Monday, January 31, 2011

Tillis hails Florida decision on health care law

Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, hailed today's decision by a federal judge in Florida that the new federal health care law is unconstitutional. The law, Tillis said, "is bad for business in North Carolina" and said people expect the legislature to protect their right to make their own health care decisons "and protect North Carolina's economy in the process."  His remarks provide support for a House committee that wants to prevent the federal government from forcing people to purchase health care.

 The new Republican majority campaigned last year on jobs and the economy, but the House's first committee action of the session, on the health care bill, suggested a different priority. It was not so surprising that the bill came up; what was surprising was how fast the committee moved, without a public hearing or more deliberation.

The House Judiciary Committee last week approved a bill that in effect would exempt North Carolina residents from the mandate to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. It also directed the N.C. attorney general to represent North Carolinians in court if needed to enforce the bill.  That bill could come up for a vote on the House floor this week.  

Tillis's office released the following statement about the court decision:

"In the House of Representatives, we have no higher priority than to balance our budget and work to foster an environment that encourages job development. The Federal Health Care bill is bad for business in North Carolina. For over a year, North Carolinians have clearly expressed their displeasure with the Federal legislation, and as recently as this afternoon, a Federal judge in Florida expressed his concern by ruling the entire law unconstitutional. We will not stand idly and watch an unconstitutional usurpation of authority by the Federal government. North Carolinians expect us to act to protect their right to make their own health care decisions; we plan to do just that, and protect North Carolina’s economy in the process."

Readers: Give Republicans more time

Some readers of Sunday's column questioning whether anything in the legislature has changed have fired back, saying the column was too quick to judge the new Republican majority and that the proof will be what happens in the long run.
A Charlotte reader wrote:

Enjoy reading your insights about Raleigh, as always.

I would think the new Republican leaders would have gotten more than a week before the honeymoon was declared 'over' after 112 years of wandering in the Wilderness like Moses and the people of Israel.

Any time these is a transition in power in Washington or Raleigh or Charlotte, the new leaders bring with them a new vision of how they are going to run things.

 'Appointing a parliamentarian' who is an expert at legislative process as Thomas Jefferson and Madison wrote about seems to be a step in the right direction, not the wrong one.  How can a duly-elected politician really be an unbiased arbiter of 'parliamentary procedure' in any setting? When I was chief of staff for Senator Dole in Washington, we had  TWO former parliamentarians come in to brief us on Senate procedures and I can promise you, there is NO WAY in the world that any mere mortal or politician can know and the rule on all points of order without such help on a minute-by-minute basis.

The best advice though, they gave us? 'Remember this, if you remember nothing else...In the US Senate, the ONLY rule is....there are NO RULES!  Majority figure out how to get to 50%+1 and you will win every time!'

That is the essence of our democratic republic.

I think it is far too soon to hang it up on these new leaders and a tad bit 'unfair' to judge them based on their first week of organization and all that.

Give Thom Tillis and Phil Berger and the others 6 months.  If they start passing bills in the dead of night and bring in people strapped in a gurney straight from the hospital to vote; or change the legislative day in the middle of a regular session ! (Saw it once with mine own 4 eyes when Jim Wright did it in Congress circa 1989!); or start burning down opponent's tobacco-curing sheds to intimidate them somehow, well, then you can write whatever you want about the 'NEW Republicans being as bad as the 'Old Democrats' all you want.

But these guys are different.....let them work their magic for awhile before judging.

Another reader wrote:

Will the Republicans govern "behind closed doors, riding roughshod over the opposition and building the kinds of power structure they have complained about Democrats doing for years?" I noticed that you said "they" because the Observer certainly has not complained about it too much. The Observer has enhanced this way of governing by their overwhelming endorsements and cheerleading of Democrat candidates, to the point of sounding like an actual appendage of the Democratic Party.

Your lamentation is no doubt sincere; however, it has the appearance of crocodile tears, much as the Democrats calling for a non-partisan committee to handle redistricting after a century of their doing so unilaterally. Only two days after Republicans assumed control Opinion was criticizing the priority of joining the Repeal Healthcare suit before initiating legislation on jobs. Surely, time was somewhat critical in joining this suit before it went to court?

In summary, I too hope the Republicans demonstrate how it should be done. But surely they deserve some leeway here after more than 100 years of Democrat's cramdowns? Our state's image has been badly tarnished by the Democrat's corruption, brought on no doubt by absolute power, which again has been significantly assisted by Observer support.

Another wrote:

I'm sorry sir, but we must have seen two different campaigns from the Republicans. Addressing the health care debacle was one of the big planks that conservatives across the country clamoured for. I am highly pleased to see them attempting to fulfill their pledge. I wish them success! Rep. Mel Watt mailed me a summary of the health care bill that Congress used. It is a nightmare! I strongly recommend you attempt to secure a copy of it. Just look at how fast one of the Dems favorite supporters, the unions, are attempting to get out of it.

