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  • Who should solve the DACA problem?

    As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in mid-November about whether President Trump can end the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the court’s five conservative justices signaled their inclination toward allowing the president to do so. We’re hearing a lot these days about the rule of law. And that’s a good thing. We all need a reminder that no matter how much any elected official appeals to us, no matter how charismatic, no matter how much faith we have in that individual’s intelligence, integrity or chutzpah, our Constitution requires that person to govern according to the rule of law. Contemplating the rule of law might help those of us who are appalled at the prospect that our country might deport more than 660,000 young men and women, whose plight is no fault of their own, understand where to direct our fury. As North Carolinians, it matters because our state has the seventh largest population of DACA recipients. It isn’t just these young people who will suffer if they lose their DACA status. According to an analysis by The Center for American Progress, North Carolina is home to 24,480 DACA recipients who pay $134.8 million in federal taxes and $81.7 million in state and local taxes. Their spending power is $702.5 million. They own homes, they pay rent, they work in every sector of the economy. (Contrary to President Trump’s tweet that many are criminals, no one with a criminal record qualifies for DACA status.) Moreover, North Carolina is home to 11,600 American-citizen children of DACA recipients. How did we get to this place? Under U.S. immigration law, anyone in the country without proper documentation encounters great difficulty pursuing an education beyond high school or finding work. They live in the shadows, vulnerable to exploitation and in constant fear of being deported. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals provides undocumented young people who were brought into the country unlawfully as children a two-year renewable deferral from deportation and the right to work or attend school during that time. It does not grant them a path to citizenship. Polls show that seventy-two percent of Americans oppose the deportation of these young people. But Republicans have consistently blocked legislation to address their plight and a polarized Congress seems unable to find any workable compromise to solve the dysfunctional immigration system that created it. In exasperation, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing DACA, even though he himself admitted that he couldn’t “just bypass Congress and change the (immigration) law myself. … That’s not how a democracy works.” In another instance, he said, “I’m not the emperor … My job is to execute laws that are passed. And Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system.” As Obama understood, the authority to make law resides with Congress. The authority to enforce it resides with the executive. That authority to execute the law did allow him to establish priorities for enforcing it. But it could be argued that he went beyond that. Instead of simply declaring they wouldn’t be a priority for deportation, he gave them legal status, which allows them to obtain driver’s licenses, work and pursue higher education, something the immigration law doesn’t do. Many authorities on the Constitution would argue that he overstepped his enforcement authority, actually undermining the law he was supposed to be enforcing. More to the point, if he had the authority to interpret the immigration law so liberally, his successor has the authority to take a different view. So, the first question before the Supreme Court is whether the court itself has the authority to intervene in what is, by Constitutional mandate, the authority of the executive branch to enforce the laws of the land. Should the court determine that it has the authority to review Trump’s decision to wind down the program, the administration argues that dismantling it brings enforcement back into compliance with federal immigration law which makes no exception for those brought into the country unlawfully as children. No matter how sympathetic one is to the plight of young people who have lived in the United States for almost their entire lives, most of whom can’t even remember the countries where they were born, and no matter how much they contribute to their communities or to the economies of the states where they live, it seems highly unlikely the court will block Trump from dismantling DACA. But it is not the court, or even Trump, where the primary responsibility for this despicable state of affairs lies. It lies with Congress, with the men and women we’ve elected to serve us who care more about playing to their bases than they do about reaching across the aisle to find workable compromises to solve the nation’s problems. It is at Congress that we should direct our anger and frustration, and it is to Congress that we should look for a solution. We in North Carolina, and the people of California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, Arizona and other states whose economies have grown and prospered thanks to immigrant labor, and whose states benefit from the talent and dedication of these young DACA recipients, should flood the offices of our U.S. representatives and senators with demands that they do the honorable thing. That would be to pass a law granting DACA recipients’ permanent residency and a path to citizenship before the Supreme Court hands down its decision next June. Trump has said he will sign such a bill. Let’s find out.

  • Are North Carolina public schools better today than when Mr. Johnson assumed his role as State Super

