Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Gov. Roy Cooper won’t veto class size, Board of Elections, pipeline omnibus

Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the class size bill Wednesday
at the Executive Mansion (Photo taken by Billy Ball).

Gov. Roy Cooper says he won’t veto an omnibus bill that eases North Carolina’s class size crisis, despite several parts of the bill that he calls “political attacks and power grabs.”

“Our kids in schools are too important,” said Cooper. “But we do need to talk about the bad parts of the bill.”

The legislation, which he characterized as “a sigh of relief that came too late,” phases in class size caps for grades K-3 over the next four years and offers recurring funding for arts, music and physical education teachers that might have been crowded out by districts’ search for cash to fund new classroom educators.

“The class size chaos that this legislature started caused agony and anger and angst across this state for no reason,” said Cooper.

Meanwhile, Cooper said the deal only “partly” resolves the state’s class size headache, pointing out that—as Policy Watch reported today—the accord comes with no funds for school districts’ construction needs arising from the state mandate.

Cooper said school superintendents were “wringing their hands not knowing what to do” over the infrastructure issues. Many districts will have to spend millions to find new classroom space.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen school superintendents that desperate,”said Cooper. “And these legislators let that problem fester for two years.”

Additionally, the state continues to grapple with a teacher shortage that may vex local school leaders’ efforts to fill more classrooms, a point brought up by the governor Wednesday.

“A smaller class size doesn’t do much good with no teacher in it,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s decision likely has little impact on the bill’s fate, considering the GOP-dominated General Assembly has a veto-proof voting majority on the legislation.

Republicans described the package bill, delivered as a conference report on House Bill 90 last week, as pulling together multiple, urgent issues, including a still-brewing court battle over an elections and ethics board merger, as well as a $58 million environmental mitigation fund that Cooper announced shortly after the pipeline received its permits.

GOP lawmakers say Cooper doesn’t have the authority to oversee that fund. They also suggested the Democratic governor negotiated a “quid pro quo” arrangement to secure the pipeline, which Republican legislators also support.

Cooper said Republicans’ actions “imperiled” that mitigation fund, arguing that he wasn’t sure what would become of the funding now. Legislators say they want to spend the cash on school districts along the pipeline’s route.

The governor also chided GOP legislators for another attempt to merge state elections and ethics boards, a move seen as curbing Cooper’s appointment powers. The state Supreme Court ruled in Cooper’s favor in an ongoing lawsuit over the boards, and a lower court is expected to decide soon how to proceed.

Cooper said this component of the bill is an “unconstitutional scheme.”

 

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Another day, another violation for Chemours over GenX, PFOA contamination

The purple lines indicate Phase 4 of drinking water well testing near the Chemours Fayetteville
Works plant. DEQ is requiring the fourth phase because the agency has not yet found the
edge of the GenX contamination (Map: NCDEQ)

During a House floor debate last month on GenX legislation, Rep. Pat McElraft took an unusual stance: defending Chemours, the spin-off company of DuPont responsible for widespread pollution in drinking water and the Cape Fear River.

“Chemours is serious about cleaning up the contamination,” said McElraft, a Carteret County Republican. “Don’t blame Chemours totally. Maybe they made mistakes. They’re trying to do their best to do what’s right.”

There was no evidence to support that contention then, and there is even less now. DEQ released a letter today to Chemours detailing the company’s refusal to comply with the agency’s requests to control the release of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds from its Fayetteville Works plant.

After groundwater tests on and near the Chemours plant showed high levels of PFOAs and PFOSs, DEQ sent the company a letter on Dec. 15, 2017, demanding that it implement “interim” measures to control the sources of contamination and stop the discharge. The company was also required to identify and address any hazards that occurred because of the contamination.

A month later Chemours responded, but failed to detail how it was stemming the discharge or controlling the sources, DEQ said. As a result, the agency is now requiring “immediate” measures to stop and clean up the pollutants. That includes excavating contaminated areas, cleaning potentially contaminated equipment, and reducing or eliminating air emissions that are contributing to the groundwater problems. Chemours has until Feb. 26 to tell DEQ what the company has done — and will continue to do — to meet the requirements.

DEQ could fine Chemours for failing to comply by the deadline.

DEQ scientists theorize that chemicals leaving the plant’s smokestacks are reacting with water — via rain or wet ground — and transforming into GenX. The contaminated water then drains into the soil and eventually pollutes the groundwater. That groundwater in turn, feeds private drinking water wells of households near the plant.

Chemours received permission yesterday from the Division of Air Quality to install a trial system to remove PFASs and PFOAs from air emissions. Any pollution captured by the filtration system must disposed offsite.

