Category Archives: Columns

The NC trend is less Democrats, more reliable Democratic voters

Registration numbers have been a focus of late, especially in the battleground states.
I can’t speak for how the numbers work in other states, but I do know that if you think that lower numbers of Democrats in North Carolina mean less Democratic votes, you’d be wrong.
The quirky trend of the Old North State for the past two decades or so is that the people migrating here tend to be more reliable Democratic voters than the natives. There was a very good Public Policy Polling study of this in 2008 and what they found holds today. It’s also likely accelerating. The most recent PPP look at the presidential race has the president leading his challenger by a huge margin among the people who have been here ten years or less.

From this month’s Exile on Jones Street Column in the Indy, which came out this week:

Following the rout of 2010, GOP strategists maintained that Obama’s win in North Carolina was an anomaly driven by unusually high turnout. They pointed to a drop in Democratic registrations.

But as the PPP study points out, the people moving here, even independents, are proving to be more reliable Democratic voters than the natives. Born and bred Tar Heels came of age in what was historically a one-party state; if you wanted a say in legislative or county commissioner races, you registered as a Democrat so you could vote in the primary.

That same dynamic identified in 2008 is at play this year. The recent PPP poll on the presidential race notes that Obama and Romney are tied 47-47 for the native vote. The president’s lead can be attributed to an edge among non-native voters, including a 66-to-27-percent lead among those who’ve been here less than 10 years.

There’s a lot of things to note in the registration outlook and the demographic changes, but one that gets little mention is that all the recruiting the state is doing and the new jobs coming to the state – our rapid growth over the past 30 years – is starting to have a real impact on out politics.

The session boilt down and a look into the future

Always a joy to try and wrap up a legislative session in 1200 or so words. This month’s Indy column is just that, with a focus on the last day or so of the short session and what the future portends.

Independent Weekly: A summer of mayhem courtesy of the N.C. Legislature

For an example of the damage an unchecked majority can do when it moves in lockstep, consider the last 30 or so hours of the recent session of the North Carolina General Assembly.

During the homestretch in Raleigh, the Legislature gutted racial justice legislation, defunded Planned Parenthood again, thumbed its nose at forced sterilization survivors and climate-change science, doled out dozens of anti-regulatory favors and not only fast-tracked fracking, but also packed a new board to oversee it with people very friendly to the oil and gas industry.

Some Further Thoughts
I’ve been trying to think through what next year’s session will look like. The election of 2012 should mean a few more Democrats in both the House and Senate, especially if turnout gets to 2008 levels. After that, there’s a major fork in the path of prediction depending on whether Dalton or McCrory wins the race for governor. That’s going to dictate a lot of what happens in the session. By far, the most chaotic outcome would be a McCrory win along with a tightening of the minority/majority margin in the House. You have some big egos and ambitious people in the mix and once you add the possibility that Tillis and Berger are looking at a challenge to Hagan, you’ve got extra volatility. It’s a scenario that could lead to some big initiatives, most likely in education and tax policy, if the players decide to scratch each others’ backs for pet projects.

A Dalton win, even with a sizable gain in the legislature, yields something more like the grind it out style we’re seeing now. North Carolina has a traditionally weak governorship and even with a veto, it’s still pretty much the General Assembly’s world that we’re all living in. It has not been pretty, but even a few more Democratic votes means a lot more breathing room against overrides. Primaries and retirements reduced the number of likely defections. That said, I think we’ll see Dalton walk a fine line on vetoes, taking out some of the social policy sure to be introduced should Stam and Company continue to hold sway, but preferring to cut deals on economic issues and any bill with the word “jobs” in the title.

Right now, I do not see much of a chance for a Democratic takeover of either the NC House or Senate. The House is likely to get closer and maybe even very close, but just around the corner is the mid-term election of 2014. As I’ve said many times, I think that’s where we’ll see the effects of redistricting and the consolidation of GOP electoral strength that began in 2010. Without big turnout and with the strong possibility that Voter ID and further voting restrictions could be in place, 2014 is another 2010 in the making, this time with redrawn districts enhancing the GOP’s chances.

Legislation would limit municipal electricity revenue transfers

The legislature’s Municipal Power Agency Relief Committee met today and approved new legislation that would put limits on how much cities and towns can tap funds from their municipal power agencies.
The legislation would put in place guidelines from the Local Government Commission and mirror legislation passed last year but was limited to a handful of towns. Here’s the bill text.

AN ACT providing that the Towns of Clayton, Selma, and Smithfield shall use revenue derived from rates for electric service for paying the direct and indirect costs of OPERATING the ELECTRIC system, TRANSFERRING amounts that REPRESENT a rate of return on the investment in the electric system, and making DEBT service payments.

