Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Environmental Justice Run Amok

Environmental Justice is the new hot catchphrase for the left. Al Gore just visited NC, opining about Environmental Justice, and Governor Cooper has appointed a whole new committee to advise him about it too.

What exactly does Environmental Justice look like? That’s not yet clear. But we have seen a preview. In July, in a Wake County courtroom, a jury recently awarded five homeowners and one additional occupant $473.5 million for their claim of distress due to living next to a hog farm in Pender County.

What we know about this trial is limited. Because the federal Judge hearing the case, a Democrat appointed by Jimmy Carter, took the unusual step of issuing a gag order. As a result, most of the people who know what went on in the courtroom can’t talk about it, and the media is happy to simply run with the Environmental Justice theme without exploring the more complex issues. (Compare the press’s reaction to Judge Earl Britt’s gag order to the way newspapers react to state government denying an open records request, which leads to howls of outrage.)

Since no one will talk, even to a Senate Agriculture Chairman trying to stay informed, I looked at the Pender County GIS web site and learned a few facts:

The farm (in the lawsuit) has three hog houses which are visible from Piney Woods Road across a very large, very green field. The farm has existed since at least 1998, over twenty years.

The six plaintiffs all live along Piney Woods Road. The tax value of their combined homes and property is $267,662 – so the jury awarded them 1700 times the amount of their total real estate value.

One of the plaintiffs bought a house beside the longtime farm field in January 2015 for $50,000. Three years after he spent $50,000 the jury awarded him $20 million dollars. Does that make sense?

The plaintiffs get a pile of money, the trial lawyers who filed the lawsuits get a pile of money, and liberal politicians get to grandstand about Environmental Justice. But what happens to the farmers, employees, contractors, retailers, and families who depend on raising hogs to make a living? I’m afraid they’re in for a hard time.

$20 million is a good return on a $50,000 investment. But is it justice? Or justice run amok.

Too Much Government – Real Estate

Liberals believe more government is always better. They think that if a little government helps people, more government can help people even more.

Conservatives believe in less government. They believe that too much government creates problems and causes harm.
So, who’s right?

In bustling downtown Raleigh, where real estate can fetch millions of dollars per acre, a tiny rundown building sits near the historic Capital Building.

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Although it has no official use, someone with the Secretary of State’s office, which is next door, described it to me this way:

“This building is severely run down, always trashed,  is regularly used as an area where the homeless sleep or go to the bathroom and constantly smells of urine.

Some of these folks are struggling with mental health and drug related issues. It creates a very intimidating situation for customers coming to create businesses or facilitate legal registrations or filings with the state.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other words, this dilapidated building is causing a problem for people doing official business next door at the Office of the NC Secretary of State.

Which gets us back to government solving problems.

The rundown building/homeless hotel/public restroom is owned by the State of North Carolina.

You would think being less than a block from the Governor’s office would motivate someone in state government to fix the problem. But years of complaints, to administrations of both parties, have changed nothing.

Government not only didn’t fix the problem – it created the problem. Chalk one up for the conservatives.

Too Much Government – The Executive Helicopter

We hear a lot of hollering from Democrats about the General Assembly encroaching on the powers of Governor Cooper. But, often, this debate touches on a fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats: Which is better, more government or less government?

The Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly is the closest thing we have in Raleigh to the Fed’s General Accounting Office. Its studies of various facets of state government tells us when something is amiss.

Back in 2010, PED recommended eliminating 25 state-owned aircraft to reduce the $10.8 million that taxpayers were spending on operations – including 89 people – because most of the aircraft were grossly underutilized.

When it was published, that PED report got some attention but, after two years passed, state government had managed to eliminate only 19 of the aircraft.

Now if Rolls Royce made a helicopter it would look like the state’s Sikorsky S-76C executive helicopter. And who wants to sell their Rolls Royce? The Sikorsky helicopter – for which taxpayers paid $6.8 million and which costs $8,553 per hour to operate – was one of the aircraft the state kept.

How much was the state using its Rolls Royce? It used it for 8 days of flight time in a year – for a cost of $564,000. But that’s not the only cost. A helicopter, like your car, is a depreciating asset. It loses value ever year. Add in opportunity costs (what else could we do with the money) and that’s another $200,000 a year.

Four years after the PED report in 2014, the General Assembly told then Governor McCrory: Sell the ‘Rolls’. They posted it on eBay and turned down an offer for $1.5 million.

