Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fortune mag on 'the Great North Carolina Power Grab'

North Carolina's bid to recapture the Yadkin River and the power plants operated by Alcoa Power Generating Inc. has stirred up huge controversy over the past couple of years, and it won't be decided until sometime in 2011 at the earliest. A state water permit is tied up in an N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings procedure, and Gov. Bev  Perdue's administration continues to hope for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decision rejecting a new license for Alcoa to operate the hydroelectric plants on the Yadkin.

In the current issue (Dec. 6, 2010)  of Fortune magazine, journalist Ken Otterbourg, a former Raleigh correspondent and managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, writes through the power struggle in a seven-page text-and-photo spread under the headline "Alcoa and the Great North Carolina Power Grab."  Here's a link.

In part, Otterbourg writes,
Alcoa bristles when its opponents say that the company acts as though it owns the river and the water. It doesn't, but the license gives it substantial water rights and a powerful negotiating position for changes to those rights. State officials can imagine a time during the life of the next license when North Carolina might need to use the Yadkin as a major water source, and they don't relish having to possibly pay Alcoa for revenue lost when water is diverted from the turbines.

Water rights were just one part of a 2007 settlement agreement that Alcoa hammered out after five years of meetings with property owners and governments. The state of North Carolina, which is now fighting to strip Alcoa of its license, signed the agreement. Twice. Stanly County didn't sign and has sued the state. It says Alcoa's industrial legacy has left the land and water polluted, and that state regulators looked past that record when granting the company a key permit. Alcoa disputes those allegations and is assisting the state in its defense, helping one North Carolina agency while it fights others.

And for Perdue and her team, there is this slightly inconvenient truth: Federal regulators have never taken back, or recaptured, a license. The Federal Power Act contains a brief section that addresses the process, which requires congressional approval, but there's no precedent for how it might actually work.

Alcoa's opponents say that regulatory complexities aside, the morality of their argument couldn't be clearer. Alcoa, they say, had a deal with Stanly County and by extension the state of North Carolina when the license was granted in 1958. It got to use the river to make power to provide local jobs. And with the jobs gone, the company doesn't deserve the license.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Perdue trails McCrory by 12 in first poll of 2012 race

Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory leads Gov. Bev Perdue in a head-to-head matchup in a new poll by Public Policy Polling. Here's a link.

PPP analyst Tom Jensen says this first poll in the potential 2012 race puts McCrory "well ahead" of Perdue by 12 points, partly because of Perdue's weak approval ratings.  Perdue also would trail Republican chairman Tom Fetzer, but it would be a lot closer.

Here's text of what Jensen has to say:

PPP's first poll of the 2012 Governor's race in North Carolina finds Pat McCrory well ahead of Bev Perdue in a hypothetical rematch of their 2008 contest, 49-37. Perdue also trails NC GOP chair Tom Fetzer in a possible contest, although only by a 42-40 margin.

Part of the reason for Perdue's dicey early standing is her continued poor approval ratings. Only 33% of voters in the state approve of the job she's doing while 49% disapprove. But the other part is that Pat McCrory is a pretty well liked politician. Although a lot of folks have already forgotten who he is- 45% of voters in the state have no opinion of him- those who do remember him from 2 years ago generally look upon him fondly. 34% have a favorable view of him to only 20% with a negative one. Republicans (49/11 spread) and independents (34/18) are pretty overwhelmingly positive toward him and even with Democrats there are almost as many- 24%- with a positive opinion of him as there are- 27% with a negative one.

McCrory leads Perdue 58-27 with independents. By comparison PPP's final 2008 poll found him up just 7 points on Perdue with them. McCrory is also getting 25% of Democrats, compared to 17% we found him with on our final 2008 poll. And McCrory also does a good job of keeping Republicans in line- Perdue gets only 5% of the GOP vote at this point in time, compared to 10% she was receiving at the end of the last election.

