Tuesday, November 24, 2015

El Sol Meets Mr. Monopoly

The power of monarchy includes within it the seeds of oligarchy.  Kings, emperors, tsars, khans, warlords of all stripes have been surrounded by courtiers.  Often these courtiers have been able to secure exclusive franchises for themselves-valuable monopoly rights they used to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. 

Thomas Jefferson asserted that the British Crown's use of its power to parcel out and divide up territories and assign rule over them by court favorites was a terrific abuse of power.  Jefferson wrote: "Accordingly that country, which had been acquired by the lives, the labours, and the fortunes, of individual adventurers, was by these princes, at several times, parted out and distributed among the favourites and followers of their fortunes, and, by an assumed right of the crown alone, were erected into distinct and independent governments; a measure which it is believed his majesty's prudence and understanding would prevent him from imitating at this day, as no exercise of such a power, of dividing and dismembering a country, has ever occurred in his majesty's realm of England, though now of very antient standing; nor could it be justified or acquiesced under there, or in any other part of his majesty's empire."  -Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

North Carolina’s founders well understood the dangers of granting monopoly power and concessions to "favourites." Having observed these abuses under the Lords Proprietors, the founders sought to abolish monopolies and emouluments.  North Carolina’s Constitution states that monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free state and are banned.  By law, monopolies are only lawful in North Carolina to the extent that they serve the public good.    

With great power comes great responsibility and the power to monopolize the power grid is gigantic.  Investor-owned utilities operating in North Carolina’s regulated monopoly structure must serve the public interest, or their monopoly itself is unlawful.  Public utilities may enjoy monopoly privileges only in return for providing critical services to the public.

But courtiers expect to be able to cash in.  As the saying goes, membership has its privileges.

church in Greensboro decided to cut its power bills and practice Christian stewardship by harnessing solar power produced by a local nonprofit. Duke Energy seriously overreacted by calling for a $120,000 fine against the nonprofit NC WARN as reward for its efforts to promote solar energy access. As we look to a resolution, North Carolina’s Utilities Commission should balance the public interest in favor of energy choice. Monopolies always guard their privileges and the Utilities Commission must advocate for the public’s interest and protect it from monopoly power.
North Carolina’s Utilities Commission must balance the public interest in favor of energy choice and against monopolistic investor returns when those two interests conflict.  

NC WARN is not seeking to exercise a monopoly privilege.  Faith Community Church is only trying to serve its mission of stewardship.  Duke Energy should leave them alone and get back to serving the public.  Duke Energy’s official and press responses include calling for fines and injunctions from the Utilities Commission, quite an imperious demand.  If its request is granted, the Utilities Commission's impartiality must be called 

Duke Spokesperson Randy Wheless pointed out in a recent letter  that 3,000 of Duke Energy’s customers have solar installations connected to its grid.  That grid is a form of monopoly, sanctioned under North Carolina law as a bargain: the utility is given a monopoly over its franchise area in exchange for the utility providing adequate and reliable services to North Carolinians at reasonable rates.  NC WARN has not sought to take over that grid from Duke Energy.  All NC WARN has done is hook up an existing Duke Energy customer to the Sun.  Duke Energy still sells power to Faith Community Church, just less of it.

All North Carolina’s ratepayers benefit from efforts to reduce collective demand for power.  The most expensive policy for us is one which supports construction of unneeded plants.  Under North Carolina’s monopoly system, both the costs of constructing these plants and a healthy return on investment to utilities’ shareholders are passed along to customers.  Under a settlement Duke Energy’s shareholders were given a return on equity of 10.2% under the 2013 rate increase.  That meant for every dollar invested by Duke, another dime was added on to the total and the bill for the entire cost was sent on to ratepayers.

North Carolina’s monopoly system encourages public utilities to stimulate energy demand in order to justify plant construction.  Costs of fuel get passed on directly to consumers so the utilities have little incentive to worry about fuel cost.  Solar’s fuel-free charms are thus lost on a public utility, but are not lost on a nonprofit like NC WARN or a church like Faith Community Church.

