Leading from the Left

Thursday, June 28, 2007

More Corruption?

Various newspapapers have reported that the children and grandchildren of State House members have received scholarships from the Legislative Black Caucus. This practice may not be illegal, but given the nearly continuous drip-drip-drip of scandal revelations coming out of the House this is very troublesome.

What're we going to learn next?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why I Voted Against the Budget

Last night I voted against the county's budget. I did so out of a belief that we are not treating our schoolchildren equitably in this county. We have an obligation to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live in the county, receive adequate educational resources. We pay lip service in Orange County to equity and justice, but when the pedal hits the metal we choose perpetuate a system that provides some children with more educational dollars than others.

As I stated at the Commissioner's last budget worksession, I believe that funding the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools from the district tax puts Orange County schools at a disadvantage. This is easily avoidable and can be rectified without damaging the city schools. Further, I believe this disadvantage is only perpetuated out of inertia. It is time to change how we do business in Orange County.

The district tax warps education funding in Orange County and makes it hard, if not impossible, for the County Schools to keep up.

Let's examine the facts. Both school systems receive just over $3000 in per pupil expenditures. However, and this is key, because of the special district tax for the City Schools, Chapel Hill-Carrboro receives an additional $1400 per pupil. So, the Orange County School system receives just $3000 per student to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro $4400 per student. Under no definition I know of is this equitable or just.

And beyond that it's not in our best interest as a county to continue to operate two school sytems with a funding disparity of that magnitude. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating merger. The voters of this county clearly don't support merger, and I respect that. I simply believe we need to back away from using the district tax and instead fund both school systems from the county-wide property tax. Doing so would ensure that every child receives the educational dollars they deserve.

Why am I so committed to this? Here's why. One of our districts has hot water available in school bathrooms. The other district has some schools that don't.

The city school district has high school athletic facilities that are adequate if not excellent. The County district has a high school whose track is in such bad shape that the student athletes must train and compete in a neighboring county.

While the city schools have replaced their ancient heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, the county system has some schools with failing HVAC.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro has an AVID program for at-risk students; Orange County Schools does not.

I don't believe these disparities should continue. I believe we need to find a way forward, together, to end the differences between our two sytems. If we continue to use the district tax to fund the city schools, we'll never solve the problem. That's why I support funding our two sytems out of the property tax rate--equally, justly, and transparently.

Again, I believe we have an obligation to treat all schoolchildren equitably and I believe we can help the county schools without hurting the city schools. It's in our best interest as a county to change the way we do business. That's why I voted against the budget.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Increasing Voter Participation

The State Senate has approved a bill that will allow citizens to register to vote up to 3 days before an election. In doing so, North Carolina will joining a host of other states that have opened up the process. I strongly support this bill and am hoping this action increases voters participation in our state, particularly by young people. Here's the News and Observer article about the bill's passage in the Senate.

Limiting Local Government Authority to Promote Wireless

Corporate forces in NC, particularly the cable industry, are attempting to prevent local governments from establishing innovative technology practices such as downtown wireless networks. They've gotten their supporters in the General Assembly to file HB 1587, "Local Government Fair Competition Act." You gotta love that title, it's a great example of legislative double-speak. HB 1587 is, in reality, a bill that limits local goverment's activity and keeps them from competing in the market place. It takes gall, doesn't it?

For awhile the bill seemed to be gaining traction but now the tide may be turning as Google, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent, and Tropos Networks have come out in opposition to HB 1587. Their opposition is critical because they are strong enough and big enough to go head-to-head with the cable industry and win. To date most of the opposition to this bill has come from a handful of local governments and grassroots activists. (Chapel Hill-based tech activist Brian Russell deserves kudos for shining the spotlight on this bill and getting folks to start paying attention). But having these four tech companies on our side may help turn the tide in the General Assembly against this misguided bill.

Here's an article from the N&O that explains in more detail what is going on. Already a number of local governments in NC have adopted resolutions calling upon the General Assembly to do the right thing and defeat this bill. The Board of County Commissioners will consider such a resolution at our regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thoughts on the State Budget

State Legislative budget negotiators are working diligently to compromise and find common ground between the two versions of the budget—one passed by the Senate, one passed by the House. Below are some of my thoughts on what should and should not be funded in a final appropriations bill.

