Leading from the Left

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

I Need Your Input

The Board of County Commissioners will be making a decision soon about how to disperse proceeds from North Carolina's new lottery. Lottery funds, under state law, are required to be spent for education. While counties are given some leeway with regard to how to spend those monies, we cannot use lottery funds to supplant money that would have been spent on education anyway. In other words, lottery money must be new spending.

With regard to dispersing lotter proceeds, the BOCC will be chosing between two options: A) using lottery proceeds to offset annual debt service for school related debt (ie, constructing new schools) or B) allow our 2 school districts to use the money to address older facility needs.

I'd like to hear from you. What are your preferences for how lottery money should be dispersed? New construction or renovating older school buildings? You may email me at mikenelsonnc@aol.com.

There is background material on the question of how best to disperse lottery proceeds on the BOCC website. Click on "Meeting Agendas" and look for the agenda for our January 30th worksession. It's the first item on the agenda.

Thanks for your input!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Vaya Con Dios

Today, let's pay tribute to Father Drinan, a former congressman and human rights activist, who died Sunday. Drinan put his beliefs as a Christian to work, serving in Congress for a decade.

While in the House of Representatives, Drinan was a passionate voice against hunger and poverty, for human rights and civil liberties, against the arms race, and for government that served the least amongst us.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Clean Economy

The Clean Economy. With a little bold thinking, environmentally-friendly Orange County can position itself to attract cutting edge operations that are working to wean the US from petroleum and coal.

In the coming decades, one of the fastest growing segments of our economy will be the energy sector. Companies that hold the patents on new technologies that help us address global warming are going to thrive in the 21st century. The states and counties that attract and incubate these businesses are going to have successful, dynamic economies. And the good news is that these 21st century economies will be based on clean industry that makes the world a better place.

The potential is vast. New energy technology is on the threshold of becoming profitable and of expanding. As the US commitment to addressing global climate change increases and our desire for energy independence increases, the market for these technologies will expand. Companies that produce renewable energies such as wind, bio-diesel, and ethanol are already growing across the country. For example, farmers and utility companies are figuring out cost effective ways to turn animal waste to energy. As an example, you may recall my post several weeks ago about the ethanol/animal waste facility in Robeson County.

North Carolina in general and Orange County in particular are uniquely positioned to help create and nurture these cutting edge enviro-businesses. Our proximity to RTP and 3 major research universities, gives us an advantage in becoming a home to these kinds of operations.

These are the kind of companies we want in our county and our state--companies that are clean, that are making a difference by working to improve our environment, that move our country toward a more sustainable, energy independent future. I believe Orange County should be bold and use our economic development department to help nurture eco-friendly green entrepreneurs.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

New Energy, New Vision in Raleigh

Today, the legislature came back in session.

The expanded Democratic Majority in the House (68 Dems, 52 Reps) elected environmentalist Joe Hackney as Speaker of the House. In his opening remarks, laced with quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Hackney raised a number of environmental issues.

In particular, he highlighted Global Warming and Energy Efficiency. On Global Warming, Hackney said that NC should strive to become a leader on climate change particularly by taking advantage of the business opportunities associated with addressing Global Warming. As co-chair of the legislature's climate change committee, Hackney is committed to the passage of a global warming bill this session.

With regard to energy efficiency, Hackney did not specifically mention the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards though his remarks seem to indicate support for passage of an RPS bill this year. Hackney said that forward thinking energy efficiency legislation would "save money for our taxpayers, save money for our businesses, save money for homeowners, and save money for utilities."

Having a Speaker who puts these issues front and center is a great sign! There will be alot of opposition to legislation dealing with energy efficiency and global warming, primarily from powerful utilities and traditional energy companies. Beating status quo will take a leader with conviction and vision, such as Hackney, and the work of environmentalists across the state.

I think there is a role we here in Orange County can play in setting the stage for a more sustainable energy future and I intend to address that in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Winds of Change

I've been out of town for the past few days with only limited access to the internet. Thus, no posts. Today, I'm sharing two brief pieces from the "Conservation Insider Bulletin" which is edited by my friend Dan Besse, a member of the Winston Salem City Council. For a change, there is good news out of Washington.

"House Passes Energy Legislation: The U.S. House of Representatives wrapped up action on its "first 100 hours" agenda this week with passage of a bill on energy issues. The legislation passed by a vote of 264 to 123 and was sent to the Senate. The bill would impose a "conservation fee" on oil and gas from offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; eliminate nearly $6 billion in tax breaks to the oil industry; and spend much of the proceeds for conservation incentives and the promotion of renewable energy sources (including solar, wind, and biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel). The bill would also bar companies who have flawed leases giving them cut-rate drilling rights in the Gulf from bidding on future lease sales unless they agree to renegotiate those leases. Naturally, the recently deposed pro-Big Oil leaders of the House and Senate, and the Bush White House, oppose tapping their buddies in the oil industry. That puts final passage of the legislation in question despite its strong margin of support in the House (including many Republicans). At the very least, however, it shows that the terms of debate in Congress have shifted dramatically in the environment's favor."