As for House Bill 189, the Senate failed to vote on it. Instead, senators rewrote the legislation, redirecting key funding for DEQ away from addressing the contamination. Instead, the agency would have to spend upward of $1.5 million on bureaucracy, including analyzing the last 43 years’ worth of wastewater discharge permits.

The House failed to vote on the Senate version this week, sending the bill to its River Quality Committee. That committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 9:30 a.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

Gov. Roy Cooper released a statement today expressing his ire for GOP lawmakers who “have gone home without doing anything to protect clean drinking water for North Carolina families.

“State environmental experts continue to hold Chemours accountable and are using all available resources to track the spread of GenX, and the latest notice of violation announced today shows the urgency. People in the Cape Fear region have a right to be angry that legislative leaders have failed to do their duty and give state scientists the tools they need to deal with GenX and other emerging contaminants.”

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

“Frankenstein’s monster”: House Bill 90 heads to governor’s desk

Note: NC Policy Watch education reporter Billy Ball is blogging about the class-size portion of the bill. 

Over the past week, House Bill 90, originally titled “NC Truth in Education,” earned a new nickname: Frankenstein’s monster.

The difference between the literary Frankenstein’s monster and the legislative one is that the former had translucent skin that, as Mary Shelley wrote, “barely disguised the workings of the arteries and muscles underneath.” The latter had no such transparency. In fact, fashioned behind closed doors, the clunky legislation fused class-size requirements, changes to elections and ethics boards, and a rebuke of the governor’s deal over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline into a form likely unrecognizable even to its creators.

Nonetheless, the House passed the bill this morning 104-12. One Republican, Hugh Blackwell of Burke County,  joined 11 Democrats in voting against it. Last Friday, the Senate passed it 37-5.

Attached at the last minute, the environmental portion of the legislation reallocates $57.8 million from a mitigation fund related to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In late January, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he had brokered a  deal with Dominion Energy, co-owner of the controversial project with Duke Energy, to create the fund. Its purpose is to offset the pipeline’s many environmental impacts, jumpstart economic development in eastern North Carolina, as well as create renewable energy projects. Now, the bill requires the money to be used instead for local school districts in the eight counties along the pipeline’s 160-mile route through eastern North Carolina.

“That money could be used for natural gas distribution lines and creating jobs,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat who voted against the bill. “Now we’re killing jobs” in rural North Carolina.

It’s also possible that by diverting money to the eight school districts  (the complex formula to calculate the amounts should be an Algebra test question)  that lawmakers could justify cutting education funding in the future. That could backfire because the deal between the state and Dominion is not binding. Since it’s voluntary, Jackson noted, “they can walk away without putting any money into the fund.”

Last week, Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing Northampton County, where the pipeline will enter the state, said it was “unfair” to tie the fund to a much-needed class-size fix. Smith compared the trade-off to “keeping your arm but losing your leg.”

Read more

Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

Class size omnibus passes easily, despite stiff opposition to Board of Elections, Atlantic Coast Pipeline provisions

Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

An omnibus bill alleviating some of the headaches associated with North Carolina’s class size crisis easily passed the state House by a 104-12 margin Tuesday, despite continuing opposition from top Democrats on its controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Board of Elections provisions.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who helped to assemble last week’s compromise conference report on House Bill 90, said the bill gives districts “much requested” time to prepare for the state’s new K-3 class sizes by phasing in its caps on average and maximum class size over the next four years.

The legislation, which also creates a $61 million recurring funding allocation for arts, music and physical education teachers, comes after years of mounting pressure on the Republican-dominated General Assembly to either ease their 2016 class size mandate or provide additional funding to save those so-called “enhancement” teaching positions.

As Policy Watch has detailed, local school districts would need to cough up millions or lay off scores of enhancement teachers to find space for the necessary new K-3 classroom teachers.

The legislation also modifies eligibility requirements for the GOP-backed, controversial Personal Education Savings Accounts and purports to provide sufficient funding to clear the waiting list for the state’s widely-backed, Pre-K program.

Multiple Republicans insisted this week and last that the revised House Bill 90, which was crafted behind closed doors, was a “bipartisan” measure.

“We do not have to be separated on this,” said Rep. Linda Johnson, the Cabarrus County Republican who co-chairs the chamber’s education and budget committees.

Yet, while many Democrats ultimately voted for the conference report because of its class size fix, some components of the omnibus bill clearly rankled minority party members in the House and Senate.

One section seeks to control spending from a $58 million environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a fund that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s office seeks to administer (Note: See the report today from Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg on the ACP).

