Monday, December 20, 2010

Burr's curious, welcome reversal on DADT

We never thought we'd see the day when Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would vote to repeal the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The nation's ninth most conservative senator, as ranked by the National Journal, declared "No one can get to the right of me" when he announced his re-election campaign.

Yet there he was on Saturday, among a handful of Republicans siding with Democrats to allow gays to serve openly in the military. He said he recognized how society has changed and that "this policy is outdated." Good for him for being on the right side of history.

Still, it was a puzzling vote because Burr has consistently said now is not the time to change the policy. Even more puzzling: He still says that. "I remain convinced that the timing of this change is wrong," he said after the vote. Given that he voted against cloture Saturday morning, why the sudden change later in the day?

-- Posted by the Observer editorial board

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Marriage wanes for N.C. working class?

Here's an intriguing report. A new study by the National Marriage Project finds 44 percent of those with high school diplomas but no college degrees now have children without being married. That's more than triple what it was in the 1970s. And it's not mostly teen mothers; half of those nonmarital births were to couples living together.

It's also not mostly people living in big northern cities. According to the report, it's the same among communities that make up the bedrock of the American middle class — small-town Maine, the working-class suburbs of southern Ohio, the farmlands of rural Arkansas, and the factory towns of North Carolina. Data reveal a consistent story: Divorce is high, nonmarital childbearing is spreading, and marital bliss is in increasingly short supply.

The 2010 issue of The State of Our Unions, "When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America," concludes that in Middle America, marriage is in trouble.
Data indicate that trends in nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and marital quality in Middle America increasingly resemble those of the poor, where marriage is fragile and weak.

However, among the highly educated and affluent, marriage is stable and appears to be getting even stronger. In the early 1980s, only 2 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 13 percent of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 33 percent of babies born to mothers who were the least educated. In the late 2000s, only 6 percent of babies born to highly educated mothers were born outside of marriage, compared to 44 percent of babies born to moderately educated mothers and 54 percent of babies born to the least-educated mothers.

"When Marriage Disappears" finds that shifts in marriage attitudes, increases in unemployment, and declines in religious attendance are among the trends driving the retreat from marriage in Middle America. These findings were released this week by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Backroom dealing at county commission?

Sounds like an attempted coup is in the works at the Mecklenburg County board of commissioners. If it happens, Chairman Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, could lose the gavel.

Roberts, a Democrat, was the top vote-getter in last month's election and thus stands to be chairman. But that's tradition, not law.

Word is that fellow Democrat Harold Cogdell is making his own effort to be chairman. He would probably need to secure Republican votes to make that happen. Democrats control the board by a 5-4 margin.

Roberts posted this on her Facebook account today: "The voters of Mecklenburg have indicated their continued support for me as top vote getter. Harold Cogdell will come round to realize that now is not the time for a personal power play."

She added: "It is time for the County Commission to focus on service, and the needs of the community. It is not time to be divisive and to succumb to personal ambition and backroom deal making that does not serve those who elected us."

In an e-mail to the Observer this morning, Roberts said she and Cogdell "trust and understand each other." But she also referred to "budget promises" being made as part of "back room conversation."

Cogdell could not be immediately reached for comment. One possibility: Cogdell is promising to vote for a revenue-neutral tax rate as part of next year's revaluation, and to make Republican Jim Pendergraph the vice chair. That might win him the four Republican votes which, with his own, would be enough to seize the chairmanship.

It all makes for captivating political intrigue, but also perhaps more than that. Cogdell and the Republicans could be cutting deals on not raising next year's tax rate. That would contradict Cogdell's campaign pledge not to make promises on the tax rate before he knew how exactly the budget numbers were shaping up.
We're not casting a vote on who should be chairman, but in this volatile economy, it's not smart to be locking in your budget vote almost seven months before the budget takes effect.

-- Posted by the Observer editorial board

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pro-conservation N.C. legislators did well

The Conservation Council of North Carolina is happy with this year's N.C. General Assembly results. In a note to the media, the group touted the performance of pro-conservation candidates they supported.

"Of the 20 CCNC endorsed N.C. Senate races, 14 were victorious. The N.C. House saw an equally satisfying run with 36 of the 45 endorsed races claiming the win. The successful endorsed candidates also include 17 former recipients of a CCNC Green Tie Award for their achievements and support of conservation efforts."

Said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for CCNC, said, "We look forward to working with the new leadership in the House and Senate. Our economy needs to move forward while maintaining the strong environmental protections that make North Carolina one of the
best places to live and work. I am confident we can have a strong economy and a sound environment-- one does not need to happen at the expense of the other."

Here's how Mecklenburg County pro-conservation lawmakers did:

In the House:
District 99 -Rodney Moore, D-Meck. - Won
District 100 -Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Meck. - Won
District 102 -Rep. Becky Carney, D-Meck. - Won
District 103 -Ann Newman, D-Meck. - Lost
District 104 -Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Meck. - Won
District 106 -Rep. Martha Alexander, D-Meck. - Won
District 107 -Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Meck. - Won

In the Senate:
District 37 -Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Meck. - Won
District 40 -Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Meck. - Won

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bill James is sly, or confused

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James is confused. Or he's having some fun. James, a Republican, tallied up the early voting statistics for Mecklenburg County and concluded that "the Ds are winning the turnout war." Shoddy work for an accountant like James, unless he knew what he was doing all along.
First, James' stats (which differ slightly from what we find on the Board of Elections website):
31,627 Democrats have voted.
26,363 Republicans have voted.
12,894 unaffiliateds have voted.
77 Libertarians have voted.
Total votes cast in Mecklenburg in early voting: 70,961.
That's 5,264 more Dems than Repubs, so the Democrats are winning in turnout, James says.
Ah, but in fact those numbers show the exact opposite: that Republicans are winning the turnout war, at least in Mecklenburg. Here's why:
Republicans are 28.5 percent of registered voters in Mecklenburg. But they are 37.2 percent of early voters.
Democrats are 45.7 percent of registered voters, but are 44.6 percent of early voters. (Unaffiliated voters are staying home: they are 25.7 percent of registered voters but only 18.2 percent of early voters.)
So in fact, Republicans are doing better than Democrats at getting their folks out.
We shared all this with James and speculated that he knew this all along. His response: "Yes, you got me."
P.S.: James also says that in early voting the best estimate is that 20 percent of Democrats are voting Republican and 70 percent of unaffiliateds are. If you assume Republicans are voting at least 95 percent Republican, here's what those numbers suggest: That Republicans are winning so far, 57-43.

-- Posted by The Observer editorial board

Friday, October 22, 2010

Report: Economic school diversity works

The Public School Forum of North Carolina took note of a new report by the Century Foundation that gives thumbs up to economic school integration, the kind of plan that Wake County used until a new school board threw it out this year making some residents furious.
Here's some of what the Public School Forum had to say:
Last week the Century Foundation released a new report, “Housing Policy is School Policy”, which studied the benefits economic integration has had on low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland. The study examines Montgomery County, Maryland, an affluent suburban county adjacent to Washington, D.C. In 1976, the county passed an inclusionary zoning law requiring new housing developments to include homes affordable for moderate means (subsidized homes) and to set aside one-third for the local public housing authority.
The study, by Century Foundation, examines seven years (2001-07) worth of longitudinal data for 850 Montgomery County students who live in the “set-aside public housing”. The report found that in math especially, low-income students attending more affluent schools performed well enough to narrow achievement gaps significantly. Achievement gaps in reading were narrowed as well, just not to same extent.
Similar in size to Wake County, Montgomery County (roughly 144,000 students) has been divided into high-performing, more affluent green zone and high-needs red zones. Even with red zones schools receiving nearly $2,000 more in per pupil spending than green zone schools, the low-income students in the Century study performed better in the green-zone schools.
Researchers see the results as especially significant as Montgomery, one of the nation’s largest schools districts has been uncommonly aggressive in seeking to improve the performance of students in schools with higher poverty. While most districts throughout the country now assign students to schools based only on where they live, a growing number of school districts (roughly 60) have in recent years been experimenting with strategies to promote economic diversity.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

McHenry one of Time's "40 under 40"

If you missed seeing Time magazine this week, you missed seeing North Carolina's 10th District Congressman Patrick McHenry get dubbed one of the "40 under 40 rising stars of American politics." It's Time's first list of this kind and includes an array of "civic leaders" across the political spectrum.

Among those on the list? Marco Rubio, whose running for the U.S. Senate in Florida; Ben Jealous, who heads the NAACP; George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the nephew and grandson of two President George Bushes; and Nikki Haley, who's running for governor of South Carolina.

