Thursday, July 31, 2008

Democrats have indy campaign in gov's race, too

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, whose campaign for governor has asked for contributions from political action committees to help him win the governorship, is making sure that voters know that Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue has done the same -- and that she also benefits from a well-financed independent political campaign.
What's more, the McCrory campaign points out that the independent campaign supporting Perdue hasn't disclosed its finances and is running a negative ad -- an obvious reference to her decision late in the Democratic primary to quit running negative ads in her fight against State Treasurer Richard Moore.

McCrory campaign consultant Jack Hawke said Thursday, "Beverly Perdue promised a positive campaign, but the first advertisement of the general election is a negative attack on Pat McCrory from a group of her supporters. What happened to ‘Positive Bev?’

“If Perdue truly practices what she preaches, she will call on her support group to immediately remove negative television advertising," Hawke said. Here's a link to his statement:

The McCrory campaign has emphasized cleaning up corruption in Raleigh and building a state government more responsive to the people and less reliant on special interests. But that message was clouded when the Republican Governors Association created an independent campaign committee to support McCrory and amassed a treasury of more than $380,000 in unregulated campaign donations, thanks to a recent 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that did away with North Carolina's $4,000 limit on contributions. Those independent campaigns cannot by law coordinate with political candidates' campaigns, and the McCrory campaign didn't know about it until a reporter asked.

Scott Falmlen, a Democratic campaign consultant working with the Democrats independent cmapaign, said the new ads by the Alliance for North Carolina are an issue advocacy campaign "urging citizens to tell Pat McCrory that 'North Carolina needs higher wages, free tuition at community colleges and no more perks for politicians.'"

Here's a link to the Web site for new ad:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Deceptive conduit" in gov's race?

If you're uncomfortable about a recent 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that allows unlimited individual contributions to independent political campaigns in the state, you've got company. Today's Dome in the N&O reports that Democracy North Carolina has filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections about how the money (more than $380,000) in one political action committee supporting Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory got to where it is. A story in the N&O last week quoted several donors saying they had no idea the money would wind up in North Carolina because they gave it to the Republican Governors Association, which then passed it along to the new PAC. Here's a link to the Dome item ("Reform group asks for PAC investigation).
Democracy North Carolina's Bob Hall notes that the 4th Circuit ruling allows unlimited donations, but questions whether the Republican Governors Association is giving contributions in the name of another, and whether that's legal. The state has an interest in avoiding "deceptive conduits that can have a corrupting
influence on our elections," Hall wrote.
Here's a link to Democracy North Carolina's letter on the N&O site.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Black voters a challenge for Hagan?

Tom Jenson, communications director for Public Policy Polling, has an interesting take on the latest numbers his firm has in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (49 percent) and Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan (40 percent)

"Kay Hagan narrowed the race to five points when she was on the air and Elizabeth Dole wasn't, and Dole built the lead back up to 14 points when she was on the air and Hagan wasn't. Now with neither of them spending much money the race has stabilized at a nine point Dole lead, which seems like a reasonable baseline as the general election campaign really commences.

"One problem for Hagan is one that plagued Erskine Bowles against Dole in 2002. Dole polls unusually well for a Republican among black voters, trailing just 63-25 in this particular survey. Hagan will have a hard time defeating Dole unless she gets at least 80% of the black vote.

"This race took on a completely different tenor in recent days with the news that the DSCC plans to make a large investment in this race. If Hagan is able to get black voters to choose her at the same rate they do most Democrats, and that money is put to good use this race could tighten again in the fall."

I asked Tom by e-mail why he thought Dole was doing unusually well among black voters and why Hagan wasn't. Here's what he had to say:

"I think she was able to attract a good amount of black support the first time around because folks were unhappy (former state Rep. and Speaker) Dan Blue (an African American) lost the primary. If I remember correctly Blue didn’t endorse Bowles until like a week before the election (or did he even endorse him at all?)

"I think she may be getting the support of those same people who did last time- she hasn’t necessarily done much for the black community but she sure hasn’t been Jesse Helms either. I don’t think it’s solid support and I think Hagan can get it in her corner, but at this point Hagan doesn’t have a record of really working with or fighting for black leaders on a statewide level so she’s going to need to do more to build credibility there over the next three months.

