NCGA Shifts All 2016 Primaries To March

Two years ago, the North Carolina legislature voted to separate the presidential primary from the federal, state, and local races, planning to conduct the first in March and the others in May.

But Orange County Elections Director Tracy Reams says concerns about the cost of hosting two primaries and two early voting periods prompted lawmakers to move every race to the March ballot.

“Because of the cost- I think it was $9.5 million statewide- to conduct the second primary in May, they elected to move all primaries up to March 15,” explains Reams.

She says this move saved Orange County taxpayers approximately $107,000.

She notes this will mean a significant change to the filing period as well. Those making up their minds to run in 2016 have only a few weeks to think it over.

“As far as the filing period, that will begin December 1 and it will end before December 21, so they’ll need to come in and file before Christmas gets here,” says Reams.

The move could make a difference in the 2016 county commissioner races, where four seats will be up for grabs. Orange County is a Democratic stronghold, and primaries between Democratic candidates are traditionally more hotly contested than the General Election. A shorter primary season means less time for candidates to fundraise and campaign.

In addition to the commissioner and county school board seats, federal, state, gubernatorial and judicial races will be on the ballot next March.

With State Budget Set, School Districts Inch Toward Final Spending Plans

Now that state lawmakers have finally signed off on a budget, local school districts can complete their spending plans.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro administrators say the school board will be ready to vote in October. Orange County Schools officials anticipate the board will adopt a budget November 23, nearly halfway through the current fiscal year.

The state budget left funding for teaching assistants and Driver’s Education largely intact, meaning neither district will see significant changes in those areas.

While Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools come out of the budget process mostly unscathed, some of the provisions related to salary increases, bonuses and transportation funding cuts will cost the Orange County district $643,000 more than originally planned.

Leaders in both districts are keeping a close eye on House Bill 539 that would mandate the transfer of increased funding from public schools to charter schools.

If approved, Orange County Schools stands to lose $75,000, while Chapel Hill-Carrboro could lose more than a quarter million dollars, some of which would come from special district tax revenues.

The school boards will meet with Orange County Commissioners on  Tuesday to discuss their budget requests. They’ll also discuss how to prioritize the more than $330 million dollars worth of repairs to aging schools in both districts.

The boards meet at 7 o’clock at the Whitted Meeting Room in Hillsborough. You can find the full agenda here

GoTriangle ‘Still Evaluating’ NCGA’s Light Rail Spending Cap

Jeff Mann is the general manager of GoTriangle, the transit authority that’s been working to build a light rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. He says the legislature’s cap on spending may not be enough to derail the project.

“We’re still evaluating what the provision would mean to the project,” says Mann. “Obviously it’s a hurdle that we would have to overcome, but we’re still looking at alternatives and evaluating what it means, so I’m not prepared to say now that it’s a project-killing provision, only that we will continue to evaluate funding alternatives and work hard to support the project, because we believe it’s vital to the region.”

Buried in the state budget released this week is a provision that would cap funding for light rail projects at $500,000 dollars per year, far less than the $138 million total transit planners had been expecting.

“[The project] was allotted that funding through the Strategic Transportation Investments Law, which scores projects through a data-driven process,” says Mann. “This cap that has been inserted in the budget would circumvent that process and not allow expenditures of that $138 million except for that small amount.”

Transit officials worry the cut in state funds could also jeopardize federal funding for the $1.6 billon dollar project.

“Projects such as this, that are funded through the Federal Transit Administration, typically are funded in a formula that’s 50 percent federal funding, 25 percent local funding, and 25 percent state funding,” says Mann. “So obviously it’s a concern if we don’t have the matching funds to match the federal 50 percent.”

Just a day before the state budget was released, the Federal Transit Administration awarded GoTriangle $1.7 million to help plan development around light rail stops.

Despite the legislature’s spending cap, Mann says he’s committed to moving forward with the planning process and seeking other sources of funding if necessary.

“We want folks to know that we’re still working for this project. We think it’s the right project for the region. We keep evaluating alternatives for the project to move forward because we think its a vital project.”

The 17-mile light rail line is still in the project development phase. GoTriangle anticipates asking permission from the FTA to enter into the engineering phase early next year.

In the meantime, as transit planners assess their funding options, GoTriangle is preparing to host a series of public hearings on the recently-released environmental impact study that narrows down potential routes through Orange and Durham counties.

For a full list of those meetings, click here.

Solar Supporters Push To Save Tax Credit Program

State House Representative Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) says more than 23,000 jobs in the renewable energy industry could be at risk if the General Assembly doesn’t move to extend tax credits set to expire this year.

“Clean energy is an economic success story in our state,” said Harrison, speaking at a press conference Thursday. “The data and the facts prove it. It is not a political football to be spiked in the Legislative Building.”

