Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Keystone Pipeline is dead. Or is it?

A few years back, the Keystone XL pipeline was seen as a routine infrastructure project, designed to carry oil-like bitumen from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It's still no more than that, but it's become very much more.

Environmentalists say that it's a renewed commitment to dirty fuels at the expense of green energy. Keystone advocates say it's a project that will bring vital jobs. Neither is really true. The pipeline isn't a threat to green energy; it merely would provide stable and efficient transport for oil while other energy possibilities continue to evolve. It also isn't a jobs program; the employment it would provide is real, but mostly temporary. 

But now, Keystone appears dead. Or is it?

On Tuesday afternoon, President Obama vetoed a bill that authorized construction of the pipeline. He did so not with a flourish but with a quiet 104-word letter:

Here's what that letter didn't say: Keystone is a bad idea. Environmentalists hope Obama will say that shortly, once final Keystone reviews by eight federal agencies are completed. Several previous reviews have been inconclusive on whether Keystone, by itself, would add to greenhouse gases, given that the oil it transports will be extracted from the Canadian tar sands, anyway.

Obama, who was once non-committal about the pipeline's benefits and dangers, has cast a more scornful eye at it in recent speeches. But he's left himself flexibility Tuesday, depending on what those final reviews conclude.

What Obama did say is that the call on Keystone should come from him - and that he won't let an impatient Congress do an end-around on "established executive branch procedures." (This comes, of course, from an impatient president who did an end-around on established Congressional procedures when he crafted immigration policy disguised as an executive action. Consistency, once again, is not a virtue of either party.) 

So what comes next? Republicans will likely try again on Keystone, this time attaching similar pipeline language to a spending bill that Democrats and Obama will want to pass. It's a distasteful form of legislative arm twisting, and it probably would get vetoed again if it reached the President, which is unlikely.

What's more likely is that Keystone will get the nod in a couple years from a Republican president, or from President Hillary Clinton, who said in 2010 she was inclined to support the pipeline. (She's now declining to take a position until those agency reviews are in.) Clinton, who is no enemy of the environment, understood at one point that Keystone doesn't have to be, either. It's an efficient placeholder while we work our way toward the greener future we want. Or at least that's what Keystone was supposed to be, before it became the political trophy it is.

Peter St. Onge

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why wait so long to audit city expenses?

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee did the right thing when he orderd an audit of the city's travel and expense account outlays. Few abuses can do more damage to the reputation and credibility of a public official or public body than fraudulent expense accounts and extravagant travel spending. Just ask rising young GOP congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois, currently fending off reports that he used thousands in campaign donor and taxpayer funds for private airplane rides and other questionable uses, including a Katy Perry concert with his interns.

To the credit of the 27 top city executives and 10 lower-level but heavy traveling employees, Charlotte's audit didn't find much in the way of blatant abuses. Officials found improper expenses in just 3 percent of the $123,581 tallied by the employees in the 2013 budget year. "Not outrageous," Carlee called it, adding that many of the missteps stemmed from inattentiveness to detail. All the improperly disbursed money has been repaid.

Carlee, hired in 2013, said he conducted the audit because, as the new guy, he's charged with making sure the city is following best practices. Apparently, it had not been doing so on this front. He said that to his knowledge, such an audit had never been done. City Auditor Greg McDowell says he can't recall a full expense reimbursement or travel audit in his 17 years at his post. An audit of city-issued payment card spending had been done a few years ago, but McDowell said he couldn't speak to just how long it might have been since a broader audit like the latest one had been done.

That's concerning. This was just an audit of a handful of the city's 7,000 or so employees. Who knows what else would have been found in a broader sweep? McDowell says he sees more audits in the future.  "As City Auditor, I have committed to future audits of employee expenses on a regular basis," he said in an e-mail. "The City Manager and Council will likely expect (the) same; however, audit plans are developed annually. There are no policies or directives that require specific audits, or a timeframe."

Members of the City Council's governance and accountability committee seemed satisfied that the audit didn't uncover major problems. But if they want to make sure that continues to be the case, they should enact policies to require departmental or broader audits on some reasonably regular basis.

--Eric Frazier

Friday, February 20, 2015

UNC anti-poverty advocate Gene Nichol blasts Board of Governors

Faced with a directive from the General Assembly to redirect $15 million from university research and policy centers  across the state, the UNC Board of Governors has spent months studying all 240 such centers systemwide. On Wednesday, the board's working group on the issue recommended closing UNC Chapel Hill's Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. The center's director, Gene Nichol, has been an outspoken critic of N.C. Republican leaders' policies concerning the poor.

Gene Nichol

He responded to their action with this statement:

Poverty is North Carolina’s greatest challenge. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, 18 percent of us live in wrenching poverty. Twenty-five percent of our kids. Forty percent of our children of color. We have one of the country’s fastest rising poverty rates.