Here's Time's blurb on McHenry:
A former state assemblyman and Labor Department aide, the Republican was elected to Congress from North Carolina in 2004 at 29. Now 34, he's focused on "restoring fiscal sanity" with deregulation and a balanced budget.

Who is your political hero/inspiration, and why? "Ronald Reagan. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, there was no one else."

What's your go-to political blog? "Drudge Report" - several times a day."

If you weren't working in politics, what would you be doing? "Real estate investing, perhaps teaching a college course, or maybe even a fulltime NASCAR fan."

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? "Husband, father, public servant. It'll take dedication, listening, focusing on what's important, and remaining true to my principles."

What's the most overlooked issue facing America? "We absolutely need to reform the Congressional budget-writing process. The issue of debts and deficits on our collective radar, but we need to help people understand how fixing the process will equal more economic opportunity, not more red ink."

Read more:,28804,2023831_2023829_2025206,00.html/lixzz12qLotj1U

Monday, October 4, 2010

Spratt among 100 who stand for children

A Washington-based bipartisan children's advocacy group has named its 100 most valuable members of Congress in improving the well-being of children. Carolinas representatives and senators are absent from the First Focus Campaign for Children list, with the exception of S.C. Rep. John Spratt.

The Campaign for Children said it "presses for policy changes to improve the well-being and protect the rights of the next generation of America’s leaders. Our advocacy is focused in the areas of child health, education, early childhood, family economics, child welfare, immigration, and child safety, in addition to tax and budget policies that lift children out of poverty. In all our advocacy, we seek to increase the federal investment in programs that support and protect our nation’s most precious resource, our children."

The group named 50 members of Congress as “Champions for Children” for what they called "their extraordinary efforts to protect and improve the future of America’s next generation." Another 50 were named “Defenders of Children,” recognized for their support of policies that advance the well-being of children.

Republican "champion" senators included Richard Lugar of Indiana and Susan Collins of Maine. Among Democrats were Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Republican "champion" representatives included Vernon Ehlers of Michigan and Todd Platts of Pennsylvania. Among Democrats were Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Raul Grijalva of Arizona.

Among those named "defenders" were Republican senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Charles Grassley of Iowa. Among Democratic senators were Max Baucus of Montana and Barbara Boxer of California. GOP representatives included Mark Kirk of Illinois and Frank Wolf of Virginia. Democratic representatives include John Spratt of South Carolina and Steny Hoyer of Maryland.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Great Recession makes N.C. much poorer

The N.C. Justice Center has dissected new census data and found poverty rose sharply in every region of North Carolina in 2009, highlighting the widespread impact of the recession.
The information released today from the U.S. Census "offers the first glimpse of the impact of the recession on North Carolina’s families and shows even sharper increases in poverty and child poverty than anticipated," the Justice Center reported.
“North Carolina’s families are struggling to get by in this economic downturn and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Louisa Warren, a Senior Policy Advocate at the center. “The Great Recession has pushed more than 168,000 North Carolina families into poverty just from 2008, a startling increase that will put pressure on our public systems as they work to support struggling families.”

The Census’ American Community Survey recorded a large jump in poverty in North Carolina, from 14.3 percent in 2007 to 16.3 percent in 2009. That puts nearly 1.5 million North Carolinians officially in poverty, or making at or below $22,050 annually for a family of four.
Similar to overall poverty, child poverty in North Carolina surged to 22.2 percent in 2009 from 19.2 percent in 2007. More than one in five children in North Carolina are now poor.
Further demonstrating the profound impact of the Great Recession, deep poverty—those living below half the poverty rate—has also risen considerably in North Carolina. In 2009, 7.1 percent of North Carolinians were living in deep poverty, making at or below $11,025 annually to support a family of four, up from 6 percent in 2007. In 2009, an estimated 643,429 North Carolinians were in deep poverty, representing significant distress for North Carolina.
According to the Justice Center, even these numbers may understate the problem. the center noted that "the census data released today were collected in the 12 month period around December 2008 when unemployment remained low relative to its levels in the latter half of 2009. Today’s data is therefore just a first look at the recession’s impact."

As a result of rising unemployment rates, median household income in North Carolina dropped to $43,674 in 2009, down from $46,210 in 2007.
Median household income varied across the state and the country. Robeson County had the lowest (among those for which data is available) median household income at $24,788 and many of the counties with high unemployment additionally experienced low median household income: Surry County’s median household income was $33,159 while Burke County’s median household income was $35,004. Urban counties continued to experience the highest median household income: Wake County’s median household income, the highest in the state, was at $63,609 in 2009 and Mecklenburg County’s median household income was at $52,881.
North Carolina’s median household income remained lower than some of its Southern neighbors and Virgnia, Georgia, and Florida all had higher median household incomes in 2009.
For strategies and more information on the report, go to

Monday, September 27, 2010

Democrats back out of tonight's debate

The three Democrats running for Mecklenburg County commissioner at-large today backed out of a debate planned for tonight.
Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts and commissioners Dan Murrey and Harold Cogdell, who had said they would participate in the debate on the talk show Speak Out Charlotte, issued a statement saying they would not.
"Given ... the show’s history of promoting single perspective viewpoints, we lack the confidence that this debate will provide the public with any meaningful opportunity upon which to compare and contrast policy differences between candidates," they said.
They also said they had been told that the show would be shared with News 14 and other outlets, but that the News 14 news director knew nothing about that.
Cheryl Jones, the show's producer, said she stood by her offer to make the debate video available to any outlet that wants it. She said the debate, at 7 p.m. tonight at Access 21 studios, would go on without the Democrats, featuring Republicans Jim Pendergraph, Dan Ramirez and Corey Thompson, and Libertarian Jack Stratton.
The Democrats don't look good on this one. Pulling out the day of a debate is bad form. They knew who was hosting it and that Republican former commissioner Jim Puckett was moderating when they agreed to participate. They should keep their word, or not give it in the first place.
-- Posted by The Observer's editorial board

Friday, September 24, 2010

Want to still call it N.C. "Education" Lottery?

Turns out the North Carolina Education Lottery is steadily chipping away at the slice of money that supposed to go to education. So says an investigation by N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the N.C. Justice Center.

The group said Friday that "the chunk of total revenue that educational programs get has dropped to 29 percent, pushing aside a formula etched in state law that calls for 35 cents out of every dollar to benefit North Carolina schoolchildren."

Policy Watch Investigative Reporter Sarah Ovaska said in the report: “That formula change meant a difference of nearly $80 million last year that might have gone to the college scholarships, early education, school construction and classroom reduction programs that the lottery helps fund.”

The report also said that the steady drop in percentage happened without much fanfare, when a loophole was inserted in state law telling lottery officials to hit their 35-percent mark “to the extent practicable.”
The report also took note of a decision Gov. Bev Perdue made during this summer’s budget negotiation to tap the N.C. Education Lottery for $35 million to help cover an expected gap for Medicaid and other federal social service programs for next year.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Cost of N.C. High School Diploma? $142,027

The conservative Civitas Institute released a new report today on the cost of a high school diploma in North Carolina. The average cost? $142,027 to educate one student through high school, the report says.

But costs vary according to where you live, the study shows. The highest cost was $265,395 to educate a child in Tyrrell County Schools. The lowest was $100,736 to educate a child in Randolph County.

In Wake County, the state's largest school system, the cost was calculated to be $123,006. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the state's second largest school system, it was $153,703.

To see the report and its methodology, go to

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

State spending could be lowest in 40 years

With an anticipated $3.3 billion revenue shortfall next year, N.C. lawmakers could reduce state spending to the lowest level in 40 years.

So says a new study released today by the N.C. Justice Center's Budget & Tax Center. The Justice Center's Edwin McLenaghan said the study shows that a “cuts-only” approach - or even a majority-cuts approach - would drive state spending to the lowest level, as a share of state personal income, since 1972.

“Such historically low levels of state spending would cause severe harm to North Carolina’s vital public structures, just when people need state services most,” said McLenaghan.

Gov. Bev Perdue told state agencies earlier this month to begin developind budget plans for the next biennium with cuts of 5, 10, and 15 percent. This would add to the more than two years of severe spending cuts averaging nearly 10 percent.

Across-the-board cuts of 10 or 15 percent would drive state spending to its lowest level since 1972. Even cuts of 5 percent would put state spending lower than all years save one in the past 40 years.

“Protecting our critical investments in state services by reforming our tax system along with eliminating unjustified tax breaks and ineffective business incentives would help to ensure that the state has the healthy, well-educated and well-trained workforce necessary to pull North Carolina out of the recession,” said McLenaghan. “The alternative is fewer jobs and a blocked path to prosperity.”