She joined other lawmakers and representatives from Environment North Carolina to present a report detailing the impact of renewable energy tax credits and subsidies.

This comes as the General Assembly is looking to scrap both the tax credits and a standard requiring power companies to use renewably generated energy to produce 12.5 percent of the electricity they sell.

A measure to limit that mandate passed in the House and is currently stalled in the Senate. The tax credit program is wrapped up in state budget negotiations, which have already stretched months past the July deadline.

This was the second presentation in two days on the topic of renewable energy. On Wednesday the conservative-leaning American Energy Alliance sponsored an hour-long roundtable discussion decrying the tax credit program and the renewable energy portfolio standard.

North Carolina has seen a surge in solar energy investment since 2007. The Tar Heel state now ranks fourth in the nation and first in the South for solar power.

Proponents say it’s a $2 billion dollar industry that’s created thousands of jobs and brought economic development to poor, rural parts of the state

Michael Wray, a Democrat who represents Halifax and Northampton Counties, says the solar energy industry has been a boon to his region.

“’These are new tax revenues our local communities and governments desperately need to pay for vital services like schools, roads, police, water and sewer” said Wray. “We believe very strongly we need to keep our existing clean energy policies in place, otherwise, our rural communities will suffer even more.”

He says he and other pro-business Democrats are hoping to be able to support the budget plan tentatively scheduled for a vote next week, but in order to do so he’ll need a guarantee that the solar power tax credits will be extended.

NCGA Cracks Down on Graffiti

A bill to impose tougher penalties on graffiti vandals is on Gov. McCrory’s desk, waiting to be signed.

House Bill 552 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to create graffiti vandalism. However, it’s charged as a Class H felony if the offender has two or more prior convictions for graffiti vandalism.

A Class H felony carries a sentence of four-to-25 months.

The final, amended bill passed the House 98-11.

Democrat Verla Insko represents Orange County District 56 in the state House. She voted for HB552.

“The amendment that Sen. Stein added in the Senate made it more clearly targeted to gang members, and not to just innocent graffiti,” said Insko.

She’s referring to District 16 Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat. (Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat representing Orange and Durham, had an excused absence, and did not vote.)

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood agreed with Insko that gang-related graffiti is a real concern.

“Tagging has been a problem for some years, in the Chapel Hill and Orange County and Hillsborough and Mebane and surrounding areas of our county” said Blackwood. “And that is, gangs who are tagging territory by putting their symbols up to let everyone know ‘I’ve got control over this ground.’”

That means drug trafficking. And when other gangs start X-ing out the original tags, that, basically, is a declaration of turf war.

Blackwood recalled how the late Robin Britt, best-known as owner of Merritt’s Store & Grill, was forced to deal with that problem at the former site of another one of her businesses.

“Robin ran Britt’s BP on Mt. Carmel Church Road,” said Blackwood. “Well, as soon as that business closed down, and the doors were shut, and the windows were covered over, graffiti tagging started to occur on that building. And we went to Robin, and we said ‘Hey, look, we’ve got some tagging going on. We want to cover that up.’

“And so she had somebody immediately go out an pressure wash and take that stuff off. The quicker we let them know we’re not going to tolerate it, the quicker we get it off of these buildings and properties, the better off the community stands.”

Even when it comes to the stupidest, least threatening forms of graffiti, the cleanup is annoying and expensive for business owners.

For the past five years, David Yu has owned the Gourmet Kingdom restaurant on Carrboro’s Main Street.

Both he and his neighbor Carquest Auto Parts have been repeat victims of graffiti vandalism in recent years. Gourmet Kingdom’s outside walls are immaculately clean right now, while Carquest’s wall facing the parking lot they share is defaced with a few crude tags and an anarchy symbol.

Yu said the last incident at his business was about six months ago. As always, he had it painted over. It costs him around $200 every time. Yu doesn’t even remember what kind of things get spray-painted on his wall. He just calls it “nonsense.”

He said he likes what little he’s heard about the bill.

“That’s good,” he said. “That protects the business. It’s just a better way to regulate this kind of nonsense.”

In the Senate, HB552 passed 40-9.

District 23 Sen. Valerie Foushee, a Democrat from Hillsborough, voted against HB552.

“This whole school-to-prison pipeline is really concerning to me,” said Foushee. “And when I saw what this bill was really going to do, it just made it apparent to me that we are making felonies out of many situations where I think we need to do some other work.”

That work, she said, should include providing more educational and employment opportunities for young people at risk.

Foushee added that she’s also worried that penalty changes are being made without recommendations from the Sentencing Commission.

According to a fiscal impact study attached to the bill, it will cost the Department of Public Safety Prison Section up to $3,500 for each active sentence imposed.

And there are no assumptions on the deterrent effect of HB552, or its impact on prison population.

It all begs the question: Why not just make graffiti artists clean up their own messes? Wouldn’t that save taxpayers and business owners a lot of money, while teaching a valuable lesson to young offenders?

