Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Veterans have earned at least this much

Tomorrow's editorial tonight:

Charlotte developer Tommy Norman served in the Special Forces for five years in the 1960s, so he’s no stranger to military service or the difficulties veterans can face as they transition back to civilian life. But it wasn’t until he hosted a couple of recent veterans and their families in his home that he really appreciated the scope of the problem.

The first was a Marine, with his wife and three kids, who had been in a parachute accident and lost a limb. Then came a helicopter pilot who “had the back of his head knocked off” and his wife, Norman said. Both families were struggling with various problems and were in search of community.

“It gave us a real sense of what they were up against. … It was a real learning curve for us,” Norman told the Observer editorial board. “They don’t have the community support until somebody makes the connection with them.”

So Norman was off. He started creating what on Wednesday was announced as the Charlotte Veterans Employment Initiative. Businesses, educators, nonprofits and others will collaborate to create a network of help for veterans shifting into civilian life, sometimes after years on the battlefield. Surprisingly, such an effort appears to be unique in the nation.

It’s an important, and well-timed, project. Organizers are bracing for an expected 4,000 or more veterans to move to Charlotte over the next year or so with the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of operations in Afghanistan. They’ll join 54,000 veterans already living in Mecklenburg County, including about 5,000 young ones.

They don’t identify themselves with signs, and so most of us don’t recognize them or think about the severe challenges they can face. They are even more invisible since today’s wars are fought by such a tiny percentage of the population.

They are a distinctive group because they carry such promise yet have endured so much and bear those scars. They find themselves trying to build a new life but have to overcome any number of complications: physical or psychological wounds, plus a lack of education, job skills, connections, housing and financial management experience. There are a range of government agencies and nonprofits to help them, but veterans can get lost trying to navigate them.

It’s no surprise, then, that they suffer higher rates of unemployment, homelessness and suicide than the general population. Some reports say veterans account for one in five suicides. The unemployment rate for veterans under age 25 is 30 percent, and 48 percent for African-American veterans of that age.

A nonprofit started last year, Charlotte Bridge Home, will help coordinate the initiative. CPCC will play a big role, and some of the city’s biggest corporate names have stepped up. Charlotte’s thousands of smaller businesses should also become a vital part.

Kudos to Norman and all the community leaders who are tackling this problem so far. These veterans have risked their lives on behalf of their country and many have witnessed unspeakable horror. They could use their talent to improve the Charlotte region, its businesses and all its institutions. The least we can do to honor their service is to reach out and give them a hand.

LGBT: Meck should stand against amendment

Local fervor is revving up over the marriage amendment on the May 8 ballot that would ban any domestic union other than marriage between a man and woman.

A coalition of groups including MeckPAC, the Mecklenburg Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Political Action Committee are now calling on the Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners to take a strong stand against amendment.

In an earlier post, we wrote about county commissioner Bill James' comments about the county commissioners vote in 2004 supporting an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment.

In a press release today, this coalition decried the current amendment proposal as discriminatory, anti-family and anti-business.
"Amendment One would require that the state recognize opposite-sex marriage as the 'only domestic legal union' in the state. Legal professionals and scholars have said the vague and overly-broad language of the amendment would ban marriage, civil unions and domestic partnership benefits for both unmarried same-sex couples and unmarried opposite-sex couples.
The amendment would also ban domestic partner benefits currently offered to public employees by local governments like Mecklenburg County.

"It is vitally important for the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners to defend their LGBT employees who depend on county domestic partner benefits in order to provide healthcare and other needs for their families and children. The amendment would also prevent governments like Charlotte, which has been debating domestic partner benefits, from extending such measures to employees in the future.

"Several local elected leaders have spoken out personally against the amendment, including Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx. Speaking at the Human Rights Campaign Carolina Gala on Saturday, Feb. 25, Foxx said: 'When I go into the ballot box in May ... I'm going to be voting against Amendment One.' Last fall, Mecklenburg County Commissioner and then-Chairman Jennifer Roberts signed on to a letter with six other municipal government leaders from across the state urging legislators not to place the amendment on the ballot, noting that the amendment would 'threaten important protections for contributing North Carolina citizens, and will significantly harm the future of our state.'

The statement goes on to call for county commissioners to vote on a resolution to oppose Amendment One, the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that will be on the ballot in May, noting that similar resolutions and official statements opposing the anti-LGBT Amendment One have already been approved by the elected bodies of Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro and Raleigh.

Update at 5:10 p.m.: Mark Wisniewski sent the editorial board a link to his blog, Mark Does Charlotte, for comments Mecklenburg commissioner Bill James made last October about the marriagement amendent. It says in part, "If there was a resolution to support voting YES on NC 1 I would support that though I don t think the County needs to weigh in since the legislature already has. I have already expressed my support for NC1 to the legislature before the start of the session asking them to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot."

A tie in Michigan? Did Reagan Dems really sway primary?
Most eyes are now on Super Tuesday as far as the Republican presidential race is concerned. But Rick Santorum's camp is still in Michigan - and claiming victory over Mitt Romney! Well, at least a tie.

That's what Santorum campaign adviser John Brabender was saying this afternoon, according to the Huffington Post: "I heard that there's a Lansing [Mich.] paper that put out it showed it was a virtual tie," Brabender said in a call with reporters about the primary results. "I have not seen that myself, but someone from our campaign shared that with me. ... These are the reports we're getting and I understand that I'm not giving you hard data." Brabender also insisted that the two men had received the same number of delegates in the state.

That last part could be true. Last we heard the two has split evenly the delegates. The Detroit News was reporting that two congressional districts still had no final counts but were leaning toward Santorum. So he could turn out the winner in Michigan delegates. But as of right now, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney tops the former senator 41 percent to 38 percent in terms of votes.

Still, Brabender contends Michigan was a "disaster" for Romney: "Despite outspending us by a great amount of money, despite the fact that this is Mitt Romney's home turf, as you will, his home state, for this to end up as a tie, I think, can only be seen as a disaster for Mitt Romney," he said.

He also gave a nod to crossover Democratic voting, saying Santorum had targeted and got Reagan Democrats on his side in Michigan. And he said Romney should have done the same outreach. "It may have very well been a failure by the Romney campaign not to figure that out," he said.

He might be right about that. But who among this group would a Reagan Democrat really prefer? Just who is the most Reagan-like enough among Romney, Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul to appeal to a "Reagan Democrat"? Or is there some other Republican like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels - also mentioned as having presidential timbre - who better fit those Reagan shoes. Who's your pick?

Posted by associate editor Fannie Flono

Meck commish for anti-gay marriage bill?

Good morning. Welcome to Opinion, the editorial board's online place for commentary and discussion. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, your host for today.

Well, Mitt Romney eked out a win in Tuesday's Michigan primary, and the pundits are abuzz all over the place about why he came so close to losing his "home" state and didn't to fellow Republican Rick Santorum. The Daily Beast attributed Romney's win and thus Santorum's second-place finish to moderate and independent women voters, who weren't so taken with Santorum's 1950s-like view of their place in society. "The former Pennsylvania senator lost the Michigan primary to Mitt Romney by 3 points due in large part to his weakness among Michigan women," the Beast said. "Although Santorum lost among Michigan men by just 1 point, he lost the women's vote by a full 6-point margin, leaving him well behind Romney and unable to close the gap with male voters in any way."

Gail Kerr of the Tennessean says women may not be a factor in Romney's favor come Super Tuesday - at least not in Tennessee. A Vanderbilt poll shows Santorum has strong support among women, and he now leads Romney in the state.

An ABC news story said Santorum has seen the error of his ways in relating to women and his working on reaching out to females. But he stumbled in the effort in a speech last night that “the men and women who signed that declaration wrote the final phrase, ‘We pledge to each other our lives, our fortune, and our sacred honor.” Oops. There were no women who signed the Declaration of Independence.