The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts:

SECTION 1. Article 2 of Chapter 159B of the General Statutes is amended by adding a new section to read as follows:

“§ 159B‑39. Permitted uses of revenue from electric power rates.

(a) A municipality as authorized in this Chapter shall use revenue derived from rates for electric service to (i) pay the direct and indirect costs of operating the electric system and (ii) transfer to other funds of the municipality a sum that reflects a rate of return on the investment in the electric system to the extent allowed in subsection (c) of this section. Any remaining revenue shall be used to produce lower rates on electric service within the area served by the municipal electric system and to make additional debt service payments on bonds or other indebtedness incurred by the municipality to finance improvements to the electric system. A municipality shall not otherwise transfer revenue from an electric utility fund to any other fund of the municipality for any other purpose not explicitly authorized by law.

(b) The direct and indirect costs of operating the electric system include all of the following:

(1) Debt service payments on indebtedness incurred for the electric system or secured by revenues of the electric system.

(2) Capital improvements or equipment for the electric system.

(3) Payments for the cost of power purchased under contractual arrangements.

(4) Debt service, maintenance, renewal, and replacement or other reserves required by legal documents entered into by the municipality in connection with the issuance of bonds or other indebtedness for the electric system.

(5) Reserves deemed necessary by the governing body of the municipality to assure that funds are available to maintain the financial and operational integrity of the electric system.

(6) Maintaining a rate stabilization fund to minimize the impact of periodic rate changes that would otherwise be required to reflect changes in costs of operations and demand for electric service.

(7) Making payments in lieu of taxes to other governmental units to reflect property taxes that would have been collected by the other governmental unit if the municipality were not the owner of the electric system.

(8) Making transfers to the general fund or other funds of the municipality to reimburse the general fund or other funds for costs paid from the fund that are reasonably allocable to the electric system.

(c) The total amount transferred to other funds of the municipality authorized as a rate of return on the investment of the municipality in the electric system shall not exceed the amount allowed in this subsection. The amount to be transferred shall be calculated using amounts reported in the municipality’s audited financial statements for the preceding fiscal year. The amount transferred shall not exceed either of the following:

(1) Three percent (3%) of the gross capital assets of the electric system at the end of the preceding fiscal year.

(2) Five percent (5%) of the gross annual revenues of the electric system for the preceding fiscal year.

(d) The restrictions in this section shall not apply to any action required to be taken for a municipality by the Local Government Commission in accordance with G.S. 159‑181(c).”

SECTION 2. This act only applies to the towns of Clayton, Selma, and Smithfield.

SECTION 3. This act becomes effective July 1, 2011.

In the General Assembly read three times and ratified this the 15th day of June, 2011.

The problem has been the lack of oversight over how the towns use the money. Some places use the electricity revenues to fill budget gaps, buy firetrucks and do a lot of things that have nothing to do with the distribution of power. Here’s an excerpt from a recent Exile on Jones Street article on the subject that ran in the Indy in February.

What’s made matters worse, Gilbert said, is that some towns transfer funds from their electricity operations to shore up their budgets, preferring higher utility rates over higher property taxes.

The transfers, he said, amount to a regressive, back-door tax on ratepayers. “Lower income people spend a greater percent of their money on basic necessities. [The transfers] are effectively a tax that hits the poorer parts of our society the hardest.”

It’s a system that doesn’t seem to likely to change soon.

“Cities have gotten used to the transfer money,” Gilbert said. “Many of them have been doing it for a long time. Over the past few years, with city budgets taking a huge hit, they’re more dependent on them.”

Reform? What reform?

This month’s Exile on Jones Street column in the Indy is the result of a long slog through the campaign finance reports of various players in the General Assembly by Democracy North Carolina, myself and others.

During the 2010 election, Tillis and other Republicans used the Jim Black and Meg Scott Phipps scandals to illustrate the need for a clean break from Democratic rule, vowing that once in the majority they would clean up Raleigh. But recently released campaign finance reports paint a much different picture of what happened once the gavel changed hands.

The reports came out in the last week of January and sifting through them was not an easy chore. Not many of the records are in electronic form and there are obvious bits of missing information and, in some cases, misleading information about who is giving.
On the flip side is the legislation that comes either before or after the contributions. The cases cited in the article are just a small sample, but that doesn’t mean they’re not insignificant in themselves. In each case the business interests got law written to accomplish their aims and in each case – consumer loans, municipal wifi, bail bond rules – the people of North Carolina got the short end of the stick.
The system is in dire need of fixing. There were several reforms passed during the last decade that allowed a little clearer view of the world where money and public policy mix. But there seems to be little interest in taking up any further reforms despite promises to the contrary. We are left with an opaque reporting system that stifles feedback. The time that lapses between when money is contributed and when it shows up in a public document is far too long. We shouldn’t have to wait for the finance reports to come in to fully understand why something became law.

