Days of autumn past

With all the leaves down and the first winter blast (such as it is here in the Piedmont) coming in, I was just thinking back to those days of autumn past–you know, three weeks ago–when the meme was all about the Blue Dogs and how they were going to rebel and how Heath Shuler represented that conservative Democrat tide.

Of course, that was all just smoke blowing out of Candy Crowley’s rear, but it’s still being repeated as if it were true. If television would have actually covered the election instead of memeing it to death, it might have noted that Shuler, like Webb, is an economic populist with heavy union backing. Yup, the Blue Dogs, who are actual Democrats, gave him $10k, but that doesn’t make him a sudden friend of the conservative elites. Check out his contributions database. Not a lot of conservative groups ponied up. So, why would he suddenly be their champion?
Former Citizen-Times columnist Jean Franklin recently put it this way:

Despite our varied opinions on government’s role in preventing abortion and gay marriage, all of these folks hold many bedrock “mountain values” in common. First of all, we are not just sick at heart, but sick at our stomachs, at the abounding corruption in Washington. We value integrity.

and adds:

Frankly, we worry that his first year will be a hard one, as Shuler encounters thousands of lobbyists. We hope and pray that he will play it cool and not become beholden to these special interests, but will stay beholden to us. Then when he runs for re-election in 2008, it will be up to us to support him again with time and money. Although many of us voted for the party this time, in two years we hope to vote for the man.

TWC: Smithfield and the House of Cards

This week’s column is a look at the recent Smithfield walkout and the economic house of cards that results from current immigration policies.

Here’s the text:

If you needed any evidence that we are at a moral, economic and political impasse over immigration, just review this month’s walkout by more than 1,000 workers at Smithfield Packing’s hog slaughtering plant in Tar Heel. It’s the latest collision between an industry built on cheap labor, a dysfunctional immigration system, and homeland security policies drafted in a reality-proof bubble.

Protesting immigration screenings that resulted in the firing of 50 workers and put 600 others on notice that their information was suspect, the mass walkout and subsequent picketing at Tar Heel is being billed as a fight over illegal immigrants. While immigration is a part of the mess, the plant’s long history of harassment, intimidation and violations of worker rights laid the groundwork for the walkout.

The Bladen County plant, the largest pork processing facility in the world, slaughters up to 32,000 hogs a day and employs about 5,500 workers. It is a world to itself–complete with its own security force and jail.

For years, the plant has made headlines in North Carolina as environmentalists have railed against the enormous amount of wastewater flowing from its killing floors into the Cape Fear River. Not so publicized in this union-phobic state has been the long-running battle over organizing attempts at the plant by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Union votes have been defeated twice at the plant, most recently in 1997, when on the day of the union vote workers were greeted at the plant gates by Bladen County sheriff’s deputies in full riot gear. A federal judge later ruled the company repeatedly used unlawful actions to preserve its non-union status.

A Human Rights Watch report in 2002 detailed dangerous working conditions at the plant, intimidation of union organizers and attempts to evade worker compensation rules.

In April of this year, a unanimous ruling by the National Labor Relations Board cited the company and a contractor for physical intimidation and using threats to call immigration authorities to bully employees.

The Tar Heel plant, already dependent on Hispanic workers, is a key part of Smithfield’s growth strategy. This year the company is on an acquisition run–on its way to becoming one of the world’s largest meatpackers. As a part of its realignment, Smithfield recently announced plans to reduce the workforce at its unionized plant in Smithfield, Va., and increase work at the non-union Tar Heel plant.

No-match, no mas
The trigger for the events this month at Tar Heel comes from a retooling of federal Social Security procedures that followed the 9/11 attacks. Under rules adopted as a result of the Patriot Act, the Social Security Administration stepped up its criteria for so-called no-match letters and notifies employers of discrepancies in Social Security accounts. In the Triangle, the new rules hit home first just before Thanksgiving 2001, with mass firings of grocery workers by Harris Teeter and Food Lion stores. There have been similar incidents around the country, but for the most part businesses resisted efforts by the feds to get them involved in immigration enforcement. Now, with federal officials honing their enforcement systems, companies are being pressured to respond. And with anti-immigration fervor reaching a new peak, the no-match letter stands to become the chief weapon for the rear guard of the Minutemen movement.

But it looks like those caught up in the no-match net aren’t just going to quietly march off to the border.

The three-day walkout this month caused production at the plant to drop by 30 percent, forcing the company to negotiate an agreement with a local representative of the Roman Catholic Church. The deal included a promise of no retaliation against those who walked out and reinstatement of the fired workers who now have 60 days to clear up discrepancies in their Social Security records.

