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North Carolina editorial roundup

November 6, 2019

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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Nov. 6

The (Wilmington) StarNews on the Environmental Protection Agency rolling back federal rules on coal ash:

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported not long ago on a speech by a petrochemical executive. He remarked that Donald Trump was one of the most useful American presidents in recent memory, since his antics distracted the masses from environmental issues.

An example came on Nov. 4 when the Environmental Protection Agency rolled back two federal rules on how power companies handle coal ash, the leftovers from decades of burning coal for electricity. (Later in the day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had begun pulling out of the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement.)

The coal ash contains lots of mercury, arsenic and other poisonous metals that can poison drinking wells and water used for irrigating crops.

This is a particular concern on the Lower Cape Fear, since a big load of ash used to be stored next to Duke Energy’s power plant off U.S. 421, next to the Cape Fear River. A new plant on the site runs off natural gas.

Wilmington might be off the hook, mostly, since Duke Energy claims that most of the coal ash has been cleared off the Sutton site. Flemington-area residents were linked up to a public water supply and don’t have to depend on metal-tainted wells any more.

But there are still high levels of mercury in the fish in Sutton Lake. And there are lots of other communities in North Carolina where tons of coal ash still remain and awaits clearance.

Reversing a sheaf of Obama-era rules, the Trump administration first gave Duke and other power companies until October of next year to clean up their mess. Now, they can keep ash-contaminated water in unlined storage ponds, near waterways, until, oh, 2023, or in some cases until 2028.

Mercury in well water? No problem. Besides, the power companies say they have filters that can clean things up. Supposedly.

This is part of a pattern of administration behavior that includes the appointment of former industry lobbyists to leadership posts in the EPA and the Department of the Interior. The New York Times tabulated 85 separate environmental regulations that the Trump administration has fully or partially rolled back, including protections for wetlands and some rivers.

As is well known, our president’s affection for smokestacks rivals his dedication to border walls. Despite virtual subsidies, however, eight American coal companies have gone bankrupt since Mr. Trump took office -- not because of strangulation from pettifogging red tape, but because natural gas, solar and wind power are now cheaper.

These executive actions affect the water we drink and the air we breathe. The environment matters. And voters should store these outrages in their memories for when they cast their ballots.

Online: https://www.starnewsonline.com

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Nov. 4

The Winston-Salem Journal on the delay of teacher raises and Medicaid expansion:

The state legislature adjourned last week with some solid accomplishments, but also some serious loose ends: a substantial raise for educators and Medicaid expansion.

That’s sad. These loose ends could have been tied with a little less recalcitrance and game-playing from GOP legislators, but instead, they’ll continue to wrangle with them in 2020.

The legislature will meet for regular session on Nov. 13 to consider congressional and state redistricting bills, then begin a new session on Jan. 14.

Among the legislative victories for the year are the authorization for a new state park, Pisgah View in western North Carolina, and a bill passed on Nov. 1 that extends state historic-rehabilitation tax credits, which have proved so useful in Winston-Salem, among other parts of the state. And last week the legislature passed a significant bill to close decades-old loopholes in laws intended to protect victims of child abuse and sexual assault. Gov. Roy Cooper will likely sign the bill into law this week.

But the delay on teacher raises and Medicaid expansion mean this year’s deliberations can’t be qualified as completely successful.

Medicaid expansion, which would help hundreds of thousands of low-income North Carolinians who currently lack health coverage, became a bone of contention between Cooper and GOP legislators that led to Cooper’s veto of the 2019-20 budget. House Republicans overrode the veto in what seemed to many to be an underhanded and deceitful manner — and their override would have succeeded, if Senate Democrats hadn’t prevented a similar scenario with their hyper-vigilance and steadfast support.

Republicans tried to lure a Democrat or two away by sweetening the pot — proposing a 4.4% supplement for teachers that would only go into effect with a vote to override Cooper’s veto. “If Governor Cooper vetoes the bills, then he alone will have prevented teachers from getting a raise,” GOP legislative leaders said.