    North Carolina State Superintendent Mark Johnson was elected in 2016, defeating incumbent June Atkinson by 53,860 votes, or 1.2 percent. Johnson attended public schools, specifically the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. He went on to earn two degrees in political science and environmental studies. He earned a law degree from the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill and graduated with honors. Johnson has taught in the classroom in West Charlotte High School. “I realized that opportunity is not available to every student in this country, and it needs to be,” he has said. His background also includes serving as a school board member in Forsyth County. Mr. Johnson appears to have prepared himself for the top job for public education and educating more than 1.5 million K-12 students in North Carolina. While campaigning, he talked with reporter Jeffrey C. Billman of Indy Week about a number of important issues facing K-12 education. He discussed the ACT, where half of graduates were failing to meet a single benchmark on the ACT. He also discussed Workforce Preparedness, preparing diplomas for work rather than targeting the graduation rate, and improving African American student performance in obtaining a minimum ACT score required for college admission. Teacher Pay has been an issue for many years with North Carolina teacher pay being in the lower spectrum for national teacher pay. Johnson identified the importance of tackling the issue of over-testing for teachers and students. The goal was to focus students on how they are performing daily rather than at the year-end of grade or end of course test. Johnson spoke of the importance of using digital technology in the educational process and had great concerns on the impact of poverty on education. As we come to the end of his third year as the state’s educational leader, it is important to ask a question: Are North Carolina public schools better off today than when Mr. Johnson assumed his role as the state’s top educator? Johnsons’ outlines a focus on school safety, career pathways, early childhood education, computer science and coding, and reducing over testing. The digital initiative for third-grade reading, was met with strong opposition from the Department of Information Technology. The competing bidder argued that Johnson awarded the $8.3 million contract improperly. Johnson also was successful in achieving two major legislative goals that tie to his strategic focuses, House Bill 75 (School Safety) and Senate Bill 621 (Reduced Testing). He alienated the N.C. Association of Educators, who did not invite him to the annual convention in March of 2018, breaking an historical precedent of inviting the N.C. Superintendent to their annual convention. The reason cited in the Raleigh News and Observer was “his disruptive actions such as support of private school vouchers and controversial comments about teacher pay.” A recent Charlotte Observer editorial, “A state superintendent who wants to be a czar, speaks to the challenges and leadership style of Johnson, who came into the role with credentials as an educator, but has led like a czar as opposed to a leader that children and educators need. Unfortunately, as one looks back on the tenure of Johnson, it’s worth noting his tenure got off to an inauspicious beginning when Republicans passed House Bill 17, which gave the inexperienced superintendent more authority and control over public education issues than the State Board of Education itself. In retrospect, this move crystallizes the ups and downs of Johnson’s educational agenda, as no man is an island and the trendy superintendent would be wise to listen to the wisdom of members of the State Board of Education. His forward-thinking goals can be reached if he works as a team player and not a czar as the Observer charges.

  • Trump’s cavalier grasp on the rule of law

    Take a bill from your wallet or purse. If it’s a $1, you can probably buy a convenience store coffee. A $5 might get you lunch, a sawbuck can purchase half a tank of gas, and so on. But take a moment to consider what you’re holding in your hand. You might say it’s a piece of paper. (Technically it’s a mix of cotton and linen, but whatever). But it’s not a piece of paper. It’s an act of faith. That’s the reason that bill is worth something. In reality it is just a piece of paper, but it’s a piece of paper backed up by the United States government. That means you can expect to work and be paid in a currency that will be universally accepted for goods and services. The reason that works is that we’re all in on it. We have faith the government represents us all, and that, despite a sometimes patchy record, it will enforce the rules (laws) that we, collectively, have agreed upon through those we elected to represent us. That’s the way the founding fathers set things up. We’d just disentangled ourselves from King George III and the rule of a man. A nation of laws, not men, was the formula to ensure we wouldn’t find ourselves ruled by the whims of a single individual. Today that formula, and our faith in it, is being tested. The founding fathers established a system of checks and balances, one that specifically delegated to Congress the power to impeach a president whose actions could be construed to constitute “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The transcript, released by the White House, of President Trump’s telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the face of it, implies just such “high crimes and misdemeanors.” President Trump personally ordered his staff to freeze more than $391 million in aid to Ukraine in the days before his phone call with Zelensky, administration officials have said. Then, according to the transcript, Trump asks Zelensky to do him a favor by investigating Hunter Biden, the son of his potential rival in the 2020 election. Yet, despite the appearance of a quid pro quo, we have a President who has essentially declared that Congress has no authority to investigate whether he has committed an impeachable crime. University of North Carolina Law professor Michael Gerhardt, who wrote a book on impeachment, told an L.A. Times reporter, “For a president to urge a foreign leader to investigate a political rival is a clear instance of impeachable misconduct. The framers believed such self-dealing was the essence of corruption and invented impeachment to get rid of it.” Congress not only has a right, it has an obligation to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to justify articles of impeachment. But Trump has called that Congress, composed of the elected representatives of the American people, a “kangaroo court” and refused to cooperate in any way with the impeachment inquiry. Being President doesn’t place Trump above the law or allow him to defy the branch of government the Constitution charged with the responsibility of holding him accountable. This same President, snatching a term Joseph Stalin used to describe political rivals, calls the media the “enemy of the people” and all news except that favorable to him “fake news.” He does this in an attempt to undermine the free press, which the framers of our system of laws considered so essential to a functioning democracy that they protected it in the First Amendment to the Constitution. He undercuts the bureaucracy that supports our system of government by calling it the “deep state,” implying some sort of dark conspiracy with no evidence to justify such reckless and disrespectful condemnation. Trump’s self-serving, heedless and increasingly rash behavior undermines faith in our nation at home and abroad. It is the kind of behavior the rule of law is intended to protect us from. It’s a breach of faith. As we said at the outset, without faith, money is only a piece of paper. The same can be said of our Constitution.