Now, at last, after eight years of bureaucratic dithering, the state finally sold the helicopter for $1.75 million. But in the meantime, they spent $1.4 million to maintain it. Taxpayers netted $350,000 now versus the $1.5 million on the table four years earlier.

Liberals want more government. Conservatives want less government. And when it comes to state helicopters, conservatives seem to have a point.

Firefighters and Lobbyists

We see a lot of bills in the General Assembly that, when you get beyond the high-sounding rhetoric, simply come down to politicians taking money from one group of people and giving it to another. And when that happens a legislator who says, ‘I don’t think doing that is good idea’ usually gets pummeled by the folks who would have received the money – which helps explain why, when paid (not volunteer) firefighters demanded a retroactive $300 million pension bonus, their bill sailed through the State House. And landed in the Senate.

The question here is simple: Is taking $300 million from taxpayers to give firefighters a retro-active bonus justified? (Note: This legislation only effects paid firefighters. It doesn’t affect volunteer firefighters.)

A typical paid city firefighter receives an average salary of $50,000. In addition, he or she can retire at age 50 with 30 years of service and began receiving a pension of about $33,000 a year immediately. The firefighter’s union wants to increase that pension by $15,000 a year, raising it to $48,000 and to push through their bill they retained a lobbyist, Brian Lewis, who has encouraged more political showmanship and finger pointing than thoughtful discussion.

But wasn’t all that just one more example of broken politics – of a politician seeing a way to score points with one group (firefighters) at the expense of another group (local taxpayers) which doesn’t even know it’s about to get socked with a $300 million bill?

In a nutshell, this debate boils down to two questions: Is granting a $33,000 pension to an employee who, by then, may be earning $60,000, and allowing him to retire when he is, say, 50 years old, fair?

If it is unfair, does that unfairness justify making taxpayers shoulder an additional $300 million burden? It’s hard to tell a firefighter no to a $48,000 pension. This time, it doesn’t seem fair to force it on unknowing taxpayers.

NC’s Great Divide and the Swamp

There’s a lot of talk about the urban-rural divide in North Carolina. But, as you can see below, when it comes to jobs, it’s more a divide between Charlotte/Raleigh and everywhere else.

Then, Governor’s Cooper’s administration broadens the divide by snagging a $19 million federal grant for… Raleigh. While grabbing $19 million in Federal tax dollars may sound good to some folks, Gov. Cooper directing the TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Grants for Economic Recovery) funds to Raleigh meant they could not be used in less advantaged areas where infrastructure to create jobs is needed most.

President Trump wanted to end the TIGER program. Congress wouldn’t agree. Washington sends an economic recovery grant to the fastest growing area in the state. Credit goes to the local Democratic Congressman. Governor Cooper moves money to the area with the largest vote in the Democratic Primary.

That’s one more good reason to drain the swamp.

More Government

Whenever a problem shows up you can count on the Democrats to say, ‘The solution is more government.’ It happened when GenX showed up in the Cape Fear River, in the drinking water of Wilmington. Governor Cooper and the Democrats immediately said, Give the State Department of Environment and Quality more money.

But is ‘more government’ the right solution?

We now know that GenX has been dumped in the Cape Fear River for 30 years, and during that time DEQ turned a blind eye to the problem. What if the problem isn’t money? What if it’s government bungling? Consider this: DEQ has a $228 million a year budget. Will giving the department which ignored the problem for decades millions more to spend lead to a solution? Or would it be throwing good money after bad?

There’s no doubt liberals sincerely believe more government is the solution to every problem. But, without accountability, it’s not.

Here’s an alternative.

I serve as Co-Chairman of the Senate Committee that oversees DEQ, and I attended the hearings about GenX, including one in Wilmington where people were, understandably, upset. It was the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority in Wilmington that is on the front line of the GenX problem. And they want to solve the problem. Why not work with them rather than setting up another state bureaucracy?

Governor Cooper and the Democrats in Raleigh see the GenX crisis as a way to increase DEQ’s budget. That’s how politics works. But more government isn’t always (or often) the answer. Working with Wilmington’s Water Authority to get GenX out of Wilmington’s water is a practical solution that makes common sense.

Half Truth

The Charlotte Observer’s cartoon is funny. And clever. It also contains a half truth.

What we saw the last four years, when there was a problem in the administration and the Governor was a Republican, the Governor got the blame.

Now, when there is a problem in state government and the Governor is a Democrat, the General Assembly (and a nameless bureaucrat) gets the blame. Roy Cooper gets off scot-free.

Isn’t that fake news?

Playing Politics with GenX

It happens: An inexperienced soldier fires a shot that ends a cease fire. But it’s odd when he fires into his own troops.

