Thursday, December 30, 2010

Words are important, some particularly

When I was in Greenville N.C. in 1999, starting my career as a full-time newspaper reporter, we ran a letter to the editor comparing the city police chief's tactics to the Nazi Gestapo.

We ran a second letter a few days later, saying that, until the Greenville Police Department started lining people up along the Tar River and putting bullets in their heads, let's lay off the Nazi comparisons.

That is what reasonable people do. Because some things in our history were so awful that just using the words associated with them hurts. It inflames. It lowers the level of political discourse.

Which is why Georgia state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon and the Senate minority leader, was foolish Tuesday to infer that Georgia's most recent round of Democratic Party defectors are members of the Ku Klux Klan.

I mean, read that sentence out loud. Does it sound like a smart thing to do?

If you watch this video, you'll see Sen. Brown chuckling after he makes this reference. Having covered Brown for several years, I will just about guarantee you he wrote that line before hand. He thought it was clever, it made him smile, so he used it.

But the KKK isn't funny. It's legacy is as a band of marauding racist murderers disguising themselves in white sheets. Until the latest crop of legislative party switchers starts lynching people in downtown Macon, senator, let's lay off the Ku Klux Klan references.

Because when you don't, things get inflamed. The real racists and message board idiots come out in droves. They call you names. Other people call them names. Pretty soon hundreds of people are involved in a public debate that amounts to nothing more than petty insults shouted across cyberspace.

And then someone jostles someone. Someone pushes someone down. And now one of your supporters is likely to face criminal charges.

Let this serve as a reminder to all of us who should already know better: When you use too much hyperbole, when you call people names, when you compare political enemies to the worst humanity has to offer, you err. You lead us places we ought not go.

Jon Stewart said this brilliantly:
If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume.
Hear, hear.

Brown in March 2009, making another point about Georgia Republican legislators, with the visual aides of a noose, a dead Chinese Dictator and Pres. Barack Obama.

Update: Per The Telegraph and WMAZ in Macon, Sen. Brown says he wasn't making a reference to the KKK when he said a defecting Democrat's wife, while changing out the blue Democrat bed sheets for the red GOP ones, would need to save a white sheet for a "midnight meeting." From WMAZ:
(Brown) cited alleged sex scandals involving Georgia Republicans as the inspiration for his "white sheets" remark. "I was thinking of the many sexual trysts many Republicans have been found guilty of or alleged to have participated in." He said Republicans display an image of "Christian purity until they reach the white sheets in their meetings at hotels." ... Brown said, "most reasonable observers will see that I made no direct or indirect mention of the KKK."
So, in Brown's metaphor, the wife is saving white sheets at the family home so the husband can use them to sleep with lobbyists in a hotel.

Does that sound like the truth to you?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

N.C. speaker-elect test drives gavel

Yesterday at the N.C. State Capitol, Speaker of the House to be Thom Tillis and a few of his lieutenants ran through some of the protocol they'll face Jan. 26, when the new legislative session opens.

There are a lot of rules governing the flow of business on the House floor, and you don't want to look dumb on your first day because you don't know the proper way to do all the little things that go with chairing debates, overseeing motions, referring things to committee, etc.

So Principal Clerk Denise Weeks writes up a script - with specifics built in to test the new speaker - and he practices. It was interesting ... in that mildly interesting way these things so often are. Any way, pictures from yesterday below.

Former legislator Charles Thomas, who is on Tillis' transition team, and Freshman Republican Leader Justin Burr, R-Stanly Co., also participated.

Images: Speaker-elect Tillis, Tillis with Weeks, Tillis with Speaker Pro Tem elect Dale Folwell, Folwell on the House floor.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sonny Perdue and Ga. 96

One story stuck with me from Joe Kovac's "Sonny Day" story on Sunday:
“Mr. Ervin,” or Ernie, as many called him, died in 1998, a decade and a half after Perdue’s mother, Miss Ophie, died. In the late 1960s, as neighbors recall, Miss Ophie would sometimes halt traffic out on Ga. 96 in front of the Perdue homestead so her Sonny, returning home from the University of Georgia in a single-engine plane, could land and taxi into their driveway.
Perhaps I'm making too much of a single story, but that feels like a window into the governor's mindset. There have been several instances the past eight years where it looked like Perdue was using state resources to better his situation, or his friends, or his businesses.

There was Oaky Woods, the retroactive tax break, the unexplained and generous loan one of his businesses received, this situation with the port in Savannah, the time he had a second control stick installed in a state helicopter so he could fly it and the way the governor inserted himself into the widening of Ga. 96 through his native Houston County — the very road where his mom used to stop traffic so he could land his plane.

