Low Gas Prices Prompts Record Number of Memorial Day Travelers

Thanks to low gas prices, lots of people will be hitting the road this Memorial Day weekend.

AAA estimates over 1 million North Carolinians will travel by car, the highest Memorial Day travel volume on record.

Another 80,000 North Carolinians are expected to travel by air, up 1.6 percent from last year.

Tiffany Wright is with AAA Carolinas. She contributed the uptick in travel to the lowest gas prices in years.

“We’re paying the least amount of money for gas that we’ve paid in a decade so that’s a big positive.”

The average price of gasoline in North Carolina is $2.21, which 37 cents less than last year.

Top travel destinations include Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Orlando, Florida for those hitting the road. There’s also a new road trip destination in the mix.

“What’s new to our list this year is Denver, Colorado,” Wright said. “And you can correlate that directly with the fact that folks are saving so much money with gas.”

According to a recent AAA poll, 55 percent of North Carolinians are more likely to take a road trip this year due to lower gas prices.

But for those flying, Alaska and the Caribbean are among the most popular vacation spots. AAA says the top domestic flights will cost 26 percent less than last year.

“Air travel’s increased and we have more folks flying to their destinations so the fact of the matter is they’re going to be paying a lot less than they have in recent years,” said Wright.

Wright suggested that anyone planning long road trips check the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s website for the most up-to-date road conditions and construction information.

She also said this weekend’s traffic will give drivers a sneak peek into the summer’s travel trends.

“We do predict that it’s going to be a busy travel season that’s going to head all the way through July fourth and through Labor Day.”

Wright urged drivers to stay safe on the roadways this weekend. One of the best ways to do this, she said, is to eliminate distractions behind the wheel.

“We like to say ‘disconnect and drive.’ Get behind the wheel and don’t be worried about your cell phone and all your social media platforms. Do what you’re meant to do when you get behind the wheel, and that’s to drive the car.”

With more than one million North Carolina drivers hitting the road this weekend, safety is a top concern.


Meyer: House Budget “Doesn’t Go Far Enough”

The North Carolina House has passed a budget proposal tweaking the two-year spending plan passed during the long legislative session last year.

Now, it’s the North Carolina Senate’s turn to produce a budget. From there work will begin in committee meetings to nail down the final product that will make its way to the desk of Governor Pat McCrory.

This year’s House budget passed through the chamber with more bipartisan support than we have been used to in recent years.

“Because they felt they wanted to get behind the state employees and teacher raises that were included in the budget and because they believed that the raises that the House offered are going to be more generous than what the Senate is likely to offer,” local representative Graig Meyer reasoned as to why more Democrats supported this year’s budget proposal.

Meyer, however, was one of 12 Democrats who voted against the budget. He said the proposal, even with the salary bumps, “doesn’t go far enough toward what we really need to improve the state’s economy and take care of our state employees.”

Meyer said “there was a lot more that could’ve been done” in terms of raises and investments in other areas, including mental health care, but the House chose instead to put the remaining dollars into a reserve fund. That reserve fund would be at a record $1.4 billion with the additional $300 million from this year’s surplus, according to chief House budget writer Nelson Dollar.

“My biggest concern about the budget was that the Republicans put in place an arbitrary cap on spending before even deciding what we needed to spend money on,” Meyer said referring to the agreement from early May that the budget proposals would not exceed $22.225 billion.

Meyer added the tax regimen put in place by Republicans in recent years is not providing the state with enough funds to “pay for things that we need to do for North Carolina.”

Meyer offered an amendment during the budget process to reinstate the estate tax on estates worth more than $5.4 million that would have impacted “fewer than 100 North Carolinians,” the legislator said, while bringing in $60 million in tax revenue. That amendment failed.

Meyer said, while he had issues with the budget, there were some areas he was pleased with. He said he was happy to see state employees and teachers get a raise, while adding “I wish it was more.” He also said he was happy to see a greater investment in mental health care.

The House budget proposal also called for the removal of the cap on light-rail spending, which could revive hopes for the Orange-Durham Light Rail project.

Meyer said that provision would likely come down to being used as a bargaining chip during the process to finalize a compromise between the House and Senate on a final budget.