"I think this standing has a lot more to do with personalities and politics than it does with issues (shocking in an election I know!)"

You can find all the numbers here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

$46,400 to live in Meck, more in Wake

How much money does it take to provide the basics for a family of four in Mecklenburg County -- and why does it cost more than $5,400 less than in, say, Wake County, the state Capital? According to a new online calculator made available by the folks at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center in Raleigh, it costs a family of four $46,402 a year just to pay for the basic level of housing, food childcare, health care, transportation, other necessities and taxes in Mecklenburg County.
In Wake County, by comparison, it costs $51,856 a year -- primarily because housing costs, child care costs and taxes are significantly higher.
The online calculator, available here and an accompanying explanation of the center's research on a living income standard for low-income citizens -- "Making Ends Meet on Low Wages," by John Quinterno with Meg Gray and Jack Schofield, linked here constitute a fascinating look at what's happening to working families in this state. About one-third of them earn low incomes, the center reports.
The living income calculator provides information on the cost of basic living expenses for all 100 counties, and for families sizes from one parent and one child to two parents and up to three children.
The calculator also notes what a worker needs to earn to provide the basics. For a family of four in Mecklenburg, it's $22.31 per hour. In Wake, it's $24.93.
The calculator and report are sure to stir up conversation and debate -- exactly the sort of thing the Center aims to do in its work on a host of social issues. It's worth a look, and some thought.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Feds: N.C. colleges can admit illegals

Former Mecklenburg Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, now a federal official with the Department of Homeland Security, has advised the state of North Carolina that federal law does not prohibit illegal immigrants from attending N.C. community colleges or public universities. Writing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the former sheriff said that admission to those facilities is not a forbidden "benefit" to undocumented immigrants if no public grants or other monetary assistance is provided, and that states may decide whether to admit them or bar them. In the absence of state policy, individual campuses may make their own rules -- but campuses that do admit students must identify "which students are illegal aliens."
Here's a link to the letter from Pendergraph, head of the Homeland Security office of state and federal relations, to the state Justice Department.
And here's a link to a letter from the Justice Department's J.B. Kelly to the N.C. Department of Community Colleges reversing an earlier advisory from the department.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Realtors upset over anti-tax campaign

Some members of the N.C. Association of Realtors are mad as fire about having to pay an extra assessment to support the association's plan to actively oppose the transfer tax -- a new option for counties that has been impose nowhere since a few counties adopted it years ago. Judging by its unpopularity, there won't be many new counties imposing it either, though counties would like to keep the option as an alternative to higher sales taxes or higher property taxes.
What's interesting is that not all of them are against repeal of the tax. Many of them just don't think it's right to pay an assessment to support what they think is a political campaign, even one on an issue.
The N&O's Dome has a piece on real estate agent Becky Harper's complaint to the State Board of Elections about being forced to pay, in effect, for a campaign she does not support. Here's a link.
If you want to follow some hot links on this topic, you can tune in to Greg Flynn's blog, which he launched last year when the association was mounting its campaign against what it called the "home tax." Flynn parodied that campaign with a site called Stop the NC Home Ticks.
Also, Raleigh Realtor Carlton Brown has set up his own blog complaining that failure to pay the additional $50 fee would result in potential loss of a career. Here's his blog.
The folks at the N.C. Association of Realtors say there's quite a lot of nisinformation out about the campaign against the transfer tax. Here's a link to their blog, with an FAQ as well.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Create a full-time environmental commission?

Dave Insco, executive director of Carteret Economic Development in Morehead City, had some thoughts about a recent column I wrote about the tendency of the N.C. General Assembly to rewrite environmental rules developed over a multi-year period by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission. He got involved in a legislative discussion called a stakeholder process to work out problems with the proposed coastal stormwater rules, and had this to say:

"I don't pretend to know how rules should be made, but I can assure you from my experience, that the way it is being done in North Carolina by the Environmental Management Commission is not working.

