U.S. House Democrats add more mass transit, high-speed rail in second shot at infrastructure bill

Image: Federal Transit Administration

The U.S. House transportation panel early Wednesday passed along party lines the panel’s $60 billion slice of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget plan, adding nearly $20 billion for a new transit program and high-speed rail development in the states.

Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon had considered these and other items underfunded in the Senate-led bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed there last month.

DeFazio opened the marathon Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting Tuesday morning by blasting the two-track plan to pass a $1.2 trillion bill to improve physical infrastructure alongside the broader $3.5 trillion package.

President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have said the larger plan is meant to address “human infrastructure” like health care and education.

That approach did not adequately address crucial priorities, especially related to climate change, DeFazio said, as the $1.2 trillion bill that was written without House input.

The larger bill, which Democrats are trying to pass without any Republican support through a legislative process known as budget reconciliation, affords the opportunity to address issues not covered in the Senate bill.

The panel’s allotment is just under $60 billion, though it could end up with less if the Senate reduces the $3.5 trillion topline.

“Unfortunately, we have been told that the bipartisan infrastructure plan is sacrosanct, and it just has to be voted on as-is in the House of Representatives,” DeFazio said.

“And we are going to be marking up a bill to try and fix some of the issues with the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan, which we will not be allowed otherwise to deal with. This was a torturous negotiation, to put it mildly.”

Among those fixes in the bill the panel approved early Wednesday morning 37-29 was an additional $9.9 billion for transit grants, which would increase access for residents of low-income housing.

To avoid duplication with the Senate bill—a condition with which the White House agreed to win Republican support—the transit funding would not go toward existing Federal Transit Administration formula or grant programs. It would be jointly administered by the FTA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

DeFazio framed the transit program as a climate issue because mass transit provides a greener alternative to single-occupancy vehicles.

The bill would also provide $10 billion for grants to develop high-speed rail routes, which could provide a lower-emission alternative to plane travel.

Another climate item would create a $4 billion incentive program to give extra federal funding to states that achieve greenhouse gas reductions. That is a weaker version of a proposed mandate that was part of a DeFazio-written surface transportation authorization bill the House passed earlier this year.

The provision was not included in the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, DeFazio said, because the Senate-passed bill “was written by climate-denying Republicans and a couple of Democratic collaborators.”

Five Republicans and five Democrats led months-long negotiations on the Senate bill, and all 50 Senate Democrats voted for it last month.

The bill also includes $350 million for a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker in the Great Lakes. The ship, meant to keep shipping lanes clear in winter, was sought by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, (D-Ohio).

Republican opposition

Committee Republicans still accused Democrats of violating the agreement to reopen pieces of the bipartisan infrastructure bill by including the greenhouse gas incentives program, and transit and high-speed rail funding. Read more

Putting on pandemic pounds: State obesity rates hit all-time highs

The longest-serving Democrat in the NC House says this is her last term

Rep. Verla Insko, the longest serving Democrat in the NC House, announced Wednesday that she will not seek a 14th term.

Rep. Verla Insko, a leader in health and mental health issues, addressed her colleagues on the NC House floor Wednesday.

“It’s been an enormously gratifying career,” Insko said from the House floor.

She intends to serve out the remainder of her term, which ends in December 2022.

The Chapel Hill Democrat was a leader in health and mental health issues and was one of the architects of the mental health system that replaced local offices with regional managed care organizations.

On Twitter, she called former Speaker Joe Hackney a mentor.

In an interview, Insko said she decided this would be her final term because it is time for her to spend more time with family. “I have three grandchildren I don’t know as well as I want to,” she said. She also wants to travel more.

While she had significant influence shaping health laws when Democrats controlled the chamber,  Insko said constituent service was a focus of her tenure.

“What has really kept my attention are these 80,000 people I represent – their specific needs in being Americans and North Carolinians, their rights and my responsibility to make sure government really works for all of them and government is doing everything possible to make their lives better and healthier,” she said.

Insko’s announcement is early. Filing for the 2022 primaries doesn’t start until December.

Insko said she wanted to give potential candidates time to prepare to run and hold office.

At times, incumbents will wait as long as they can to announce they won’t seek reelection so their preferred successors have a head start.

Insko said she has spoken to people about their interest in the seat, and news was circulating about her decision to not run again.  But she wasn’t interested in giving anyone an inside track.

“I have not picked my replacement,” she said. “I think the voters can do that.”

N.C. State faculty passes resolution calling for vaccine mandate

Faculty members at North Carolina State University are calling for a vaccine mandate for all students, faculty and staff with on-campus responsibilities. The school’s faculty senate passed a resolution calling for the mandate late Tuesday.

The resolution cites the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine last month and the university’s “responsibility to provide for the health and safety of its students, faculty, and staff.”

N.C. State is the largest campus in the UNC System with nearly 37,000 students, more than 2,400 faculty and more than 7,200 staff.