Mental Health. Both House and Senate budgets fail to adequately provide money for mental health programs in NC. Our mental health system is a disaster and needs rescuing immediately. Instead, both chambers are dawdling. The House appropriates only $21million in new funding and the Senate even less--$14million. At a time when families can’t access the care they need for mentally ill families members, such under-funding is a travesty. To put these numbers in perspective, the estimate to fix the broken system is $500 million, far short of the paltry sums both chambers are setting aside.

Since the Department of Health and Human Services is failing to lead us out of this mess, the legislature should immediately adopt a plan for fixing the current mental health system and fund it appropriately.

Medicaid Relief. North Carolina is the only state in the nation that requires local governments contribute to Medicaid. This onerous requirement is hurting counties all over NC, particularly the poorer ones. The House budget included only $100 million in relief funds, but negotiations continue for a complete state take-over of Medicaid funding.

The legislature should relieve county governments of this unfair burden. Doing so will free up money here in Orange County for schools and other critical needs.

Tax Relief for the Working Poor. The House budget provides tax relief for the working poor in the form of a state Earned Income Tax Credit. The Senate, which did not include this provision in its budget and has a history of supporting tax relief for the rich, should acquiesce to the position of the House.

Rainy Day Fund. The House also sets aside $315 million in the state's rainy day fund, as opposed to the Senate's relatively paltry $150m. Rainy Day monies are used for unexpected critical needs such as natural disaster relief. Having money set aside for extraordinary situations such as these provides a cushion for the taxpayers when the need arises. Agreeing to the full $315 million is simply sound fiscal management.

Getting Buy-In from the Voters. While I concur that there are exceptions to the rule, I generally believe that expenditures for major capital improvement projects, such as new spending for University construction, should be approved by the voters. The Senate budget would borrow $1.2m for construction of new projects, particularly University-related projects, without seeking voter approval through a bond referendum. Approving a major spending campaign without voter buy-in is inappropriate.

State Energy Office. The Senate budget includes provisions that essentially eviscerate the State Energy Office. In this day and age, with global warming, high energy prices, and economic development opportunities for pursuing renewable energy, it is reprehensible that the Senate leadership would allow this effort to proceed. The House needs to step in, remove this language, and restore respectability to the budget process.

Even if the State Energy Offices needs to be reconfigured in some way (and I don’t know that it does), doing so through the budget process is not the right way to proceed. Decisions such as these should be made thoughtfully, openly, and after examining all options. The state should never, ever try to eliminate or reorganize a division such as the State Energy Office via budgetary decree.

Again, the House budget negotiators should refuse to go along with these shenanigans.

Land for Tomorrow. In a move that is disappointing to environmentalists, neither the Senate or House versions of the budget include money to fund the “Land for Tomorrow’ campaign. Land for Tomorrow is a recommendation coming out of the land conservation community that would, if adopted, set aside $1 billion for the acquisition and preservation of land across North Carolina. As our state is rapidly developing, and land prices are escalating, it’s critical to purchase environmentally sensitive tracts of land while we can afford to.

The legislature should support the “Land for Tomorrow” campaign.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Time to End the Black Saga

The News and Observer reports today that a July 10th sentencing date has been set for Jim Black, the former Speaker of the State House. This sentencing date is two months later than originally planned because Black argued for the appointment of a new judge. I wish there hadn't been a delay because we sorely need to put this mess behind us and move on. The Black affair has revealed an ugly side of North Carolina politics, and the sooner he's sentenced the better off the legislature, as an institution, will be.

But even after the sentencing, the dirt still will not have been swept away completely. There are on-going investigations into Rep. Thomas Wright's campaign finances and Rep. Mary McAllister's campaign reports. Wright has been urged to step down, and he should do so. He's refused.