The other issue pundits focused on in Romney's Michigan win was crossover or stealth voting by Democrats for Romney in an effort to boost Santorum and derail Romney who is viewed as a stronger contender against President Obama in the general election. The Daily Kos dubbed a drive to push this Democratic voting in Michigan's open primary Operation Hilarity. USA Today and Slate wrote about it too. ABC News' The Note said Santorum invited the crossover voting in a blog before the elction. Romney decried it as a dirty trick, though the Kos said he once bragged about doing it himself.

Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard dissects Romney win in Michigan and in Arizona where he walloped Santorum.

Bill James said what?
But enough about far away places and issues. Let's talk a bit about hometown politics. Specifically about Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James' latest email missive declaring that the county commissioners support the N.C. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. His headline is certainly an eye-catcher "Mecklenburg County supports Marriage Amendment" - until you read his link which notes that it was the Mecklenburg County commissioners of 2004 - when the board had a Republican majority.

It's no surprise the vote supporting an amendment then being sponsored by N.C. Sen. James Forrester, a Republican from Gaston County was along party lines with James, then commissioner Jim Puckett (also a former CharMeck school board member), former commissioner Dan Ramirez and former commissioner Ruth Samuelson (now a state legislator) - all Republicans - voting for it. The three Democrats who voted against - Valarie Woodard (now deceased), Norman Mitchell and Parks Helms - are no longer on the board. Two people were absent, Tom Cox, a Republican, and Dumont Clarke, a Democrat and the only member still on the board other than James from that the time.

James contends their resolution is still in effect, and thus the commissioners' support for the amendment still stands - even though this is a different amendment sponsored by different people and the board of commissioners has only two members from that time, and only one of them voted - James. Good one, Bill.

James says his comments were prompted by a UNC reporter who asked whether the Mecklenburg commissioners were on record with a position on the marriage amendment in wake of Wake County's board of commissioners recent vote of the Republican majority endorsing the amendment that is on the ballot statewide for the May 8 primary. He says he's asked several Democrats on the Meck board whether they would like to revisit the resolution and three who've responded said no.

James says he doesn't think it should be revisited either: "Ultimately, I don’t think it would be useful to have another vote. The voters will decide this no matter what local boards say."

This editorial board agrees with James on that. But we think N.C. lawmakers are wasting time and money putting this amendment on the ballot. N.C. already has a law that prohibit same-sex marriage. This amendment wrongly writes discrimination into the state Constitution. It also so broadly limits domestic legal unions to only marriage between a man and a woman that the rights of straight couples who cohabit - and they make up 88 percent of unmarried cohabiters in North Carolina - are now jeopardized. We'll be writing more about that later. This amendment deserves to be rejected, and we hope voters do so.

NEW: Updated at 11:55 am with this response from Bill James

Bill James sent us this email in response to the above post about his position on the marriage amendment legislation:

"Note that I didn’t say that the board supported ‘amendment one’ – I said that the Board supports a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as one-man and one-woman.

"On that issue – it is the ‘official’ position of the Board of County Commissioners as much as if it were voted on yesterday and it is 100% correct.

"I contend it is a non-issue since voters are going to ultimately make the decision on May 8th but my statement is accurate. I publicized it because members of the ‘liberal’ media (and homosexual activists) wanted Mecklenburg to take a different position than Wake. They are also pressuring LaWana Mayfield (see CL posts where they are taking her to the woodshed for not placing it on the CITY agenda).

"It is also a relevant County issue since we issue marriage licenses. That was the original reason for the 2004 resolution – to publically oppose those homosexuals who attempted to force Mecklenburg County to issue them a marriage license in contravention of the law. That is also one very good reason why the Constitutional Amendment is necessary – to stop those shenanigans.

"It doesn’t matter who was there, who was absent or who has died. It is the Board’s official position and can be used in literature to voters (if any want to)."

Posted by associate editor Fannie Flono

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Harold Cogdell: Hero or copout?

So is Harold Cogdell a hero for standing up against the entrenched political parties? Or is he just taking the easy way out?

Cogdell, the chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners, announced Monday that he would not run for reelection. One of his main reasons? Exasperation, he said, with the state of politics today and the refusal by Democrats and Republicans to ever peek out of their silos.

"So often we don't pull back the layers and look at the complexity of certain issues," said Cogdell, who also announced that he was leaving the Democratic party to become unaffiliated. "We're often too busy vilifying the positions of the other party and tune out to their side on the issues."

He's right about that much. This community and this country were built by people who had a vision for how to make things better. They had their ideology, to be sure, but often it was not all-encompassing. It did not blind them to solutions to society's most pressing problems. Now, the party label seems to be all that matters. The 'D' or the 'R' after the name are all voters want to know, and the politicians themselves become slave to the label too.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison warned about the danger of "factions" in Federalist No. 9 and No. 10. Madison defined a faction as a group of citizens united by some interest that is adverse to the rights of other citizens or the community. They are inevitable, Madison said, so he advocated a republic -- rather than a true democracy -- as a way to limit the damage they can do. Today, our elected representatives, meant by Madison to be a bulwark against the danger of factions, are wedded to them as much as anyone.

So most of us can sympathize with Cogdell's frustration with politics. It is the path he has taken that is puzzling. What has changed in the less than three months since he ousted fellow Democrat Jennifer Roberts as board chair? If becoming board chair served some greater purpose than personal aggrandizement, should he not now be about achieving that purpose rather than high-tailing it? And if disillusionment with politics and the demands of the job drove him away, how is it possible that he considered running for Congress but declined only because he couldn't get the 25,000 required signatures to join the ballot as an independent?

The filing deadline to run for office is noon Wednesday. Instead of a leader who takes a walk in the face of partisan politics, Mecklenburg needs county commissioners willing to do something about it. The three at-large seats are vacant for the first time in decades. We hope that will be seen as an opportunity by Mecklenburg residents who are public-service-oriented and who will put the county's progress ahead of party loyalty. We need candidates who have demonstrated leadership, intelligence and commitment to community. We need candidates who refuse to be beholden to special interests or any one party. We need level-headed public servants who will subordinate their personal fame and their partisan backers to the betterment of Mecklenburg County.

Are there such people out there? Now's the time to step up.

-- Taylor Batten

Forget Michigan; next Tuesday is what matters

Much has been made, and rightly so, about what's at stake for Mitt Romney in Michigan today. Polls show a virtual tie there, and a loss in his native state would make the race truly competitive.

But regardless of what happens in Michigan today, the most important day of the presidential campaign so far is just one week from today. Eleven states will hold primaries and caucuses next Tuesday. There will be 466 delegates at stake, or more than double the number that have already been decided in the whole campaign to this point. Next Tuesday could crown a solid frontrunner, or scramble the race even further.

So let's look at those 11 states and who they support.

The 11, and the number of delegates at stake in each: Alaska (27), Georgia (76), Idaho (32), Massachusetts (41), North Dakota (28), Ohio (66), Oklahoma (43), Tennessee (58), Vermont (17), Virginia (49) and Wyoming (29).

Here's what the polls show in those states (according to and other outlets):
Alaska: No favorite.
Georgia: Gingrich 32%; Santorum 25%; Romney 21%; Paul 9%
Idaho: No reliable polling; Paul won straw vote in early January
Massachusetts: Romney 64%; Santorum 16%; Paul 7%; Gingrich 6%
North Dakota: No favorite.
Ohio: Santorum 33%; Romney 26%; Gingrich 19%; Paul 11%
Oklahoma: Santorum 43%; Gingrich 22%; Romney 18%; Paul 7%
Tennessee: Santorum 38%; Romney 20%; Paul 15%; Gingrich 13%
Vermont: Romney 34%; Santorum 27%; Paul 14%; Gingrich 10%
Virginia: Romney 53%; Paul 23%
Wyoming: No favorite, though Santorum has won several informal county straw polls.

Polls can swing wildly and quickly, as we've seen. But at this moment in time, it's safe to say that no candidate has a firm hold on Super Tuesday. Gingrich could win Georgia and Romney has Massachusetts and Virginia locked up. But if Santorum holds on in Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee, this race will go well into April, at least.

