What’s Left After the General Assembly Went Home

The North Carolina General Assembly has wrapped up one of the longest legislative sessions in recent memory.

Municipalities’ ability to make decisions specifically impacting their communities, public school funding being diverted to charter schools, light rail spending, status of sanctuary cities, and the discreteness of the search for the next UNC system president were all up for debate in the whirlwind of action over the final few days of the legislative session.

Local Government Control: Senate Bill 279

A piece of legislation was introduced on the final day of the legislative session that proposed restrictions on local governments, before flaming out in spectacular fashion.

The changes were introduced as part of an unrelated bill that started out in an attempt to address qualifications of sexual education experts to approve sex ed curricula in school districts across the state. Throughout the intense debate on Tuesday, social media lit up with protests over the surprise amendment. LGBT advocates argued the move was aimed at reversing decisions by some municipalities extending discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation.

After being voted down by the House Rules Committee, a previous version of the bill – without the restrictive language – was passed by the Senate.

Charter School Funding: House Bill 539

Another piece of controversial legislation was also stopped in committee Tuesday night. The bill would have shifted some traditional public school funding to charter schools.

Public schools already split funding with charter schools based on enrollment numbers, but the new proposal would have taken money from pots previously reserved for public schools and diverted it to charters across the state.

Supporters say the bill would just provide equal funding to charter schools. Opponents argued against allowing charter schools to split funding for nutritional meals and transportation with public schools, because charter schools are not required to provide the same food and transportation services as traditional schools.

The bill could be brought back up in the short session next year.

Lawmakers said they wanted more time to evaluate charter school needs.

Light Rail Spending Amendment of Revenue Law Changes: Senate Bill 605

The House had voted earlier in the week to pass an amendment that would have removed the $500,000 spending cap on light rail.

The cap was originally placed in the state budget with no discussion beforehand.

Some have called the cap a “project killer” for the Durham – Orange Light Rail project, because the 17-mile light rail proposal is counting on 25 percent of the funding to come from state dollars.

The Senate sent the amended legislation to committee, where it will stay until at least next April.

The legislation to remove the cap could be reevaluated next session.

Sanctuary Cities: House Bill 318

Legislation is heading to Governor Pat McCrory that would ban sanctuary city policies, similar to what Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in place, from being adopted in the future.

This places the status in our community in limbo with several jurisdictional questions left to be answered, likely through litigation.

Protestors delivered letters to Mcrory on Wednesday asking him to veto the legislation. Another protest was held on the UNC campus on Thursday.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spoke with WCHL’s Blake Hodge about the proposal earlier in the week before it was passed. Listen below:

UNC President Search: Senate Bill 670

Finally, term limits have been placed for members to serve on the UNC Board of Governors, who will now only be able to serve three four-year terms on the 32-member board.

An amendment on the bill had called for a public meeting with the final three candidates for the president of the 17-campus UNC System.

That proposal was removed before the bill was finally passed to the governor.

Now the dozens of pieces of legislation that were nailed down in a fast-paced few hours await the signature of Governor Pat McCrory to become the law of the land.


House Votes to Remove Light Rail Spending Cap

***UPDATE: The North Carolina House voted on Monday night to remove the spending cap that was initially placed on light rail spending in the state budget signed earlier this month.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the legislation Tuesday. If passed, the bill would then go to Governor McCrory for his signature. ***

A surprise cap on light-rail projects in the recently signed North Carolina state budget may be short lived, if some lawmakers get their way.

Local Democratic House Representative Graig Meyer says a cloud of mystery is still hanging over the implementation of a $500,000 spending cap on light rail projects in North Carolina, a cap that some have called a “project killer” for the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail line.

“The Durham and Orange County legislative delegation were concerned about the budget provision that limited spending on light rail,” he says, “because no one in legislative leadership talked to any of us before inserting that into the budget.

“And no one will tell us who inserted it or why.”