  • Stacking the farm-team of future politicians with more female representation

    It is no secret that women are underrepresented in American politics. We have never had a female president of the United States and women make up just 24 percent of Congress, 18 percent of America’s governors and 26 percent of state legislatures. And those who may think that local offices are the solution have thus far seen those hopes unrealized as women make up just 21 percent of mayors and comprise similar proportions of county commissions. While these data may leave little hope for even the most optimistic, the 2018 election suggested that maybe there was a silver lining for those who seek a more representative government. Running on the backs of the “blue wave” of 2018, women inched up in the representational calculus—adding 256 state legislative seats and 28 congressional seats over the previous year. Scholars, as they are want to do, debate the causes of this wave, but all recognize that the historic representation of female candidates was a function not only of voting behavior, but of supply. Simply put, more women were elected to office because more women ran for office. The question remains whether 2018’s “year of the woman” will inspire more women to run for office in the future. If we accept (and the scholarly literature as well as common sense would suggest that we should) that more women in office is a good thing for democracy, then regardless of partisanship, we should want to see more women running for office in 2019. Now I know what you may be thinking—2019 isn’t an election year. And to some degree, that’s true. This is not an “on-cycle” election year, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t electing anyone in 2019. In fact, there are 564 people running for a variety of offices in Western North Carolina, including mayor, city council, county soil and water commission, and county boards of education. Whoever wins these elections, they will make a bevy of decisions that affect our utilities, schools, roads, and lands. Unfortunately, the list of declared candidates in WNC doesn’t suggest much change from the past in terms of the potential for more equal gender representation in our region. Slightly more than one-fifth of candidates running for office in 2019 from WNC are women—similar to the current distribution of female representation in local government. When it comes to executive offices in local government in WNC, the numbers are even worse—less than 17 percent of people running for mayor in WNC in 2019 are women. While this rather average number of women running for office doesn’t bode well for an increase in female representation in our region, it doesn’t mean that we won’t see any change. Local elections in off-years such as 2019 have notoriously low turnout. That means that it’s a lot easier to sway the results of an election than it would be in a presidential or on-cycle election where turnout is expected to be high. A concerted effort to elect more women at the local level could therefore stand a greater chance of success in 2019 than it might in 2020. Stacking the farm-team of future politicians with more female representation can only increase the possibility that today’s local representation will be followed by tomorrow’s greater representation at higher offices. So, you are searching for a more representative government, there’s no better time to start than 2019. Christopher Cooper is the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University.

  • A Generation of North Carolinians Hooked on E-Cigarettes: A New, Deadly Ritual

    What teenager can resist the allure of the JUUL experience? The most popular vaping device in the United States has been designed to resemble a USB drive that fits in the palm of a 14-year-old’s hand and emits little vapor. A few puffs behind the teacher’s back and a sweet little buzz from nicotine follows (other brands marvelously offer cannabis products). When done, the child removes a pod on the device that contains nicotine and flavorings, and replaces it with a new one. Ahh. But other things are happening. That pod the child tossed out (JUUL’s flavors include mint and mango. Other companies sell unicorn and bubblegum.) contained as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. JUUL’s product allows users to inhale high levels of nicotine more easily and with less irritation. With this vaporized delivery system, fine particles of cancer-causing chemicals go deep into the lungs. E-cigarette batteries have caught fire and exploded, causing serious injuries. Adults and children have been poisoned by swallowing, breathing or absorbing e-cigarette liquid. And then there’s the fact that the nicotine is being delivered is highly addictive and damages the still-developing adolescent brain. What can follow that vaping experience is a trip to the emergency room and even death. As of Sept. 27, 2019, the CDC had reported 805 cases of confirmed or probable lung injury from vaping, including 12 deaths. More than two-thirds of the cases were male and 62% aged 18-34 years. Forty cases emerged in North Carolina, including one death in Greensboro Sept. 25. JUUL’s founders proclaim on their website that JUUL was all part of their quest to develop a product that would “invite its own ritual” for adult smokers. But the consumers who really latched onto the product in the U.S. were teenagers: JUUL has created a new ritual for them. Some brands emit giant clouds of vapor. Websites show how to perform tricks with the mist: Ghost Inhale. Dragon. Waterfall. Companies market colorful “skins” for the JUUL device. While smoking cigarettes among teens is down, use of e-cigarettes is up. Nearly 28% of high school students say they vaped in the last 30 days. Tobacco smoking among adolescents has fallen to 6%, as compared to 16% in 2011 and the peak of 36.4% in 1997. E-cigarettes first hit the U.S. in 2007. By 2014, they had found their niche whe n they became the most commonly used tobacco product among youth. This is about the time JUUL entered the market in 2015. By 2017-2018 one-fifth of all high school students were vaping. Only 3.2% of U.S. adults were using them during this time. JUUL markets itself as a product for adults who want to transition off cigarettes. But the FDA has never approved the device as an aid to help quit smoking. Also, vaping is cheaper than buying cigarettes, which, in addition to the flavors, is another advantage for kids. While cigarettes cost less in North Carolina than most any other state at $4. 87 a pack, the calculator on JUUL’s website says someone in North Carolina smoking one pack a day would save $365 a year by switching to JUUL. Buying the products is no problem for adolescents, either. While North Carolina banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors in 2014, a 2015 study by a researcher at the University of North Carolina found minors could easily buy e-cigarettes online. The response to the vaping crisis from the federal government has been painfully slow, even though the CDC warned of the dangers of e-cigarettes in 2013. Speaking before Congress, the FDA chief recently admitted a lack of inaction and vowed to do better. Now, even though the American Lung Association and others sued—including North Carolina’s attorney general—the FDA didn’t act until people started getting sick and dying. Now the FDA plans to banish all e-cigarette flavors except for tobacco and is drafting other rules aimed at curbing adolescent use. But this may be too late, since the nicotine products are highly addictive and the devices wildly popular. A generation of users is already vaping, getting sick, and dying. Companies still could reintroduce the flavors later, as long as they submit to the FDA’s premarket approval process. The CDC still doesn’t know what is causing the widespread lung injury from vaping. More study into which chemical exposure or brand may be involved is needed. Once this is targeted, it’s up to the FDA to act swiftly.