Links, reports and more on campaign money and its influence on public policy in North Carolina to follow.

What’s to come in the special session

The North Carolina General Assembly has been more unpredictable than usual this year. The upcoming special session, which GOP leaders say will last only three days, has been especially hard to nail down with the exception of the constitutional amendment to limit who can marry. The range of other options left in the adjournment resolution in the last session left a lot of possibilities.

Via NC Policy Watch:

Hard as it might be to believe – especially in light of the much ballyhooed promises of the state GOP to bring all sorts of new openness and transparency to state government this year – no one in the House or Senate leadership has officially announced what’s on the agenda for next week.

In an article for the Indy, I tried to break down what can be brought up, but what will be brought up is a different matter. The only real clues have been in interviews with legislative leaders in both the House and Senate.
Since I filed that story there have further indications that eminent domain would not likely come up and the deal to allow gambling expansion at the Cherokee casino is not ripe.

Still, a lot can happen in three days. From the Indy article:

Under the adjournment resolution passed at the end of the previous special session, the ground rules for the upcoming session allow the General Assembly to consider bills that have been vetoed, legislation from conference committees, redistricting revisions, local bills and “any bills relating to election laws.”

Here’s the adjournment bill:

RESOLUTION 2011-10

HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION 938

A JOINT RESOLUTION further adjourning the 2011 regular session of the general assembly to a date certain and limiting the matters that may be considered upon reconvening.

Be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring:

SECTION 1. When the Senate and the House of Representatives adjourn on Thursday, July 28, 2011, they stand adjourned to reconvene on Monday, September 12, 2011, at 12:00 noon.

SECTION 2. During the regular session that reconvenes on Monday, September 12, 2011, only the following matters may be considered:

(1) Bills:

a. Revising the Senate districts and the apportionment of Senators among those districts.

b. Revising the Representative districts and the apportionment of Representatives among those districts.

c. Revising the districts for the election of members of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States and the apportionment of Representatives among those districts.

d. Bills responding to actions related to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

e. Bills responding to actions related to litigation concerning Congressional, State House, or State Senate districts.

(2) Bills returned by the Governor with her objections under Section 22 of Article II of the Constitution of North Carolina, but solely for the purpose of considering overriding of the veto upon reconsideration of the bill.

(3) Bills in which the General Assembly makes an appointment or appointments to public office and which contain no other matter.

(4) Bills:

a. Proposing an amendment or amendments to the Constitution of North Carolina and containing no other matter.

b. Proposing an amendment or amendments to the Constitution of North Carolina and containing no other matter other than statutory conforming changes to implement such bills.

c. Bills that solely make statutory and transitional changes to implement bills under sub‑subdivision a. of this subdivision.

(5) Any bills relating to election laws.

(6) Adoption of conference reports for bills which were in conference as of Thursday, July 28, 2011.

(7) Joint resolutions proposing a joint session to consider confirmation of the Governor’s appointments to the State Board of Education pursuant to G.S. 115C‑10.

(8) Joint resolutions confirming the Governor’s appointments to the State Board of Education pursuant to G.S. 115C‑10.

(9) Local bills pending in the House Rules Committee on July 28, 2011.

(10) Bills to ratify and make statutory conforming changes pursuant to a Tribal Compact negotiated by the Governor.

(11) A joint resolution further adjourning the 2011 Regular Session to a date certain.

SECTION 3. This resolution is effective upon ratification.

In the General Assembly read three times and ratified this the 28th day of July, 2011.

Breaking down the NC congressional races

This month’s column is a table setter, breaking down the North Carolina congressional elections district by district based on the new maps and candidates leaning toward a run. As noted, the districts may change, but for now here’s how things are looking.

New congressional districts set up 2012 races: Advantage, Republicans

In print and on line in the Independent Weekly

North Carolina is proving to be a key state in the GOP strategy to maintain control of the U.S. House. Now that redistricting has set the table, the party and outside groups are preparing to pour enormous resources into close races to unseat Democratic incumbents now in less favorable districts.

Republican leaders are counting on picking up seats in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and other states where they’ve been able to command the redistricting process in order to offset expected losses in Illinois and California.

Sea change

This month’s Exile on Jones Street column, published Wednesday July 20 in the Independent Weekly, is about the changes in public policy as a result of the recent session of the North Carolina General Assembly.

New laws and fewer rules spell major changes for the N.C. coast

We’re at the height of beach season and it’s full tilt vacationland up and down the strands. This is when most of us experience a little of life on the North Carolina coast.