Duke Energy’s coal ash spill costs are also likely to get passed along to all the ratepayers. They have not been exactly trumpeting that fact and legislators last session carefully dodged the question.  While the fines and penalties they paid for polluting our state are paid by the shareholders, the true cost of coal power is a legacy cost which is going to get passed along to all of us.  Coal is never clean and never has been. 

Duke Energy supports solar when they have a monopoly on selling power from it.  That way, they get to pass the construction cost and other markups along to consumers.  NC WARN and Faith Community Church are not selling electricity to the public, they are just contracting between themselves.  In so doing, they are reducing the demand from the church.  This is not lawless anarchy, but good Christian stewardship of the Earth.  Members of Faith Community Church have the right to start decreasing the demand for coal-fired power.  NC WARN should be able to help them.  Customers have the right to choose how to cut their power bills.  The Utilities Commission must represent the public interest and help customers reduce their demand.  Reducing peak demand saves money for all of us. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Plutonauts or Plutocrats? Whom shall we choose to lead our nation?

This week we are finally a nation of Plutonauts.  Americans have sent an object from Earth to Pluto and sent back startling images of that frozen ball's mountains rising 11,000 feet above its surface.  The New Horizons project was led by NASA with help from Johns Hopkins University, Cal Tech, University of Colorado, Southwest Research Institute, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the United States Postal Service, and a host of other American scientists and institutions.  But it almost did not happen, because of our broken American politics, dominated by plutocrats empowered by dog whistle politics.  

We have a stark choice presented by the news of this month: will we commit our country to exploring to build a brighter future or mining racism for political advantage of the wealthiest men in our society?

For all my life, I can say that the United States of America has been the dominant culture of exploration on planet Earth.  My earliest television memory was the 1969 moon landing.  I have been to Cape Kennedy, and loved the Air and Space Museum.  I watched with tear-stained eyes as Challenger fell in fiery pieces.  I have been a frequent watcher of Cosmos, a lover of the Big Blue Marble and Earthrise.  I love the Hubble’s pictures.  Yesterday, I marveled at pictures beamed back from beyond Neptune.  In my lifetime, our spacecraft have gone from orbiting the Earth to exploring our solar system.  There is no thing which America has accomplished of which I am more proud than these feats.   We are the only nation which has explored all the “planets” of our solar system. And yet, I know that most of my fellow Americans have no interest in the moon, the planets and the stars.  And who can blame them.

From all our screens, boxes and phones, the urgent daily news commands our attention.  A political appointee abuses his office.  War mongers fulminate.  Arms dealers cut checks.  Fanatics kill innocents.  Lobbyists legislate loopholes.  Courts favor the wealthy.  Social media raises up today’s new talent.  Tabloid journalists brings down yesterday’s old talent. News trucks chase senseless tragedies.

But the heavens call out to us.  When are you coming out here?  Are you going to spend all the Earth’s resources killing each other over the Earth’s resources? 

Brilliant American scientists like Fran Bagenal and David Stern have heard this call and responded, dedicating their life’s work to promoting space exploration.  They know that exploring space can teach us about life on Earth, and life beyond Earth.  As data from Pluto and beyond roll in over the next 15 months, Scientists will rewrite all that is known about the object formerly known as Planet X.  Named Pluto upon suggestion of 12 year old Venetia Burney from Oxford, England by the American astronomers who discovered it, it was recently demoted in status as dwarf planet.  But the new data shows that Pluto is over 760 miles across, it may be promoted to planet once again.

Whether Pluto is a planet or merely one of the largest of the heavenly host of dwarf planets swarming around the edge of our solar system is not my primary concern.  Whether you call them planets or dwarf planets, they are new worlds. The fact that we are set to explore them gives me hope for our future as a nation.  Reading the headlines from my daily newspaper give me the reverse feeling.

