allegation involves Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor and clinical psychology instructor, who says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party more than 35 years ago while his buddy, Mark Judge, looked on. At last word, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from Ford later this week. [Read more…]

3. A word to the General Assembly: This time, keep the politics out of hurricane relief
“Both the House and the Senate, our hearts go out to all the folks that were affected by Hurricane Florence,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said Monday as a handful of GOP power-players visited a storm-wracked Wilmington.
Horn promised Senate and House leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly were toiling away behind the scenes on a relief package, one so badly-needed for portions of the state submerged by Hurricane Florence and its watery aftermath.

And top Republicans like House Majority Leader John Bell say the agenda will be limited when they return next week for an emergency session, with a focus on relief funding, teacher pay and the school calendar in districts shuttered by the storm. [Read more…]

4. A tale of two stories: price gouging in NC from consumers, business perspectives
For most, news of an impending hurricane means picking up some bread and an extra case of water, fueling up the gas tank and deciding whether to evacuate.

For some businesses though, that same news means dollar signs – it creates an opportunity to take advantage of desperate people planning for the worst.

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office has received more than 700 reports of price gouging – a prosecutable crime – since Sept. 7, when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Hurricane Florence. [Read more…]

5. Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities
Huge pools of standing flood water still surround houses in south Lumberton’s Turner Terrace neighborhood, drawing roving clouds of mosquitoes.

Downed power lines float in the deep brown pools and lay tangled in the many fallen trees.

The stench of sewage is oppressive.

Still, many of its residents want to come home.

Adrienne Kennedy’s family has lived in this lower income Black neighborhood for three generations. But like many of her neighbors, she had to leave after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Flood damage and pervasive mold drove her and her two young sons to Fayetteville, where they still live as what she calls “climate refugees.” [Read more…]

6. Hurricane Florence is exposing North Carolina’s racial and geographic inequalities
Hurricane Florence tore through the Carolinas, leaving entire cities devastated, claiming dozens of lives, and doing what will likely be billions of dollars in damage. But this hurricane has exposed much more than tree roots and the foundations of homes — it has exposed the gross and growing inequality embedded in our state.

For years, eastern North Carolina has been home to some of the state’s most impoverished towns and communities. In 2016, 19 of the 20 poorest counties in the entire state were all located in the east. In addition to poverty, eastern North Carolina is also home to some of the state’s hungriest communities. In 2016, more than 300,000 people in the 18 counties declared disaster areas did not have enough food to eat each night. [Read more...]

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, Legislature, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. The dirty half dozen: What you need to know about all six proposed constitutional amendments

The 2018 midterm elections are upon us and North Carolina voters will soon pass judgment on, among many other things, an unprecedented raft of six constitutional amendments.

The proposals include:

  • a proposal to permanently cap the state income tax rate,
  • a proposal to remake the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement so as to alter its composition and how its members are selected,
  • a proposal to dramatically alter and limit the Governor’s authority when it comes to filling vacancies that occur on the state courts,
  • a proposal to require some undetermined form of photo identification for in-person voting,
  • a proposal to establish a state constitutional “right” to hunt and fish, and
  • a proposal to enact a multi-faceted “victims’ rights” amendment known as “Marsy’s Law.”

There are many compelling reasons to oppose all six – starting with the absurd and outrageous lack of process that accompanied their approval by the General Assembly during the final harried days of the 2018 legislative session, the hurried rewrite of two amendments in late August, and the deceitful and dishonest way the proposals will be summarized and presented on the ballot.

Still, even if one were to set aside all of the profound problems of process and procedure, there are numerous important substantive deficiencies in each amendment that are more than adequate to justify a “no” vote. Here is a brief list: [Read more...]

2. Old and in the way: Hurricane Florence could barrel over landfills, waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and more toxics

Thousands of animal waste lagoons, hazardous waste sites and other repositories of toxic material lie in and near the projected path of Hurricane Florence, increasing the risk of breaches or leaks of dangerous chemicals into the environment. (This is one important reason you should avoid wading through or touching flood waters.)