-- Taylor Batten

Monday, February 27, 2012

End pension perks for N.C. lawmakers

Tomorrow's editorial tonight:

We sometimes wonder why anyone would want to be a state legislator. It’s a part-time job, with not-so-terrific pay despite some extra money for expenses. For that pay, you make decisions that are regularly scrutinized and criticized by your colleagues and constituents, not to mention editorial boards.

And sometimes, in North Carolina, you even have to work after midnight.

But there’s at least one benefit available to N.C. lawmakers that most state workers don’t receive. State law allows legislators to include their annual expense stipend as part of their base salary when calculating the pensions they will receive upon retirement, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported Sunday. Add that to a couple other pension perks, and lawmakers can receive pensions worth 30 percent more than they might have had otherwise. That’s quite the pillowy landing for some elected officials. Legislators should reconsider how appropriate it is.

A pension primer: Along with a salary of $13,951, lawmakers receive a stipend of $6,708 per year for expenses not including travel and per diem, which are paid separately. The House speaker and Senate president pro tempore get about $10,000 more in expense stipends to go along with higher salaries. Top deputies and party leaders also get a heftier stipend.

Lawmakers calculate their pensions by multiplying compensation by 4.02 percent and the total years of service. (Most state workers get 1.82 percent.) In 1994, legislators allowed themselves to include their expense stipends in pension calculations.

That means former House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat who is not seeking reelection, will receive $41,330 a year in pension, almost $13,000 of which comes from the stipend benefit, according to the N&O. Rep. Dale Folwell, a Forsyth County Republican who is retiring to run for lieutenant governor, will receive $10,218 a year, about 20 percent more than if his pension were calculated like most other state workers.

Folwell benefits from another perk: Legislators can calculate pensions based on the highest compensation received in 12 consecutive months, while most other state workers must take an average of four highest-paid consecutive years. So Folwell, who was speaker pro tem last year, was able to calculate his pension based on his new salary and stipend total of $31,771.

Folwell, who said he was unaware of the benefits given to lawmakers, told the N&O that he thought legislators should “be on the same system” as state workers.

North Carolina is one of only a dozen states that let legislators include stipends and per diems in pension calculations, according to a 2011 investigation by USA Today into the perks that state legislators receive across the nation. In at least three states, including South Carolina, lawmakers are advancing bills that would cut back or eliminate benefits that result in more lucrative retirement parachutes.

N.C. legislators should do the same. Yes, some lawmakers put more hours into their jobs than they get back in pay, but so do a lot of workers. If lawmakers want to avoid the disconnect they often lament with voters, they shouldn’t treat themselves differently, no matter how hard their jobs might be.

A tribute to a deserving journalist

When he was writing about North Carolina politics, Jack Betts made you smarter. When he wrote about baseball or boating or barbecue, he made you smile.

Jack and his signature bowties retired from The Charlotte Observer last year after 40 years as a journalist and almost 20 writing editorials and columns for the Observer. He was regarded as one of, perhaps the, most astute observers of North Carolina government. The Sunday paper has long given you must-reads, and for many folks Jack Betts' column on the Sunday Viewpoint page was at the top of that list.

The N.C. Center for Voter Education last week recognized Jack for his lifetime of contributions to North Carolina by naming him the winner of its Robert Morgan Service Award.

Watch this video to learn more about Jack and his contributions to good government, and go to to meet the other winners:

A scramble to lead Mecklenburg

Who will lead Mecklenburg County? The answer is as uncertain as at any time in recent memory, so expect a scramble in the next day or two.

With Chairman Harold Cogdell's announcement this morning that he won't run for reelection, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners is assured of as much turnover it has seen in many years. It may be the first time that all the at-large seats are open. In addition to the until-now-Democrat Cogdell, Democrat Jennifer Roberts and Republican Jim Pendergraph are not running for reelection. The at-large seats are crucial because they usually determine which party holds power, and the chairman is usually one of the three members elected at-large.

With Republican Neil Cooksey stepping down in south Charlotte's District 5 and Republican Bill James, the board's longest-serving member, facing a potentially tough primary challenge in southern Mecklenburg's District 6, five or more of the nine seats may be filled by new faces in November.

District 1 Republican Karen Bentley is running again, along with incumbent Democrats Vilma Leake, George Dunlap and Dumont Clarke. That's likely to give that part of the board a decidedly liberal bent.

Potential candidates and those with an interest in the board of commissioners (including CMS, the Charlotte Chamber and others) are surely scrambling today. With only two more days before filing closes, both parties will see an opportunity to win two of the at-large seats and control of the board. The outcome will help shape the future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg residents' taxes.

Each party can field three candidates in the general election. So far, each party has just two people running at-large, and none of the four has much name recognition. Expect more candidates to jump in in the next 48 hours, including perhaps some well-known names.

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How pollsters can rig the polls

An interesting experiment out of Wisconsin today that shows why you should be wary when you hear about poll results.

A prominent Wisconsin pollster, Charles Franklin, conducted a poll of 716 Wisconsin voters asking their opinions on four things: The current state of the economy, how the economy will fare in the coming year, President Obama and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But there was a wrinkle. Half the voters were asked the economy questions first, then were asked about Obama and Walker. The other half were asked about Obama and Walker, and then about the economy.

David Lauter with the Los Angeles Times reports on the results: Those who were asked about Obama's job performance first favored him by a stout 52 percent to 39 percent. But those who were asked about the economy first were evenly split on Obama, 48 percent to 48 perent.

Pollster Franklin says that just mentioning the economy plants enough of a seed to make voters express a less favorable opinion of Obama, Lauter reports.

It's a good reminder: Poll results can hinge on how a question is worded and, as this experiment showed, even on how the questions are ordered. So organizations seeking a certain outcome can nudge the results their way by crafting the poll a certain way. Even polling organizations with no hidden agenda will inevitably produce results that are colored by how the questions are worded and ordered (and on many other factors, including how representative their sample is).

So when you hear Obama or anyone else is up or down, look for the full questionnaire, and consider how it might have affected the results.

-- Taylor Batten

Charlotte's most dangerous spots for pedestrians

Two little boys are dead after a Sears delivery truck hit them at a west Charlotte intersection Wednesday. Their father was walking them to their day care center, but had to walk on the roadway because there is no sidewalk there. Observer reporters Steve Lyttle and Cleve Wootson report that neighbors said the area is treacherous for pedestrians and needs a sidewalk, and the city transportation department agrees, says spokeswoman Linda Durrett. But it never got done.

The deaths of Kadrien Pendergrass, 5, and Jeremey Brewton, 1, are part of a rash of collisions between vehicles and pedestrians in Charlotte lately. One recent report said Charlotte is the nation's 17th most dangerous city for pedestrians, more dangerous than Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.

So we want to know, and we want the city to know, where you think are the most dangerous places for pedestrians in Charlotte. It might be an intersection, or it might be a stretch that has a significant number of pedestrians but no sidewalk.

Comment below on areas you think the city should know about, and we'll pass your answers along to the city transportation department. We don't know that that will get things fixed, but it will at least ensure that the city is aware of spots you think are problems.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arne Duncan joins Bev Perdue's Pre-K fight

Gov. Bev Perdue got some high-up support for her move today to expand pre-kindergarten in North Carolina to 2,000 more at-risk preschoolers. High-up as in the Obama administration's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In a statement, he said: "I applaud Gov. Perdue's innovative efforts to ensure that 2,000 additional North Carolina children will have access this year to the high quality early childhood education they deserve."

Then Duncan took a swipe at the Republican-dominated N.C. legislature which has been a foil in Perdue's efforts to make pre-K more widely available: "While the Governor has been a tireless advocate for fully funding early childhood education, her commitment has not been matched by the legislature, which slashed budgets last year leaving thousands of children with fewer educational opportunities... I hope that, as state leaders begin funding conversations for next year, they work to make this situation right by giving all of North Carolina's young at-risk learners a chance to succeed."