 There is, as you are no doubt aware, little that government can do to create jobs. Since they don't manufacture anything. The only artillery they have available is to lower taxes, less regulation, and low union meddling to lure jobs.

 We need to get rid of corporate taxes. No company pays them. You must know this. It is simply added to the price of the good or service, and becomes a hidden tax on all of us.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Navy again suspends work on Outlying Landing Field

For the second time in the past three years, the U.S. Navy has suspended its plans to try to place an Outlying Landing Field in northeastern North Carolina so jet pilots can practice aircraft carrier landings. In  2008, after citizens groups fought the Navy over plans to put the SuperHornet landing field near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County and politicians eventually weighed in against putting the field so near large migratory waterfowl nesting grounds, the Navy abandoned the Washington/Beaufort counties site and looked elsewhere.
Two of those new sites were in other parts of North Carolina  -- Sandbanks in Gates County and Hales Lake in Camden/Currituck counties.  The Navy said it was suspending work on the N.C. sites and in Virginia while it focuses on locating the Joint Strike Force on the West Coast.
Jeff Hampton of the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk reports that the Navy has notified local officials about the suspension.
 “This email is to provide your office notice of the Navy's decision to suspend release and stop work on the OLF DEIS for construction and operation of an outlying landing field,” according to the Navy notice. The Navy plans to locate new squadrons of the Joint Strike Fighter on the West Coast first and would not consider East Coast facilities until at least 2014, the notice said.
Local officials were glad to hear it.
“I think all of our persistence has paid off,” he said.
It was welcomed news to opponents of the project who have protested at public meetings, created websites to decry the project, lobbied state and national officials and posted "No OLF" signs along yards and road sides. As an acronym for outlying landing field, a bad word in parts of northeastern North Carolina.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Laura Dickerson, president of Citizens Against OLF in Gates County. “We’d rather see it canceled.”
In January 2008, the Navy announced plans to build an airfield where jets could safely practice aircraft carrier landings. Possible sites named were in Surry, Sussex and Southampton counties in Virginia and Gates and Camden counties in North Carolina. Opposition immediately got active. Citizen groups created No OLF websites, local governments passed resolutions against the plans, hired lobbyists to oppose them and convinced elected officials to pass bills that could either stop or delay them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

PPP: Perdue gains, still behind McCrory

Public Policy Polling reports in its latest poll that Gov. Bev Perdue is pulling closer to Republican Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor who's probably running for governor again.  Perdue's numbers -- found to be weak in the Democratic primary in a Civitas poll yesterday -- are better in a head-to-head contest with McCrory. She's behind him by 7 points, but she has recently gained 5 points, PPP's Tom Jensen reports, but she'd still lose if the election were today. But the election isn't today, and it's a long time until next year's election -- about 22 months, but in politics that's several lifetimes away.

Jensen notes, "If she's gained five points on McCrory in two months, well out from the election, then it's certainly possible that she could make up the other seven in the next 21 months. It's not going to be easy by any means but it's too early to write her off."

Here's what PPP said in a news release:

Bev Perdue continues to trail Pat McCrory in a hypothetical reelection contest, but as her approval numbers have improved over the last few months she's beginning to close the gap a little bit. McCrory leads by 7 points at 47-40. That represents a five point gain for Perdue since she trailed by 12 in a November PPP poll at 49-37.

The biggest key to Perdue's improvement is a resurgence with independents. Where she trailed McCrory by 31 points with them a couple months ago that margin is now down to 10 points. Independents were strongly supportive of the government reorganization plans that Perdue put forward to much attention a month ago and the Governor is also probably benefiting from a general warming toward Democrats from those voters since the beginning of the year. Numerous recent polls have found Barack Obama with his best numbers among independents since early in his Presidency.

Perdue's 10 point deficit with independents is actually almost identical to the 7 point loss with them we found on our final North Carolina poll in 2008. The main reason Perdue is running poorly compared to the last election is mediocre numbers with Democrats. She leads only 65-21 with them right now where she had an 80-17 advantage the last time around. Perdue's lackluster approval numbers since she took office can be blamed more than anything else on her relatively poor standing with Democrats. Finding a way to keep the party base in line over the next 21 months is probably the key to her winning a second term.

Meanwhile McCrory continues to be well liked at least with the voters that still know who he is. A plurality in the state at 45% have no opinion of him either way but among those who do 33% rate him favorably to 22% who see him unfavorably. His favorability runs 4:1 positive with Republicans at 43/11 and impressively there are almost as many Democrats- 26%- with a positive opinion of him as a negative one- 27%. A few rounds of negative advertising would likely plunge his favorability numbers across party lines pretty darn quick, but at least for now he's doing well on that front.

If the election was today Perdue would lose, pretty much no doubt about that. But it's not and I think some folks have been a little quick to write her political obituary. If she's gained five points on McCrory in two months, well out from the election, then it's certainly possible that she could make up the other seven in the next 21 months. It's not going to be easy by any means but it's too early to write her off.

