Monday, April 30, 2007

Decker, Black and the N.C. lottery

For a while it seemed former Rep. Michael Decker might just get a couple of years prison time and perhaps no fine for his role in launching the scheme that kept Speaker Jim Black in power two more terms. It thwarted the 2003 election for N.C. House and then unraveled in North Carolina’s worst political scandal in modern times.
But U.S. District Judge James Dever would have none of the coddling that many believed would be Decker’s sentence for volunteering to be bribed into leaving his Republican Party, becoming a Democrat, throwing the House into a tie at 60-60 and allowed Black to fashion a power-sharing arrangement in the 2003 General Assembly with a handful of Republicans.
Dever lowered the boom on Decker by giving him four years in prison, levying a $50,000 fine and sending a message to public officials: Obey the law or else.
What Black and Decker did wasn’t just outmaneuvering their adversaries in a clever political scheme. They stole an election that should have put Republicans in power in 2003-04 in the House. Instead the scheme allowed Black to be co-speaker with Republican Richard Morgan one term and then win the speakership outright in the 2005-06 session.
Everything would have been much different. Legislators lately have worked to undo some of the things that passed under Black – bills requiring eye exams for entering kindergartners, which appeared to help his fellow optometrists; barring insurance companies from charging more for copayments for chiropractor visits than to physicians; setting up a commission to dispose of state property.

But the big one is the state lottery. We wouldn’t have it without Decker’s offer to be bribed and Black’s retail purchase of Decker’s services. Because in the 2003 session that Republicans should have controlled, Democrats and some Republicans cooperated on a new redistricting plan that, in the 2004 House election, resulted in the Democrats winning the House outright, 63-57.
And that was enough of a margin the next year for Black to squeeze the lottery through the House on a 62-58 vote in April 2005.A handful of Repulbicans and most Democrats voted for it. The Senate later narrowly passed the lottery when two Republicans were conveniently absent and Gov. Beverly Perdue cast a tie-breaking vote. It took Democrats and Republicans to adopt a lottery, but mostly it took Democrats.
Had the Republicans redistricted the House in 2003, they might have solidified control of the House in 2005. Or even if the Democrats had somehow won the House back in 2005, there might well have been a new speaker who didn’t have Jim Black’s considerable power to eke out a lottery victory for Gov. Mike Easley.

The lost opportunity still angers many Republicans.
As one Charlotte reader put it in an email:
“Folks, where is the justice for NC’s citizens in this criminal enterprise? Judge Dever admits this Black and Decker resulted in some legislation that might never have been passed without the conspiracy. So, why is the redistricting, that was a direct result of this conspiracy- considered as legitimate?
“Doesn’t justice demand a reversal of the gerrymandering that assured Democrats would remain in control? The Republicans, in a fair race had won the majority, if only by one, but now, if the past has taught us anything, the Republicans and their constituents will have little voice in state government.
“Is this what justice is today?”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What are lawmakers up to? 3,887 bills

In case you’re wondering what the 170 members of N.C. General Assembly have been up to since convening back in January, here it is: 3,887. That's bills. They’ve been drafting legislation at a rapid rate, significantly more than last session.
Or to be accurate, the Bill Drafting section of the Legislative Services Office has been drafting them – pushing 4,000 as legislators go into the 14th week of the 2007 session. So far, says Gerry Cohen, director of the section, requests for substantive legislation is up by one-third over the 2005 General Assembly.
For more details, here’s a link to Cohen’s unofficial website with a running tally of bills drafted.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Institute: Most N.C. assembly races not competitive