Listen to the entire interview with Meyer below:


The Governor is Neglecting North Carolina

As a community we have so many important issues which need addressing. Here in Orange County we have close to 12,000 adults who cannot read or write, increasing poverty– with seniors making up a large percentage, a fractured mental health system and underpaid teachers. The State is ranked in the upper forties in Library provision and the national ranking of the schools system is falling rapidly as teachers leave for higher paid jobs elsewhere.

Meanwhile the Governor seems to be making daily statements about his insistence on not withdrawing House Bill 2.

That someone in a fiduciary position is willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of his citizens for hate, prejudice and backward thinking is an abrogation of his responsibility for the social infrastructure of a place we all call home. In moral terms the State’s majority government is neglecting its responsibility to the majority of its citizens by failing to understand the implications of its actions. Everything in which we are trailing– literacy, jobs, wages and medical services for the poor and disabled are at greater risk as this intransigence persists in the name of protecting our children.

North Carolina is moving rapidly backwards unless its citizens decide to do something about it. We all have the vote in November.  Let’s use it to break this intransigence and install a government that really cares about our State and its future.

— Nerys Levy


PPP: HB2 Still Unpopular; State Divided on November Races

North Carolinians still disagree with House Bill 2 and nearly every statewide race is expected to come down to extremely narrow margins come November.

Those are the findings of the latest Public Policy Polling survey of North Carolinians.

The polling service found 35 percent of voters support HB2, compared to 44 percent who oppose the controversial legislation.

PPP director Tom Jensen wrote summarizing the results that the reason 50 percent of residents in the Tar Heel state want the law repealed was “pretty straightforward.”

Jensen wrote, “they think it’s hurting the state both economically and in terms of national reputation. Overall only 29 percent of voters believe HB2 is helping North Carolina, to 56 percent who think it’s hurting.”

The results add that 36 percent of respondents said they felt HB2 made North Carolina safer, compared with 47 percent who do not believe that it has.

The legislation has prompted dueling lawsuits in federal court between the state and the United States Department of Justice.

HB2 is sure to be a major part of the campaign trail as well ahead of the November elections. North Carolina will be a battleground state for the Presidential election, but eyes across the nation will be focusing in on what are shaping up to be some of the premiere statewide races as well.

PPP found a dead heat in the race for Governor between Democratic challenger Attorney General Roy Cooper and Republican incumbent Pat McCrory, with both polling at 41 percent. Jensen describes this race as “the premiere Governor’s race this fall.”

The race for the Governor’s mansion isn’t the only one locked in a battle. Democrat Linda Coleman and Republican incumbent Dan Forest are tied at 36 percent for Lieutenant Governor. Democrat Josh Stein has a one-point lead over Republican Buck Newton in the race for Attorney General, a position Cooper is vacating after holding that role since 2000.

Even the Treasurer’s race is tied with Democrat Dan Blue III and Republican Dale Folwell each receiving support from 39 percent of those surveyed.

Jensen is scheduled to discuss the results during his weekly appearance on WCHL at 4:30 Thursday afternoon.

You can see the full results of the survey here.


Elon Commencement Speech Focuses on HB2

At Elon University’s Saturday graduation ceremony, CNN political analyst David Gergen began the commencement speech just like any other.

“You should just be so proud and take so much satisfaction at how far you’ve come. You’ll rightly cherish the years you’ve spent here.”

But his tone quickly changed.

“I’d like to depart from the tradition of showering you with personal advice,” he said. “Instead, at the risk of offending some of you, I want to talk to you about the deepening concerns that I, and many others, have about the future of North Carolina.”

Gergen proceeded to speak about HB2 and other political issues in North Carolina for the remainder of his 22-minute speech. He quickly issued a call to action.

“It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes – white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender – everyone – to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.”

He told the crowd of roughly 12,000 people that “mean spirited politics” are damaging North Carolina’s reputation. Most importantly, he said, the actions of North Carolina’s legislature are putting citizens at risk – primarily transgender citizens.

“We have to realize the stress, the anxiety these folks are going through and appreciate it, be compassionate about it.”

Gergen said he was proud to grow up in North Carolina and watch as civil rights leaders promoted racial equality and as business leaders developed the Research Triangle Park.

Gergen then called upon the leaders of today to end the “bathroom bill” dispute.

“There are things that can be done, and what all roads point to, where our ultimate destination should be, and that is to repeal HB2. Repeal HB2.”