For more, see:

More on 'The Great State of Meck':

Former state Rep. Lane Brown, a Democrat who represented Stanly County in the legislature and who now lives in Cheraw S.C., recalls the Great State of Mecklenburg debates in the House going back to the early 1970s -- fostered by Eastern N.C. legislators, as Brown recalls:

Enjoyed reading your piece in yesterday's Charlotte Observer ("Charlotte vs. Raleigh, again', Jan. 16), which brought back some
memories of an "exchange" on the floor during the 1971 session (my House District was the 32nd,
Stanly County):

Billy Culpepper rose from the Honorables to speak on a bill one of those short calendar days, making
some comment about "the Great State of Mecklenburg" as compared to his "Little State of Chowan"!

Holding his "fire" until the sponsor finished his remarks, "Cousin" Jim Vogler as he was affectionally
called, rose to propound a question to Culpepper, which went something like this: "Mr. Culpepper,
don't you think it unfair that my district (Mecklenburg) sends more tax dollars - sales tax, income
tax, inheritance tax - to Raleigh than all of your counties combined on the Albemarle Sound send
to the capitol?....that Mecklenburg is a 'donor county' while your little counties are 'donee' counties?"
Culpepper, caught off guard, quickly recovered, replying: "If you Mecklenburg people think you are
so ***/** big, why not just set up your own state?" Vogler, not to be outdone by the rep from down
East, finished the argument by saying: "We have this under continued consideration....". The debate
closed and the question was called.

I can recall many other occasions when the Mecklenburg quip was mentioned on the floor. Perhaps
Jimmy Greene, later as Speaker, often said when presiding: "For what purpose this time does the
Great State of Mecklenburg desire to be recognized?" The reply from some member of the delegation:
"To suspend the rules so that the Speaker might have a smoke!"  So it went, session after session.

Keep bringing us some of this good Tar Heel history and lore!

Best Regards,
Lane Brown

Let the fun begin in Raleigh

RALEIGH -- The 2011 N.C. General Assembly convenes today in Raleigh with an entirely new cast of characters in charge of the crushed marble, brass and walnut edifice on Jones Street a block north of the Capital. This marks the 35th year I have walked across Union Square and down to the Legislative Building, and begins the 18th biennial session I've covered at least part of the time since we moved to Raleigh in 1977, including a couple years writing editorials back in Greensboro.

Had I known it would be that long, I would have worn better shoes and sat down a lot more.

Those cold, hard terrazzo floors in the Legislative Building are tough on old feet and bad knees, and though I've never walked into one of the fountains that dominate courtyards inside the legislative building, as some unfortunate freshman member or unwary lobbyist does from time to time, I've found the building to be a hazard to creaky joints and aging bones.

On the other hand, the people who work there -- the clerks of the House and Senate, the serving crew in the cafeteria, the researchers in bill drafting and fiscal research, the 170 members and their staffs, the hundreds of lobbyists and the dozen or so regular members of the Capital Press Corps -- year in and year out are some of the most interesting people in this Vale of Humility Between Two Mountains of Conceit.

But this year, it changes in dramatic ways. Perhaps my great grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Betts, who preached at occasional political events round this town near the end of his long and colorful career, would have remembered the 1898 session, when Sydenham B. Alexander represented Mecklenburg in the Senate and Walter P. Craven, R.M. Ransom and J. Solomon Reid represented it in the House. It has been said that's the last time Republicans controlled the legislature, though others argue the date goes back to 1870. There are days when it feels like I've been covering the place at least that long.

But my days as a Raleigh correspondent began in the reign of James 1, when Jim Hunt had just been sworn in as governor for the first of his four terms. The town belonged to Democrats despite Republican gains a few years earlier in 1972, when voters put Republicans in the governorship (Jim Holshouser) and the U.S. Senate (Jesse Helms) for the first time in the 20th century. But in 1977, three years after the disastrous Watergate election of 1974 wiped out most Republican legislators in Raleigh, it was largely a Democratic government.

The governor was a Democrat, the lieutenant governor was a Democrat, the entire Council of State was Democratic, the courts system was headed by a Democrat and the legislature was heavily Democratic. In the Senate there were 4 Republicans and 46 Democrats; in the House there were 6 Republicans and 114 Democrats. There were 6 legislators of African American descent -- two in the Senate, four in the House, and there were 23 women -- 4 in the Senate, 19 in the House. Most but not all were Democrats.

The fortunes of Democrats and Republicans have ebbed and flowed since then. Republican Gov. Jim Martin served two terms in the 1980s and early 1990s, but otherwise Democrats have hung onto the governor's mansion. Republicans ran the House for two terms in the mid-1990s before Democrats won it back. Then in 2003 Republicans appeared to have won the House back, but a change in party by one legislator produced a deadlock and joint Democrat-Republican management in the House for two years.

