Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ex-lawmaker tops lobbyist list at N.C. legislature

It's no surprise the best lobbyists at the N.C. legislature are former lawmakers themselves. But the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research's latest findings provide a stark view of how quickly elected office can become ka-ching for legislators once they give up those public servant jobs. Whether and how much that lucrative work to come influences lawmakers while they're in office is something to ponder.

According to the rankings released Tuesday, 11 former legislators now rank among the most influential lobbyists. At the top sits former House Speaker Harold Brubaker, who served 18 terms in the House. Brubaker barely took a breather after leaving after the 2011-2012 session before he was mingling again at the legislature during this 2013-2014 session representing 21 clients as a contract lobbyist for such companies as GlaxoSmithKline, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Pepsico and GTECH Corporation, as well as organizations like the N.C. Association of Realtors, the N.C. Beer and Wine Wholesalers and the NFL Players Association.

Coming in second is Dana E. Simpson, not a former legislator, of the Raleigh law firm Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan. Third is former N.C. Republican Party chairman Tom Fetzer, also not a former legislator.

Duke Energy Carolinas LLC has a lobbyist Kathy G. Hawkins focused solely only its interests. She comes in seventh. She had her work cut out for her as Duke tried to fend off legislation to better regulate coal ash production and disposal after a massive ash spill earlier this year. Environmentalists say the legislation that passed at the very end of the short session this year was "woefully inadequate," specicifying that Duke excavate ash at only four of its 14 coal-fired power plants. The long-term fate of other ponds isn’t clear but, for some, will likely include caps placed over ash that stays in place.

Paige Worsham, policy analyst with the Center that did this ranking, said the "high number of former legislators who are now influential lobbyists shows that these individuals continue to have impact on policy even after leaving elected office."

Brubaker attributes his effectiveness to knowing how to talk to legislators: "As a former legislator," he told the Center, " I appreciate brevity and know how important it is for a lobbyist to explain the issue in five to ten minutes."

Simpson, second best on the list, might have learned that from Brubaker (or taught it to him).

He served as Special Assistant for Communications and Policy when Brubaker was House Speaker in the late 1990s.

Rob Schofield of the Progressive Pulse takes the Center to task for the rankings, noting the Center is "a fine and venerable organization that has done many great services to the state" and that it has a commitment to sober and thorough research."

"That said, here’s a vote for doing away with one of the organization’s signature products — its annual 'rankings' of lobbyists and lawmakers," Schofield writes. "It’s hard to pinpoint what’s most offensive about the rankings. Maybe it’s the use of the word 'effectiveness,' which as a practical matter, has come to mean 'power and influence.' Surprise! This year, the 'most effective' lobbyist is former House Speaker and ALEC chairman emeritus-turned corporate mouthpiece Harold Brubaker."

The Center's Worsham said the "rankings ... help citizens understand which key interests and organizations have clout with legislators in North Carolina.... shed light on what is often an invisible process... show trends in the lobbying profession and illustrate which issues are hottest."

What do you think?

Under N.C. law, a legislator may register as a lobbyist six months after leaving office. Is that too short of an interval?

- Fannie Flono


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

'I shouldn't know your name'

The unrest in Ferguson, Mo., continued last night, with two men shot and 31 people arrested in the ninth day of demonstrations following the death of Michael Brown. Kate Murphy, pastor at Hickory Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, offers a different, compelling perspective on the victim. It's worth a read. 

An Elegy for Michael Brown

I shouldn’t know your name.
And now there are so many people telling me who you were
Voices sorrynotsorry to show me
you’d robbed a convenience store
Stolen a box of cigars (they were very expensive cigars)
And other voices, shaking with rage
Telling me that you were a good kid
A gentle giant
Headed off for college
but all I need to know
is that I shouldn’t know your name
whether you were a great saint
or deeply troubled
or like every teenager
a maddening glorious mixture of the two
I still
shouldn’t know your name

here’s the first thing I do know
if your mother had tried to walk into an abortion clinic
18 years and some months ago
She would have been surrounded by Christians
White, middle class Christians
Some weeping with compassion for your life cut short
Some shaking with rage, calling her a murderer
All begging her to give you a chance at life
And the first thing I want to know is
Where is the weeping now?
Where is the rage now?
Where are the prophets crying out against the injustice
Of the one who played God & chose to end your life?