There's not a lot of doubt that McCrory would defeat Perdue if the election was held today. But of course it's not. Earlier this month the Governor of Arizona, who had trailed by a good deal in polling throughout much of 2009, and the Governor of Illinois, who trailed by a good deal in polling throughout pretty much all of 2010, were both reelected. Perdue has a lot of work to do with Democrats and independents between now and November of 2012, but it's not impossible for someone in her current position to win reelection.

The most interesting thing about Fetzer's numbers might be that as many press conferences as he held this year, 70% of voters across the state don't know who he is. And when you get outside the Triangle that number rises closer to 80%. Democrats dislike Fetzer more strongly (8/27) than Republicans like him (16/9). Independents have a dim view of Fetzer as well at 9/16. Given McCrory's strength Fetzer's electoral prospects in 2012 might look brighter in a race for Lieutenant Governor than the big office.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Poll finds wide support for redistricting commission

You might have seen where the leaders of the 2011 General Assembly -- don't plan to do what they once urged the legislature to do when it was controlled by Democrats: give the job of drawing new legislative and congressional districts to an independent, nonpartisan commission. Always seemed like a good idea to me, despite the new problems it might well bring. Legislators have made such a hash of it over the years that giving the job to an independent panel made some sense. But Republican point out that there's no way to amend the Constitution and delegate the job to an independent organization before the legislature has to come up with its own maps in mid-2011.

They're right to that extent, but nothing prevents them, as a number of folks have pointed out, from naming an advisory panel to propose maps for the upcoming redistricting process.

Anyway, Public Policy Polling wondered what the people think. And they found out that Democrats, Republicans and Independents all support the idea -- independents most especially. Here's analysis from Tom Jensen at PPP:

Democrats, Republicans, and independents in North Carolina don't all agree on much these days but there is one thing: they all think the state would be better served by an independent commission in charge of redistricting than continuing to have the Legislature draw up the lines.

49% of voters in the state think an independent commission is the way to go compared to only 21% who want legislators to continue doing it. 30% express no opinion one way or the other. The desire to reduce the influence of politics in redistricting is held by Democrats by a 47/24 margin and by Republicans by a 41/20 margin. The most overwhelming support for such a measure comes from independents, who favor it 69/15.

Phil Berger has historically supported an independent commission but now says there won't be time to create one in 2011 when Republicans will take control of the legislature. A plurality of voters in the state support a solution to Berger's concern about timing- having a special session of the legislature before the end of this year to create the commission and get the process rolling. 40% of voters in the state say they'd support calling the legislators back to deal with the issue to only 27% who are opposed and 33% who don't offer an opinion one way or the other. Democrats (44/24) and independents (46/29) are both pretty strongly in support of that action while Republicans divide evenly (31/31) on it.

North Carolinians want an independent redistricting commission and they're open to taking some unusual steps to get one in place before the next round of line drawing- December could be a whole lot more interesting on the political calendar this year than it usually is.

For more: http://publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com/2010/11/nc-support-special-session-on.html

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Former Congressional candidate says Tillis likely next speaker

Carl Mumpower, an Asheville Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Democrat Health Shuler, has kept up his commentary on American and N.C. politics regularly -- and how he's attacking Republican Rep. Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg as a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) although he also says he thinks Tillis is going to become the next speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives. Mumpower is a family psychologist whose site is called The Candid Conservative.

 Mumpower says Tillis first won his House seat with the help of former House Co-Speakers Jim Black, a Democrat, and Richard Morgan, a Republican, and defeating former Republican Rep. John Rhodes of Mecklenburg, an early critic of Black who was the first (or at least among the very first) to call for Black's resignation.

But the problem for many House Republicans is that they owe a lot to Tillis, a pro-business, no-nonsense lawmaker who quit his job in order to devote full time to raising money and campaigning for a Republican majority in the legislature. They won's the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century in large measure thanks to Tillis's organizational skills, his salesmanship and his hard work on the campaign trail. He differs from Rhodes in many respects, including his ability to get things done. If Tillis wins the speakership, it will be because of that, not how he got to Raleigh or with whose help. 