Since then Democrats have run the show -- until voters put an end to that, at least temporarily and maybe for a long time, last fall. A lot depends on whether Republicans do unto Democrats what the Democrats used to do unto Republicans when it came to the decennial redistricting.

For the first time since the 19th century, Republicans will run the House and Senate. They control 99 of the 170 legislative seats, with 31 members in the 50-member Senate and 67 members, plus one independent who will likely vote regularly with them, in the House. By the way, the changes include the fact that there will be five fewer black legislators in the 2011 session and five fewer women legislators in 2011. Most of the women lawmakers are still Democrats, but one-third are Republicans.

Gov. Bev Perdue, of course, is a Democrat, as is Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. Perdue gets to propose the budget. Dalton gets to preside over the Senate. But the Republicans who run the House and Senate get to decide what passes and what fails, and for anyone who wonders what difference elections make, we're fixing to find out.

So what we have in North Carolina is genuine mixed government -- with Republicans in charge of legislating and Democrats mostly in charge of executing. Republicans who have longed for this moment -- and who yearn to win the governor’s mansion in next year’s election -- have an opportunity not only to change the direction of how North Carolina taxes its people and spends its money, but also to change how a major government institution performs. Will it be behind closed doors, riding roughshod over the opposition and building the kinds of power structures they have complained about Democrats doing for years?

The NC Coalition of Lobbying and Government reform has a list of the sort that Republicans in past years have embraced. It includes such things as no more secret meetings on the budget, making the budget public for three days before any vote is taken, no more "blank bills" to be filled in later, no more non budgetary amendments called "special provisions" allowed in the budget bill and 24 hours notice before a committee substitute can be sprung on the membership.

What I know from covering politics and government for more than four decades is that it’s hard work, no matter who’s in charge, and doing that work ethically and in a transparent fashion that lets taxpayers see what they’re doing, is harder than it sounds. It’s a lot easier to talk about reforms that create more openness and that give every legislator the chance to have his or her ideas heard on the floor or propose amendments, than it is to allow it.

But if the new Republican majority can carry through on its promises of opening up the legislature and taking better care of the public’s money and its main institutions of education and public safety, they will have earned the public’s gratitude and the right to keep running the Legislative Building on Jones Street. If they opt for manipulating the rules to squelch dissent and remain in power, if they create slush funds to help their friends and punish their enemies, as they accuse Democrats of doing, and if they act unethically in the dispatch of the public’s business, they can count on a short stay in positions of power in Raleigh.

Likewise, Gov Bev Perdue has opportunities and challenges. If she can work with the new Republican majority to balance the budget, reduce taxes, improve tax fairness and protect classrooms and provide for public safety, she will be in an excellent position for re-election -- the campaign for which, mind you, is already under way if not visibly so to the public. She may not have the choice. She has one veto to Republicans' 99 votes. But it's hard to imagine Perdue not standing up for the things Democratic governors always support: public schools, community colleges and the university system, promoting jobs, and better mental health and health care for those who cannot help themselves. Her popularity numbers haven't improved dramatically, but Republicans have yet to run the legislature for a full year. We don't know yet whether they're do a great job or make a hash of it. What Perdue and the new Republican majority do in 2011 will be major factors in who runs the joint after the 2012 election. Let the fun begin.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Obama's numbers looking better in N.C.

President Barack Obama's number are better in North Carolina, Public Policy Polling says, with more approving of his performance than disapproving. His numbers have been up elsewhere in the nation, but just now have arrived here, the company said in a news release today. It all means that Obama is in a good position for the next presidential campaign in this state even as Civitas' poll (see previous blogpost) finds that Gov. Bev Perdue, who was elected in 2008 with help from Obama's coattails, isn't doing so well among potential Democratic primary voters in 2012.

"For the first time since December of 2009 PPP finds more voters in the state approving than disapproving of him, at a 49/47 spread.

"Increased optimism about the economy in the state is helping Obama's revival. Last March a majority of voters in the state at 51% felt their personal economic situation had gotten worse since Obama took office compared to only 10% who thought it had improved. Now the portion feeling things have gotten worse for them is down to 47% and the one thinking things have gotten better is up to 16% with 37% expressing the sentiment that there's been no change for them since the President was inaugurated."

PPP also said, "Obama's gain in popularity has been fueled by voters in the center. A year ago his approval rating with moderates was 59%. Now it's up to 69%. This improvement in his standing, along with the lukewarm reaction of voters in the state to the leading 2012 Republican Presidential contenders, has him in position to repeat his surprise North Carolina victory from 2008. He leads the four most likely GOP contenders at this point by margins ranging anywhere from 3 to 9 points in this month's poll."

For more, see

Is Perdue vulnerable to a primary challenge?

Since last fall's election a lot of attention has focused on whether Gov. Bev Perdue's popularity numbers would improve significantly  and whether they would be sufficient to win reelection in 2012 especially if she faced another challenge from former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory.