  • It’s time to change our view of consumerism

    In just a few generations the industrial revolution, along with the freedom and entrepreneurial spirit that grew out of the American Revolution, spawned what can only be described as an avalanche of new and wonderful things. Better farm equipment, time-saving appliances, automobiles, telephones, televisions, La-Z-Boy recliners, plastic in all its many forms, countless electronic devices. The list is endless. These amazing devices make life more convenient and, in many ways, easier for people around the world, and their production has been the major driver of the U.S. and other economies since before Henry Ford figured out how to mass produce cars. But here’s a hard fact. There’s a disastrous fallout from this wondrous era. You can see it in the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating garbage dump two times the size of Texas that floats between Hawaii and California. You can see it in mounds caught behind downed limbs in rivers. You can see it littering beaches, in unregulated heaps in cities around the world, in the bellies of dead whales. You can see it in the junked cars and piles of plastic toys and broken furniture in a host of North Carolina yards. What you can’t see is the microscopic bits of plastic falling to the ground when it rains. That’s right. A federal research report published in July, based on analysis of 300 rainwater samples collected in 2017 at six urban sites in the Denver and Boulder areas in Colorado, found microscopic fragments of green, blue, purple, red and silver plastic. There are no federal regulations to prevent this type of pollution and the implications for the health of the environment or of its human and other animal inhabitants are unknown. The amount of solid waste generated by consumerism, the big driver of our economy, is unsustainable not only because it pollutes the environment, but because it is an inexcusable waste of natural resources. The amount of metal in rusting cars sitting in front yards and junkyards in North Carolina alone would build an untold number of battleships. It’s no use blaming people for not recycling or for just tossing things instead of properly disposing of them. Even those responsible consumers who put their garbage on the street for pickup or haul it to the nearest convenience center contribute to the high cost of building and maintaining costly landfills that are increasingly hard to site. And now that China will no longer take much of our recycling, many municipalities are just throwing it away. There needs to be a fundamental shift in how we view consumerism and real consequences for heedless consumerism. Former President Jimmy Carter once said, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but (what) one owns. But we’ve discovered that only things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. “ Most studies of what makes people happy indicate that spending time with those they love, meaningful work and a positive attitude are at the top of the list. Religious belief, giving to others, gratitude, forgiveness, personal freedom and health are also high on the list. That suggests that excessive consumerism and the debt, overwork and isolation that often results would be counterproductive to health and happiness. Yet, Americans are constantly enticed by advertisements that imply a new car, a bigger house, or the latest, greatest gadget are the ticket to a blissful life. Measuring wealth in relationships, job satisfaction and the ability to maintain healthy attitudes and always balancing that against the need for things is tough in such a cultural environment, but it’s a shift worth striving for. Government at every level can help to encourage such a shift by creating tax breaks and other incentives for companies to become circular, as the furniture company Ikea has announced it plans to do by 2030. The company’s goal is to design every product it makes to be reused, repaired, upgraded, and ultimately recycled. Local governments can begin charging for garbage and recycling the way they charge for water use. Those who throw away more, pay more. Unofficial garbage dumps on private property also need to be regulated because they pose a public health problem. Rather than being punitive, government should offer incentives to help people who would otherwise be unable to clean up or remove such piles of garbage. Coming to terms with the unsustainable use of resources and the enormous impact of unbridled consumerism on the state, national and world environment poses one of the most complex and daunting challenges of our time. It was an unintended consequence of inventive and entrepreneurial forces that led to a better quality of life for many. Ikea’s decision to become a circular company hints that those same forces are waking up to the need to meet this challenge. All of us should do what we can to promote government policy that encourages and supports such initiatives.

