Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Bipartisan lawmakers: The time for redistricting reform is now

Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham) announced Wednesday he and other lawmakers were sponsoring a redistricting reform bill they expect to gain steam this session. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Litigation and uncertainty about which political party will have the most power in the future may finally propel North Carolina lawmakers to pass redistricting reform.

A bipartisan group of legislators gathered Wednesday morning to announce House Bill 69, which would create an independent redistricting commission to draw election maps with transparency and public input. It would bring an end to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.

“At this point in time, you have neighborhoods being separated, homeowner’s associations being separated, students at the same university voting in separate districts – that can’t happen,” said Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham). “That’s the type of thing that makes people feel government’s broken. We’ve got a chance with this step, with this bill, to move that narrative forward, to change people’s opinions.”

He and Representatives Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) are the primary sponsors of the measure, and several other. It’s expected to be one of several bills introduced this session that will address redistricting.

“We’re trying to create a series of different options for the legislature to look it,” McGrady said. “If we don’t want a commission bill, perhaps we could go down another road.”

One of those roads could be a constitutional amendment to make independent redistricting a permanent part of the state’s political landscape.

McGrady said the time for change is now — Republicans and Democrats would rather be part of the redistricting process rather than let one party or the other be in power for the foreseeable future. He added that he would be remiss not to mention the legal context for change: there is one North Carolina partisan redistricting case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court and another that looks like it could eventually get to the state Supreme Court.

“I think legislators don’t like the prospect that we may have the judiciary doing our redistricting for us,” McGrady said.

He would not discuss the details of conversations he’d had with legislative GOP leadership, who have not prioritized this issue since being in the majority. He did say, though, that he’s shared several draft bills with them that get to the same end goal.

“Having carried this bill in the past, in the recent past, it didn’t get much of a say, it didn’t get much of a say, didn’t get much of a conversation with leadership,” he said. “My leaders are telling me [now] they want to see what we’re going to put forward. … Again, I just sense a different feel with leadership.”

HB 69 creates an 11-person commission — four members from the majority political party, four members from the minority party and three members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two main parties. The Office of the State Auditor would randomly select committee members from a list of nominees chosen by lawmakers.

Members of several North Carolina organizations showed their support Wednesday for redistricting reform at a legislative press conference announcing a bill to end gerrymandering. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

No member or a relative of the member can have been appointed or elected to public office or to a state board or commission within five years of serving on the commission. Members are also disqualified if they or a relative worked for a political party or campaign or worked as a lobbyist within five years of service.

Members also cannot be part of the General Assembly or Congress and they can’t have a financial relationship with the Governor. Members also are not eligible to be appointed to a state board or commission, work for a political party or campaign or work as a lobbyist during their time on the commission.

Members of the independent redistricting committee are charged with drawing maps with contiguous lines and compact areas. They would be prohibited from using the political affiliations of voters, previous election results, demographic information and the locations of incumbents’ addresses. They are requested to serve four-year terms.

“We want change,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “There is no one perfect change, we just know that we need something better than we have now.”

Pinsky said people in North Carolina have been trying to change the redistricting process for 50 years.

Common Cause NC Executive Director Bob Phillips said it’s been eight years since a redistricting reform bill was heard in a legislative committee.

“Let the debate begin,” he said. “Having legislators discuss this, having public input, that’s what democracy is supposed to be about.”

He added that House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sponsored a similar redistricting reform bill years ago when they were in the minority.

“The leadership today thought this was a good idea 10 years ago,” Phillips said. “Yes, the were not in power, but as been said here, it was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. And I would ask the leadership, come back to the cause, pun intended.”

Environment

NC residents demand more action from environmental justice board

Jamie Cole of the NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed the group’s possible recommendation on the proposed swine farm permits.

During a brief break at yesterday’s convening of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, a man introduced himself to me as Bill. A recent transplant to Wilmington, Bill had decided to spend some precious hours of his retirement listening to the myriad environmental crises that have buffeted the state: coal ash, GenX, methyl bromide, natural gas pipelines, the wood pellet industry, uranium and cyanide plumes, swine waste.

At one point, Bill turned to me, a tinge of buyer’s remorse in his voice, and lamented, “This state is the den of iniquity.”