15 years ago I sat in a courtroom
Bearing witness to the sacred worth
of another teenage boy
Who was a brilliant beloved battlefield
And as we waited for his case to be called
We watched white boy after white boy
Walk up from the gallery
In suit and tie
And listen to the charges read against them
Assault and battery, possession with intent to distribute, driving while intoxicated
And nod respectfully as their lawyers got them probation
And sent them back to class
At their expensive private university just up the street

And black man after brown man entered the same courtroom
From the rear
In shackles and orange suit
And stood before the same judge
And heard the charges read against them
Possession, assault, possession
And one man—I kid you not, was there because he stole pampers, formula & baby food
And they were all were sent back to jail
To wait their trial
That day, every white boy (raping, dealing drugs, driving drunk)
That day, every black and brown boy (fighting, taking drugs, stealing diapers)
Returned from whence he came
And every time I tell that story it makes everyone mad
for different reasons
And I can’t get it out of my head this week
And you know why

Because I tell my daughters
If they get in trouble
To look for a police officer to help them
And your mother must have told you something so very different
And still, there you were, unarmed
Hands outstretched
Head bowed
Blown apart in the street
By the one who swore to protect you
Whether you were a good kid
Whether you were a thief
It doesn’t make your death more or less tragic
Your life was sacred
We all betrayed you
Like another young man
Whose body was broken for our sins

I wish I’d known you.
I wish I didn’t know your name.

Monday, August 18, 2014

McCrory's lawyer responds about Duke stock

The Observer editorial board on Sunday spelled out the troubling ways Gov. Pat McCrory has handled his ownership of Duke Energy stock. The governor owned a significant number of shares for 15 months after he was elected governor -- a role in which he leads an administration that is supposed to regulate the giant utility. He continued to own the stock for more than two months after Duke's coal ash spill into the Dan River, as he helped formulate the state's response. And he signed an inaccurate disclosure form, declaring that he held no Duke stock on Dec. 31, 2013, when in fact he did.

McCrory blamed the error on Bob Stephens, saying his general counsel misinterpreted the form and thought that it should reflect McCrory's holdings on April 15, 2014, a day after McCrory sold the last of his stock. That explanation does nothing to detail why McCrory thought it was OK to own stock in a company that was at the center of a debate about state regulation of its activities.

On Sunday, after the editorial ran, Stephens sent the Observer a letter in response. Stephens reiterates that he misinterpreted the disclosure form and vouches for McCrory's integrity. Read our editorial here, and read Stephens' response below.

To the editor:

I’m a proud native of the City of Charlotte. One of my first jobs was delivering the Observer when I was in junior high school. I attended the public schools and went on to Wake Forest University for undergraduate and law school. After two years in the U.S. Army, I practiced law in Charlotte for 40 years. I even had the honor of serving as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar Association.

I also love our entire state. That’s why I accepted the opportunity to serve as general counsel for our former mayor and current governor, Pat McCrory.

I understand a very liberal editorial board constantly challenging our administration on issues such as tax reform and unemployment reform. However, giving your readers the false impression that we intentionally hid the selling of his utility stock is totally misleading and disingenuous. In fact, it was Gov. McCrory that ensured that the media was notified shortly after divesting all of his retirement stock in April and the media reported it.

Let me be perfectly clear, my interpretation of the governor’s annual disclosure form was incorrect. At a minimum, the language is poorly worded. In fact, the ethics commission staff even acknowledged to us that many other public servants have interpreted the question the way I did. But the governor takes all ethics and integrity issues very seriously. Not surprisingly, Gov. McCrory immediately directed us to correct the error following my conversation with the ethics commission staff.

I’m proud of Gov. McCrory’s record of high ethics and integrity during his entire career in public service along with his 29 years as an employee of Duke Energy. In fact, one of the most often repeated directions I hear Gov. McCrory give to members of his administration is: “Do the right thing.”

As a mayor and now as governor, Pat McCrory continues to show strong leadership on issues such as education, economy and the environment. Our administration is holding Duke Energy accountable for the Dan River spill while developing a statewide plan that responsibly addresses a nearly 100-year-old problem. Our state has seen one of the largest drops in unemployment in the nation and we’ve cut our debt to the federal government by more than $2 billion. Teachers are receiving an average raise of more than 5.5 percent, plus longevity pay. And working North Carolinians are keeping a larger percentage of their paychecks.

I’m proud to be a part of this “Carolina Comeback.” I’m equally as proud to work for our own former mayor that now leads our state in the right direction while maintaining the highest of ethical standards.


Bob Stephens

General Counsel for Gov. Pat McCrory

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Red-light cameras get green light

Red-light cameras are coming back to Fayetteville. Could Charlotte and other cities be close behind?

The Senate today voted 36-13 for a bill that lets Fayetteville resume using the cameras on people who run red lights. The fine will be $75, rising to $100 next July 1.