Last month, six former state health directors asked the UNC System to mandate vaccination at all of system’s universities. Student and faculty groups across the system have expressed their desire for a mandate, as have many chancellors. UNC System President Peter Hans and the UNC Board of Governors have not yet been willing to go that far.

In a message to chancellors last month, Hans said campuses should require students to submit to reentry testing, provide proof of vaccination or, if unvaccinated, undergo weekly testing at a minimum. Chancellors should also have a “get vaccinated or get tested regularly” measure in place for faculty and staff, Hans wrote.

“Vaccination is our best weapon against the virus,” Hans wrote in his e-mail to chancellors. “Vaccines are safe, free, and highly effective against all known variants. Since the vaccine became available last spring, you have made extraordinary efforts to vaccinate both your campus communities and the general public, administering more than 92,000 vaccinations at clinics across the state. We will continue to offer free, life-saving vaccines to students, faculty, and staff on campus, and we will continue to encourage and incentivize every eligible person to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Hans has consistently said  only the North Carolina Commission for Public Health can mandate vaccines at the university level, and the UNC System office and chancellors at individual schools have for months been citing that rule as an impediment to a vaccine mandate. Hans’s legal analysis, however, has been questioned by some, who cite among other things, the fact that UNC schools required a measles booster during a 1989 outbreak of that disease.

The Commission for Public Health is a 13-member body. Under state law, four members are elected by the North Carolina Medical Society and nine are appointed by the governor. In the highly politicized environment around vaccine and masking mandates, however, the commission has not yet taken any public action on a mandate and is not scheduled to meet again until October 15.

The members of the UNC Board of Governors are political appointees. The board is heavily conservative, with just one registered Democrat currently on the board. But the issue of mandating or even encouraging vaccination is divisive even within GOP circles.

In a video that made the rounds online last month, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson told a crowd at a conservative event it is not the job of elected officials to encourage people to take a vaccine. Robinson, a Republican, said those doing so should be voted out of office.

The most powerful elected GOP leaders in the state — N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore- (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) — are among the prominent Republicans in North Carolina who have encouraged vaccination as the best method of beating COVID-19.

The number of students, faculty and staff who are actually vaccinated at each UNC system campus is not clear. UNC schools are asking students, faculty and staff to attest to their vaccination status. But students are not required to provide actual evidence of their vaccination.

 

As of Monday, N.C. State said 73 percent of community members — 32,863 people, including students, staff and faculty  — had either uploaded vaccine records to the school’s HealthyPack portal or been fully vaccinated on campus.

As of Wednesday, the school’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 510 positive cases on campus since August 1, determined either through on-campus testing or self reporting. Of those cases, 422 are students and
88 employees.

The UNC Board of Governors will hold committee meetings Wednesday and a full board meeting on Thursday. They are expected to discuss the ongoing question of vaccination at campuses.

Congressman Madison Cawthorn urges Johnston County school board to end mask mandate

Madison Cawthorn

U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn on Tuesday urged the Johnston County Board of Education to “defy” Gov. Roy Cooper by reversing its decision to mandate masks in schools.

The Hendersonville Republican attended the board’s regular business meeting at the request of local groups opposed to the board’s mask mandate, which was approved on a 4-3 vote last month.

“It’s time to be fearless,” Cawthorn said. “It’s time to stand up to Roy Cooper and say that the family and individual freedom always comes for the government.”

Cooper has left it to school districts to decide whether to require masks. Nearly all 115 districts are requiring masks.

The board took no action on the mask mandate, opting to postpone it due to the absence of vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms, whose husband died recently. A special virtual meeting has been scheduled for 2 p.m., Monday to address the mask mandate. A new law requires school boards to vote on masking policies monthly.

Doing the right thing is never easy, Cawthorn told the board.

“The eyes of our children are upon us,” he said. “They will remember your action when tyranny came knocking at the door.”

Cawthorn’s words were met with scattered applause by a small group of supporters who managed to secure seats inside the small board room. He’s attended several school board meetings across the state to denounce mask mandates and to drum up support for Republican candidates in upcoming elections.

The congressman spoke earlier at a rally held before the board meeting began. He was joined by Robby Starbuck, a Tennessee congressional candidate and Bo Hines, a candidate for North Carolina’s 13th congressional district as well as other candidates vying for seats in local and state races.

Cawthorn told the crowd that he’s determined to save his generation from “socialism.”

“That’s why I’m out here now,” Cawthorn said.

Although outnumbered, a handful of parents forcefully pushed back against mask opponents.

“This is a posturing, political event and it shouldn’t be,” said Erika Hall, a Johnston County parent. “This is supposed to be a regular school board meeting, but unfortunately it’s going to be about masks when it should be about supporting teachers.”

Cawthorn’s visit comes as the school district’s COVID dashboard shows 178 active COVID cases and 782 quarantines among students. Meanwhile, there are 15 cases and 50 quarantines among staff.

Policy Watch will have a more complete report on the rally later today.