To a certain extent, every governor sees the state's resources as his to use. How can you not? You are everyone's boss. You've got a state trooper to drive you around. You were elected to manage these resources. Most people around you act like they're yours, so in a way they are.

But if you learn, at an early age, to land your plane on a state highway and taxi right into your family driveway ... I don't know. That seems like a lesson that sticks.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sonny Perdue: A still murky legacy on transportation

It's legacy time for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who leaves office next month.

I did a piece for The Telegraph examining his 8 years in office and another looking to the future and asking whether the governor enriched himself while in office. The Telegraph's Joe Kovac did a more personal piece, about the governor's last days in office, and going home to Bonaire.

Oddly, I left the best quote I gathered, over more than two weeks reporting, completely out of both stories:
"What we've seen for 8 years is a failure to move this state forward on the crucial issues of water and transportation. Eight years of nothing to break up the gridlock in metro Atlanta with mass transit. ... The state has borrowed billions of dollars and wasted it on four lanes to nowhere, in case you haven't driven through south Georgia lately. I mean, I can get to Albany real fast now, but who cares? ... I don't go for this argument that there was no money. What money there was (for transportation) was wasted."

- Mark Woodall, chapter chairman, Georgia Sierra Club
I think that's directionally fair. I left it out because I cut the entire section on transportation and the environment for space, and because of the nuance I'm going get into here.

To be sure, Sonny Perdue was governor the last 8 years, and traffic's as bad in metro Atlanta now as it was when he started, if not worse. And there are certainly four lane roads in middle and south Georgia that seem out of place.

But as Perdue himself noted when I asked him about Woodall's line, GRIP, a program that focuses on connecting Georgia cities with major roads through Georgia's rural expanse, began in 1989.

Some people — certainly more than Mr. Woodall — see Perdue's Fast Forward program as a major culprit in the DOT's cash flow problem and subsequent political melt down the last two years.

But Perdue said more than half that spending was for metro Atlanta. And responsibility at the DOT is a wonderfully murky thing, with politically charged bureaucrats, engineers, a controlling board elected by secret vote among district legislators, all having various influence.

Like most governor's, Perdue's had his public fights with the DOT's controlling board. He noted they do not always do what a governor wants.

"I think Mark Woodall is absolutely wrong," Perdue said.

To me, transportation is probably the most interesting issue within Perdue's legacy. With the exception of education, transportation probably has the greatest effect on a state's future, and the benefits of one strategy over another often take time to reveal themselves.

Most of the transportation debate during Perdue's second term didn't center on specific projects, but on the need for more money, and who would control it. In the end, Perdue got a planning director position in place that will give future governor's more power to decide what gets built. And areas across the state will vote next year on whether to charge a new penny tax for transportation projects.

But Perdue didn't make mass transit a priority at all. Atlanta continues to have traffic issues due to its recent explosive growth. Truck routes through rural Georgia, though, are at their all-time best. And, though I think widening Ga. 300 to Albany was decided before Perdue took office, you can in fact get to Albany real fast these days.

I guess the question is, do you care?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Perdue: K-3 the priority as I cut

For The Winston-Salem Journal:
Protecting funding for kindergarten through third grade classes will be a top priority for Gov. Bev Perdue as she puts together an austere budget for the coming year, the governor said Wednesday.

But higher grades — as well as all state departments — are going to see significant funding cuts to make up for the loss of federal stimulus revenue running out in the next two years, as well as the end to temporary tax increases that have helped the state shore up its budget during the recession.

Extending those tax cuts is not realistic, the governor said Wednesday, during a roundtable with reporters. Republican leaders in the General Assembly, which turned to GOP control in November for the first time since the 1800s, have said much the same.

The cuts it will take to offset this $3.5 billion or so loss of revenue are well underway, but far from finalized, Perdue said Wednesday.

"In my mind, I've got about $900 million left to find," she said.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Perdue on Alcoa: "Tell them not to call me. ... It's beyond that."

Where "that" = compromising with former alluminum smelting works, and current multinational corporation with four power generating dams in North Carolina, Alcoa.

Gov. Bev Perdue did a roundtable with reporters last week, and Mark Binker at The Greensboro News-Record cut up video snippets of her comments and organized them by issue. It's pretty damn convenient if you need the governor's thoughts on 11 fairly pressing issues.

But I found her comments about Alcoa, possible massive environmental polluter and alleged liar to the State of North Carolina's environmental arm, the strongest.
"Why do you want to let a company own your water? And why do you want to let a company ... tell you that the're going to use you rwater to make a ter profit and that there's nothing in i t for North Carolina. It's the same way I feel about offshore oil and gas. Why would we want to license it, if it's there, if the feds aren't going to let us have a piece of the profit. why take the risk?

