Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NYT on how Martinsville tried to copy Charlotte

Interesting story in the New York Times today about how Martinsville, VA, site of a much-revered half-mile racetrack on the Sprint Cup circuit, lost most of its traditional industry over the years and once hoped to reshape its fortunes along the lines of Charlotte's success in motorsports. It hasn't exactly worked out, as a few excepts below indicate.

Reporter Katie Thomas wrote:

As those industries faded, Martinsville turned its hopes toward the increasingly profitable motorsports industry. With a track beloved by drivers and fans alike, community leaders sought to transform Martinsville into a miniature Charlotte, the hub of the racing industry. But despite the creation of two educational programs and statewide economic incentives for the motorsports industry, the effort has largely failed. Economic development officials say that they have shifted their attention to other pursuits and that motorsports are no longer a priority.

…..It was that heritage that economic development officials hoped to build on about six years ago. In Charlotte, less than 150 miles away, the motorsports industry was exploding as racing teams converged on the area, quickly followed by suppliers and other related companies.

….John Connaughton, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, said Martinsville faced a challenge because the motorsports industry had increasingly consolidated around Charlotte. “There is a specialized labor pool here that you cannot replicate anyplace,” Connaughton said of Charlotte.

He studied Charlotte’s racing industry after Virginia and other states created motorsports initiatives. “Our conclusion was that while they may be able to pick here and there, it’s extremely unlikely that there’s going to be any kind of functional shift in where racing cars are built,” he said.

In 2003, the Martinsville area lost an anchor of its small motorsports industry when Wood Brothers Racing moved from Stuart, a small town nearby, to the Charlotte area.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hot reaction on Yadkin scrap

Sunday's column "Yadkin's waters brew a fight" brought a mixed reader reaction:

Mr. Betts: In your opinionated story, I see a lack of good journalism, poor research and a disregard for the truth. The Stanly County Board of Commissioners have spent one million dollars of tax payer's money on this whopper. I feel it would be beneficial to this community and state for you to examine it more thoroughly. Perhaps you might begin by considering the 40 year license issued to Alcoa Power Generating Inc. for its care of the Little Tennessee River. How could the company be so different in Tennessee and such a monster in North Carolina?

I should tell you that I worked for The Aluminum Company of America. My thirty years of employment was spent in the smelters at Badin and at Alcoa works. Perhaps you might discredit me because I was an employee. I was a first line supervisor on the floor of the smelter, and I have a journeyman knowledge of the smelting process.

And there was this:

You did a terrific job capturing the essence of the ALCOA relicensing conflict in Stanly County. The entire column was right on and your one sentence hushed ALL the criticism that I have heard:

"The company lost its best argument for renewal about 1,000 jobs ago."

And this:

This act of a socialistic mindset was started by a disgruntled Stanly Commissioner named Tony Dennis. He and his family have owned and operated a business under the USA free enterprise system all of his life! Now he wants to do away with the same freedom that allowed his family to accumulate their wealth!!

Alcoa has been a very good citizen for many years, at least since 1912. Stanly County and the surrounding counties has been the beneficiary of the improvements that ALCOA has made along the Yadkin River from the northern most part of High Rock Lake to the Falls Dam East of Badin, NC. The Counties surrounding this area have reaped the benefits of increased property values and taxes, being able to pump water from the four reservoirs, to supply water for their citizens, which ALCO built. There are a number of economic reasons that ALCOA was forced to temporarily close the smelter. The fact that ALCOA “Yadkin Inc.” is still operating is due to the hydros are producing a profit. This would a decision that any business CEO would make even Tony Dennis!

My concern is that this is not about rethinking water use as Mr. Betts wrote, but the counties and state don’t want ALCOA to make a profit off their water! This water is not the Counties or the States; it belongs to all of us, God made the water!! Mr. Betts and Mr. Henderson both indicated that it was a bipartisan effort especially at State level, which indicates that not only the county, state, and even the Federal Government all are trending toward a socialistic mindset.

Everyone should get a copy of Sen. Fletcher L. Hartsell’s S967 Bill “Creation of Yadkin River Trust”. It is cosponsored by Philip E. Berger, Stan Bingham, Daniel G. Clodfelter, William R. Purcell, Tony Rand, and Jerry W. Tillman!!