Insko said she likes that idea. So did Blackwood.

“You’re reading my mind,” said Blackwood. “That’s part of a pre-arrest diversion program we’re looking at.”

CHCCS Looks To Revamp Teacher Pay Plan

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools officials want to move away from longevity bonuses for teachers to a pay scale that rewards professional development. While that might mean more money for some educators, it could come at a cost to others.

“Some will be very upset, yet I think it’s the best thing to do, in the long-term, for teachers, so that you don’t have to go be an assistant principal in order to make more money,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Jamezetta Bedford, speaking at a board meeting last week.

Last year the North Carolina General Assembly passed a budget that requires school systems to submit a plan for differentiated teacher pay. But CHCCS officials say they want to make sure the pay plan the district adopts will support the progress of all teachers, not just the top performers.

Board Chair Mike Kelley said the plan under consideration now meets that goal.

“A possible alternative that the state legislature could impose on us might look very ugly, but this to me seems like its homegrown- it comes from our professionals and it’s been developed and thought out in a way which is very careful, deliberative and not reactionary,” said Kelley.

A committee of teachers, staffers and advisors from UNC’s School of Education recently sat down to evaluate options for reconfiguring teacher pay.

They came up with a plan in which teachers would earn points for participating in professional development and get credit for rising student test scores. These points would then translate to salary increases.

But this could mean those teachers who don’t invest in professional development might lose out on potential pay raises, as longevity bonuses would no longer be guaranteed.

Still, given that many teachers have seen their compensation levels frozen for years, Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said the new plan might be better than the status quo.

“Their current reality is they’ve been standstill for six, seven years, and now the new model that the state has in terms of the salary schedule shows that raises come every five years,” LoFrese told the board. “So we’re trying to change that and we think this is a positive step in that direction.”

Superintendent Tom Forcella told the board last week the full financial details are not yet available, but administrators want to make sure it doesn’t cost the district more, or cause those currently employed as teachers to lose ground. Board Chair Kelley warned it might be tough to do both.

“Unless there’s new money for salaries- and that would probably have to come from the state in some fashion, because it is probably not likely going to come from the district- then there may have to be some redistribution of the funds that are available,” said Kelley.

The school board will discuss the plan further at the district’s planning retreat in February. Administrators will present a final proposal to the board in March.

Local Leaders Eye 2015 NCGA With Cautious Optimism

As the General Assembly reconvenes, local leaders say they hope legislators will take a more favorable view of municipal issues in 2015.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says during the last legislative session, some members of the General Assembly declared war on North Carolina’s cities.

“In the last legislature, the relationship between the legislature and cities was not very good,” says Kleinschmidt. “We had several members of the legislature who seemed to be at war with the cities that they were representing, particularly Representative Stone and Representative Moffitt.”

But Kleinschmidt says he’s optimistic that this year will be different, in part because those representatives were voted out of office.

Though the House and Senate are still under firm Republican control, state Democrats managed to gain three seats in the November election. Two of the incumbents who lost their seats led the charge to rein in municipal authority. Kleinschmidt says their loss sends a message to those who would target city government.

He’s also looking to Governor Pat McCrory to take a stand on a number of controversial issues including the statewide expansion of Medicaid.

“Now he’s got to decide if he’s going to pick some fights, and it looks like he’s already laying the groundwork for some of those fights,” says Kleinschmidt.

A recent report from George Washington University shows North Carolina lost $2.7 billion dollars last year when Republican leaders decided to forgo Medicaid expansion. The state stands to lose $3.3 billion more next year.

There’s also a showdown looming on historic preservation tax credits. The General Assembly repealed them last year, but even before the legislature reconvened, civic leaders from across the state launched a bi-partisan effort to bring them back.

“We have some lines being drawn and that’s going to be fun to watch,” says Kleinschidt. “Now, can Chapel Hill and out legislative delegation get in there and exploit some of that? That remains to be seen.”

Kleinschmidt and other members of the Chapel Hill Town Council sat down recently with state Senators Valerie Foushee and Mike Woodard, as well as Representative Graig Meyer and a spokesperson from Representative Verla Insko’s office to hash out plans for the 2015 legislative session. Kleinschmidt says the local delegation will mostly be playing defense to help towns maintain their revenue sources and planning authority.

If the General Assembly follows through on a promise to do away with extra-territorial jurisdictions, it could throw a wrench in Chapel Hill’s plan to help fund a sewer project in the Rogers Road community by extending the town’s ETJ to encompass the neighborhood.

“It would take Chapel Hill out of the equation,” says Kleinschmidt. “We would have to find some roundabout ways to provide direct financial contributions.”

Despite reports that Republican leaders have already begun conducting closed-door sessions on education policy that shut out Democratic leaders, Kleinschmidt says he and other local leaders are looking to the upcoming legislative session with hope.