A decade ago, North Carolina had the 26th highest rate among the states. Now we’re ninth, speeding past the competition. Greensboro is America’s second-hungriest city. Asheville is ninth. Charlotte has the nation’s worst economic mobility. Over the last decade, North Carolina experienced the country’s steepest rise in concentrated poverty. Poverty, amidst plenty, stains the life of this commonwealth. Even if our leaders never discuss it.

And, astonishing as they are, these bloodless statistics don’t fully reveal the crush of economic hardship. That resides more brutally in the terror and despondency of the 150 or more homeless Tar Heels living in the woods and under the bridges of Hickory; or in the 1,100 wounded souls waiting in line, most all night long, outside the Fayetteville civic center, desperate for free dental care; or in the quivering voice of the Winston-Salem father who describes deciding which of his children will eat today and which, only, tomorrow; or in the daughter from Wilson fretting for her 62-year-old father with heart disease who can’t see a doctor unless he scrapes together the $400 he owes and has no prospects for.

Some believe such urgencies are beyond the focus of a great public university. Bill Friday wasn’t among them. An active and engaged Poverty Center board member, from its founding until the last days of his life, President Friday felt it crucial “to turn UNC’s mighty engine loose on the lacerating issue of poverty.” He constantly challenged our students: “A million poor North Carolinians pay taxes to subsidize your education. What are you going to do to pay them back?”

I’ve been blessed with a long and varied academic career. But none of my efforts has approached the extraordinary honor of working, side by side, with North Carolina low-income communities and the dedicated advocates and providers who serve them. Together, we have sought to focus a meaningful light on the challenges of poverty and to push back against policies that foster economic injustice. No doubt those messages are uncongenial to the governor and General Assembly. But poverty is the enemy, not the Poverty Center.

I have been repeatedly informed, even officially, that my opinion pieces have “caused great ire and dismay” among state officials and that, unless I stopped publishing in The News & Observer, “external forces might combine in the months ahead” to force my dismissal. Today those threats are brought to fruition. The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center. This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution. It’s also mildly ironic that the university now abolishes the center for the same work that led it to give me the Thomas Jefferson Award a year ago.

The Poverty Center runs on an annual budget of about $120,000. None comes from the state. Grant funding has been secured through 2016. These private dollars will now be returned. UNC will have fewer resources, not more. Two terrific young lawyers will lose their jobs. Student education, employment and publication opportunities will be constricted. Most importantly, North Carolina’s understanding of the challenges of poverty will be weakened. These are significant costs to pay for politicians’ thin skin.

Personally, I’m honored to be singled out for retribution by these agents of wealth, privilege and exclusion. I remain a tenured law professor. When the Poverty Center is abolished, I’ll have more time to write, to speak, and to protest North Carolina’s burgeoning war on poor people. I’ll use it.
Fifty years ago, Chancellor William Aycock testified against the Speaker Ban Law, saying if UNC bowed to such external pressures, as it does today, it would forfeit its claim to be a university. He noted: “Our legislators do not look with favor on persons, especially teachers, who express views different than their own.” But no public official can be “afforded such immunity.” Leaders “freely extol the supposed benefits of their programs, but object to their harmful effects being called to the attention of the citizenry. ... The right to think as one wills and to speak as one thinks are requisite to a free society. They are indispensable to education.”
--Eric Frazier

Thursday, February 19, 2015

McCrory punts on Medicaid expansion

Gov. Pat McCrory is showing, again, who's in charge in Raleigh. And it's not Pat McCrory.

After repeatedly floating trial balloons about expanding Medicaid in North Carolina, McCrory now says he will kick that can down the road until summer at the earliest, and probably until 2016. McCrory told the Associated Press this week that he won't make a recommendation about Medicaid expansion until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules in an Obamacare case, probably this summer.

"I will not make any recommendation as to whether or not we extend insurance for the uninsured until the court case because there are so many ramifications of the court case," McCrory told the AP.

McCrory has indicated several times that he might be open to Medicaid expansion, a political lightning rod because it is part of the Affordable Care Act. Now it appears that McCrory has gotten the message from legislative leaders: Medicaid expansion is going nowhere. So McCrory has chosen not to fight for the uninsured, not to use his bully pulpit on the issue.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid eligibility under the ACA, including 10 led by Republican governors. Many or all of those GOP governors reversed their opposition under pressure from voters and hospitals who wanted the billions of dollars that would come to their states. Seven more states are considering expansion.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month in a case challenging some federal tax credits for coverage obtained through federal, not state, online exchanges. That case has not stopped a majority of U.S. states from moving forward.

