Under the Dome

May 23, 2014

Morning Memo: Kay Hagan won’t call for VA secretary to resign, but others will

UPDATED: Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan issued a statement Thursday about the turmoil at the Veteran Affairs department, but she stopped short of calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation.

UPDATED: Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan issued a statement Thursday about the turmoil at the Veteran Affairs department, but she stopped short of calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation.

Hagan said the reports of improper scheduling that lead to “life-threatening” delays in care for veterans were unacceptable and an investigation was needed. Earlier this month, she said an inquiry was needed.

But she has refrained from pointing the finger at Shinseki even as other leaders – including her Republican opponent Thom Tillis and even Democrats – are joining the chorus asking him to resign.

Laura Fjeld, a Democratic congressional candidate in the 6th District, issued a statement Thursday saying “President Obama needs to hold Secretary Shinseki to account for the miserable state of the care and treatment of our country’s veterans. Secretary Shinseki’s termination now will send the strong message that we as a nation do not tolerate a bureaucracy that fails our veterans.”

“This shouldn’t be about partisan politics; it’s about respecting and taking care of our veterans,” she added.

North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, both Republicans, also have demanded Shinseki step down.

In her statement, Hagan said that she had “personally been in direct communication with the VA in recent days regarding the investigations at the Durham VA clinic and elsewhere and will continue working to ensure full transparency and accountability in the process.”

She also said she had been pressing the VA to address the backlog of disability claims at its Winston-Salem office, and that additional employees had been sent in to help with the work.

Tillis, who called for Shinseki’s resignation days earlier, issued a statement hours earlier criticizing Hagan’s silence on the current controversy.

“Evidence is mounting that the gross mismanagement and subsequent cover-ups at Veteran Affairs facilities are even more widespread than originally thought,” Tillis said in a statement. He said Hagan was “refusing to hold the Obama administration accountable, even when its failures are obvious to all.”

President Barack Obama Wednesday said those responsible for misconduct would be punished. He said he trusted Shinseki.

Reports that veterans on a secret wait list died while waiting for care at a VA hospital in Phoenix should prompt the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to oversight hearings, Burr, the committee’s ranking Republican said Thursday.

The VA inspector general’s office is investigating the reports of delays for care in Phoenix and 26 other VA facilities. Federal auditors were at the Durham VA Medical Center last week as part of the nationwide investigation, and two workers there were put on administrative leave while the agency investigates claims of improper scheduling.

Burr and the other Republican members of the Veterans Affairs committee said in a statement that they’d requested oversight hearings since the beginning of 2013, but none has taken place. They said topics the committee should investigate include the Veterans Health Administration, the quality of VA health care, the agency’s treatment of whistleblowers and the integrity of its data.

“It is critical that the Committee begin to conduct aggressive oversight to fully understand the problems that the Department of Veterans Affairs faces today. Many of these problems have already been identified through numerous reports by the Government Accountability Office, the VA Office of Inspector General, and the Office of Special Counsel,” the statement said.

Burr said the recent VA scandal shows the need for “vigorous oversight.”

“It is our mission as a committee to provide oversight and yet the Chairman has chosen to ignore requests for hearings. My fellow minority members and I hope that this letter will be heard and acted on swiftly,” he said.

*** Get the final word on North Carolina politics before the Memorial Day weekend below in the Dome Morning Memo, which will return Tuesday. ***

TODAY IN POLTICS: Gov. Pat McCrory will join cigarette maker Reynolds American for a 9:30 a.m. economic development announcement in Tobaccoville. More here.

The state House will hold a skeleton, no-vote session at 9 a.m. and the Senate the same at 9:30 a.m. Behind the scenes, the Senate is putting the final touches on its budget proposal. The lawmaking resumes Tuesday after the holiday.

U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will visit North Carolina on Friday to highlight the SKILLS Act in a roundtable with Republicans members of the state’s delegation, Patrick McHenry, Robert Pittenger and Virginia Foxx.

The event will take place at 11 a.m. at the Siemens facility in Charlotte.

#NCSEN --- The headlines from the U.S. Senate campaign trail.

SPANISH LANGUAGE RADIO ADS CRITICIZE TILLIS: A civil rights group aligned with liberal causes is running Spanish-language radio ads against Republican Thom Tillis in North Carolina.