When the GenX crisis started both sides acknowledged the problem. Both wanted to solve it. We had a political cease fire of sorts. But it didn’t last.

The Democrats immediately proposed a solution – they said, Let’s spend more money. Republicans didn’t rule out spending more but responded, Well, first, let’s make sure the solution we’re paying for will work.

That’s when Democrats fired the first shot. As if determining whether the solution would work is an unnecessary detail they said, Republicans don’t want to spend more so they don’t want to solve the problem.

Then Democratic Rep. Deb Butler, from Wilmington, fired a second shot.

It turns out, last November, 19 employees in the Department of Environmental Quality received a report about GenX in the Cape Fear River. But, somehow, according to DEQ Secretary Michael Regan, no one ever told him about the GenX discharges until June.

Democratic Rep. Butler had a simple explanation for Regan’s ignorance: It was due, she said, to a Republican conspiracy. Governor McCrory’s administration had withheld information from Governor-elect Cooper’s transition team.

That didn’t exactly add up: How could Republicans muzzle 19 DEQ employees who have worked for Governor Cooper since January? (In fact, when I asked Secretary Regan if those staffers were still employed by DEQ, he said yes.)

So was Secretary Regan’s ignorance due to an evil conspiracy by Republicans – as Rep. Butler charges? Or was the problem DEQ bungling?

Here’s one more fact: Chemours says it’s been discharging GenX into the Cape Fear River since 1980, back in the days when a young Jim Hunt was Governor. And DEQ says it was told about the discharges.  That Chemours didn’t hide anything. So DEQ knew about the dumping for years and did nothing – which sure sounds like bungling.

Addressing the GenX problem started out on the right track. But now politics has taken over. And we have Democrats shouting it was all ‘a Republican conspiracy’ and ‘just spend more money.’

But does any of that make sense? Or is it just one more example of broken politics?

Worry in Wilmington – Not on Wall Street

People in Wilmington are wondering whether it’s safe to drink the water coming out of their taps. And it’s a good question.

The problem is a potentially hazardous chemical called GenX – which residents of Wilmington recently learned the DuPont-Chemours plant near Fayetteville has been dumping into the Cape Fear River for 37 years.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which has a budget of $228 million a year, has the mission of protecting our environment from just this type of problem. How did it miss the GenX threat?

That, too, is a good question. But politics, immediately, got in the way.

One Democratic group, pointing fingers at Republicans, said DEQ did nothing because Republicans had stripped away its authority to do anything. Now, in fact, that’s not quite so. Six years ago the Republican General Assembly gave DEQ the legal power to regulate or prohibit industrial dumping of hazardous chemicals that create “a serious and unforeseen threat to the public health, safety, or welfare.” (Modification of G.S. 150B-19.3 in Session Law 2011-398).

Why didn’t DEQ do that? We don’t know, yet.

Here’s another odd fact: The stock chart below shows the price of The Chemours Company’s stock after its spin-off from DuPont in 2015 and its value today. You’d think, after what’s happened in Wilmington, the stock value would be dropping.

But it’s not.

(Source:Bloomberg)

In fact, Chemours stock hit a record high in the hours after Governor Cooper’s press conference in Wilmington about Chemours’ discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River.

Folks may be worried about GenX in southeastern North Carolina – but on Wall Street Chemours is doing just fine. How much sense does that make?

DEQ and the Governor are on the front line of the fight when it comes to solving the GenX threat. But it’s not just their problem. The General Assembly has a role to play as well and that’s why we’ve been asking DEQ questions like, What went wrong? What mistakes were made? How do we avoid those mistakes happening again?

Everyone should want the answers to those questions. And the sooner the better.

 

Fix the Mistakes or Just Spend More?

The other day I wrote about DEQ mishandling the spills of GenX into the Cape Fear River and added that, before the legislature gives DEQ another $3 million to spend, we need to know whether the problems have been fixed.

Lisa Sorg, of the liberal nonprofit NC Policy Watch, didn’t see eye to eye with me.

Ms. Sorg agreed DEQ had made mistakes – she wrote that when DEQ said, in June , that it “had stopped all GenX discharges” into the Cape Fear River it had been wrong. And she added that “DEQ seemed caught off-guard by the GenX revelation, and we still aren’t sure who knew what when…”

However, she then said the legislature should give DEQ more money to spend.

That logic is difficult to accept: DEQ made mistakes, so we should give DEQ $3 million more to spend.

Shouldn’t we, at least, fix the mistakes first?