Here's what Mumpower is saying on his Podomatic podcast site:

North Carolina Republicans have just achieved  their first legislative majority in 100 years.  Following a long-standing Democrat tradition of institutional graft, tarheel elephants have a golden opportunity to return the state to sanity. 

Instead, there are early indications that power, popularity, and profit are, once again, moving to trump principle.  Charlotte Representative Thom Tillis has stepped into the batter's box for the Speaker of the House position - he's favored to win. 

Conservatives with a hand on NC's heart may remember this gentleman was plugged into office by Democrat Speaker Jim Black and a coalition of big pocket RINO's.  In a primary, Tillis helped rid future jailbird Black of his nemesis, Representative John Rhodes, a stalwart conservative with a courage button. 

It is telling that Tillis rose in the Republican ranks while an authentic conservative was discarded by the Party.  The fact that RINO Tillis is likely to win the seat of power, tells us even more about what we can expect from NC's new elephant majority...

GOP lawmaker suggests House rules changes first

State Rep. John Blust, a Guilford County Republican, has been pushing for House rules changes for years that would open up the process, give minority legislators as well as those in the majority a better chance to have their amendments heard and give legislators more time to consider appropriations bills before they have to cast a yea or nay vote.

 From where I sit in the press gallery, they've looked like good ideas to boost democracy and make sure every legislator gets a chance to have his or her ideas at least aired.  But they probably don't look so good to those who have to run the sometimes fractious 120-member House, where party discipline is an important factor in moving the chamber's work along, making sure the majority rules in an efficient way and passing a budget before the end of the fiscal year.

Now, with an important Republican caucus coming up Saturday to in effect choose those who will run the House the next two years, Blust is asking his GOP colleagues to change the rules first.

In an email to those elected to the 2011 House , Blust said, 
"I propose that we adopt the changes I outline in the attachment prior to proceeding to a vote on our leadership positions.  I hope all those seeking a leadership position will provide the caucus with their reaction to these proposals before Saturday’s caucus.  All caucus member should feel free to provide me your feedback on these.  They are not written in stone.  Each of the proposed changes can be backed up by a specific abuse or a multitude of abuses which I have personally witnessed while serving in the legislature."

It'll be interesting to see if Blust's party is any more interested in his proposed changes than Democrats were; many of his ideas were ignored by most Democrats in past sessions, but that doesn't mean they weren't good ideas.
For those who have the time for a long read, here's what Blust has in mind:
Proposed Rules Changes for Republican House Caucus

Republicans will control the North Carolina legislature for the first time in more than a century when the legislature convenes on January 26. This control comes about as the State is facing its most difficult budget challenge in over 75 years. Decades of Democrat mismanagement and obstruction of sound, common-sense proposals to address problems facing this State have created a backlog of needed legislation. Democrat corruption has run rampant and the people’s trust in government has fallen precipitously. Our voters elected us to address these pressing matters because the Democrats refused to act. Much of this deplorable situation has its roots in the hegemony that a select few have had over the NC House and NC Senate. We must act quickly to chart a new course. The first thing we must do as a caucus is to restore the North Carolina House as a deliberative body in which the will of the majority, rather than the compulsive power of a few, is what controls the outcome of the legislative process.

We have many fine members seeking leadership positions. Those seeking these positions need to be the servants and facilitators of the caucus members. We are 68 in number and none of us has superior knowledge over all the other 67 combined. I do not think any of our members would abuse power to the extent of the past Democrat leaders; nevertheless, it is important to guarantee that this will not happen through a deliberative process based on rules. Those seeking leadership can guarantee this by supporting proposed changes that will devolve power.