But most observers were too savvy to fall for that hooey. The N.C. Association of Educators called the offer “wildly insulting to educators of every level.”

“By trying to somehow entice Democratic lawmakers to override the governor’s veto with minuscule pay increases is not only disgusting, it shows how desperate Republican leaders really are to get their tax cuts pushed through,” the association’s president, Mark Jewell, said.

The education community has joined business and medical leaders in supporting Medicaid expansion, knowing that it would benefit their students, as well as their students’ families.

Republicans were still able to pass much of the budget through a “mini-budget” process — passing it in smaller portions that achieved agreement from Democrats and Republicans. The legislature “passed funding that totals 98.5% of the original $24 billion (budget) it passed in June,” Sen. Phil Berger said in a statement last week.

Admittedly, that was a clever tactic — and for the state’s sake, it’s better than a total stalemate. But it still leaves substantial issues unresolved.

Another accomplishment of sorts in 2019 was an N.C. court’s insistence that legislative maps be redrawn to more fairly represent the state’s citizens before the 2020 election. It may be that the only resolution to the current impasse is a more reasonable set of legislators, elected a year from now.

If that’s what it takes, so be it.

Online: https://www.journalnow.com

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Nov. 4

The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer (of Raleigh) on Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger’s struggling reading program:

If you were at all gleeful this week that Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger’s Read to Achieve program is underperforming, you might want to reexamine your political and policy priorities. The program, launched in 2012 to try to raise third-grade reading levels, faced more bad news Wednesday with a report that North Carolina’s reading scores have essentially remained flat since 2011. That’s not something to celebrate — not even a little.

Berger, to this point, has done a lot right with Read to Achieve. He took a meaningful reading metric and launched a plan to improve it that had shown some success elsewhere. He put money and infrastructure behind that plan and gave it time to yield results. But according to the annual “report card” from the National Assessment of Education Progress, those results have dropped a statistically insignificant amount, not risen. All of which, we’re sure, is frustrating to the Senate Leader.

Welcome to the club, Mr. Berger.

It’s a club of people who care deeply about education. It’s a club that possesses both data and theories regarding what might help struggling schools and students, but it’s one that understands there are no certainties — and certainly no silver bullets. It is, above all, a club that knows the reasons students struggle are complex, that we need to try a lot of fixes and fail at some, and that all of it takes money and patience.

None of which is news to Sen. Berger, who is among the shrewdest policy makers in the state legislature. But for years, Berger’s party has largely argued that investing in education initiatives is throwing good money after bad, or that the answer is not money but school “choice” — as if private schools don’t face similar challenges as public. In fact, some education advocates believe that one of the reasons Read to Achieve has failed here is that the supporting education structure around it — including teachers and, importantly, pre-K — have been insufficiently funded by the Republicans Berger leads.

Certainly, many of those education advocates know what it’s like to get disappointing results. NAEP numbers this week also showed that nationally, fourth and eighth grade reading scores essentially have remained flat for a decade. This despite years of reforms across the country that include more precise standardized testing, stricter teacher evaluations and increased attentiveness to third-grade reading scores laws.

The results have frustrated educators across the country, just as North Carolina’s numbers surely have done for Sen. Berger. His response, however, has been at least a little heartening. Instead of using disappointing numbers as an excuse to abandon an education initiative, he worked to improve Read to Achieve, even recruiting Democrat and state school board member J.B. Buxton to help. That reform bill, however, was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who called Read to Achieve ineffective and costly.

We suspect the governor may have been holding Berger’s signature project hostage in a budget fight, just as Berger and Republicans tried to hold higher teacher pay hostage this week over that same budget. If so, that’s wrong on both counts. Investment in education shouldn’t be subject to political weaponization, regardless of who does it.

We’re encouraged, however, that state school board members are seeing a new willingness from Republican leaders to work on solutions involving struggling schools and North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, sources tell the editorial board. We believe education progress won’t be found in ideological sniping, but with a realization from both parties that improving schools is often difficult, regularly frustrating and never something we should abandon.

Online: https://www.charlotteobserver.com and https://www.newsobserver.com