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Lawmakers Set to Introduce Bipartisan Redistricting Reform

A plan for redistricting in North Carolina is once again being put forward by state lawmakers.

A bipartisan group of legislators, from the House and Senate, held a press conference at noon on Tuesday. The purpose was to put forward a proposal to change how voting maps are drawn in the Tar Heel state.

The debate over redistricting in North Carolina has raged on for more than a century. For years Democrats controlled the state legislature, and they drew maps that were favorable to the election of more Democrats. And that was deemed legal by the court system.

During that time, Republicans, and some Democrats, repeatedly called for lawmakers to conceive of a more fair system for how the maps are drawn. Now that Republicans are in control of the state House and Senate, the roles have reversed.

But long-time Republican House Representative Skip Stam says he will introduce a bill that calls for an independent commission to draw the voting maps in the state.

“The idea is that, in constructing districts, the people with the most at stake,” he says, “are probably ones who shouldn’t be doing the details.”

Stam’s proposal would be enacted before the next maps are drawn in 2021.

Stam says an opportunity has presented itself that may be the best chance for the bill to actually pass into law, because there is no pending litigation regarding the current maps.

Republican Representative Charlie Jeter says he and Democratic Senator Jeff Jackson will also be introducing a bill concerning redistricting.

“Our bill won’t go into effect until after the 2030 election cycle, in large part because it grandfathers everyone out,” he says. “To some degree, I think this is about getting the bill passed.”

Democratic Representative Grier Martin says his district, because it is heavily Democratic, is a prime example of what is causing some voters to stay home from the polls.

Martin adds passing a bipartisan redistricting bill would be a big step toward restoring North Carolinians faith in the state government.

Republican Representative John Hardister echoes the sentiment of many conservative leaders at the press conference, saying gerrymandering districts is bad policy – regardless of which party benefits.

“Many Republicans, including myself, advocated for redistricting reform when Democrats were in the majority,” he says. “It was the right thing to do then, and it’s still the right thing to do today.”

John Hood, with the conservative Pope Foundation, says the policy should move forward because it benefits the residents of North Carolina.

“It’s important for all of us in North Carolina to get the policy right,” he says. “I’m sure that redistricting reformers would welcome additional alternatives; as long as they were consistent with the principal that neutral rules should be our tactic, and competitive elections should be our end.”

Voters were the topic of conversation as well for Chris Fitzsimon of the progressive organization NC Policy Watch.

“This is not all the complicated,” he says. “The idea is to create a system where voters choose their politicians, instead of the other way around.”

Even with the bipartisan backing of this bill, it is not set in stone that it will move forward. Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has previously said he would not consider the legislation while litigation was ongoing.

Mitch Kokai is the Director of Communication for the conservative John Locke Foundation, and he says – even though the litigation has reached a conclusion – there is no guarantee Senator Berger will bring the legislation before the Senate, regardless of what the House does.

“[Berger] hasn’t come out and said ‘heck no, we’re never going to do it,’” Kokai says. “But he also hasn’t come out and said ‘oh yes, we’re going to go along with this now.’”

Ellie Kinnaird represented Orange and Chatham Counties in the North Carolina Senate, as a Democrat, from 1997 – 2013, and she recalls trying to pass a redistricting campaign when her fellow Democrats were in control of the House and Senate.

“I introduced a bill, under the Democrats, for an independent redistricting campaign,” she says. “They thought they were going to be in power forever, why would they do it? I introduced it under the Republicans, and the same thing happened.

“So, I’m very encouraged that the House, last term, actually did pass an independent redistricting bill. But I’m afraid that Mr. Berger will never relent in the Senate. He will not let that go through.”

Kinnaird adds, as long as large donors are allowed to bring about campaigns similar to what North Carolinians saw with the US Senate race between Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan, she is not expecting anything to change.

“The money is going to be crucial,” she says. “As the money pours in, it just solidifies the system.

“I don’t see any hope for the near future for North Carolina. I think that, frankly, it’s going to take 49 states enacting it before we enact it.”

The next North Carolina voting maps will be drawn in 2021, following the 2020 census. Whether they will be drawn with a partisan pen or through the eyes of an independent committee remains to be seen.

WCHL has requested a statement from Senator Phil Berger following the press conference but have not received a response at this time.