Oh, snap. That's not likely to make much of an impression on N.C. lawmakers who've already largely ignored a judge's ruling that their cuts to the pre-kindergarten program denied N.C. at-risk children their constitutional access to education. The legislature cut funding and reduced the number of slots available to at-risk four-year-olds during last year's legislative session.

In July, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, a Republican, issued an order in which he said that “the State of North Carolina shall not deny any eligible at-risk four year old admission to the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program (NCPK).” The judge also directed the state to “provide the quality services of the NCPK to any eligible four year old that applies.”

Lawmakers have done nothing to address the issue since the ruling. But Gov. Perdue has presented proposals to restore thousands of slots without a tax increase or further cuts to other programs. Today, she said 2,000 more children will be served using money available from child care subsidy funds on a one-time basis to meet the urgent need of at-risk children.

We're glad Perdue has found funds to expand the reach of the program. Studies have shown the value of the program, and N.C. legislators were unwise to gouge it the way they did last year.

Posted by Fannie Flono

Romney, Santorum, Satan and 'wee-weed up'?

Hello. Welcome to O-Pinion, the editorial board's online space for commentary and discussion. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, your host today.

Another week, another GOP debate and another looming Republican primary. Michigan's primary Tuesday focuses the race on Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. They're locked in a duel for the top spot but it would be Romney who could come out crippled if he loses. So in tonight's debate, Romney and Santorum will be under the microscope. Whoever stumbles could find their fortunes tumbling. The National Journal gives their take on the campaign. But there are still two others - Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul - in the race who could steal the show at the debates. Gingrich has had resurrections before. This one is a long shot but in a campaign this volatile, who knows.

But what's really getting the blogosphere going are old comments that have resurfaced that Santorum made in 2008 about Satan, yes Satan, when John McCain was battling Barack Obama for the presidency. The Huffington Post says Santorum is defending the comments that were reported on the Drudge Report.

What'd he say? Among other things that "Satan has his sights on the United States of America." "Satan is attacking the great institutions of America," he said, "using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition."

If you've been to any Baptist church or evangelical church, you've heard those lines before. Of course, Santorum went further, calling the contest between McCain and Obama, a "spiritual war" and intimating that an Obama election would play into Satan's hands: "And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America," Santorum said.

It was interesting how Santorum turned questions about what he said in 2008 into a referendum on whether a person of faith should be considered for president. "You know, if a person I‘m a person of faith. I believe in good and evil. I think if somehow or another because you’re a person of faith you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president, we’re going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president."

He also used a Gingrich technique and turned the question on the media: "You guys are asking questions that are not relevant to what's being discussed in America today. What we're talking about in America is trying to get America working, that's what my speeches are about, that's what we're going to talk about in this campaign." Smooth, Rick.

What was really interesting about this dustup is how Romney and Santorum surrogates reacted. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized Santorum's defense of the Satan comments on "Good Morning America": "Listen, I think anything you say as a presidential candidate is relevant," Christie said. "It is by definition relevant. You’re asking to be president of the United States. I don’t think [Santorum's] right about that. I think it is relevant what he says. I think people want to make an evaluation, a complete evaluation of anyone who asks to sit in the Oval Office."
Sarah Palin defended Santorum's comments on FOX News, blaming the "lame-stream media" for getting "all wee-weed up."

Play nice, children.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Graham: Obama cares more about Muslims than Christians

They say the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree, but they weren't talking about Franklin Graham.

The son of Charlotte native Billy Graham was on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" this morning and talked about his perception of the presidential candidates' faiths. He had a different standard for President Obama than all the other candidates.

Graham, CEO of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and head of Boone-based Samaritan's Purse, said Obama seemed to care more about Muslims than about Christians. "Under President Obama ... the Muslims of the world, he seems to be more concerned about them, than about the Christians who are being murdered in Muslims' countries."

Graham went on: "Islam sees him as a son of Islam because his father was a Muslim, his grandfather was a Muslim, great grandfather was a Muslim and so under Islamic law, the Muslim world sees Barack Obama as a Muslim." So is Obama secretly a Muslim? "I can't say categorically (that he isn't) because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama."

Asked whether he thought Obama is a Christian, Graham said: "You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody." He also said: "He has said he's a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is."

Asked the same question about Republican Rick Santorum, Graham did not say "you have to ask him." He said he thought Santorum was. Asked how he could be sure when he wasn't on Obama, Graham said: "Well, because his values are so clear on moral issues. No question about it. ... I think he's a man of faith."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that a man who admires Donald Trump as presidential timber says these things about Obama. But will voters have to endure a year of innuendo and sowing seeds of doubt about whether Obama is a Muslim? Obama says he is a Christian, he has attended Christian church for decades and he practices none of the tenets specific to Islam.

Besides, who is Franklin Graham or anyone else to judge another's faith? We'll leave that judging to a higher power. How about Graham, and the crew at Morning Joe, getting off this topic and digging into who is best suited to turn the economy around?

-- Taylor Batten

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sarah Palin can't help herself (and neither can we)

Like many of us, Sarah Palin loves to be loved. She just prefers it on a larger scale.

After months of maybes, followed by a merciful no on running for president, Palin has come up with a new way to stay in the conversation. In an interview on the Fox Business Network this week, she said she would be happy to "help" in the case of a brokered Republican convention.

A brokered convention occurs when no Republican candidate has more than 50 percent of delegates at the end of the primaries. Republican delegates then would be given the opportunity to vote for any person, even if he or she had not previously been a candidate. Should that happen, says Palin: "All bets are off as to who it would be, willing to offer themselves up in their name in service to their country. I would do whatever I could to help."

Here's the problem for Palin: The likelihood of a brokered convention is about the same of Sarah Palin ending up the beneficiary of one. (Hint: Not very.) Whispers about brokered conventions pop up then go away almost every four years, whenever there's a tight race or unappealing front-runner. It's a particular fantasy of media folks, because it would be the Best. Political. Story. Ever. But there hasn't been a brokered convention in more than 50 years, and that was in the time when party bosses, not primaries, held sway over who got the nomination to run for president.

But if the media can have their brokered convention yearnings, so can Palin. What's striking, however, is how the response has been little more than a collective chuckle, including this:

Palin's time has passed for Republicans. She is as polarizing as Newt Gingrich, without the intellectual heft. Not that she'll let lack of interest stop her. And neither will we.

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Voters' commitment to transit pays off

Friday's Observer editorial:

It took more than four years, but Mecklenburg County voters were rewarded for their wisdom this week.

A surprisingly large majority of voters – 70 percent – made an unmistakable statement in November 2007 when they rejected an effort to repeal Mecklenburg’s half-cent sales tax for transit. With that commitment demonstrated, the nation’s top transit official this week announced a federal pledge of $70 million for Charlotte’s light-rail extension and a near-promise of $460 million more to come later.

That $530 million would pay half the cost of extending the Lynx Blue Line from uptown to UNC Charlotte, with the state and Charlotte Area Transit System splitting the other half. Nothing’s certain until final paperwork is signed, but Tuesday’s news could help shape Charlotte’s growth for decades to come.

The Blue Line, which currently runs from Pineville to uptown, would continue to UNCC by late 2017 or early 2018. That would connect the university, its 25,000 students and the surrounding area to uptown and its campus there. With gas currently pushing $4 a gallon and no sign of a return to cheap fuel, the line will be part of a system that gives commuters more options.

Done right, it can help reduce the number of cars on the road, cut emissions, spark development along the line and create jobs. While we’re skeptical that the North Tryon corridor will quickly attract development, the southern portion of the line showed that potential. Developers in the pre-recession days added hundreds of millions worth of projects along that corridor, driving up land values and tax collections.

