Morning Memo: GOP environmental approach is ‘soul-crushing,’ letter says

Posted by John Frank on December 16, 2013 

An outgoing Department of Environment and Natural Resources employee is making waves with an op-ed in Sunday's News & Observer that sheds light on the inner workings of the agency in the McCrory administration.

Amy Adams, who now works for Appalachian Voices, an environmental advocacy organization, writes in a letter titled "Soul-crushing takeover of NC DENR brings resignation":

"For years, DENR has been stretched thin, its programs underfunded and its staff overworked, yet we managed to adhere to our core mission and to the personal dedication that drives many of us who work in state government.

"But this year’s historic and hostile takeover of DENR by politically and ideologically motivated lawmakers in the General Assembly was soul-crushing. I could no longer clock in in good conscience and believe I could uphold my commitment to protect the environment."

The public resignation is not the first at the state's environmental agency. Susan Wilson, a 24-year veteran, wrote to DENR Secretary John Skvarla earlier this year: "Between your inappropriate mission statement, the dismantling of the Division of Water Quality, and HB74 (along with a few other gems from this session's NCGA), I see no reason to continue here - because my own mission - to assist all citizens and protect those that don't have a voice, would be compromised."

Adams' letter hits similar points. "The General Assembly’s legislation reorganizing DENR results in deep cuts to staff and resources. The Division of Water Quality staff, for example, will likely be 24 percent smaller by March than it was in early 2011. “Do more with less” has become the mantra of upper management, but we in the ranks heard the message loud and clear: “Do less. Period.”

"There are simply too few employees with too much territory to cover, and the repercussions are real. Staff are increasingly tasked with duties for which they have no previous experience, such as reviewing complex technical pollution-control permit applications.

"Because state law requires DENR to issue permits within a tight deadline, staffers are under great pressure to essentially trust the industry’s word that everything is in order. (The phrase “a fox guarding the hen house” comes to mind.) I did not sign on to my DENR job to wield a rubber stamp."

The op-ed continues saying the cuts contradict Gov. Pat McCrory's pledge to make government "customer service friendly":

"If and when violations are found, I fear that DENR’s new management will downplay or even overlook them. Most important in my book, staff members will not be as available to the public as in years past. Although customer service is a rallying cry of the current leadership, it seems that businesses and industry are considered the only “customers.” Read the entire op-ed here.

*** Greg Brannon and Mark Harris add support in the N.C. Senate race. Read about it and more in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: A legislative committee looking at transparency in health care will meet at 1 p.m. in the legislative office building. Gov. Pat McCrory did not issue a public schedule for Monday.

At 1 p.m. a delegation from seven colleges and universities in North Carolina will deliver a letter to the governor and Budget Director Art Pope calling on them to condemn the Civitas Institute’s demand for records from Gene Nichol, the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the UNC School of Law.

#NCSEN RACE ---

MARK HARRIS CLAIMS STRAW POLL WIN: Republican Mark Harris’ campaign is touting a win in a small straw poll at the 8th Congressional District GOP committee Christmas Gala on Saturday. Republican Congressman Richard Hudson represents the district. Harris received 54 percent of the votes in a five-way contest with Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon, Bill Flynn and Heather Grant. “I am honored to receive this support from the Republicans of the 8th District and look forward to expanding our grassroots army and support base throughout these counties and the rest of the state,” Harris said in a statement.

GREG BRANNON PICKS UP AN ENDORSEMENT: U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky is supporting Republican Greg Brannon’s campaign. Massie is an acolyte of Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow Kentucky politician and Brannon supporter. “If elected to the U.S. Senate, I have no doubt that Greg Brannon will fight tooth-and-nail to repeal ObamaCare and fight for our conservative values,” Massie writes in a fundraising letter for Brannon’s campaign. “But Greg can’t get to Washington and join Senator Paul on the front lines without the help and support of conservatives like you.”

