House Democrats held a press conference Monday afternoon to challenge a bill filed late last week by House Republicans, including Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam and Rep. Tom Murry of Wake County, to block last year's federal health care reform law. The federal law, which is being challenged by 26 states and may end up before the Supreme Court, would require all Americans to have health insurance and prohibit insurance providers from refusing to cover many preexisting conditions.
The local bill, titled "Protect Health Care Freedom" (but more widely referred to as House Bill 2), would effectively exclude North Carolina from enforcing the federal health care reform act. It would prohibit the state from requiring anyone to obtain health insurance and levying a fine against them if they don't enroll. If passed, the bill could also require North Carolina's attorney general to join those 26 states in action against the federal legislation or defend the state and its residents against federal action.
Stam introduced the bill at a House Judiciary committee meeting last Thursday. The bill is scheduled to reach the House floor Wednesday for a full vote, according to a WRAL.com report. When Republicans around the state vied for their seats in last fall's elections, many promised they would challenge the health care act passed by Congress in March 2010. Taking a stand on the federal legislation was included among the new majority's other top tasks, including possibly increasing the number of charter schools allowed in North Carolina and undoing the landmark Racial Justice Act passed in 2009.
But the legislature needs to focus on local challenges, not on intervening in a federal matter when North Carolina is facing a nearly $4 billion budget deficit and thousands across the state are still unemployed, challengers of House Bill 2 said Monday.
"This bill doens't really accomplish anything except perhaps unnecessary costs and unintended consequences. It's a federal issue and it will be solved at the federal level in the federal courts," said Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange), who led the press conference. She said she hoped the event would spread the word to constituents, who would not have an opportunity to testify directly before the House after the judiciary committee denied a public hearing on the matter last week.
Speaking with Insko were a representative from the N.C. Justice Center and two patients, including Melanie Taylor, the sister of Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). Charles van der Horst, an internist and infectious disease specialist at the UNC medical school and hospitals, also spoke against House Bill 2.
"I really believe deeply in this issue. A third of the patients in the hospitals of North Carolina are there because they don't have insurance. If they had insurance and could get regular care, they wouldn't get sick and they wouldn't be in the hospital," he said.
The federal health care reforms passed in 2009 would end a cycle that is driving up health care costs nine percent each year, van der Horst said. The bill could actually improve the quality of services physicians are currently providing while reducing costs, he argued. Right now, anyone who shows up at a hospital must be treated regardless of insurance status. When those bills go unpaid, it's consumers and taxpayers who end up paying the bill, van der Horst said.
Just minutes after the press conference began, The New York Times reported that a federal judge in Florida ruled that President Barack Obama's health care law violates the U.S. Constitution and that in writing and passing the law, Congress had reached beyond its authority. This is the case 26 states have already made in their lawsuit against the health care act. According to the story, it was the fourth opinion on the reform. Two Democrat-appointed judges have upheld Obama's health care law while the Florida judge and a second Republican-appointed judge have ruled it unconstitutional.
House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Mecklenburg) issued a statement just after the Democrats' response in light of the Florida ruling:
“In the House of Representatives, we have no higher priority than to balance our budget and work to foster an environment that encourages job development. The Federal Health Care bill is bad for business in North Carolina. For over a year, North Carolinians have clearly expressed their displeasure with the Federal legislation, and as recently as this afternoon, a Federal judge in Florida expressed his concern by ruling the entire law unconstitutional.
We will not stand idly and watch an unconstitutional usurpation of authority by the Federal government. North Carolinians expect us to act to protect their right to make their own health care decisions; we plan to do just that, and protect North Carolina’s economy in the process.”
In her statements earlier, Insko challenged talking points from Stam and other allies that the federal health care bill would cost North Carolina jobs. She argued it would do the opposite, insuring 1 million more North Carolinians and growing demand for workers in insurance, pharmaceuticals and medicine.
"I think they've been given a lot of misinformation, a lot of short 'snappies' that just dont hold up when you get into the details," Insko said. "This issue of being a job-killing bill is one of those. It's easy to say. That's a nice bumper sticker. But you can say that the moon changes shape because a little mouse nibbles on it. But saying it doesn't make it true."
Little research, other than this sparse fiscal note filed today, has been presented on the possible local costs if the House passes H2, and the state attorney general's office is forced to intervene in the national lawsuit.
The New Hill Community Association announced this morning it has dropped its lawsuit against Western Wake Partners in exchange for amenities including a $500,000 New Hill community center.
For the past five years the association has fought the Western Wake Partners' plan to build a $327 million wastewater treatment plant in New Hill’s historical and predominantly African-American neighborhood.
The settlement agreement (newhill_settlement.pdf) comes after the two court-ordered mediation sessions with the association, the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources and the partners—the towns of Cary, Apex, Morrisville and RTP South.
The agreement states, “the parties recognize that [the] Project will impact the New Hill Community, and Partners have minimized and mitigated potential negative impacts.”
Terms of the agreement include the partners constructing two 4-foot-by-8-foot glass-and-steel bus shelters for the community's school children, and placing $500,000 in an escrow fund for the construction of a community center.
If the community center is built close to the wastewater treatment plant, the partners will provide water and sewer lines and other infrastructure. The agreement also stipulates that the partners will run water and sewer to 36 homes near the plant.
But the agreement has a hitch: The association must not make any negative comments about the project or openly oppose it. If the association violates this or other terms of the agreement, the escrow fund for the community center will be revoked and disbursed to the Town of Cary, the lead agency for the partners.
“This has been a vigorous, robust debate in which the parties made a concerted effort to mitigate impacts to New Hill,” New Hill Community Association President Paul Barth said in a press release. “We, the officers of the NHCA, encourage all of our association’s members and community’s advocates to accept the Western Wake Regional Wastewater Management Facilities. We end all protests to the project. In addition, we will not oppose the Chatham County pipeline and will not encourage other groups to use NHCA’s name in opposing it.”
The partners want to build an 8.1-mile pipeline from the plant to the
Haw Cape Fear River through parts of Chatham County. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7. at at 6 p.m., at Moncure School, 600 Moncure School Road in Chatham County.
Apex Mayor Kevin Weatherly released the following statement, “The New Hill Community Association has been a strong advocate for the interests of their community. We are pleased that our negotiations have reached a successful conclusion and that the New Hill Community Center will serve New Hill residents well for many years. Because of this agreement, we can now be assured that one of the most important projects of its kind in the state is able to proceed in an efficient and economical manner.”
Weatherly said the treatment plant project is crucial to economic growth in Western Wake County. “Continued economic vitality is necessary to provide jobs for families in our region,” he said.
Last September, the association and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, filed a petition for contested jearing, in an attempt to stop the partners from receiving preliminary permits from DENR to begin construction of the plant.
The petition contended that the site “has larger human and environmental justice impacts than other, more suitable alternatives, including land previously condemned by Progress Energy in the same general vicinity. Noise, odor, traffic, and light spill from the sewage treatment plant will impact the New Hill Historic District, including the predominantly African-American First Baptist Church and cemetery.”
The plant, which was scheduled to begin construction this year, will not be built in Apex or Cary or any of the partners' towns. Instead it will loom across the street from the New Hill Baptist Church and playground, and a half-mile from the First Baptist Church of New Hill. The plant will sit within 1,000 feet of 23 homes. But who lives in those homes is as important: 87 percent of those approximately 230 residents immediately affected by the sewage treatment plant are African-American, on fixed incomes, elderly or retired.
Chris Brook, attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says the settlement could ultimately benefit New Hill.
“Over the last five years, the New Hill community has come together as never before,” said Barth. “The bus shelters, community center, and extension of services to those closest to the plant will help to mitigate the impacts to our community and will go a long way in moving our community forward.”
It's only the second day of the session and already the GOP is ramping up the hate machine:
First up, undocumented immigrants.
House bill 11, sponsored by state Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Onslow County, would prohibit undocumented immigrants from attending North Carolina colleges and universities.
Currently, undocumented immigrants may attend these schools, but only under certain restrictions. For example, they must pay out-of-state tuition, which is as much as four times more expensive than in-state rates.
You can read the text of the bill here: H11v0.pdf
Sen. Don Vaughan, D-Guilford, offered both pieces of legislation, which each passed their first readings and were referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The sweepstakes bill seeks to close loopholes exploited by parlor owners since the law the General Assembly passed last session became effective Dec. 1.