The bill applies only to Fayetteville but it wouldn't be surprising if other cities start eyeing the cameras as a way to make intersections safer -- and raise some much-needed money for schools.

Charlotte and other N.C. cities had such a system but shut it down after the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that 90 percent of the revenue from the tickets had to go to schools. That didn't leave enough to pay the camera contractor.

The bill passed today lets Fayetteville and Cumberland County schools enter into an agreement in which Fayetteville sends the schools 90 percent of the money and the schools send a portion back to the city to cover the contractor's cost. Wake County got a local bill passed in a previous session that allowed it to operate the program.

Charlotte's system worked well at 22 intersections over eight years. The number of red-light violations dropped 70 percent in the first year. Fatalities fell by 49 percent at Florida intersections that have the cameras, according to a recent study done for the Florida legislature.

All that plus money for schools at no cost to the taxpayer. Say cheese!

-- Taylor Batten  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Art Pope is very powerful. His boss? Welllll....

If you're a close follower of North Carolina politics, a weekend Washington Post profile of state budget director Art Pope didn't break much new ground. The Saturday piece, written by the Post's Matea Gold, explores Pope's unique place in N.C. and American politics, how his power derives from his status as both an insider (budget director) and outsider (think tank founder and influential donor to the University of North Carolina).

Add it up, and you have a man who might be more powerful than anyone in N.C. politics. Including his boss.

It's a fine piece of what those in the industry call "parachute journalism" - a national outlet parachuting into a city or state to write something for the audience back home. As such, Gold spends some time going over what those in North Carolina already know - how the Republican revolution Pope set in motion has led to tax overhaul but tight finances, conservative legislation but Moral Monday protests and, of course, education cuts and discontent about those cuts.

The underlying question for Gold (and many North Carolinians): How much power does Pope actually wield? Does he merely inform Gov. Pat McCrory about issues, or is he telling the governor what to do?

Gold doesn't give a firm answer, but her report and the anecdotes within leave a definite impression: Pope is extraordinarily influential, and although he and McCrory insist that the governor has the final say on issues, McCrory is clearly deferential to his subordinate.

In fact, the Gov. doesn't particularly come off well in the report. Says an unnamed Republican lobbyist: "The governor yields to Art." Then there's this anecdote, in which McCrory is a little too admiring:

Pope’s familiarity with the minute details of state finances was on full display on a muggy afternoon in May, when he spent 25 minutes standing at a lecturn, methodically explaining the details of the governor’s new budget to the news media.

McCrory sat on a chair behind his budget director, nodding along. When Pope was done, the governor stood up with a grin.

“I wish I could’ve had a camera, from this angle, watching the reporters’ faces while Art explained the budget, because now y’all know how I felt during hour after hour after hour,” McCrory said with a chuckle.

The governor took some questions. On most, he deferred to Pope.

“I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to have Art kind of explain the details of that number that you just presented, so you can hear all sides of that argument,” McCrory told a reporter who asked about whether cuts to the university system would lead to tuition hikes. “Art, if you don’t mind? Because he can present it much better than I can.”
 Peter St. Onge


Friday, July 18, 2014

N.C. one of nation's scariest states

When we saw that North Carolina has been named one of the scariest states in the nation, we thought we knew what the researchers were talking about. Turns out it has nothing to do with our legislature.

The real estate search site Estately declares North Carolina is the sixth scariest state in the country.

The site says it wants to help house-hunters "make a more informed decision" when choosing where to buy a home, by mapping "where Americans' darkest fears are most readily found." They picked 15 common fears, from shark attacks to dentists, then ranked each state.

North Carolina ranks 4th for hurricanes, 5th for shark attacks, 10th for lightning -- and 45th for dentists per capita. "Humanity's worst fears are everywhere in North Carolina, except for dentists, which is odd," Estately says.

Florida was the scariest state; South Carolina ranked 8th. North and South Dakota are the least-scary states. Which makes you wonder how helpful this "study" really is to house-hunters.

-- Taylor Batten


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Our readers vie to be N.C. poet laureate

When we invited readers to a mid-year one-shot limerick contest, we thought the tight deadline (less than 48 hours) might limit the number of entries.

The (phony) prospect of auditioning to be North Carolina's next poet laureate, though, was strong, and we received 75 limericks in response. Gov. Pat McCrory was criticized by poets this week for bypassing the traditional procedure and naming his own poet laureate, Valerie Macon, with no input. Our army of high-brow poets had their own thoughts on the kerfuffle.

Wrote John Long of Stanley:

Ms. Macon is now feeling great.