"As we went through the rules line by line that the EMC and RRC [Rules Review Commission] had passed, we uncovered numerous errors and "unintended consequences."
More than once, the Division of Water Quality Staff admitted that the rules needed to be corrected or that "that was not the intention" of the rules, even though the consequences were devastating.

"So my conclusion is that the rule making process is broken - severely broken. I don't know how or who will or can take the responsibility to correct it, but as a citizen of North Carolina, I am deeply concerned.

"If what I've seen with my experience dealing with the rule making process is indicative of what goes on in every state agency, I am truly amazed that North Carolina government works as well as it does."

That column mentioned that Gov. Jim Hunt had thought about abolishing the citizen-based Environmental Management Commission and replacing it with a professional commission, with adequate staff, similar to the N.C. Utilities Commission, which regulates public utilities. A few days after that column ran in the Observer and the News & Observer, the legislature approved this provision in H 2431, the Studies Bill, hours before adjourning:

"SECTION 6.4. Consolidation of Environmental Regulatory Programs – The Commission (Environmental Review Commission) may study the desirability of abolishing existing environmental regulatory programs and replacing them with a new, full time Environmental Management Commission modeled on the Utilities Commission in order to improve efficiency, communication, and coordination within State government in the development and implementation of environmental and natural resources policy."

Dave Inscoe sent along a reference to that bill, and added,
"It seems that others recognize that the EMC rule making process is broken. As I pointed out, the Coastal Stormwater Rules are very complex, and an appointed, part-time Commission cannot be expected to understand the many details of complex rules. The rules are written by staff members, many of whom have bias, and as such the rules can easily contain "unintended consequences" and technical errors.

"Hopefully, the legislature will assume their responsibility by abolishing the EMC and establishing a full-time professional commission -and maybe then developers, economic developers, and coastal governments won't have to appeal every rule they make to the legislature."

Will a professional EMC have a chance in the next legislature? I dunno, but legislative staffers reminded me the other day that Jim Hunt was not the only person interested in the possibility. So was Bev Perdue, now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The wisdom of John McLaughlin

The late John B. McLaughlin of Newell -- who died Sunday at 82 -- was always a lot of fun to talk with. He had the earthiest drawl you ever heard, and folksy ways with some rural charm that may have made some folks underestimate him. But he had a lot of good common sense, and that rarity in public life: He'd tell you the truth.
In the summer of 1996, there was quite a bit of public discussion about how bad things had gotten, and accusations of one figure or another playing politics. John sat down and fired off a letter about it all. A few days later the Observer published the following in letters to the editor:

"It is with pleasure that I read and hear complaints about all the politicking that goes on in Raleigh, Washington and the many courthouses across the country.
"The same people who expect a professional ballplayer to play ball, expect a preacher to preach, expect it to rain on a rainy day and expect a dog to bark do not expect an elected official to politic.
"It reminds me of people who complain because ice cream is cold. How absurd and foolish can you be?
"John B. McLaughlin

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Speaker: No time for open records bill

House Speaker Joe Hackney has told legislators and lobbyists there's not enough time left in the General Assembly's budget session to consider a Senate bill beefing up the state's open government law. The Senate unanimously approved Sen. David Hoyle's bill Monday night to award reasonable legal fees to citizens who file lawsuits to enforce the state's model open records law. The News & Observer's Dan Kane reported that Hackney told Rep. Deborah Ross, chair of the committee the bill was assigned to, that "we don't have enough time." Here's a link to the N&O story.
With lawmakers hoping to get out of town for the year Friday, there really isn't enough time to consider every bill. But there is enough time to consider any bill that legislative leaders think ought to be considered. For instance, both the House and Senate were working on a bill to allow online scalping of tickets to sports and other events, and to allow longer trucks and wider boats to be hauled on state roads. And the Senate was working on last-minutes changes in a new ethics reform bill that would make it easier to wine and dine legislators and other public officials. Why is there time for that?
The notion that there's not enough time for an open records bill this important is especially curious because it was a resident of Hackney's district who sued the local elections board over failure to comply with both open records and open meetings laws. A judge found the election board had violated both on numerous occasions, but when the plaintiff tried to recover the $35,000 spent suing the board to enforce what is, after all, a state law, the judge awarded only 10 percent of the legal fees. That's why the N.C. Press Association, of which this newspaper is a member, has been pressing the legislature to automatically award legal fees rather than allowing a judge to decide whether and how much a citizen can get back in attorney's fees.
The Senate bill also includes a provision creating an Open Government Unit in the N.C. Department of Justice to media open records disputes -- a provision Hackney likes, the N&O reported. The good news on this is that Attorney General Roy Cooper -- whose office supports all of Sen. Hoyle's bill -- has already created the Open Government Unit administratively and put it to work training public officials on their responsibilities under the state's sunshine laws. The bill would have but the AG's Open Government Unit in state law. Here's a link to the N.C. Guide to Open Government and Public Records, a project of the N.C. Attorney General's Office and the N.C. Press Association.