Meyer says a proposed amendment has bipartisan support from urban representatives after Wake County Republicans were able to remove language that would place additional caps on Wake County spending.

“Two of the Republicans who were instrumental in removing the Wake County provision were also agreeable to working with our delegation, who are all Democrats, to try and address the Durham and Orange County issue,” he says. “We’re likely going to try and do so on Monday night when that bill moves to the floor for a full vote from the House.”

Meyer says it is too late to make any changes to the budget that was signed earlier this month, but the proposed amendment would nullify the spending cap.

Meyer adds there are multiple reasons some Republicans are joining the local Democrats in the fight to remove the cap.

“One reason is that it changes something that the Republicans put in place last year,” he says, “which was supposed to be a non-political process for identifying how to fund transportation needs. Instead of everything in transportation going to whoever is the most powerful and could get it for their district, to have something that’s actually based on needs and the number people that it would help.

“This starts to unravel that plan, and the people who worked on that plan don’t want to see their idea get chipped away at.”

Meyer says other Republicans are interested in removing the cap because they see it as overreach from state lawmakers into local issues.

The cap has a major influence on the feasibility of the Durham-Orange Light Rail proposal because the $1.6 billion project is counting on 25 percent of the funding coming from the state, with 50 percent coming from federal dollars and the remaining 25 percent from local money raised through the sales tax change implemented in Durham and Orange Counties.

Meyer says he is encouraged to see initial support from some Republican members of the House, but that by no means guarantees the amendment receives the needed support.

“All of this, of course, is contingent upon getting the support of the majority of both chambers,” he says. “And we’re not sure where the Republican leadership will come down on this because they certainly were in favor of the cap that was put in place in the budget.

“They may not be fans of our efforts to try and change that cap.”

Meyer says he has heard from constituents who are against the current light-rail proposal.

“I think that people on both sides of the light rail debate in Orange County have legitimate points,” he says. “I represent rural Orange County for the most part, as well as a little bit of Chapel Hill. And I understand why many of the rural residents are concerned that light rail isn’t going to meet some of their needs.

“And I think there are some legitimate concerns about whether the current light-rail plan is the right plan.”

But Meyer adds details of the plan can be negotiated to find a compromise as long as there is funding from the state.

“In this case, I’m trying to work to undo the budget cap because I feel like the budget cap was a bad piece of policy that was enacted in a bad way,” he says. “And that the concerns that are legitimate about what is going to happen with light rail are ones that can be negotiated through our local elected officials who are part of the team that’s trying to figure out what’s the best way to move forward with public transportation.”

Two public hearings on the current light-rail proposal are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday.


Legislature Passes Bill Protecting State Monuments

A bill making it more difficult to remove or relocate state monuments, including Confederate monuments, passed the legislature Tuesday.

The shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME in Charleston prompted the removal of Confederate flags and monuments from public spaces throughout the south.

But several weeks before the Charleston shooting, the North Carolina Senate passed Senate Bill 22. The legislation requires approval from the North Carolina Historical Commission for any state memorial or monument to be altered, removed or relocated.

House Representative Paul Tine voted in support of the bill when it passed the House Tuesday.

“In April when this bill passed the Senate with a unanimous vote, it was looked upon as a way to ensure that we continue to honor our military and veterans through a consistent process that gives due consideration to honor those that deserve our respect and remembrance,” Tine said during debate on the House floor.  “To me, this is exactly why we should pass this bill. When we are upset we have a tendency to make broad-based knee-jerk reactions that sometimes throw the good out with the bad.”

Many legislators voiced fierce opposition to Senate Bill 22, including Orange County’s representative Graig Meyer.

“If your intention is to uphold collective memory of sacrifice, you have to recognize that part of the impact is reminding people who are descendants of slaves that they are still struggling for true freedom today,” Meyer said. “If your intention is to uphold a monument that is a symbol of values, […] then you have to recognize that those monuments are currently being used as rallying points for people whose values are the most abhorrent forms of racism that we see in society today.”