  • Democracy in Decline

    America’s democracy, its position as a world leader and its values are under attack by our own governmental leaders and our adversaries — namely Russia, North Korea, Iran and China. When you consider the events and challenges that have taken place since January 2016, the world wonders what Americans stand for. Actions taken by President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Congressional members have been emulated by Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, as evidenced by the N.C. House vote taken to override the budget veto of Gov. Roy Cooper. On Sept. 11, a day for honoring those who fell that fateful day in 2001, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) misled House Democrats and the press by telling them the House would not hold a vote at the morning session. Unfortunately, they did hold the vote while most of the Democrats were away honoring the fallen of 9/11. The Washington Post accurately said, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Kudos to Rep. Deb Butler (D-Brunswick, New Hanover), who would not yield her voice in speaking out against this attack on fairness and democracy. This is not democracy as “we the people” have believed as stated in our U.S. Constitution. The N.C. Republicans have learned well from their party leader, Trump, who has made lying and misdirection a common practice. We expect more from the our president. The Washington Post reports that President Trump has over 12,000 recorded lies and falsehoods. Not only has the president misspoken thousands of times, his actions have challenged the decency and democracy he has sworn to protect by acting in the interest of himself, his political voting base and his family. Here is a sampling of some of the president’s actions: Claiming the media is “the enemy of the people.” Trump and McConnell refuse legislation to protect our citizens from gun assaults by not tackling the issue of background checks, which 83% of gun owners support. Trump advocating for Russia against the will of the democratic nations of the G7 and blaming an American president for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Crimea. Trump ignores the missile tests of Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Trump ignores the deficit and we find out the Republicans are not truly financial conservatives. Trump enriched himself with the almost 300 days at his clubs at the expense of the American public. The President appears to not recognize Puerto Rico as an American territory. Trump is fighting through the courts to keep his federal taxes from the view of the American public, despite the audit claim which does not prevent disclosure. Trump’s continued waffling and obedience to the NRA on background checks to stop the gun violence and carnage in the nation. Trumps embrace of white nationalism. Taking away citizenship of children born out of country for military personnel. Potential witness tampering in the Manafort trial. Separating children from their parents, some whom may never reunite. Placing limits on immigration based on who will likely use public benefits. Ethical violations with Attorney General William Barr paying the Trump hotel in DC over $30,000 for his Christmas party. Demeaning and hijacking Colin Kaepernick’s legal protest of police killings of unarmed black men, with a bogus claim of disrespecting the military. Trump’s support of Vladimir Putin over U.S. government intelligence experts. The question for us as Americans is: Are we the beacon of hope? Or are we the bullies of the world? Are we the people who turn our backs to children; to immigrants who seek political asylum from tyranny in their home countries, which the Supreme Court has voted to support. We can impact this president over the remainder of his term by going to the polls and electing legislators who will provide the oversight that the Constitution requires. The upcoming state legislature and gubernatorial elections in some states this year and in North Carolina next year will affect redistricting after the 2020 Census. This will have a tremendous impact on the near-term future of the nation in shaping the political balance of Congress. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks the United States 25th on the Democracy Index and is listed as a “flawed” democracy. North Korea comes in with a score of “0”, yet our president continues to support its brutal dictator. The Democracy Index reports that U.S. deterioration in the functioning government category is primarily due to political polarization and weakening of public confidence in institutions. The report states that Trump has tapped into partisan tensions in an effort to rally his conservative political and voter base around the sensitive issues of immigration and security. Basically, stoking fears with the American electorate. What are we as Americans going to do to protect our state, the republic and the future of our children?

  • As Atlantic Hurricanes Become More Dangerous, can North Carolina Evacuate its Most Populous Coastal

    With the peak months for hurricane activity upon us (August through October), government forecasters in charge of predicting hurricane activity have elevated the chances of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season to 45% (up from 30% from the outlook issued in May). This means we may see 10-17 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes and 2-4 major hurricanes. With blue tarps still whipping in the breeze on roofs across New Hanover County, this is not good news for those not yet recovered from last year’s record-breaking Hurricane Florence. On Sept. 10, 2018 as the storm gained strength in the Atlantic with winds of 140 miles per hour, the National Weather Service predicted the storm soon would make landfall near Wilmington in New Hanover County, North Carolina’s most populous coastal county with 232,274 residents. Under a voluntary evacuation order and at the urging of local officials and the governor, thousands fled inland. But many others stayed put to ride out the storm. Florence eventually made landfall at Wrightsville Beach at 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 14 gusting to 105 mph. When the storm pushed into nearby Wilmington, a massive tree crashed through the roof of the one-story brick home of Lesha and Adam Johnson. Firefighters from the station less than a mile away struggled for hours during the storm to reach the family inside and were able to save Adam, 48. But Lesha, 41 , and their 8-month-old son, also named Adam, died. Lesha owned her own business, was attending college, and had worked at the Wilmington Housing Authority as a director of property management. The family had stocked up as they prepared to ride out the storm. The home wasn’t in a flood zone. Adam, a janitor, said they felt they would be safe, especially since public officials had stressed the primary danger from the hurricane would be storm flooding and had not placed Wilmington under a mandatory evacuation order. The Johnsons had all the information and made a reasoned decision to remain in their home during the storm. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who repeatedly urged people to leave, explained that the city had never been under a mandatory evacuation order. Discussions with the county, the governor and federal officials concluded that the rest of the state could not handle a mass exodus from its largest coastal county. “I just don’t think there were enough resources inside the state, as well as fuel, to be able to handle it,” he told the Port City Daily. We have to ask, why this was the case when the governor of our neighboring state to the south was able to order the mandatory evacuation of 1 million people living on its coast in one sweep? “We know the evacuation order I’m issuing will be inconvenient,” S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said. “But we’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.” Why could North Carolina not make a coordinated mandatory evacuation of its coastal population with the same efficient decisiveness? Gov. Roy Cooper declared a mandatory evacuation of the state’s barrier islands for Florence, but otherwise North Carolina primarily relied on local governments to make evacuation declarations. Is this the best approach? This is a question worth asking. As our climate changes due to global warming, we are likely to see increasingly intense storms. Warmer oceans mean bigger, wetter and slower hurricanes may become the norm. On Sept. 16 after two days of relentless wind and rainfall, floodwaters blocked all roads in and cut off New Hanover from the rest of the world. Food, water an d fuel became scarce for those who did not evacuate. The county had lost power. Many structures were damaged from the relentless wind and 27 inches of rain that battered the county. Flood waters rose in roads, homes and businesses. Wilmington’s storied live oaks and long-leaf pines downed power lines and blocked the streets. Shelters were at capacity and short on supplies. After the storm, the city’s sidewalks told the tale: Water-logged carpet, sheet rock and household goods joined the mountains of stacked tree trunks and limbs on virtually every street. New Hanover County spent the next three months clearing 3 million cubic yards of vegetative debris. Today, digital billboards across Wilmington implore the local citizenry to be prepared for the next big one. Plan. Be prepared with an emergency readiness kit. Tick all those boxes on the hurricane readiness checklist. Some 42 people died in North Carolina from Florence. The state suffered $22 billion in property damage. State and local officials have scratched their collective heads in the months since Florence and vowed they will do better next time to protect life and property. Securing homes and businesses to better withstand the next storm and upgrading roads to resist rising waters must take place. While the damage from Florence in New Hanover was significant had the hurricane come ashore at 140 mph, many more lives would have been lost and the damage would have been unfathomable. Already into the 2019 hurricane season, the sense of urgency is clear. While the population is urged to act before the next storm, the wheels of government must move quickly and with courage.