Today’s News and Observer covers the news from Pluto on page 9.  The front page lead article details efforts by North Carolina’s current legislative leaders to prevent Confederate Monuments from being removed without legislative approval.  Per the article, the purpose of the bill is to defend such monuments from “the fad of the moment.”  

“This bill has nothing to do with what’s happened with the Confederate flag, but I think that’s a good reason we need something like this – to stave off the flames of passion,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican who chaired Wednesday’s committee meeting. “This is why the General Assembly will still be able to remove or replace these items if necessary. We’re supposed to be ones who do not get caught up in the fad of the moment.”

Racism is no fad of the moment, but one of the defining features of America.  Calling out a racist society to change is no fad, it is the long arc of history which bends toward justice.  As a white man growing up in the United States of America, I have been given advantages by racism and sexism.  American sexism and racism was built into our Constitution and has persisted in our formal institutions long after we revised that document to reduce the fundamental hypocrisy of our founding.  While the Declaration we celebrated two weeks ago, declared that all men were created equal, the drafters of our Constitution compromised that principle.  

Rep. Speciale is wrong to argue that we should defend the “Silent Sams” from the flames of passion, because those statues were erected to fan racist passions and to secure the hold of Jim Crow over public spaces. In North Carolina, most of that Jim Crow work was done by the Democratic Party, with endorsement of the editorial pages of the News and Observer.  In 1898, the Old Reliable’s editorial cartoons were as racist as any KKK flyer from the 1960s, more so because they represented the views of the insurgent political party.  After an armed white mob overthrew the elected government of Wilmington in 1898, Silent Sams started popping up all over the place.  The one on UNC’s campus was installed in 1913, to the tune of Dixie played by the University Band.  Silent Sam kept watch to the North while UNC-CH remained open to white males only for decades.  A member of the UNC-CH faculty, Dr. William George, was a leader among the racist power structure which dominated the Old North State's economic and political life, including the Patriots of North Carolina. At its height, over 20,000 dues-paying members of this group dedicated to maintaining "racial purity" and fighting to maintain racial segregation were working to dismantle the progress being made nationally on civil rights.

Racism is the defining landscape of politics in North Carolina and throughout the United States for two centuries and counting. Bill Moyers was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson before becoming a journalist.  He wrote that shortly after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he told Moyers that the Act had delivered the South to the GOP for a generation.  His successor, President Richard Nixon, proved Johnson was unduly optimistic.  The Southern strategy was born and still is going strong after its fourth decade, and dog whistle politics continues to roll on along.  Which brings me to plutocrats.

Plutocrats long ago learned to use coded messages to garner political support from radicals while maintaining a face of public respectability could help them get people to vote against their own economic interests.  In the 1950 Democratic Primary for the North Carolina Senate, voters were given a flyer captioned "White People: Wake Up" which warned voters that Franklin Porter Graham favored "mingling of the races" and steered them to vote for Willis Smith because he would "uphold the traditions of the South."  

As Louis Rubin observed:
“Conversely, those who have flattered their self-esteem and confirmed them in their prejudices have been able to manipulate them to vote and act contrary to their own economic and political interests.  During the antebellum period the rank and file of the white population permitted the planter establishment to conduct the South’s national politics with a single-minded emphasis upon the protection of chattel slavery, even though their own economic interest was by no means best served by such protection. During the late 19th century the efforts of populist reformers were frustrated because the spectre of black domination was evoked to keep white voters from bolting the Democratic Party and supporting efforts to make the state governments responsive to the needs of disadvantaged agriculturalists.”     See “W.J. Cash After 50 Years” 

And Congress is in on this problem in a big way.  One simple way to empower the oil and gas plutocrats is to use political power to silence scientists in government agencies and cut off funding to research universities.  This experiment in plutocracy was the dominant political theme of Vice-President Dick Cheney's reign and has moved over to Congress, thanks to widespread gerrymandering.  Now the nation which won the race to space is throwing the victors under the bus, because the fossil fuel plutocracy is afraid of science.