"Pelosi Creates Special Committee on Global Warming: Here's another piece of news from Congress this week, buried on the jump page of press stories about the energy bill but of potential real significance. CIB last week noted that the status of Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee spelled bad news for the prospects of action on bills addressing climate change. Well, we were far from the only ones aware of that—and this week new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a new arrangement which should address it. Pelosi said that she is creating a new special committee to hold hearings on climate change legislation, and that it would do so in time to make possible a House vote on this issue by mid-summer. That would bypass the possibility of a Dingell quash of the proposal. Good news."

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

UNC Hospitals--Serving the People?

You may recall my post from before Christmas about the Dean of the Medical School.

This week the Independent has a piece on UNC-CH and UNC Healthcare. Guest writer John Hammond contends that both have lost sight of their original missions and are no longer serving the poor and working class. It's a strong article and raises alot of good questions.

Last night I attended a forum at which the county's comprehensive plan update was discussed. The purpose of the meeting was bring together members of the Orange County's various advisory boards, so they could better understand the process for revising the comprehensive plan. Attending were members of the Planning Board as well as advisory board members for transportation, the environment, affordable housing, economic development, etc.

This was a good meeting, largely designed to make sure everyone understood the proposed process and to gather feedback before proceeding to the next step.

But one glaring omission struck me. There was virtually no mention of energy issues in their plans. If we're going to get serious about addressing global warming, then governments have to act now to incorporate energy concerns into all of our plans, particularly land-use, environmental, transportation, and economic development.

Do we want to require or encourage green building techniques, such as LEEDS, in new commercial development? How about the use of solar, particularly for hot water? Can our economic development department be used to encourage and support the development and growth of companies working in the energy arena--in bio fuels, for example? What land-use patterns encourage use of public transit? Which discourage its use?

In a nutshell, here's my point: Local governments need to incorporate energy considerations into every decision we make. By setting a community goal of reducing the use of greenhouse gas creating energy--through efficiency, better building standards, the use of alternative and renewable energy sources, and development patterns that encourage use of public transit--and by integrating that goal into every decision we make, Orange County will be able to do our part to reduce global warming. It's about setting a goal and using that goal as a measuring stick for all planning decisions.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Sobering Reminder

The UN reported today that 34,000 Iraqi's died in sectarian violence last year, an average of 94 per day. It's a mind-boggling number--34,000 men, women, and children. Today alone, 109 people died in a bombing incidents in Baghdad.

Can you imagine living in that kind of environment? Worried day in and day out about the safety of your children, your spouse, or whether or not you'd survive the bus ride to work?

And the killing continues. More than 3 years into the US occupation of Iraq, the situation spirals downward, worsening nearly every day. You have to assume that anti-American feelings will harden, that the occupying nation will be blamed by the people in the street for wastage of a city and of human life.

And to what end? While Bush got diverted by Iraq, we lost sight of our mission in Afghanistan. That nation is now experiencing a resurgence of the Taliban, funded in part by revenue from the expanding drug trade. As Afghanistan begins to slip backwards, we're in danger of losing both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At this point, it's hard to imagine a good solution. We seem to be faced with a series of bad alternatives, and Bush's 'more of the same' isn't going to work. In the end we'll be stuck with a destabilized region, and an Iraq that is ripe for full-blown civil war.

We should pull out, in a manner that allows us to contain the fall-out in the region, and refocus our energies on Afghanistan and al-Queda. Can we afford to wait while another 34,000 people die this year?

Friday, January 12, 2007

A Sobering Look

It was a sobering day in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.

It was there that I spent 5 hours at a meeting of the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change. The focus of today's meeting largely was on the effects of climate change on NC's fragile Outer Banks. What effects will a sea level rise have on storm surges? On erosion? How much personal property will be wiped out? What will the financial loss be to individuals and insurance companies?

But far more important than the financial loss is the loss of wild life habitat and fisheries. North Carolina sits at the meeting point of the colder waters of the North Atlantic and the temperate waters of the mid-Atlantic. Consequently, we have several unique, word-class eco-systems that serve as mating grounds for fish from the North and fish from the South. And our low-land marshes abutting the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds play an excrutiatingly important role in the lives of bird species from all over North America.

As sea level continue to rise, the Outer Banks will be breached. New inlets will be cut during storm surges, changing the salt-to-fresh-water ratio on both sounds. This change alone will alter these eco-systems. If sea level rises enough to wipe out the Outer Banks, as is predicted by several models, the effects will devastate any number of fish and bird species.