  • Infrastructure suffering from growing population, corporate tax cuts

    If you live south of Asheville, it’s smart to check your mapping software before making a trip to the city. Checking ahead can save you from scrambling for alternate routes or, worse, sitting in a traffic slow-down on Interstate 26 while a 30-minute trip turns into one that takes an hour or more. Roads around the Western North Carolina hub haven’t kept up with population growth, as is the case with other parts of the state. Between 2010 and 2019, North Carolina grew by 9.65 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates, making it one of the fastest-growing states in the U.S. In June 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law the Build NC Bond Act to help expedite highway projects. The bonds will come into play if the DOT maintains a strong project delivery pace and needs additional funds. Something, at least, is being done to catch up with road needs. But growth is impacting every aspect of the North Carolina’s infrastructure. Cooper and state lawmakers face other urgent needs including managing storm water flooding, planning for sea level rise along the state’s coast and upgrading the state’s dams and bridges. But perhaps the most urgent is providing adequate school facilities to educate its young people. North Carolina schools face an $8 billion backlog in school facilities needed by fiscal year 2020-2021, according to a report from the North Carolina Justice Center. It’s a backlog that, according to the report, is a self-inflicted wound caused by rounds of tax cuts passed by the General Assembly since 2013. Those cuts have reduced state revenues by $3.6 billion a year. “This rash of tax cuts has dramatically undermined our ability to deliver needed services for North Carolina’s growing population,” the report, published in March 2019 says. Before the Great Recession, school construction was supplemented by state government using a portion of corporate income tax and by lottery revenue. Since that time, corporate tax cuts and diversion of lottery income to other purposes has diminished state support for school construction by hundreds of millions of dollars. Charlotte teacher Justin Parmenter wrote about some of the situations that have resulted in his blog “Notes from the Chalkboard” in May 2018. One Mecklenburg teacher taught in a trailer infested with ants living inside its walls. She and her students suffered bites. “Classes with so many children that some have to sit on the floor. Other classes taking place in closets. Blind students who can’t get books in Braille. … Teachers forced to stop class to attend to special medical needs because there’s no nurse on duty. Welcome to public schools in North Carolina,” Parmenter wrote in the post. The American Society of Civil Engineers periodically grades the nation’s infrastructure and that of each state. North Carolina’s infrastructure was last graded in 2013, at which time the state’s schools received a “C.” The report card noted that “over 58% of North Carolina schools will require renovations in the next 5 years….” The ASCE projected those renovation costs at $8 billion. But the legislature did not increase funding to meet those needs. Instead, it took funds off the table by slicing the corporate tax rate from 6.9 percent in 2013 to 2.5 percent in 2019. North Carolina’s education infrastructure continues to fall behind as lawmakers choose corporate tax cuts over educating the workforce on which those very corporations will depend in years to come. One of the most basic functions of government is to provide an infrastructure that allows people, the human capital that supports the economy, to realize their full potential. The infrastructure should facilitate the creation of jobs and the education and safety of the workforce. Without roads that move traffic, schools that educate a future workforce, wastewater and storm water systems that prevent flooding and keep water clean, not only are people at risk of dying unnecessarily, business that brings prosperity will go elsewhere. A safe, effective and efficient infrastructure underpins a thriving economy and a thriving economy provides the wealth to support the infrastructure on which it depends, but if that wealth is diverted to other ends, the infrastructure begins to fail and the economy it supports will eventually suffer as well. In June, Gov. Cooper vetoed a state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. That budget failed to include a bond initiative asked for by the governor and passed by the House that would have provided a secure and sustained source of revenue to fund school capital needs. The governor’s compromise proposal includes the bond initiative, albeit at $3.5 billion instead of the original $3.9 billion request. If legislators want to keep North Carolina competitive, they will accept the compromise proposal and phase out the corporate tax cuts they’ve implemented to pay the debt service rather than robbing other areas of the state budget and undermining other critical needs.