“As a mom, a woman, a Hispanic, I do not support Republican Thom Tillis,” the English translation reads. “And I never will. Because I will never support a person that cuts public education funds and reduces social spending on health. Who does this gentleman think he is?” (Hear English and Spanish version.)

People for the American Way is behind the effort, which will air for one week on stations in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte. A spokeswoman declined to say how much it was spending on the ad campaign, but acknowledged plans to run them two weeks were scaled back.

The spot doesn’t mince words. The kicker: “And Republican Thom Tillis is against everything that’s important for Hispanic families. Starting with a better future for our kids. And if he’s against that, I’m against him. As easy as that!”

Latino voters make up 2 percent of registered North Carolina voters.

HAGAN ENDORSEMENT: The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund endorsed Democrat Kay Hagan on Thursday. “Senator Kay Hagan is committed to protecting public health and the environment for future generations, including supporting commonsense solutions to tackle climate disruption,” said LCV Action Fund President Gene Karpinski in a statement. “She also works hard to make America a leader in clean energy, because she knows that it will create jobs and grow the renewable energy economy while reducing our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. We were proud to endorse her in 2008, and we are proud to endorse her again today.”

HEADLINES -- Politico: GOP’s task is to crush it, then court it. Read more here. NYT: North Carolina not on top Dem donor’s list. Read more here. Washington Post: 16 races have already seen more than $1 million in outside spending in 2014. Read more here. Washington Post: Obama re-emerges as fundraiser in chief. Read more here.

#NCGA --- A roundup of news from the N.C. General Assembly.

SENATE REPUBLICANS USE PROCEDURAL MOVES TO BLOCK DEMOCRATS: Republicans batted down five attempts from Democrats to rewrite provisions in the bill. Flexing the GOP’s power in the chamber, Sen. Tom Apodaca, a key Republican from Hendersonville, employed a procedural tactic – substituting his amendments for those offered by Democrats – to kill three of the amendments before they could even be voted on. Read more here.

SENATE APPROVES FRACKING BILL: Thursday’s 36-11 vote followed a Wednesday vote to lift the moratorium. But on Thursday, the Senate agreed to make the bill more palatable to fracking skeptics.

A proposed penalty for disclosing fracking chemicals deemed trade secrets was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Senators also agreed to require that fracking operators have a bond for at least $1 million to protect the state and its residents against accidents and other potential damage. Read more here.

BILL TARGETS FAT N.C. PENSIONS: State legislation filed Thursday aims to prevent highly paid state and local employees from using the retirement system to spike their pensions as they near retirement.

The legislation comes after The News & Observer revealed how four community colleges boosted the salaries of their longtime presidents by converting housing allowances, annuity payments and travel pay into salary money that could add as much as $50,000 to their annual pensions. Read more here.

N.C. SENATOR STANDS BY LETTER TO TEACHER -- From the Statesville Record & Landmark: N.C. Sen. David Curtis, who represents Mooresville and much of Iredell County, says he was surprised by the firestorm triggered by a volatile email he sent a Charlotte public school teacher – but doesn’t regret doing so. ...

In fact, he said many of his colleagues in Raleigh have told him they agreed with him. “One positive is that this has increased my stature with the legislature,” Curtis told the Mooresville Tribune. “At least 40 legislators have told me ‘What you said was right on the money.’ ”

Still, he said, “I never dreamed it would stir up this much controversy. This has been quite a learning experience for me.” Read more here.

SEN. GOOLSBY ORDERED TO STOP MAKING INVESTMENT ADVICE -- From the Wilmignton Star-News: State Sen. Thom Goolsby and a business associate have been ordered to stop offering investment advice in North Carolina for at least 10 years.

As part of a consent order, the investment adviser registrations of the firm Empowered Investor, Goolsby and James Daryl Upham were revoked, according to the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.

The order was issued after Secretary of State’s Division of Securities investigators found the company, Goolsby and Upham marketed an investment strategy they termed the “10-20-50 Plan.” Read more here.

PAUL O’CONNOR -- LAWMAKERS AIM FOR SHORT SESSION: Most North Carolinians probably don’t give two thoughts about the length of a short session. But session length has real-life implications, especially this year.

Why might they adjourn early this June? Two reasons: Politics and politics. Read more here.

#NCPOL --- More political news from North Carolina.

FINAL EARLY VOTING NUMBERS: The State Board of Election certified the election results Tuesday and released final numbers on voting.

