News: CJ Exclusives

CJ politics week in review, Oct. 5-9

From left, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Democrat Cal Cunningham, and moderator David Crabtree at the first Senate debate sponsored by WRAL News Sept. 14, 2020. (WRAL News screenshot)
From left, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Democrat Cal Cunningham, and moderator David Crabtree at the first Senate debate sponsored by WRAL News Sept. 14, 2020. (WRAL News screenshot)

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.

Cunningham investigation: The U.S. Army Reserve Command is investigating U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham after news broke the Democrat had an affair with a military veteran’s wife, the News & Observer reported. Text messages between Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist, show they were engaged in an affair as recently the summer. Cunningham, a Reserve officer, is married with children. Adultery is a violation of the Universal Code of Military Justice. Cunningham could face charges depending on whether he was on active duty at the time of the affair. The Democratic Senate candidate has apologized for the affair. He says he won’t drop out of the race. Cunningham is running against incumbent GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in one of the most expensive Senate elections in the country.

ECU poll: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is leading President Trump by four points in a new poll from East Carolina University Center for Survey Research. The poll surveyed 1,232 likely N.C. voters Oct. 2-4. The credibility interval is plus or minus 3.2%. Of those surveyed, 46% of respondents said they would vote for Trump;  50% said Biden. Trump won North Carolina in the 2016 presidential race against Hillary Clinton by nearly 4%. Also in the poll, Tillis leads Cunningham, 46%-45%, and Gov. Roy Cooper leads Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, 53%-40%.

Reopen schools resolution: The Harnett County Board of Education passed a resolution calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to allow the school district to return all students to the classroom. Harnett students and their families have suffered hardships from the school closures, the board said. Cooper needs to provide families with the opportunity to return to in-classroom instruction full-time, Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, said in a news release. “The Governor’s refusal to do so because of political pressure from the far-left [N.C. Association of Educators] will widen education disparities,” Burgin said. Health experts have warned that students may never recover from keeping schools closed, the senator said.

Entering the digital age: Relying on paper records put North Carolina’s COVID-19 death data behind most of the nation. The state couldn’t fully calculate deaths from COVID-19 and the fallout of the shutdowns. New York City’s deaths from all causes spiked 663% for the week ending April 11, while deaths jumped 41% across the U.S., compared to the same period in previous years. But North Carolina’s data runs months behind, and it still didn’t have that data during July. The General Assembly paid for an electronic system in 2015, but the state won’t have a fully functioning system before June 2021. The state Department of Health and Human Services will begin the staggered rollout of its electronic system on Oct. 19. 

Lacking harmony: The Catherine H. Barber Memorial Shelter can’t build a private homeless shelter in North Wilkesboro. A local dentist offered to donate his office to the shelter, but the town’s Board of Adjustment rejected an application for a zoning permit, saying the shelter lacked “harmony” with the community. The national nonprofit Institute for Justice is suing on behalf of the Barber Shelter. Institute for Justice attorney Diana Simpson says “there is not a ‘harmony exception’ to the Constitution’s protection of private property.”

Build NC bonds: After months of cash problems, the Department of Transportation will get a cash injection. The Council of State approved $700 million in Build N.C. Bonds during the Tuesday, Oct. 6, meeting. The bonds were approved despite the department’s problems with cash management. The department overspent its budget by $742 million in 2019, a state audit report found. It had to freeze 900 projects last summer — upsetting the transportation industry and triggering layoffs. The legislature bailed the department out, but the pandemic took another $300 million chunk out of its coffers. State Treasurer Dale Folwell announced the DOT signed a memorandum “to prevent the evisceration of the Highway Trust Fund.” The bond will fill the responsibility the state has to road users, taxpayers, and vendors who’ve suffered because of overspending at the transportation department, Folwell said. 

State Health Plan Savings: North Carolina’s State Health Plan shaved $3 billion from its unfunded liabilities. A new contract with Humana is expected to save $1 billion over the next five years. That’s good news for taxpayers and state employees who are both on the hook for a $31.6 billion unfunded liability. “We’ve lowered the future cost of health care,” Folwell said during his monthly “Ask Me Anything” teleconference. “Now the hard part begins.” Folwell says he will announce bundled prices for surgeries to push price transparency forward. His Clear Pricing Project opened provider enrollment despite opposition from hospitals. Folwell said, “The hospitals that have cartelized the health care in North Carolina, are they knocking down our door? No.”