The Grinch's 24 years in Congress

The state Republican Party took note the other day of another milestone: U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., has become the longest-serving N.C. Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brent Woodcox, the party's communications director, sent round a notice the other day that Coble has passed former U.S. Rep. and former Sen. Jim Broyhill as the longest-serving House Republican from North Carolina. Coble, 77, has served in the 6th District seat, which includes his home of Pleasant Garden south of Greensboro, since 1985.
Prior to going to Washington, Coble was a four-term member of the N.C. House of Representatives and previously was secretary of revenue under Gov. Jim Holshouser, the first Republican elected governor in the 20th century. When Coble was in the House, he was a popular lawmaker who often challenged the Democratic majority -- and often lost. One year -- in the 1970s, I think -- Coble argued against a proposal raising pay for state legislators. My colleague at the Greensboro Daily News, the late reporter Brent Hackney, wrote about Coble and borrowed by Dr. Seuss, calling Coble "The Grinch Who Stole the Pay Raise." Coble loved that story, and when he called the paper's Raleigh Bureau, he'd growl, "This is the Grinch. I've got a story for you."
I don't know if anyone in Washington calls Coble the Grinch. When Republicans controlled the House there, they called him Mr. Chairman, for the judiciary committee he used to head.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Should public money go for advocacy?

The Golden LEAF Foundation, set up by the General Assembly in 1999 to channel hundreds of millions of dollars from a multi-billion-dollar national tobacco settlement to tobacco dependent and economically distressed communities, has presented some interesting questions in its relatively short life. Those questions have centered on how the money -- which comes from payments tobacco companies are making to states to compensate for the health costs that cigarettes have imposed over the years -- ought to be used. Not long ago the Easley administration recruited an aircraft components manufacturer, Spirit AeroSystems, to the Global TransPark in Kinston with the promise of, among other things, a $100 million state-owned facility the company will use to house its operations.
This week the foundation's board had a different kind of question -- whether to approve more than a quarter of a million dollars for a public education campaign about a biodefense lab that might be built in Granville County. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility would replace an existing 50-year-old facility in Plum Island, N.Y., and the Department of Homeland Security is looking at five sites. Among other things, the facility would research large-animal diseases. A lot of opposition has cropped up from residents in the Granville County area who are concerned about the possibility of pathogens escaping the facility and causing harm. Jonathan Cox has a story about the proposal, and the Golden LEAF Foundation's decision to finance the public education campaign, in today's N&O.
As the story points out, Golden LEAF's approval of $262,248 raises a new question about the use of public funds for what amounts to advocacy. No doubt the campaign will be straight-forward and fact-based in an attempt to correct what its supporters believe to be widespread misinformation about the project. But even so, should the foundation get into the business of helping government agencies make their case about proposed projects? And using public money to do it? As Golden LEAF board member John Merritt put it in the N&O story, "Does Golden LEAF really want to get into this role? ...I think we're making a big mistake."
What do you think?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A tale of two legislatures