You can find the report at:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Former associate editor Tom Bradbury dies

We learned sad news today. Former Observer associate editor Tom Bradbury, long-time member of the Observer's editorial board, died today. He left the Observer in 1999 to head the local Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation (equivalent to today's Mecklenburg Advocates for Education). He later became a vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. He lived in Marietta, where he died after a long illness.

Below are excerpts from the farewell column he wrote for the Observer when he left 11 years ago. It says much about Tom, and how he felt about this community. He will be missed:

"I am enormously optimistic as I leave The Observer and 35 years in journalism to become the president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation. I am encouraged by the public participation in the foundation's community-visioning process, by the recognition in many parts of the community and government that the public schools are vital, by the efforts of educators - teachers and administrators and many others - to reach every child.

"There are several pieces of very good news that are sometimes overlooked. The first is that the phenomenal growth of the system means more than strains and instability. It reflects a huge personal investment in public education. Second, although we pay great attention to the failures of the public schools - and there are plenty here, as elsewhere - there is also great success. We are not starting from abject failure. Third, there are some very hopeful signs of attention to sharing facts and acting on them.

"The prescriptions for schools are as common and often as certain as the patent medicine ads a century ago, but improving schools is not a simple or one-dimensional matter. First, many of the disagreements over schools are more than simple misunderstandings. The differences often seen on the school board rise not from political friction among the members but from deep differences in the community that elects them. There is more involved than just wanting to do the right thing. Second, education is tough. Reaching every child is much easier to say than to do, much easier for editorialists to call for than for teachers and other educators to carry out. Home and neighborhood and social problems matter. Students aren't widgets, and teachers aren't machines.

"There are certain things that every student must master. As one educator puts it, students can't apply what they don't know. And students who are not prepared for citizenship and life - including functioning in a diverse society in a changing world - are not getting the education they need.

"That said, there is not one path that leads to success for every student. This is one reason I have favored the maximization of choice.

"As parents know, there are any number of practical problems and impediments. When you talk about the community vision for schools, you are talking about bus pickup times as well as test scores, about crowding as well as computers, about everyday details as well as curriculum, about national norms as well as local standards.

"Education is more than policy or operational issues. It is about being human, which means that it is as quirky as our kids and their parents.

"I remember not just the classes of my school years - which I mostly enjoyed - but a mother who stuck with me when subtraction of complex fractions made not a bit of sense and taught me that the world is wide and learning wonderful. As a parent, I remember the fifth-grade teacher at Dilworth Elementary who had my son talking excitedly about the art we would see on the family trip to Washington. I think of my daughter, who sweated for one of the first International Baccalaureate diplomas at Myers Park High School and valued the band as her link to other students and sanity. I look at their success as students and graduates of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's public schools and know firsthand that some wonderful things are happening.

"While life and education are more than schools, and social problems often reach into the classroom, the public schools are our central institution for reaching all children. What we really want for our schools is for kids to have those dreams and reach them. It is that which makes the talk about education so fascinating and so rewarding.

"We have a chance to do some wonderful things here in our schools and our community, to show that this American city - this region - is not like an artillery shell following a soaring but familiar trajectory that ends in a crash."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The price of happiness? $75,000? Less?

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes this week (read it on Wednesday's Viewpoint page) about new wave evangelist David Platt, who became the youngest megachurch leader in America at 26 when he took over as head of a 4,300-person suburban church in Birmingham, Ala. But his recent book, “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream,” calls into question a lot of what goes on in many megachurches, which he calls an environment for comfortable Christianity, which urges more and more material things.

Platt says people should give up such wealth. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away.

Brooks thinks that general message has struck a chord with a lot of people but he doesn't see "Americans renouncing the moral materialism at the core of their national identity."

Well, for their happiness, maybe they should at least put it in better perspective. That's what a new study cited in Time Magazine this week tried to do.

The study analyzed the responses of 450,000 Americans polled by Gallup and Healthways in 2008 and 2009. It found that no matter how much money over $75,000 people make, they don't report any greater degree of happiness than those making $75,000. On the other hand, the lower a person's annual income falls below $75,000, the unhappier he or she feels, the study said.

This study from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School has caveats, of course. There are actually two types of happiness, it notes. "There's your changeable, day-to-day mood: whether you're stressed or blue or feeling emotionally sound. Then there's the deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going — the kind of thing Tony Robbins tries to teach you. While having an income above the magic $75,000 cutoff doesn't seem to have an impact on the former (emotional well-being), it definitely improves people's Robbins-like life satisfaction."

Researchers found that lower income did not cause sadness itself but made people feel more ground down by the problems they already had.

So, what do you think?

Is there a monetary number you associate with happiness or life satisfaction? Has all the emphasis on material things made people less happy?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Poll: 40 percent of teachers discontented

A new poll has some disheartening news about the nation's teachers. About 40 percent of the 4 million k-12 teachers nationwide are discontented and disappointed with their jobs shows. And more than half of those unhappy teachers work in low-income schools.

Public Agenda and Learning Point Associates conducted the research which showed that only 14 percent of those "disenchanted" teachers rate their principals as "excellent" at supporting them. Nearly three-quarters cite "discipline and behavior issues" in the classroom as a drawback to teaching, and 7 in 10 say that testing is a major drawbacks as well.

By contrast, the 23 percent of teachers who the researchers dubbed "idealists" and the 37 percent they labeled "contented" were more likely to say their principal was supportive, more likely to say their school was orderly, and more likely to say good teachers can make a difference in student learning. But fewer of them worked in low-income schools - just 34 percent of the contented and 45 percent of the idealists.

The researchers said their "Teaching for a Living" survey can't decipher whether the disenchanted are bad teachers, or good teachers trapped in bad schools, or whether the idealists are effective in the classroom or just more optimistic. But they said the survey does reveal something about what teachers believe their problems are, and could help explain why some things work and others don't in success in the classroom.

What do you think?

Find the survey at

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Potholes in Hawaii, snarls in Calif. - N.C.?

South Carolina gets high marks and North Carolina middling grades in state highway performance and cost-effectiveness, according to the Reason Foundation's 19th Annual Highway Report released today. S.C. ranked 6th and North Carolina ranked 21st.

The study ranked each state's interstate highways and state-controlled roads in 11 categories, including costs per mile, congestion, pavement condition, deficient bridges and fatalities. National performance improved greatly in 2008. South Carolina ranked 1st in total highway disbursements, 48th in fatalities, 22nd in deficient or functionally obsolete bridges and 38th in urban Interstate congestion. North Carolina ranked 34th in fatalities, 41st in deficient or functionally obsolete bridges and 42nd in urban Interstate congestion.

Overall, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas hade the most cost-effective state highway systems. Rhode Island, Alaska, California, Hawaii and New York have the least cost-effective roads.

The nonprofit found improvement in conditions nationwide but attributed it partly to the recession: people are driving less which has helped slow pavement deterioration and reduced traffic congestion and fatalities.

Drivers in California, Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan and Connecticut are stuck in the worst traffic. Motorists in California and Hawaii have to look out for the most potholes on urban Interstates.Rhode Island has the most troubled bridges in the country, with over 53 percent of bridges deficient.

The full Annual Highway Report with detailed state-by-state analysis is online here:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Kids are Alright

Despite the many worried letters to the editor this morning, we're pretty sure the front page headline writers are all right. They were probably just being nostalgic:

YouTube video courtesy of deargirl

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Andrew Sullivan answers Ross Douthat

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued Monday (in a piece reprinted on our Viewpoint page today) that the ideal of lifelong heterosexual marriage "is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit."

Douthat doesn't explicitly say that that acknowledgment means denying gays the right to marry, but that conclusion seems implicit when one reads his column.

At least Andrew Sullivan thinks so. Writer, blogger and editor ("Same Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, a Reader"), Sullivan replied to Douthat's column on his blog later Monday afternoon. After describing Douthat's column as "Ross at his most Catholic", Sullivan goes on to say:

"Ross' core argument is that "lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support." I'm going to repeat what I have said before: I don't disagree with this at all. I remain in awe of the heterosexual life-long coupling that produces new human life. There is a miraculous, sacred, awe-inspiring aspect to it. I understand why this is a Sacrament, and have no interest in being included in such a Sacrament since it is premised on the very Thomist arguments Ross puts forward. . . .

"This is why the Catholic church upholds this as an ideal. And it does so with great wisdom. But, as Ross concedes, the question is whether this ideal should rest on its own laurels or needs to be elevated by law and doctrine to the highest level of human relationship, and also, in order to achieve this ideal, actively exclude others - both in the religious and the secular sphere? . . .