Union organizers are ratcheting up the pressure by asking consumers to make their holiday parties Smithfield-free and calling for protests at Harris Teeter stores around the state on Saturday, Dec. 2.

(You can check out employee stories, documentation of abuses and the latest on the protests at www.smithfieldjustice.org.)

Everyone involved–the workers, the union, the church and the company management–agree that the latest solution is temporary, a little bit of wallpaper over a fissure of massive proportions.

For years, businesses and their undocumented workers have settled for a “look the other way” approach. And the feds can’t seem to come up with anything better than no-match letters and an imaginary fence at the border. Any economic system built on a workforce that can be intimidated is a house of cards. This one is on the verge of collapse.

Link to the Indy.

Morning Post: Tree on house edition

Ah, good morning. I’ve traveled back across the mountains successfully and this morning laid eyes on the tree that fell on the house during the big wind and rain last week. Long story short: It coulda be woise.

Meanwhile,

– Durable goods tank and the stock market is fixing to rumble some more
Iowa. Get it while it’s hot.
– It’s not a civil war after all: It’s a regional war. TPM deconstructs.
– DOJ slouches toward self-reflection.
– NC gets a real-deal cop for ethics office.

Oh, any tree service reccomendations are welcome.

TWC: Taxing trees

This week’s column is about some of the more messed up parts of NC tax code plus, carbon banking for the future.
Here’s the link

Here’s the text:

Taxing trees

Opening up the tax code to revision is less like getting under the hood than it is opening Pandora’s Box, but occasionally, bravely, legislators have to pop open the lid on that sucker to fix something gone awry.

Take the example of Vicki and Lee Phillips, who own a 93-acre farm in Chatham County. Because they are farmers, their land is taxed at present use value–taxed as farmland and not as a housing development. Also because they are farmers from a longtime Chatham farming family, the Phillips have a deep respect for their land.

So a few years ago, they decided to put some of the land in conservation. After consulting with their local soil and water board, they signed up for a Department of Transportation program under which the DOT pays for the purchase of a conservation easement to balance out work being done elsewhere.

Things seemed fine until the county decided that since the land was no longer in “use,” it should be taxed the same way land ripe for development is taxed. The tax value of the land shot up from $450 an acre to $3,750 an acre overnight.

The Phillips eventually went through an arduous appeal process and got the value reduced to a little more than double the original tax value, but their experience shows that the current rules and an aggressive county can combine to wipe out any incentive to put land in conservation.

The Phillips’ case was among a slew of examples spelled out in a briefing last week for the Revenue Laws Study Committee, a joint House and Senate panel looking at changes to the state revenue code.

Conservation groups are calling for changes to the use-value legislation as part of a comprehensive effort to reduce the rapid loss of “family forests” throughout the state. About 90 percent of North Carolina’s forests are in private hands, mostly small family-owned stands. Right now, lands being managed for timber and crops are eligible for the use-value rate, but lands managed for wildlife or taken out of production in the interest of clean water fall out of the program and can be taxed at a much higher rate.

Will McDow, a forest advocate with Environmental Defense, told the committee that in too many cases, the rules create a situation where the use-value program is working in direct opposition to policies advocating stream protection and conservation of the state’s private forests. McDow, co-author of ED’s “Standing Tall” report on the threat to the state’s forests, said as more counties apply the stricter standards on use value the problem is likely to accelerate.

New state bank?
Nobody in state government has drawn up the charter for the North Carolina Carbon Bank just yet, but the concept is already drawing interest. Carbon banking is a way of injecting an economic model–similar to pollution credits–into efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. The idea, along with several other innovations throughout the country, was included in a recent briefing to the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change.

The commission, headed up by Winston-Salem uberattorney John Garrou and state Rep. Joe Hackney of Chapel Hill, plans three meetings before the session. Hackney says to look for an interim report just prior to the session. “We’ll be looking for win-wins,” he says, places where there can be greater energy efficiency and efforts that business will be able to embrace.

The commission’s work dovetails with the 40-member Climate Action Plan Advisory Group, which is being managed by the state’s Division of Air Quality and led by Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources William Ross.

The science behind global climate change has its doubters. Among them is Sen. Robert Pittenger (R-Mecklenburg), who has called for a review of alternative theories. Dueling science may not be over, but no one’s disputing that the policy battle over global warming has started, especially after the recent electoral thumpin’.

Even before Democrats took control of the U.S. House and Senate, there were indications that there were going to be carrots and sticks brandished by the feds. North Carolina’s early entry into the incentive department was last year’s ethanol tax credit. Look for additional credits and incentives to be added this year. Also look for a struggle with energy producers. The state is tightening conservation and efficiency rules for its own buildings and land, but mandating that elsewhere is not popular with the industry. At a recent commission meeting, one power company exec glibly told the commission that the industry is not in the habit of encouraging people to use less of its product.

