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North Carolina editorial roundup

July 3, 2019

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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July 2

The Charlotte Observer on the state’s Medicaid expansion stalemate:

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Republican-drawn state budget last week because it does not include Medicaid expansion. Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) says Medicaid expansion will not be added. Period. Meanwhile, the fiscal year ended June 30 and the $24 billion proposed budget is in limbo.

One way to solve the impasse would be to let the people decide. The General Assembly could agree to put Medicaid expansion to a vote in 2020. Among the 36 states that have expanded Medicaid, four — Maine, Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — have done so through ballot initiatives. North Carolina does not allow citizens to put issues on the ballot through petition, but the legislature could agree to abide by the results of a referendum.

Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel to the N.C. General Assembly and an unofficial historian of the legislature, said use of a binding statewide vote has generally has been limited to bond issues and constitutional amendments. However, there were binding statewide votes on liquor sales in the 1930s and 1940s and one regarding county sales taxes in 1969. He said a binding referendum was widely discussed regarding adopting a state lottery, though legislators eventually pushed it through on their own.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he prefers that lawmakers make decisions rather than turning that task over to the public. But he is open to considering a statewide vote. “At this point, every avenue is worth exploring,” he said. “We do not want to keep standing here looking at each other to see who blinks.”

Agreeing to put Medicaid expansion to a popular vote would open the way for lawmakers to negotiate other thorny, but less intractable budget issues. Prominent among those, on the governor’s side, would be bigger raises for public school teachers and blocking the proposed move of the Department of Health and Human Services from Raleigh to Granville County. For Republicans, taking the expansion issue off the table might move Cooper to accept yet another of their proposed corporate tax cuts.

The governor might oppose a referendum because it would further delay expansion of the health care plan for low-income families. He has the votes to uphold his budget veto and wants to apply pressure for expansion’s passage now. As Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, put it: “Time is of the essence. The more we delay, the more we deny people the health care they need.”

Berger and Republican leaders likely don’t want the people deciding this issue. Polls show that a clear majority of voters support expanding Medicaid. It’s easy to see why. Expansion would provide health insurance for hundreds of thousands of uninsured North Carolinians, create thousands of jobs and offer a lifeline to struggling rural hospitals. The federal government would cover 90 percent of the cost. Under Cooper’s plan, an assessment on hospitals and other health care providers would cover the other 10 percent.

Objecting to letting the people decide is a hard position for Republican lawmakers to take now. They, after all, spoke a lot about “the people’s will” when they put six constitutional amendments on the 2018 ballot. Those included big issues — a photo ID requirement for voting and capping the state income tax rate — and a frivolous one that protected the right to hunt and fish.

Why now be reluctant to let the people speak on the state’s most consequential matter?

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

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June 28

The Citizen-Times on the state’s lack of water quality testing programs:

The state’s water-quality testing program for the French Broad River is totally inadequate. And dismissing E.coli readings up to nearly 50 times the level considered safe for recreation as “naturally occurring conditions” does nothing to instill confidence in the regulators.

E.coli is a microbe that enters waterways through contact with fecal matter. Drinking or even coming into contact with polluted water can cause vomiting, diarrhea or infections of the skin or eyes. The Environmental Protection Agency considers water safe for recreation so long as the E. coli level (measured in colony forming units per 100 milliliters) is below 235.

Lab tests conducted June 19 by local environmental organization MountainTrue indicate 14 sites had E.coli levels more than 10 times the EPA limit. Of those, six sites had 20 times the EPA limit and the most polluted registered 47 times the limit. Failing sites ranged from the river headwaters in Transylvania County to where it enters Tennessee at Hot Springs.

The worst reading (10,935 cfu) was recorded at Hot Springs, downstream from all sources of pollution in North Carolina. Champion Park in Rosman, near the headwaters, registered 260. Only two sites registered under the limit, one of which was the Mills River Boat Access, in a protected watershed where Asheville and Hendersonville get some drinking water.

MountainTrue’s environmental scientists say any reading over 1,000 cfu warrants an immediate follow-up to determine the source of the pollution and assess risk. Thus far, there have not been even swimming advisories.