There are no plutocrats supporting NASA.  Plutocrats love war.  Plutocrats incite racism. Plutocrats worship at the holy altar of consumerism and drive out any heretics from its temples.  War, consumerism and racism all tend to accumulate wealth and power in the hands of a few based on the work of the many.  Plutocracy is powerful so long as it can project an orthodox and dominant belief in scarcity as the defining principle.

Exploration has just the opposite effect as plutocracy.  When humans have discovered new frontiers, they find new resources.  Whenever they have explored, they have built better tools.  Whenever they have explored, they have proved the profound truth spoken by the great poet Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” 

The politics of our nation is held hostage to the plutocrats. Just as the plutocrats of Wilmington in 1898 employed dog whistle politics to take down a city government, modern plutocrats use dog whistle politics to claim our state houses and our Congress.  Our future as plutonauts was cast in doubt by the price tag of the mission.  When the budget swelled to just over 1 billion dollars, NASA cancelled the project.  In the end, the mission was accomplished for $720 million.

Now I certainly can understand that money is tight and that $720 million could help a lot of people, but while NASA was cutting corners, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was going on a buying spree.  They sought to buy 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition.  According to Fox News, the DHS proposal included efforts to buy hundreds of millions of expensive hollow point rounds, costing about $1.60 each, putting the ultimate ammo tab at more than $2.5 billion once the acquisition was finalized.  Rather than being appalled that we would spend so much taxpayer money on bullets, the plutocrats expressed concern that the U.S. Government was trying to corner the market.  In other words, the dog whistle went out that the Obama army was coming to take your guns away.  Rather than debating guns versus butter, the plutocrats raised support for guns to arm their supporters.

We have a choice as human beings.  When I first saw the picture of Earth taken by astronauts on Christmas Eve of 1968, I felt my heart leap into my throat.  There was the globe, defined as it had been made, by beauty.  The globe now resting on my desk is defined by war.  Are we going to follow the plutocrats, or the plutonauts?  Are we going to be a nation of war-mongers or explorers?  Led by plutocrats or Plutonauts?

As for me, I prefer the explorer path.  It leads us to see that we are more alike, than we are unalike.  America can lead the world in that direction, or it can lead the world to its destruction. 

Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best:  
Human Family by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.


Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Politics of Beauty Meets the Politics of Gerrymandering


Gerrymandering is not a new phenomenon in American politics.  Neither is giving away public assets to prop up profits of monopolists.  Both exemplify subtle threats to the American experiment in democracy.  And both so often coincide and combine that if you look behind every great theft of American democracy and its public assets, you find these two forces at work.  The claim that financial monopolists are "too big to fail" coupled with the reality that their officers are "too rich to jail" demonstrate the failure of our legislative branch to represent the will of the American People.  Instead of representing the public's will, our legislators and their enablers have become extremely proficient at picking their constituents very carefully.  As a result, the monopolists who fund their campaigns and bankroll the "dark money" organizations actually control legislative policy across a wide spectrum of issues.  

Nearly fifty years ago, North Carolina’s leaders played a pivotal role in seeking to protect our highways from visual blight posed by billboards and junkyards.  North Carolina’s former Governor Luther Hodges and its Highways chief, William F. Babcock helped bring Lady Bird Johnson’s vision into being.  Lady Bird saw our highways as the front yards of our communities and envisioned them as gardens rather than as billboard alleys. Chief Babcock expressed this vision eloquently, stating "the highway in a rural setting, should fit the landscape like a deer in the forest rather than a bull in the china shop.”  Our current political leadership is throwing out the welcome mat to the bull by seeking to undo the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and promote permanent, digital billboards in our communities.

Jacksonville North Carolina's local Dodge dealer is Senator Harry Brown  who introduced SB320 last month. This bill would restrict North Carolina’s ability to regulate the billboard industry and enable established billboard advertising firms to profit at the public’s expense. SB320 proposes that it is North Carolina’s job to foster billboards’ “visibility to the traveling public.” This declaration commits the State to making billboards more obtrusive and distracting, exactly the bull in the china shop which Chief Babcock opposed.   

The news is even worse for taxpayers regarding the costs of road construction.  Under SB320, the costs which NC DOT will have to pay a billboard owner if they need to remove a billboard to improve a road will skyrocket.  The billboard industry’s supporters have fought disclosing the industry’s true costs and benefits at every turn.  

The new billboard buyout formula in Section 7 mirrors the approach used by Clear Channel Communications in demanding more than $9 million from the Minnesota DOT as payment for removing billboards blocking the new bridge route from St. Paul’s Lafayette Bridge.  These demands were settled by paying $7.3 million for five billboards, with $4.3 million paying for a digital billboard.

  In Section 8, SB320 authorize existing billboards to be reconstructed as digital signs with changeable messages, wooden sign poles to be converted to steel monopoles, and sign height to be increased up to 80 feet. Also, existing billboards would be freely relocated to another site within the same zoning jurisdiction adjacent to a highway.  This will allow billboard companies to move and then rebuild existing small, unobtrusive billboards to be much more obtrusive and distracting to drivers.    

Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. opined that billboards are acts of aggression against which the public is entitled to be protected as a matter of privacy.  In 1968 Buckley wrote “If a homeowner desires to construct a huge Coca-Cola sign facing his own homestead rather than the public highway, in order to remind him, every time he looks out his window, that the time has come to pause and be refreshed, he certainly should be left free to do so.  But if he wants to face the sign toward us, that is something else, and the big name libertarian theorists should go to work demolishing the billboarders' abuse of the argument of private property."  In like fashion, President Johnson praised the passage of the Highway Beautification Act as the triumph of public good over private greed.
Fifty years later, greed is poised to triumph over public good.  Under SB320, North Carolina would become the de jure enforcer of a government-sanctioned cartel, guaranteeing exclusive profits and payouts for existing billboard permit holders well into the 21st century.  The buyout cost to the public will go up as the billboards go digital.  We will leave a bill for our children to pay to out of state businesses such as Clear Channel and Lamar.  Fifty years after the White House Conference on Scenic Beauty, people have forgotten how bad things used to be and seem ready to take us backwards by gutting a law which was North Carolina’s best tool for protecting its collective front yard from billboard blight. Lady Bird Johnson understood that scenic beauty was a key public good.  SB 320 is a giant step backward.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Regulatory Reform Bills: North Carolina’s Sausage Style of Lawmaking

“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”-- John Godfrey Saxe, The Daily Cleveland Herald, March 29, 1869

I must admit that I love both good sausage and good law.  But in both cases, there is just too much temptation to the makers.  And the source of the temptation is profit.  Sausage makers can squeeze more profit by adding in fillers to their product.  Lawmakers attract more campaign contributions when they lard up their products with special interest provisions.  The only restraint on either is transparency in their process.  While sausage makers must list their ingredients on the label; lawmakers write their own rules about how the laws get made.

Regulatory reform had become a popular political issue in the election of Ronald Reagan, and had become bipartisan when Bill Clinton endorsed the same ideas.  There was a bipartisan consensus that when government regulations became too burdensome on business, they were counterproductive to society.  And so, North Carolina began reviewing, streamlining and updating its regulations in earnest, regulation by regulation. 

The N.C. General Assembly created a vehicle for this process in 1995, the Joint Legislative Administrative Procedure Oversight Committee.  This Administrative Procedure Oversight Committee’s charge was to eliminate overlapping, conflicting and unnecessary rules. To do this work, they have assistance from the Rules Review Commission, an appointed body with a professional staff which meets monthly to review all rules.  Both the RRC and the Committee have been at this work for over twenty years, so you would think they would have eliminated all the wasteful, red tape in state government.  And you would be right.  In fact, the work is so routine now that this Administrative Procedure Oversight Committee has not even met this year, at all.  The reason they do not meet is that the Rules Review Commission now controls the rulemaking process and has reigned in the agencies almost to a standstill.