All I can say is LOOK OUT DUKE ENERGY and PROGRESS ENERGY, you are using the Counties and States water to make a profit!!! Since the State cannot build and maintain its neither roads nor educational facilities, how can it operate all the power producing hydros in the state???

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hardball in the state Senate

The Senate divide

If you were watching or listening in on the state Senate Tuesday and Wednesday, you'd have seen and heard firsthand why Republicans in that chamber believe they've been dealt a very bad hand by the Democrats. One big problem for Republicans, of course, is that Democrats are in charge, just as they have been for, oh, a century or so. There are 30 Democrats and 20 Republicans, and when one party holds 60 percent of a chamber, they do pretty much as they please.

From the Democratic point of view, that's just the way the game works. The majority rules, and the Democrats see their job as running the chamber efficiently and cranking out legislation they see fit to run the state. One of those bills was to shore up the state employees’ health plan, which has nearly run out of money and which required significant changes, including higher contributions from employees' dependents and an infusion from taxpayers, too.

Republicans largely voted against the bill Tuesday, at least partly because they did not feel part of the process in figuring out how to change the plan. Some Democrats took great umbrage at Republicans' refusal to take responsibility for supporting the plan changes, making Democrats look bad for raising rates and boosting taxpayer support for the plan, and giving Republicans a campaign issue next election to bash the Democrats.

Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, said he was appalled at the lack of Republican support. "Are y'all going to let them get away with that?" he asked me shortly after the vote Tuesday. Hoyle thought Republicans were spineless in refusing to support a measure that everyone knew would have to pass in some form or other to keep the health plan afloat.

But Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, came back to the press section in the Senate and slumped down beside me. "It's hard to take your medicine when it's being shoved down your throat," he said glumly before trudging back to his seat.

Wednesday things didn't get any better when the Senate voted on eight members of the UNC Board of Governors. Like Republicans, Democrats caucus on a lot of issues and decide the party's position. Democrats also decide who they want to win the coveted seats for the Board of Governors. They controlled the voting Wednesday, too, in effect leaving legislators with a choice of eight names for eight seats. That had Senate Republican leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, fuming about the process.

“Yesterday’s vote on the State Health Plan illustrated how Senate Democrats fix a bill behind closed doors. Today, we saw how they manipulate the UNC Board of Governors election. This 'Soviet' styled balloting is an affront to our democratic system and to the people of North Carolina,” Berger said in a news release.

Those are fightin' words, but don't expect them to change anything. The Democrats still hold 30 seats,the Republicans 20. It's going to be a long session for the GOP.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Supe to Leg: Fix this schools mess

June Atkinson, North Carolina's elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, has asked the legislature to fix a confusing legal and administrative tangle in which she's chosen by the state's voters to run N.C. schools, but the State Board of Education has the authority to choose not only its own chair but also designate a person to run schools on a daily basis.

Speaking to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee Monday afternoon, Atkinson said she had written House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight asking the legislature to "bring clarity, accountability and transparency to public education governance."

Atkinson asked the legislature to take one of two courses:

Option 1: First, change laws to give the State Superintendent authority to manage and lead the Department of Public Instruction and to carry out the policies of the State Board of Education without interference. In so doing, restore the system of check and balance by making the State Board responsible for policies governing and directing public education. Honor the constitution.

Option 2: Bring forth a constitutional referendum proposing that the State Superintendent be appointed by the State Board of Education. Include in that referendum that the State Board members be appointed by the Governor, and confirmed by the General Assembly for staggered four-year terms. Staggered four-year terms would give greater authority to the Governor in guiding the direction of public education. Currently, State Board members serve for staggered eight-year terms. A Governor has to serve eight years to be able to appoint all board members unless a board member voluntarily resigns.

Should Option 2 be the choice of the General Assembly, I ask that you address the role of the State Superintendent for the next four years according to our North Carolina Constitution and according to the peoples’ vote.

She added, "I respect the position of anyone who opts for either of the proposals I have presented. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Either will work better than our current laws. Either will honor the provisions of the Constitution."