House Representative Rodney Moore, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, says Confederate monuments represent a dark history to African Americans throughout the state.

“When we see Confederate monuments, Confederate flags, we see oppression,” Rodney told his fellow representatives. “We see the history of marginalization of an entire race of people […] we see, in our minds, symbols of hatred.”

The bill passed 70-39, largely along party lines. The governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry from WCHL as to whether the governor intends to sign the bill into law.


UNC: Under Fire?

From state funding cuts to the closure of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, there’s a growing sense in Chapel Hill that UNC is under siege.

But is it true?

“We are one of the best-supported university systems in the country, (but) over the last few years there’s been a small but steady decline in the support,” said UNC Provost Jim Dean at Thursday’s WCHL Community Forum.

But he says it could be worse. “There’s not a university in the country that’s not feeling financial pressure, and many of them are in much greater difficulty than we are,” Dean said Thursday. “We’ve had historically high support from the (state) legislature – over the last few years that support has gone down a bit, but relative to other universities in the country, it’s still quite high.”

Still, it’s not just a question of funding. Controversy flared recently when the UNC Board of Governors voted to close the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill – a center run by outspoken law professor Gene Nichol, who’s angered conservatives with his statements against the General Assembly.

Was the Board’s decision to close the Center an attempt to punish Nichol for speaking out?

Mitch Kokai, communications director for the John Locke Foundation, says no. “It’s part of this whole idea of making sure that if you’re giving the University a lot of state money, (you should) make sure that the university system and the campus in Chapel Hill are focusing on high priorities,” he says.

Provost Dean points out that the closure of the center was never a question of money. “The poverty center was receiving no state support, so there was no savings there whatsoever,” he says.

But Kokai says there was more behind the decision than that.

“A lot of people…remember that the center started (by Nichol) for John Edwards to help launch his next presidential campaign,” he said Thursday. “So it was seen to be political…and if there had been a good solid record (of achievements) that he could have pointed to and said, look, you’re going to close down this center that’s doing all these great things, I think he would have had a case.

“But that just wasn’t forthcoming.”

Regardless, both Dean and Kokai agree that Nichol and his staff appear to have been able to continue the Center’s work, even without official status – so if the closure was an attempt to punish Gene Nichol, Kokai says it wasn’t particularly effective.

Click here to hear the full audio from Thursday’s Community Forum.


Dems Gain In NCGA, But GOP Keeps Supermajority

As expected, the Democratic Party gained some seats in the North Carolina General Assembly in Tuesday’s election – but not enough to overcome the GOP’s veto-proof majority in either house.

It was a foregone conclusion that Republicans would retain their majorities in the State House and Senate; the GOP entered Tuesday’s election with a 77-43 advantage in the House and a 33-17 edge in the Senate, and very few of those 170 total districts were competitive in this cycle. (Many candidates ran unopposed.) But Democrats were hoping to gain enough seats to end the Republican veto-proof “supermajority”: as long as the GOP holds more than 60 percent of the seats in both houses, a united party can override any gubernatorial veto.

According to the State Board of Elections, Democrats did pick up three net seats in the House to cut the GOP’s advantage to 74-46 – but they needed at least three more gains to overcome the supermajority. In the Senate, Democrats actually dropped one seat, giving Republicans a 34-16 edge.


2014: Gains For Dems In NC?

On the national level, Republicans are poised to make some gains in the November midterm election. But in North Carolina, could 2014 be a Democratic year?

Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen says it might. Dissatisfaction with the government is high this year, and that’s good for the opposition party – whichever party that should be. That means Republicans would benefit on the national level, but in GOP-dominated North Carolina, it’s the Democratic Party that stands to gain. Plus, Jensen says, NC Republicans were so successful in the 2010 and 2012 elections that there aren’t many winnable races left that they haven’t already won – so while Democrats are looking to pick up seats, the best Republicans can hope for is to hold the seats they already have. (In the race for U.S. Senate, incidentally, it’s the same story in reverse: all the seats up for election this year were last contested in 2008, a landslide year for Democrats.)