In fact, what is now being called “regulatory reform” is not review of agency rules, but creation of loopholes to general laws themselves.  Regulatory Reform is a brand now and not a principle.  In fact, the changes they are making in the name of regulatory reform make the laws more confusing, increase overlap and do not streamline anything.  The statute books keep getting bigger and more complicated each and every session.
The only industry which benefits from this exercise is the lobbying industry, which has mushroomed to help clients put loopholes in existing laws under the Trojan horse bills known as the annual Regulatory Reform Act.  These bills throw together a hodgepodge of unrelated subjects and label them regulatory reform.  In 2013, the bill faltered for being too larded down with these provisions.  In 2014, some version of it passed both houses but its final form was actually decided by a Conference Committee

In 2015, we see the same bad pattern forming again, with the bill getting larded up with unrelated provisions which could never pass on their own. Reforms which have no public benefit, but which help out a narrow class of interests are especially favored in this process.  Bad ideas somehow get new life when they are tacked on to the regulatory reform vehicle, even ones which were rejected when considered on their own merits.

But the General Assembly can make good reform ideas into law if it wishes to do so.  For example, in 2013, the N.C. General Assembly considered amendments to the laws controlling large scale transfers of water from one river to another called Interbasin transfers.  The bill went through a full committee hearing in both the House and Senate.  Several editions were created to fine tune the concepts and the process took four months from the first bill draft to its final passage.  You can argue that the final version of SB 341 was not the best law, but it was carefully crafted and was debated on its merits without unrelated fluff and stuff added in.  It reflects the considered will of the current crop of elected officials on the subject of Interbasin transfers.

Then along comes the Regulatory Reform bill of 2014.  The Senate version of the Regulatory Reform bill contained a section dealing with Interbasin Transfers which appears to have been designed to benefit a single project, the transfer of water from the Roanoke River to the Neuse and Tar Rivers.  This provision amending the law of Interbasin Transfers was added in the Senate Finance Committee.  A careful Senator may have noted that the law of Interbasin transfers had been thoroughly debated the previous session and a comprehensive bill with compromises and debate had resolved all important questions.  But said careful Senator was not on the Senate Finance Committee, which decided to bury the amendment on page 31 of the 62 page long committee substitute.  In fact, burying the significance is the point of the regulatory reform bill process.

Just look at the scope of subjects covered in the Senate’s substitute: Lottery Commission oversight; regulation of fertilizer application; small business owners acting as lawyers in OAH; community college beer-brewing courses; the Bonner Bridge; ADA access to swimming pools; eliminating air quality monitors; venomous snakes; low flow toilets; protecting business owners from penalties for violations they discover through audits; inlet hazard areas; landscape contractor licensing; and pesticide use to control moles.  These changes range from major and controversial rewrites of state policies to obscure topics.  And this is by design.  It is impossible for a part time legislature with limited staff to read and digest all the changes they are asked to support or oppose in these bills.  In fact, the temptation is for any legislator to add on her favorite hobby horse by tacking on amendments.  The House’s version was drastically different in terms of substance, but strikingly similar in mixing the obscure with the unpopular.

This design is just an ambush style of lawmaking.  It favors lobbyists over people.  It favors special interests over the public interest.  It favors Conference Committee members over everyone else.  In the end, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2014’s contents were decided by the eight conferees: Tim Moore, Paul Stam, Tim Moffitt, Thom Tillis, Paul Tine, Trudy Wade, Tom Apodoca and Harry Brown.  This process subverts democracy, empowers lobbyists and lumps together completely unrelated subjects.