The facts and figures today were pretty stunning. Presenter after presenter shared with the Commission scenarios of what is likely to occur. Our Outer Banks are unique and, in part, define North Carolina. We can't afford to lose them. Nor can the world afford to lose the important waters of the Albermarle and Pamlico Sounds.

In order to avoid these scenarios coming to pass, North Carolina needs to take steps now. Here in Orange County, I indeed to work with my fellow County Commissioners to do our part to reduce emissions of Green House gases.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Saving money and Energy

Here's an interesting story out of Charlotte. Why can't we do this here?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Addiction? What addiction?

Last year, in his State of the Union address, President Bush raised our hopes by a) admitting that the US was adicted to oil and b) promising to break that addiction. His remarks seemed to be bold leadership from an administration with extremely close ties to the petroleum industry. But what has he done since then? Not much.

If it isn't going to come from Washington, then bold leadership needs to come from the state and local level. And there are some excellent initiatives underway to around the country, and here in North Carolina, to reduce our dependency on oil.

For example, in Robeson County plans have been approved by the county commissioners to build an ethanol plant using methane gas from the local landfill. This is exactly the kind of bold thinking we need if we're going to address climate change, reduce dependency on oil, and increase the use of renewables.

The county government will benefit in several key ways: a) Robeson County will recieve royalty payments of at least $250,000 per year, b) they will retain ownership of the carbon credits created by the capturing of the landfill methane, credits that can be sold, and c) the plant will hire 15 employees.

So, the county will be making money from the capture and reuse of methane gas from their landfill, a resource that otherwise would simply be released into the atmosphere thus contributing to global warming.

This is a win-win for everyone.

Deep in the heart of Texas, in oil country, a similar ethanol project in now underway. This time, the ethanol plant will run on animal waste. Yep, that's right. Cow poop, from the ranches nearby, will be turned into energy and used to run the ethanol plant. One nearby ranch produces a reported 675 million lbs of manure per year.

It occurs to me that NC is the nation's 2nd largest producer of pork. There's a whole lot of hog manure sitting in lagoons in Eastern North Carolina. What we need here is some bold thinking. There is no good reason that hog manure should continue to sit in huge lagoons, potentially polluting our water supply, when it could be converted to energy. Why isn't NC moving faster to acheive energy independence?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Hot Times

I heard on the radio today that some scientists believe 2007 may be the hottest year on record. The figure quoted was that there is a 60% chance that this year will break the record for the hottest year ever.

Additionally most of the last 10 years have broken warmth records, so it's now virtually impossible for any reasonable person to believe that Global Warming is a hoax. It's real, and we're running out of time to deal with it. With Barbara Boxer and Jeff Bingaman chairing, respectively, the Senate Environement and Energy Committees, there is finally momentum on Capital Hill to do something. Here in NC, the legislature's Global Climate Change Commission, on which I serve, is plowing ahead and may make some initial recommendations for action soon.

And there are some concrete, immediate steps we can be taking on the local level. For example, I believe we need to capture the methane created at Orange County's landfill and use it to create energy. Methane is green house gas that has a huge impact on global warming.

Folks have been talking about capturing methane at our landfill for a long time. I don't know why no action has taken place as of yet, but I do know that it's time to roll-up our sleeves and get to work. I emailed Orange County Solid Waste staff last week and asked about the status of methane capture plans for OC. I was told that a report is due shortly.

It's time for Orange County to take proactive steps to reduce green house gas emmissions, and capturing methane for use as an energy source is a win-win for everyone.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Marble Ceiling

I have to admit, I got a little verklempt this morning when I read of Nancy Pelosi's swearing in as our nation's first female Speaker of the House. "For our daughters and our granddaughters now, the sky is the limit," Pelosi said. Amen. She said, we've been waiting for this for 200 years. Double Amen.

America will never be the same now because this "marble ceiling" has been crashed through. But, in terms of the day-to-day business of the House, will having a woman speaker make a difference?

I think, yes. I have become thoroughly convinced, through personal experience, that decision-making bodies make better decisions when the voices at the table are more diverse. In Carrboro, the Board of Aldermen made our best decisions when we were at our most diverse. Look, there is no "Gay position" on sidewalks or garbage collection or taxes. Nor is there a "black position" or a "female position" on those issues. But each of us walks a different path in life, and we bring a unique perspective to our work. Those differing perspectives and experiences inform our worldview, how we prioritize issues, and how we make decisions.

I truly believe that the more diverse Congress is, or any governing body for that matter, the better decisions they will make.

This theory of diversity has been found to be true in the business world as well. I remember reading, about a year ago, of two studies done on diversity of corporate board rooms. One study was done in the US and one in Europe. Both same to the same conclusion: generally speaking, corporate boards that are more diverse run more profitable companies. Put simply, diversity is good for the bottom line.