Don't like what the N.C. General Assembly is doing this summer? At least they're getting things done. Take a look at Virginia's General Assembly: It adjourned a special session called to deal with transportation issues, but failed to agree on any action that would boost spending on state highways. (And if you've ridden on some of the Commonwealth's rougher roads, you know they need a hand.) Here's a link from The Virginian Pilot today.
Meanwhile, in Raleigh, lawmakers were busy amending a scary bill allowing longer trailers and some wider loads on state roads. Under the new version,offered in committee by Republican Rep. Trudi Walend of Transylvania County, the state Department of Transportation gets a more clearly defined right to decide if 53-foot trailers will go on certain roads that safety advocates believe are too winding to support tractor-trailer rigs longer than 48 feet. Say what you will about the honorables in Raleigh, but at least they're able to move legislation forward.
Now, that might be good and that might be bad, depending on your point of view, but they clearly are finding ways to get things done. Who knows -- maybe it's because the public didn't much like the trucking bill. Or maybe it's because Gov. Mike Easley threatened to veto the bill if it included the wider boat loads. Here's a link to Bruce Siceloff's report on the N&O Web site.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Study: bad news on longer trucks

If anyone's still wondering what longer trucks might do to the state's highways and its drivers, a national safety expert is telling Congress about an N.C. State University study that has bad news: It will "boost the risk of truck crashes, deaths and injuries and cause more damage to North Carolina’s roads and bridges," News & Observer traffic writer and Road Worrier Bruce Siceloff reports in his Crosstown Traffic blog. The state House is considering a Senate-passed bill to allow longer trucks -- 53 feet instead of the current 48-foot maximum.
It's worth reading, and so is the study. Here's a link to his blogpost, which also includes a link to the study.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A thoughtful note from Jesse

Over nearly three decades of covering the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., we had some testy exchanges from time to time when the senator or his staff didn't like something I was writing about him. Some years when there were no communications at all. He was a tough politician who didn't play softball when a hardball was at hand, and my stories from the Greensboro Daily News Washington Bureau and later its Raleigh Bureau got under his skin from time to time. He called them as he saw them, and so did I, and sometimes the sparks flew.
But there were also times when Jesse Helms displayed the warmth, wit and thoughtfulness that endeared him to many of his constituents.
One such incident came in a 1994 phone call a couple of days after I had written a column about my father's death a week or so earlier. I don't recall his exact words but he had seen the piece and was moved to call and talk about his own father and how he came to grips with his death some years earlier. And he told me about a couple of things he had read that helped him deal with that loss.
A few days later a letter arrived in the mail from Helms with a short personal note and an excerpt from Taylor Caldwell's book "The Strong City" and a copy of a poem by Ida Blakeman Issertel called "For You." They were comforting words.
I've read them over from time to time, and pondered how to reconcile the thoughtfulness of his note with the sometimes angry, sometimes defiant, often sharp-tongued words that Jesse Helms rode to public notice and to become one of the most important politicians in the state and nation. It is a reminder, if one is needed, of how complex a man Jesse Helms could be.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Jesse Helms' sense of timing

Jesse Helms' sense of timing was always keen. From his days as an acerbic TV commentator on WRAL's Channel 5, his decision to change parties and become a Republican in 1970, his decision to run for and to win a U.S. Senate seat for the North Carolina GOP for the first time in the 20th century and his key role in engineering a victory for Ronald Reagan in the 1976 N.C. presidential primary -- a from-behind victory that gave Reagan credibility and momentum to successfully compete for and win the presidency four years later -- Helms was a master of political timing. So Helm's death at age 86 early on the morning of July 4th, the most patriotic national holiday, was a fitting exit for a man who -- love him or hate him -- recognized the moment and seized it often enough to transform state and national politics.
History professor Bill Link recognized this is his recent comprehensive biography of Jesse Helms. One of Link's theses is that Helms has an important place in American politics and that regardless of what you thought about him, there's not getting around how he changed the political world, made it possible for the conservative revolution to come to widespread power in ways that such luminaries of the far right as Barry Goldwater never were able to accomplish, and wound up his career actually getting a few key things done in Congress that surprised his detractors and possibly even dismayed some of his oldest conservative allies.
Here's a link to Bill Link's fine book, "Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism."