RALEIGH — In the 2004 election cycle, county commissions across North Carolina featured some competitive and telling races. The results were mixed. Overall, Democrats improved their fortunes with a net gain in partisan control of three county commissions. Six counties went from Republican to Democratic majorities: Lenoir, Mecklenburg, Wayne, Rockingham, Watauga, and Yancey. In two of those places, Mecklenburg and Watauga, well-financed and organized efforts to register new Democratic voters and get them out to the polls seem to have played a key role in upending Republican majorities, as reported in Charlotte’s Creative Loafing newspaper.
RALEIGH — During the 2004 legislative short session 21 public bills and five local education bills passed. As the opening day of the General Assembly’s long session approaches Jan. 26, 2005, observers of the legislative process can expect hundreds of bills to be written. But which ones will get passed? Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the N.C. Education Alliance, says, “Only those with political clout even get introduced into committee, much less get passed on the floor and signed off on by the governor.” The Leandro decision on school equity will play a huge role in education legislation for 2005, Kakadelis said.
RALEIGH — Mass-transit advocates claim that light rail reduces pollution and congestion, but new evidence indicates that this may not be the case. In recent studies of Dallas, Denver, and other cities, economist Randal O’Toole notes that proposed light-rail plans would actually increase nitrous oxide emissions while increasing costs. The city of San Jose has come up with a more cost-effective means of reducing pollution and congestion — by spending $1 million on synchronizing traffic lights along one of the city’s busiest streets. Other new studies on local government address inner-city employment and growth controls.
RALEIGH — All three of the North Carolina counties with the worst crash statistics on state roads in 2002 remained the most dangerous for traffic deaths, traffic injuries, and property damage crashes in 2003, according to AAA Carolinas. New Hanover County, for the fifth straight year, was the county with the greatest chance, per mile driven, for total collisions and injury collisions. For the second consecutive year, the greatest chance for dying in a traffic crash was in rural Graham County, which was also the most dangerous for motorcycle collisions. Statewide, highway fatalities dropped 1.3 percent, to 1,552 deaths for 2003.
RALEIGH — State lawmakers are reportedly planning to discuss an expensive program next year to respond to the Leandro case, but many appear to be operating under misperceptions about school-funding disparities and what the state constitution requires, according to a new report published by the John Locke Foundation. It showed that urban, suburban, small-town, and rural counties actually differ little in their total spending per student, and that higher local spending by urban and suburban systems acts to narrow real resource disparities by compensating for higher living costs — and thus higher hiring costs — in those counties.
RALEIGH — North Carolina law often grants state environmental agencies a great deal of discretion in determining whether to issue a permit for a specific activity. A recent N.C. Court of Appeals decision highlights that state courts will ordinarily not second-guess regulators even if a different weighing of factors might produce a different result. Under state law, wrote Judge Robin Hudson for the court, “the agency has broad discretion both to determine what factors to consider and how to weigh those factors.” Although regulators could have reached other conclusions, she continued, “we see no violation of the statute here.”
CHARLOTTE — Two North Carolina communities face different challenges downtown. Greensboro’s center city, after years of decline, recently has become an after-hours hot spot. With the new-found popularity has come increased vandalism, with which the city is dealing. Chapel Hill, meanwhile, faces the opposite problem: a flagging downtown with fewer visitors and businesses. A new public-private plan to help revitalize the center city is encountering unexpected difficulties before construction begins. In other local news, Gaston voters said no last month to a sales-tax hike, while Charlotteans face worsening street conditions.
RALEIGH — The Golden LEAF Foundation stopped funding equestrian parks this year, at least temporarily, but instead it found several other tourism-related projects in North Carolina worthy of support in its annual round of grants. The foundation’s board determined that more than $1.5 million should assist community plans to develop local tourist attractions. It funded several off-the-beaten-path projects, including $135,000 to aid Jackson County in “the transformation of the closed…landfill into a regional center for the growth of the arts and crafts community, the local agriculture and native botanical industry, and heritage tourism based on the region’s long history of craft excellence.”
RALEIGH — High-speed police chases are dangerous affairs, involving substantial risk to the lives of those fleeing, pursuing police officers, and innocent bystanders unlucky enough to be in the area. In a case decided Dec. 7, a panel of judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that a fleeing driver can be put on trial for second-degree murder if a pursuing officer dies in a crash during a chase. The case is the first time a North Carolina appellate court has considered the propriety of a murder charge in an accident involving a sober driver.
RALEIGH — Gov. Mike Easley and State Senate leader Marc Basnight are at odds over the ownership of property adjacent to the Currituck County Airport. Basnight and Currituck officials contend the airport site comprises 535 acres, and cite a budget provision to argue that the entire property be donated. Easley’s position is that the airport area is much smaller. He originally offered Currituck 160 acres. In his position, Basnight relies on the claim that the 535-acre tract was surplus property given to the state by the federal government after World War II, But records show the land wasn’t owned by Washington, leaving Easley free to define the airport’s size.
RALEIGH — North Carolina students performed better than expected on nationally standardized tests, according to a new study that ranks states and students by a “teachability index.” The report seeks to separate the effects of being disadvantaged from the effects of education reform and spending. Nationally, the authors show that students are “somewhat more teachable now than they were in 1970,” a gain of just under 9 percent. North Carolina has not fared so well in student teachability. Roughly speaking, the index estimates that NC students are about 14 percent more difficult to teach now than they were in 1970.