Some 300,000 to 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians would qualify for federally funded coverage under the ACA. The federal government would pay 100 percent of the cost in the early years, and 90 percent thereafter. By not accepting the federal money, North Carolinians don't save those tax dollars; they send them to other states.

It would have been a tough fight to get any kind of expansion through the N.C. legislature. But McCrory won't even try. That's a political calculation that could go either way in McCrory's re-election bid next year.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Let's put a freeze on the wind chill factor

You might have heard: It's going to be cold in Charlotte.

It's what people are talking about in our office and yours. The forecast is for unseasonably cold temperatures, brutally cold temperatures, so cold that weather people will quickly run out of adjectives trying to describe how godawful cold it is.

At some point, perhaps even before those adjectives lose their power to wow us, the weather people will resort to a different, brain-numbing phrase. 

The Wind Chill Factor. 

The wind chill factor serves one purpose: It lets us make bad weather seem spectacularly bad. 

Otherwise, it has no real-world value. It doesn't tell you how cold your skin is getting. Air temperature determines that. For example, if the air temperature is 37 degrees but the wind chill is 24, you are not in danger of getting frostbite. The air temp needs to be below freezing for that. 

Likewise, it doesn't tell us when our pipes will freeze. Wind can make things more frigid, which can accelerate the freezing of water, but air temperature is again the main factor. (Researchers at the University of Illinois have determined the pipe-freezing threshold is about 20 degrees. So make sure those outdoor faucets are covered tonight, Charlotte.)

Why even have a wind chill factor? The measurement was developed in 1945 by Antarctic explorers Paul Siple and Charles Passel, who put together an index that they felt would capture how cold we feel at various temperatures with wind blowing. 

There is an actual formula for wind chill. It's been tweaked some since 1945, but basically it assumes that it's nighttime, your exposed face is about five feet off the ground, and you're walking about 3 mph directly into the wind. If you're standing next to a building, or in the sun, or at 2 in the afternoon, you're feeling something different. 

And even then, wind chill is essentially only a calculation of that moment - not a general calculation of temperature - because the wind doesn't blow at a constant, steady rate. Yes, it's colder on your skin when the wind blows, but that number just can't be measured precisely.

Why, then, is it cited so often? As always, blame the media. The original wind chill index went largely ignored until the media got hold of it, specifically at the legendary Ice Bowl 1967 NFL championship game between Dallas and Green Bay in Green Bay. Temperatures that day were -13 degrees, but that didn't sound nearly as legendary as a wind chill of -48. 

So this week, when your weather person says the wind chill is -20, it's a dubious figure at best. That doesn't mean you shouldn't cover your skin when you go outside, especially if it's windy. And you definitely shouldn't do anything like this.

But wind chill is nothing more than meteorological boasting, and as with most boasting, that means 1) there's some exaggeration going on, and 2) nobody is that impressed, anyway. 

Peter St. Onge

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

10 things to do before your icy day is done

It's freezing outside.

There's ice on your neighborhood's roads.

There's no school.

You can work from home - or maybe not work at all.

But there is plenty you can do, even in one frigid day.

Call it your ice bucket list.

What should you accomplish before tomorrow sends us back to work and school?

Crunch some frozen stuff under your feet.

Make someone a cup of hot chocolate.

Draw your name in the front yard (with hot water, silly.)

If you're from a Northern state, annoy someone by telling them how winter was much more wintry where you grew up.

If you're from a Southern state, reminder your Northern stater how he or she clings to the air conditioning the moment the thermometer hits 90.

Remember those who cannot take warmth for granted. Give money today to an agency that brings food or clothing or a place to stay to those who need it most on weeks like this.

Earn your hot chocolate: Take at least one bumpy, icy sled ride with your children.

Do NOT cite the quarter-inch of ice as evidence that global warming is a hoax.

If you've ever criticized local schools or government for iffy weather choices, give credit today to the school district that canceled classes early and wisely, to the trucks that brined the roads, to the police and fire and emergency personnel who tended to everyone the icy roadways snared.

Check the February snowfall for any city in New England. It will be on the ground until April. Check the temperatures for Charlotte. The ice will be gone by 5.

Enjoy it.

Peter St. Onge

Friday, February 13, 2015

A chart shows the grades our schools should really get

An interesting chart is making the rounds. It shows how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools would have performed on the state's A-F grades if the formula were weighted differently.

Under the law, a school's grade is based 80 percent on test scores and 20 percent on how much growth that school has shown. As a result, the grades were no surprise: Schools filled with poor kids did worse than schools with few poor kids.

Some critics, including the Observer editorial board, argue that the A-F grades would be vastly improved if more weight was given to how much growth a school has shown, not only where it is at one point in time.

This chart, which comes from CMS, shows what would happen.