"To exclude gays and gays alone is therefore not the upholding of an ideal (Britney Spears and Larry King are fine - but a lesbian couple who have lived together for decades are verboten) so much as making a lone exception to inclusion on the grounds of sexual orientation. It is in effect to assert not the ideal of Catholic Matrimony, but the ideal of heterosexual superiority. It creates one class of people, regardless of their actions, and renders them superior to another. "

Sullivan's entire argument can be found here, along with photos from his own gay wedding.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hey, Lindsey Graham, stop thinking!

Well, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has certainly been put in his place.
The Greenville (S.C.) County Republican Executive Committee voted 61-2 on Monday to rebuke South Carolina's senior senator.
His transgression? The unpardonable sin of voting for what he thinks is best for the country.
Consider this sedition:

  • He voted for TARP money for banks, much of which has been paid back, with interest, already.
  • He voted to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan as Supreme Court justices, despite the fact that the Democratic president's picks hold views that are left of center.
  • He supports fixing America's broken immigration policy.
We certainly hope Sen. Graham has learned his lesson and will no longer fall out of line. Oh, good! We see he is already getting the message: He is calling for a constitutional amendment that would make newborn children illegal if their parents are in the country illegally. Now that's more like it, Graham!

-- Posted by The Observer's editorial board

The new 'haves' and 'have-nots' in N.C.?

The Civitas Institute is reporting a different kind of wage gap in North Carolina - a gap between government employees and private sector workers. In their weekly review today, the group said there is a widening gap between the two major classes of income earners in North Carolina.

"In the modern-day version of the 'haves' versus the 'have-nots,' state government workers earn significantly more in wages and benefits than North Carolina's private sector workers.
Indeed, the wage gap between state government employees and private sector workers in North Carolina doubled from 2000-2009.

"Data from 2009 reveal state government workers earn an average wage of $44,158, compared to the private sector's average wage of $39,350, a difference of 12.2 percent. The 2009 wage gap was double the 6 percent pay differential from 2000, when average state employee wages were $32,832 compared to average private sector earnings of $30,977. An increase in state government employee average salaries of 34.5 percent from 2000 to 2009 - compared to just 27 percent for the private sector - accounts for the widening pay gap," the report said.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mitch Miller

The Observer's obituary today of record producer and TV star Mitch Miller mentioned his collaborations with Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, but my favorite was always his performances with the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker on the 1950 LP "Bird with Strings" combining Parker's be-bop with lush orchestrations (re-released by Verve Records in 1995 as "Charlie Parker with Strings"). Here's a sample below. Miller on oboe solos at the beginning, at about 1:40 in the middle, and again at the end.

YouTube video by EnriqueRLopez
Posted by Kevin Siers

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Burr-Marshall Senate race looks competitive

A new poll from the conservative Civitas Institute shows U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican, leading Democrat Elaine Marshall 44 percent to 37 percent. That's within the margin of error, barely, of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Fifteen percent of the 600 registered voters polled July 19-21 were undecided. It was conducted by Republican pollster Tel Opinion Research.

It's the third recent poll that suggests Marshall may be in striking distance. Burr led Marshall by just five points in a poll by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling earlier this month, and he trailed by two points in a poll commissioned by the Marshall campaign.

Polls in July don't mean much, and they suggest that Burr is probably slightly ahead. But as a 16-year member of Congress running against a low-profile challenger in a year shaping up to be Republican friendly, Burr should perhaps be concerned that this race is at all competitive.

UPDATE: An alert reader shares with us a Rasmussen poll we had not seen that shows a more comfortable lead for Burr. Burr has a 52-37 lead in that poll of 500 likely voters. It was conducted July 6 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

-- Posted by The Observer editorial board

Friday, July 16, 2010

Gamers play one more hand with Perdue

The video sweepstakes guys aren't giving up. Despite the N.C. General Assembly's overwhelming vote to ban the internet sweepstakes games, they took their cause to Gov. Bev Perdue today - in a hand-delivered letter.

In the letter, they asked Gov. Bev to veto the bill that would ban gaming, saying it would put 10,000 workers statewide out of jobs. They say Perdue should “send the issue back to the General Assembly to review next year legislation that would regulate and tax video gaming.”

The letter, signed by Entertainment Group NC President William Thevaos, says the ban “has the potential to add an additional burden of more than $2 million per week in new unemployment benefits that these citizens will need if this law goes into effect.” It also said that at a time of financial crisis in state government, walking away from potential revenue that doesn’t involve a tax hike is unwise. “Next year’s budget projections are even worse than this year. According to published news reports, the state is eyeing a $3 billion deficit or even more,” states the letter.
“A regulated video gaming industry could provide more than $576 million in new revenue to the state without raising taxes,” says the letter, citing data from the NC Education Lottery released in May.

Don't expect the plea to do much good. These are the same arguments the gamers made before and during the legislative session. They didn't sway Perdue then, and the governor's press secretary said Wednesday she is expected to sign the law.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Lawmakers' lottery shuffle hurt counties

Counties are still sorting out the fallout from the shifting around of N.C. education lottery funds state lawmakers did this legislative session to help save teachers' jobs statewide. But some have already calculated the damage.

Johnston County Manager Rick Hester told WRAL-TV Wednesday that his county will lose almost $2.3 million in capital expenses for its school construction needs. "I think frustrating and disappointment would be the best words (to describe our situation)," he said. The county has invested about $350 million to build, renovate and expand school buildings over the past decade. Bonds paid for the building. "We have to make $33 million worth of (bond) payments this fiscal year, no matter what happens," he said.

Mecklenburg County may be in the same boat. It's education lottery funds are also used for bond indebtedness on school construction. When lawmakers designated education lottery funds that counties used for school construction needs for teacher jobs instead, they were hurting instead of helping some school districts and counties. Mecklenburg County commissioners are discussing cutting the local money they've allocated to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by the amount the state has taken for teacher jobs. That could be as much as $9 million.

Some counties aren't hit as hard. Wake County, for example, loses only $101,835 because of the lottery funds shift. Meanwhile, Cumberland County loses $3.6 million, Durham County loses $2.2 million and Orange County loses $1.3 million.
Many counties will likely have to postpone school construction projects or find other cuts so they can make their bond payments.
Johnston County officials said they aren't sure how they will balance their budget, but they don't anticipate job losses or tax increases.
"We did not think that on July 14 we'd already be in the process of trying to figure out how to recoup $2 million somewhere," Hester said.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

N.C. opposition to offshore drilling gushes up

You don't see public opinion swing like this every day. North Carolinians overwhelmingly favored offshore drilling just three short months ago. Now more oppose it than favor it. Hundreds of millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf can do that.
In April, before the spill, 26 percent of N.C. poll respondents opposed drilling off the N.C. coast, Public Policy Polling in Raleigh said today. In May, after the spill, 38 percent opposed it. In June, 39 percent and in the latest poll, 46 percent. That's a near doubling of opposition in three months.
Forty-two percent still support it, down from more than 60 percent in April.
The scariest fact from Public Policy Polling as far as we're concerned: Asked about Republican congressional candidate Bill Randall's theory that the federal government caused the spill on purpose, 11 percent believe that and 15 percent aren't sure. More than a quarter of North Carolinians are that delusional? Yikes.

-- Posted by The Observer's Editorial Board

Thursday, June 24, 2010

McCrory: 'I'm not desperate'

Former Mayor Pat McCrory, who's almost certainly going to run for governor again in 2012, calls Daily Views to dispute today's earlier Daily Views post that quotes Chris Fitzsimon about McCrory's role in getting the proposed ethics bill sent back to committee. Nor was he happy with the DV headline: Pat McCrory tries to derail N.C. ethics bill?"

"I'm not against the ethics bill," McCrory said. What he didn't like, he said, was the last-minute addition to the ethics bill which would have expanded the state's public financing program for statewide campaigns to four more Council of State offices and pay for the financing with what the News & Observer of Raleigh, in its news account, dubbed "relatively modest new fees on the businesses and firms regulated by the elected offices involved – attorney general, state treasurer, agriculture commissioner, labor commissioner and secretary of state.
"For example, candidates for secretary of state could have received campaign money through an extra $5 fee imposed when a new corporation is formed."

It's that $5 fee that was the target of some overblown rhetoric, making it sound like a gigantic income tax hit, that you'll hear on this robocall (listen here) taped by McCrory and sponsored by the right-wing anti-tax, anti-health-care-reform, anti-climate-change legislation advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity. The robocalls urging voters to call their state senators succeeded, making enough pols nervous that the public financing measure was expected to be stripped from the bill.