“At this point, let’s decide to be optimistic and hope that the end is near for those closed door meetings, that there will be attempts to bring in members of the minority to advise and provide some input into the policies of our state.”

The 2015 legislative session convenes Wednesday for a one-day organizational session. The General Assembly will reconvene on January 28.

Foushee, Meyer, Insko Easily Win State House And Senate Seats

Democratic incumbents swept away their Republican challengers in three local races for State House and Senate.

Valerie Foushee, Verla Insko and Graig Meyer will all be returning to Raleigh to represent Senate District 23 and House Districts 56 and 50.

Foushee defeated Mary Lopez-Carter with 68 percent of the vote for the Senate 23 seat representing Orange and Chatham counties.

Foushee says she’s hoping Democrats will be able to advocate for more progressive issues in the next legislative session .

“I think that there is a push across the state for consideration of Medicaid expansion,” says Foushee. “I think that we’ve heard from people that believe that North Carolina is what it is because of previous investments in education; we’ll be able to push that agenda again, so I look forward to that.”

Meyer beat Hillsborough pastor Rod Cheney with the smallest margin among the three Democrats. Meyer won with 57 percent of the vote, Chaney garnered 42 percent.

Meyer says he took nothing for granted in his first campaign for office. He raised more than $230,000 and contributed much of that to support candidates in more hotly contested races.

“It doesn’t do me any good to be in the back row of a minority party that can’t even break a veto,” says Meyer. “So I wanted to make sure that we elected Democrats in Wake County, Buncome County, Lee County, places where we had targeted races. People in some of those areas can’t raise as much money as Orange County, so I wanted to help do what I could to help elect those candidates so we can make some good changes in the legislature.”

In the House 56 race representing Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Verla Insko won against Dave Carter 81 percent to 18 percent.

Insko returns to the State House for her 10th term. Foushee and Meyer were appointed to their positions last fall following the resignation of former Senator Ellie Kinnaird.

More Than 400 Disenfranchised By New NC Voting Rules

Democracy North Carolina says 454 voters who would have had their ballots counted under 2012 election rules were not able to vote in the May Primary thanks to two key changes made by the General Assembly.

North Carolina’s sweeping election reform bill was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory in 2013. Among the many changes to voting rules, the new law did away with same-day registration during Early Voting and no longer allowed voters to cast a provisional ballot if they show up to vote outside their assigned precinct.

Democracy North Carolina says new analysis shows the laws are disproportionately affecting minority and Democratic voters.

Black voters, who make up 22 percent of the state’s registered voters, counted for 39 percent of those whose ballots were rejected. Democrats are 42 percent of all registered voters, but were 57 percent of those disenfranchised by the new rules.
The data was released one month before the deadline to register to vote in the November general election. Voting advocates say it’s important to double-check voting status now because the October 10 deadline is your last chance to register.

To check your registration status and see a sample ballot, go to

You can find the full report from Democracy North Carolina here.

Democrats Outraise GOP In Race For Local NCGA Seats

North Carolina State Senator Valerie Foushee and Representative Graig Meyer are each running for office for the first time since being appointed to their positions last fall, but their relative newcomer status isn’t proving a hindrance to high-dollar fundraising.

According to campaign finance reports, Meyer has brought in more than $119,000 this election season. Of that, he’s spent $50,000, leaving $69,700 in his campaign coffers. Meanwhile Rod Chaney, the Republican challenger vying for the House 50 seat, has raised approximately $7,200 and spent $2,000.

In the race for Senate District 23, Valerie Foushee has raised $56,600 and spent $32,900, leaving her with $26,900 in the bank as the fall campaign season heats up. Foushee’s opponent Mary Lopez-Carter, by contrast, has raised just $2,200 and spent half.

In the House District 56 race, incumbent Verla Insko has brought in $117,000 and spent all but $33,000. Her opponent, Dave Carter, reports raising $517, He’s spent about $150, with $360 on hand.

All candidates report donations from political action committees. Meyer has received $7,000 from PACs including $500 from the NC Dental Society and $4,000 from fellow Representative Insko’s campaign. He has donated $9,000 to other candidates or committees.

Foushee reports collecting $8,650 from political action committees including $5,000 from Lillian’s List, and $750 from McGuire Woods LLC, a Richmond-based lobbying firm representing attorneys.

Insko received $5,000 in donations from PACs, including $1,000 each from the Nationwide Carolina Political Participation Fund, NC Advocates for Justice and the Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC Employee PAC. A large chunk of Insko’s spending, $65,000 worth, has gone to fund other campaigns, including $15,000 to the Democratic Party of N.C.

Chaney, Carter and Lopez-Carter have received a combined total of $1,200 from the Orange County Republican party, and Lopez-Carter accepted an additional $250 from the North Carolina Republican Party.