I don't believe that that river basin was made to have Alcoa own it, control it. ... Tell them not to call me. And I would bet the Secretary of Commerce won’t be real eager to compromise. It’s beyond that."
I'll let you go to Mark's blog to watch and listen to her saying this. I don't think she's kidding.

Civitas: Cut taxes / Justice Center: No, definitely don't do that

Once you see one of these studies, you almost know the other one exists.

From N.C. Policy Watch this morning on North Carolina's budget woes:

With unemployment already close to 10 percent, a new study finds that state budget cuts could result over 21,000 more unemployed, hampering economic growth and thwarting North Carolina's recovery. ...

The budget cuts from state agencies ... under a 15 percent scenario for all departments and a 10 percent scenario for education, will result in the elimination of more than 21,000 positions, which represents 7.4 percent of the state government workforce in 2010.

And from Civitas, a few hours later:
Raleigh, N.C. – As North Carolina’s unemployment numbers remain high, 77 percent of voters support cutting taxes to boost job creation, according to a new poll released today by the Civitas Institute.

According to the live caller poll of 600 likely voters, 77 percent said they would support cutting taxes to encourage job creation even if it may require additional cuts in government spending in the short run. Nineteen percent of voters said they do not support cutting taxes.
This budget is going to get ugly.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Cheddar Bo: King fast food biscuits

When you get past the fact that it all revolves around a cheese biscuit, this is pretty solid reporting, combined with new media capability.

One day, some lucky newspaper is gonna snatch those capabilities up, full time. Or I'll end up working at Bojangles.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sanders: People, think, country, going

Like many people, I watched with some wonder Friday evening as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, entered his seventh, and then eighth hour of speaking from the Senate floor against the Obama-GOP tax cut / unemployment extension deal.

Sen. Sanders speech seems to have had little effect, beyond winning him a lot of new followers on Twitter. This is perhaps not surprising, given that Sen. Sanders is the junior senator from Vermont, the only Independent in the United States Senate and quite possibly a socialist, though whether that is indeed the dirty term so many Americans assume it to be is open to debate.

But it was a good speech, if monstrously repetitive. His office has the full text from the congressional record here, all 71,926 words of it. I've used that text to create the "wordle" below, and I've excerpted his main point here.
"I think it is grossly unfair to ask my kids and grandchildren and the children all over this country to be paying higher taxes in order to provide tax breaks for billionaires because we have driven up the national debt. That is plain wrong. I think the vast majority of the American people, whether they are progressives like myself or whether they are conservatives, perceive that concept of giving tax breaks to billionaires when we have such a high national debt makes no sense at all.

"Furthermore, it is important to point out that extending income tax breaks to the top 2 percent is not the only unfair tax proposal in this agreement. This agreement between the President and the Republican leadership also calls for a continuation of the Bush era 15-percent tax rate on capital gains and dividends, meaning that those people who make their living off their investments will continue to pay a substantially lower tax rate than firemen, teachers, nurses, carpenters, and virtually all the other working people of this country. I do not think that is fair. That is wrong."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Liquor taxes: It's on the bag

I was at my local liquor store the other day to ... purchase a snifter of port for the approaching Christmas time, and I noticed the Wake County ABC board is printing tax receipts on some of its brown paper bags.

For those not living in North Carolina, the state controls hard liquor sales here through a state commission and local Alcoholic Beverage Control boards. So only the government can sell you whiskey, and the taxes get split up between area governments. In Wake County, for example:

This seemed to me a smart piece of public relations. The ABC system in North Carolina has taken some hits with revelations of corruption over the last two years. There's also a chance - if I'm handicapping, it's an outside chance - that the system will be privatized. Mark Binker in Greensboro did a good piece on these issues a few days ago.

The bags seemed to me a good way to combat that publicity. But according to Wake County ABC General Manager Craig Pleasants, this isn't a new thing.

From Mr. Pleasants:
I'm not sure how common this is across the State, but we've been doing the print on bags for over 15 years. It's a nominal cost. We want our customers to know that the profits are being distributed back into the community for substance abuse education and treatment and local taxes are reduced because of the funds distributed to the county government and local municipalities.
Smart politics.

Perdue rolling out re-org: Watch it live

The governor will be in Pinehurst today to roll out her plan to re-organize state government and save money. It will be interesting to see whether she proposes something grandiose, or just small changes.

She's scheduled to speak at 1:20, and News 14 Carolina is promising to broadcast her remarks live. I'm willing to bet Greensboro's Mark Binker will tweet out the details, too, if you'd like to follow along.