Voter turnout rose to 15.8 percent from 14.4 percent in 2010. Early voting, despite the shortened period, continues to grow in popularity to 25.8 percent of all ballots cast, compared to 19.7 percent in 2010, the most recent midterm election.

“Primaries play an increasingly decisive role in our democratic process, and we are encouraged to see greater participation,” said Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach in a statement.

July 15 runoffs will decide 19 contests in 37 counties. Early voting begins July 3.

ALSO -- From the board’s press release: The State Board unanimously denied the appeal of an elections protest filed by Bruce Davis, former candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional District. Board members also voted unanimously to reprimand Jerry Wallin of the Madison County Board of Elections regarding a Facebook “like” of a candidate’s page.

THE BIG STORY -- THE OTHER COAL ASH PROBLEM: Years before the accidental coal ash spill into the Dan River in February, the waste was being dumped into creeks, wetlands and vacant fields across the state.

Scores of private ash sites were originally proposed for legitimate construction use – such as building an airstrip or a parking lot – but the construction didn’t always take place. More than 70 ash sites statewide hold about 11 million cubic yards of ash, much of it used in building roads, parking lots and other projects.

But nearly a quarter of the waste sits at six of the largest sites, where about 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash lies in unlined pits, largely unmonitored for potential groundwater contamination.

Over the years the sites have been cited by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources with violations for creating dust clouds, for being placed too close to water sources, and for ash erosion into water drainage areas. At one site the ash was dumped into a wetland area.

As public officials grapple with a solution to safe coal ash storage, the focus has largely been on the future of the 33 ash pits and ponds at power plant facilities that are contaminating nearby groundwater. These sites are operated by Charlotte-based Duke Energy and its Raleigh-based subsidiary, Duke Energy Progress, formerly called Progress Energy.

But at the 70-plus ash sites throughout the state, many on private property in eastern North Carolina, are also drawing attention after years of neglect. Even where the ash was used as “structural fill” – to level roadways, for road beds and to stabilize soil under buildings – the concern doesn’t go away. Read more here.

RELATED: Duke Energy, EPA sign Dan River cleanup agreement. Read more here. Duke Energy shareholders sue over coal ash. Read more here.

STORY TO WATCH -- GOVERNOR’S BUDGET PROPOSAL MAKES BIG CHANGES TO FILM INCENTIVES -- From the Star-News: Gov. Pat McCrory seeks drastic changes to North Carolina’s film incentives program, according to his budget proposal that was filed in the Senate late Thursday. ...

The governor’s proposal replaces that 25 percent rebate with several separate credits and tax exemptions for expenses. It would reimburse state corporate sales and gas taxes, credit 5.3 percent of wage expenses and credit 4 percent of payments for services from out-of-state businesses and 5 percent from in-state businesses.

Counties also would have the option to reimburse their local sales taxes to the production companies. McCrory’s proposal also lowers the rebate cap to $6 million and requires at least $1 million in qualified spending. Read more here.

A SIGN ABOUT N.C.’S NEW REPUTATION: Environment and Energy Daily, an industry trade publication from Washington, debuted the first story in an occasional series titled “Turning Carolina Red,” a look at “a state in political turmoil.” The first headline: Wrenching political change comes to N.C., and energy is part of the struggle. Read it here.

STUMPED EARLIER THIS WEEK, CLAY AIKEN TRIES AGAIN ON VA -- From Politico: North Carolina Democratic House hopeful Clay Aiken put the blame of the Veterans Affairs scandal on President Barack Obama, calling the VA “unwieldy” and “very mismanaged.”

“I certainly think the president is responsible for it at the end of the day,” Aiken said. “He is the Commander-in-Chief of the military, he is the executive. The buck has to stop with him.”

These comments to CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on Wednesday came shortly after the president held a press conference addressing the outrage surrounding health care delays for veterans. Aiken’s brother is a Iraq veteran and the House hopeful is running in a district largely populated by veterans. It also came after Aiken took flack for saying he wasn’t paying close attention to the issue days earlier. Read more here.

QUICK LOOK --- More headlines from across the state.

N.C. DOT says tolls are coming to state roads. Read more here.

Chiquita CEO leaves door open to repayment of state incentives. Read more here.

Roy Cooper talks coal ash, GOP. Read more here.

N.C. pension funds gain 2.4 percent. Read more here.

This post has been updated to add more details about the VA controversy.

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