Under the 80/20 formula, 47 CMS schools were given a D or F. If the formula were 50-50, no schools would get an F and 16 would get a D. If the formula were 20-80 (80 percent of the grade based on growth), five schools would get a D and none would get an F.

This is not tinkering the formula to make your schools get artificially better grades. It's tinkering the formula to more properly weight how much progress a school is making, which is an important measure. It just so happens that this more accurate gauge also reveals that public schools aren't performing as badly as the state grades lead you to believe.

Taylor Batten

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Phil Berger and Eric Frazier, pen pals?

Last week, the Observer's Eric Frazier wrote an open letter to N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger. Frazier urged Berger, arguably the most powerful man in state government, to start treating Gov. Pat McCrory more nicely. 

"As he heads into the last two years of his term, it's time you let him be the middle-of-the-road Republican the state thought it was electing in 2012," Frazier wrote.

He urged Berger to be open to McCrory's interest in Medicaid expansion and his idea of a billion-dollar transportation bond.

"If (McCrory) nudges toward the center lane, feel free to give him that stern raised-eyebrow look dads give mischievous kids. But hold your peace," Frazier wrote.

Berger took notice, and now responds with an open letter of his own back to Frazier. He writes that he and McCrory are better buds than Frazier gives them credit for -- and will continue to be in 2015.

Here's Berger's letter:

Dear Eric,

I’m sorry it took so long to respond to your open letter. Running a law practice, serving in the State Senate and spending time with grandkids was keeping me busy enough. As it turns out, searching for examples of the times I’ve supposedly embarrassed Gov. McCrory was even more time consuming.

I never found one. But here’s what I did find: loads and loads of cheap shots at the governor spread across your own pages, from editorials to columns to cartoons. Are you sure I’m the problem?

Rest assured, Eric: Compared to the treatment we typically get from North Carolina’s editorial writers, Pat and I consider each other family (I’m the *other* brother Phil).

Sure, the Governor and I have had honest, respectful disagreements about the complex details of public policy. That might be hard to fathom in the far-left ideological echo chamber of an editorial board meeting, where you tackle the major problems confronting our state – like an awkward hug between two Charlotte mayors. But in government, it happens daily, even (sometimes especially) with members of your own party. And that’s healthy for North Carolina.

Maybe you and I watched different State of the State addresses last week. At the one I attended, I heard the governor (from center stage, no less) champion a host of sweeping accomplishments: an unemployment insurance overhaul, tax reform, regulatory reform, teacher pay raises and much, much more.

None of that was achieved by fiat. The governor and the legislature worked together. We found common ground. We compromised. And eventually we landed in the same place: on solutions that we (and most voters, unlike most editorial writers) agree are best for North Carolina families.

Expect more of that cooperation in 2015 and, I’m sure much to this editorial board’s dismay, through 2020 – even if it follows a disagreement or two.

Thanks for writing.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What should we make of Carolina Panthers player Greg Hardy's accuser?

What are we to make of the dismissal of the domestic violence charge against Carolina Panthers player Greg Hardy?

Some people seem to be doing less judging of Hardy than they are of his accuser, Nicole Holder. After all, they note, District Attorney Andrew Murray's office said Holder has made herself unavailable to prosecutors and has apparently reached a civil settlement with the football star. Social media postings show that she's been snowmobiling in Colorado and snapping photos in New York City as the case unfolded and prosecutors searched for her.

The internet commenters have rendered swift, and merciless, judgment on her.

"Next stop, Dancing with the Stars," one reader joked in the comments section of the Observer's online story.

"This is why domestic violence cases are so often questioned by the general public," said another. "She disgusts me."

Harsh. It seems fair to say she lost at least a few sympathy points with many people who followed the story of the case since it began last year. Charlotte's most popular cocktail party game at the moment probably starts with the question: "How much do you think she received?"

Unfortunate, yes. In Hollywood movies, victims come pure of heart and innocent of motive. But in real life, people are too complex, and their interactions to messy -- especially in relationships -- to fit the neat scenarios we fashion in our minds.

Which is not to say the most recent developments mean Holder wasn't telling the truth when she said Hardy attacked her last year. Unfortunately, a jury may never get to make a final judgment on that. But it would be even sadder if people used what little information they have on this case as justification for casting a jaundiced eye on other women's domestic violence cases.

Experts tell us many women in such cases fail to cooperate, even when there is no wealthy football star on the other end of the accusation. Sometimes it's the pressure of being on the witness stand, having the most unpleasant, intimate details of your life dissected by strangers. Or it can be as simple as fearing for your life. 

Regardless of what caused the Holder case to unravel, we should all at least try to reserve judgment, and refrain from snarky remarks. We don't have all the facts. What we do know is that 62 women
died in domestic violence-related homicides in North Carolina in 2013. And that is nothing to joke about.

--Eric Frazier