Also, a separate portion seeks to merge state elections and ethics panels while curtailing Democrats’ majority on the appointed elections board. The N.C. Supreme Court struck down Republicans’ merger of the panels last month, and GOP lawmakers are seeking to author their own fix before it’s taken up by a lower court.

“This is a difficult vote to take, and it’s difficult because we’re voting on three separate matters,” said Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat who dubbed the package a “kitchen sink bill.”

Democrats also chafed over a lack of school construction funding in the measure.

“This bill does not address the needs in education that we know, Republicans and Democrats both know, are so necessary right now,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat.

Legislative Republicans countered that K-12 infrastructure is historically a local government funding matter in North Carolina. However, state House members have widely supported a statewide $2 billion school construction bond referendum, which would address a portion of the state’s estimated $8 billion in K-12 capital needs, but Senate lawmakers have not taken up the matter.

“Like in all bills, there’s always more work to be done,” said Horn. “I’m looking forward to your support on that more work.”

Gov. Roy Cooper

The bill will now proceed to Cooper’s office. Cooper seems likely to veto the bill due to its pipeline and elections portions, although the legislature has the votes to override the Democrat’s veto.

Some Democrats suggested Tuesday that, with state courts still deciding the fate of the legislature’s election board tinkering, the class size fix could be “held hostage” by the legal wrangling.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the House Democratic Leader, said the lack of a severability clause may nix the entire bill if courts find one portion unconstitutional, although a longtime General Assembly attorney cast doubt on that claim this week.


Read more

Environment, Legislature

Senate passes bill on GenX funding, gives a few breadcrumbs to DEQ

Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover County Republican (Photo: NCGA)

After an acrimonious committee meeting earlier this week, the Senate passed a drastically different version of House Bill 189 today, sharply reducing proposed funding to the Department of Environmental Quality.

HB 189 passed the Senate 27-13. The only Democrat to vote for the bill was Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County. No Republicans voted against it.

The House is expected to vote on the measure early next week.

The bill, rechristened by the Senate as the “Water Safety Act,” was introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, a Wilmington Republican, as a committee substitute on Wednesday. Although it shares a couple of non-controversial provisions with the House version — data-sharing with neighboring states, a review of DEQ’s pollutant permitting process — the bill eliminated direct funding to the agency to tackle the problem of GenX and emerging contaminants in water and air.

The House version contained $1.3 million for DEQ, plus another million for the agency to buy a high-resolution mass spectrometer to conduct complex water analysis. The Senate was much stingier, initially allocating no money to DEQ to do work directly related to GenX.  The $2.4 million was to be used to analyze 43 years’ worth of discharge permits and other bureaucratic duties.

Today Lee amended the bill today, allowing DEQ to use $813,000 in one-time money for temporary employees within the Division of Water Resources. Those funds are for DEQ to sample and monitor water and to chip away at its backlog of wastewater discharge permits.

Sen. Wesley Meredith of Cumberland County, home to a source of the contamination Chemours, also successfully amended the bill to include air emissions testing and analysis.

The financial winner in the Senate deal is not DEQ but the NC Collaboratory, a think tank created by Republicans in a budget bill two years ago. Led by Brad Ives, a DEQ former assistant secretary under John Skvarla, and Jeffrey Warren, a former policy advisor to Sen. Phil Berger, the Collaboratory has proven adept at wrangling fiscal favors out of the legislature.

Under the Water Safety Act, the Collaboratory receives $2 million to connecting DEQ with faculty who have access to high-resolution mass spectrometers. And the Collaboratory will  recruit UNC faculty who can advise DEQ and the state health department on emerging contaminants. (The $2 million was originally subject to matching funds; now it isn’t.)

However, that group already exists in the form of the Secretaries’ Science Advisory Board. Appointed by DEQ Secretary Michael Regan and DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, the 16-member board has eight faculty from the UNC system. That includes Detlef Knappe of NC State University, who first brought the GenX contamination to DEQ’s attention. Of the remaining eight members, two are from Duke University with two more from the EPA; four have no connection to higher education but work in the environmental field.

“Rather than thinking government is answer to everything,” said Lee, lawmakers should look to UNC. “They’re on the cutting edge of this research.”

Sen. Angela Bryant said she was concerned about the bill because it showed the “same pattern of divisiveness and hostility to the governor and executive branch.” She said properly drafted legislation could “rally everyone in North Carolina around issue of clean air and clean water.”

The Water Safety Act also requires DEQ to cooperate with an EPA audit, which it already does. In fact, as Policy Watch reported this morning, the EPA sent a letter to four GOP senators stating that DEQ had successfully passed two audits conducted in 2015.