The north line was originally planned to run to I-485. Planners later ended it at UNCC to save $92 million. It was a necessary move given the recession’s toll on the sales tax, but a regrettable one. A large park-and-ride station at I-485 would have attracted riders from across that part of the county.

CATS could still extend the line to I-485, or even farther into Cabarrus County and toward Verizon Amphitheatre and Charlotte Motor Speedway, which would attract riders. That can’t happen without more money, though. As the chart below shows, CATS has had to scale back its sales tax projections by more than $2 billion over 30 years. That not only shrunk the Blue Line but limits CATS’ ability to build more transit on other routes to the north, west and south.

Cabarrus County and others have the state’s permission to hold referendums on creating a quarter-cent sales tax for transit. And CATS will eventually have to look at other approaches, such as tax increment financing and other tax districts.

In the meantime, CATS can build public support for such moves by making sure the Blue Line extension is built on time and on budget, something it failed to do on its first try to the south.

Prominent Meck Republicans blast Bill James

We've long heard grumbles from Republicans in Mecklenburg County about District 6 commissioner Bill James. They've sighed at his attacks on homosexuals as "sexual predators." They've winced at his references to blacks living in a "moral sewer." They've wondered what would happen if District 6 voters were given the opportunity to choose a conservative who could advocate for them like James, but without the incumbent's rough edges.

We'll learn that soon enough, thanks to the campaign of Republican Ed Driggs. But already, Driggs' candidacy is exposing an unusually public rift within the party.

Driggs sent out a press release moments ago touting a letter of support signed by six prominent Mecklenburg Republicans: current school board member Tim Morgan, former commissioner Edwin Peacock, former Council members John Lassiter and John Tabor, former N.C. Rep. Ed McMahan and businessman Lauren Steele.

Much of the letter is fairly boilerplate stuff, lauding Driggs as a conservative who can do conservative things for his district. But it also notes that his "energy, intelligence and civility will bring credibility to District 6 representation that has been lacking for years."

More to the point is a supplementary quote from Morgan, who says: "The controversy caused by his divisive behavior and un-Christian comments is more helpful to Democrats than Republicans."

James, in an email this afternoon, responds:

There are conservative Republicans and there are the few liberal GOP’s such as this crowd (about 10% of the GOP electorate – mostly concentrated in Myers Park). Competition is a good thing and I am more than willing to face off against a liberal and his cadre of non-district 6 supporters. Lassiter I think lives in District 6 but as for the rest, I doubt it.
Some Republicans, who see themselves in the minority on every major elected body in Charlotte and Mecklenburg, believe that James is at least somewhat responsible for their struggles. So long as he's throwing toxic barbs from south Mecklenburg, they believe they'll have difficulty reaching young voters and a business community that sees James as representative of the county party.

James, however, has passionate supporters in District 6, many of whom are mistrustful of the rest of Mecklenburg - Democrat or Republican. We're about to find out how deep that passion and mistrust runs.

Peter St. Onge

Lunch-gate hits the big-time

Updated: 11:20 a.m: Did a government official tell a North Carolina girl that her turkey-and-cheese sandwich lunch was less nutritious than ... chicken nuggets? The mystery is deepening.

U.S. Reps Larry Kissell and Renee Ellmers are demanding answers this morning from Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The Lunch-gate story, which went viral and then some yesterday, has now made it to Washington.

First, a recap: As we noted yesterday, the Carolina Journal's Sara Burrows reported that a preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School in Raeford, N.C., "ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because a state employee told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.

"The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the agent who was inspecting all lunch boxes in her More at Four classroom that day," the Journal said.

One official, Jani Kozlowski, stated the obvious: “With a turkey sandwich, that covers your protein, your grain, and if it had cheese on it, that’s the dairy. It sounds like the lunch itself would’ve met all of the standard.”

Indeed. We know bureaucracy can be maddening and sometimes nonsensical, but it's not often this plain dumb. So we wonder if there's more to the story.

UPDATE, 11:20: A spokeswoman from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services emailed us this morning to say "it wasn't us":

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is actively reviewing the events in Hoke County regarding a child’s lunch and its nutritional value. As DHHS continues to gather the facts of the case, we have determined that no employee of DHHS, nor the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) or its contractors, instructed any child to replace or remove any meal items. Furthermore, it is not DHHS’ policy to inspect, go through or question any child about food items brought from home. The facts we have gathered confirm that no DHHS employee or contractor did this.
WRAL in Raleigh reports that Hoke County school officials says the girl may have been confused. A government-funded pre-kindergarten program calls for officials to supplement children's lunches with items that could make the meals more nutritious. In this case, that may have been milk, says Hoke County assistant superintendent Bob Barnes. But instead of someone going to get the milk for the girl, Barnes says, she may have thought she had to go through the line for a new lunch.

Official details are sure to come. Kissell, a Democrat, and Ellmers, a Republican, are calling for an "immediate clarification" on this "government overreach" from Vilsack. Their letter is below. Stay tuned.

Peter St. Onge

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

As a parent and as a member of Congress, I am writing to voice my strong concern surrounding the events that took place on Jan. 30 at West Hoke Elementary School in Raeford, North Carolina, when a school official denied a child the right to eat the lunch provided to her by her mother. State and school officials have said that this measure was taken in an attempt to follow U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. This unfortunate and absolutely unnecessary event exemplifies the very definition of "government overreach" and further perpetuates a growing reason of why the American people continue to hold less and less faith in our government.

The content of a school lunch provided to a child by their parents should be governed only by the child's parents, not another government bureaucrat. This event is an embarrassment and distraction from the hard work done by teachers and staff throughout our schools and preschools in North Carolina, and throughout our nation.

With all of the work needed to be done to help fix our education system here in America, it is absolutely ridiculous that we are wasting both our time and resources with the inspection and disqualification of perfectly healthy school lunches—provided to a child by parents, at no cost to our state or federal government. This is completely unacceptable.

While I do not know the parent involved, it is clear from news reports that the content of the lunch she provided her daughter would meet the very same standards and expectations for a healthy lunch that I, and many others, have known throughout time. I have packed similar lunches for my two daughters throughout their childhood. While I support efforts to provide more nutritious and healthier fresh food options in our schools, at no point should a government official be allowed to deny a 4-year-old child access to a parent packed lunch or imply to a child that their lunch is wrong or there is a problem with the food provided to them by their mother or father.

As the Congressman who proudly represents Raeford, North Carolina, I welcome my colleague below in joining me in my call for an immediate clarification of this ridiculously misguided provision and a refocus of the work done by those tasked with implementing it. The health and education of our children is far too valuable to be caught up in yet another example of government overreach and unwarranted involvement in the lives of our proud American families. We hope that you will take this matter seriously.

Why did Republicans cave on the payroll tax cut?

Republicans weren't going to win this latest battle over the payroll tax cut extension. They just needed to figure out how to go about losing.

They could try to convince Americans that it was Democrats who were stubbornly not compromising, a hard sell given that Republicans had previously drawn a line in the sand on increasing taxes to pay for the extension - or anything. Or, Republicans could give in to a solution that included spending cuts and a temporary tax surcharge on the rich.

Instead they chose Option 3: Extend the payroll tax cut without paying for it. It's a move that stunned Democrats, surprised GOP supporters, and prompted the obvious question: Why?

Good morning and welcome to O-pinion. I'm Peter St. Onge, associate editor of the O's editorial pages. I'll be your host today.

The news: Republicans and Democrats announced early this morning that they've agreed to extend the payroll tax cut through the end of the year. Lawmakers also extended jobless benefits and avoided a reduction in federal reimbursements for physicians who treat Medicare patients. The latter two items will be paid for with an array of spending cuts. The first item, the payroll tax cut extension, will simply be another $100 billion added to the nation's debt.

That's not a solution we advocate, and its so out of character for the GOP that Democrats initially thought it was a trap when Republican leaders suggested it earlier this week. Some House Republicans are still grumbling about it.