And, she told the committee, "the people and the children deserve a governance system that is constitutional and that does not mislead the public."

She's right about that.

Friday, March 20, 2009

State lottery squeaks by ... again

In an unusual set of circumstances, the N.C. Education Lottery has squeaked by -- again. This time it was in the N.C. Supreme Court.

ou may recall that's the story behind creation of the lottery. It got though the state House in 2005 on a close vote, then went to the state Senate where President Pro Tem Marc Basnight said there wasn't time to consider any more bills and sent folks home for the year.

Then a few days later he called the Senate back into session -- and when lawmakers showed up, a couple of opponents were absent. Even so, the Senate deadlocked on the bill, whereupon then-Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the lottery. The Senate, like the House, decided against holding a final vote on a different day, as the Constitution requires on revenue bills, and finished work the same day.

So when a group of citizens filed suit against the bill arguing that the lottery was not constitutional because it was a revenue-generating bill, and it failed to meet the procedural requirements laid down in the Constitution, a Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals agreed, but one judge dissented, allowing the case to go up to the seven-member N.C. Supreme Court.

But the Supreme Court announced Friday that one judge, Mark Martin, had recused himself and that the court's remaining six members were split evenly on the question of whether the suit should have been dismissed, "with three members voting to affirm and three members voting to reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals. Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals is left undisturbed and stands without precedential value."

No word on which judges voted to uphold the Court of Appeals and which voted against. But there will be widespread speculation that the court split along party lines among the six who voted. Three are Democrats and three are Republicans, as is the recused Justice Martin. But I'll wager this: the court won't be saying.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hagan creating panel to screen job candidates

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., says she's creating a four-person panel to screen candidates for federal jobs such as judgeships, including vacancies on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That panel will help identify candidates for high-profile federal posts, including U.S. attorney positions and district court judgeships.

It's an interesting turn in how nominations for judgeships are usually handled. In earlier years, senators of the same party as the president have pretty much decided who gets nominated, though not in every case. When Ronald Reagan was president, for example, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' preferences were usually followed. When Bill Clinton was in the White House, Democratic Sen. John Edwards' nominees were generally followed.

That didn't mean either senator got their way; Senate Democrats nixed Helms' appointees several times when it came to confirmation, and Republicans did the same to Edwards' nominees. The one exception was when Edwards and Elizabeth Dole collaborated and agreed upon the nomination of Republican Allyson Duncan for the 4th Circuit in 2003.

Hagan has pledged to work with Republican Sen. Richard Burr, and Burr has said much the same thing. They both want to fill a longtime vacancy on the court usually reserved for a North Carolinian.

Here's what Hagan said Thursday about her screening panel:

WASHINGTON, D.C. –U.S. Senator Kay R. Hagan (D-NC) announced today that she will establish a statewide panel to screen candidates from North Carolina for appointments to key federal positions. The panel will report to Senator Hagan, who will in turn make recommendations to the White House for United States Attorneys and Federal District Court Judgeships. In addition, Senator Hagan has pledged to work with Senator Burr and her colleagues in the Senate, as well as with the White House, to ensure that North Carolina receives appropriate representation on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. This committee will also screen candidates for available positions on the 4th Circuit.

“This committee will be comprised of experienced professionals from across the state and will help ensure that the most qualified and competent candidates are ultimately selected for recommendation to the federal judiciary and U.S. Attorney positions,” said Hagan. “In the past, judicial nominations from both sides of the aisle have been delayed and often derailed because of partisan objections and bickering, regardless of the credentials of the nominees. I am committed to working with President Obama, Senator Burr, the Judiciary Committee, and my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that North Carolina’s interests are served on the federal benches.”
The committee will consist of four members total: one member each from the eastern, western and central regions of North Carolina, and one chairman selected from anywhere in the state.

In addition to recommending U.S. Attorneys and Federal District Court Judges, Senator Hagan has made filling the current vacancy on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, open since 1994, a key priority. Senator Hagan has discussed the inequity of representation on the court with White House Counsel Greg Craig and President Obama himself.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Guv proposes, legislature disposes

Just as in Washington, so it is in Raleigh: The governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

That's the key thing to keep in mind with Gov. Bev Perdue's $21 billion budget proposal for next year, which would raise "sin" taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, close seven prisons, give teachers a small pay raise, eliminate funding for 1,400 mostly vacant jobs, slash the budget at the Departments of Corrections and Transportation, pare $360 million from the state budget, increase per-pupil spending in schools from $5,597 to $5,736 and, for the most part, spare layoff or furloughs for state employees.

