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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Want to be the next N.C. poet laureate?

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory has rankled poets across North Carolina with his selection of Valerie Macon of Fuquay-Varina as the state's new poet laureate. But where others see contro-verse-y, we see opportunity!

The beef among the literary community is two-fold. First, it's that Governor Pat bypassed the usual protocol of getting a recommendation from people who know best - a committee of the state's leading poets. Also, according to at least some of those people: Macon is, well, not good enough yet. "She is someone who is still learning," said Durham-based publisher Richard Krawiec, diplomatically, to the Observer this week. 

Clearly, the Gov has made a mistake here. If he was going to turn the poet laureate selection process into a joke, he should have selected someone from a group that writes poetry AS A JOKE. We're talking, of course, about the competitors in the Observer's Annual Politics and Public Policy Limericks contest! 

Our distinguished winners include the estimable John Long of Stanley, who wrote this year about the man arrested after sucking on a woman's toes at a Lincolnton Wal-Mart. 

Now I'm just an average Joe,
Don't care nothin' 'bout suckin' a toe.
But heaven forbid, 
If I ever did,
I think Wal-Mart's the LAST place I'd go. 

Alas, McCrory has made his poet laureate selection for the next two years. That doesn't mean you can't audition for 2016. In fact, we think a mid-year, unofficial politics and public policy limericks contest is in order. Give us your best limerick about the governor, the poet laureate contest or heck, anything happening in Raleigh right now. We need a laugh. 

Let's show Governor Pat what you can do - on deadline. Send your entries by Thursday at noon to, and we'll publish the best.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

N.C. congressmen urge federal action on coal ash

North Carolina Congressmen G.K. Butterfield and David Price aren't leaving it up to N.C. legislative leaders to tackle the coal ash storage issue. They want stricter federal rules in place. So just at an N.C. Senate committee approves their Coal Ash Management Act of 2014, Senate Bill 729, requiring Duke Energy to close its leaky dumps at four high-risk sites within five years and 10 other less risky sites by 2029, the two sent a letter to the feds urging the U.S. government to get actively involved.

Price represents North Carolina's Fourth District - a rapidly growing, research-and-education-focused district that includes parts of Alamance, Orange, Durham, Wake, Harnett, Chatham and Cumberland counties.

Butterfield's First District is located in the northeastern corner of the state, stretching from Durham to Elizabeth City and including all or parts of 24 counties.

The letter, co-signed by 83 members of Congress, presses Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for tougher standards regarding the storage and disposal of coal ash. The stricter standards and enforcement would come under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by year’s end, and follows several recent coal ash spills, including the Dan River spill in North Carolina in March.

The letter, released Wednesday, reads in part:

“Coal ash can enter the watershed through the catastrophic failure of an impoundment wall or can slowly leach into groundwater and surface water when the impoundment is unlined. Our constituents deserve to be able to count on safe drinking water and to have their waterways protected from harmful contaminants.”

Butterfield and Price, both Democrats, emphasized that “it appears we are only now beginning to see the alarming truth about coal ash in our communities. It is troubling that it has taken large coal ash spills like those in North Carolina and Tennessee to mobilize stakeholders to engage in a frank dialogue about its dangers and propose changes to mitigate those hazards. Those catastrophes could have been avoided and we owe it to all Americans to put the necessary safeguards in place to ensure similar disasters do not occur in the future.”

"We encourage the EPA to finalize protections that phase out dangerous wet impoundments, including those at legacy sites, and ensure that facilities use protective liners and groundwater monitoring to safeguard against contamination."

North Carolina is moving toward putting long-needed protections in place but Butterfield and Price are right to ratchet up federal safeguards. Duke Energy is already trying to get removal deadlines taken out of the N.C. Senate bill - so far unsuccessfully and lawmakers views on holding utilities' to significant standards for protecting our drinking water and waterways could change in the future.

Editorially this week, we've already said there is little to stop the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources from designating most or all of Duke' ash ponds low-risk. And we've noted that DENR's relationship with Duke has been so cozy that it is being criminally investigated by federal authorities, suggesting it might not take the strictest approach.

Duke doesn't have to remove the ash from sites deemed to be low-risk. The company can leave the ash in place and just put a "cap" over those lagoons, which does not protect groundwater.

A strict nationwide standard is needed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is North Carolina a stressful place to live?

Think life is stressful here in North Carolina? For many it is, according to an interesting gathering of data from Chris Kolmar at the Movoto Real Estate blog, who attempts to determine the top 10 most stressful states in the U.S.

Spoiler alert: We're No. 9.

Kolmar got there by compiling data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey on six different causes of stress - hours worked, population density, unemployment, percentage of income devoted to housing, lack of insurance, and length of commute. Studies show that at least some of those indicators can contribute to stress in our lives. Other indicators like statewide population density are a bit more loosely linked to stress, but if you live in a dense, urban area, you can make a pretty good common sense case for the strain that brings.

Kolmar's results, in visual form:

Now, the numbers:

An obvious caveat: Kolmar's study is not about your life, but the collective life of people in each state. But there are policy implications here. A state that treats its unemployed comparatively poorly or makes it difficult to obtain medical coverage (ahem, North Carolina) adds to the stress of its citizens. North Carolina, of course, has climbed to the top of some lists of the most attractive states for businesses. That's good, but it doesn't necessarily have to be done by ending up at the wrong end of lists like these.

Peter St. Onge

(h/t -