What does it mean? While it's initially encouraging to see Republicans compromise, their decision shows that when faced with a choice of which tenet to violate, they'll opt for increasing the debt rather than raising taxes. Solving our $15 trillion debt crisis will take solutions that involve dramatic spending cuts and reform that will result in tax increases. We can't choose debt over either.

Politico's Jonathan Allen and Jake Sherman have a more optimistic take on Republicans: They're maturing as politicians.

Say the writers:
The GOP majority is showing signs of growing up. It’s learning how to cut political losses and taking the long view on policy fights that started before the freshman newbies showed up last January.
The authors warn, and we agree, that one compromise-before-you-have-to does not make a cultural shift. But lawmakers tell Politico that the pounding President Barack Obama gave Republicans on the first payroll tax cut fight in December made a lasting impression. We're guessing those historically low polling numbers for Republicans in Congress also may be setting in.

Of course, while some Republicans see the payroll tax solution as a case of choosing your battles, others see it as giving in. There's a fine and elusive line between taking the long view and turning your back on your principles. It's a struggle Republicans are sure to have again - and soon.

Read more here:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Goodbye to CMS tests, but not testing

Tomorrow's editorial today:

Few phrases have dragged their fingernails across the blackboard in our schools community like this one: “52 new year-end tests.”

That’s what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administered to its students last year, to the very vocal dismay of parents and teachers. The exams were part of a new CMS program designed to provide another measure of how well teachers contributed to student progress. Instead, parents worried that the new tests, when piled atop the assessments already in place, would leave even less room on the smartboard for learning. Teachers feared the testing would play an outsized role in how they were evaluated and paid. We shared all those concerns.

But before you let out a cheer at Tuesday’s announcement that CMS will be scrapping those tests this year, understand that the result will likely not be a net loss in testing. Nor is it a pulling back from the philosophy that teachers need to be evaluated, at least in part, from the data those tests provide. And that’s a good thing.

What’s happening is the State of North Carolina has decided to catch up with CMS, which began developing its testing program a couple years ago under then-Superintendent Peter Gorman. At the time, the state had not begun anything similar, CMS interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh told the editorial board Wednesday. But in an effort last year to compete for federal Race to the Top dollars, the state contacted CMS officials, along with counterparts in Wake County, and asked if everyone could work together on a statewide assessment program.

The result: CMS students will still get tested, but the assessments will come from the state. In agreeing, CMS will free up at least $300,000 a year in administering the tests, and officials also will gladly remove the “kick me” sign that the tests had firmly attached to their backsides.

That money and energy also will go toward developing a better plan to measure teacher effectiveness, a critical but elusive goal for CMS. Under Gorman, CMS has emphasized the importance of improving schools by measuring outputs, like classroom results, instead of focusing on inputs, like the graduate degree that the teacher brought to the school. And that, in turn, meant developing the data that could better quantify those results.

It’s been a bumpy transition, to say the least. Testing has sometimes been rushed and clunky, and teachers have felt excluded from conversations about the tests and how educators should be evaluated. That perception was affirmed by the district’s attempt to get a state bill passed that would allow CMS to launch a pay performance plan without teacher approval.

Now, it seems CMS is learning from its mistakes. The bigger headline this week may be that a half-dozen CMS teachers spoke enthusiastically to the school board Tuesday night about their part in CMS’s Talent Effectiveness Project, which has offered teachers a new say in how their performance should be measured. The project is making real progress, with teachers helping develop measures that can complement test scores. More importantly, one teacher talked Tuesday about initial skepticism fading with the realization they had a real voice this time.
Said Hattabaugh on Wednesday: “It’s essential to have bottom-up and top-down approaches coming together.”

We agree. Despite its mistakes, CMS measurably improved its schools under Gorman, and the next step includes a balanced approach to evaluating teacher effectiveness through test scores and other means. The school board, and the new superintendent it hires, should not stray from that path now.

Fight goes on over contraceptives, health care

The contraceptive wars go on.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., now says he’ll allow a Senate vote on an amendment that would reverse the White House’s requirement that all insurers provide birth control free of charge to women. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., proposed the vote last week. His plan would exempt employers from providing any care they find immoral.

Blunt says his proposal is about the constitutional right to freedom of religion. President Obama says the White House took care of that with a rule putting the onus on insurers on Friday, the National Journal reports.

Some Catholic leaders and Republicans are still dissatisfied.
But this editorial board thinks Obama made the right call when he made that change.

Of Blunt's proposal, Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said it would give businesses and corporations veto power over their employee’s health care decisions. “It would allow any business or corporation to deny any essential health care service they object to,” Richards said.

She's right. And so is Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who said Blunt’s proposal could lead to effects far beyond contraception. “If I believe that prayer should cure all disease, that’s my belief, and I’m an employer, I can deny coverage for any life-saving intervention.”

The newly formed Coalition to Protect Women’s Health Care said the Blunt proposal could let employers and insurance companies claim a moral or religious exemption for a range of conditions.

“That means employers and insurance companies can not only deny access to birth control, they can also deny access to any essential health care service, including maternity care, HIV/AIDS treatment, mammograms, cancer screenings -- you name it,” the group said in a statement.

Speaking of that contraceptive issue, supporters of President Obama's health care bill's requirement that insurers provide women access to contraceptives free of charge pointed to several polls. The newest is a New York Times/CBS poll released this week that said a majority of Americans, including Catholics, favor the requirement.

The New York Times/CBS Poll said 66 percent support having all health plans cover contraception, including 61 percent who believe the health plans of religiously-affiliated institutions should also offer free contraception .

The Public Religion Research Institute poll last week said 62 percent of women agree that employers should be required to offer health plans that cover contraception at no cost. The poll also showed that 58 percent of Catholics agree that employers should be required to offer health plans that cover contraception at no cost.

A new poll by Public Policy Polling said 57 percent of all voters agree “that women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women.” It also found that 53 percent of Catholic voters agree “that women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women.”

On the campaign trail, GOP presidential contender, and maybe frontrunner for now, Rick Santorum took the healthcare fight down another lane Wednesday. He said that the health insurance system isn’t working and endorsed replacing it with a pay-as-you-go model that would require people to handle their medical bills out of pocket, except for catastrophic, “unanticipated” costs.

What do you think?

Posted by Associate Editor Fannie Flono

Robocalls, nuggets, Romney 'shoots' Santorum?

Hello. Welcome to O-Pinion, the editorial board's online center for discussion and conversation. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, your host today.

Before we get to politics, let's talk robo-calls and chicken nuggets. Wait these are political too.

Robocalls first. The Federal Communications Commission is set to bring the hammer down today on those annoying telemarketing calls - again, according to USA Today. Remember when Congress passed legislation in 2008 to prevent unwanted autodialed or prerecorded calls to your home if you signed up to say you didn't want them? Well, some telemarketers completely ignored the law (okay, there were loopholes) and kept calling anyway. If you haven't gotten any calls, you've been lucky.

Now, the FCC is getting tough-er. It plans to approve new rules requiring those robo-callers to get written permission to make such calls to home phones. That's already required of cell phones. And even those who didn't sign up for the Do Not Call registry will get protected, and have to give permission for such calls. The new rule will also prevent businesses who've previously done business with the consumer from being able to robo-call without permission. And telemarketers will have to give consumers a quick way to end the call and automatically add them to a Do Not Call list.

Thank you, FCC.

School Food Police?
Chicken nuggets, you say? This story is all over the blogosphere. The Carolina Journal's Sara Burrows reports that a preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School in Raeford, N.C., "ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because a state employee told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious. "
"The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the agent who was inspecting all lunch boxes in her More at Four classroom that day," the Journal said.
To add insult to injury, the school sent a note to the child's parent noting that the cafeteria could charge $1.25 for making the meal allegedly "more nutritious," the Journal reported.
The weird thing, well one of the weird things, is that the child only ate the nuggets and left the rest of her lunch untouched. That was "healthy"? The school allowed that? It would have been much better to let her eat her own lunch, which a state official later said did indeed seem to meet all the "healthy" guidelines.
“With a turkey sandwich, that covers your protein, your grain, and if it had cheese on it, that’s the dairy,” said Jani Kozlowski, the fiscal and statutory policy manager for the division. “It sounds like the lunch itself would’ve met all of the standard.” The lunch has to include a fruit or vegetable, but not both, she said.
Here's Rush Limbaugh's take - ahem, the food Nazis, he says. Conservative John Hayward links incident to Obamacare. The Natural News likens it to TSA patdowns to smoke out terrorists.
Sounds like there's enough insanity to go around. Still, this lunch police move, if true, was truly wacky.