Some folks love parts of her budget proposal and others have the fantods over the same features, such as the $1 per pack increase in cigarette taxes, boosting the state levy to $1.35 per pack. It would bring in $350 million more in revenue and likely discourage youngsters from taking up the habit, preventing higher health care costs for these citizens somewhere down the line. Others don't like tax increases of any kind -- and not just conservatives, either. Liberals point out that tobacco and alcohol tax increases are regressive especially for lower income residents, despite the fact that these are discretionary purchases. And an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit won't make up the difference for those low-income workers who qualify.

Perdue's budget proposal spreads the pain around in a lot of places, including programs the public usually strongly supports. For example, there's a $168 million cut for the university system. UNC President Erskine Bowles, who has a lot of experience in figuring out what to cut, stemming from his days as White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration, had asked that budget cuts in the university system be non-recurring, rather than permanent cuts -- and restoring funding once the economy rebounds and the recession ends. Some cuts are non-recurring but most are recurring. I asked Bowles Monday how hard this was going to be. He smiled and said, "I've done this before."

This also brings up the reality that the budget Perdue proposes could be a lot worse if it were not for the availability of federal recovery funds that are going to plug a lot of holes. Without those funds the state would be cutting a lot more programs and jobs and doing a lot less. And it also means that future balanced budgets depend in large measure on economic recovery beginning later this year that will bring in revenue in future years to fill gaps covered by the recovery funds this year. If the economic recovery doesn't begin on schedule, there will be more cuts and more pain in future years.

Finally, it's also worth noting that as many cuts as there are in this budget, the state still will be spending a lot of money on a vast array of programs and services for the public. In fact, considering the depth of this recession, the fact that the Perdue budget proposes spending $21 billion, contrasted with the current year's $21.4 billion, is amazing. So is the fact that the budget doesn't call, at the moment, for workers to lose their jobs, though perhaps 268 would be at risk if they cannot transfer to other state jobs that need filling, such as correctional officers.

It's along time between now and the end of the fiscal year, when legislators hope to have finished work on their version of the budget. They hold the power now, and while Perdue will fight hard for her proposals, it's the legislature that adopts a budget. In my 32 years covering Raleigh, I've yet to see lawmakers give governors everything they want, and there's no reason to think this year will be any different. This fight is just beginning.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shortfall now exceeds state budget when I got here

When state budget officer Charlie Perusse briefed reporters last week on the estimated shortfall of $2.2 billion in the current (2008-09) budget ending June 30, it didn't immediately hit me how big that was. Only after my colleague Jim Morrill sent along a note asking whether it was a record state budget shortfall (I think so, I told him, but I'd check it out to be sure) did it hit me. This shortfall is bigger than the state General Fund budget was when I arrived in Raleigh 32 years ago as Raleigh correspondent for the old Greensboro Daily News, now the News and Record.

That year, Gov. Jim Hunt's first year in office, the General Fund budget was $1.7 billion.

In 1995 it had grown to $10.2 billion.

The current budget, prior to the shortfall, anyway, was $21 billion and change -- and $22.1 billion is the tab for next year's continuation budget.

Whew. Time flies, and so does money.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Stanly: No quibble on the records

Bruce Thompson, Raleigh lawyer for Stanly County in its opposition to renewal of a hydroelectric license, says the county has no quibble over the public records Alcoa wants, and in fact delivered a bunch today.

In an e-mail, Thompson said, "I thought you would be interested in seeing this letter detailing the extraordinary steps the County has taken to respond to the public records request. Of note is the agreement that Alcoa's attorneys made with the County in order to narrow the scope and speed up the process. I spoke with one of Alcoa's lawyers at 4pm yesterday to inform him that the County was making a large production of documents today, some of which we hand delivered to his office. Nevertheless, Alcoa chose to file suit before even taking the time to review today's production."