She's the top Tar Heel poet. But wait,

This gal got the gold,

After Pat was just told,

Mother Goose doesn't hail from our state.

Ken Burrows of Charlotte, familiar with John Long from the Observer's annual limericks contest, has an idea:

Do we need one more crisis to worry at?

A poetry war to be sorry at?

It can't be so hard

To pick a state bard.

Let that Long fellow be the next laureate.

Wes Long of Cramerton wonders whether politics played a role in McCrory's selection:

Pat's choice is a curious thing.

Our Art Council's feeling the sting,

And they're questioning whether

Macon's of the right feather,

And not simply of the right wing.

Former Mecklenburg commissioners chair Carla DuPuy backs McCrory's approach.

The governor, just doing his job,

Has rankled the poetic mob.

Without a committee,

To meet in some city,

He's saved the taxpayers a gob!

James H. Culbreth Jr. of Charlotte, points out that Macon's work has been self-published.

"You're the Poet!" said our Guv McCrory

As he ruled The North State like a Tory.

But the books on the shelf

Macon published herself,

Makin' Raleigh the butt of this story.

Alan J. Hoyle of Denver thinks McCrory has lost a few votes:

A man named Pat is our Guv,

He runs our fair state without love.

All the poets did scream,

"It's our job you demean.

You can take your job and go shove."

Other strong entries:

Bill Bennett of Terrell:

When doing the things that you oughter

Your logic should always hold water.

"A poet, you said?"

Our Guv scratched his head,

"I thought I was choosing a potter."

Again from John Long:

The bards of our state, now frenetic,

Say Pat's laureate pick was pathetic.

They call it a crime,

Without reason or rhyme,

And the justice they seek is poetic.


As a Governor, Pat is a rookie,

So his judgment is known to play hookie.

When the bards, with one voice,

Panned his laureate choice,

McCrory just baked them a cookie.

From Cindy Clemens of Charlotte:

O's book promised change and hope

Next came books from Hill and the Pope

Pat's poet bit fizzed

but he wants in the biz

self pubbed, "Audacity of Dope?"
Written and submitted by: Kathie Grigg '87 and Adelaide Davis '61, Queens University Charlotte:

There is a young governor named Pat

Who must have forgot where he's at.

We need a REAL poet,

Whose name we'll all know it-

Be Republican OR Democrat!

Bill McGloughlin of Charlotte gave his best efforts on other state capital matters:

It first seemed like a sideshow distraction,

But his Airport Commission has traction.

While his seat looks secure

There are some who would sure

Like to see a Bob Rucho extraction.


Raleigh's taking great pains now to note

Teacher pay should be more than a mote.

What brought this turnabout?

Did they just figure out?

Teachers all have IDs. They can vote.

Phil Clutts of Harrisburg:

The precedent gave rise to some scares,

And of course quite a few angry glares,

But did Pat really blow it,

In choosing that poet,

Or just know that in fact no one cares?


Is it true for all jobs that he fills?

That his picks might come with no frills?

If there's no other basis,

Than being in his good graces,

It could account for all manner of ills.

Another from Ken Burrows:

All government's corrupted and marred.

The guv should be feathered and tarred.

Institutions must tumble

At this almighty fumble:

Pat picked, on his own, the state bard.

From J. David Abernethy of Hickory:

For the Swedish Nobels to disburse

a Peace Prize for bowing seemed cursed;

Was the Governor's pick

of a self-published chick

a better choice? Or was it verse?

From Mark Adcock:

Seems the best the Observer can do,

Is stir up so much ado.

It seems a bit much

Over poets and such.

Maybe someday there'll be some real news.

From Sarah J. Price, Charlotte:

Rucho, Berger and Tillis

Has us asking "What you talkin' bout Willis?"

But when poetry is key

Just between you and me

McCrory is downright clueless.

From Michael Childs:

Mad Poets and Press wax apoplectic

To save their protocol contraceptic!

The answer--of course!

Is a plea to Fed courts

To impose pleaders' justice poetic.

From Donald Megahan of Huntersville:

To the complaints that Ms. Macon's a student
and say that Pat's choice isn't prudent
I can only reply
That the choice, were it I
Would then be in need of improvement.

From Charlotte's Loyd Dillon:

"Conservatives" N.C. accurse

And to fat-cats the booty disburse.

McCrory who's with 'em

Has (with no ear for rhythm),

Gone from, sad to say, bad to verse.

From Lou Breaux of Charlotte:

"Tarnation" says Yosemite Sam.

Popeye says "I yam what I yam".

Poet laureates? Nyet !

But you see what you get

When your choices come from Disneyland.