The lesson learned from these two studies is that diverse corporate boards make better decisions because they have a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the market place. For example, if a car company wants to sell more cars to women then they need to understand how women make decisions and what they value when they go car shopping. Women on the Board of Directors will ask questions and propose strategies that might never occur to a man, simply because they've had different life experiences.

(Note: I tried to find a link to the article I read on these studies but couldn't. I'll add it later if I locate it.)

Here's hoping that having a woman leading the House will lead to better legislation.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

More Predictions for 2007

Yesterday, I posted the first 5 of 10 predictions for 2007. Here are the final five. Happy New Year!

5. By this time next year, Hillary will emerge as the clear front runner for the Democratic nonimiation for president. I predict she will win the nomination fairly easily, and go on to win the general election.

4. American Idol loser Jennifer Hudson will win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Effie in “Dreamgirls.”

3. After toying with the notion of running for Lt. Governor or Governor, Rep Bill Faison will decide instead to run for a third term representing Orange and Caswell Counties. Again, he will run unopposed.

2. Ellie Kinnaird will announce that she is not running for re-election in 2008 and a large field of candidates will emerge by the end of the year.

1. Congress will make history by passisng the first federal gay rights legislation, either a Hate Crimes bill or the Employment Non-discrimination Act.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

10 Predictions for the New Year

Just to have a little fun, I decided to make 10 predictions for the New Year. Predictions are not really worth the paper they're printed on. Last year, for example, who would have predicted that rocker Jon Bon Jovi would have a #1 Country music hit in 2006?! Go figure. What the heck, why not have a little fun?

Here are the first five; I’ll post the final 5 tomorrow afternoon.

10. Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Joal Broun will retire after a decade in office.

9. Hillsborough will have a hard fought election, once again pitting conservatives against managed growth advocates. The current progressive majority will emerge victorious, cementing Hillsborough's turn towards making prudent growth management decisions.

8. The legislature will pass a Global Warming bill. While this bill will not go as far as many of us want, it will be a decent first step and will set the stage for more expansive legislation the following session.

7. UNC’S football team will have a good season, surprising fans by having a winning year and getting a bowl bid.

6. The BOCC will raise taxes for the 19th year in a row. This is my least favorite prediction. Unfortunately, it's a pretty safe bet. The county's tax rate has gotten to the point that it is hurting the average household. While I don't believe in cutting services, like education or social services, I do believe we need to have an honest examination of what is causing this upward rise and fix it. We liberals have an obligation to make sure our community is affordable, and one of the components of affordability is the tax rate.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

PCB emissions in Wake County

If you haven't done so already, check out the article in this issue of the Independent Weekly about the incinerator being planned in Wake County. This incinerator, given the Orwellian name "direct fired thermal desorption," is planned for a PCB contamination site in Western Wake County near the airport.

Toxic pollutants from the 11-acre Ward Transformer site have been leaking into the groundwater for decades. The PCB's and other contaminents have entered Brier Creek and other tributaries eventually making their way to Lake Crabtree. The EPA labeled clean up of this site "time-critical" two years ago and yet no contamination has been removed.

According the Indy, the method of clean up now being proposed amounts to incineration and will lead to some PCB's being released on-site through airborn emissions. The Indy suggests that other methods are cleaner and have not been given careful consideration.

I concur. This site needs to be cleaned up immediately; it's not acceptable to allow toxics to continue to contaminate Wake County creeks and lakes. But the clean up method needs to be as clean as possible. I'm hoping the Indy article draws enough exposure and heat to the decision makers in Wake County that they insist on a preferable alternative. Write Mayor Meeker and insist on the cleanest, safest possible clean up of the Ward Transformer site.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

I am back now, after a (nearly) two week hiatus from blogging while on vacation.

During my break, I had many ideas for this site and you'll begin to see some changes around here. First, the name of the blog has changed. I figured, since the campaign was now over, it was time for the blog to evolve a bit. I chose the name, LEFT of CENTER, because the people, ideas, and values I want to discuss on this site are fundamentally progressive ones. I'd like this site to honestly explore ideas that can help us shape our future. While I expect to continue to post significant criticisms of the right, particularly the extreme right, most of these comments will be forthright critiques of their philosophies. The battles between left and right are, at their core, a tug of war of ideas.

Second, I've decided to hold firm in my original decision that this blog is not a discussion forum. That will disappoint some. But there are a number of excellent blogs that engage participants in lively discussions. I recommend dailykos.com for national issues and orangepolitics.org for local. If feisty arguments are what you're looking for, these and many other sites will serve you well.

But I decided I wanted to do something a little different. "Left of Center" will be a space in which I can post about bold, cutting edge ideas or people who are rolling up their sleeves and making a difference. "Left of Center" will focus on ideas, values, politics. I'll try to cast a spotlight on problems and possible solutions that move us forward and provide vision for the future.