Ever since the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in a legislative redistricting case four years ago that lawmakers had violated the state Constitution in the drawing of districts, Republicans have complained that districts aren’t very competitive because they favor one candidate or another. Democrats have pointed out that producing competitive political races isn’t a constitutional requirement. Both sides had their points – though voters probably would prefer more real choices in elections.
It’s no secret that most state Senate and state House campaigns are likely to go one way or another just based on the demographic makeup of the district. Now comes the National Institute on Money in State Politics with another way to look at how districts lean: money competitiveness.
Those with the most money usually win political races. But the Institute, located in Helena, Montana, sought to quantify exactly what it means. The think tank is working on an interactive Web tool it says shows how few races are really competitive on two measures – having an opponent, and raising enough money to run a competitive race. It measures whether a winning candidate has opposition and whether the opponent was able to raise at least 50 percent of the amount of money the winner spent – in other words, enough to provide some competition.
It has come up with a cutesy logo – (m)c to the 50th power, for money competitiveness in 50 states – and its website requires a bit of concentration to negotiate (click on the green link at the website's top to get to the API, or Application Program Interface). But it concludes that in the last two legislative elections, North Carolina’s 170 legislative races were not very competitive. In 2004, the institute said, 11 percent of the state’s races were competitive, while in 2006, only 9 percent were competitive.
That works out to about 15 competitive races – far less than the roughly-half-the-races some folks regarded as competitive last time. That’s pretty bad.
Does that mean there’s going to be more legislative appetite for public financing of North Carolina elections? The findings probably won’t force the issue, but they may get more policymakers pondering an experiment with public financing of a handful of districts.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Dole says OLF site is "not feasible"

Sen. Elizabeth Dole says the Navy's proposed outlying landing field (OLF) in Washington County is "simply not feasible" and says the Navy "must withdraw" its recommendation of a site near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Dole also said the Navy should look for an alternative site that does not harm the environment and where residents "are more receptive" to the facility and its prospect for long-term development.
She also says the Navy should look at "state-owned land." I take it that's a sign that the state is working on a specific proposal and has talked to the Navy about it, but I'm not hearing any specifics.
Here's a link to Dole's letter today.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Will Navy jets stay in North Carolina?

Opponents of the Navy’s proposed outlying landing field have argued for years that North Carolina isn’t getting enough out of a deal where most of the new FA 18 Super Hornet jets will go to Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach and only two squadrons of 24 jets to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. They argue, rightly, that that’s a poor price for the Navy’s proposal to put the field near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. A lot of folks remember what happened the last time the state was supposed to get more jets – and after the Base Realignment and Closure Commission did its work, the jets went elsewhere.
A sharp-eyed Internet surfer, Dayna Matkins, sent along a link to a Navy document produced in late 2004 that seems to suggest the Navy has no plans to keep FA 18 Super Hornets in North Carolina for very long. The report, titled “Navy Ashore 2030,” says it “provides a road map for transforming the Navy’s shore installations.” On page 29 there’s a graphic showing “East Coast Aviation Ranges.” It doesn’t show any outlying landing fields, but that’s not what’s interesting. It does show 213 FA 18s at Oceana, and 20 of them at an air base in Beaufort, South Carolina, but none at Cherry Point in North Carolina – only 20 EA6B aircraft.
No wonder folks in Eastern North Carolina are doubtful, to say the least, about the Navy’s intentions. I had hoped to ask the Navy about that during an editorial board meeting at the Observer today, but the Navy cancelled its plans to come by because of a change in travel plans.
One postscript: A former congressional staffer familiar with the OLF situation and the Navy’s long-range planning said he doubted the “Navy Ashore 2030” is authoritative about the Navy’s plans, or where it might base planes 23 years from now. He may have a point, but a lot of skeptical folks would argue that they can only go by what’s on the record, and when the Navy publishes a report showing no FA 18s in North Carolina but lots of them in Virginia and some in South Carolina, they naturally think that means none in North Carolina.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bad news for the Neuse

North Carolina has 17 river basins and some of the most spectacular waterways in the East – and then there’s the sad story about what this state has done to one of its biggest.
The Neuse River flows 250 miles from its headwaters north and west of Durham down through the Capital County, snakes through Eastern North Carolina and become a major river as it flows by historic New Bern on its way to Pamlico Sound.
I have spent a good bit of my life on its waters, canoeing and fishing and sailing and, twice, certain I was about to meet my end on its rough waters during white squalls. I have fished at Falls Lake, canoed around Raleigh and taken out at the Milburnie Dam, pulled trash out of the upper Neuse near Wake Forest and fished for tarpon near Oriental. I have seined ancient shark’s teeth out of the shallow sands of a sandbar that juts out off Minnesott Beach. I have piloted a 37-foot cutter past shrimp boats with their outriggers spread wide during whiteout conditions, and romped along on a beam reach towards Ocracoke right where the river meets the sound – a stretch of river wider than any place along the Mississippi.
Now American Rivers, a national nonprofit that keeps tabs on the health of the nation’s rivers, says the Neuse is one of the country’s 10 most threatened rivers, ranking as its eighth-most endangered. It’s easy to see why: until the mid-20th century, there were way too many industrial plants and municipalities pumping waste into the Neuse. And researchers figured out long ago that residential, municipal, industrial and agricultural runoff were putting more nutrients into the river than it could stand – including runoff from industrial hog farms, riverkeepers say.
Wade Rawlins’ story in the N&O today explains why the river made the list, and what the state tried to do about it. You’ll notice the state adopted a goal of a 30 percent reduction in nitrogen in the 1990s, but there’s more to the story: that 30 percent reduction, scientists say, was a number that was never meant to reflect a serious understanding of what was needed to fully clean up the river. It may have taken its roots in two studies in the 1980s and early 1990s that showed the Neuse had enduring a 30 percent nitrogen loading during the previous two decades, and reducing nitrogen that much seemed to be a good start at the time. It was a start, but it wasn’t enough to do the job.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Some readers don't want OLF anywhere in N.C.

Just a day before the Navy holds in Charlotte its final hearing on a proposed jet outlying landing field (OLF) in Eastern North Carolina that critics believe will adversely affect a major national wildlife refuge, some readers are upset that North Carolina has offered to help the Navy find a better site.
Over the past five years I’ve written dozens of editorials and columns criticizing the choice of a site a few miles from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and urging the Navy to look elsewhere in North Carolina. That’s essentially been the state’s officials position, as Gov. Mike Easley and others have tried to interest the Navy in other places in this state.
But some readers reacted negatively to the state’s position and to my argument that the Navy ought to take the state up on its offer.
A reader from Winston-Salem wrote:
“I am extremely shocked and disappointed to read your editorial opinion that the Navy should ‘call the state’s bluff’about an alternative site for the OLF. I saw a re-run of “Exploring North Carolina" on PBS recently that featured the New River, and you as the reporter who worked that story into the nation’s awareness. I was struck by the parallels between the effort to save the New River and the effort to avert sure disaster from placing the OLF at Site C. As I understand it, there are also problems with the other sites under consideration. There are also questions as to whether an OLF is truly needed, or whether Oceana itself will even survive in the long run. In fact, there are a myriad of questions surrounding this very controversial proposition.
“It would seem from your editorial that you are pro-Navy, or are at least waving a red flag in their face. I don’t understand this attitude, and don’t think we needed anything like thisadded to the public discussion now. North Carolina has given an incredible amount of her natural and human resources to the military. It is time for another state to shoulder some of the burden, in my opinion – assuming the OLF is even truly necessary.
“I had actually thought about contacting you to see if you could re-create the successful press of the New River movement for the NO OLF coalition. So, again, you can imagine my chagrin when I read your essay. I in fact felt sick.”
(I wrote her back and sent a copy of a December 2003 column making just that point. JB)
And a reader in Hartsville, S.C. wrote:
“Why in the world would you think the state of North Carolina and its representatives in Washington and Raleigh should spend a dime and time in searching for an alternate OLF site? Is the North Carolina economy so fragile that it needs to give away umpteen acres to the Navy in return for a little economic fallout? Go after something productive, for heaven’s sake – such as Google or Toyota.”
And a reader wrote:
“I do believe that the opponents of the Washington OLF site have, repeatedly, pointed to the Craven County site as more suitable. In fact Craven County welcomes the idea and fully supports it. So in fact there already is, and has been a viable alternative to the disputed site. The Navy however, has refused to accept this perfect alternative. It would be nice if in the future you got all the facts straight before acting like a Neo-Con zombie and attacking those who seek to enforce the will of the people of North Carolina in the face of Federal Imperialism.”
(I think I like “Mr. Neo-Con Zombie” better. JB)
And finally, this from a reader not far from the proposed OLF:
“Your column in Sunday’s paper made the suggestion that those people who oppose the Navy flight strip at Roper should offer suggestions for alternative sites. Good thought. My guess is that the problem is not that there are other equally suitable sites, but that once the navy has taken a position it is not likely to change it. I don’t know what you could call it but it seems that once a high ranking official has taken a position on a matter it results in a loss of face if he or she is forced to back down. If the truth were to be known that site was selected after a casual glance at a map of the area without any thought given to the consequences. I don’t know what to do about that part of it, but if the Navy were open-minded about site selection, I can offer several which could meet their needs. And they are well aware of these locations. Up the Delmarva peninsula from Cape Charles is a flight strip at Melfa. North of Melfa is the old Navy base at Chincoteague,Va. Just outside the Oceana base perimeter is an old flight strip at Pungo. Near Englelhard, N.C., Hyde county has a fight strip already in place and my guess it is hardly ever used. It is in a wilderness area and may be too near the NWR to be acceptable. Then there is Cherry Point MCAS; a little far away from Oceana but only a few minutes in a jet and is probably the best choice of all as it is in the family. It is a permanent base and already has an officers club.
“I’m glad you are staying behind this thing and look forward to reading your next ‘installment.’”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More help for courts on way?

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was back in Raleigh Tuesday to meet with Senate leaders and the Mecklenburg delegation in his campaign to get more funding for the courts system. While the meeting didn’t result in a solution, Basnight and Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte worked out a basis for additional funding for the courts.
Clodfelter is in a good position to work on this issue. He’s vice-chairman of the Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Judicary I Committee dealing with civil law. Word is that Basnight and Clodfelter are looking at an increase in court costs to produce more revenue for courtroom resources.
Mayor McCrory has pressed the legislature to boost court funding for a number of urban areas that have heavy criminal calendars in the courts and need more law enforcement resources. The legislature last year boosted court funding significantly, with the support of Gov. Mike Easley.
Clodfelter backed that expansion and is supporting more, though he has been careful to point out that an examination of caseloads and resources in the state’s largest judicial districts does not support the notion that only a few places have special court needs. It’s a statewide problem, and Mecklenburg fares well in some areas and not in other areas of court resources.
The legislature’s Fiscal Research Division points out that in 2005, Mecklenburg was just 5 percent larger in population than Wake, but had 40 percent more magistrates than Wake. The third largest district was Guilford, which is two-thirds the size of Wake, but which had one-third more magistrates than Wake.
On the other hand, Mecklenburg and Guilford both had “significantly more criminal cases filed in Superior Court than Wake, 40 percent and 25 percent respectively,” the analysis noted. And while Wake had 10 percent more traffic infractions than Mecklenburg, the latter had more than 50 percent more juvenile petitions to handle.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sen. Burr: No OLF near wildlife refuge

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr has added his voice to a growing list of N.C. politicians from both parties who oppose the Navy’s planned outlying landing field near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Washington and Beaufort counties on environmental, economic and safety grounds. The senator’s office sent out the following message and a link to Sen. Burr’s letter to Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter Monday afternoon:
“Today Senator Richard Burr sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter rejecting the Navy’s plan to build the Outlying Landing Field (OLF) on Site C in Washington County. Reactions from the series of public hearings that have been held in eastern North Carolina over the past four weeks reaffirmed Burr’s own concerns over the plan. Placing the OLF at Site C would negatively affect North Carolina’s environment and economy and could needlessly risk the safety of Navy pilots. This led Burr to conclude that Site C in Washington County is not a viable option for the OLF.”
You can find a copy of Senator Burr’s letter to Secretary Winter by clicking this link.

What exactly is a 'temporary tax'?

Democrats are going to do a fast burn over the latest Tax Foundation Special Report showing that the state and local tax burden is at a 25-year high nationally.
What’s going to toast them in North Carolina is not just the ranking and rate – the foundation says the N.C. local-state tax burden is 11 percent and the ranking is 19th – but also how North Carolina has moved up in the past 37 years. In 1970, the N.C. burden was 8.9 percent and the state ranked 37th. It was still 36 in 2000 with a 10 percent state-local tax burden, but has since zoomed up the ladder to 19th.
What happened?
The foundation – based in Washington – noted: “North Carolina’s jump of 17 places in several years is especially startling. The likely culprit is the ‘temporary’ increase in both its individual income and sales taxes. Expiration dates have long passed since enactment in 2001, and both taxes raise large amounts of revenue. Despairing of expiration, the state has now scheduled smaller decreases in both taxes for 2007 and 2008.”
Actually, North Carolina last year cut half of its “temporary” half-cent sales tax to expire, so the combined local-state rate is now 6.75 percent instead of 7 percent. And the state cut its top income tax rate for the highest earners from 8.25 percent to 8 percent. Both were raised a half-percent in 2001 when the state faced a fiscal shortfall, but were sold to the legislature as temporary taxes. They were extended twice before the legislature, at Gov. Easley’s urging, cut them in half last year.
They were scheduled for another cut – completing elimination – on July 1, but late in the year the governor began thinking about extending the remaining “temporary” taxes and recommended keeping them in his budget proposal earlier this year. Last week House Speaker Joe Hackney said he also supported keeping the remaining quarter-cent temporary tax increases on top income rates and sales taxes.
I think these temporary taxes are radioactive. They seem to have a half-life of a thousand years.
Addendum: Dan Gerlach, Gov. Easley's senior fiscal policy advisors, says the Census Bureau's rankings of state and local taxes and state tax burden tell a different story -- and North Carolina fares much better. Follow this link to the tax burden ranking and this one to state and local tax collections.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dole asks Navy tough OLF questions

For years Sen. Elizabeth Dole has walked a tightrope over the Navy’s proposed outlying landing field in Washington and Beaufort Counties, where critics say it threatens large migratory waterfowl in the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Dole has tried to interest the Navy is considering other sites and has asked the service to listen to her constituents’ concerns about the facility, but she has also tried to maintain a kind of neutral stance promoting North Carolina as exceptionally military-friendly. Her work with both sides has earned her some derision from conservationists and from editorial writers, including the Observer’s.
But those who closely watch what she has said and done conclude that she has tried to move the Navy away from its preferred location – and that the Navy hasn’t shown much interest in doing so.
So when she wrote Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter Thursday with a list of pointed questions about the project and asked for written responses within a few weeks, it was a clear sign that Dole thinks the Navy has the wrong site in mind.
It’s not that she opposes this site. But if you read the questions she asked the Navy, you’ll see that she has specific concerns and wants to know why the Pentagon isn’t looking elsewhere. This can't be a good sign for the Navy.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Easley: OLF help wanted in U.S. Senate

When Gov. Mike Easley helped open the Wildlife Resources Commission’s new headquarters building on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus near downtown Raleigh Tuesday, he came primed to say a few serious words about the Navy’s ill-conceived plan to put an outlying landing field in Washington and Beaufort counties.
Easley chose this opportunity to sound off in a stronger way than he has before about his opposition to the Navy’s preference of a site near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. That’s where many tens of thousands of large migratory waterfowl spend their winters, loafing in the refuge and flying out each day to forage for food in nearby fields. Those birds and those jets are going to collide, aircraft accident experts warn – or else the Navy is going to have to somehow get rid of the birds.
The governor noted in his formal remarks that the Wildlife Resources Commission works to conserve the state’s natural resources, but when it protects these migratory waterfowl, “We’re protecting not just some of the resources of North Carolina but of the world and indeed all of North America.”
He also noted that commission members had gone to hearings the Navy is holding on its revised environmental impact statement, and added, “I hope you don’t get drafted as a result of it but it is very important ... to let them know we're not just talking about some small group of environmentalists.” We’re talking, Easley went on, about 850,000 North Carolinians who hold fishing, hunting and boating licenses and who want the refuge and its birds left alone.
After Easley’s formal remarks I had to dash back to the office to participate in a WUNC radio interview on recent Supreme Court decisions, but both the Associated Press and Wade Rawlins of The News & Observer recorded Easley’s informal chat with reporters about the OLF.
Gary Robertson of the AP wrote that Easley had gotten in a dig at the state’s senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, for not speaking out more directly on the OLF. Easley said he was seeking help from U.S. senators in other states, the AP reported: “I’m not getting any help out of our senators yet, but I have been talking to other senators because their ducks come down here too,” Easley said. “Everybody has a stake in the outcome. I think now that we have some people up there in the Senate that I know from those states, we’ll be able to get a coalition that will make them sit down and be a little more reasonable.”
And The N&O reported that Easley said putting the OLF near the wildlife refuge would be one of the “worst environmental mistakes” in state history and would “ruin the refuge.” Here’s a link to Wade Rawlins' story on the N&O website.
It shows Mike Easley has moved well off the dime in standing up to the Navy.