And, finally, from Charlotte Haberyan:

Dear Gov, I would like to apply

For the job writing poems on the fly.

I'll compose every day

In the Dr. Seuss way -

Here's my limerick - do I qualify?

Sales tax referendum could still happen

In an odd twist, the N.C. Senate bill to kill Mecklenburg County's proposal on raising the local sales tax could technically allow the voter referendum to proceed as scheduled.

The Observer's David Perlmutt and Jim Morrill accurately reported that the bill caps local sales taxes at 2.5 percent. Mecklenburg's is already 2.5 percent, so it could not be raised another quarter-percent as five Democratic commissioners envisioned.

So the bill kills any sales tax hike in Mecklenburg -- but it doesn't necessarily kill voters having their say in a November referendum on whether they'd like the sales tax raised. The result just couldn't be acted upon. But it could capture the sentiment of the voters. The plan called for (though didn't legally require) the resulting money to go to teacher raises, community college salaries, the arts and libraries.

The bill, which the Senate is expected to approve today, says in part: "A board of county commissioners may not direct the county board of elections to conduct an advisory referendum on the question of whether to levy a local sales and use tax in the county as provided in this Article on or after August 1, 2014."

But Mecklenburg commissioners already did so, back in June. So they beat the Aug. 1 deadline.

It's possible senators intended to say that no referendum could be held after Aug. 1. But one could argue that what they actually say in the bill is a bit different.

With the bill written this way, Mecklenburg commissioners would have to decide whether they want to still hold the referendum, even if they are prohibited from actually raising the tax if voters say they want to. All kinds of political considerations would go into that calculus. One might ask whether it's worth the expense of holding a referendum just to make a point.

It's possible, we suppose, that Sen. Bob Rucho, who is pushing the bill, will recognize this loophole or unclear language and offer an amendment on the floor today to close it. The Senate convenes at 10:30 a.m. UPDATE: The Senate has delayed debate on the bill until Monday.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tillis, Berger wastefully pursue 'Choose Life' tags

Republican leaders of the N.C. General Assembly are determined to keep wasting state money in an attempt to get pro-life specialty license plates approved even though two courts have already declared them unconstitutional. According to news reports this week, lawyers for House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger Sr. petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to hear the case and decide whether a 2011 law creating a state “Choose Life” license plate is constitutional.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled unanimously in February that the license plate violated the First Amendment because the state refused to offer similar plates for those supporting a woman’s right to have an abortion. They affirmed a lower court ruling.

For people who claim to be conservative, especially on money matters, Tillis and Berger - and other Republicans who have pushed this wrongheaded move - have thrown away tax dollars in pursuit of this blatant violation of the First Amendment.

The interesting thing about the petition to the high court is that the state attorney general's office suggested a less expensive way for the lawmakers to achieve their goal - one that's always been available. Draft new legislation with both anti-abortion and pro-choice license plate options.

In an April 30 email to staffers for Tillis and Berger, Chief Deputy Attorney General Grayson Kelley said the appeals court ruling was consistent with case law and recent decisions handed down by other judges. The 4th Circuit struck down a similar South Carolina law in 2004 and the Supreme Court subsequently declined to hear the case.

Kelley said state taxpayers would likely be required to pay any further legal fees incurred by those challenging the law - meaning the state would be on the hook not only for state legal fees but for the ACLU's fees. The ACLU is challenging the law. Rather than continue the fight in court, he urged the legislative leaders to draft new legislation in the current session.

“I encourage you to consider that option, if possible, as an efficient way to resolve the issues raised in this litigation,” Kelley wrote.

But Tillis and Berger are moving ahead with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal foundation based in Scottsdale, Arizona, which filed the appeal on behalf of Tillis and Berger. The ADF said the ACLU is trying to censor government expression. The attorney general's office, run by Democrat Roy Cooper who has already said he will run for governor, did not file an appeal.

In defense of Tillis and Berger's petition, ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox said: “State governments have a right to advance messages consistent with their public policies.”

But state governments should not have the right to stifle opposing messages. That's what lawmakers did when they rejected "Trust Women, Respect Choices" and approved "Choose Life."

Appeals court judge James Wynn got it right: "Chief amongst the evils the First Amendment prohibits are government 'restrictions distinguishing among different speakers, allowing speech by some but not others,'" he wrote. "In this case, North Carolina seeks to do just that: privilege speech on one side of the hotly debated issue — reproductive choice — while silencing opposing voices."

Tillis and Berger are wrong to keep pursuing this. Taxpayer dollars can be better utilized.

- Associate Editor Fannie Flono