Alcoa sues Stanly for records

In an interesting twist to an issue that has attracted a lot of attention statewide, attorneys for Alcoa Power Generating Inc. have filed a complaint asking the Superior Court to order Stanly County commissioners to produce public records the company has been seeking since last April -- and to order that the county pay the attorneys fees for filing the lawsuit.

It's an interesting twist especially because it was filed Thursday, just days before the annual Sunshine Week observance in North Carolina emphasizing the state's open government laws requiring open records and open meetings. It was filed by Raleigh lawyers Hugh Stevens and Amanda Martin, who had done much of the litigation in recent years to enforce open government laws.

Alcoa is seeking a reissue of a 50-year license to operate its hydroelectric generating plant on the Yadkin River. That plant provided the power for years for Alcoa's aluminum plant at Badin, and though the aluminum smelter has shut down. Alcoa continues to generate power. Stanly County Commissioners have worked with other groups to raise questions about the company's use and control of the water in the Yadkin basin, and have asked the state to intervene.

Gov. Bev Perdue, among others, has also questioned whether the company should retain control of the water when it no longer provides substantial employment in the area as it once did. "It's hard for me to understand how a company could own water rights to an entire river basin," Perdue told the Observer's Bruce Henderson recently.

A copy of Alcoa's complaint is available here.

Meanwhile, Stanly County has bitten back with this news release today:

Statement From The Stanly County Commissioners Regarding Bills Calling For Privilege Taxes To Compensate County And State For Yadkin Hydroelectric Project Operations

The Stanly County Board of Commissioners are aware of two new bills introduced in the General Assembly, Senate Bill 568 and Senate Bill 569, both sponsored by state Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Davidson) and co-sponsored by state Sen. Fletcher L. Hartsell, Jr. (R-Cabarrus), state Sen. William Purcell (D-Scotland) and state Sen. Daniel Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg), which will provide substantial benefit to Stanly and Davidson Counties, if enacted. Senate Bill 568, which would establish a Stanly/Davidson Water Resource Privilege Tax, states that “A county may levy an annual privilege license tax on a business that withdraws from local water resources at least 10 million gallons of water a day. The determination of the amount of water withdrawn by a business is based on withdrawals in the fiscal year preceding the year for which the tax is imposed.” Senate Bill 569, which would create a Stanly/Davidson Limited Privilege Tax, states that “A county may levy an annual privilege license tax on a business that operates a facility that uses hydropower to produce electricity.”

In light of this proposed legislation, The Stanly County Board of Commissioners has released the following public statement:

We thank Senator Bingham and his co-sponsors, Senators Clodfelter, Hartsell, and Purcell, for introducing these two bills. We also thank Gov. Bev Perdue for her recent public statement that she is concerned about the federal relicensing proceeding for the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project, which includes four reservoirs, power plant sites and dams along the Yadkin River in Stanly, Davidson, Montgomery and Rowan counties in the Central Piedmont of North Carolina.

The legislation does not impose any taxes. The bills only provide Davidson and Stanly Counties the authority to vote on such a tax should it ever be required. If ever enacted, the revenues generated by the tax, would benefit North Carolina by providing relief from the economic burdens in two main areas:

1) Job loss – The funds would help alleviate the economic distress that arose when Alcoa closed its smelter in Stanly and stopped employing nearly 1,000 workers as it had promised to do when it received its first 50-year federal license for the Project in 1958. Alcoa chose to move these jobs to Iceland or other foreign countries and has no announced intention of bringing them back to Stanly or any other part of North Carolina.

2) Environmental damages – Alcoa Power Generating has acknowledged previously that cleaning up Badin Lake, a reservoir in the Project, will cost at least $25 million alone. The company has yet to say if, when and how it would clean up damages associated with its operations at the Project. The funds would help fund the necessary cleanup and provide better water if we are left holding the bag. Our taxpayers do not need to get stuck with this huge cleanup bill.