Such advisories are issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services upon advice from the Division of Water Resources within the Department of Environmental Quality, a spokeswoman from Buncombe County Health and Human Services told the Citizen Times in an email.

DEQ only tests water quality in the French Broad River Basin once a month, not frequently enough to capture changes in water quality before the public is affected. The MountainTrue tests are conducted weekly. But, even had DEQ tested more frequently there is little indication there would have been warnings.

In an email to the Citizen Times, a representative of DEQ said advisory postings by DHHS “are not usually made based on naturally occurring conditions, natural contaminants, etc.” because it is “known and expected that high flow events can elevate bacteria levels.” The DWR said no follow-up tests have been conducted, “but sampling is planned.”

The “naturally occurring conditions” to which DEQ referred were the heavy rains that fell shortly before and during the MountainTrue tests. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson said such rains “can overstress sewer pipes and other infrastructure” like septic tanks, in addition to increasing runoff from farms with poor land management practices.

Evidently, it’s all right to swim in polluted water so long as the pollution wasn’t due to an abnormal event such as a sewage treatment plant malfunction or a sewer-line break. We do not find that logic compelling.

There is movement in the General Assembly to put up money for weekly testing in the French Broad. Those pushing for passage include Sens. Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville and Deanna Ballard of Boone, both Republicans, according to Carson.

Alternatively, the state could use MountainTrue data. Over the past five weeks, MountainTrue and DWR have “split” samples and tested them separately in order to verify MountainTrue’s sample analysis methods. “So far they’ve been lining up very well,” Carson said. “Hopefully they can use our data more confidently.”

None of this will help, however, unless the state understands the importance of alerting swimmers and boaters when E. coli levels exceed safe standards, regardless of the cause.

Online: https://www.citizen-times.com/

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June 28

StarNews of Wilmington on the impact of partisan gerrymandering on state elections:

Partisan gerrymandering is a problem, but there’s nothing the federal courts can do about it.

That, essentially, was the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling Thursday (June 27) in a slew of gerrymandering cases.

Given modern software and polling techniques, legislatures can carve out congressional and legislative districts that effectively ensure one political party or another a permanent majority.

In Michigan, Republicans used these techniques to stick it to Democrats. In Maryland, Democrats did the same thing to Republicans.

Tsk, tsk, said the Honorable Justices. But, alas, we have no justiciable remedy (what a wonderful, weasley legal phrase) to do anything about it.

Note: This does not get North Carolina’s Honorables off the hook. Racial gerrymandering — packing minority voters into as few districts as possible — is still against the law.

Almost the same panel of justices voted in 2017 that the Tar Heel legislators have used race as a factor in drawing boundary lines. In doing so, they diluted the value of African-American votes and thus violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. Those still have to be fixed.

North Carolina is a textbook example of what gerrymandering can do. In the last election, roughly 53 percent of votes chose Republicans and 46 percent Democrats. (The balance went to smaller parties.) However, North Carolina wound up with 10 Republican congress-persons and just three Democratic ones.

A similar miraculous process has pretty much guaranteed Republicans a majority in the General Assembly for most of the past decade.

So, gerrymandering black voters into political impotence is wrong, but ensuring that Democrats (or Republicans) have no chance of winning is, well, just the way the game is played.

Gerrymandering has been around since the nation’s founding, but technology has made the practice so surgically precise that it could render our elections about as pointless as the staged shows they put on in China or Russia.

There is an alternative, of course, and several Republicans such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have endorsed it. That is, turn legislative redistricting over to a bipartisan or nonpartisan panel that would actually draw the maps.

Duke University tried an experiment like this, recruiting a panel of retired state judges from both political parties, who were given the same data the gerrymanderers used. The judges turned out maps that were eminently fair and would guarantee competitive political races. It could work.

So, the courts say they can’t do anything about partisan gerrymandering. That means, the voters will have to do it themselves. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and citizens of all persuasions are going to have to push our Honorables to do the right thing and come up with a fair, rational and non-partisan system of districting.

The gerrymander has to be rendered extinct.

Online: https://www.starnewsonline.com/