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has a new mapping and data feature, which shows the locations of these sites, both in map form and spreadsheet. All of the maps below are from the DEQ site and can be clicked on to enlarge them. We’ve linked to each map; once you get to that DEQ page, click on the “data” tab to view the addresses and facility names in spreadsheet form.

The first map shows all of the animal feeding operations for permitted swine, cattle and poultry farms that use wet litter. (Dry litter poultry farms are “deemed permitted” and are largely unregulated.) With more than a foot of rain forecast, there is a higher risk of lagoon breaches, which can send millions of gallons of animal waste to rivers, wetlands and nearby property. [Read more…]

Bonus read:

Read more

Defending Democracy, Legislature, News

With GOP member a no-show, constitutional amendments commission postpones work

Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall met Tuesday without the third member of the Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission, Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble.

Votes were postponed on ballot caption and description language for six amendments to the state constitution Tuesday when one of the three-member commission’s members didn’t show up to a scheduled meeting.

The Constitutional Amendments Publications Commission is tasked with creating short captions for the proposed amendments and longer descriptions of what each amendment would do that will also be available to voters. But all three members—N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble—must be in attendance for the commission to take a vote on the language.

Coble skipped the Tuesday morning meeting, stymying the ability of the commission to craft and vote on language for the ballots or descriptions.

The political tug-of-war between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-controlled General Assembly in the last week has complicated the commission’s work.

First, the General Assembly returned in a special session to write its own captions for the ballot, stripping the commission of the ability to do so. Republican leaders said they were afraid the commission would politicize the language.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Cooper vetoed the bill that took away the commission’s ability to write the captions. But legislative leaders, with a GOP supermajority, set up a vote Saturday to override Cooper’s latest vetoes.

Stein and Marshall, both Democrats, suggested Monday’s scheduled meeting of the commission go forward. If the veto is overridden, they said, the legislature’s caption language would move forward – but the commission is still tasked with preparing longer summaries of a paragraph or two that will be available through local boards of election.

In a Monday e-mail to Stein and Marshall, Coble argued the commission should postpone its meeting until August 6, after the veto override vote.

“I make this suggestion in order to avoid further politicizing the work of the commission and to avoid additional controversy,” Coble said. “Therefore, I will not attend any meetings of the Commission this week.”

Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble

Marshall replied by encouraging Coble to attend Tuesday’s scheduled meeting and offering to postpone discussion of the ballot captions until after Saturday’s vote. The commission could still proceed with the longer descriptions, she wrote.

When Coble failed to show for the meeting, Stein and Marshall said they were disappointed. They then turned the meeting into a “work session” on the amendment language. Going through each of the amendments, Stein and Marshall shared concern with how they were written, what they would mean for government in North Carolina and whether voters will actually understand the amendments on which they are being asked to vote.

Stein expressed concern about “the incredible disconnect between the words the voters will be voting on on the ballot and what the amendments actually do.”

“What I fear is that the voters are going to go in to get a beautiful birthday cake and see this wonderful picture with all this accurate, beautiful description of what it’s going to taste like…and then when they eat it, it’s cat food and they don’t like the taste it leaves in their mouths,” Stein said.

Of particular concern, both Stein and Marshall said, are the amendments dealing with filling judicial vacancies and an amendment that would give the legislature broad power to appoint members of boards and commissions. Both are politically controversial issues—the latter of which has been the subject of lawsuits between the last two governors and the General Assembly.

The amendment having to do with appointments on boards of commissions seems, at first glance, to deal only with the state board of elections, Marshall said. But when you examine what the amendment would actually do, it is much more expansive.

Secretary of State Elaine Marshall

“My analysis of this is that it basically affects the separation of powers in the constitution of North Carolina,” Marshall said. “And it completely limits the governor in appointing positions that currently are appointable by him.”

Stein agreed.

“This amendment if enacted would represent the most radical restructuring of our government in 150 years, since the Civil War,” Stein said. “And I agree with you, the primary impact is to completely change the separation of powers. It doesn’t clarify the separation of powers, it changes it.”

“It would essentially give the legislature unfettered power to run the executive branch,” Stein said. “Which takes power away from the voters.”