McCrory said he opposes public financing for statewide campaigns. It forces N.C. taxpayers to support campaigns for people they may not support, he said.

As to Fitzsimon's jab that he "is desperately trying to stay relevant until the next election by appealing to the Republican's tea party base," hiz-ex-oner said, "First of all I'm not desperate. And what's wrong with trying to stay relevant?"

Pat McCrory tries to derail N.C. ethics bill?

What's former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory up to these days? Robo-calling about legislation before the N.C. General Assembly for one thing. Here's a piece from the Insider:

"Senate leaders decided to send a wide-ranging ethics bill back to committee. The decision follows an effort by anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity to enlist former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory to robo-call supporters to oppose public campaign financing provisions in the legislation. In the calls, McCrory calls the fees aimed at those regulated by state government and used to support the campaigns a tax. A tax in an election year can be a scary thing, can't it? (THE INSIDER, 6/23/10)."

Chris Fitzsimon also wrote about it today for his "Fitzsimon File" on N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center (read entire piece at
"State Senate leaders are now scrambling to reshape major ethics legislation after backing down in the face of misleading right-wing attacks and robocalls by removing provisions to expand public financing of election for Council of State offices.
North Carolina already has voter-owned elections for judicial candidates and three Council of State offices. The concept of providing public money to candidates so they won't have to rely on private special interest money to get elected is well established and it makes sense to expand the successful program to more offices.
But the public debate in the last two days has not really been about special interest money or the best way to pay for campaigns. It has been about partisan politics, the fall election, misleading soundbites, political ambition, and maybe most importantly, the problems with the way the Senate conducts its business.
The robocalls were apparently delivered to several swing Senate districts by the right-wing group Americans for Prosperity. The recordings featured former Charlotte mayor and unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory who is desperately trying to stay relevant until the next election by appealing to the Republican's tea party base."

Desperately trying to stay relevant? Wonder what former Mayor Pat would say to that?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Public-private partnerships for schools?

With the economy in a bad slump, new construction projects are at a standstill in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools - and probably elsewhere in the state. So we were interested to read about a statewide committee's recommendations today on funding school and other public capital projects.

Here's part of a news release:

At a press conference, the Institute for Emerging Issues Business Committee on Infrastructure (BCI) released its final recommendations, urging lawmakers to make public-private partnerships (PPPs) an available option for state and local governments to meet current and future infrastructure demands.

“For the right infrastructure projects, public-private partnerships can be an effective way to distribute the risks and rewards of not just building or financing public capital projects, but operating and managing them as well,” said Committee co-chair Bill Klein, Bovis Lend Lease Director of Capital Projects for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “At a time when public resources are particularly scarce, we need to explore innovative finance and delivery methods like these.”

The BCI agreed that PPPs can be an important tool in the financing toolbox for state and local governments and proposed that North Carolina further explore how best to support such partnerships. This would ensure greater accountability and transparency, and provide a predictable path for project development. Coupled with well-informed partners, PPPs have the potential to more efficiently develop infrastructure and achieve better value for the taxpayer.
Virginia is one of several states to pass a public-private partnership statute, and as a result the state has over 100 projects either completed or under review. Similar legislation in North Carolina could make public-private partnerships an option in developing and maintaining the state’s schools, water and sewer systems, roads, and other critical infrastructure.

In 2006, the NC General Assembly passed legislation allowing for the use of PPPs to alleviate the growing need for more public schools. However, no successful school construction projects have been completed under this law to date. The BCI believes that creating a sound regulatory framework for these types of partnerships would better serve the state and its localities in closing its infrastructure gaps.

N.C. Sen. Clark Jenkins announced his intentions to propose a Legislative Study Commission on public-private partnerships during the 2010 legislative session. N.C. Rep. Deborah Ross was also on hand to encourage the creation of a PPP study commission, particularly in exploring how PPPs can enhance our transit options and transit-orientated development.

The Business Committee on Infrastructure was comprised of a very diverse group of high-level business leaders from across the state representing primarily the development, legal and financial sectors. The BCI’s final recommendations incorporate the views and expertise of national experts as well as state and local public sector leaders who were active participants throughout the BCI process.

For more information on the recommendations, go to:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Winston-Salem smoking rules fume some

Here's a change that's got some Winston-Salem smokers fuming: The city is instituting a new policy to save money by raising health-insurance premiums for municipal employees who use tobacco products.

Starting in January, health-insurance premiums will go up by an undetermined amount for Winston-Salem employees unless they take a test to prove they are tobacco-free, defined as having no nicotine in their body, the Winston-Salem Journal reports.

Also, for the first time, people who smoke or use other tobacco products will be eligible only for the city's basic health-coverage plan. They will not qualify for the city's Basic Plus health plan, in which the city covers more costs.

The city banned employees from smoking in city buildings two years ago, and some people said they thought the continued restrictions were unfair to smokers. The city has offered smoking cessation classes to workers but some say even that doesn't work. Jeff Goins, a technician in the city's parts department, has smoked for years, although he's tried to quit several times. He took the first round of classes. "It's a waste of time. I know I have a problem," he said. "I have to go with their policy, but I don't think it's a fair decision."

Martha Wheelock, an assistant city manager, said that health-care costs are still being analyzed and the exact amount of the premium increase is not yet clear, although a preliminary figure of $20 per month was given in the city's proposed 2010-11 budget. "We as a city have talked about smoking in particular for a number of years, at least internally, and I think we're ultra-sensitive to the topic given where we live and the roots of our city,'' she said.

Those roots? Winston-Salem is home for the corporate headquarters of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, and was once nicknamed "Camel City" for the Camel cigarettes manufactured there.
Is Charlotte next with such restrictions? According to the Journal, of North Carolina's major cities, Winston-Salem is the only one adopting such a change, but Charlotte is considering restricting smokers to a higher-deductible plan next year. For more on this story, go to

The unedited Etheridge video

There's been some debate on the web as to just how out of line North Carolina Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge was when he was confronted by self-described students with video cameras. Those inclined to defend Etheridge point out that the original video was heavily edited. Here (lifted from Doug Mataconis' 'Outside the Beltway' blog) is the unedited version of the videos, a separate film from each camera. As you can see, Etheridge's defenders lose one line of argument. While it was obviously planned as a set-up of some kind, Etheridge mindlessly seems to fall into the trap (for which he later apologizes). If these students wanted to be another James O'Keefe of ACORN video fame, they couldn't have hoped for a better result.

Update: These videos originally posted at Stephen Gutowski's blog

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Teacher merit pay: What do we know? Not much, says report

Is teacher merit pay or pay for performance worthwhile? Well, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Education Commission of the States just released a report that essentially says the jury is still out on the idea - though it's being tried in several states, and is highly touted, including here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The report, called "Teacher Merit Pay: What do we know?" is in the June issue of The Progress of Education Reform, the ECS's monthly news organ.

The paper looks at four places - Iowa, Texas, Chicago and Denver - that has pay for performance projects under way, and doesn't find much evidence that the programs have had any effect on student performance. But the evaluators say that might not be because of the idea but other factors such as the limited implementation of the programs with small student samples in some districts or incentive pay for teachers being too low to make a difference or promote change.

It's interesting reading though not conclusive about the value of pay for performance. But as CMS gets more involved in setting up and implementing its own model, this does give an idea of the potential difficulties in determining success. Find the report at

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jobless S.C. senate nominee facing felony charges?!

In case you missed it, our sister state South Carolina just keeps getting crazier. In primary elections on Tuesday, a jobless military veteran who raised no funds and put up no campaign website plus our source says he has a pending felony charge (AP confirms it, reporting that he felony charges for allegedly showing obscene online photos to a University of South Carolina student. The pending charges carry a possible five-year jail term.) won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. senate seat held by Republican Jim DeMint. And he won with 60 percent of the vote!

His name is Alvin Greene. He's 32 and was phantom-like during his campaign. He surprised the S.C. Democratic leadership in March when he walked into the state Democratic Party headquarters with a personal check for $10,400 to pay his filing fee. Democratic Party chair Carol Fowler told him he'd have to have a campaign account. So he left, set up an account and came back with a campaign check. She said she asked him if it was the best use of his money seeing as how he was unemployed. But he said he wanted to become South Carolina's U.S. senator.

Well, he closer to the goal now - though no one expects him to beat DeMint.

There's some speculation that he only won the primary because South Carolina has an open primary - meaning you can choose which party's primary you vote in, regardless of your party affiliation. Some speculate that Republicans voted for Greene since he was less competition than four-term state lawmaker Vic Rawl, 64, who had raised about $186,000 - who Greene handily defeated to Rawls' amazement.