'Mud' Warfare in Michigan
Now, back to politics. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are in a shootout in Michigan, according to Michael Falcone and Amy Walter of ABC News. In their blog, they say "the state has suddenly become ground zero in the Republican nominating contest and both campaigns as well as a pro-Romney super PAC are spending big to try to win there." And speaking of shooting, the blog takes note of a new Santorum TV ad that they call "startling" featuring a Mitt Romney look-alike shooting at a life-sized cardboard cutout of Santorum with mud pellets.
“Mitt Romney’s negative attack machine is back — on full throttle,” the ad’s narrator says. (The ad is appropriately titled, “Rombo.”)

A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows, Santorum at the top of the heap among Ohio likely Republican primary voters with 36 percent, followed by 29 percent for Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich runs third with 20 percent, while Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul gets 9 percent. The Washington Post blog, The Fix, talks more about that and Santorum's positioning elsewhere.
With Santorum's rise in the polls, senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod took aim at him today, accusing him of holding social views that are “quite divisive and not widely shared.” Politico reports on the charges Axelrod made on CBS's "This Morning."

Fortunes Rising for Obama?
As for President Obama, his fortunes are rising - make that his popularity - as the economy shows signs of resuscitation. PBS reported on his improving poll numbers this morning. It's up to 50 percent. Time magazine has a piece on why Obama's election chances are up.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Idol's Clay Aiken blasts gay marriage amendment

Raleigh's Clay Aiken, who rose to stardom on "American Idol" in 2003, is speaking out against the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in North Carolina.

In a video posted to YouTube on Monday, Aiken says there's no one right kind of family.

"Families look different. They always have looked different," Aiken says. "You have single parent families, you have families with parents of different races, you have families with parents of different religions. And no matter what we might want a family to look like, we can't put into a constitution -- a document that's supposed to protect our rights -- one narrow definition. And I think that an amendment like this goes way too far."

Aiken, a UNC Charlotte graduate, announced he was gay in 2008 and has a son with his friend, Jaymes Foster, the sister of record producer David Foster. Aiken recorded the spot for a group called The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families.

Amendment One will be on the ballot on May 8. It would define marriage in the N.C. Constitution as being between one man and one woman. Gay marriage is already illegal in North Carolina.

We can't name a single song Aiken sings, but he's using his voice well on this issue. While other states, such as Washington, are moving toward equality, North Carolina could move away from it.

Here's Aiken's video:

Killian jumps into crowded 9th District race

Republican Jim Pendergraph has a pretty good resume, but he isn't scaring anyone away.

The Mecklenburg County commissioner got the early heads-up from Rep. Sue Myrick that she would not run for Congress again, and he announced his candidacy the day after Myrick went public. That might have been designed to discourage potential challengers from getting in to the 9th District race.

But state Rep. Ric Killian, R-Mecklenburg, this morning became the latest to say he wants the seat. In a newsletter sent to constituents and supporters, Killian said he is uniquely qualified for the seat because of his military, business and political background. Killian is currently in Afghanistan with the Army reserves.

The field is getting crowded. There are already seven confirmed candidates: Besides Pendergraph and Killian, there are Republicans Andy Dulin, Dan Barry, Michael Steinberg and Michael Shaffer and Democrat Jennifer Roberts. Republicans Edwin Peacock, a former Charlotte City Council member, and former state Sen. Robert Pittenger are thinking about it.

This means Pendergraph, Killian and Roberts will not be in their current seats next year. Dulin can run for Congress and hold on to his District 6 City Council seat because city races are in odd years.

We're not sure what Roberts is thinking. Anything can happen, we suppose, but this is a safe Republican seat. In 2008, the Democrats' best year in memory, John McCain beat Barack Obama by 32,000 votes in the current 9th District. Hard to imagine a Democrat overcoming those kinds of numbers this year.

Take our poll to the right of this post and tell us who you'd vote for from the current crop.

-- Taylor Batten

Monday, February 13, 2012

Simpson-Bowles on Obama budget

So what do Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson think of President Obama's budget? They liked the goals and principles the president has espoused, and called the budget a step in the right direction on deficit reduction. But said it achieved less deficit reduction than their Bowles-Simpson commission proposed.

They also warned that "allowing the automatic across-the-board spending cuts (sequester) and an immediate increase in taxes provided for under current law (brokered when a debt-ceiling stalemate last summer threatened to pitch the country back into deeper financial woes) would be terrible policy and prove harmful to the economy."

Sensible words from sensible people. Will the Washington stridently partisan politicos listen? It's a distant hope but an unlikely reality - especially when the red meat that's the White House in 2013 is dangling.

But hope does spring eternal.

Here's the entire statement from Bowles and Simpson:

"In the framework he announced in April and what he submitted to the Select Committee in September, the President embraced many of the goals and principles outlined by the Fiscal Commission and incorporated some of the policies we proposed. We are pleased that the President's latest budget continues to focus on deficit reduction and are also encouraged to see real, specific policies for limiting tax expenditures, slowing health care cost growth, and reducing spending throughout the government.

"While the President's proposal is a step in the right direction, it would achieve less deficit reduction than the Fiscal Commission proposed when compared on an equal basis and would only briefly stabilize the debt at a level that is already too high.

"We do agree with the President that Congress should replace the across-the-board cuts required by the Budget Control Act (BCA) with a balanced, sensible plan to at least meet and hopefully exceed the deficit reduction goals of the BCA. Allowing the automatic across-the-board spending cuts (sequester) and an immediate increase in taxes provided for under current law would be terrible policy and prove harmful to the economy. But a decision to postpone tough choices once again by blocking the sequester and continuing our current tax policy without making the tough, smart choices to reduce the deficit will still send a powerfully negative message that the U.S. is yet unwilling to honestly confront our growing fiscal challenges.

"With his budget submission today, the President has set out his approach to replacing the BCA sequester with a greater amount of deficit reduction in a way that makes choices and sets priorities without disrupting a fragile economic recovery. We expect Congressional Republicans to now put forward their own proposal for deficit reduction that exceeds the BCA goals while still reflecting their own priorities in the coming weeks.

"Leaders in both parties must now move forward from these opening positions in order to reach a principled compromise that achieves enough deficit reduction to put the debt on a downward path relative to the economy, while getting health and retirement spending on a sustainable path and overhauling the tax code in a way that both reduces the deficit and improves the nation's economic growth and competitiveness.

Our leaders in Washington must work together to reach a bipartisan agreement on our long-term budgets now, not after the election. We remain hopeful that this leadership could soon come from the growing number of members of Congress from both parties who are expressing support for a truly serious deficit reduction plan. Our nation's leaders desperately need to put politics aside, pull together, not pull apart, and make the difficult choices needed to bring these destructive deficits under control."

- Fannie Flono

A budget that ignores a harsh bottom line

Tomorrow's edit today:

Obama’s 2013 plan too quiet on reforms needed to tackle debt.

Given that President Barack Obama’s allies in Congress already have declared a budget won’t be voted on in 2012, the president’s unveiling Monday of his proposed 2013 budget was little more than an opportunity to make a political statement.

When it came to our country’s alarming debt, that statement was hardly a whisper.

The president’s budget, unveiled with a speech at Northern Virginia Community College, offered few surprises. There were tighter caps on discretionary spending, as necessitated by August’s debt-ceiling agreement. There was a proposed $1.5 trillion increase in taxes on the wealthy, which dares Republicans to battle Obama on an issue where he clearly believes he has the political advantage.

