Thursday, June 19, 2008

Listening to the legislature

If you think sunshine is the best disinfectant and that transparency is mandatory for open govenrment, then you'll appreciate a new feature allowing the public to listen to legislative debates -- even ones that occurred days or weeks before. Sponsored by the N.C. Center for Voter Education, the new service is called VoterRadio and it's accessible here.
Of course, the legislature has made its sessions available live for a long time on its Web site, but this service gives interested folks a central place to learn a lot more about what's going on.
It's part of a plan to offer a closer look not just at legislative sessions but also interviews with candidates for office, with legislative leaders and other pieces about election. Next year the plan is to also offer audio recordingss of committee sessions -- where the real nitty-gritty decisions are made -- on the Web site.
Here's a news release from the center:

N.C. Center for Voter Ed. Launches

RALEIGH ­ The nonpartisan N.C. Center for Voter Education has launched, an online radio station covering politics and elections in North Carolina.

With state lawmakers at work in Raleigh, offers live
broadcasts and rebroadcasts of daily sessions in both the N.C. Senate and N.C. House. Each session can also be heard on-demand at,where visitors can also download podcasts of daily sessions.

Other programming on includes "Judge for Yourself: Election 2008," a series of in-depth, one-on-one interviews with statewide candidates. With a runoff election for state labor commissioner approaching on June 24, voters can learn about the two contenders, John Brooks and Mary Donnan, by tuning in to's live stream or by listening on-demand at produces "The Voter Update," a weekly newsmagazine covering Tar Heel politics. This week¹s episode features an interview with N.C. House Minority Leader Paul Stam (R-Wake) and a look at Chapel Hill's new Voter-Owned Elections program with Chase Foster from N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. also covers special events and speakers of importance to North Carolina voters, including the Sunshine Day Conference at Elon University this spring.

"From airing live audio of state legislative sessions, to offering in-depth interviews with statewide candidates, the goal of is to empower North Carolina voters with facts about their government and the candidates courting their support," said John Thompson, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education.

In addition to being available at, programming from can also be heard 24-hours daily on iTunes Radio under the "Talk/Spoken Word" category.

The N.C. Center for Voter Education is a Raleigh-based nonprofit and
nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.



Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Poll: Few like longer trucks

The state Senate can't be accused of pandering to public opinion on at least one issue -- longer and wider truck trailer loads on state primary highways. The Senate overwhelmingly passed Sen. Clark Jenkins' bill allowing 53 foot rigs on up to 20,000 miles of roads, longer rigs than the current 48-footers, as well as 10-foot-wide boat/trailer rigs (instead of 8 1/2 feet) at any hour of the day. The State Highway Patrol has warned that the 53-foot rigs will cause a lot of problems for motorists especially in the mountain-road sections of Western North Carolina. The bill will be good for truckers, but it's hard to see how it will do anything but make life harder for car drivers.
But the Senate approved the bill, S 1695,
on a 47-0 vote despite low public support for the bigger rigs.
As Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling notes, only 15 percent of North Carolinians support longer rigs. He sent out an email Tuesday noting, "A new PPP survey finds that just 15% of North Carolinians support a bill that would allow large trucks to travel on a wider variety of state roads.
"The poll found that opposition to the bill is steady across all demographic categories." Click here for more.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Farm Report: Of ferns and emus

It's an annual miracle, this spring in the Blue Ridge. It came on just about at the end of the blooming season down in the flatlands, and every week it got better this year. There were purple rhododendrons for a while, then flame azaleas so golden bright they stood out in the woods like electric lights someone left on.
And there was a sweet little plant I mistook for a Jack-in-the-Pulpit growing at the base of one of old oaks. It had a bit of bright red bloom, but far as I can tell JITPs do not. Anyone have a thought what that might be?
Lately the laurels have put on a show with their lacy white blooms. When the breeze picks up it looks like snow falling.
Up in our woods the running cedar and ferns have their own play pens just 50 feet off our front porch. The ferns die back each fall, then pop out of the ground once it warms up. I don't know a thing about ferns but a fellow of our acquaintance once told us he counted a half dozen varieties within a few feet of our gravel road. They sprouted and flourished the other week, and while I don't know what they are, I do know this: They're mighty pretty. Here's a picture.