Fowler said this might have been the determining factor: People voted alphabetically - no lie. Our source said that was a likely factor. It was a very low-profile race so voters didn't have any opinion before entering the voting booth. The source also said because Greene was black and he possibly got most of the black vote.

Read more:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

County chairman to the City: Help us, please!!!

What's keeping Mecklenburg County commissioners chairman Jennifer Roberts up at night? The county's budget crisis - and she's looking for help anywhere she can get it. At 1 this morning, she dashed off this missive by e-mail to city council members who might have some bucks to spare:

Dear City Colleagues

I apologize for getting this to you so late, knowing that you will be beginning your straw vote process this evening. It has been a very busy few weeks, to say the least.

However, I would like to ask that you give some consideration to supporting the County in this difficult time of crisis. As you know, we are looking at an $81 million funding gap due to declining sales tax and other revenues. This will hit our libraries, our schools, and other vital programs particularly hard. We have made a commitment, as you have, not to raise property taxes when we are still struggling with unemployment of well over 11%.

I do not know what amount you might be able to support to help become a bigger partner with our library system, for example, which bears both the city and the county’s names, but if you would like to contribute any amount whatsoever, it would be welcome. If you want instead to support teachers in our schools, and help us close the $21 million gap there, any amount there would be welcome as well. I appreciate your exploration of running the safe-light program again, which brought over $4 million to the schools in this fiscal year, an amount sorely needed. Were the City and County one consolidated government, this sharing of resources would be easier. As it is, I know this would be a highly unusual step for the City to take.

I know that the City is also facing a funding gap, and it is presumptuous of me to ask anything; but as an advisor once told me, it is amazing how much more you get when you ask than when you don’t.

As you know, we as a board have not yet begun our straw vote process, and I am not sure where my colleagues stand yet on our budget, or even on my request to you this evening. At this point I can only say I speak for myself as someone who sees great needs in our community. Your employees have worked hard and well and certainly they deserve to feel valued. I do not want to jeopardize your ability to pay them appropriately. I merely ask if there is any funding that you find that could be re-directed to essential county needs, we would welcome it.

Thanks for your consideration and good luck tonight in your deliberations.

Jennifer Watson Roberts
Chairman, Mecklenburg County
Board of Commissioners

That's a heartfelt appeal. What do you think? Should the city provide financial help to the county? If so, what would you like the money used for?

Posted by the Observer's editorial board

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

GOP playing chicken with D'Annunzio

GOP leaders are all-in on fighting their own Tim D'Annunzio. It's a risky strategy that will either save them headaches or put egg all over their face.
D'Annunzio, an outspoken conservative, faces former sports anchor Harold Johnson in the June 22 Republican primary in the 8th Congressional District. A few days ago, N.C. Republican Party chairman Tom Fetzer categorically dismissed D'Annunzio as unfit to hold any public office, a rare and stark denunciation of a candidate from his own party.
Today, the five N.C. Republicans in Congress came out united against D'Annunzio, saying Johnson offers the best chance for a Republican victory in November against Democrat Larry Kissell. That kind of unity is unusual, and was notable because a few of them -- Reps. Patrick McHenry, Sue Myrick and Virginia Foxx come to mind -- don't exactly represent the liberal wing of the Republican Party.
Two scenarios could play out now. Johnson could beat D'Annunzio. Fetzer and the Republican establishment would let out a long whistle of relief. Or D'Annunzio could ride an anti-establishment mood and a low turnout to victory over Johnson. That would be humiliating for Republican leaders and would give Kissell endless material for 30-second ads in the fall.
Stay tuned!
-- Posted by The Observer editorial board

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Other budget strategies? Car taxes, even cutting commish/mayor's salaries

It was all budgets all the time this week as city after city, county after county in North Carolina unveiled their budgets. And though policymakers in Mecklenburg County are skittish about fee and tax increases, some others are tapping into citizen pocketbooks to meet needs. Here’s a look at some:

CAR TAX: Motorists in Raleigh could see a $5 jump in their annual vehicle tax bills, if the city council adopts the $620 million budget proposed Tuesday by Raleigh City Manager J. Russell Allen. The proposed budget doesn’t include a property tax increase or lay-offs of city staff, but does including the elimination of 24 vacant position and tightening of city services. Water rates are also expected to rise by approximately 9 percent this summer.

PROPERTY TAX HIKE: Property taxes in Wilkes County would go up and spending would be cut under the proposed 2010-11 budget presented last night by County Manager John Yates, as the county tries to recover from a financial crisis. The proposed property-tax rate is 65 cents for every $100 of valuation, an 8-cent increase from the current rate of 57 cents per $100. The owner of a $100,000 home who pays $570 in property taxes in the current year would pay $650 under the proposed rate. The county has already made spending cuts, including three furlough days for employees and the postponement of items, including work on plans for a proposed new jail. The proposed budget doesn’t contain any pay increases for county employees. Thirty-two employees have retired recently because of incentives to do so. The county will leave 21 of those positions vacant.

SALES TAX HIKE: Wilkes County officials also decided to put the issue of increasing the local sales tax by a quarter-cent before voters as one possible way to offset sluggish county revenues and help build back the county’s fund balance. The current sales tax rate is 7 3/4 cents for every $1.

DIP INTO SAVINGS: The town of Wendell proposed a budget that keeps the tax rate steady at 49 cents per $100 of property value. But commissioners used $281,250 from the town’s savings to balance the budget. That amounts to just over 8 percent of the money in the town’s savings account. The budget provides no money for employee pay raises, although commissioners have said they will revisit the issue in December and could add raises back into the budget then.

CUT COMMISH/MAYOR’S SALARIES: Commissioners have also agreed to roll back their own salaries to 2008 levels, The cut means commissioners’ salaries will fall from $4,284 per year to $4,000 annually. The mayor’s salary will also take a hit, dropping from $6,482 to $6,000. Mayor Harold Broadwell will retain his $600 annual travel allowance.

SCHOOLS HIT HARD: In Johnston County, schools bear the load of cutbacks laid out in the county manager’s budget proposal. County Manager Rick Hester is calling for a $161.1 million budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That’s a $10 million drop from this year’s budget. Hester recommends county commissioners give Johnston schools $49.6 million, or $6.6 million less than the schools got this year (a cut of more than 8 percent). The school board agreed last week to ask the county for $56.2 million to hold steady on spending. School officials are already expecting to lose 113 teaching positions and more than $6.7 million to state cuts, Superintendent Ed Croom has said.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oh, to be Wake County - for budget reasons

This budget season, we wish we could be Wake County. Just for budget reasons, of course.

Today, Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones unveiled his budget and the harsh cuts it will demand to plug a $81.1 million deficit. But just a day earlier, Wake County Manager David Cooke was unveiling a budget that calls for just $2.4 million less than the county spent last year.

Oh, to be in Wake County’s shoes!

Wake's budget involves no property tax increase and the elimination of about 58 full-time positions (Meck is looking at something like 500, more than 8 times as many), 28 of them occupied. There will be no library closings and Wake County schools will operate on the same amount of money as last year.

“I feel kind of fortunate,” said Ron Margiotta, the Wake school board chairman. “It would be wonderful if we could get more, but I’m glad this is what we are getting.”

We've got a feeling that's not a sentiment that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Chairman Eric Davis will be sharing. Mecklenburg County Manager Jones cut $21 million from what the schools are getting this year.

Here’s a look at a couple of other local budgets unveiled, and how officials plan to deal with sluggish revenue due to the recession, this week:

TAX INCREASE: In Durham, City Manager Tom Bonfield proposed a budget Monday night that eliminates 31 staff positions (15 jobs are unfilled) and raises the property-tax rate by 1.19 cents per $100 valuation – an extra $23.80 on a house valued at $200,000. No raises for city employees.

HIGHER UTILITY AND GARBAGE COLLECTION FEES: In High Point, City Manager Strib Boynton’s proposed 2010-11 budget calls for holding the property tax rate steady, but residents and businesses would see higher utility rates and a new garbage collection fee under the spending plan unveiled Monday. The High Point Public Library, which is currently open seven days a week, would close on Mondays and operating hours at five of the city’s six recreation centers would be reduced by 15 hours per week during the school year. A solid waste collection fee might be instituted depending on what happens with state and county shared revenue sources. The budget also would eliminate 51 full and part-time vacant city positions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

NRA Favorite Things

Uptown welcomes some 70,000 visitors this week as the National Rifle Association convenes its 139th annual meeting at the Charlotte Convention Center. Those visitors will include Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck and Chuck Norris among other celebrities and politicians. We’re fresh out of trumpets for a welcoming fanfare, but we do have this delightful little ditty penned by Martin Settle, of UNC-Charlotte’s English Department. Sing along if you know the tune – and you do! It’s set to “My Favorite Things” from ‘Sound of Music.’