The potential revenues would help protect our North Carolina citizens for years to come from potential future expenses connected to the Project. Our fervent hope is that the license for the Yakin Project will be awarded to a State Trust for the benefit of all people of North Carolina. However, these two bills also provide the state with a backup “Plan B” if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) does not side with the countless number of office holders and North Carolina citizens in their strong opposition to APGI receiving a new license to own and use the waters of the Yadkin River to support 450 new jobs in Iceland or in other foreign countries.

We remain firmly committed in our belief that the State Trust Concept is the best long-term option of improving the environmental and economic benefits for Stanly County and the state, as it would go beyond what APGI promises in its relicensing application to correct contamination at the former smelter site and use power generated by the Project for the good of North Carolina consumers, rather than sold out of state at profit for the sole advantage of a multinational monopoly such as APGI, which is what currently exists.

We appreciate the efforts of all elected officials and environmental leaders on behalf of the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project during these last few years regarding its licensing. Their actions reflect a solid understanding of the needs of our state and local communities, as well as the value of protecting both the economic prosperity in our state and the public health of our North Carolina citizens.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Transit bill 'doesn't include roads'

Before the House Transportation Committee approved legislation cosponsored by Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to give other counties a way to pay for transit systems such as Charlotte's, Mecklenburg Republican Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte proposed an amendment allowing local governments to use such funds for roads.
Killian told the committee he was a strong supporter of mass transit and wanted to support the bill, but that transit funds available in Charlotte had done nothing to relieve congestion on area roads. The mass transit system, he said, "simply doesn't relieve congestion."
But other committee members urged the committee to keep the bill for transit. Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, told Killian he had plenty of time left in this session to offer a proposal to amend the law in another committee. And Forsyth Republican Bill McGee, one of four primary sponsors of the bill, put it bluntly: "This is a transit bill that does not include roads." The committee voted down Killian's amendment on a voice vote before approving the legislation and sending it on to the House Finance Committee.

Kay: I'll work for more N.C. judges

First-term Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., has issued a statement vowing to work for more North Carolina judges on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Longstanding partisan bickering among N.C. senators in the past has kept both Republicans and Democrats from being given serious consideration for the post in the U.S. Senate. It has deprived the court, and this state, of good candidates such as Democrats Jim Wynn and Rich Leonard and such Republicans as Terrence Boyle and Robert Conrad.

Here's part of what Hagan had to say:

For 15 years, North Carolina’s interests have taken a backseat to partisan bickering and obstructionism on both sides of the aisle. In November, the people of North Carolina elected me to come to Washington and put their interests first. As Senator Burr and I proceed with the recommendation of candidates to President Obama for the vacancies that currently exist on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, it is my goal to put forth candidates who are not only highly-qualified for this position, but of whom all North Carolinians, Democrat and Republican, will be proud.
I commit to you that filling the vacancies on the 4th Circuit, and giving North Carolina the representation it deserves, will be a key priority of mine over the next six years. I look forward to updating you on the process along the way, and as always, please feel free to contact my press office with any questions you might have.

I've got a call in to Sen. Burr and hope to talk with him, perhaps Thursday.

Will N.C. get more appeals judges?

Today's New York Times has a piece on how President Obama will soon start putting his stamp on the nation's federal judiciary -- and to what extent it will reflect his ideology.

Among the president's opportunities are nominating candidates to fill four vacancies on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond -- the appellate court that handles appeals from North Carolina, South Carolina and three other Southern states.

North Carolina has long been under-represented, if that's the right word, on that 4th Circuit court because of a long-standing rift among the state's two senators that began years ago when the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican, was in office and Democrats blocked his nominees when a Republican was in the White House and Helms blocked Democrats' nominees when a Democrat held the White House. It has been going on too long.

This would be a good time for Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., to make a concerted effort to put away political rivalries and find a rational way to get more North Carolinians on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The feuding has blocked some good trial judges from service, including U.S. Eastern District Judge Terrence Boyle, a Republican, who got a raw deal when the Senate refused to hold a vote on his qualifications.

He, and we, deserved better.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Requiem for an old tree

It feels like the death of an old family friend, one we've visited with and admired for more than three decades.

It was an old pine pine tree, thick at its base and twisting into the sky above a Blue Ridge hillside. You can see it off in the middle distance in the photo to the left.