In addition, the process produces incomprehensible laws.  The normal process of vetting laws, making amendments and reviewing drafts to improve wording no longer occurs except in leaked drafts between lobbyists with little time for proofreading much less substantive analysis.  In the 2014 Regulatory Reform Act, the new loophole provision on the Interbasin Transfers contained a blatant error in stating the law: it applied the loophole to transfers and withdrawals approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.  The problem is that the Army Corps of Engineers does not approve transfers or withdrawals, the State of North Carolina does.  So the loophole only created confusion instead of clarity.  A bad piece of gristle ended up in the legislative sausage, and the quality control functions were not there to catch the error.

Worse than erroneous laws, are unpopular legal changes which get made under the Regulatory Reform Brand when they could not pass as freestanding bills.  The 2015 bill is every bit as bad as the 2014 bill and is poised to be heard next week.  North Carolinians support the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS) by wide margins.  Coupled with tax credits, this provision has helped bring down the cost of solar energy just at the time that we are seeing the long term costs with coal power come home in the form of coal ash lagoon leaks. 

Of course, special interests associated with the coal industry does not want solar to advance.  So they tried to enact a repeal or scale back of the REPS by passing a bill dealing with that subject, HB 681.  They could not get the votes to even get that bill out of Committee.  So what did the coal industry advocates do?  They amended the 2015 Regulatory Reform Act with the same type of language.  Former Duke Energy employee, Rep. Mike Hager made the sausage this time around, cutting a deal which allowed his defeated bill HB 681 to survive under the Regulatory Reform Brand.

It does not have to be this way.  Back in the late 1990’s, the General Assembly’s staff began pioneering a process to bring together experts on issues to work out compromises while bills were being drafted.  These experts represented different interests.  Their debates allowed staff to write laws that made sense to read and were easier to understand.  The process was called 605 Process, named after the large meeting room where these groups met.  The laws which came from the 605 Process were still sausage, but they were sausage with a known list of ingredients made in the light of day.  I want 605 Process back.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day and Anti-Earth Day

The 45th Earth Day is a token remembrance.    Like most "Days" on our calendar, the history of the day's significance fades first, swiftly followed by the impulse which drove its creation and finally by its being co-opted into another marketing opportunity.  And so the form outlasts the function.

The function of the first Earth Day was both educational and inspirational.  The 1970 version of Earth Day was a teach-in, designed to be practical, participatory and interdisciplinary with the output designed to be action.  And it was a phenomenal success.  In the years that followed, President Richard Nixon signed off on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the states, which had failed in large measure to protect human health or the ecosystems which support it.  Shortly thereafter, President Nixon signed into law amendments to the federal programs for clean air and water which also gave the United States government the duty to protect our lands and waters.

But it was not to last.  Less than one year after the first Earth Day, a corporate defense lawyer with the Richmond firm of Hunton and Williams drafted a memorandum addressed to the United States Chamber of Commerce.  While the first decade following Earth Day was marked by successful implementation of new controls, there was a determined resistance which built over time.  The fledgling apparatus constructed by those visionaries who took Powell's advice to heart quickly went to work dismantling the accomplishments of Earth Day.  And they are not done yet.

By the time that he marked the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson had seen the rollbacks enacted by the Reagan years come fully into force.  EPA had many of its teeth pulled.  Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" was taking aim at what remained.  Senator Nelson's response was not melancholy, or defeated, but did take aim at the central question.  Which is the support structure and which is the dependent structure: the Earth or human civilization?