Lawmakers thought they ended the practice of customers paying for Internet time at cafes that they used to gamble on digital slot-machine-style games of chance. Sweepstakes owners simply closed shop for a few days and transitioned to new software that adheres to the language, but not the spirit, of the law.
RALEIGH—In case the Republicans who took officially took control of the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday thought they had arrived, Raleigh resident Frank Ragsdale reminded them, “We are watching you. You are on probation.”
That was the message he orated to three dozen Tea Party supporters who rallied in the rain Tuesday on the Halifax Mall, a few hundred yards away from the N.C. Legislative Building on the opening day of the session.Moccasin Creek Minutemen and NCFreedom urged legislators to slash spending, curb taxes and reduce governmental oversight of the private sector. Supporters held signs reading “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Taxed Enough Already.”
“Do not, as many of your predecessors have done, forget your campaign promises,” Ragsdale said. “Stop spending our money. Our checking account is closed. The people of North Carolina have nothing more to give you to spend and waste.”
Other speakers took aim at immigrants. William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration laid out his three-point plan for more rigid enforcement.
He wants to review voter rolls to insure that illegal immigrants aren’t allowed to participate in elections, stop providing non-emergency services to them and pass a law similar to but even stronger than Arizona’s infamous Senate Bill 1070.
With Republicans now in power, Gheen is full of optimism. House leaders are already floating a voter ID bill.
“This is one of the most beautiful days in my life,” Gheen said.
Overhead, the sky remained gray and the rain droplets became more rapid.
If I've learned one thing covering state legislatures the past few years, it's that you really can't tell what these folks are going to do when they get together.
I saw it for many years in Georgia, where I worked for The Macon Telegraph and covered three legislative sessions. I saw it a bit last year when I came to North Carolina and covered the short session as a freelancer, as I will do this year for The Independent Weekly and at least one other newspaper.
There are just too many moving parts—120 House members, 50 senators, tons of lobbyists, the governor. And with so much turnover in the GOP takeover of the House and Senate, I'd wager that even the new Republican leadership isn't entirely sure what to expect from some members— those swept into office by an anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat and, in some cases, pro-tea party movement.
All you really know before the legislative session opens tomorrow is that Republicans are going to cut a massive amount of money out of the state budget, and approve a few other things they've been talking about for months. Everything else is reading tea leaves, which I'll try to do below based on meetings with the governor, the incoming speaker of the house, the incoming senate president pro tem, various other high-ranking legislators and outside politicos with far more North Carolina history under their belts than I do.
But I think a line from Kurt Vonnegut, which I believe he lifted from the punch line of an old joke, is appropriate. "Keep your hat on. We could wind up miles from here.”
Earlier this week, Chatham County Commissioners Brian Bock, Walter Petty and Pamela Stewart voted to postpone indefinitely the search for a new landfill.
"I would have liked to have held the community meetings to give the opportunity to citizens to have their questions answered and to hear their direct concerns,” said Commissioner Sally Kost, who was absent from Tuesday’s vote due to health issues.
She did not anticipate that the commissioners would vote so quickly.
County officials had scheduled four public hearings over the next three weeks. Of the nine sites on the short list, six were in communities that opposed a landfill, but community members from sites near Goldston and Bear Creek townships had not spoken against it.
Kost is troubled that her fellow commissioners circumvented including the Solid Waste Advisory Committee in their final decision.
Dan LaMontagne, director of the Waste Management department, told the Indy earlier this month that the commissioners would decide on whether to approve a local or a regional landfill. However, he reportedly did not expect the vote to happen Tuesday, either. LaMontagne could not be reached for comment.
During the 18-month search for a landfill site, the Solid Waste Committee hired engineers Richardson Smith Gardner and Associates, Inc., who released the 2009 Waste Feasibility Study. The study cost Chatham $49,952.
According to the feasibility study, the county had hoped to save $148 million—$195 million over 40 years if it built its own landfill.
“Before I could have supported such a vote, I would like to have known the financial implications and what it means in terms of the site selection process,” said Kost. “I think it would have been best if we could have narrowed the sites down further, but this is what the majority of the commissioners wanted.”