MOTHER JONES LOOKS AT THE RACE, ELEVATES BRANNON: The left-leaning magazine writes: “Of all the tea partiers running for Senate in 2014, Greg Brannon, a GOP primary candidate hoping to topple vulnerable North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan, is one of the most extreme. He opposes public education, claiming it "does nothing but dehumanize" students. He doesn't believe that states have to follow Supreme Court decisions. He contends bipartisan compromises in Washington "enslave" Americans. He hails the the late Sen. Jesse Helms—who died in 2008 without ever renouncing his support for racial segregation—as a "modern hero." He claims that "all ten of [Karl] Marx's planks of Communism"—including the abolition of private property—"are law in our land today." In October, Brannon cosponsored and spoke at a rally supporting nullification—the notion that states can invalidate federal laws at will—that was cosponsored by the League of the South, a secessionist group seeking "a free and independent Southern republic." And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has endorsed him.

“Conservatives are eager to snatch up Hagan's Senate seat, and they have pinned their hopes on Brannon, a tea party rabble-rouser and fiercely anti-abortion rights OB-GYN who has never run for elected office.” Read more here.

TOP HEADLINES ---

STATE SEN. BOB RUCHO'S TWEET SPARKS OUTCRY: A tweet by Matthews Sen. Bob Rucho comparing Obamacare to the toll of America’s wars set off a

firestorm on the social networking website on Sunday. Around 8 a.m., Rucho’s account tweeted: "Justice Robert’s pen & Obamacare has done more damage to the USA then the swords of the Nazis,Soviets & terrorists combined." (U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinion upholding the Affordable Care Act.) Rucho did not return a message left on his cell phone on Sunday.

By then, more than 90 people had re-tweeted his post. But others called the tweet offensive. "The systematic murder of 11 million human beings, among them 6 million Jews ... and acts of terrorists using explosives to indiscriminately decimate the lives of men, women and children can in no way be compared to legislation aimed at expanding health care accessibility and quality insurance for the poor," said Rabbi Judy Schindler of Charlotte’s Temple Beth El. "Comparing the two is deeply offensive.

The tweet also received a litany of angry responses on Twitter, including some who said Rucho should step down. Read more here.

THE BIG STORY -- STATE TEXTBOOK MONEY REMAINS SLIM: It wasn’t long ago that people were worried about students getting injuries from carrying too many textbooks in their backpacks. But now many North Carolina public school students are lucky to have any textbooks to take home.

State funding for textbooks has been cut by nearly 80 percent in the past four years, just as the state has been switching to a new curriculum with new textbooks. At the same time, school districts are expected to make the switch to digital textbooks by 2017 even though no money is set aside for computers or other digital devices for every student.

...In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the state provided $111.2 million for textbooks. But amid the budget crunch, it was cut to $2.5 million for the following fiscal year.

State textbook funding has hovered around $23 million for the past three years. Left-leaning groups have criticized the Republican-led General Assembly for not raising textbook funding back to $100 million a year. But the big cuts began back when Democrats were in charge of the legislature. Read more here.

BIG STORY NO. 2 -- LITTLE PROGRESS MADE ON ABORTION CLINIC RULES: More than four months after a sweeping abortion-regulation bill was signed into law, the new rules it requires for certifying clinics are still a long way from being written.

Anticipated with dread by abortion-rights groups and with optimism by anti-abortion advocates, the rules could put some clinics out of business if they are written stringently enough. Most likely, the struggle to balance opposition to abortion with legitimate medical concerns will return to the General Assembly for a final decision.

RULES MAY GET BUMPED UNTIL AFTER 2014 ELECTION: State health regulators are in the early stages of coming up with the rules and say it’s too soon to estimate when the process will be finished – even whether it will happen any time next year.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is required by the new law to give legislators a progress report by the first of the year. But there won’t be a lot to report by then. Read more here.

THE STATE'S $1.4 MILLION EXPERIMENT: Ken Hudnell thinks he can save North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars while cleaning one of the Triangle’s most important water supplies. Now, with legislative approval, the former federal toxicologist’s campaign to change water science has made Jordan Lake its new proving ground.

While North Carolina previously had planned an expensive program to reduce nutrient pollution flowing into Jordan Lake, Hudnell offers a tempting possibility: He says the state can instead cancel out the effects of those pollutants, in part, by carefully circulating the water. And that’s best done, he claims, with devices made by his employer, Medora Corporation.