  • Historical Opportunity for Rocky Mount, NC

    Edgecombe and Nash counties, located in Eastern North Carolina have a long history that has been defined by a rail line that separates the two counties predominantly in Rock Mount, North Carolina. In 1871, state legislators voted to relocate the boundary line between Nash and Edgecombe counties and separated the counties with a rail line that was controversial then and continues to have racial, economic and educational implications today for residents of Rocky Mount. After years of struggle, African Americans are positioned to elect candidates of their choice in Edgecombe County, which is 57.8% African American. Elected representation includes a diverse board of County Commissioners, a diverse Rocky Mount City Council, and African-American representatives in the NC House and Senate. According to retired N.C. Sen. Angela Bryant, “These electoral gains have been challenging as a result of some intra-group black power dynamics along with continuing impact of racially polarized voting by whites, racial gerrymandering and voter suppression, which is amplified by increasing housing segregation and the roll-back of voting rights. As (blacks) slog our success by channeling resources into our long underserved and neglected communities, whites counter with in essence, reverse discrimination or charges of incompetence or overreaching because development is going to much in the black, inner city or Edgecombe direction. A community that is governed by a majority of African-Americans is very likely to be subject to backlash by whites regarding distribution of the resources and how to manage the power that comes with being a black majority.” The Carolinas Gateway Partnerships reports there is significant economic growth coming to the region. Corning is investing $87 million, which is slated to generate approximately 149 jobs. Triangle Tire Co. a Chinese based company that manufactures tires for passenger and construction equipment, will create 800 new jobs at its two $580 million plants in Edgecombe County and will generate $2.1 billion in economic impact. CSX (intermodal facility) has broken ground in Edgecombe County. And the city of Rocky Mount has been selected for the new NC Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters in 2020. To provide youth with career opportunities, The NC Simulation Station will be utilizing electronic software games to assist in and out of school youth explore career occupations through online simulations. Additionally, there has been new investment to redevelop the 200-year-old Rocky Mount Mills and there is growing entrepreneurial investment in the city of Rocky Mount. The Nash and Edgecombe educational systems face high complexity grounded in historical integration and segregation of its schools. The state legislature’s merger of Rocky Mount City Schools and Nash County Schools in 1991 did not resolve segregation issues, but created a complex set of issues around funding, educating and addressing the issue of segregation and poverty. In a report written by Kris Nordstrom of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project for NC Policy Watch, integration can transform North Carolina schools and the lives of its students. North Carolina has made progress, however there is plenty of room for progress in Edgecombe and Nash counties. The research on school segregation and integration has reached general consensus on three points according to Nordstrom: School segregation has negative impacts on low-income students and students of color. School integration has positive impacts on low-income students and students of color. School integration does not have negative impacts on high-income white students. The report goes on to state that “leaders at all levels of society can do more to create an inclusive, integrated system of public schools. The state’s public schools are becoming increasingly segregated by income, and while the trends in racial school segregation in North Carolina are mixed, the overall level of racial segregation remains far too high. The good news is that integrating our schools is an incredibly low-cost proposition…” Despite its history of slavery, reconstruction, political disruption, segregated schools, and economic downturns, the City of Rocky Mount is positioned to leverage the growing economic headwinds and change the lives of its residents, thanks to public and private leadership and cooperation. Now is the time to move away from the historical issues and give many of its residents an opportunity to elevate from poverty and live and thrive in a vibrant and integrated community.

  • Partisan Gerrymandering now up to the States

    On Thursday, June 27, 2019, the nation’s highest court declared that it was too delicate a flower to deal with partisan gerrymandering. The issue, the court said, was beyond the scope of their authority. As this court routinely decides on issues that affect the lives of Americans – health care access, pollution regulations, women’s health issues, who can be armed how heavily and where, not to mention the death penalty – the decision smelled like a stretch. When you consider the court makes decisions that can in effect overturn the laws passed by those gerrymandered legislatures – and does routinely – the decision and its reasoning are even worse. So what does this have to do with North Carolina, and why is it bad? A lot, and a lot. North Carolina’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered for years, but gerrymandering on steroids is a relatively recent development. In the run-up to the 2010 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee created Project REDMAP. The plan was to seize control of state legislatures in 2010 races and implement gerrymanders in those states following the 2010 census. North Carolina was one of the top targets, and the GOP took control of both bodies of the state General Assembly for the first time since 1970. In the next step, gerrymandering guru Tom Hofeller was brought in to draw maps using sophisticated software to create new lines to drain every possible drop of partisan advantage out of North Carolina via new legislative lines. The new legislature approved the new lines, and it worked like a charm. Slim majorities in ensuing elections yielded supermajorities in the state House and Senate; newly drawn congressional lines turned a politically balanced state into a 10-3 GOP majority in the state’s congressional representation. GOP Rep. David Lewis, who famously said the 10-3 map was fine only because mapmakers couldn’t find a way to make it an 11-2 Republican edge, defended the redistricting thusly: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.” As of June 22 voter registration numbers in North Carolina showed 2.47 million Democrats; 2.13 million Unaffiliated; 2.003 million Republicans, and a smattering of Libertarian, Green and Constitution Party members. If the GOP is in third place in North Carolina, why is it such a dominating first place in the legislature? Gerrymandering is the obvious answer. In response to the obvious unfairness of the situation, the Supreme Court basically said, “Well, what ya gonna do?’’ You can bet this will be seen as a green light for even more radical gerrymandering and political hardball from the GOP. This decision, in fact, can be put down to political hardball. The dots between Merrick Garland and the 5-4 decision aren’t very hard to connect. Will Democrats respond with hardball on their own, say by packing the Supreme Court? It’s doubtful. On Twitter, New York Magazine contributor David Freedlander wrote, “If history is any guide, Republicans in red states will respond to this SCOTUS ruling by gerrymandering Democrats to a fare-thee-well, and Democrats in blue states will respond by setting up a nonpartisan redistricting commission.” Responding to Thursday’s decision, Lewis said, “Today’s ruling establishes precedent that it is not the judicial branch’s responsibility to determine the winners and the losers.” Unsaid: The winners and losers will continue to be determined by an already-gerrymandered legislature. The next round of battle will be whether state courts have a say in the matter, a round that will likely come quickly in North Carolina. In the meantime, it’s worth reading Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent. “In North Carolina, however the political winds blow, there are 10 dissenting Republicans and 3 Democrats. Is it conceivable that someday voters will be able to break out of that prefabricated box? Sure. But everything possible has been done to make that hard. To create a world in which power does not flow from the people because they do not choose their governors. Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections… “If there is a single idea that made our Nation (and that our Nation commended to the world), it is this one: The people are sovereign. The ‘power,’ James Madison wrote, ‘is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.’ Free and fair and periodic elections are the key to that vision,” Kagan wrote. “The people get to choose their representatives. And then they get to decide, at regular intervals, whether to keep them.” In North Carolina, it’s the legislators who decide whether to keep … well, themselves. The Supreme Court said it’s up to Congress and the state to decide gerrymandering issues.