RALEIGH — The study of Western civilization used to be a rite of passage for the university-educated. Now it is an afterthought at best, consigned to the shadows of the curriculum as universities pursue trendy multiculturalism. And the reaction to a proposal to bring Western civilization back shows how feared the liberating study is by campus radicals. In North Carolina, 36 percent of the 11 UNC schools surveyed still require a course in Western history or Western civilization. But about 64 percent require a multicultural or cultural diversity course. A recent study declared this finding “at best a sign of interest in non-Western cultures, but all too often an exercise in politically correct ‘education.’”
KERNERSVILLE — The best prospect for a solution to North Carolina’s medical liability “crisis” may be to wait and see whether President Bush will be able to force some action out of Congress. Although national tort reform legislation would no doubt come as a relief to many, it would also represent a radical departure from federalist principles. States have traditionally had a great deal of discretion over tort laws, including medical liability. “The issue is whether we are going to become a progressive state — or one that addresses the liability issue after it begins impacting people’s access to health care,” said Bob Seligson of the North Carolina Medical Society.
RALEIGH — If a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that disallows certain Ohio tax breaks withstands possible Supreme Court scrutiny, incentives such as those offered by North Carolina to Dell Corp. would likely be struck down as well, according to a law professor involved in the case. Peter Enrich successfully led the lawsuit on behalf of taxpayers and three small businesses against DaimlerChrysler, the State of Ohio, and the City of Toledo. He argued that the tax incentives violated the interstate commerce clause of the US Constitution. On Thursday, he compared the Ohio deal to the tax credits offered to Dell to locate a plant in the Triad.
RALEIGH — An average of 93 miles a year of North Carolina highways have slipped into the “poor pavement” category since 1998, according to a new study of regional road conditions, with hurricanes and state policies contributing to the problem. “Clearly, North Carolina is losing the battle on road conditions,” said study author David Hartgen. Road conditions varied widely. In 2004, the percentage of poor pavement varied from a low of 0 percent in Yancey County to a high of 27 percent in Ashe County. “Inequalities this large are unacceptable,” Hartgen said. “We would act immediately if we found these differences in school or health programs.”
HICKORY — Hickory’s second attempt at offering incentives to attract airline service to the city has failed. The carrier that Hickory had reached a tentative agreement with in May, Southeast Airlines, ceased operations Tuesday before flights to the city could begin. Under the tentative agreement, Hickory would have provided $450,000 toward advertising, to pay customer-service and ramp staff to handle the flights, and pay for infrastructure improvements at the airport. Southeast would have flown to St. Petersburg, Fla. from Hickory. City officials were hopeful that the airline might have added other destinations in the future.
RALEIGH — North Carolina, like other states, is currently considering important modifications to its Common Law of tort, and especially to that subset of tort known as medical malpractice. This is because malpractice insurance premiums for North Carolina physicians are apparently increasing at a rapid rate, which allegedly imperils the quality of medical care for North Carolinians. Proponents of tort reform insist that such reform is the only way to ensure that quality medical care remains affordable in the Tarheel State. Opponents of tort reform respond that fluctuations in interest rates, and the “insurance cycle” in general, account for premium changes, and that tort reform would imperil the health of North Carolinians by “subsidizing” negligent physicians.
RALEIGH — Eastern NC Natural Gas is winding down its pipeline-construction project in 14 Northeastern counties with an ambitious underground crossing of Currituck Sound. But it is not clear how many Outer Banks customers are eager to convert from their present energy suppliers to natural gas. Demand for natural gas in the entire region has not progressed as much as company officials had hoped — there are only about 800 customers in the northeast so far. Gas service infrastructure is usually not built unless new customers are able to pay for the new lines.The Northeast project received $188 million in bonds to be paid off by state taxpayers.
RALEIGH — Taxpayers have a right to a remedy for any erroneous and unlawful tax collection. The legal requirement in challenging a tax collection, however, must be precisely followed. In a Nov. 16 decision, the N.C. Court of Appeals clarified how corporations may go about challenging taxes. The state has two tax review panels. The first is the regular Tax Review Board. Its three members hear appeals of decisions of the secretary of revenue. The second is the Augmented Tax Review Board — the three panelists of the first plus the secretary of revenue — which considers petitions from corporate taxpayers for use of alternate allocation formulas in determining tax bases for income taxes.
RALEIGH — Many cities use tax incentives and other gimmicks to attract large companies with the hope of spurring economic growth. However, a recent study indicates that these large firms may not boost growth, and in fact, may merely displace other businesses. Similarly, advocates of sports subsidies claim that tax-funded stadiums benefit communities by providing jobs and attracting sales revenue from out-of-towners. Numerous studies show that public benefits have not materialized. One found that in 12 metro areas, sports-team venues did not contribute to net employment. Another concluded found that pro sports franchises had no effect on income growth.
CHARLOTTE — Come perhaps a decade from now, virtually no new roads will be built on new sites in North Carolina. This was among the policy changes contained in the Statewide Transportation Plan, a radical revision of the Department of Transportation’s priorities recently approved by the Board of Transportation. “The bottom line is that NCDOT’s currently available resources simply cannot address all of the state’s transportation investment needs,” the agency notes. It is unclear what assumptions and value judgments the DOT used to arrive at its needs estimates or how rigorous the analytical process was. And that exactly is the problem, said one transportation analyst.