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/lawmakers-set-introduce-bipartisan-redistricting-reform/

NC Scores Low on Public Health Report Card

According to the NC Prevention report card, North Carolina residents are struggling to meet public health goals for tobacco use, nutrition, obesity and physical activity.

Rachel Zuker is the research and evaluation coordinator for the Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Prevention Partners. She says the state’s grades are not looking good.

“Right now, we’re not doing great,” says Zuker. “We have a C in tobacco, a D in physical activity and Fs in both nutrition and obesity, so there’s definitely work to be done.”

The report measures state progress on national public health goals set for 2020.

Tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the US, and here in North Carolina, residents are smoking at a higher rate than elsewhere.

Zuker says this year North Carolina earned a C for tobacco use, down from a B grade last year.

“In tobacco policies, other states have continued to make progress, whereas we’ve kind of stayed the same, so I think we’re seeing ourselves slide a little bit in tobacco, which is too bad, because previously we’d been at a B and we were seeing that as a great area,” says Zucker.

The report points to policy changes at the state and local levels that could lower tobacco use, including designating more smoke-free places and increasing funding for cessation support services.

When it comes to nutrition and obesity, the report suggests economic challenges are hitting families hard. Seventeen percent of North Carolina households face hunger. At the same time, two out of every three adults and slightly more than a quarter of  high school students are overweight or obese, and the problem is more significant for those with lower levels of education and income.

Zuker says obesity and poor diet go hand in hand, as it costs more to eat well.

“You can be malnourished and obese. There’s a difference between malnourishment and obesity.”

Compounding the problem, the majority of North Carolina’s adults are not getting the recommended weekly minimum amount of physical activity.

Zuker says when it comes to changing the state’s health grade, workplace programs can have a big impact.

“People spend so much of their daily lives at work, and so if we see workplaces passing policies to promote cheaper, healthy foods, time for physical activities or access to those facilities, helping employees to quit [smoking], we really see that as key.”

Prevention Partners is launching an initiative with some of North Carolina’s largest employers to try to change the workplace culture to support healthy lifestyles. Zuker says the plan, called Healthy Together North Carolina, could reach up to 20 percent of the state’s workforce.

You can read the full interactive report card here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/health/nc-scores-low-public-health-report-card/

HIV Survival Rates Disproportionately Low in South

Survival rates for those infected with HIV/AIDS in the South are the lowest across the nation.

Nine southern states, including North Carolina, are hit disproportionately hard by HIV/AIDS, according to new research out of Duke University. The study found 15% of those diagnosed with HIV, and 27% diagnosed with AIDS, died within five years of their diagnosis, based on numbers from 2003 – 2004.

Lee Storrow, Executive Director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, says the disease has grown beyond its initial profile of mainly affecting young-to-middle-aged white gay men.

“Unfortunately, we have really seen this disease evolve over the last 20 years,” he says. “[We’re] seeing a new focus and new outbreaks amongst poor residents of this county – and a concentration of new epidemics in the South.”

Storrow adds many factors play into the increased HIV rates – and the lower survival rate associated with the disease – particularly in our region.

“When you look at poverty rates in the deep South, when you look at lower levels of education, and you look at the social stigma,” he says, “I think all of those are factors that are contributing to increased rates of HIV in the South.”

Storrow says the stigma associated with the disease is a major obstacle in battling its treatment.

He adds, while sexual contact is the main form of transmission, the disease can also be passed by sharing needles, among other avenues.

Unfortunately, Storrow says our social environment can be deadly for those who are HIV positive.

“That stigma is something that means that people don’t share their medical conditions. They don’t receive testing,” he says. “And there’s a number of people who have received testing, and might know that they’re HIV positive, but aren’t actually in care to receive the treatment that they need.”

He adds battling the stigma is difficult on several layers, including not being able to legislate against a social stigma as you can with other more overt obstacles.

Of what can be controlled, access is a major theme for treatment, according to Storrow.

“One thing we know,” he says, “is that if you have access to stable-consistent-safe housing, you’re ability to access medical care significantly increases.”

And access to steady-affordable medical care can then translate to more effective treatment of the disease.

Storrow says the biggest way state legislators can help in the fight against HIV/AIDS is by expanding Medicaid.

He adds it will take teamwork – between lawmakers, everyone in our community, and beyond – to fight back against HIV/AIDS.

http://chapelboro.com/news/health/hiv-survival-rates-disproportionately-low-south/

Redistricting Continues to Stir Legal Battle in NC

Drawing the congressional map in North Carolina has been a topic of debate, in conversation and in courtrooms, for decades.

