Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed. Here’s this week’s review:
Bond proposal: House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, wants a $3.1-billion bond for education and transportation needs. Reps. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes; Michael Wray, D-Northampton; and John Torbett, R-Gaston, joined Moore in sponsoring House Bill 1225, the Education and Transportation Bond Act of 2020. Under the bill, $1.5 billion would go to the N.C. Department of Transportation, $800 million is for K-12 public schools, $600 million is for the University of North Carolina system, and $200 million is for the state’s community colleges. “North Carolina is in a strong position to leverage our smart financial management now to invest in the future of our state’s economic connectivity and educational success,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
DOT, auditor, treasurer, still at odds: State Treasurer Dale Folwell wants to see the N.C. Department of Transportation’s budget and financial oversight move to the Office of State Budget Management. But OSBM Budget Director Charles Perusse doesn’t want it. The two spoke to a Senate oversight committee May 28. An audit report showed DOT overspent its budget by $742 million in fiscal 2018-19. Meanwhile, state Auditor Beth Wood told the committee she’s investigating how the DOT’s internal auditors have failed to produce an audit since 2016. She seemed to support Folwell’s position.
RNC ping-pong: The Trump re-election campaign and Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration traded volleys this week over the fate of the Aug. 24-27 nominating convention, set for Charlotte. In a series of Memorial Day tweets, the president said he needed assurance the convention would take place with “full attendance,” or it would move elsewhere. State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen asked the Republican National Committee to provide written safety plans for holding the convention under several scenarios. RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel responded with a letter listing a few safety precautions, including making antibacterial gel widely available to attendees and aggressively sanitizing the Spectrum Center. Cohen wrote back Friday, May 29, suggesting the plans weren’t good enough. Officials in Georgia and Florida have said they’d be happy to host the convention if Charlotte won’t come through.
Athletics cuts: North Carolina colleges are cutting sports and reducing operating budgets to save money as COVID-19 continues to threaten funding. Appalachian State announced May 26 it’s reducing its operating budget and cutting men’s soccer, men’s tennis, and men’s indoor track and field. App State saves $5 million from the move. Scholarships for affected students will be honored, the Watauga Democrat reported. Last week, Eastern Carolina University cut men’s and women’s swimming and men’s and women’s tennis. ECU is eliminating vacant positions, cutting operations in the athletics department, and more, to save $4.9 million. “The fallout from COVID-19 has affected every revenue stream for our department, and we must take immediate action and implement cost-saving measures to address the mounting financial challenges,” Jon Gilbert, ECU director of athletics, said in a statement.
N.C. Farm Bill: North Carolina’s 2019 farm bill may find new life in a House and Senate agreement, but it won’t include some controversial provisions forcing it to stall last year. Members of both chambers have finally agreed, Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, announced this week. Senate Bill 315 ran into some roadblocks when the House and Senate disagreed about whether to ban smokable hemp. The new version of the bill leaves out all mention of the issue, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, told The Insider, citing confusion over new federal rules for the hemp industry. A vote on the bill isn’t scheduled.
Harassment complaint: Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, has accused several of her legislative colleagues of harassment and bullying. The News & Observer and Pro Publica broke the story, which found Smith had filed an ethics complaint in April accusing Sen. Milton F. “Toby” Fitch Jr., D-Wilson, and Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, of sexual harassment. Smith accuses Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, of verbal abuse and bullying. The complaint details an alleged simple assault between Lowe and Smith after a verbal dispute, which came after the controversial Sept. 11, 2019, budget veto override in the House. “Although no physical contact took place, it is my understanding that Senator Smith feared for her safety, thus changing her course of action due to the behavior of Senator Lowe,” said Lt. Francisco Flores Jr., the investigating officer. No charges were filed. Smith’s complaint includes a bullying allegation against Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph. The Legislative Ethics Committee dismissed parts of Smith’s complaint behind closed doors last week, the N&O reported. Fitch, Woodard, and Lowe are members of the committee, though they recused themselves from hearing the complaint.
Show me the data: N.C. Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, on Friday, May 29, issued a news release asking Gov. Roy Cooper “to show the science, facts, and data underlying his opposition to a bill to expand outdoor seating options for restaurants and bars, which other states have embraced.” On May 28, the N.C. General Assembly, passed a bill to reopen private bars and clubs, as well as expanding outdoor seating in restaurants and brewpubs, is awaiting a decision from the governor. The move would bring restaurants close to 100% capacity. Cooper has signaled he would veto the measure.
“Cooper has permitted restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and wineries to operate, but he has not allowed for expanded outdoor seating and he treats bars differently than every other business in the industry,” Gunn says. Gunn called out Democratic Sen. Wiley Nickel, who, as reported by Carolina Journal, revealed publicly on the Senate floor, according to the release, “that this is just about ‘power for the governor.’”