Pistol snub noses and shooting positions
Bright copper casings and carbines with pistons
Wood stocks of walnut with swivel stud rings
These are a few of our favorite things.

Pump action shotguns and toggle lock Lugers
The sound of a round as it seats in a Ruger
Wild geese that plummet when they’ve been winged
These are a few of our favorite things.

When the law’s tight
When the ammo’s low
When there’s gun control
We simply remember the second amendment
And then we can just reload.

Gun barrels that gleam with a stainless steel satin
Pistol grip diamonds and holsters of patent
Night vision scopes that turn everything green
These are a few of our favorite things.

Butt plates on shoulders, cheek pieces to nuzzle
Suppressors for flashes to thread on a muzzle
Tactical weapons with large magazines
These are a few of our favorite things.

When no street lights
When police cease
When we’re feeling sad
We simply find peace in our safety release
And then we don’t feel so bad.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Take Joe 'You lie' Wilson to work

Remember Joe "You lie" Wilson, who got so much attention for talking back to President Obama during his 2009 speech to Congress. Well, he's running for re-election in South Carolina and his campaign is sending out a creative e-mail saying he will "work" for voters, and he means work as in doing constituents' jobs. Here's part of what the e-mail says:

"Second District Congressman Joe Wilson has made job creation his top priority and he's setting out to tell the voters one-on-one about his plans. He’s hitting the streets to talk to employers and workers about how we can create jobs here in South Carolina.
"Joe’s jobs plan isn’t a top-down, government knows best program like you'd see from Democrats in Washington. He’s rolling up his sleeves and getting to work alongside his fellow South Carolinians. It’s all a part of “Take Joe to Work.”

"Recently, Joe has worked the drive-through window at Wendy’s and laid bricks at the new State Farmers’ Market. Today (Tuesday) he headed out to Richard’s Automotive in West Columbia and did auto maintenance alongside small business owner Richard Lee.
"If you want Joe to come out to your workplace, it’s not too hard to get in touch and make your pitch. First, the business has to be located in South Carolina's Second District. Second, go to, and follow the instructions. The campaign will need some information about the business and why Joe should visit.
"In just a couple simple steps, anybody in the Second District could be working shoulder-to-shoulder with their Congressman.
For more information, and to catch Joe’s latest Web Video, go to"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Age of Budget 'Scenarios'

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman got sneers and some derision last year when he rolled out, for the first time, different scenarios for the school budget. Anticipating state and local cuts of up to $70 million last year, he developed a list of potential cuts that would kick in based on how much money the schools eventually got from its different funding sources. The worst-case scenario, a $70 million cut, didn't materialize because of federal stimulus money. But the process did give the community a sense of what would have to go, and an opportunity to weigh in on what residents valued keeping.

CMS took the same approach this year, with a worst-case scenario of close to $80 million cut, and up to 1,000 employees laid off including nearly 600 teachers.

Now, the Public Library is taking the same tack. Today, Charles Brown, Director of Charlotte Mecklenburg Libraries presented three budget scenarios to the Board of Trustees. The scenarios outlined three different ways the Library could deal with a possible $17 million budget reduction from Mecklenburg County. The Library receives approximately 93% of its sustainable funding from the County.

Scenario One allows for most libraries to remain open, but most locations would only be open one to three days per week and for limited hours, with some locations closed. This scenario leaves just 27 percent of the Library’s workforce intact (based on 614 positions in July 2008) and is not recommended because many citizens would not be able to use the library during the extremely limited hours, and because the employee to customer ratio at larger locations would be insufficient to ensure a safe environment for either employees or the public.

Scenario Two would close as many as 16 of the current 24 libraries based on both subjective and objective criteria, similar to what had been used in the scenario presented in March that recommended the closing of 12 branches. The criteria would include cost, usage, proximity and size in addition to community need. This scenario would result in large unserved areas and would leave a slightly larger percentage of the workforce intact, approximately 35 percent.

Scenario Three would involve keeping all of the regional libraries open, including ImaginOn and Main Library, but would close the community locations. This scenario also allows 35 percent of staff to remain and would provide minimal coverage for the largest segment of the community. Brown said keeping the regionals open allows the library system to offer full service (including more computers, books, meeting rooms and copiers), and to be able to accommodate more parking. In addition, this option provides a stronger starting place from which to rebuild the system should the economy recover. Brown also indicated that a reverse scenario was considered that closed the regional libraries and kept the community libraries open, but the “cons” around this model included fewer book and computer resources available to a potentially larger number of users as well as issues of more limited physical space and parking availability. Library officials will discuss the issues further at a meeting in May.

Officials said that no matter which scenario is selected, library customers will be negatively impacted because all of the scenarios include severe cuts to staff, library locations, service and materials. Information sessions to facilitate a dialogue between the community and Library staff will take place from Mid-April to May 4. Information shared at these sessions will help inform any future scenarios and will help the community to understand the library’s decision-making process. To view the presentation, click here.The Board of Trustees will vote on the Library’s final operating budget in June, following Mecklenburg County’s adoption of the FY11 budget.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Education $$ not helping CMS budget

Education dollars are flowing into North Carolina, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but they're not making the local schools' budget picture look brighter. Last week, CMS learned it was a finalist for the Broad urban education prize. It will get $250,000 as a finalist. But if it wins - the announcement will be made this summer - it will get $1 million. But all that money goes to scholarship so it won't help operating costs, which may take up to a $80 million cut in state and local funds because of poor revenues due to the recession.

This week, both Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) announced that North Carolina will receive more than $91 million from the federal stimulus to turn around poorly performing schools. Hagan serves on the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education.

Perdue said the money will toward the state's goal of “preparing every student, no matter where he or she lives, to graduate from high school ready for a career, college or technical training demands that we turn around our low-performing schools.”

Noted Hagan: “Schools in North Carolina will receive stimulus funding to implement innovative models to better serve our students. This funding will help North Carolina students compete in the 21st-century economy and become career and college ready.”

But according to Hagan, qualifying school districts must be among the “persistently lowest achieving,” as determined by the state of North Carolina. School districts that have failed to meet yearly progress for two years can also apply, but will only receive funds once all of the persistently lowest achieving school districts have received funds. CMS as a whole doesn't fit those categories though it has schools that do.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Expert: Build roads where people are

Just a week or so ago, Observer reporter Mark Johnson and News & Observer reporter Bruce Siceloff wrote a long piece about the inequities in road funding for Charlotte and other N.C. cities. They reiterated what most elected officials in Charlotte know - that the city's transportation needs are disproportionately underfunded by the N.C. Department of Transportation. Mecklenburg County ranked 89th out of 100 N.C. counties in the number of state dollars for road construction and maintenance on a per-person basis.

Today, a N.C. Justice Center expert added his voice to a push to address such inequities in testimony before the N.C. legislature's Joint Transportation Committee. According to a news release from the Justice Center, Dr. Stephen Jackson said changing the funding priorities is essential to dealing with the state's road needs effectively, especially easing traffic congestion.

We can build infrastructure that meets the challenge of the future, said Jackson of the N.C. Justice Center's Budget & Tax Center. But to do so requires bold steps to empower local governments and forward-thinking initiatives to send transportation funds where most people live. "Building better roads and road networks in our urban areas is necessary, but can't solve the problem alone," said Jackson. "To combat sprawl, we also must build better public transportation, encourage more compact growth, and change our funding priorities."

One prime example of why changing those funding priorities is necessary: urban congestion is a major problem in North Carolina, while traffic in rural areas is stagnant. Instead of mandating roads in places fewer and fewer people are driving, Jackson said, we should change the formula which currently guides where new roads are built.
He urged adoption of a new formula that encourages building where the people are - allocating funds mostly based on population.

Perhaps the most bold of Jackson's prescriptions, the news release said, is to enhance local responsibility for transportation needs, which would empower local communities and relieve some of state government's burdens. Reducing state responsibility in some avenues would enable policymakers to focus on the major roads that form the backbone of the road network and carry the most traffic.

North Carolina should give counties and municipalities new revenue powers, said Jackson, which could include a local gas tax, vehicle utility fees, or transportation impact fees. Revenue should also be used for maintenance and operations as well as construction, he said.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gorman, Jones agree on doing 'less with less'

In one of their rare joint appearances on the same side of the table, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman and Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones gave pretty much the same message to residents at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum today: These are tough financial times and this community will feel the pain for years to come. Employee layoffs and cuts in services will happen next year for the schools, and for the county.