Gergen urged the crowd to accept their differences and understand that while not everyone will agree, everyone should join the fight for a better state and a better country.

“I plead with you. Please don’t stay on the sidelines as America struggles to find a better path forward. Come off the bench. Get in the arena. You will find that many will disagree with you, just as here, I’m sure there are many who disagreed with me and find it offense that I’ve spoken this way on commencement day.”

Gergen ended by congratulating the new graduates and urging them to be active leaders in their communities.


State Environmental Agency Reclassifies Duke Energy Ash Basins

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality announced Wednesday that 25 Duke Energy coal ash basins across the state have been deemed an “intermediate” risk, along with eight high priority sites identified under state law.

The high-risk ponds must be dug up and closed by 2019 and the same must be done at the intermediate ponds by 2024.

The designation is significant because it changes the status of some basins from low risk. Under that classification, Duke would have the option to dewater the basin and then cap the remaining ash, and the utility would have until 2029 to reach that end.

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a press conference on Wednesday that the energy giant disagreed with the decision from DEQ to reclassify some of the basins.

“We do not believe the Coal Ash Management Act intended a point-in-time ranking that excludes the best and most current information,” Good said.

Good said that the classifications announced Wednesday would exclude new information that Duke may discover to safely close the basins.

“If DEQ’s recommendations are allowed to stand without review and possible adjustments based on additional new information, the state will have chosen the most extreme closure option, costing customers the most money and decades of disruption without additional, measurable environmental benefit,” Good told reporters.

Good was arguing the cap-in-place method that is available to Duke if the sites were to remain classified as low risk is as environmentally safe and cheaper than excavating the ash and moving it to a lined landfill.

The announcement from DEQ said that the agency was asking for the General Assembly to allow the reconsideration of the classification in 18 months. Secretary of the environmental department Donald van der Vaart said in a release that the reevaluation period is being asked for to allow for a reassessment after repair work is completed by Duke.

DJ Gerken is the managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Asheville office. He said in a statement the classifications announced Wednesday should remain in place.

“This administration’s determination to bail out Duke Energy knows no end and, rather than stand up for impacted communities, DEQ now wants the law changed to give Duke Energy a do-over in 18 months.”

Good said the reassessment is the best way to determine the effectiveness of the work Duke Energy is doing.

“We are continuing, for example, to complete facility improvement repairs; we have 200 wells that we are continuing to drill around our basins to provide additional information,” Good said. “I think it only makes sense to allow all of that work to be considered in developing final rankings for the basins.”

Good said that repair work could be completed in the next six months. Duke hopes that completion could cause the classification of some facilities to drop from intermediate to low risk, which would reopen the option to cap-in-place.

“I was at our Marshall station just a few weeks ago,” Good told reporters, “and some of the metrics on what would be required to excavate our Marshall station – it’s something like 800,000 truck loads.

“And if you considered that you can move about 100 trucks a day, 365 days a year, it would take you 20 years to move all of that ash.”

Good said those numbers call the 2024 deadline associated with the intermediate basins into question.

“We believe there would be significant risk to meeting that deadline for a number of our sites.”

Before the reclassification, Duke had maintained it could meet the proposed deadlines.

Good added the cost could grow exponentially through excavating and moving the ash as well.

“I do think it’s fair to say, with a constrained time frame and with the amount of material that we’re talking about, it would be significantly more expensive,” Good said. “And when you consider that the estimate that we’ve developed so far for our accounting records is in the range of $4 billion, it would be greater than that.”

The statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center said, “It’s past time for Duke Energy to clean up its leaking, unlined coal ash sites that threaten North Carolina’s communities, rivers, and drinking water sources.”

The proposed classifications from DEQ will become final in 60 days. Good said the company would push for clarifications before that deadline passes.


Groups Seeking Injunction Over Bathroom Provision of HB2

The plaintiffs suing the state of North Carolina over House Bill 2 have asked a US District Court for a preliminary injunction stopping the provision of the law regulating bathroom and locker room use in public facilities.

The motion was filed by the national American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina and Lambda Legal on Monday.