Update: Sounds like she's pushing for major changes. From Mr. Binker:
Gov. Bev Perdue unveiled the first outlines of her plan to “remake” state government in Pinehurst today, calling for the consolidation of 14 state agencies into eight and the privatization of several functions, including information technology. ...

However, there aren’t any firm numbers attached. Perdue says she’ll affix specific savings numbers when she rolls out her budget in the spring.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Just make that red number bigger. Problem solved.

So this imminent tax cut / unemployment benefits deal is to extend all the Bush tax cuts, enact new tax cuts and increase spending on unemployment benefits?

So then the immediate idea is to spend more money, but take in less, correct? That is the compromise, to simply do both?

N.C. redistricting: A score to settle?

While much of North Carolina's political attention is focused on the president's visit to Winston-Salem, I'm reading what I can into the announcement that state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenberg, will lead the GOP's redistricting effort in the N.C. Senate.

I'm still new to this state, and there are plenty of people with longer political memories. But it's worth noting that Democrats essentially redistricted Sen. Rucho out of his seat in 2003-04, when they put him into the same district as another Republican.

From archived newspaper coverage of that process, it seems to have been a difficult one, going through several rounds before the courts approved things and hurting a few feelings along the way. Republicans accused Democrats of ramming maps through without enough debate. Then House Speaker Jim Black, D-now released from prison, responded that the controlling party followed "the constitution" in drawing the maps.

That is perhaps not unlike the new ruling party's current promise to draw maps that will be "fair and legal."

It will be interesting to see whether Rucho, and others, hold a grudge about the last round of redistricting. According to The Charlotte Observer, Rucho himself complained of the map Democrats left him with, saying it caused confusion and "that confusion promotes apathy and disenfranchisement" among voters.

In the end, this is almost certain to get ugly, and particularly in high growth areas, where the lines are likely to move quite a bit.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ann Coulter and Joe McCarthy at the gun show

I went to a gun show today in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And, perhaps after the three busts of Adolf Hitler for sale, this was what I judged as the most over-the-top thing.

You have to read the promotional quote, and who says it.

** I have not yet reached Ann Coulter to confirm this quote.

Update: It does not appear Ms. Coulter is going to respond to my tweet asking her about this, and I'm not sure this issue is worth further effort on my part.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

State: Alcoa intentionally withheld info

Looks like the North Carolina Division of Water Quality just changed sides in the fight over Alcoa's power dam license along the Yadkin River.

For The Winston-Salem Journal:
The state's water quality division is revoking a key certificate for Alcoa Power Generating Inc., saying the company shielded information from regulators as they reviewed the certificate application.

This "intentional omission" came to light during an ongoing licensing hearing, when company e-mails were entered into evidence, according to a statement this afternoon from the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

State Rep. Tony Sellier has died

Sellier was a kind man. He lived with his wife Judye on a rural plot in Crawford County.

He was a retired Blue Bird executive, an anti-smoking advocate and a pilot who kept a plane in the barn behind his home. He and his wife also had a small prayer chapel at the house.

Sellier emigrated from Venezuela at the age of 15. The plane stopped in Cuba, and he saw armed men strip people fleeing Castro's regime of all their possessions.

“I realized that these people had given up everything they owned for the freedom that we have in America," he once told me.

For the last several years, Sellier fought health issues related to throat cancer. He died last night at the age of 65.

Top: Sellier, R-Fort Valley, hugging former Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson after Richardson's resignation in December 2009. Bottom: Sellier at sine die, 2010. Images courtesy Liz Erikson, House Photo office, and Travis Fain, The Macon Telegraph.

I remember talking to Sellier about a particularly difficult vote, back when Speaker Richardson would make votes particularly difficult for GOP legislators:
That was particularly true on Senate Bill 10, a measure that allows disabled children to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. The bill was one of the biggest of the session, and Sellier was on the House Committee on Education. He found himself in the middle of a close vote to send the bill out of committee and to the House floor for debate.

As the moment of truth came, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, and his Speaker Pro Tem, state Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Duluth, entered the committee room and stood quietly at the back. Sellier planned to vote against them and against the bill. To make things worse, committee Chairman Brooks Coleman announced that members would vote by standing up, instead of just saying "yea" or "nay."

It was the only vote the committee did that for all year, Sellier said. Sellier stood with the nays. The measure passed.

"It's easy to stand up for your principles when they're not tested," he said.

"I'm a 62-year-old guy up at the Legislature and I'm not trying to be governor," he said. "It's freedom."
Update: Rep. Sellier's funeral will be Saturday in Fort Valley. The Telegraph has more details, and a lengthy obituary.