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.

Environment, Legislature

In the House, a major amendment to controversial Duke Energy rate-making bill hands the hot potato back to the Senate

Rep. Larry Strickland: “Not a lot of people want this bill outside of Duke Energy.”

A key provision in Senate Bill 559 was upended in the House Tuesday afternoon, which made the measure more palatable to opponents but added uncertainty to it future.

Colloquially known as the Duke Energy rate-making bill, it contained a controversial section that allowed the utilities commission to approve multi-year rate plans. Utilities could then avoid requesting rate hikes more often. While bill proponents in the legislature said it would add certainty to rate-making, there’s no guarantee that rates would decrease. If they increased, customers could be locked into higher bills for several years.

The amendment now require the Utilities Commission to study multi-year rate making and other methods. “Not a lot of people want this bill outside of Duke Energy,” said Rep. Larry Strickland, a Republican representing Harnett and Johnston counties. “We need a lot more discussion. This impacts small businesses, industry and families.”

The study would be due no later than March 1, 2020.

The amendment passed 63-51, which teed up the near-unanimous approval of the bill. After a 112-2 vote, the measure now returns to the Senate.

Section 1 of the bill allows Duke Energy to ask the Utilities Commission for permission to sell bonds to recover costs associated with storm damage. It has met no opposition. But with Section 2, and now the amendment, the fate of the bill in the Senate is uncertain. During committee hearings and on the Senate floor earlier in the session, several Democratic senators, including Mike Woodard of Durham County, suggested peeling off the controversial section into a study bill. Sen. Ralph Hise, a bill co-sponsor, quickly quashed the proposal.

The bill has been tweaked several times to attempt to assuage concerns from industry and consumer advocates that Duke could use alternative rate-making to “milk profits from customers,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, who supports the measure.

The original bill contained “earnings bands.”  The banding portion of a multi-rate plan would allow the Utilities Commission to establish a return on investment — a profit — for the utility that acts as a midpoint; from there, the commission also would set a low- and high-end range — a band — for profitability. This provision would require Duke Energy to refund to customers any profits above 1.25 percent on its rate of return.

Bill sponsors changed the bill so that profits from the middle and top of earnings bands were directed to projects like affordable housing.

Thirty-five states have enacted alternative rate-making mechanisms, but they differ in their approach and success. “Let’s not make mistake Virginia made,” Strickland said, “which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges.”

Lewis opposed the amendment. “Why study something that merely gives the Utilities Commission the option. It’s redundant to study whether they would like to have the option. The amendment is damaging to the bill.”

A study is beyond the scope of the Utilities Commission, said Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican. “This is a confusion of checks and balances. Their role is not to enact a study but to carry out policy.”

Bill proponents often touted that the measure had bipartisan support because it Democrat Dan Blue of Wake County is a co-sponsor. However, there also has been bipartisan pushback.

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, said he could not support the multi-year rate-making portion of the bill. “It’s better than when it was introduced but it still has flaws.”

Szoka said he agreed the changing energy industry needs new methods for rate-making. Because of energy efficiency, the demand for electricity has decreased. “Rewarding a utility for building more [plants] is no longer viable,” Szoka said. I understand where impetus for Section 2 is coming from. But it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s utility-centered, not ratepayer-centered. The best alternative is a study.”

Environmental groups were pleased with Strickland’s amendment. Josh McClenney, North Carolina field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, issued a statement:

“This is how public policy should be made, with a thorough and open vetting by the public and by experts to understand the full impact on North Carolina families and businesses, not through Duke Energy writing its own bills and making deals with legislators behind closed doors. Regardless of what happens when the bill gets to the Senate, multi-year rate hikes should not be passed outside of broader utility regulatory reform.”

Molly Diggins, director of the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club urged the Senate to agree with the changes. “There are many utility rate-making tools that could benefit the environment and customers that were not included in this bill because it was crafted by and for the utility, not the public.”

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.

agriculture, Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

Commentary:

1. In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

If North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson ever fizzled in his lustrous perch in DPI’s corner office, his sharpest critics surmised, he would be failed by his extraordinarily limited bona fides.

After all, when it comes to Johnson’s background – two years in a Charlotte classroom via Teach for America, a stint as a corporate attorney, and a brief tenure as a school board member in Winston-Salem – there is simply not much to parse over.