The motion is seeking a preliminary injunction to keep the state “from enforcing Part I of House Bill 2.” That is the provision that requires transgender individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds with the individual’s birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

The lawsuit was initially filed in late March and additional plaintiffs joined the suit in late April claiming HB2 violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The US Department of Justice and the state of North Carolina have filed dueling lawsuits in federal court over the legislation.

Chris Brook is the legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina. He said in a release:

“HB 2 is causing ongoing and serious harm to transgender people in North Carolina and must be put on hold while it is reviewed by the court. The U.S. Justice Department has made it clear that HB 2 violates federal law. Governor McCrory and the North Carolina legislature wrote into state law discrimination against transgender people who just want to be able to use public facilities safely and securely.”

Kyle Palazzolo, staff attorney with Lambda Legal, also released a statement following the motion being filed:

“Each day that transgender North Carolinians are singled out by this harmful law, whether they are at school, at work, or just moving through their daily lives in society is another day the state is causing irreparable harm to an already vulnerable community. As Attorney General Lynch said this week, ‘none of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something they are not, or invents a problem that doesn’t exist as a pretext for discrimination and harassment,’ and we couldn’t agree more.”

There is no timeline in place for a ruling from the judge in this matter.

The US DOJ has said that it would not withhold federal funding from North Carolina until a conclusion is reached in the pending lawsuits, which could take months or even years to reach a final decision through the federal court system. The DOJ also sent a letter to school districts around the country last Friday telling the schools that Title IX protections extended to allowing transgender students to use the facilities of their choice. UNC System president Margaret Spellings said last week the system could not operate without federal funding.


Feds Will Not Withhold Money Over HB2 Until Court Resolution

Federal agencies will not be withholding money for North Carolina during the legal fight over House Bill 2.

The Associated Press is reporting White House spokesperson Josh Earnest addressed the issue during the daily press briefing on Thursday.

Earnest told reporters an administrative review is now on hold about whether the law could force federal agencies to freeze money for health, education or housing programs, according to the AP.

Multiple lawsuits were filed on Monday over the controversial legislation that requires transgender individuals to use the bathroom or changing room in public facilities that matches their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

The US Department of Justice sent letters to Governor Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and the UNC System earlier this month to alert the agencies they were in violation of federal law. The agency put a Monday deadline on a response from the state as to how it would “remedy these violations.” The response from McCrory and state legislative leaders came in the form of a lawsuit on Monday. Attorney General Loretta Lynch then filed a lawsuit on behalf of the DOJ claiming the state is violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments and the Violence Against Women Act.

President Barack Obama has said in the past that the law should be repealed. Several bills have been filed in the North Carolina General Assembly during the legislative short session to repeal all of portions of HB2 but no action has been taken.


Margaret Spellings: UNC System ‘Can’t Operate’ Without Federal Funding

The UNC Board of Governors met in a special session on Tuesday to discuss the University System’s legal options following a flurry of litigation on Monday over House Bill 2.

The controversial North Carolina legislation was the subject of three federal lawsuits filed on Monday.

Board chair Lou Bissette echoed the words of System President Margaret Spellings, saying that the system is stuck in a difficult situation between complying with federal and state law.

“We are committed to resolving the legal issues in the university’s favor as quickly as possible,” Bissette told reporters after the board spent nearly three hours in a closed session meeting.

Governor Pat McCrory started off the legal action Monday by suing the United States Department of Justice over the agency’s claim HB2 violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger also sued the DOJ on Monday; the lawsuit from the legislators expanded the scope to the DOJ claim that HB2 violated Title IX of the Education Amendments and the Violence Against Women Act. United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch then capped off the festivities announcing the agency was suing the state, the governor, the Department of Public Safety and the University System for violating federal law.

The biggest economic downfall from the litigation could be the pulling of federal dollars from public schools in North Carolina, including the University System. Spellings said she and the board know those funds are “essential” to the 17-campus system’s operation.

“The board and I are completely committed and very clear that we can’t operate this place without federal funding,” Spellings said.

Bissette said turning off the faucet of federal dollars was a very real concern for the board but could not occur over night.

“And we would certainly be in contact with the Department of Justice long before any eventuality like that occurred,” Bissette said.

Spellings did say there had been an open channel of dialogue between the system and the DOJ before the lawsuits were announced Monday. Bissette added there has been continued conversation with the state General Assembly in the days since letters were sent from the DOJ to the University System, Governor Pat McCrory and the state Department of Public Safety notifying the agencies they were out of compliance with federal law.

