North Carolina editorial roundup

December 27, 2017 - 7:06 pm

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:


Dec. 25

The Fayetteville Observer on the state hiding what is happening in prisons:

In April, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was beaten to death by an inmate at the Bertie Correctional Institution. Just six months later, four prison employees died in a failed escape attempt at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution. The investigation and official review of the first murder has been completed. A similar probe is underway at Pasquotank.

State Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks suggested last week that the public may never know the full story of what happened in those two incidents. That's an outrage. Public employees, paid by the public's tax dollars and overseen by elected and appointed public officials died. The public that owns those prisons and pays for them deserves to know what went wrong. Transparency is the only way to insure accountability. And by many measures, our prison system has been less than accountable.

Hooks said last week that, "At the appropriate time — if it's appropriate — to make a public disclosure about some of the details of what happened, then that may occur." Hooks said the secrecy may be justified for security reasons, to conform to privacy laws for inmates and to preserve evidence that may be presented at future murder trials of the five inmates accused in the two incidents. He added that it's even less likely that the state will release details that explain how and why the attacks occurred. "Whereas I will use that information to inform me — and I have been doing so as we work to make positive change within our correctional facilities — those are not a matter of public record that I anticipate releasing," he said.

That doesn't sit well with Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents Elizabeth City, where the Pasquotank prison is located. "This is the largest tragedy, biggest tragedy" in state prison history, he said. "They need to be accountable. And just saying that this is going to threaten security is, to me, weak."

Steinburg is right on the money when he observes that, "If it's not going to be brought forward publicly then chances are pretty good that we are not going to ever know what happened and we're not going to be adequately able to help prevent something like this from happening again."

There are serious questions being raised about the level of security in our state prisons. A significant part of the problem is financial. We know that our prisons are underfunded and that our prison staffers are underpaid when compared with their peers in other state prison systems. We also know that most — maybe all — of our prisons are dangerously understaffed, and that most guards feel a fatalistic certainty that they're going to be at least seriously injured while on the job. There are questions, too, about the adequacy of training for prison staff, and corruption among some guards, who sometimes moonlight by selling contraband to inmates. Others may look the other way when bad things are happening in cellblocks or yards. And we've heard stories about guards sleeping on the job.

We've heard all these things, but the state insists on draping a dark shroud of secrecy over the ways our prisons are run.

That's not going to change until the General Assembly forces some sunlight into the system. If our prison bureaucrats are hiding behind personnel and other privacy laws, then the laws need to be changed. And it's clear that lawmakers need to take a deep and detailed look at staffing and funding of our prisons.

But more than anything else, they need to introduce a high level of accountability into the prison system. That's clearly gone missing and it may be one reason why people are getting killed.



Dec. 23

The News & Observer of Raleigh the United State following North Carolina with sweeping tax cuts:

As Republicans composed their new tax-cut legislation, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said they should go the way of North Carolina. When he was state House Speaker in 2103, Tillis said, he and his fellow Republicans cut corporate and personal income taxes and North Carolina's economy soared.

"The results are phenomenal, and I'm completely convinced when we pass this bill we're going to completely unleash the power of the American economy, and we're going do for the families across this nation what we started doing for the families in North Carolina five years ago," Tillis said at a news conference.

Congressional Republicans would have done better to look closer at North Carolina before once more putting their faith in the trickle-down fantasy. What happened here may now happen everywhere. And if you're not among the 1 percent, the results will be more phantom than phenomenal.

The federal tax overhaul is similar to the sweeping cuts made in North Carolina, and we can expect the same result: flat wages for workers, widening income inequality and a government unable to keep up with the needs of its people, let alone invest in their future.

In North Carolina, tax cuts have reduced state revenue by more than $3 billion a year and the savings have gone disproportionately to large, profitable corporations and wealthy individuals. The state economy has improved, but the economy has improved across the nation. There's virtually no evidence that state tax cuts have improved the family finances of middle- and low-income North Carolinians. There is evidence that tax cuts are taking a toll on the state's schools, environmental protections, social services and infrastructure investments.

Congressional Republicans describe their tax overhaul for the wealthy and corporations as a "jobs bill." Even if it was one, the timing is odd since the current 4.1 percent unemployment rate represents a 17-year low. The jobs issue now - as baby boomers retire and immigration is restricted - is having more jobs than people qualified to fill them. The legislation is a tax cut for big business and the wealthy, a reward for donors, not workers.