“I mean, he has taught two years,” a flabbergasted June Atkinson marveled in 2016, with no small amount of condescension, when Johnson ousted her. “He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background. So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?”

The image conjured up by Atkinson’s damning assessment – that of an in-over-his-head novice – endures today among Johnson’s detractors.

But after IStation, after the iPads, after the supremely suspect rollout of the superintendent’s propagandizing website, perhaps we were wrong. [Read more…]

Bonus read: Monday numbers: A closer look at the depleted ranks at the Department of Public Instruction

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2. NC Supreme Court justice publicly maligns colleagues, urges critics of America to “just leave” the country


State judicial code makes discipline unlikely for Justice Paul Newby

The only registered Republican on the state Supreme Court likely won’t face any consequences after publicly disparaging his fellow justices, urging a crowd to watch their work over the next 18 months for judicial activism, and telling people who don’t like America to “just leave.”

“Sue till you’re blue. Sue till you’re blue,” said Paul Newby during a speech in Wake County two weekends ago. “What do you think the most dangerous branch of government is? The judicial branch is the correct answer. Imagine seven AOC’s on the state Supreme Court.”

Newby, who has announced he will run for Chief Justice in 2020, was met with clapping and a loud “boo” from the crowd. He was referring to New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose initials have become a sort of Republican slur. [Read more…]

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Commentary:

3. Unbecoming of a judge: NC Supreme Court justice’s Trump-like comments go too far

It’s no secret that the United States has a significant and growing problem when it comes to the matter of selecting judges. This problem was on vivid public display in 2016, when the Republican majority of the United States Senate refused to consider a highly qualified presidential nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a full year on blatantly partisan grounds.

As troubling as the blockade of Merrick Garland and the subsequent flood of frequently unqualified ideologues advanced by President Donald Trump have been, however, the situation is arguably even more dire at the state level, where the phenomenon of judges running for election continues to give rise to all manner of problematic behavior – both by judicial candidates themselves and the forces supporting and opposing their candidacies.

As Policy Watch journalist Melissa Boughton reported yesterday, there was a new and troubling installment in this ongoing saga last week when North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby let loose with a startlingly partisan attack on his fellow justices during a speech to a Wake County Republican audience.[Read more…]

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4. Hours wasted and a flip-flop on hemp in the Farm Act befuddles House committee

The NC Farm Act: Four months, seven editions, at least a dozen hours of committee hearings and legislative staff time, reams of paper, hundreds of miles of travel by the public, some from as far away as the mountains — and today the bill is back to its original Senate form.

“Why is the ag committee chair [Rep. Jimmy Dixon] taking a different position than earlier in the process?” Rep. Chuck McGrady said in the House Judiciary Committee this morning. “I’m confused.”[Read more…]

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5. Activists to Congress: N.C. residents living ‘on bottled water and fear’ 

What did leading chemical corporations know about the health risks of PFAS, and when did they know it?

Members of Congress sought an answer to that question this week at a hearing on widespread public exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a dangerous class of chemicals that’s ubiquitous in North Carolina and other states. One lawmaker described PFAS as “the DDT of our era.”

California Rep. Harley Rouda, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee, opened the hearing by accusing companies of withholding information from the public.

DuPont and other companies have long known about the negative health effects of PFAS, which are used in everyday products such as microwave popcorn bags and nonstick pans, Rouda said. [Read more…]

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6. The budget, the veto and Medicaid

Democratic Senator who initially supported the budget says it’s time for the GOP to negotiate

The political stand-off over whether to expand Medicaid is stretching the state budget stalemate deep into summer with no end in site. But this week Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she’s worried about how the gridlock could hurt the 1.6 million low-income North Carolinians already using Medicaid and undermine planned changes to the system.

The current Medicaid program in North Carolina is complex and expensive, with the federal government paying $2 to every $1 the state contributes to its $14 billion annual cost. But the way that system works is set to undergo a significant change in November. [Read more…]

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7. Partisan gerrymandering trial to conclude today after Thursday bombshell

A two-week long trial about whether Republican lawmakers violated the constitution when they drew voting maps to maximize their partisan advantage will come to an end today.