What will this mean in November? Jensen says it’s highly unlikely that Democrats will pick up enough seats to reclaim a majority in the State House or Senate – but they could win enough to cancel the GOP’s veto-proof majority. That in turn would strengthen the power of the governor’s office – giving Pat McCrory more of a chance to flex his moderate muscle in the short term (if he so chose), and elevating the importance of the 2016 gubernatorial election in the longer term.

Tom Jensen spoke with Aaron Keck on WCHL this week. In addition to the General Assembly race, they also discussed public opinion about a minimum wage increase – and (of course) the upcoming UNC football game.


NC GOP Unpopular – But Are They In Danger?

Pat McCrory is unpopular and the North Carolina General Assembly is extremely unpopular – but it doesn’t look like there will be much of a shakeup in Raleigh when North Carolinians go to vote this November.

That’s the upshot of the latest survey from Public Policy Polling, released last week.

Read the report here.

Governor McCrory’s approval rating is only 39 percent and his disapproval rating is 45 percent – marking the 12th month in a row that McCrory has been in negative territory. PPP director Tom Jensen says that may be because voters see McCrory as a weak governor: only 27 percent believe he’s calling the shots in Raleigh, while 43 percent think the General Assembly is in control. (And voters don’t see that as a good thing: only 18 percent of North Carolinians approve of the job the NCGA is doing.)

But voters disapprove of Democrats in the NCGA as much as they disapprove of Republicans – so even though the NCGA is in Republican hands, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for Democrats yet. Republicans actually lead a generic legislative ballot 43-41, which Jensen says would give the GOP essentially the same majority for the next two years that it enjoys today. (That’s in spite of the fact that most of the policies being passed in the House and Senate are themselves unpopular as well.)

Tom Jensen joined Aaron Keck on the Tuesday afternoon news to discuss the poll.

As for the 2016 election, Jensen says to expect some close races: McCrory currently holds a 44-42 lead over attorney general Roy Cooper, the presumptive Democratic challenger (owing partly to Cooper’s low name recognition, Jensen says), while Hillary Clinton leads the most likely Republican candidates in the presidential race by equally narrow margins.


Fracking Gag Rule Part I: Trade Secret?

I was in the middle of writing a column about the unique benefits and properties of fertilizer made from seaweed when I got distracted by the North Carolina General Assembly. A Republican-led senate committee has proposed to make it a felony for a citizen to disclose the names of the chemicals used by drilling companies in the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process. The purported rationale is that drilling companies claim that the mixtures of chemicals they use are confidential trade secrets. As I will outline below, this claim borders on the absurd.

I have written about fracking several times in the past. For a thorough review of the technology and potential environmental risks please read my previous column, To Frack or not to Frack. For the purposes of this column, here is a very brief summary of fracking. When companies drill for oil or gas, everything is much easier if the deposits are contained in underground rock structures which are relatively porous. The porosity makes it easy for the oil and gas to move from place to place and thus to be extracted to the surface. As time has passed in the United States and around the world, oil and gas deposits contained in porous rock formations have been significantly depleted and drilling companies have started to exploit deposits which are present in low-porosity formations. To extract the oil and gas from these low-porosity rocks, the rocks must first be broken by fracking.

Fracking involves first drilling a hole straight down to the depth where the oil and/or gas deposits reside and then drilling horizontally through the non-porous rocks. Next, millions of gallons of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are pumped into the well. Since the temperature below ground is much higher than the surface, the water expands, which creates incredibly high pressures which then fractures the rock. The sand stays within the rock formation to help keep the smaller fissures created in the fracking process open. About 40% of the water and chemicals used in the process are pumped back out to the surface, while the other 60% remain underground.