The latest rendition of the North Carolina congressional district map is constitutional, according to a State Supreme Court ruling. State Republican lawmakers are responsible for the latest depiction of the districts; the GOP drew the map in 2011, after the last census in 2010. The legal challenge to the map’s constitutionality may not be done, as an appeal to the US Supreme Court is likely. There have been 27 judicial interventions in North Carolina’s drawing of congressional districts in the last 30 years, according to the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

Listen to the full segment here:

Jane Pinsky is the director of that organization; she says the challenge to the previous district drawing was followed by a particularly long legal battle, “The 2001 redistricting finished with a lawsuit that was decided in 2009.”

Pinsky says partisan drawings have been the standard in the Tar Heel state. And drawing the map for political gain is technically legal, according to court rulings.

Kareem Crayton is an Associate Professor of Law at UNC; he says that the close ties between race and politics in North Carolina lead to a challenge that most states do not face.

“Is there a way to tease apart this purported concern with race and perhaps hyper-partisanship,” he asks, “in a way that makes a lot of sense to people and, frankly, keeps both the Democrats and Republicans at bay?”

One suggestion has been to look to other states as a model, one in particular being Iowa. Pinsky says their formula is developed by a professional staff and then voted on by legislators.

Professor Crayton adds that many states are looking at Iowa’s model, but there are some inherent issues.

“Iowa, by comparison, is not as ethnically and racially diverse as most other states in the union,” he says. “Certainly among states in the South, where there is a significant African-American population in the state electorate.”

Some states have taken pieces of the Iowa formula and molded it to fit their state’s needs. Ohio has created a new system for drawing their districts, which involves an independent commission drawing the map.

Pinsky says to get to a point where North Carolina deviates from the current formula of the dominant party having ultimate power over the drawings – and the seemingly endless legal battles associated with that –legislators will have to give up their power for drawing the congressional map.

She adds that state house lawmakers have agreed to a plan to move toward a new system on multiple occasions, but senate legislators have refused to move on the plan while litigation is ongoing.

Professor Crayton says that some other states have been successful in taking the power of drawing the map out of the legislator’s hand and allowing the citizens to decide on the congressional districts through a voter referendum.

“When the public gets mad enough and organized enough,” he says, “there usually is an effort to think creatively about a system that can stand any alternative.”

The possibility exists that the lawsuit over North Carolina’s congressional map could be combined with a similar suit out of Alabama and be brought before the US Supreme Court.

Regardless of any legal decision, the next time the lines will be put on a map of the Tar Heel state will be in 2021.

Whether that drawing will remain under our current system or if it will be subject to new – possibly less partisan – guidelines, remains to be seen.

http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/redistricting-continues-stir-legal-battle-nc/

The 2014 Inter-City Visit, As Told By Aaron Keck: Tuesday Evening

The second and final day of the 2014 ICV wrapped up Tuesday for nearly 100 Orange County residents, including WCHL’s Aaron Keck, who is making his second-consecutive trip with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s ICV has taken the group to Athens, Georgia, with a stop in Greenville, South Carolina on the way. Athens is a college town much like Chapel Hill-Carrboro with the campus of the University of Georgia abutting the City.

Aaron joined Ran Northam on the WCHL Tuesday Evening News to tell the latest about the trip.

***Listen to the Interview***

 

Have you missed any of Aaron’s updates from Athens?
Monday Morning | Monday Evening | Tuesday Morning | Tuesday Evening

While in Athens, Aaron has also been writing a column.
Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

http://chapelboro.com/news/news-around-time/2014-inter-city-visit-told-aaron-keck-tuesday-evening/

The 2014 Inter-City Visit, As Told By Aaron Keck: Monday Morning

WCHL’s host of Aaron in the Afternoon and the WCHL Evening News, Aaron Keck, made his second-consecutive trip with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce and almost 100 other Orange County residents for the 2014 inter-city visit.

This year’s journey is to Athens, Georgia–the home of the University of Georgia. But, first, the journey stopped off in Greenville, South Carolina–the home of Furman University.

Aaron joined Ron Stutts on the WCHL Monday Morning News to tell the story of the journey so far.