The Wake County Superior Court three-judge panel likely won’t make a decision for a least a few weeks after hearing mostly complex testimony from expert witnesses that delved deep into the weeds of North Carolina redistricting.

The trial will continue at 9 a.m. today with another expert witness, this time called to testify on behalf of the intervenors in Common Cause v. Lewis.

John Branch, an attorney for the intervenors — a group of Republican voters — commenced a direct examination of Michael Barber, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University, late Thursday afternoon. [Read more…]

Bonus reads:
Did Hofeller draw NC maps before redistricting process? Judges throw out expert testimony showing he didn’t

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8. After “A Decade Without a Raise” workers, elected officials call for raising minimum wage

Dayosha Davis works in fast food, lives in public housing in Durham and struggles to provide for her two children.

Child care starts at $250 a week, she said, which is difficult to afford on the $7.25 an hour minimum wage.

“Last year I enrolled my daughter in pre-school,” Davis said. “And I had to take her out of pre-school because I couldn’t continue to pay for her education, even with help from my mother. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Wednesday marked 10 years since North Carolina last raised the minimum wage — from $6.55 to $7.25 per hour. [Read more…]

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9. Listen to our latest radio interviews and micro-podcasts

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10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

Legislature

Senate passes billboard measure, eroding local control, allowing for more digital outdoor ads

A bill to boost the fortunes and power of the outdoor advertising industry is closer to becoming law after it passed the Senate yesterday 27-17. House Bill 645, “the billboard bill,” now returns to the House for concurrence.

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.

The bill language is vague enough to allow digital billboards — illuminated advertisements that change every few seconds — to replace traditional ones.

Local governments would also be stripped of nearly all of their power to regulate billboards, including banning or limiting digital versions.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republicans Jason Saine, Jimmy Dixon and Brendan Jones, and Democrat Michael Wray in the House; Republicans Chuck Edwards and Harry Brown and Democrat Wiley Nickel are the Senate co-sponsors.

Bill supporters say the measure is necessary to help the outdoor advertising industry — with its powerful lobbyists and generous campaign contributions — survive.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, introduced several amendments, all of which failed, that would have empowered local governments to have the final say on where billboards can be moved. “No local input is one of the underlying challenges with this bill,” Woodard said. 

Edwards said he is “sympathetic to local control, but that lawmakers have an obligation to state taxpayers for the cost of moving the advertisements.”

However, the bill goes beyond the financial aspects of billboard relocation. Current statutes protect billboard owners from “takings,” and require DOT to pay a fair price if an outdoor advertisement must be moved to make way for a new or expanded thoroughfare.

But the new measure, Woodard said, “expands the power of the owner of the billboard. Every billboard could be moved within 250 feet from its current location and vegetation removed without local input.”

Billboards that are removed through eminent domain could be relocated within two miles of its current location. That could include areas near, or in some cases, within residential neighborhoods.

There are about 8,200 billboards in North Carolina that are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted. Nonetheless, as more businesses advertise online, the industry has lost about 1,000 statewide in the past decade. Although the public still views billboards positively, according to an 2017 analysis by Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, “billboards have been losing ground to other media,” Woodard said. “Think about your own [political] campaigns. Compare your budgets for billboards to digital and direct mail. The same is true of local businesses.

“This has forced the billboard industry to fight for every last location and every technology and tool to survive,” Woodard went on. 

(Newspapers and other print media, which fulfill critical public service purposes, have experienced even deeper job losses and closures. No legislation in North Carolina has been introduced to prop up the news business.)

Many of the billboard companies are based outside North Carolina. Based in Baton Rouge, La., Lamar is publicly traded and operates more than 100 offices in the US and Canada. Interstate is based in New Jersey; Fairview is headquartered in Atlanta. Capital Outdoor Advertising is based in Zebulon.

The NC Outdoor Advertising political action committee contributes to both parties, but tends to give more to Republicans. Campaign finance data show that the billboard industry PAC contributed $2,000 each to the Senate and House Republican caucuses last year; the Democratic counterparts received just $500 each.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Saine received $1,000 from the PAC in 2018 and another $2,000 in 2016. Sen. Brown received $2,000 in 2016.

Capital’s president, Steve Bryant, contributed $550 to Sen. Nickel’s campaign last year and added another $500 recently, on June 6.