The chemicals used in the fracking process have several purposes. A partial list includes:
• preventing the sand from clumping together too soon or too tightly,
• reducing the viscosity of the mixture so that it will flow through small cracks,
• preventing corrosion of the metal pipes used in the well, and
• killing bacteria in the water.

Many of the chemicals used in fracking are not soluble in pure water. If these chemicals can’t be dissolved or at least suspended in the water, the fracking process would not work. Therefore, in order to stabilize the chemicals in the water, it is necessary to add some hydrocarbons to the mixture as a co-solvent. Many of the issues and controversies surrounding the environmental risks of fracking are related to the hydrocarbon co-solvent.

The hydrocarbon co-solvent which is typically used is called petroleum distillate. Without going into a lengthy explanation of how an oil refinery works, petroleum distillate consists of a mixture of small to medium size hydrocarbons which were either present in the oil when it was extracted from the ground or created by “cracking” larger hydrocarbons into smaller ones during the oil refining process. Gasoline, kerosene, and diesel are all examples of petroleum distillates. Petroleum distillates generally contain hundreds of different types of hydrocarbon molecules, including known carcinogens such as benzene.

If you are running an oil refinery and want to maximize profits, you operate the equipment so that you manage to sell most of your petroleum distillate as gasoline, kerosene, or diesel. However, because of the nature of petroleum as well as the limitations in the specifications for products like gasoline, the refinery will end up with some distillate left over, for which there is no good commercial outlet. The refinery may be able to sell a portion of these leftovers as paint thinner, but much of it is effectively just waste. It is this waste distillate which is being used across the country as the co-solvent hydrocarbon for the fracking process.

With that background in mind, let’s first examine the claim that the recipes for these mixtures of fracking chemicals used by the drilling companies represent valuable, proprietary trade secrets. Our first hint that this claim is suspect stems from the fact that the technology involved in suspending sand in water and keeping pipes from corroding is neither novel nor complicated. There is certainly some art in calibrating the concentrations of the chemicals to adjust to local geology, but no esoteric or novel science is involved.

Our second hint is that the drilling companies do not invent or own the recipes for the fracking chemicals themselves. Rather, they rely on the one of the four large U.S. oil field services companies – Schlumberger, Halliburton, Flour or Baker-Hughes – who dominate the market. To the extent that a rationale might exist for maintaining trade secrets on fracking chemicals, it would presumably stem from protecting these four companies from one another. Given that all of these companies have been working on the same projects in the same places for decades, they already know exactly what each other are doing. Therefore, the suggestion that a citizen of North Carolina could cause financial harm to Halliburton by disclosing which anti-corrosive chemicals it is using does not pass the smell test.

So if Halliburton and the other companies don’t really need this to be protected by the North Carolina General Assembly, what is the real purpose of this proposed gag rule? I will give you my thoughts on that next week in Part II of this series. The week after in Part III, I will conclude the series by addressing the fate of the 40% of the water and chemicals which are pumped back up to the surface during the fracking process. It seems that the seaweed column will just have to wait.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.


State Democratic Party Chair Pleased with Election Results

North Carolina – Voter turnout this election year was low, but that won’t stop members of the Democratic Party from making bold predictions about their opponents’ futures.

***Listen to the Story***

Randy Voller is the Chair of the North Carolina State Democratic Party, and he says he and his party’s supporters should be pleased with last week’s election results.

“We pretty much swept all the races across the state, and in the big cities,” Voller says.

Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, and Sanford are a few cities included on his list of successes for the Democratic Party in this year’s municipal elections. So what went right for the candidates dressed in blue?

“Tuesday night was a referendum on what the mood of the electorate is in our cities,” Voller says, “The mood was to elect democrats and democrat city counsels across the state, especially in our bigger cities from Asheville to Wilmington.”

Voller says that mood was set by both federal and state government actions and events.He says the government shutdown and structural issues nationally had an effect on this election.

But Voller says events closer to home, within North Carolina’s state government, had a heavy influence on voters’ decisions as well.

