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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jordan Lake Rules pass House easily

Posted by on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 8:12 PM

By a margin of 106-8, the N.C. House of Representatives passed HB 239 (“Restore Water Quality in Jordan Reservoir”), which will now head for a vote in the Senate.

The expected wrangling over pollution controls didn't happen on the House floor today, so look for an intensified lobbying effort to water down regulations on the Senate side, in advance of a final vote.

The bill that passed is identical to the version approved yesterday by the House Judiciary I committee, which maintains critical pollution control measures, and reduces the cleanup timelines proposed in earlier drafts. The bill--originally titled "Disapprove Jordan Lake Rules"--represents a modification to the nutrient-reduction strategy adopted by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, and approved by the N.C. Rules Review Commission. In particular, it reduces EMC's ability to regulate pollution that results from existing development--the principal reason the lake has appeared, since 2002, on EPA's Impaired Waters list for "excess nutrients." Nevertheless, the bill allows nutrient-reduction goals to go forward, so the impaired drinking-water source can return to federal Clean Water Act compliance.

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Racial Justice Act clears legislative hurdle

Posted by on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 1:17 PM

See updates below.

The North Carolina Racial Justice Act (HB 472/SB 461), which would prevent the execution of defendants who were sentenced to death on the basis of race, cleared the House Judiciary I committee today, and is headed for a house floor vote. Meanwhile, a Senate version of the bill will be voted on in the Senate Judiciary I committee tonight.

Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in an interview that the the Racial Justice Act, and other death penalty reforms moving through the Legislature, represent “important steps in making the death penalty a fair remedy.”

North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006, although 163 inmates are currently on death row. Before North Carolina can resume executions, it must first await the outcome of a case in Wake County Superior Court that will determine if the Council of State violated state administrative code by signing off on the execution protocol without allowing public comment.

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Jordan Lake Rules headed to the House floor

Posted by on Tue, May 12, 2009 at 2:24 AM

Following approval by the House Judiciary I Committee, HB 239 (“Restore Water Quality in Jordan Reservoir”)--which modifies portions of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission's strategy to clean up Jordan Lake--is on its way to the House floor. But the bill's sponsors, who attended Monday's meeting, warned that further battles remain.

"I suspect there'll be changes to this," bill sponsor Rep. Pryor Gibson (D-Anson) told the committee.

Committee Chair Deborah Ross (D-Wake) confirmed that environmentalists were happy with the changes  from last week's version of the bill, including shorter timelines to implement pollution controls, by asking, "Are there nods out there?"

There were, and the bill passed after no more than ten minutes of discussion.

"This was the best deal that could be struck under the circumstances," Durham Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees said in an interview after the vote. "The environmental community would have liked to see things a little stronger, and a little sooner, and the City of Durham would've liked to see things take a little longer, and have more protections against unreasonable costs."

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Jordan Lake protections: from 'watered down' to squeaky clean?

Posted by on Fri, May 8, 2009 at 6:58 PM

Just in time for next Monday's appearance before the House Judiciary I Committee, the Bill Formerly Known as "Disapprove Jordan Lake Rules" (HB 239) has been freshly minted "Restore Water Quality in Jordan Reservoir." The original version of the bill would have done just the opposite, by rejecting the N.C. Environmental Management Commission's strategy to restore the polluted lake to federal Clean Water Act compliance. Earlier drafts of a compromise bill that the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources ironed out last week would have allowed the EMC's rules to go forward, but weakened critical pollution controls, and delayed their implementation by up to 17 years.

According to Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina, a newer version of the compromise bill now contains improved environmental protections to go along with that fancy new name.

"It’s all about, 'Do you meet water quality standards or not?'" she said in an interview.

Specifically, the timelines for determining whether sub-watersheds are responsible for pollution controls, and implementing those controls, have been reduced by three years. An additional check-point for the Upper New Hope Creek Arm--which first placed Jordan Lake on the EPA's Impaired Waters list in 2002, due to excess nutrients--has also been bumped up by three years. And language that would have exempted that sub-watershed, which includes the City of Durham, from enacting critical pollution-reduction measures  due to cost concerns has been eliminated, Ouzts said.

The Cities of Durham and Greensboro have been lobbying the Legislature to minimize the EMC's ability to regulate pollution that results from existing development, arguing that such controls would be financially burdensome for local governments. Ouzts said this latest revision reflects a compromise between that position, and environmentalists seeking protections for the lake.

"It's not quite as far off from the original [EMC] rules," she said.

The Judiciary I Committee meets Monday, May 11, at 3 p.m., in LB 1228 to discuss HB 239. If passed, the bill will then come up for a vote on the House floor--where another round of budget vs. environment is sure to take place.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009

The next telecom battles at the legislature

Posted by on Thu, May 7, 2009 at 4:55 PM

Dogged grassroots activism, organized by the City of Wilson's blogging public affairs manager Brian Bowman, Greensboro politico Jay Ovittore at StoptheCap.com, and a network of interested geeks on Twitter (#stopthecap), beat back the anti-muni broadband bill into study committees in both the state House and Senate this week.

But other broadband-related issues are still under consideration at the General Assembly, and for now, they're flying under the radar -- despite backing by the same telecom industry-friendly groups.

The first involves a statewide map that promises to show exactly where broadband Internet service is and isn't available. That map, expected within the next two weeks, is being put together by the industry-backed group Connected Nation and paid for by the industry. Will lawmakers be content to make policy based on information that's neither verifiable nor transparent?

The second is a bill AT&T is pushing for that would deregulate phone service in the state. After the House session concluded Wednesday evening, the House Ways & Means/Broadband Connectivity committee passed HB 1180, the "Consumer Choice and Investment Act," which addresses the shifting nature of the phone service market by allowing phone companies to raise rates and by removing "antiquated statutory and regulatory restrictions." The bill will go next to House Public Utilities.

The version (PDF) that passed Wednesday night contains changes co-sponsor and committee chair Rep. Bill Faison says add consumer protections that address the concerns of those who oppose it.

Analysis of those changes to come. Meanwhile, it's worth knowing who spoke to that committee in favor of the bill, changes and all:

The Institute for Policy Innovation, an anti-tax group out of Texas which opposes municipal broadband,

The American Consumer Institute, which has taken a position firmly in support of Time Warner Cable's bandwidth caps proposal.

and Americans for Prosperity, which organized the "tea parties" on tax day and rallied support for the anti-muni broadband bill.

Even defining phone service is getting trickier as companies like AT&T offer both traditional analog phone and digital voice-over-Internet-Protocol service as part of triple-play products designed to compete with similar bundled services from companies like Time Warner Cable.

Until Congress and the FCC weigh in definitively on these issues, we're likely to see this sort of policy hashed out at the state level, with lobbyists for the cable industry and the telephone companies jockeying to get the sweeter deal.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Anti-muni broadband bill will go to study committee

Posted by on Wed, May 6, 2009 at 4:01 PM

Updated, see below.

More than 100 people—citizens, lobbyists, elected officials and members of the press—attended Wednesday morning's meeting of the House Public Utilities Committee. Those rallied by the Americans for Prosperity, sponsors of the tax day "tea parties," wore red shirts to show their support for the bill. Opponents wore yellow stickers that said, "Save NC Broadband."

Several hoped to speak about House Bill 1252, which would have required local governments that offer Internet and other telecom services to tack on to customer fees the difference in the amount it would cost a private company to provide the service and prohibit governments from "cross-subsidizing" the launch or operation of a system, a practice common in private industry. (For more background, see "Broadband bill would penalize cities," Independent Weekly, April 29, 2009)

But the only people who spoke were committee members and the bill's sponsors, who addressed the mounting controversy by introducing a substitute that would send the bill to committee for further study.

Study committees are often where bills go to die. That's what happened in 2007, the last time the General Assembly considered a similar measure, which is why Time Warner and the state's cable industry had opposed efforts earlier this year to compromise by turning the legislation into a study bill, says Rep. Ty Harrell, the bill's chief sponsor.

But Harrell says he does not intend to let the measure die but hopes it will have "a thorough chewing-on."

"Let me just say, this is a highly complex issue, and it's not as simple as many would like to think," Harrell said to the committee. "I think both sides of the coin are in agreement that this thing needs to be studied, it needs to be discussed."