Now the conservative Civitas Institute, which like the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling has a good record for its polling accuracy over the past couple of years, suggests Perdue may even have a hard time winning the Democratic primary for reelection. 

Civitas sent out a news release this morning saying that fewer than a third of Democratic and unaffiliated voters would support her in a primary.

The group said, "29 percent said they would vote for Perdue if the Democratic Primary election for Governor of North Carolina were held today.  Thirty percent said they would vote for a totally different Democrat, and 35 percent said they are undecided."

“'Governor Perdue may be in trouble if she ends up with a credible primary challenger,”' said Civitas Institute President Francis De Luca.  '“Support among Democratic and unaffiliated voters has dropped as unemployment stays high and job creation remains stalled.”"

 Civitas also said voters are evenly split "45 percent approving and 45 percent disapproving of her job performance.  This is up over her previous December 2010 job approval number of 44 percent approve-47 percent disapprove."

  For more information on Civitas polling see

 Of course, it's hard to imagine that a Democratic incumbent with as much experience as Perdue would lose in a primary for the party's nomination. For one thing, there would have to be well-financed challengers willing to take on the governor in a primary fight.  There probably will be some other Democrats in the race but so far no big-name candidates have been willing to get into the contest. And voters will have plenty of time to watch how the new Republican majority does in running the legislature for the first time since the late 1800s.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NC has 3 of South's '10 most endangered' environmental sites

The Southern Environmental Law Center rates three sites in North Carolina and one in South Carolina among the South's top 10 endangered places and at risk of "irreversible damage" in 2011. The N.C. sites include the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks, the Cape Fear River Basin in Southeastern N.C. and the Snowbird Mountains in Western N.C. In South Carolina, the group named the Santee River Basin as one of the 10 most threatened places.

"Our region is headed down a path that threatens to overwhelm the Southern landscapes we love -- our mountains, rivers, coast, and rural countryside," Marie Hawthorne, SELC's Director of Development, said in a news release Tuesday morning. "Decisions made today about how we extract and produce energy will have consequences for decades to come. The key message behind our Top Ten list is that there is still time to save these special places — but we need to act now."

For more information, click here

Here's the SELC's list:

Alabama's Coast: SELC is leading legal efforts to strengthen oversight and regulation of offshore drilling, and to ensure that nothing like the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is allowed to happen again.

Georgia's Cypress Forests: Fueled by an increase in demand for cypress mulch, timber companies are chopping down Georgia's iconic wetland forests faster than they can recover.

Oconee River, Georgia: A proposed coal-fired power plant would siphon an average of 13.5 million gallons a day from the Oconee River, robbing downstream farms and communities that depend on this resource.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina: A short-sighted bridge replacement plan would turn one of the nation's most important havens for waterfowl into a permanent highway construction zone.

Snowbird Mountains, North Carolina: An outdated highway expansion plan from the 1960s would cut four lanes of asphalt through stunning mountain terrain and would expose trout streams to acid-laden pollution.

Cape Fear Basin, North Carolina: A proposed cement plant near Wilmington would destroy 1,000 acres of wetland habitat and further pollute the Northeast Cape Fear River, which already suffers from mercury levels harmful to people and wildlife.

Santee River Basin, South Carolina: Despite available remedies, an old system of hydroelectric dams could be allowed to perpetuate decades of degradation to wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee: Mountaintop removal and other destructive coal mining practices threaten an ecosystem that is world-renowned for its rich biological diversity and rare species.

George Washington National Forest, Virginia: The film Gasland has exposed the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), a method of natural gas extraction linked to the contamination of water supplies; fracking could be on its way to the Southeast's largest public forest and the source of clean water for many Shenandoah Valley communities.

The Chesapeake Bay: SELC is assisting in overseeing the state and federal agencies charged with developing and implementing restoration plans for the Bay, which continues to suffer from pollution from air, land, and water.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mac Smith, lawmaker, dies at 92

J. McNeill Smith, one of the most remarkable lawyers and legislators the state has produced, died Saturday in Greensboro at age 92.  He defended unpopular people, helped desegregate Greensboro in the 1960s when the sit-in movement began to change the South, helped students challenging the state's unconstitutional speaker ban on college campuses and had more fun legislating than just about anyone I ever covered in four decades of writing about N.C. politics.

You can read his obit here.

Smith was a state senator from Greensboro in the 1970s when he ran for the right to challenge then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms in the 1978 election, but failed to survive a hotly contested primary.   I had grown up in Greensboro, attended the same downtown church (West Market Street Methodist) and knew his family from the early 1950s, but got to know him better in that 1978 campaign. I learned among other things that Smith had an enormous appetite.  We went to lunch one day so I could interview him about the campaign. He ate like a starving horse as I asked questions and tried to keep up with his answers. Trouble was, he asked me more questions than I asked him, and I fell behind on the barbecue.  At one point he reached for my banana pudding as he asked, "You're not going to eat this are you?"  I don't thing he gave me the chance.