Read more

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

FERC approves construction to begin in NC on Atlantic Coast Pipeline; status of $57.8 million fund still uncertain

The segments in red indicate where construction on the pipeline is to begin this year; construction is scheduled for 2019 along the segment in blue. (Map: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is allowing construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to begin in North Carolina, according to a notice issued late yesterday.

But it’s unclear what this final approval means for the $57.8 million escrow fund agreed to by Gov. Roy Cooper and Dominion Energy and Duke Energy.

Construction had already begun on the compressor station near Pleasant Hill in Northampton County, as well as an office building and a metering and regulation station . The FERC notice now allows ACP, LLC, which is co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, to start major excavation along most of the route.

Construction has been occurring in West Virginia for several months; however FERC has yet to give final approval for it to begin in Virginia.

FERC’s approval would have also triggered the launch of a $57.8 million escrow account, under a controversial Memorandum of Understanding between Gov. Cooper and Dominion Energy, signed on Jan. 25. Under that voluntary agreement, Dominion and Duke were to deposit half that amount –$29 million — into the account upon receiving FERC’s final notice to proceed.

That money was to be used for environmental mitigation — even though those measures had been requirement in state environmental permits — renewable energy, and to enhance economic development in communities along the route. One of ACP, LLC’s  main talking points was that the pipeline itself would spark economic development. But many critics of the project noted that it would cost millions of dollars for industry to connect to the pipeline. This money would have presumably helped with those connection fees, although it’s unclear how and who would determine the recipients of the funds.

But the legislature passed a law earlier this year to negate the agreement. Instead, the money would go to school districts in counties along the route. However, since the MOU was voluntary and between the utilities and the governor, the new law jeopardized the fund. Duke Energy spokeswoman Tammie McGee said that details on the utilities’ disbursements are not yet fleshed out.

 

Defending Democracy, Legislature, News

State lawmakers move to seize power over constitutional amendment captions

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett

North Carolina lawmakers wasted little time in filing, and approving, legislation Tuesday that would seize control over the captions that describe six controversial, constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, co-sponsored House Bill 3 Tuesday, shortly after lawmakers rang in a special session that critics blasted as an attempt to defuse a bipartisan commission’s work on the captions in the coming days.

Lawmakers wrote the language for those amendments on the ballot, language that’s already been criticized for offering a particularly “rosy” depiction of their impacts, despite concerns about a much-criticized voter ID amendment and further power shifts from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to state legislators.

But a three-member commission, which includes two Democrats and one Republican, would be charged with authoring short descriptions that would be on the ballot and available to voters.

Lewis’ bill would instead change the captions to read “constitutional amendment,” while leaving the voting guide descriptions to the commission.

Minority party leaders like House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson slammed the hastily convened special session Tuesday, calling it “injurious” to the state.

“What changed between 2016?” Jackson told members of a state House rules committee Tuesday. “Why are we doing it at such a late date?”

The constitutional commission includes Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, as well as Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble, a Republican.

That commission has laid out plans for public comment and a website in anticipation of meeting state election officials’ early August deadline for the caption language, but Lewis wrote in a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore over the weekend that he worried the commission would craft politicized captions intended to sway voters.

Lewis said the commission would still be charged with creating descriptions that would be available to voters, although that language would not be included on the ballot.

The bill passed the House and the Senate Tuesday afternoon on partisan lines, just hours after they were filed, and were sent to Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.

Cooper’s expected to veto the bill, but GOP lawmakers have left themselves just enough time to override that veto in time to meet state election officials’ early August deadline.

Sen. Harry Brown, an eastern North Carolina Republican, argued Tuesday, without providing any evidence, that members of the commission would politicize the caption language.

“I would have to argue we think that’s what’s happening in the state,” Brown said.

But on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Democrats noted the descriptions already drawn up by GOP lawmakers to describe the amendments this fall, particularly one that shifts judicial appointment powers from Cooper to the legislature, gloss over details that may lead voters to disapprove.

“If the makeup of this commission had two Republicans and one Democrat, we wouldn’t be here,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham Democrat. “If perhaps (GOP candidate) Buck Newton had become attorney general… we wouldn’t be here. This is all political.”

[This is a developing story. Check back updates.]