Hudnell had for years found little success in pitching the idea to state bureaucrats and politicians, but a shift in state politics gave him an opening. By April 1, three dozen massive pumps will float in Jordan Lake, weighing 850 pounds each, constantly pumping acres of water in an effort to kill harmful algae.

In the meantime, long-debated environmental regulations will sit idle, put on hold by the legislature as it awaits the results of the first such major project in the state. For $1.44 million, the state will lease the SolarBee circulators from Medora Corp. for two years. If it works, North Carolina could opt to use 155 units at a cost of $9 million, Hudnell said. By comparison, the environmental rules could cost from $1 billion to $2 billion across the watershed, according to Tom Reeder, head of the state Division of Water Quality in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

But the project is no surefire answer, and it faces intense scrutiny from water scientists and federal administrators alike. Read more here.

ART POPE PICKET MAKES A11 IN NY TIMES: CHARLOTTE, N.C. — "Inside a Roses discount store, glass ornaments were $3 a pack and a toy train meant to delight on Christmas was $10. Liberals in North Carolina say he has bankrolled conservative candidates and supported policies harmful to poor and minority state residents.

"Outside, protesters were in a far less festive mood. They accused the owner of the discount chain, Art Pope, the state budget director, of bankrolling conservative candidates and supporting policies that hurt the store’s poor and minority shoppers.

“... Liberal groups that thronged North Carolina’s Capitol over the summer to protest the General Assembly’s abrupt rightward swing are trying to keep the momentum going with holiday pickets at Mr. Pope’s stores across the state. More than a dozen are planned in coming days, including five this weekend." Read more here.

COLUMN: Rob Christensen writes that the War on Art Pope is part of the silly season in N.C. politics. Read more here.

PHIL BERGER JR HAD UNKNOWN AUDIO SYSTEM: From WFMY News -- It only lasted for two weeks but for some -- two weeks was too long. WFMY News 2 is just learning that in 2011, Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger, Jr. had audio from court proceedings broadcast into his office for two weeks.

“Court proceedings were aired in multiple locations at the old Rockingham County Courthouse but the system was not brought to the new courthouse. Most court employees, even those that oversaw construction plans, did not know Berger had an audio system in his office.

“After it was discovered, Resident Superior Court Judge Richard Stone and Chief District Court Judge Frederick Wilkins, Jr. signed an administrative order disabling Berger's audio system.” Read more here.

MORE QUICK HITS ---

YEAR AFTER SANDY HOOK: NC gun control advocates swim upstream. Read more here.

GROUP WANTS TO JOIN LAWSUIT: Judicial Watch wants to intervene in elections lawsuit to support state laws. Read more here.

STATE SCHOOL BOARD: Studies virtual charter schools. Read more here.

FEDS QUESTION NC: Payments for mental health at issue. Read more here.

CANDIDATE CENSURED: State Bar reprimands Charlotte congressional candidate. Read more here.

CITIZEN-TIMES: Gets a new top editor. Read more here.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: On the possum drop tradition in Brasstown. Read more here.

POLITIFACT NAMES OBAMA STATEMENT AS LIE OF THE YEAR: The fact-checking website named the “if you like it you can keep it” health care statement from President Obama as it’s lie of the year. U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan made the same claim repeatedly. Read more here.

529 TAX BREAK TO EXPIRE: Greg Wilcox said a major factor in his family’s decision to open the North Carolina 529 savings accounts was the state tax deduction on contributions. “If it wasn’t for the tax deduction, we would probably have found another way to save,” he said. But at the end of the year, the state tax deduction is expiring, meaning thousands of parents like Wilcox are re-evaluating their options.

It is one of roughly 40 tax breaks being eliminated under a sweeping new tax law approved by Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led legislature this year that will lower personal and corporate income taxes. Read more here.

REMEMBERING JAMES BULLOCK: Bullock died last month at 93, and it was only in the past few decades that he spoke much about his experiences in the war. He was more known for the career he had with the state, working as senior deputy attorney general for 24 years, a career that spanned five attorneys general. Yet his time in the military informed the rest of his life, his family said. Far from the gruff, stoic Marine stereotype, he was known for simply wanting to help and take care of people. Read more here.

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