Rep. Bill Faison, who chairs the House Ways and Means / Broadband Connectivity committee, argued that his committee would be a better venue for making that study than House Finance or the Revenue Laws Study Committee. Faison's committee originated out of an interim study committee on broadband Internet access, authorized by House Speaker Joe Hackney, that could continue its work even when the legislature is not in session. "That committee already has the knowledge base, knows the scope of the problem and has been making great progress," Faison said.

Politically, changing the bill's course likely means it will not be voted on by the General Assembly during the 2009-2010 session, as only those bills that either pass one body of the legislature by May 14 or concern finance and revenue are considered to have "made crossover."

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Break out the jiggers in Chatham

Posted by on Wed, May 6, 2009 at 2:51 PM

Chatham County voters just said yes to mixed drinks this week.

With 19 percent turnout, a referendum that was the only issue in a special countywide election passed 65 percent to 35 percent, according to complete but unofficial results from the Chatham County Board of Election. The change, which takes effect immediately, means that restaurants and bars in Pittsboro, Siler City and throughout the county can serve hard liquor by the drink. Previously, only beer and wine were permitted.

PACs led by local elected officials and supported by business groups including the chamber of commerce raised funds in support of the measure, arguing that the change would provide new revenue for the county and help draw more restaurants.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Modified version of Jordan Lake compromise clears enviro committee

Posted by on Tue, May 5, 2009 at 4:43 PM

A bill that would delay state-mandated efforts to clean up Jordan Lake until 2017 but preserve much of their pollution-reduction goals cleared the House Environment and Natural Resources committee today.

“People upstream don’t want to do a thing. People downstream want a rule exactly the way it was,” said bill sponsor Pryor Gibson (D-Anson), after rubbing his eyes dramatically at the lectern. “As imperfect as it may be … it’s time for this bill to move forward.”

The unanimous committee vote sent the compromise version of the bill to the House Judiciary 1 committee, and, presuming it passes there, eventually to a House and Senate vote.

“It’s still not there. It’s still not going to protect Jordan Lake,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director for Environment North Carolina.

The bill is a modification to HB 239, “Disapprove Jordan Lake Rules,” which would have completely blocked regulations written by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission (EMC) that were intended to bring the polluted reservoir back into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

An earlier modification, introduced last week in committee, had more significantly lowered pollution-reduction goals for the most impaired section of Jordan Lake, and based pollution controls on "measurable reductions," not actual water quality standards. The new modification replaced this version of the bill.

Read the full story at indyweek.com.

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Anti-muni broadband bill goes before House commmittee tomorrow

Posted by on Tue, May 5, 2009 at 2:38 PM

The battle over municipal broadband Internet services continues tomorrow, May 6, when the N.C. House Public Utilities Committee will be the second to consider House Bill 1252, which would severely limit the ability of local governments to provide broadband Internet and other telecommunications services.

The committee meets at 10 a.m. in Legislative Building room 1228. A vote is expected.

The North Carolina Cable and Telecommunications Association has been running push-polls across the state to generate support for the bill, which it says will "level the playing field" by forcing municipal service providers to add fees and meet other requirements when they compete with private industry.

And Americans for Prosperity, the same group that sponsored "tea parties" on tax day, is also running robocalls in favor of the legislation and trying to rally support online.

Opponents are mobilizing, too. They say the bill would effectively stop local governments from providing Internet service even when private companies choose not to offer the speed and availability citizens and local businesses need.

A blog called Stop the Cap!, which voices opposition to Time Warner Cable's recent proposal to cap its customers bandwidth, had run a series of posts focusing on the North Carolina legislation, which is heavily backed by Time Warner Cable. Google recently joined Alcatel-Lucent, Intel and a number of other private industry groups in a joint letter to House Speaker Joe Hackney opposing the bill. The City of Raleigh and Town of Chapel Hill have also passed resolutions opposing it.

The bill passed the House Science and Technology Committee last month without a vote, and without a favorable recommendation, following testimony from many opponents.

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Billboard asks "Why Go to Durham?" Billboard opponents have the answer.

Posted by on Tue, May 5, 2009 at 2:09 PM

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An observant reader sent the Indy a photograph of this billboard on U.S. 15-501 near the Durham-Person county line. Fairway, which is wooing Durham officials and residents to ease the city and county's strict billboard ordinance, owns this ad on stilts that reads "Why go to Durham?"

Well, if you're bringing more billboards to Durham, opponents would say, then stay home.

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