I therefore propose that before we proceed to elect leadership, we as a caucus agree to certain matters which our elected leaders can then be elected with the commitment to observe. These entail the following changes to the House Rules and operations we can agree to adopt:

1. The caucus will control the appointment of committee chairmen and the committee assignments of its members. We can have a select committee of our leadership to take the requests of our members and prepare a proposed committee set-up to bring back to the next caucus meeting for approval. Committee chairmen and committee members can thereafter only be removed and replaced by a vote for the caucus for cause. This makes clear that committees work for the caucus, not one person. This will help ensure that committee chairmanship is based on merit, not favoritism based upon who a member backed for Speaker.

2. House office assignments will be made by choice of the caucus members in the order of seniority, subject to some special assignments based on committee chairmanships. This will mean no member owes his/her office to one person and will eliminate the possibility of deal-making for office space.

3. Seating in the chamber will be by choice of the members in the order of seniority.

4. Allow it to be possible for a House member to move bills that have majority support from a committee so that one person cannot block the flow of legislation. Allow a discharge petition, which brings a bill to the House floor, if 61 members sign it. Allow rule 39 to actually work in which a member can move the House for removal of a bill from a committee. Allow a committee to vote to put a bill on its agenda. Republicans should have a two-vote majority on all but the Ethics Committee. Require that a committee hold a vote on any bill that meets a certain threshold of support – say, 30 co-sponsors.

5. Ensure that the rules and the calendar control the flow of legislation, rather than the will of one or two members. The calendar should be followed except by leave of the House to vary the order.

6. Provide that the budget will actually be prepared by the Appropriations subcommittees, not in a back room somewhere. Allow transparency by allowing a minimum time for members to review a proposed budget bill. At least 72 hours should be allowed before a vote on the conference report on the budget can be held. Require approval of the full House before any new rules on budget debate can be imposed. Allow some minimum of debt and proposed amendments to the budget. Prohibit the budget from containing substantive law changes which should be in stand-alone bills.

7. Require some minimum debate be allowed before the question on a matter can be called.

8. Do away with the prohibition on floor amendments that change the long title of a bill, which has prevented members not on a committee which passes out a bill from being able to influence the provisions of that bill. The germaneness rule will still cover proposed amendments.

9. Make clear in Rule 6 that the Speaker’s "general direction of the hall" does not override the need for the Speaker to observe the House Rules. Require the Speaker to recognize House members for business that is in order under the rules. Require the Speaker to state the precise reason when the Speaker rules a member’s proposal out of order. Allow a majority, rather than two-thirds, to overrule the ruling of the chair (We will have 68 votes anyway).

10. (This is not a House Rule but should be a caucus rule.) Allow the caucus to approve hirings of the Speaker. (Remember Black’s secret hiring of a House historian in a make-work position to silence a crony. Also remember the bloated staff and outrageous salaries of Hackney. Remember the secret bonuses of Basnight in a year state employees had salary freezes.)

These proposals should not be interpreted as a slap at anyone running for our leadership. Perhaps none of our candidates would do some of the untoward things we have seen in the past. But these proposals will provide us with a guarantee, not just a promise. They will also send a strong signal to the public that we intend to be different – to be better and provide better government than North Carolina has seen in the past several years. These changes will also prevent the pay-to-play regimen of the Democrats which we pledged to end in our ten-point plan.

I therefore move the adoption of a caucus resolution that we approve the above-listed ten items before we elect our leadership and that our elected leaders accept the positions to which they may be elected subject to these proposed ten points. If we agree to these changes, who we elect as Speaker will not be as critical as it has been in the past when it has literally been the whole ball game. It will make it easier to unify around our leadership, because no member will have to worry about having backed a non-prevailing candidate. The rights and privileges we all were awarded by our voters at the ballot box will be protected.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Queen City compliment from Richmond

When about 200 people attended a Southeast High Speed Rail Conference Tuesday in Richmond, Va.'s Greater Richmond Convention Center, they were given a welcome by City Council President Kathy Graziano -- and heard her pass along a nice compliment about Charlotte. Graziano was reciting the value of, among other things, good transit systems in growing cities and mentioned the role of public transportation in improving the quality of life in a number of places in the southeast. That's one of the factors, she said, that has "changed Charlotte from a very nice city to a great city."

The meeting at the convention center featured updates on the progress of turning long-neglected rail corridors into popular rail links between population centers. When Virginia recently contracted with Amtrak to restore passenger rail service between Lynchburg and Washington, the public response far exceeded expectations. That reflected, said Thelma Drake, Virginia Director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, a recognition that the fastest way to get into the traffic-choked Northern Virginia area and the District of Columbia is a rail car, not a passenger car.

Virginia's experience mirrors -- and exceeds -- North Carolina's experience with rail traffic between the capitals of government and commerce. The Raleigh-Charlotte route has long been popular and rates among Amtrak's best -- and when the state introduced this summer a third set of trains making daily round-trips in the middle of the workday, ridership increased yet again. What surprised rail planners, says Patrick Simmons of the N.C. Department of Transportation's Rail Division, is that many college students along the route have begun using the train service to commute to some of the 13 campuses along the Raleigh-Charlotte route.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Don't cut, but increase school funding, Justice Center argues

With a $3.6 billion budget shortfall facing the upcoming 2011 General Assembly, the worst-kept secret in Raleigh -- make that the Western Hemisphere -- is that the legislature will be making significant cuts. Republicans won both the House and Senate for the first time in more than a century in the Nov. 2 election, and they'll be looking at every part of the budget to make necessary cuts, they say.

But the N.C. Justice Center argues in a new report that not only should legislators not cut the public schools' budget, they ought to increase funding for schools. The center's Education & Law Project says in a news release that the state's education system is "one of the worst-funded in America" and that the state's school funding formula "is one of the most complex and least effective at aiding needy students." And the report says this state lags behind its immediate neighbors: South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia.

To be found online at www.ncjustice.org, the report, "North Carolina's Public School Funding System: Underfunded, Unclear, and Unfair," argues that the state needs an increase in overall funding, says Matthew Ellinwood, a Justice Center policy analyst.

Specifically, the report says Census data show North Carolina to be "45th in the nation in per‐pupil spending and 43rd in the nation in per‐pupil expenditure as a share of personal income. North Carolina ranks behind other southern states including South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky. "

Friday, November 05, 2010

1984 Senate race's see-saw polling

Last week's column about negative campaign ads in North Carolina mentioned some ugliness in the 1984 U.S. Senate campaign between Gov. Jim Hunt and U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Among the topics were the Hunt campaign's tough ad on Helms' friend Roberto D'Aubuisson in El Salvador, Helms' "White Hands" ad and that episode when quirky newspaper editor Bob Windsor printed unsubstantiated rumors about Hunt, which Windsor later retracted and apologized for.

Former Helms strategist Carter Wrenn, whose latest success is Renee Ellmers' apparent upset win of 2nd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Bobby Etheridge (there's to be a recount, evidently), sent an e-mail with some interesting information about those 1984 events.

"I read your column 'First in Fights: NC's scurrilous campaign ads,' and here's a footnote to history: We polled just before Bob Windsor called Jim Hunt gay, and Jesse was even with Hunt (for the first time). We polled again after and Jesse trailed Hunt by ten points. (Windsor's smear didn't tarnish Hunt's image, it hurt Jesse.) Then Hunt put on his 'dead bodies' ad and we polled again and Jesse was even."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The election that could not quit: Court of Appeals

And you thought the election was over Tuesday night? Nope. In one race for the N.C. Court of Appeals seat once held by now-U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jim Wynn, the only thing Tuesday's election determined is that current incumbent Cressie Thigpen of Raleigh got more votes than the 12 other candidates, but not enough to win the seat. It could be weeks -- maybe after Thanksgiving -- before we know.

This is the race, you may recall, that had 13 candidates vying for the seat in the United States' first statewide use of something called Instant Runoff Voting.  Instead of determining a winner by whichever candidate got the most votes, or by having a runoff that might not have been held until December, the appeals court seat contest allowed voters to cast ballots for their first, second and third choices on the court. If no one got enough to win (50 percent on the first tally), then the second and third choices would be computed to determine the winner.