I've always guessed it was a white pine, but the fact is I don't know. But its gnarled trunk and huge lower limbs always captured my imagination, and for a while we thought of putting a cabin there so we could look at its rugged presence among the oak, maple, beech and locust trees that populate our part of Belcher Mountain. As part-time Virginians, we'd be obliged to give the house a name, of course, and we thought of Twisted Pine.

When they were little our children swung from big vines that draped down off a nearby oak, the one at the left of the picture, reprising the roles of Tarzan and Jane and the jungle. We built campfires in its shadow and often spent lazy evenings watching as the old pine turned to black against the evening sky as the sun sank below the ridge.

A few years ago we realized this old tree was mortal like all the rest of us. A huge limb that had grown out of the trunk perhaps six feet off the ground gave way one summer; I tried to block it up to keep it in place but it settled a little more each season. The greenery was gone from its lower limbs, but way up yonder at the top the pine needles still looked bright green, if thinner each succeeding year.

Six years ago a contractor named Buford Wood dropped by to talk about building plans. We stood in the forest looking at the majesty of the place, when Buford surprised me. "I had forgotten how pretty these woods were," he said. You've been back here before, I asked? He looked at me and said, "I grew up here. We lived in that old house down there in the field," he said, pointed to a slowly collapsing farmhouse over close to the road. "My daddy had a sawmill back here and we timbered all these woods when I was a boy. I shot my first shotgun right over there," he said, waving vaguely toward the old pine.

In winter you can still see the remnants of the logging roads Buford's daddy cut through these hills, crossing the steep slopes. Most of them are filled with mature trees, but when the leaves are down you can see where they went. When the trees bud out in May and fully revive in early June it's hard to see 100 feet sometimes. The old traces of Buford Woods' family's sawmill go away for another season or two, reappearing each Thanksgiving.

Buford died a couple of years ago. He came home from work not feeling well one evening, lay down and went away. He was a big man with a lot of admirers, and I've tried to keep his woods cleaned up, hauling away the deadfalls that were too far gone for firewood and cutting up the solid stuff for the wood stove.

In January, walking with friends though the snowy woods, I took a photograph of the old pine, huddled against the cold. I didn't know it would be the last time I'd ever see it standing.

In late February there was a big snow storm and howling winds, and another March 2, and it was a while before we got back up into the hills. I think it happened sometime during those storms. Saturday afternoon, an unusually warm day, I was hauling away broken limbs and other debris when I realized there was a hole against the sky. The old pine had snapped off just above its base. A closer look showed why: Insects had gotten into the tree, probably long ago -- carpenter ants would be my guess -- and had so weakened the tree that it's a wonder to me that it had stood all this time. There wasn't much left that would have helped the tree continue to stand.

It's on the ground now, one more old tree that fought gravity's force for a long time, and finally succumbed. The tree lies in a southeasterly direction, and from that I conclude that a strong prevailing wind from the northwest overcame its resistance.

I haven't been able to bring myself to start cleaning it up yet. I'm hoping there will be some solid pieces in its upper trunk that I might be able to save, perhaps getting a few pieces of small furniture out of its heart. But for now there are good memories about a tough old tree we once regarded as part of our natural landscape. We'll not forget.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

June's fightin' words

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson has fired back over the State Board of Education's decision today empowering newly elected chairman of the board Bill Harrison to run schools on a day-to-day basis. It's interesting especially because a few weeks ago she stood on stage in apparent support of Gov. Bev Perdue's choice of Harrison for the job as part of the governor's plan to resolve questions over school authority.

Here's what Atkinson said today in a press release:

“I congratulate Dr. Bill Harrison for being elected as chair of the State Board of Education.

The State Board of Education also approved the establishment of a chief executive officer position with the authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the Department of Public Instruction and appointed Dr. Harrison to serve in that role. I believe this action violates the Constitution of North Carolina and usurps the will of the voters who granted me the privilege to serve as State Superintendent of Public Instruction. I do not believe that the governance issue will be resolved until it is challenged in the judicial system or the Constitution is changed. I will not abdicate my constitutional and statutory responsibilities.

I remain committed to the 2.2 million voters who elected me and to the children and educators in this state.”