“I think the interference in local control by the general assembly probably was on a lot of people’s minds,” Voller says, “There are a number of places where the general assembly got involved in local issues which traditionally they would not have done.”

Voller says he thinks the results in this election are foreshadowing future setbacks for opponents of the Democratic Party.

“I think what happened in Charlotte, where the republicans invested heavily and lost, is a bell-weather for 2014,” Voller says. And he has a message for voters not following his flock.

“If your stance is, ‘I don’t believe in government, or government doesn’t work, or we should privatize government,’ you’re probably on the defense right now,” Voller says.


Rep Insko Questions Motives Behind Abortion Bill

RALEIGH – In yet another surprise move coming out of Raleigh, the state House answered a veto threat from Gov. Pat McCrory by altering proposed abortion restrictions passed by the Senate and tacking them on another bill about motorcycle safety. Representative Verla Insko, of Orange County, has been outspoken against abortion restrictions and questioned the motives of Republican lawmakers to push the legislation through.

“No one who believes in a thriving democracy should avoid or be opposed to open and transparent process with a vigorous debate on both sides of the issue. They clearly did not want to expose themselves to transparency,” Insko said.

Last week, the original abortion regulations were unexpectedly attached to House Bill 695, buried under legislation on Sharia law. Those restrictions would require abortion providers to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers, a move abortion-rights advocates say is designed to shut down providers. Only one clinic in the entire state currently meets those standards. HB 695 moved through the Senate in less than 24 hours, just before the July Fourth holiday, and with little public notice. The bill then returned to the House for a final vote of concurrence.

After public backlash, however, the bill’s approval was halted Tuesday for a two-hour public hearing held by the House Health and Human Services Committee.  It was decided further changes and clarifications were necessary before the bill could move forward.  During that hearing, Insko was very outspoken about the potential consequences of preventing women from having safe abortions.

By Wednesday morning, the abortion-related provisions from HB 695 were then transferred to Senate Bill 353— the motorcycle safety bill. The new version of Senate Bill 353 was then passed by a House Judiciary Committee later in the day.

“They want to reach their goals in the dark of the night to the extent that they can. I don’t think North Carolinians will accept the process, much less the outcome,” Insko said.

Insko said the changes made by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday were “modest,” and restrictive, and the language of the bill was still unclear. She explained that committee members only gave “vague answers” when asked what the changes would imply.

“I expect that it is the only way they could have gotten the Republican caucus in the House to agree to that language because the caucus members were clearly not of one voice on that issue,” Insko said.

As of 11:50 Wednesday morning, the new version of SB 353 was not available to the public, and McCrory announced his intent to veto HB 695 only after work was nearly complete on the alternate version SB 353, according to WRAL.

Insko said Democrats in the General Assembly and abortion-rights activists now have a mounting case against Republicans lawmakers of abusing the democratic process, as there was no notice that the abortion-related provisions would be on the calendar Wednesday, mirroring actions taken in the Senate last week.

“I’m increasingly frustrated, disappointed and agree that they are misusing their power. It really is a power move,” Insko said.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos advised state lawmakers Tuesday to update the inspection procedures for abortion clinics because they haven’t been reviewed since 1995. Insko said she supports that proposal because it will help to keep the clinics open and safe. She says the problem is that the state doesn’t provide adequate funds to carry out those inspections.

“We pass laws that create good regulations, but the inspectors are never funded. If you never see someone running a stop sign, you never get a ticket,” Insko said.

Led by Planned Parenthood, protesters have been rallying outside and inside the General Assembly since the Senate passed HB 695 last week.

“I think that the women of North Carolina are energized, and they see that their hard-fought-for civil rights are being removed. I think that you’ll see a continued effort to make sure that those are protected,” Insko said.

The new version of SB 353 will move to the House floor Thursday. If approved, it would then return to the Senate for a final vote of concurrence before going to Governor McCrory.