McAllister's hearing with the State Board of Elections has been scheduled for the end of this month. We'll know then more about the scope of the charges against her. It's not completely clear yet if she's guilty of inefficiency and irregularity or if there is actual corruption to be revealed. I'm looking forward to her hearing to learn more.

But, could this scandal go deeper still? You have to wonder if there are other legislators who just haven't been caught yet.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Schoolchildren's Health

There were articles today in both the Chapel Hill Herald and the News and Observer about herbicides being applied to a field at Smith Middle School. Here's the link to the Herald article.

Steve Scroggs, the Assistant Superindendent for Support Services for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools, apologized for the incident and acknowledged that a new state requirement was not followed. I commend Mr. Scroggs for addressing this issue directly and promising that the law will be followed from now on. I worked hard to get this new law passed and am grateful to see that it's being used.

The legislature passed the "Schoolchildren's Health Act" (HB 1502) last year that discourages the use of pesticides on school property and requires schools to develop integrated pest management plans (IPM's). The new law further requires that 72 hours advance notice if pesticides are to be applied on school property. (BTW, herbicides are classified as pesticides by the EPA and therefore are covered under this new legislation).

The organization for which I work, the Conservation Council of North Carolina, partnered with Agricultural Resources to create the "Schoolchildren's Health Act" in 2005. We formed a coalition with pediatricians, children's advocates, and other environmental groups to support and lobby for passage of this bill.

Sponsored by Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake), the "Schoolchildren's Health Act" passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously. Grier was a very strong champion for the passage of this bill. And while it ended up passing unanimously, behind the scenes success was not assured. Grier fought very hard to make sure this bill got through both chambers with minimal amendments. (Rep. Martin, by the way, is the son of Chapel Hill residents Harriet and D.G. Martin).

In any case, it's great to see that the provisions of the "Schoolchildren's Health Act" are being enforced. Because children's bodies are so small, exposure to pesticides and herbicides is particularly harmful. Their bodies just can't metabolize harmful chemicals the way adults can. I hope these new rules are being enforced across the state so that all NC school children are protected for unneccessary exposure.

State Energy Office

Well, some of you know I recently moved. I love my new home, my new neighbors and am relishing experiencing a new community. However, living out of boxes with no refrigerator and no bed is growing stale. The turmoil with moving has meant less time for blogging; sorry to be out of touch. I sure can't wait to get back to normal. Meanwhile....

Check out my op-ed piece on the State Senate's efforts to dismantle the state energy office. This op-ed appeared in Sunday's Chapel Hill News and today's Chapel Hill Herald.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Talkin' Turkey

Check out this article from the New York Times about Fibrowatt, a company that makes energy from poultry droppings. Here in North Carolina, Fibrowatt has been lobbying the General Assembly hard to be included in the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards bill that is being negotiated currently.

Now, after all I've written on this blog about renewable energy and looking for new ways of doing business, you'd think I...and other environmentalists like me...would be a big supporter of outfits that make energy from poultry waste. Well, it's a little more complicated than it might appear on the surface. I do favor using animal waste as an energy source whenever and where ever appropriate. Turkey droppings, as this article points out, aren't the best source however.

This New York Times article also demonstrates the success business is having at using climate change as a lobbying tactic and securing special tax incentives and other sweet heart deals. The lobbying is intense, and only time will tell of the NC General Assembly has the fortitude to withstand Fibrowatt's appeals or does North Carolina, like other some other states, include sketchy waste-to-energy programs in our Renewable Energy legislation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Deep in the Heart of Texas

With 10 openly gay or lesbian elected officials, Texas is moving to the forefront of southern states in terms of LGBT equality---yeah, Texas. Go figure. Florida, which has 22 openly gay/lesbian elected officials is the only Southern State with more. North Carolina has an embarrassingly low number, with only 5 openly gay/lesbian elected officials.

Texas has elected LGBT'ers to a surprisingly wide range of offices--from the Sherriff of Dallas County to Dallas Clerk of Court to Houston's City Controller, the second most powerful position in Houston. We've made such strong progress that there is a darn good chance that Ed Oakley, an openly gay City Councilmember, will be elected Mayor next week. Here's an article about Ed's race.