He was more than just a good lawyer. He had a sharp wit, seemed to be interested in everything and was a lively conversationalist. It often seemed to me he was thinking about three sentences ahead of what he was saying.

In the 1970s he stayed with a relative who lived near the legislature, and Mac rode his bicycle back and forth to the Senate each day when the honorables were in session.  He collected old typewriters -- at one point had a garage full of them, he told me -- and when one of his daughters was about to be married, he dubbed the preparations just as expensive and almost as complicated as Operation Overlord in World War II, in which he served in North Africa and Asia.

Once at a dance in Greensboro he asked my mother-in-law, Fran Strickland, to dance. "But Mac," she said, "the music isn't playing right now."  Mac glanced around, saw that she was right and then smiled: "Evidently you are right, but can I get credit for asking?"

Friday, January 14, 2011

Harlan Boyles warned of cuts to schools, higher ed

While looking for some old clips on the long-running war of words between Charlotte and Raleigh, I came across a short piece I once wrote about State Treasurer Harlan Boyles. 

A moderately conservative Democrat of the old school, Boyles worried in 1998 about the ultimate impact of cutting taxes and raising spending on state programs, as the legislature was doing that year.  Democrats held the Senate, Republicans the House, and Boyles thought the conflicting ideas each chamber was pushing might one day lead to big problems for public schools, community colleges and the university system.  The House wanted to cut taxes sharply and the Senate wanted to raise spending sharply, even though leaders of each knew there would one day be a reckoning.

Boyles said it reminded him of "voodoo" economics" that President George H.W. Bush had warned about. "My premise is not to debate the purpose for the money, but to raise the question how we could anticipate its repayment without signaling a very large tax increase, or large reductions in state programs as they now exist. If it's the latter, the programs most likely to be affected in the future] are public education, the community college system and higher education."

His words were prescient, though it has taken 13 years to bring us to the point where there's a $3.7 billion state budget shortfall and public schools and higher education both are anticipating huge cuts in state appropriations.

Boyles was a careful man, and a smart one. And he was right.  Here's the text of that 1998 column:


 It took state Treasurer Harlan Boyles only an instant when I asked him if the N.C. General Assembly's current boost-spending and cut-taxes fervor reminded him of what George Bush once said about Ronald Reagan's economic proposals.
"Voodoo, " said Boyles. "This is fiscal policy that is totally uncharacteristic of North Carolina."

Boyles is concerned by this mindless obsession on the part of the General Assembly to (a) cut taxes in the House, and the consequences be damned, and (b) raise spending on critically needed state programs in the Senate, and the consequences be damned. And both chambers have already approved a huge new bond issue that would increase the state's indebtedness significantly.

"I find it extremely difficult to explain how we can be so aggressive in reducing taxes, and at the same time so aggressive in increasing our indebtedness, because the two do not mesh, " he said.

Boyles has been keeping track of income and the outgo for a long time. When he came to state government in the early 1950s, the state budget was about $500 million. It did not exceed $1 billion until the administration of Gov. Terry Sanford in the 1960s, and didn't hit $10 billion until the first administration of Gov. Jim Hunt.

The last biennial budget, for 1995-97, topped $37 billion. If the current General Assembly ever finishes its business and comes to an agreement on a supplementary state budget, the biennial budget from all sources (general fund, highway funds, federal funds and institutional receipts such as tuition) will top $41 billion - a $4 billion increase in just two years.

Not only that, but the state's indebtedness is zooming, too. Prior to 1993, state indebtedness from bond issues was $750 million. Since 1993, the legislature has approved and the voters have passed another $3.5 billion in bond issues. If the $1 billion clean water bond issue passes, total debt will exceed $5 billion - and the annual debt service would approach $500 million. It makes Boyles' head swim to note that's twice as much money, at least in raw dollars if not adjusted for inflation, as the annual budget when he went to work for the state.

Boyles isn't arguing that there aren't critical needs, or that the public doesn't deserve a tax cut. "My premise is not to debate the purpose for the money, but to raise the question how we could anticipate its repayment without signaling a very large tax increase, or large reductions in state programs as they now exist, " says Boyles. "If it's the latter, the programs most likely to be affected in the future] are public education, the community college system and higher education."

Every member of the N.C. General Assembly knows this. If voodoo economics does for North Carolina what it did for the federal budget deficit, we're in for a bumpy ride. But only a few are willing to stand up and squawk about it.

Among them is Rep. Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, who calls the cut-taxes-at-any-cost drive the most irresponsible thing he's seen.

And there's Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who has warned that an economic downturn will cause the legislature huge problems, akin to those of the 1990-91 legislature that faced a $1.2 billion shortfall. "With all certainty, there's going to be a downturn, and that's . . . where we'll look back and say this was a poor decision, " he says

Everybody loves tax cuts. Me too. But is it wise to keep on cutting state taxes - over $1 billion by the year 2001 - at a time when the state is trying, for instance, to bring its school system up to the the national average in teacher pay and student achievement? Can that be done by cutting future state revenue that will be needed to finance it all?