The effect of the federal tax cuts will not be as immediately detrimental to government services as those at the state level because the federal government can run deficits while North Carolina is legally bound to balance its budget annually. But the rising national debt will drive up interest rates making the debt a larger drag on the federal budget. And that, in turn, will create a pretext for what Republican legislators have wanted to do all along: cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The federal tax changes will mirror North Carolina's experience by showing that tax cuts do not lead to job creation. The Budget & Tax Center, a project of the nonprofit North Carolina Justice Center, this month issued a report on the status of the state's job market 10 years after the Great Recession. While state Republicans often tout raw numbers of new jobs, the Budget and Tax Center put those numbers in context and found that job growth has lagged well behind population growth.

Its report said: "Total employment in North Carolina is 6.5 percent higher than it was on the eve of the Great Recession, but the state's population has expanded at more than twice that rate (15.6 percent) over the same period. This combination of rapid population growth and slow improvements in the job market mean that North Carolina is still well below the level of employment that existed before the Great Recession. Had job offerings in North Carolina kept pace with the pace of population growth over the past ten years, we would have roughly 375,000 more jobs today than currently exist."

To keep pace with population growth, North Carolina should have increased state spending to bolster its K-12 schools and its university system. It should have expanded Medicaid and spent more on preventative health care and battling the opioid epidemic. It should have allowed increases in the minimum wage and focused on the growing rural-urban divide.

Instead, it cut taxes and struggled to get by on the cheap. Now Republican lawmakers are committed to lowering both corporate and individual income tax rates again in January 2019 even as state revenues are dipping below projections. The General Assembly's nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division is projecting budget shortfalls of $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion in years 2019-2020 to 2021-2022.

Republicans in Congress have followed North Carolina's path on taxes. It doesn't lead to more jobs. It leads to a cliff.




News & Record of Greensboro on a court ruling involving a solar farm:

The sun rises and sets. So does the outlook for solar energy in an eastern North Carolina county.

A three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled last week that developers were illegally denied a permit to build a commercial solar farm by Currituck County in 2016. The decision removes a cloud from the otherwise bright solar industry in North Carolina — second in the nation behind California — but doesn't necessarily signal clear skies in the future.

The ruling could be appealed to the Supreme Court. Or the legislature could reduce tax breaks for solar farms, making investments less lucrative.

And Currituck County already acted earlier this year to bar future development of solar farms.

"Large solar projects haven't been a good deal for Currituck County residents, says Bobby Hanig, the county commission's chairman," Carolina Journal reported in April.

Not all residents agree, but their elected representatives are empowered to set zoning regulations and decide what land uses are allowed.

"Solar array" was a permitted use listed in Currituck County's development ordinance in 2015 when Currituck Sunshine Farm LLC and Ecoplexus Inc. applied to build a solar farm on a former golf course in Grandy. The county's planning staff and Planning Board recommend approval. But when the Board of Commissioners held a hearing, acting as a "quasi-judicial" body, a number of residents complained that solar panels wouldn't be compatible with nearby neighborhoods; there were drainage problems on the site; and home values might be adversely affected. Commissioners rejected the application.

The developers challenged the decision. A Superior Court judge upheld the county's action, but the appellate court reversed. Its ruling, written by Judge John Tyson, found that the developers complied with all county requirements and that no competent evidence was presented to the contrary. Specifically, the commissioners' finding that the solar farm would endanger public health and safety wasn't supported by facts.

A county board of commissioners may be a political body, but when it sits to determine whether an applicant for a conditional use permit qualifies, it must act in a legal capacity. In regard to fears about drainage and flooding, the Currituck board "wholly ignored Petitioners' expert testimony on water management, and solely considered lay witnesses' testimony of their speculative fears of worsening floods due to the present state of storm water drainage and management on adjacent properties," Tyson wrote.

Perhaps anticipating this ruling, Currituck County, following another public hearing, wrote solar farms out of its development ordinance. Arguments were presented on both sides, by farmers who wanted to lease their land for energy development and by people who don't see much benefit. Currituck County already has two large solar farms.

While the tax revenue for the county is substantial, it is limited by state law, which grants an 80 percent property tax exemption to encourage solar development. Bills were filed in the state House and Senate this year to reduce that break to 60 percent, but neither advanced.

Solar is filling more of our country's energy needs and offers revenue opportunities in parts of the state where farming and traditional industries have declined. But not every local government will favor such developments. Communities should be able to set their own rules — as long as they abide by legal requirements.

The Court of Appeals made the right call in this case. The people of Currituck County can decide whether to support their leaders' decision regarding future solar development — and should hold them accountable for acting in the sunlight of public interest.


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