  • Carolina Commentary Celebrates One Year

    As we celebrate our first birthday, Carolina Commentary has developed faster than the startup platform we first envisioned. The venture, put together by a team of veteran newspaper people, was designed to provide insight, analysis and commentary on issues of import to North Carolina. One thing we found is that insight, analysis and commentary are in sore need these days. Another thing we found is what we’ll call the canary in the coal mine. Let’s start by talking about coal mines. More specifically, coal miners. Remember the fuss Donald Trump made over bringing back mining jobs during the 2016 election campaign? A casual observer would easily think hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of jobs were in play. In fact, there are only about 50,000 mining jobs in the country, according to official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Granted, those figures don’t lump in affiliated jobs such as driving a coal truck. Still, the lure of the return of lost jobs certainly motivated some voters to cast their ballot for the New York businessman. And its true jobs were lost, about half of all coal mining jobs in the U.S. over five years. Most of those jobs were claimed by technological changes in mining and the boom in natural gas. A century ago, there were nearly a million miners. Those jobs were lost as people moved from being transported in coal-powered trains to gas-powered cars on their way to places heated by electricity, not coal. But the campaign line was that there a “war on coal,’’ sinister forces such as overzealous regulators and scheming environmentalists. How did that line stand and the importance of mining jobs get so overinflated? There we turn to another jobs crisis, happening about the same time. Employment among newspaper publishers dropped from 412,000 to 174,000 from 2001 to September 2016. Half of the surviving reporters and correspondents are clustered in the five metro areas of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. Perhaps that’s why the true dimensions of what was happening in the coal industry, and claims regarding the coal industry, didn’t break through to the general public. There were a lot fewer people to tell the tale. The canary in democracy’s coal mine, a vibrant free press, well … she’s about done up an’ died. But we’ve still got a few kicks left in us. And back to us: We suspect the news desert that’s developing in the country, particularly in spots outside major metropolitan areas, has sparked a real hunger for reliable news and commentary. We’d hoped to fill a little spot in the void with our new venture. We underestimated the thirst out there. With no budget for marketing or advertising – zip, zero, nada – we posted our first column on July 7, 2017. As of June 19, 2018, we had grown to 5,859 subscribers. We hear you, Carolina Commentary readers. And we’re out to up our game. We’ll increase the frequency of our commentaries and guest columnists. We’ll put a focus on every article based on three core topics: Democracy, justice, and economy. Under the umbrella of these core topics we’ll continue to examine Carolina Commentary pillars such as education, the environment and how to best prepare for a more diverse (and grayer) North Carolina. If you’re reading this, you’re likely already well informed on issues of justice and democracy, and the current assaults on the two. And good for you. Today, though, we’d like to focus on the economy aspect. The impact to your wallet on decisions made at the local, state and national level are often covered on a very superficial, campaign bumper-sticker level. A tax cut, for example, may mean more money out of your pocket down the road in financing the national debt or seeing your local government have to pick up the tab for an unfunded mandate. A trim in, say, pre-school spending may mean 20 years from now you’ll be paying to house someone in a prison or rehab center as opposed to benefitting from the fruits of a solid, taxpaying citizen. Specific to this column, consider this: Notre Dame associate professor of finance Paul Gao crunched the numbers and discovered what we don’t know truly can hurt us. A working paper examined communities following a newspaper closure and discovered the costs for revenue bonds and municipal bonds in those places rose uniformly. That’s likely because no one was guarding the henhouse with basic local government reporting. As Gao said, “You can actually see the financial consequences that have to be borne by local citizens as a result of newspaper closures.” We’re hoping to help continue to slake the thirst for meaningful information, to fill the gaps of a collapsing industry. But we need your help. We’d like your feedback on our first year; what we did well, what we can do better, and what issues may have fallen through the cracks. Go to survey here and help shape the face of Carolina Commentary in the coming year. So, happy birthday to Carolina Commentary. We’ve grown a lot. We intend to grow a lot more.

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