Bissette described the conversations with lawmakers as “constructive” and “frequent.”

“The [lawmakers] we’ve talked to are very supportive of the University System,” Bissette said. “And many of them share some of the same frustrations that we do.”

Bissette did acknowledge that it has been a frustrating time for the entire board trying to navigate these legal waters.

Bissette said the board will now go forward retaining legal counsel to represent the University System in the lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice.

Bissette reiterated that the University System has not changed any of its antidiscrimination policies and would not going forward. Spellings then said that there is no enforcement mechanism in House Bill 2, and, therefore, the system campuses have taken no action to implement or enforce the law.

“We’ve not violated any provision of Title IX [of the Education Amendments] or Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act],” Spellings said, “as it relates to House Bill 2.”

The legal process form here may be a long one; with the University System trying to figure out which laws it must follow.

Watch the full press conference with Lou Bissette and Margaret Spellings:


Trio of HB2 Lawsuits Filed

A litany of lawsuits came in on Monday.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory sued the United States Department of Justice.

Leaders in both chambers of the state legislature, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, also sued the Department of Justice.

And the Department of Justice sued back.

“They created state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals, who simply seek to engage in the most-private of functions in a place of safety and security,” said United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “A right taken for granted by most of us.”

Lynch was announcing the lawsuit against North Carolina claiming that the controversial House Bill 2 – passed in a whirlwind special session in late March – was “impermissibly discriminatory.”

Lynch said the issues with House Bill 2 went beyond what has drawn the most attention, that the law would require transgender individuals to use the bathroom that matches their birth certificate rather than their gender identity.

“This action is about a great deal more than bathrooms,” Lynch said. “This is about the dignity and the respect that we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us.”

The lawsuits came after the DOJ sent letters last week to McCrory, the state Department of Public Safety and the UNC System. McCrory said the three business days that the state was given to respond before the Monday deadline was too much to meet and that the state had asked for a two-week extension.

“But they refused, unless I made a statement where I would publicly agree with their interpretation of federal law,” McCrory said. “And if I did, they would give me one additional week to respond.

“I could not agree to that because I do not agree with their interpretation of federal law.”

McCrory said it is up to the courts to interpret the law, not an agency under the Presidency of Barack Obama.

“We believe a court, rather than a federal agency, should tell our state, our nation and employers across the country what the law requires,” McCrory said.

Lynch pointed to a recent ruling from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina, which said a Virginia school board violated the rights of a transgender teen by not allowing him to use the bathroom of his choice.

Lynch then addressed North Carolinians specifically, as a North Carolina native herself.

“You have been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm, but that is just not the case,” Lynch said. “Instead, what this law does, is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share.

“This law provides no benefit to society and all it does is harm innocent Americans.”

Lynch then turned her attention to transgender North Carolinians.

“We see you. We stand with you. And we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

McCrory maintained that this attention paid to North Carolina was the federal government “bullying” the state. Lynch disagreed.

“I think that the people who feel bullied are probably the transgender individuals who live in the state of North Carolina,” the US Attorney General said, “who live and work beside their neighbors without any problems and have done so for years and are now being singled out on something that they have no control over and is an essential part of who they are.”

The lawsuit from McCrory focused on the accusations of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, while the lawsuit from Moore and Berger spoke to the wider claims of the original notice that HB2 also violated Title IX of the Education Amendments and the Violence Against Women Act.

Lynch did say on Monday that the department reserved the right to curtail federal funding to North Carolina, which could include billions of dollars going to the public school system in the Tar Heel state. That decision could impact K-12 schools and the University System. And newly-installed System President Margaret Spellings released a statement on Monday saying that the system will invite “greater dialogue” with the DOJ to resolve concerns over HB2. Spellings said that the system would work to comply with federal and state regulations, adding, “In these circumstances, the University is truly caught in the middle.”

The UNC Board of Governors has called a special session for Tuesday afternoon to get a legal briefing from the system’s general counsel.

While these lawsuits were all filed Monday, the original lawsuit from the national American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina and Lambda Legal challenging House Bill 2 is still awaiting action from the court.

The cases could all eventually be merged for one ruling, but there is no timeline for any movement on the suits.