RALEIGH—Passionate neighbors dressed in red and overflowed from the Raleigh City Council chambers Tuesday night to urge the council and planning commission to deny a rezoning request that would allow Hanson Aggregates to expand its Crabtree Quarry operation.
But the message was clear to Mayor Charles Meeker, who, in an unusual move, asked supporters and opponents to raise their hands and be counted. Meeker, council and planning members even walked into the hallway, where 150 people were watching the proceedings on a television feed.
The official tally: 20 people in support of the rezoning and 400 against it, Meeker noted.
“This is certainly the biggest crowd I’ve seen in my 10 years here,” the mayor said.
Chatham County will continue to export its trash after Chatham County officials on Tuesday halted an 18-month search for a new landfill.
The Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 to stop looking for a site in Chatham County; Brian Bock, Pamela Stewart and Walter Petty cast votes; Commissioners Sally Kost and Mike Cross were absent due to health reasons.
The public hearings scheduled for Jan. 19, Jan. 20 and Feb. 9, have been canceled.
Chatham County citizens, especially those living near the nine proposed sites (see PDF of nine sites), had been concerned about where the landfill would be located.
Chatham County has a three-year contract with Waste Management to ship garbage 81 miles to a landfill in Sampson County.
Bock, Petty and Stewart say they have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents alarmed by the prospect of a regional or local landfill. No one, they say, spoke in favor of constructing a landfill in the county.
"We all know there are enormous environmental impacts associated with a landfill," said Petty, "and we need to look at other alternatives."
Bock said last year he supported a landfill in Chatham County, but that his perceptions of the project quickly shifted after speaking with residents, including those from Hickory Mountain and the Preserve Chatham County, citizens’ groups that opposed it.
Petty concluded that a landfill is only affordable if it accepts waste from other counties, allowing Chatham County to generate money from disposal fees. Instead, Petty said, Chatham County must focus on more recycling and reducing waste. Chatham County generates 180 tons of trash per day.
The county's old unlined landfill was closed in 1993, and has since leaked contaminants including chromium, barium and lead, into nearby groundwater, according to N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources documents. Four sites proposed for the new landfill were located within one mile of the former landfill. Forty-five of 47 families in that area, including East Alston Road, are African-American. (See PDF of landfill site map for Buckner Clark Road.)
Ernest Alston lives on East Alston Road, within 150 feet of the old landfill and less than 200 feet away from two of the proposed sites. The community is not connected to a public water system and relies on private wells. According to DENR documents, since 2007, three private wells in that area have been found to be contaminated by substances leaking from the old landfill.
After two month-long delays, Durham's county attorney filed a response today to a lawsuit brought against the county and board of commissioners over the validity of the most recent 751 South protest petition. (PDF)
Durham County Attorney Lowell Siler filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds that attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, Kristen Corbell, Kim Preslar and the Chancellor's Ridge Homeowners Association, didn't follow the proper process to serve the defendants within the two months as required by a state statute of limitations.
The lawsuit is an effort by opponents of the proposed 751 South development to derail the controversial plans, which would bring a community of 1,300 residences, a shopping center and offices to the southwest corner of Durham County, just above the Chatham County line. The development would be built off N.C. 751, a route to Interstate 40, but one that would mostly remain a two-lane highway despite the significant increases in traffic the project would be expected to generate.
The county voted to rezone the land to allow this large mixed-use development on August 9. As cited in SIler's response, the civil court complaint was filed October 5, but, Siler submits, the defendants weren't properly served until Dec. 13 when a deputy sheriff delivered a court summons to Michael Page, chairman of the county commissioners. Prior to that, Siler writes, a court summons had been delivered to a mail room employee before being delivered to the county attorney. Siler cites case law stating that neither party are authorized to accept the summons on behalf of the parties being sued because the parties are named "actual" people.
Both the county attorney and plaintiffs' attorney had declined to comment on this case thus far, so it wasn't clear late Tuesday what the plaintiffs' response would be to Siler's claims, or how quickly a judge would consider the case.
The plaintiffs are rushing to have the case heard before city officials decide whether to annex the 751 South land, rezone it and provide city utilities to it. City officials could begin considering these requests at the end of this month. A city attorney and council members have said that if the city does annex and rezone the land, the lawsuit will be moot.