Bill, it’s worth noting, is from New Jersey.  Yes, New Jersey, home of 105 Superfund sites, a childhood cancer cluster in Toms River, and some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

Although the meeting agenda was wide, it wasn’t deep, four hours being insufficient to delve into the public’s concerns. “This board is moving too slowly,” said John Wagner, who had trekked from Pittsboro to Wilmington for the event. “We have critical issues in this state and we’re running out of time.”

Wagner’s remarks pointed to the public’s impatience with the board. It lacks a sense of urgency. It has yet to advise NC Department of Environmental Quality on how to best communicate with underserved communities, particularly those without reliable access to the Internet or newspapers.  It needs to set an agenda for the DEQ, not vice versa. And it needs to wield its power. Although the board lacks rule-making authority, its members nonetheless can influence decisions at the highest levels of the department.

Part of the problem is the 16-member board meets quarterly, but considering the issues facing the state, that is too seldom. (The Environmental Management Commission, for example, meets every other month.) As a result, the board can’t be nimble in its feedback to DEQ. The deadline for public comment on Duke Energy’s plans to clean up coal ash at six sites is Friday; the affected communities unanimous in wanting the material fully excavated from unlined pits and put in dry storage. Another deadline regarding swine farm permits is looming. That short time frame forces the board and its subcommittees to scramble to write their recommendations and resolutions to DEQ.

“This board is the respected environmental experts of the state,” said Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch. “The process is too slow.” DEQ’s decision how to regulate swine farms, will affect 2,300 facilities in eastern North Carolina. And the next permitting doesn’t occur until 2024. If the board doesn’t chime in now, Sargent said, “you’ll have to wait another five years.”

Sargent also pushed the board to advise DEQ to regulate perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — as a class, which the department has the statutory authority to do. (The EPA is announcing its rules on PFAS tomorrow, Feb. 14, at 9 a.m.) “Our state is failing these [affected] communities.”

Read more

Environment

Got something to say about coal ash? This is your week to share that input.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is accepting public comment through Friday (February 15th) on how Duke Energy should handle the storage of its coal ash.

Duke Energy has proposed leaving the coal ash at six unlined pits, but environmental groups say it will keep polluting groundwater, lakes, and rivers.

Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center says Duke should be required to excavate the remaining ash as it has done at eight other sites in North Carolina and all of its sites in South Carolina.

Click below to listen to our recent interview with Holleman:

To learn more about Duke Energy’s progress on closing the ash basins, click here.

Image: Appalachian Voices

To comment on the Allen Steam Station coal ash cleanup, email: allencomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Belews Creek Steam Station coal ash cleanup, email: belewscomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Marshall Steam Station coal ash cleanup, email: marshallcomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Mayo Power Station coal ash cleanup, email: mayocomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Rogers Complex coal ash cleanup (formerly Cliffside), email: rogerscomments@ncdenr.gov
To comment on the Roxboro Steam Plant coal ash cleanup, email: roxborocomments@ncdenr.gov

News

Poll: Slim majority in NC support closing ABC stores, private liquor sales

A new poll from Elon University suggests a slim majority of North Carolinians would support ending the system of government operated ABC liquor stores and instead allow private sales.

The poll, conducted in conjunction with the N.C. General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, found 52 percent of respondents would support such a proposal. Fifty-seven percent said any store that can currently sell beer or wine should be able to receive a permit to sell liquor as well.

The poll results, released Tuesday, follow a report from the Program Evaluation Division that examined the potential outcomes of ending total government control of wholesale and retail sales.

North Carolina is one of only three states that exercises that level of control over liquor sales. The other two are Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, the same slim majority of respondents said they would support ABC stores remaining closed on Sundays.

Respondents who said they don’t shop at ABC stores were far more likely to support the stores remaining closed on Sundays. Only 16 percent of non-shoppers said they believe ABC stores should be open on Sunday, compared to 44 percent of shoppers.

“That support for Sunday sales varied substantially by party and use of ABC stores suggests to me that some local autonomy for Sunday liquor sales might be popular among North Carolinians,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and associate professor of political science.

The poll was a live-caller, dual-frame (landline and cell phone) survey of 379 registered voters in North Carolina. It was conducted from Oct. 1 to Oct 4. The margin of error was +/- 5 percent.

Read the full results – with methodology – here.