For the county, every revenue source except property taxes has seen a decline this year, Jones said. As a result, "we're going to have layoffs (expected to be 500-plus employees) and significant curtailment of services," he said.

Gorman said the "new economic reality" for the schools is to do "less with less."

The two were pretty chummy even when talking about the bone of contention between them - the county's cuts in funding for the schools. The county provides about a quarter of the the school system's operating funds. Last year, the county cut funding to the schools by $40 million. Gorman points out that other school systems throughout experienced much smaller cuts in local funding. Wake County cut its schools by $2.8 million. Guilford (Greensboro) got about the same as it did the previous year. "We wouldn't have laid off any individuals last year if we got the same cut as Wake (schools) did?" Gorman said.

But Gorman said he understood the situation the county was in, with service demands going up in other areas.

For his part, Jones noted that Wake has a different budgeting system. They put aside money for construction debt service in a debt service fund, which now has over $150 million. Mecklenburg pays for debt service out of its general funds each year so "operating funds and debt costs wind up competing with each other," he said. Wake also did property revaluations when property values were at their peak so Wake is getting more revenues from that stream and thus is in a better position financially.

Those at the forum peppered both with questions that showed their discontenct and had suggestions about how the county and the schools could do things better. Among them: Give more resources to education and look for other strategies to deal with some crimes other than jails. Jones said he was already planning to put on hold jail expansion plans so this might be "the time to have the discussion" of alternatives.

Gorman said no schools would close next year to deal with budget cuts. He's not recommending that. Residents didn't like the idea of laying off more teachers and suggested instead furloughs (Gorman said he liked that as an option but legislative approval is needed and it would take 26-27 days to make up the budget deficit through furloughs alone), longer days/four-day weeks (Gorman said some savings could accrue but there were also problems such as child-care for parents on that day kids weren't in school), 10 percent across the board salary cuts (Gorman said it would only get part of the needed money - about $60 million of the $80 million in anticipated cuts plus some cuts would constitute demotions and require hearings to resolve. But Gorman just doesn't favor across-the-board-cuts because he said it only puts off the need to "reduce the budget to meet the new economic reality" that will be around for the next five or so years, he said.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vote for me, because I'm not a Duke fan!

Who cares what a U.S. Senate candidate thinks about the issues?! As long as he's not a Duke fan!

Ahhh, what a candidate will do when he's losing a race he was supposed to win. Voters in Kentucky are really (not) wrestling with the things that matter, thanks to U.S. Senate candidate Trey Grayson. In a new ad, Grayson, a Republican, distinguishes himself from primary opponent Republican Rand Paul not over health care reform or the deficit but over ..... Duke vs. Kentucky basketball.

His ad shows grainy video of his opponent acknowledging he is a Duke fan. Grayson then swears his allegiance to the Wildcats. "I approved this message because I will always cheer for the Big Blue," Grayson says without a hint of tongue in cheek.

Maybe Grayson should be more concerned about the critical problems facing America and Kentucky, including education. His beloved Wildcats have one of the worst academic performances in the nation, with just 31 percent of players graduating. At Duke, 92 percent of players graduate. It's probably too much to ask for, but we hope this scheme backfires on Grayson.

Here's Grayson's pitiful ploy.

- Posted by The Observer's editorial board

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Libraries slashing; who's out of touch?

Two items arrived in the e-mail inbox of our department today. One was from former N.C. Sen. Robert Pittenger, a Mecklenburg Republican.
He wrote:
"The liberal big government machine grows larger and larger, as it did
when I served - continuing to raise taxes and public spending at
alarming rates. The amazing thing is, whether the public favors their
actions or not, they do it anyway."

Not too long afterward, we received this, from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library:
"On Tuesday, March 16, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library learned that Mecklenburg County would be reducing the Library’s funding for Fiscal Year 2010 by 6.3 percent, or $2 million dollars, before June 30, 2010. To absorb a $2 million reduction in such a short period of time, the Library will need to lay off at least 140 employees, resulting in the closure of at least twelve Library locations, pending final library board approval."
While we agree with Pittenger that our governments need to root out any waste and fraud they can find, it's hard to see how closing 12 county libraries, or laying off up to 600 teachers for next year, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools may have to do, equates to the "big government machine" growing "larger and larger."
"What will it take for the out of touch liberal establishment to
understand that they cannot go on brazenly
behaving so irresponsibly?" he asks.

Er, maybe the liberal establishment isn't the only one you could say is "out of touch"?

- Posted by The Observer editorial board

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill?

One Charlotte-area congressman is pushing to put President Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., of Cherryville, today announced he has introduced a bill that would do just that.
“President Reagan was a modern day statesman, whose presidency transformed our nation’s political and economic thinking,” McHenry said in a press release.
Reagan would replace Ulysses S. Grant, widely regarded by historians as one of our weaker presidents. In fact, Grant seems like the most likely target if you're going to replace someone on a bill. We'd have a hard time arguing to bounce George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin. Even Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson are pretty strong. If not Grant, maybe Reagan could replace William McKinley on the $500 bill.
What do you think? Reagan on the $50 bill? Reagan on a more prominent bill, or less prominent one? Or would you keep Reagan off any currency?
-- Posted by The Observer's editorial board

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kissell and McHenry claim bragging rights

It didn’t take long for some in our Congressional delegation – on different ends of the political spectrum, we might add – to get out the word about their rankings in, according to the Democrat, “one of the most respected nonpartisan publications in Washington.”

That Democrat is 8th district House member Larry Kissell who says the National Journal Magazine ranked him one of the most centrist members of Congress. “Kissell was the fourth closest to the ideological center as rated by the National Journal’s 2009 Vote Rating,” says Kissell’s press release Friday.

“I work hard to do what I think is right and put politics aside and I’m proud my voting record reflects that. I believe we can have differences and still meet in the middle,” Kissell said. “My top priority remains what is best for the people of the Eighth District. I will continue to cast my vote for what is best for them.”

His N.C. colleague, GOP representative Patrick McHenry, took a bow for being named the most conservative member of the N.C. congressional delegation, and for being ranked the 17th most conservative member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I’ve always voted my conscience and worked hard to best represent the interests of my district. In town hall after town hall, the people of Western North Carolina repeatedly told me that they were tired of the runaway spending in Washington, tired of the government takeovers of private industry, and did not want to see the health care system become the next target for a power grab by liberal Democrats,” McHenry said in his press release.

McHenry continued by saying “in order to turn our economy around we need to take an honest look at drastically lowering our deficit through entitlement reform, lowering taxes so that businesses can create jobs, and adopting an energy policy that fully utilizes the vast natural resources of our country.”

Since taking office in 2005, Congressman McHenry has consistently been ranked as one of the top conservative leaders of the U.S. House.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gov. Perdue's reelection challenge

No wonder Gov. Bev Perdue has dubbed herself "the jobs governor." She has received fair warning from one of North Carolina's preeminent economists that jobs could be a big problem for her reelection efforts.

Wells Fargo chief economist John Silvia was at the Mecklenburg County commissioners' annual retreat this morning, giving a picture of the economic landscape. County manager Harry Jones asked Silvia and UNC Charlotte economist John Connaughton how long it would be before Mecklenburg's unemployment rate would be back at pre-recession levels.

"Five to seven years," Connaughton said.

"I'll tell you what I told Bev Perdue," Silvia said: She's going to be running for reelection in 2012 with a higher unemployment rate than when she was elected. (The N.C. rate was 7.5 percent in November 2008; it's 11.2 percent now.)

His point was that that's probably going to be true no matter what she does, because of larger economic forces. Now if you're a sitting governor, that's a heck of a conundrum.

-- Posted by Taylor Batten

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wake schools' chief says bye, bye

Who couldn't see this coming? On Tuesday, Wake County schools superintendent Del Burns abruptly resigned saying he could no longer "in good conscience" work for the system he has served for decades.

What he actually meant was he could no longer work for the Wake County school board, whose new majority elected a few months ago has pretty much made his life hell by working to undo many of his initiatives and policies he's supported and that have won Wake schools national praise.

Some of those initiatives didn't sit well with some voters, especially year-round schools and policies to keep schools economically diverse. So in November, they ousted some board members and installed a new group that have steamrolled over opposition and made school board meetings a shout-fest at times. They've even made the old Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings look tame by comparison.

Wake school board chair Ron Margiotta acted surprised (he's the only one) by the resignation and said he hoped Burns wasn't leaving because of the board's direction. He said he'll ask Burns, who assumed the superintendent duties in July 2006 and is under contract through June 2013, to reconsider.

Good luck. But for now the state's largest school system (CMS is second largest) has a job search ahead.