It's also mighty hot.
Up in our part of the Blue Ridge there's plenty of empirical evidence of Global Sweltering, so if there's work to be done, we get at it early. That's why I had the DR Field and Brush Mower out early the other morning, mowing down the grass that obscured the mailbox and part of the entrance on our dirt road.
Our French Brittany spaniel Sadie was along for the work, hoping to find a rabbit to chase while I worked my way up the hill. She kept dashing a hundred yards or so down the road and then tearing back, barking and yipping and galloping and generally enjoying life, I thought.
That's when I realized she was in a standoff with an ostrich. Or more to the point, an emu that was standing in the middle of Belcher Mountain road down near Eugene Tinker's place. I don't know anything more about ostriches and their smaller cousin emus than I do about Jacks-in-the-pulpit, but I have since read that emus can be playful, willing to play tag with humans. Sadie wasn't sure whether she wanted to play tag and kept her distance, but I got jumped on my ATV, got my camera from the house and got this photo while the emu was pondering blending into the woods just down from Hal Strickland's house.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wash Post: Dole-Hagan race No. 8

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has bumped up North Carolina's U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan to No. 8 in his latest ranking, and the Hagan campaign was quick to send it round to the press. Here's what he wrote Friday morning:
8. North Carolina (R): Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) knows she is in for a very tough race against state Sen. Kay Hagan (D). Witness her decision to begin running ads in recent days that tout her ability to deliver for the state -- ads that never make mention of her party affiliation or President George W. Bush. It's a sound strategy in such a difficult political environment, but you can bet Hagan and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will do their darndest to ensure every voter in the state knows Dole voted with Bush more than 90 percent of the time in her first term. Having now met Hagan in person, we can testify that she is a talented candidate and, as a woman, will be in a better position than 2002 nominee Erskine Bowles to attack Dole aggressively. (Previous ranking: 9)
He also quotes National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign of Nevada that a small loss in the Senate would be the "best case" scenario for the GOP this fall. Read more about it here (second item down at the moment).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Rating Easley-Obama "fist bump"

Much is being made of Gov. Mike Easley's and Sen. Barack Obama's "fist bump" Monday at a campaign appearance at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh where the governor endorsed Obama -- Easley's second endorsement of the presidential campaign, after his earlier endorsement of Hillary Clinton didn't take.

The N&O has explored the "fist bump" here and commenters have pointed out that it isn't a fist bump -- it's really "giving dap," an old greeting among African Americans that some sources date to the Viet Nam war and some to an even earlier time. Click here for more. And some commenters have suggested that a white person can't give proper dap.

I don't know, but I don't think Monday's fist bump/giving dap episode really compares with some of Easley's more memorable public displays. That crash of a Hendricks Motorsports racing car (a Chevy) in 2003 while dressed up in a blue racing outfit was priceless, and then that attempted burnout or whatever it was when he stopped against a curb in a Jimmie Johnson race car near the Governor's Mansion in 2005 surely ranked No. 2 on the list of memorable gubernatorial appearances. Maybe that one should be called a "curb bump." Or "giving curb."

Friday, June 06, 2008

A new job for Easley's right hand man?