Even the Irish ban smoking in bars

The House Health Committee has approved and sent to another committee a bill to ban smoking in workplaces in North Carolina, including restaurants. A similar but somewhat narrower bill failed in 2005 and 2007, but it appears to have a bit of momentum this year. A column about this bill, and outgoing State Health Director Leah Devlin's 22-year campaign against the adverse effects of second-handsmoke, brought the following response from one reader:

Your op-ed article in [Sunday's] Observer was right on and I congratulate the dogged courage of Dr. Leah Devlin up to the end of her career with the state.
The issue of second-hand smoke has been covered by a ‘smokescreen’ (pun intended!) of property rights. There is no other toxin in our society that can be trumped so easily. As a matter of fact, the level of toxins in the air of an average bar or restaurant that permits smoking would ordinarily evoke the ‘Haz-Met’ team to evacuate the building, surround it with yellow tape and Wolf Blitzer would be circling overhead in the CNN helicopter.
Not only in this economy, but even in times of abundance, the employees and customers of smoking establishments are subjected to toxic air that can eventually cause serious illness and even death. These are not choices that need to be made. Employees, especially, do not have easy options to find another job.
Thank goodness, it appears that the NC House is coming into the 21st century with an attitude of protection of the citizens and visitors of our state. Already large cities like NYC and Chicago, and even the whole country of Ireland ban smoking in restaurants and bars.
To those who still question the propriety of this type of legislation, be sure to realize that a inordinate proportion of your health care insurance dollars are used for smoking related illnesses. And, if you are not a smoker, you are paying for those who do or have.
Thanks again for your ed.
Richard B. Reiling, M.D., FACS
Medical Director
Presbyterian Cancer Center.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Charlotte giving lags behind state

Did you know charitable giving in the Charlotte area lags behind the overall giving rate in North Carolina?
Did you know that Wake County is growing so much faster than Mecklenburg that it is projected to be larger by 2020 -- and both will gain seats in the next legislature?
Did you know the Piedmont Crescent now extends from Greenville to Shelby?

Those were among the facts tossed out Sunday by Prof. Ferrel Guillory at the 2009 N.C. Editorial Writers Conference at UNC Chapel Hill. I've been going to those conferences for more than a quarter-century; this one was the first I can recall that was shortened by a late-winter snow storm, but during a discussion of urban matters Guillory, a former newsman who teaches journalism and runs the Program in Public Life at UNC-CH, talked about an array of findings that he and his outfit turned up in their research on how North Carolina has changed.

*One that caught my eye was a finding from a report he had done on charitable giving trends in urban areas. Using IRS data from 2005 examining adjusted gross income and amounts contributed by those who itemized contributions, he found that givers in the Charlotte metropolitan region give 4 percent of their adjusted gross income. That's more than givers in the Triangle donate (3.7 percent), but less than givers in the Triad region (Greensboro, High Point, Winston-Salem) give (4.74 percent) and less than all N.C. donors give (4.38 percent of income).
On the other hand, measured in the size of contributions, Charlotte donors give more ($4,336) than average N.C. donors ($4,230) and Triangle area donors ($4,131), but still less than Triad donors ($4,438).

*Another that got my attention was North Carolina's growth rate. Nothing really new here. We've long known that census numbers project that Wake would someday pass Mecklenburg in population. In fact, it may not have happened as fast as once projected, but current numbers project that Wake will have 1.13 million people in 2020 while Mecklenburg will have 1.1 million.

That's a lot of folks, but North Carolina has grown enormously, having already absorbed a population the current size of South Carolina since 1970 (we were about 5 million then, an estimated 9 million or so now) and projections are that we'll grow to 12.5 million by 2030.

*The significant population growth will manifest itself in big changes in political representation in Raleigh, with the largest urban areas gaining seats. Guillory said Wake and Mecklenburg will each likely gain one more Senate seat and two more House seats after the next reapportionment, following the 2010 census.

*The Piedmont Crescent long was defined as that heavily populated area curving from Raleigh through Greensboro and Winston-Salem down to Charlotte and Gastonia. Current numbers show that the Piedmont Crescent has grown wider and longer -- stretching as far east as Pitt County, where Greenville has grown dramatically -- and as far west as Cleveland County.