The House doesn't seem to have a problem with this contradiction. Speaker Harold Brubaker, who has pushed for repeal of the state inheritance tax because it's part of "the American Dream" to be able to pass what you've earned on to your heir without losing a chunk of it in taxation, has kept the legislature in session overlong to force the Senate to agree.

He's winning. The Senate, pushing hard for funding of Gov. Hunt's Smart Start initiative, blinked. Basnight says he didn't like it one bit, but did so to move the budget discussion along in the state's longest and least productive General Assembly session in memory. "Somebody has got to be the one to concede, " he told The News & Observer. "I hate to be the one to do it."

So the story of the 1998 General Assembly is likely to be this: It was the legislature that set the stage for huge upheavals the next time there's an economic downturn - and maybe even sooner.

Not long ago, state Sen. Tony Rand said he was reminded of what Oliver Cromwell said about the Rump Parliament in the 17th century: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing lately . . . Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"


Monday, January 10, 2011

Your constitutional right to cuss is safe

As the N&O's Anne Blythe reports here, your first amendment right to cuss has been upheld.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour ruled that a 98 year-old state law banning cursing, which specifically exempted Pitt and Swain counties (and prompted a legendary speech in the legislature in the 1970s)  is unconstitutional, or it is in Orange County, anyway. Baddour may have never known Herbert Hyde, the wise fellow who delivered that speech, but the two would have agreed on the constitutionality of the law.
Blythe reports:

"The case stems from an incident that took place in Chapel Hill last February on Franklin Street, the college town's main drag.

"Samantha Elabanjo, a 44-year-old woman familiar to police officers, was having a conversation near a bus stop and stepped into the street as a squad car approached. The officers in the car told her to move along, according to lawyers involved with the case, and she used a bit of profanity while calling their car 'dirty.'
Then, Elabanjo stepped back onto the sidewalk, waved her arms wildly and uttered another curse word to describe the officers.

"Officers initially charged Elabanjo with disorderly conduct and using 'indecent or profane language' in a 'loud and boisterous manner' within earshot of two or more people on any public road or highway - a misdemeanor in North Carolina.

"At Elabanjo's trial in July, an Orange District Court judge dismissed the disorderly conduct charge, but found her guilty of using profanity in the street, not the sidewalk.

"Elabanjo appealed the conviction to Superior Court, and Judge Allen Baddour heard the case Monday. He dismissed the charge and on Wednesday issued a three-page ruling, a document that arrived in the mail at the ACLU late Friday."

The state law exempting Pitt and Swain counties from the cussing ban was the topic of an impassioned 1973 speech by then-Rep. Herbert Hyde, D-Buncombe, a noted orator who could quote the King James version of the Bible, Shakespeare and his Great Uncle Fide Hyde to make an often colorful point. The writer Thad Stem once said Hyde had the eyes of Will Rogers and the tongue of Mark Twain.

Hyde ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1976 and later served in the state Senate. But his speech -- often known as the "Mr. Speaker, there oughta be somewhere a person can cuss without breaking the law" speech -- will go down in state political history as a marvel of restraint.  Hyde was arguing against a bill that would include Pitt and Swain counties in the law that made it a crime to cuss in public. After his speech, the House agreed and left Pitt and Swain as sanctuaries of strong speech.

In that 1973 speech to the House, Hyde conceded what Baddour would conclude this year: The law itself was unconstitutional.  "But the folks in Swain wouldn't want me to stand on that kind of technicality and I'm not going to do that," Hyde told the House.

"But there ought to be a refuge somewhere a man could go and when he really is provoked that he can say something with impunity. There's only two places left  Pitt and Swain. One in the East and one in the West. I think it's most appropriate."

The last time I saw Herb Hyde was at a dinner organized by former House Rules Chair Jack Hunt and his wife Ruby, of Lattimore in Cleveland County.  Hyde always looked to me like one of the founding fathers -- a wise man who had seen some of everything there was to see, and could still make an entertaining speech out of it. My guess is if he were around today, he'd endorse Judge Baddour's ruling, proclaim victory and light up a cigar.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Conservative icon critical of GOP freshmen, including N.C.'s Ellmers

Richard Viguerie, who often sets the standard for conservative thought in the United States, is critical of a group of freshmen Republican lawmakers, including North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers, for getting off on the wrong foot at the start of the new congressional session. Viguerie pioneered in direct mail fund-raising and campaigning and founded Conservative Digest in 1976. .

Writing on his Web site, Viguerie said Ellmers and 10 other GOP first-termers "may be prone to old thinking" by concentrating on fundraising instead of doing the business voters sent them to Washington to handle. Fundraising is a necessary part of politics, but providing leadership is even more important, he said.

Ellmers, who campaigned against the kinds of logrolling in Washington that involve fund-raising from special interests, attended a $2,500 per head reception for her and her colleagues Tuesday night, and later told a reporter she didn't like having to raise money, but that's part of staying in politics. She's right, but after campaigning against the practice (she accused Etheridge of receiving $500,000 in special interest PAC money), she was quick to engage in it herself. She'll have a hard time living that down.. 

Here's part of what Viguerie said:

Some Freshmen GOP Off on the Wrong Foot
By Richard A. Viguerie

Conservatives and Tea Partiers are looking forward to the accomplishments of the new Republican House, but some new members just seem to be looking forward to campaign cash.

One of incoming freshman Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R-Calif.) first moves upon arriving in Washington in these austere times was to throw a rather lavish fundraising party—before even casting his first vote as a congressman.

We conservatives gave the Democrats a “shellacking” and elected new Republicans to change the culture in Washington, but the timing of this fundraising party shows that some of the young blood in Congress may already be prone to old thinking.

The new Republican Congress’s primary focus should be the business of restoring constitutionally limited small government, reducing the national debt and getting the government off our backs, but instead Denham and some other freshmen Republicans seem more concerned about holding onto their seats of power.

While Speaker Boehner wisely declined to attend this gathering, about a dozen incoming Republicans, some of whom had Tea Party support during their campaign, committed to attending—including Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Robert Dold (R-Ill.), Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), Jeff Landry (R-La.), Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), David Rivera (R-Fla.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.), Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) and Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.).

Fundraising is a necessary part of politics, but providing leadership is even more important.

Republicans who received the support of grassroots conservatives and Tea Party groups did so because of their promises to take action on behalf of the people and address our concerns. We need to know that these politicians are serious about those promises, and not just looking to win elections.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Bowles: 'Ain't nobody listening'

Former UNC President and Charlotte businessman Erskine Bowles marked his first day of retirement -- thought to be an exceedingly short retirement by those who know him well -- by speaking to hundreds of people at the 9th Annual Economic Forecast Forum sponsored by the North Carolina Chamber and the N.C. Bankers Association.

Bowles said new UNC President Tom Ross, former President of Davidson College, asked him recently what it was like to be president of the 17-campus UNC system.

Bowles said it was like being "CEO of a cemetery.... You've got lots of people beneath you, but ain't nobody listening."
Bowles can surely be forgiven the graveyard humor.  He has just finished months of work with former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming figuring out a plan for dealing with huge federal debt, and so far the plan has drawn a lot of detractors who seem more interested in preserving their turf and their entitlements than in dealing with what Bowles warned is a crippling burden -- a cancer that will "destroy our country from within."

Rucho snags another plum committee in 2011 Senate

Mecklenburg state Sen. Bob Rucho of Charlotte has picked up another plum assignment in the upcoming General Assembly. He will cochair, with Cabarrus Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, the Senate Finance Committee, which handles tax legislation. It's an important post, one that reflects the 2011 Senate leadership's confidence in both Hartsell, a veteran legislator beginning his 11th term in the Senate, and Rucho, who is beginning his seventh term, including a portion of a term served when he was appointed to a vacancy.

Rucho will also chair the Senate Redistricting Committee in the 2011 session.

Sen. Phil Berger, who will be the Senate president pro tem in the first Senate session that Republicans have controlled in more than a century, made the appointments Monday morning.

“Senators Rucho and Hartsell are both capable, experienced legislators ready to lead the Senate Finance Committee with a clear vision for putting our state’s economy back on firm footing,” he said.

Berger has named experienced legislators who have had good ideas in the Senate to run key committees, and the pairing of Rucho and Hartsell to chair the Finance Committee is interesting. Rucho has strong conservative credentials with a reputation for energy and passion on issues. Hartsell is one of the Senate's best lawyers who managed to get legislation passed regularly when Democrats were in charge.

No surprise: Thigpen goes back on Court of Appeals

Gov. Bev Perdue has reappointed Raleigh lawyer Cressie Thigpen to the N.C. Court of Appeals, as expected. She first appointed Thigpen to the court last summer to fill a vacancy created when Court of Appeals Judge Jim Wynn was confirmed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. But Thigpen lost the seat in the fall election in a 13-candidate free-for-all race in the first statewide contest to be determined by the Instant Runoff Voting process. Voters could vote for their first, second and third choices for the job, and though Thigpen led the balloting on the first round, he had only 20 percent of the vote. When the second and third choices were tabulated, former Appeals Court Judge Doug McCullough, who had lost in the 2008 election, won the seat.

But another vacancy occurred when Court of Appeals Judge Barbara Jackson won the N.C. Supreme Court seat vacated by Justice Ed Brady, who chose not to run for reelection. Perdue named Thigpen, a former law partner of former N.C. Speaker of the House Dan Blue, to the Jackson seat Monday.

In a news release Perdue said, "I am pleased to reappoint Judge Thigpen to the Court of Appeals. He’s earned the respect of his colleagues at the court and his distinguished career both as a judge and an attorney will continue to be of great benefit to this state.''