North Carolina editorial roundup
Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
Greensboro News & Record on the end of the 2019 legislative session for the General Assembly:
Whew. In case you hadn’t noticed, the General Assembly finally has adjourned its 2019 session, more or less.
And if you didn’t notice, that’s probably because the state legislators spent a lot of time in this so-called long session getting very little done, so at times it seemed as if they had already called it quits. In fact, they seem to have given up and gone home more because they got tired of their endless thumb-twiddling, insult-exchanging and game-playing than because they finished the business that supposedly brought them to Raleigh. Oh, and after they went home, they had to come back to vote on redistricting legislation, but they had agreed not to take up most other matters then. They plan to be back in January to try again.
The list of things they didn’t get done is a lot more substantive than a tally of their accomplishments. They didn’t pass a state budget. They didn’t vote on raises for public school teachers. They didn’t do anything about expanding Medicaid to cover more North Carolinians who have trouble affording health insurance.
In June, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Republicans’ two-year budget bill because, among other problems, it didn’t adequately address teacher pay increases or Medicaid expansion but did offer more corporate income-tax cuts. Now that the GOP no longer has a supermajority in the legislature, a veto is supposed to lead to some substantive negotiations and reasonable compromise. But Republican leaders held out in hopes they could manage a veto override, resulting in many weeks when the legislature accomplished little. By resorting to trickery, they did manage to get an override vote through the House, but Senate Democrats held firm.
Legislators did pass some “mini-budget” bills by breaking them out of the larger proposed budget, and Cooper signed most of those into law. But that’s not a lot to justify a session that stretched over 11 months, the second longest in state history. So the taxpayers picked up the tab for this wheel-spinning, to the tune of an estimated $42,000 a day. These marathon legislative sessions cost the state in other ways as well. They are taking a toll on the number of qualified, conscientious, civic-minded citizens who are willing to try serving in the General Assembly. For the record, North Carolina is officially one of the states that still has a part-time legislature made up of citizens who may have other jobs in places other than Raleigh. But in these days when sessions stretch out over most of the year, that part-time, citizen legislature is mostly a fiction. Holding down an outside job is tough, if not impossible.
Unfortunately, though, the pay for North Carolina legislators is still on that part-time scale. Unlike members of Congress, who are paid about $174,000 a year for what’s understood to be a full-time job, rank-and-file members of the General Assembly receive an annual salary of $13,951. They also get a stipend of $104 every day the legislature is in session, bringing the total to somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. All this means that it’s hard for anyone who isn’t rich or retired to be a state legislator.
What’s it going to be, North Carolina? Do we want to pay legislators enough to keep them in Raleigh all year, or do we want to tell them to stop wasting time?
StarNews of Wilmington on a proposal to privatize liquor stores in North Carolina:
North Carolina reigns as a hotbed of capitalism. Our legislature even requires public schools to teach the virtues of free enterprise.
One creeping vestige of socialism remains, however — the network of government-owned warehouses and stores for the sale of liquor.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control system is a Frankenstein monster, constructed over the years through a battle with some church leaders (who’d rather see liquor banned completely, as in the good old days) and bootleggers (who’d rather not have competition).
The idea is to “control” liquor by making it hard to buy. Trouble is, that doesn’t work very well. In 2017, 413 people were killed in drunk-driving incidents in North Carolina, more than in New York, Pennsylvania or Illinois.
A proposal to privatize the liquor stores, House Bill 971, didn’t get very far in this year’s General Assembly. North Carolina is pondering selling the stores, and the valuable real estate they sit on, and leasing store space instead.
Full privatization makes a lot more sense. The notion of “control” went out the window when counties and municipalities started approving the sale of mixed drinks in bars and restaurants.
It could, in fact, be argued that the ABCs actually encourage binge-drinking. A typical mixed drink will cost $8 to $12 at a typical bar. For just $12.95, however, a drinker can buy a big bottle of bargain-brand vodka.
The problems with socialized liquor sales are generally the problem with government-run businesses in general. They’re often inefficient, vulnerable to cronyism, nepotism and inside deals.
A StarNews investigation a decade or so ago found that the long-serving chief of the local ABC system was making more than the county manager.
The local ABC has apparently cleaned up its act since then. Still, one suspects a private boss, forced to make a profit and watch the books, would run a tighter ship.
Defenders of the current system, and there are many, point to all the money the local ABCs supposedly generate for government. New Hanover County’s ABC system, for example, paid $11 million to the state in a recent year and distributed more than $5 million to the county, the city of Wilmington and other municipalities.
True, but private liquor stores would be collecting state sales taxes. They’d pay municipal and county property taxes. In privatized states, liquor retailers are licensed and subject to an array of state and local regulations and inspections.
If we think free enterprise is a good idea, we ought to act like we mean it. Get the government out of the liquor business.
The Winston-Salem Journal on an agency that oversees dams in North Carolina:
North Carolina has quietly been beefing up the agency that oversees dams in the state, and with good reason.
The state ranks No. 2 in the country in the number of dams in risky condition in places where a failure could kill someone, or in some cases, a lot of people.
A recent Associated Press investigation found 168 dams in North Carolina are both in poor or unsatisfactory condition and positioned so that they threaten human life. Among 44 states and Puerto Rico that provided information to the AP, only Georgia was worse than North Carolina.
Of course, dam safety isn’t a competition. Even one dam that’s in bad shape and that could kill people if it fails is something to worry about — and do something about. But the AP’s survey shows just how serious this threat is here.
In some cases, the problem is just wear and tear, the strains that will develop with age, and state inspections and regulations should help keep things in hand.
But dam failure is yet another area in which global warming is proving to be a game changer. Climate change doesn’t mean just a slow but steady increase in average temperatures or record-breaking highs in summer. It also means the weather is more unpredictable, and that hurricanes and other rainstorms are more intense.
More intense storms mean that some dams that were considered adequate when they were built may not be up to the challenge of today’s weather, with record-breaking rainfalls and rains that last for days. This is not just a prediction; it’s already happening. During the 12-month period that started in October 2015, 83 state-regulated dams failed in North and South Carolina.
So it makes sense to put more money and effort into checking on the state’s dams and making sure needed repairs get done.
That job falls to a little known agency, the N.C. Dam Safety Program in the Department of Environmental Quality. Recently, the state has increased the dam-safety budget by two-thirds, and there are now 20 full-time employees.
Their task is to make sure more than 3,100 dams are safe.
That’s a challenge. Regulations are only as effective as their enforcement. It takes time to inspect all the dams. Then it takes more time to make sure whoever owns a dam makes any necessary repairs.
Things get more complicated because many dams in the state aren’t owned by a big utility or government agency but by private individuals. Sometimes those people aren’t very cooperative about following regulations. Some don’t bother to file reports about how a break in the dam would affect people downstream, and what could be done if that happens.
Sometimes, it’s not even clear who’s responsible for making any needed repairs to a dam. That was the case with a dam in Fayetteville that also carried a road to a private community. Despite repeated deficiency notices from the state, no repairs had been made. The dam failed when Hurricane Matthew dumped as much as 15 inches of rain in 2016.
So the state may need to invest even more money in enforcement of its dam safety regulations. As climate change plays a larger role, the state may also need to consider whether current regulations are tough enough. Dam safety is, literally, a matter of life and death.