PACing them in at UNC-Chapel Hill

The Carolina PAC’s growth and influence has been pretty amazing over the past six years. I remember covering it when the big bond vote was before voters. I never thought it would outspend the Homebuilders Association or Duke Energy, but it sure has. And with no sign of slowing down.
Here’s the link to the story from the Indy including a list of top Dem and GOP candidates getting the max of $8,000. (New reports are out early next year so this will change.)
Here’s the text:

UNC-Chapel Hill’s PAC is tops in the state; leaders say they aren’t buying influence in doling out big dollars to legislators

The UNC Board of Governors last week approved its first budget request drafted under President Erskine Bowles. Such a moment is a time for unity, but there are always the carefully worded comments that underline the disparate needs and clout of a 17-campus system and the long-running tensions yet to be resolved.

Foremost among the tensions is the relationship of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State to the rest of the group. As the unanimous vote was cast for a $2.6 billion budget request, the elephant in the room was the recent dust-up over the third-quarter campaign finance report filed Oct. 30 by Citizens for Higher Education, a political action committee created six years ago by a powerful group of UNC-Chapel Hill supporters.

Since its inception, the group has grown to become the top PAC in the state–ahead of traditional top PACs like the state Medical Society, N.C. Home Builders Association and Duke Energy. The nearly $396,000 the PAC raised and spent in the 2004 election cycle put it just under the N.C. Republican Party in giving.

A Nov. 2 report by Democracy N.C., a money-in-politics watchdog group, noted that the PAC was on the way to another record, giving 17 legislators the $8,000 maximum contribution and dozens more contributions ranging from $4,000 to $6,000.

For campaign finance reformers like Democracy N.C.’s Bob Hall, it’s clear all that money is intended to do something.

“They’ve bought into the perspective that you’ve got to pay to play and that you got to pay big if you want to be a big player,” he says.

A recent, highly detailed study of UNC system governance by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research says the rise of campus PACs represents a disturbing trend.

“In effect, this returns the system back to pre-1971 days when the campus with the best lobbyist and largest alumni group won,” the report says, “only now it’s the campus with the most political action committee contributions.”

Trustee Paul Fulton says the idea of the PAC backing some secretive effort to break UNC-Chapel Hill off from the system is preposterous.

“I’ve never heard anything like that in any Citizens for Higher Education board meeting–and I’ve been in all of them,” Fulton says.

While Chapel Hill and system leaders may have some disagreements over tuition, the campus and General Administration are working on the same goals, Fulton asserts.

“Right now, I don’t know of anywhere where we’re not directly aligned,” he says.

The PAC’s contributors are a mix of big Rams, former and current UNC trustees and the invite list to a Franklin Street dinner party. The last round of fundraising and contributions won’t be reported until early 2007, but so far nearly 50 contributors have kicked in the maximum of $5,000, including trustees Fulton, Roger Perry, Tim Burnett and Nelson Schwab III. Chapel Hillians giving the max include Chapel Hill Realty’s John Cates, Resolute Building’s Dave Anna, WCHL owner Jim Heavner and former UNC officials Paul Rizzo, Robert Eubanks and William McCoy of Franklin Street Partners.

Distributions by the PAC have included longtime UNC backers like Rep. Joe Hackney and Sens. Tony Rand and Marc Basnight, but as the PAC has grown it has started to spread its money around, a trend Hall says is typical of a larger PAC.

Among the 17 candidates who got the maximum $8,000 were six Republicans, including former UNC Trustee Sen. Richard Stevens of Wake County and former House Speaker Harold Brubaker. The PAC also got involved in Republican primaries, sending $8,000 to Peter Brunstetter in Forsyth County and backing moderate Republicans like former Speaker Richard Morgan and House hopeful Steven LaRoque. Though Morgan and LaRoque lost, for the most part the PAC backed winners.

Though that may translate into access, what it might yield in the next session of the legislature is unclear.

On the short list for UNC-Chapel Hill are $12 million for planning and infrastructure for its Carolina North project and $32 million for a new 200-bed inpatient tower at UNC Hospitals. Both items are in the budget passed by the Board of Governors last week.

Although Chapel Hill’s PAC has grown into the largest, it is not the only one on the rise. Contributions from N.C. State’s PAC, Economic Development Coalition 2000, soared this cycle. Its third-quarter statement show the PAC handed out $84,000 as of Oct. 26–on its way to tripling the $30,000 in contributions recorded in 2004.