The president also proposed some domestic initiatives he’s previously advocated, including $476 billion over six years in road and transportation improvements, plus an $8 billion investment in community college worker training that he telegraphed in a State of the Union speech featuring good work done at Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College.

Finally, the budget included the kind of iffy accounting we’ve come to expect with these plans – revenue based on overly rosy economic growth, and cuts based on accounting gimmicks such as nearly $1 trillion in “savings” on war expenditures that the U.S. wasn’t going to spend, anyway.

Add it all up, and Obama’s budget still offers sobering short-term deficits, following up a $1 trillion-plus shortfall in fiscal year 2012 with a 2013 deficit of about $900 billion. Those deficits, while not ideal, are certainly justifiable. The White House says – and many economists agree – that severe and immediate spending cuts are not the best way to guide the fragile U.S. economy toward recovery.

But the long term? While Republicans and Democrats bicker over whether the plan would save $4 trillion, as the White House says, or $300 billion, as Republicans have calculated, this much we know: Obama took a pass, again, on steering us toward the systemic reforms needed to truly tackle a $15 trillion debt that’s becoming more perilous each year.

The biggest driver of that debt is Medicare and other health care costs. Obama’s budget proposes $360 billion in Medicare and Medicaid savings over the next 10 years, mostly by reducing payments to drug companies and other providers. That savings won’t even dent the trillions the U.S. will spend on health care during that same time span.

Obama already has a blueprint to reduce debt – Charlotte’s Erskine Bowles and Wyoming’s Alan Simpson showed how to reduce deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years with real entitlement reform, not timid cuts and accounting sleight of hand.

Bowles and Simpson, who led the president’s deficit task force, made clear that the $4 trillion was just a start down the long path of debt reduction. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect President Obama to use an election-year budget proposal to launch us down that difficult road. But it would’ve been nice if he had at least nudged us toward a good first step.

Sarah Palin in a funk? Not even, she says

Hello. Welcome to O-Pinion, the editorial board's place for discussion and commentary. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, your host today. Budgets, Palin, contraceptives, deficits are in the news.

Sarah Palin in a funk? Not so, she told Fox News' Chris Wallace, about her portrayal in an upcoming HBO movie called "The Game Change". Julianne Moore plays Palin.
"I was never in a funk," she said of the contention about her preparation for vice president debates in the 2008 presidential race. "Thank God I have the right perspective on what really matters in life and there is no reason to be in a funk when you know what right priorities are and what really matters."

She was certainly in no funk in her appearance over the weekend at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. A Washington Post piece by Melinda Henneberger called her the "Motivator-in-Chief" for how she revved up the base to take on President Obama.
Among her one-liners:

“He promised to transform America, and that’s one promise he’s kept; he transformed a shining city on a hill into a sinking ship.”
“This government isn’t too big to fail; it’s too big to succeed.”
“Hope and change? Yeah, you gotta hope things change.”
"We say keep your change; we’ll keep our God, our guns, our Constitution!”
It was enough for some in the crowd to come up with this one liner of their own: “If we picked our candidate with the applause-o-meter, we’d have our nominee.”

Obama budget DOA?
The Obama budget that went to Congress today is getting a lot of attention - mostly because it's DOA (Dead on Arrival) as far as Republican members of Congress are concerned. Nothing much is going to happen with the current partisan gridlock and the Election season in full throttle. But the Washington Post's Ezra Klein does break down five things to look for, including the dreaded "d" word - the deficit. Ed Rogers writing in the Post said the budget is an issue Republicans can use to their advantage, arguing that "if (candidate Obama) had pledged to get us to this point, he would have been laughed out of the race... It will be interesting to see who among the GOP leadership can make this fact come to life and sustain some alarm among voters. It will be discouraging if the political commentariat simply yawns and moves on."

Speaking of the deficit, the liberal Huffington Post is sounding the alarm about another possible debt ceiling debacle over the deficit. In what one top congressional aide calls a "nightmare scenario," the HuffPost writes, the federal government could wind up hitting the debt ceiling at the height of the presidential campaign. The Treasury Department is now contemplating the prospect of invoking "extraordinary measures" to keep the government funded through November, it says. Oh boy.

Reinvigorating Tea Party?
The Obama administration might think it's out of the line of fire now that it has modified its mandate on contraceptive coverage in health plans - saying insurance companies not religiously affiliated organizations must make such coverage available. But not so fast, say conservatives. The Sunday talk shows was filled with Republican leaders saying they would keep the issue in the public eye, with Senate Republican Leader Mitch saying he would push to have the requirement overturned.

William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard asked in his blog today, "Could the New Obamacare Mandate Reinvigorate the Tea Party?" Then he proceeds to tell why it can. "The regulation isn't a bug or an overreach at all. It's a feature. It's a feature that follows directly from the very structure, from the heart, of Obamacare," he writes. And the Obama health care law is the problem, he's declared. "A politics shaped by Obamacare and its ilk leads to an unhealthy corporatist pluralism," Kristol writes. "At its core, the spirit of the Tea Party has always been a reawakening to the threats today's big-government liberalism poses to our constitution of liberty. If our leaders can't quite grasp this, perhaps Tea Party activists can instruct them..."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Madeleine Albright on Iran, Syria ... and NASCAR

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stopped by the Observer this afternoon to chat. We had a fascinating conversation that delved into Iran, Syria, the nature of foreign policy and how it has changed, and her plans to bring 300 or more foreign leaders and diplomats from more than 100 countries to Charlotte this fall for the Democratic National Convention. Also, how she can leg press 400 pounds and would be up for driving a NASCAR car around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Albright chairs a group called the National Democratic Institute that tries to foster democracy around the world. She hosted 500 foreign dignitaries at the Democratic convention in Denver in 2008 and will bring hundreds to Charlotte in September. She said she wants her guests to get beyond Washington and New York and see “real America.”

What makes Charlotte “real”? Among other things, our “fabulous” museums, she said, (her collections of 200 pins will be at the Mint) and NASCAR. I suggested she, at age 75, might want to drive around the track. “I would love to do that. You have no idea the kinds of things I do.” She confirmed rumors that she can leg press 400 pounds. “I’m pretty game.”

On more substantive issues: Albright called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “one of my best friends” and said they talk often about foreign policy. She supports what the Obama administration is doing on Iran and on Syria and emphasized that in foreign policy, clean, final solutions are a rarity.

“Part of the hardest part about actually doing foreign policy versus observing it is that, and also being an American, you kind of think that things get done and you check a list and it’s over,” Albright said. “The bottom line is foreign policy to a great extent is managing things and having incremental decisions and you very rarely have one of those ‘Oh my God, it’s solved!’ moments. So what they’re doing with this is watching it unbelievably carefully, working on managing so it doesn’t blow up and also looking at what the indigenous and exogenous forces are.”

She circled back to that same theme later when we were talking about Egypt and the Arab Spring.

“This is going to be a very long process. The kind of initial coverage … made it seem as if it had a time limit on it and it would be over soon and everyone would live happily ever after,” she said. “This is a long story and in many ways much longer than the end of the Soviet empire because these are very complex societies. … This is not going to have a quick solution, and we’re not very patient.”

The job of secretary of state keeps getting harder, she said. The world has grown so much smaller, and things of strategic importance can happen anywhere. “I was in a discussion the other night and the issue of Russia didn’t come up for like an hour. It used to be foreign policy questions were about what was the Soviet Union doing. … We’re now dealing with 193 countries in the United Nations and many of them have issues that are really important that can affect the lives of a lot of people.”

How’s this for racking up frequent flyer miles? Albright said she traveled 1,038,000 miles in her four years as secretary of state. She said Clinton has already passed that because so much is going on around the world.

Look for more news about programs Albright will be hosting in Charlotte. The public, she said, will be invited.

-- Taylor Batten