It’s also harvest time, and the locals are concentrating on gathering those tourist dollars. Early summer has been a challenge. Wildfire season, which normally dies out in early June, lingered well into July, and massive fires inland have choked residents and visitors from Wrightsville Beach to Corolla.

The thick smoke from coastal wildfires rolled through Raleigh about the time the Legislature wrapped up a session that inflicted major changes on the policies and politics that shape the changing coastline. Wildfires are part of the ecology of the coastal plain, and the scorched pocosin will soon recover. The same recovery may not be true for the region if predictions about what was set in motion this session hold true.

The 2010 elections ushered in not just a Republican majority in the Legislature, but also a remade legislative delegation for coastal North Carolina; two key Senate seats and a handful of House seats went Republican for the first time.

The win spelled the end of an era when coastal policy was shaped mainly in the office of former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who retired for health reasons in January. In his 26 years in the Legislature, the Manteo Democrat was no great foe of coastal development, but he can be credited at least with trying to manage it and for attempting to balance the interests of traditional industries like fishing and tourism and the burgeoning build-out on the shore.

One of his signature issues was the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which dedicates $100 million each year for water quality and preservation throughout the state. The money has helped protect estuaries and shellfish habitats from the impact of coastal development.

What happened to the trust fund is indicative of the shift in priorities and a harbinger of the future for progressive environmental policies. To help cover the budget shortfall, the trust fund was first hit for $50 million annually in Gov. Bev Perdue’s proposed budget, then shaved further to $12.5 million by GOP budget writers in the Legislature–an 88.5 percent cut. The fund’s future is unclear, but the message to environmentalists is not.

Add the other fruits of the session–offshore drilling proposals, cuts to research, the approval of terminal groins (a kind of underwater jetty that reduces wave action)–and a rush to dismantle environmental regulation and enforcement: You can understand why longtime advocates for the coast worry that the Legislature has jeopardized years of progress in managing the formidable forces of both human and nature.

HUMAN FORCES: When the housing bubble burst, the rapidly growing areas along the state’s southeastern coast tallied some of the biggest losses. A News & Observer report in late February by Jay Price found that since 2006, near the height of the bubble, property values in Carteret and Brunswick counties had dropped by $12 billion–more than 25 percent. Waterfront and near-waterfront properties, the article says, plunged even more.

For now, the brakes are on development, but for environmental advocates like N.C. Coastal Federation Executive Director Todd Miller, there’s little doubt the economic forces that have reshaped the coastline for decades will soon resume their work.

Miller, who founded the federation in 1982, says plenty of projects are already in the pipeline. “We’re sitting on a 20-year supply of developments,” he says.

Under what rules these projects will be built and how their impacts will be monitored is now a question mark. “The worry is, are we going to have a facade of environmental protection, something that’s not real,” Miller says.

The passage of regulatory reform and limits on the crafting of new environmental rules, he says, will eliminate agencies’ ability to be agile in designing new regulations and redrafting old rules, many of which were implemented in the 1970s and ’80s.

“We won’t be able to adjust programs to deal with emerging demands,” he says. “That means the rules we have will have to suffice. If they’re found to be inadequate, it will be impossible to change them.”

The continued defunding of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, he says, will also severely impact its ability to handle demands of development, including long-term monitoring of storm water systems and other infrastructure.

“Going into this, what we had was not a panacea,” Miller says, “but the change is pretty severe.” Continue reading

Burning the bridge to the 21st Century

This month’s print column in the Indy is a bit of a catch-all, written in the heat of the clusterf^%k at the end of the session.
The full column is here.
It starts like this:

The curtain seems close to falling on Act 1 of the 2011 session of the General Assembly, also known as The Great Undoing.

“Great” as in widespread. Throughout government, this session has shuttered programs, altered missions, rearranged agency departments and jettisoned thousands of state workers.

“Undoing” because what’s been done through the budget and other legislation isn’t just for the sake of belt-tightening or efficiency. The GOP leadership is on an ideological search-and-destroy mission to erase years of progress in education, elections, public health, the courts, environmental protections, consumer protections and, well, you name it.

This is a Legislature not content with turning back the clock (now the most overused metaphor in the history of state politics). They are ensuring that once we get to the past, we’re stuck there.

Last week, the pace quickened. Debates turned sloppy as House and Senate leaders whipped their chambers to pass dozens of bills before the crossover deadline: the cutoff for legislation to be passed by one chamber and still be viable.

Hammered through were sweeping new restrictions on abortion and abortion providers, including a 24-hour waiting period and mandatory sonograms, a ban on state and federal services for undocumented aliens that probably won’t survive a constitutional challenge, a return to 1970s-era rules on regulations and a Voter ID bill that The New York Times recently described as having “a whiff of Jim Crow.”