The worry was that a lot of voters would have a hard time casting ballots in this kind of election. And because there's usually a significant dropoff of voters from the highest-ranked contest on the ballot, such as president or governor or senator, down to the statewide judicial races, some expected that as many as half of N.C. voters would not bother to cast ballots in this race.

That fear was misplaced. While there was indeed a falloff of voters from the 2,642,527 in the U.S. Senate contest, as shown on the State Board of Elections website Thursday, to 1,931,382 in the Instant Runoff Voting race with 13 candidates, the fact is that that race drew more voters than two other contests for Court of Appeals.  The race between incumbent Judge Rick Elmore and law clerk Steven Walker, which Elmore won, drew 1,767,451 voters, while the race between incumbent Judge Martha Geer and challenger Dean Poirier, which Geer won, drew 1,863,016.  One other race, between incumbent Judge Ann Marie Calabria and District Judge Jane Gray, which Calabria won, drew 1,939,616.

One reason the Instant Runoff Voting race drew more voters, rather than much fewer as some had feared, is probably the fact that there were so many choices. Rather than discouraging voters entirely, it may have made voters look for someone they knew -- or at least had heard of.  Thigpen led with about 20 percent of the vote; former Court of Appeals Judge Doug McCullough drew about 15 percent; and lawyer Chris Dillon came in third with about 10 percent of the vote.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tar Heel "Flying Bishop" remembered in Alaska

The Rev. William Jones Gordon Jr., a native of Spray in Rockingham County that's now part of a town called Eden, was known for many things. He was an Episcopal priest, UNC graduate and, at age 29, became the young bishop of Alaska -- said to be the youngest bishop in the church.  At first he served his flock via dogsled and riverboat, but in time gave it up to reach them faster and farther by flying.  So in time he became known as the "Flying Bishop," flying his canary yellow Piper PA-20 into remote places to bring cargo, provisions and the Word of God to folks in the back country.

They celebrated Gordon's life last week in Fairbanks, where they hung a Piper from the ceiling at the Morris Thompson Visitors and Cultural Center. Above is a picture by Sam Harrel, captured from the newsminer.com's website.  Mary Beth Smetzer of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has the story here. 

Often when the Piper would come flying in to a village, the children would come running to greet the bishop, one speaker said at the celebration. But it usually wasn't their eagerness for religious services, he said; they were clamoring for the doughnuts the bishop would bring with him as a treat.

Gordon, who died in 1994, is buried at Point Hope, Alaska, but his family had strong ties to the Tar Heel state. His father was a well known priest for whom a bridge in Rockingham County is named. His great grandfather was a governor of North Carolina during the Civil War -- Henry Toole Clark.  Jone's son, William Jones "Bill" Gordon III, a classmate of mine at UNC Chapel Hill (Class of 1968) was master of ceremonies.

Monday, November 01, 2010

South of the Border ad across the line?

Just when you thought you'd seen everything in politics comes a mailer from the N.C. Republican Party Executive Committee that portrays Democratic legislative candidate Chris Heagarty of Raleigh wearing a sombrero and supposedly mouthing the words "mucho taxo."  It's evidently meant as a play -- a crude one -- on the Pedro character from South Carolina's South of the Border complex just off I-95.  A headline says, "Bucky sez  Heagarty loves high taxes!" and "We're giving a huge advantage to our neighbors South of the Border."

You can see a copy of the mailer on the Independent's website here

It sad to think that the party of Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin has to resort to this kind of base, racist, emotional appeal, especially in an election when the party has so many other things going for it. I think the Republican Party is about to win a lot of legislative seats and may take over both houses of the legislature; why the party's elders would allow that potential success to be tainted by this kind of mailer is beyond my understanding, other than to recognize that this has become par for the course in Tar Heel politics. Sad.