The state’s top politicians are trying to help Gov. Mike Easley’s senior fiscal policy advisor and chief emissary to the legislature, Dan Gerlach, get a new job, but not right away. Easley and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight have prodded members of the board of the GoldenLEAF Foundation to delay picking the next president of the foundation, although the process was already delayed once and some members were already thinking of another delay. The foundation was set up in 1999 to receive up to $2.3 billion in a national tobacco settlement Easley helped negotiate when he was attorney general. The money was to be used to help economically distressed and tobacco-dependent communities.
But the foundation has also been at risk of losing its funding under at least two bills pending in the General Assembly. And that has discouraged some candidates for the job from applying. Gerlach himself expressed interest in the job but Easley has suggested holding off on a choice to see whether lawmakers take away the foundation’s funding, or a significant portion of it. That would also help Gerlach’s candidacy as the Easley administration enters its final months. The governor also tried to help Gerlach become president of the community college system, but a selection committee chose an academician instead.
The GoldenLEAF board was set to interview four candidates recently as part of the selection process to succeed foundation president Valeria Lee, who is leaving the foundation later this year. But instead of choosing a successor, it put off the selection for 90 days and asked Lee to stay on until September.
Bill Friday, who was instrumental in setting up the board, worries about any political influence exerted on Gerlach’s behalf, especially at a time when legislation is pending to take away any of the foundation’s funding: “Any politicization of the GoldenLEAF Foundation would be a huge mistake,” Friday said.
Gerlach says he doesn’t know what Basnight and Easley might have said to board members about his candidacy. “I don’t know.... I wasn’t part of that conversation. What I’m focusing on is getting the governor’s budget through the legislature.”
Here’s some background on this standoff from an Observer editorial published earlier this week:
Tug of war in Raleigh
Lawmakers should keep hands off GoldenLEAF fund
There’s a tug-of-war in the N.C. General Assembly over whether to dissolve a foundation created to help economically distressed counties, divert its future funding to pay for state construction needs or let its board pick a new president this week when it meets in Fayetteville.
Legislators ought to back off on plans to strip the GoldenLEAF Foundation – the Longterm Economic Advancement Foundation set up in 1999 to spend upwards of $2.3 billion over 25 years – to help “economically affected or tobacco dependent regions of North Carolina.”
But a number of influential legislators have been unhappy that the foundation hasn’t spent more of its income to help those communities. They have been threatening for more than a year to abolish the foundation and create another to focus more on tobacco-dependent communities, or to use the foundation’s income from a national tobacco settlement to pay for new state buildings and retire the debt on capital bond issues. One bill in the state Senate, sponsored by Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston, would create a new Infrastructure Trust Fund to pay construction costs and interest.
These threats to the foundation likely have discouraged some candidates from applying to the foundation to succeed Valeria Lee, president of GoldenLEAF, who plans to retire later this year. The board is scheduled to consider four finalists for the job this week, but there is talk about postponing the selection to make sure there’s still a foundation to run after the General Assembly adjourns later this summer.
When the legislature set up the foundation nine years ago the plan was to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into communities suffering from the loss of tobacco markets and other traditional mainstays of the state’s old textile and furniture manufacturing economy. Until a year ago, there were still a handful of economically distressed counties that had not benefited from the fund. The foundation has begun to rectify that, and recently approved a $100 million grant for an aircraft components plant in Lenoir County that will pay wages about twice the local average.
That may be too late to stave off legislative unhappiness. But with the prospect of a new foundation president and a renewed focus on assistance to distressed communities, lawmakers should throttle back and allow the GoldenLEAF Foundation to fulfil its promise.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hayes-Kissell now a 'tossup'?

The Cook Political Report, a closely watched source of political news, now rates the seat held by U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., as a "tossup". It previously rated the seat as "lean Republican". Two years ago Democrat Larry Kissell almost unseated Hayes, and Kissell is running again. The 8th District is the only seat the Cook Report changed today. Here's what the report says today:

“We are changing our race ratings in ten districts where we believe Democratic chances of taking Republican-held seats have increased. With these changes, the GOP occupies 21 of the 27 seats now listed in the Toss Up column.”
"Primary Aftermath: Race Ratings Change in Ten Districts: House Editor David Wasserman releases the latest updates for districts in which primaries were held on Tuesday, and explains what the conclusion of the Democratic presidential nomination fight may mean in several other districts across the country. We are changing our race ratings in ten districts where we believe Democratic chances of taking Republican-held seats have increased. With these changes, the GOP occupies 21 of the 27 seats now listed in the Toss Up column. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

New train to Raleigh

The Easley administration has just announced the addition of another east-and-west train between Charlotte and Raleigh, thanks in part to increased ridership. Currently there are two round trips daily, including morning service and evening service in each direction. This would provide mid-day service. This is good news for travelers tired of $4 gas and an often-tense ride between the state's political and economic capitals. The bad news, if that's the right word, is it will be six months, maybe longer, before the new train service is in operation. Here's a press release the governor's office just put out:
Third Train To Be Added To Meet Growing Ridership And Consumer Demand
RALEIGH Gov. Mike Easley today announced that a third intercity passenger train between Raleigh and Charlotte will be added to the current service to help meet growing demand as well as ridership increases. The new train service will run at midday, with departures from Raleigh and Charlotte.
“Ridership is increasing significantly along this route and adding a midday train run will meet the growing demand and provide needed services to North Carolina travelers who are looking for economical alternatives to driving,” Easley said. “As fuel prices continue to climb, more and more people are turning to rail as their choice for transportation.”
From October 2007 to April 2008, ridership was up more than 22 percent with 197,126 travelers riding either the Piedmont or Carolinian trains. On the Piedmont (trains 73 and 74) ridership was up almost 26 percent from 28,309 to 35,681 passengers; the Carolinian (trains 79 and 80) was up 18 percent from 136,358 to 161,445.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation currently sponsors both the Piedmont and Carolinian trains as part of North Carolina’s Amtrak service. Each train makes a morning and evening run between Raleigh and Charlotte, a trip that is competitive with auto travel at 3 hours and 9 minutes, including intermediate stops at Cary, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis. The Carolinian also makes stops in Selma, Wilson and Rocky Mount, in the eastern part of the state. Fares for the round trip between Raleigh and Charlotte start at $50.
The estimated cost to operate the additional route is $3 million a year. The money will come from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program.
“Federal funds are going to cover startup and operational costs for the next three years, so it’s a win-win,” said Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett. “Riding the train offers a safe, efficient and environmentally-friendly way to travel.”
Officials at the state transportation department estimate that it will take between six and 12 months to make the third run operational. Rail cars and locomotives will need to be refurbished for the service.
The Piedmont and Carolinian trains are supported by the state transportation department, Amtrak and passenger fares. Complete schedule and train information is available by going to: on the Internet. Reservations are required. Travelers should book early for best fares. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bills, bills -- the 'greatest scourge'

The late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin liked to tell a story about some advice he got when he first went into politics, “Don’t pass any new bills,” one person told him, “and repeal about half the ones on the books.”
They could use Sam Ervin in Raleigh today, where the 170 members of the state House and Senate have filed 4,962 bills and still counting - the largest since the all-time record of 5,627 in 1913, according to the Web site maintained by Gerry Cohen, head of bill drafting at the General Assembly. Click here.
Ervin started his career in the state legislature, long before he became famous in the U.S. Senate for taking on Joe McCarthy in the 1950s and later Richard Nixon in the 1970s. (Ervin even served briefly in the U.S. House, where he served out the unexpired portion of a term in the seat held by his brother Joe, a congressman who committed suicide in late 1945.)
Ervin first served in the N.C. General Assembly in the House sessions of 1923, 1925 and 1931. Ervin’s first session, there were 4,267 bills filed; in his third session in 1931, the number had dwindled to 2,155.
Cohen’s Web site notes that the number of bills got out of hand in 1911 and Gov. W.W. Kitchin sent a message that “Special legislation is the greatest scourge of government.”
Even more bills were filed in 1913, and in 1915 the legislature approved a constitutional amendment to reduce the number of bills. The public rejected it, but a later attempt succeeded and the number of bills began to drop. The lowest number, Cohen reports, was 1,223 in 1943. (When I first came to Raleigh for the Greensboro Daily News in 1977, the number of bills was 2,726.)
That’s a lot of paper.
For political trivia lovers, Cohen’s Web site also has information about how many of those bills pass. Last year, the rate was 17 percent, a little higher than the 16 percent for the 2005 session. Four decades ago, the rate was lots higher - 72 percent in the 1965 session.