***Listen to the Conversation***

Have you missed any of Aaron’s updates from Athens?
Monday Morning | Monday Evening | Tuesday Morning | Tuesday Evening

While in Athens, Aaron has also been writing a column.
Dispatch From Athens: Part I | Part II | Part III

http://chapelboro.com/news/news-around-time/2014-inter-city-visit-told-aaron-keck-monday-morning/

Poll: Nation On The Wrong Track

North Carolina voters aren’t happy with the direction the nation is headed.

The Civitas Institute is a conservative publication, which conducted a poll in late July. In the release of the poll last week, it stated 70 percent of registered North Carolina voters think the United States are on the wrong track compared to the 20 percent that thinks things are heading in the right direction.

In October 2012, the split was 55-40, with the majority still believing the nation wasn’t in the right place.

The number one issue voters said they were concerned about was the economy. In a close second was jobs and unemployment, followed by immigration, health care, and the current government.

Neither political party had the upper hand in the poll. When voters were asked which candidate they would vote for if the election for Congress was held on that date, 43 percent said the Republican and 43 percent said the Democrat.

And, when asked specifically how President Barack Obama is doing—almost at the midway point in his second term—53 percent disapprove while 45 percent approve.

To see a complete breakdown of the poll, click here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/national/poll-nation-wrong-track/

Unemployment Up For Second Time In Three Months

Unemployment claims climbed in July both nationally and in North Carolina, marking the second increase in the state since June 2012.

Nearly 20,000 fewer people were employed from June to July, according to the state’s Department of Commerce. However, jobless claims didn’t greatly rise, showing a 0.1 percent increase to 6.5 percent might not be telling the whole story. Only about 5,300 more people claimed to be without a job in July.

The numbers are still greatly improved from the previous year. In July 2013, 8.1 percent of the state’s population claimed to be unemployed.

Nationally, the shift went from 6.1 to 6.2 percent which is 1.1-percent better than a year ago.

The county-by-county figures are scheduled to be released August 27.

To see the complete breakdown of the state and national unemployment rate for July, click here.

http://chapelboro.com/news/business/unemployment-first-time-two-years/

Congressman David Price To Visit WCHL Studios Tuesday

Members of Congress are on a five-week recess, and your Representative, David Price, is taking some of his time to stop by the WCHL Studios and talk about the top issues being debated in Washington.

Congressman Price is a native of eastern Tennessee and made his way to Mars Hill College and UNC, where he was a Morehead Scholar. He also studied at Yale University where he received a Bachelor of Divinity as well as a Ph.D. in Political Science. Congressman Price spent additional time in the classroom as a professor at Duke University in 1987 teaching Political Science and Public Policy.

Now Congressman Price serves North Carolina’s Fourth District and is on the House Appropriations Committee. He serves as the Ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

Congressman Price recently announced that North Carolina will receive an added $1.1 million in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security, compared to last year. That work was done through the Appropriations Committee. He and Wisconsin representative Tom Petri, a Republican, announced a bipartisan NCAA financial transparency bill in the heat of heavy intercollegiate athletics discussions.

Congressman Price will also weigh in on foreign affairs as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues as well as the United States’ recent air strikes on Iraq.

Tune in to the WCHL Afternoon News with Aaron Keck Tuesday when Congressman Price will sit down with Aaron for the entire 4:00 hour to discuss timely topics of local, national, and international importance.

http://chapelboro.com/news/national/congressman-david-price-visit-wchl-studios-tuesday/

CANCELLED: VA Amber Alert Warns NC Of Abducted Son

Originally posted 1:46 p.m., August 6, 2014

Officials cancelled the Amber Alert Wednesday when Tommy Lee Able Engle was found in Pikeville, Kentucky, according to WUSA. His father was taken into custody.

Officials from Virginia are warning North Carolina residents of an Amber Alert after a father abducted his three-year-old son and threatened to take both their lives Monday.

Tommy Lee Travis Engle is wanted in connection with the abduction of his son, Tommy Lee Able Engle. The father is a six-foot-three-inch white male, weighing approximately 200 pounds and has brown eyes and brown hair.

He is thought to be driving a navy blue 2001 four-door Dodge Neon with Virginia license plate WNZ-9169.

Officials are warning everyone to use caution if they encounter this man because he may have an AK-47 assault rifle. The Amber Alert release states that he made suicidal threats and homicidal threats toward police officers.

Anyone with information should dial 911 immediately. You can also call Crime Stoppers at 919-942-7515.

http://chapelboro.com/news/crime/va-amber-alert-warns-nc-abducted-son/