“I have a friend whose guiding theology for all political matters is the editorial page of the ­Wall Street Journal. He could never quite understand that there is a direct and beneficial connection between a healthy environment and a prosperous economy until I described the connection in the jargon of his business world. I said to him, ‘Look at it this way and the connection becomes obvious. It is this: the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent upon that environment with its underlying resource base. When the environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because its resource base has been polluted, degraded, dissipated, irretrievably compromised, then, the economy goes down into bankruptcy with it because the economy is just a subset within the ecological system.’"—Gaylord Nelson on Earth Day XXV

I think we need to go ahead and give Justice Powell's ideas the fame which they so richly deserve.  We need to go ahead and proclaim August 23 as Anti-Earth Day.  Rather than teach-ins, Anti-Earth Day will use billboards and negative ads to get its messages across.  Rather than experts, the spokespeople will be political leaders who ridicule science.  Rather than sustainability, this day will preach take, make and waste as the keys to prosperity.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Proposed: a new official State Toast for North Carolina

The New State Toast

Here’s to the home of the billboard blight
Which sprout like weeds both day and night
Where trailer parks sprawl outside the gates
Of McMansionvilles in the Old North State

Here’s to the land of the builder’s buck
Where the trout and his friends are out of luck
Where Chuck Koch has bought the vote
And caught poor DENR by the throat    

Here’s to the land of boom and bust
Leaving our parks to close and rust
While begging others to send us trash
So lobbyists can make some cash

Here’s to the land of the coal ash pit
Where toxic sludge is allowed to sit
While Rucho calls all those frackers here
To give their cash and bend his ear

Who needs Yucca Mountain, we have Jones Street
Pile all that waste beneath their feet
Maybe then their toes will feel the heat

Of the Hell we’re headed for, tout suite.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Clean Solar Power Helps Reduce Mercury Contamination

When polluters do not pay, we all pay instead. Cleaning our air of mercury, carbon dioxide and methane will grow the economy, create jobs and protect our natural resources for the next generation of North Carolinians.  Mercury contamination of fish already prevents many North Carolinians from safely eating many of the fish which grow in our state’s waters.  Carbon dioxide and methane pollution are disrupting our climate through the greenhouse effect.  Methane pollution could be captured for liquid fuel instead of leaking from wells, pipes and swine waste pits.  Carbon dioxide can be reduced, by powering more of our homes, schools and businesses with the sun’s abundant energy.  In fact, North Carolina is a national leader in all these areas, but the fossil fuel industry boosters would rather keep us addicted to their products.  We need federal and state solar tax relief extended to keep this trend going and to give homeowners and businesses the freedom to choose energy sources which do not pollute our air and water. 

Mercury damages nerves and the brain.  Many wild fish caught in North Carolina’s waters are now high in mercury due to air pollution from coal-fired power plants.  As obsolete fossil fuel-fired plants have been retired under North Carolina’s Clean Smokestacks Act, our air emissions of mercury have been reduced as well, but not enough to make our fish safe to eat.  In addition, EPA’s proposed mercury rule will help protect North Carolina from pollution generated by coal-fired plants in states south and west of us.   Women and children are advised not to eat some wild-caught fish at all, including many popular fish like largemouth bass, yellow perch and wild-caught catfish.  Adult men are advised that they should eat no more than six ounces of these fish per week, a filet about the size of a single fast food fish sandwich portion. 

Energy from the Sun hits Earth each day sufficient to meet all our current energy needs, but harnessing it has been technically and economically challenging, until now.  Many solar opponents base opposition on old data regarding solar power’s costs.  Many of these opponents are funded by fossil fuel industry backers like the Koch brothers, such as the Beacon Hill Institute.   Solar power is saving people money in North Carolina and creating jobs, thanks to the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Portfolio Standard and to tax relief offered to businesses and homeowners who install solar.  Private business installation is on the rise and costs are coming down.

While North Carolina is enjoying a solar revolution, the fossil fuel industry is fighting back, hoping to keep us addicted to fossil fuels.   Allowing the solar energy tax credit to expire at the end of 2015 will increase taxes on those who install solar panels on their homes and businesses.  Solar tax relief will keep this boom going in North Carolina.  Many principled conservatives understand the value of energy choice and support solar tax relief.  North Carolina’s successful solar policies have inspired conservative legislatures in other southern states to promote solar energy as well.  North Carolina’s solar industry can help us save money, clean up our air and water and create high tech jobs.