 

 

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Cheri Beasley to become first Black woman appointed as NC Chief Justice

Justice Cheri Beasley (Photo courtesy of the NC AOC)

Cheri Beasley will be North Carolina’s next Supreme Court Chief Justice. She is the first Black woman to take the helm of the state’s highest court.

Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement Tuesday afternoon. Beasley, who has served on the high court since 2012, will succeed current Chief Justice Mark Martin. He announced at the end of last month that he would resign Feb. 28 to become dean of Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va.

“It is absolutely not lost on me that this week this nation will celebrate Valentine’s Day, and I think it must be fitting, because I am certainly feeling love,” Beasley said at a news conference.

She said she was excited to continue working with her colleagues and to work with other people in the judicial system, like court clerks and law enforcement. She wants to make sure the justice system is sound and that it are serving the people of North Carolina in the way that it should.

“I know that we will find successes along the way, especially through our commitment and our pursuit of justice for all people,” she said.

Beasley was initially appointed to the Supreme Court by former Gov. Bev Perdue to replace retiring Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson. She ran for re-election in 2014 and won a full term, which was to expire in 2022. She said she absolutely plans to run for election again next year to keep the Chief Justice post.

She previously served on the state Court of Appeals – where she was the first Black woman to win election to a statewide office in North Carolina – and as a district court judge for the 12th judicial district in Cumberland County.

“Justice Beasley has long been a leader, both in and out of the courtroom,” Cooper said. “She’s mentored students, aspiring attorneys and new judges. … I know Justice Beasley to be fair and deeply committed to viewing all North Carolinians equally through the eyes of the law.”

Her appointment to the Chief Justice position leaves another vacancy on the bench for Cooper to appoint. He has not yet announced whom he will choose, but it could shift the court’s balance to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Republicans had hoped to keep a balance on the court and urged Cooper to appoint another Republican to replace Martin or bestow the Chief Justice title to senior associate justice Paul Newby, who is also a Republican.

State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse criticized Cooper on Twitter before he even made the announcement that Beasley would be Chief Justice for not choosing Newby. The party as a whole released a statement after that Cooper’s choice to not choose Newby and Justice Robin Hudson, who has also served more time than Beasley, was purely political.

Newby also released a statement on Twitter indicating his disappointment with Cooper.

“Sadly, today, Gov. Cooper decided to place raw partisan politics over a non-partisan judiciary by refusing to honor the time-tested tradition of naming the Senior Associate Justice as Chief Justice,” he stated. “The Governor’s decision further erodes public trust and confidence in a fair judiciary, free from partisan manipulation.”

When asked if he felt any obligation to choose a Republican to fill Beasley’s vacancy, Cooper said he would choose the best person for the job. He said he expects to make that announcement next week.

Former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Martin, who had the longest tenure on the high court with more than 20 years on the bench.

Republicans have been trying to retain power over the courts for the past two years. In 2016, there was talk of GOP legislators considering making a rare court-packing move to keep partisan control after the election of Democratic Justice Mike Morgan over Republican incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds.

When that fizzled, Republican lawmakers hatched a plan to redistrict state courts in an effort to get more GOP judges on the bench. They had also proposed legislation to transfer judicial appointment power from Cooper to the General Assembly and considered plans to change judicial selection altogether.

In the most recent Supreme Court race, there was more talk of court-packing if Republican incumbent Barbara Jackson was re-elected to change the majority of the high court from Democratic to Republican control. Democratic Justice Anita Earls was ultimately elected to the bench.

Martin’s announcement that he would be resigning was unexpected. A couple Republicans have already announced they would run for a seat on the high court in 2020:  Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals (he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger), and former Senate member Tamara Barringer, who is an attorney.

Newby has confirmed he will run for Chief Justice in 2020.

A little more than a week after Martin announced his resignation, his second in command and appointee, Administrative Office of the Courts Executive Director Marion Warren announced he too would be leaving and following the Chief Justice to Regent.

Warren will be the senior associate dean of the university under Martin. Feb. 28 is both of their last days with the North Carolina judiciary.

Martin appointed McKinley Wooten as interim director of the AOC in Warren’s absence, but Beasley has the power to appoint the permanent director once she takes over as Chief Justice. McKinley has served as a deputy director with the AOC for over a decade.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available. A fuller version of this story will be made available Wednesday morning on ncpolicywatch.com.