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Opinion Roundup: Meet Uncle Mike; expanding voting; speedway COVID potholes; unemployment leader shifts; and more

Posted May 28, 2020 8:11 a.m. EDT
Updated May 28, 2020 9:56 a.m. EDT

Mike Sprayberry, NC emergency management director

Thursday, May 28, 2020 -- A round up of opinion, commentary and analysis on: police, ethics and legislators; expanding voting options; budget busting; speedway hits COVID-19 potholes; Uncle Mike; shifting unemployment agency leaderships; turmoil on UNC reopening; and more.


GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2020
A confrontation between NC senators, a police report, and a secretive ethics process (N.C. McClatchy & Pro Publica reports) -- Last Sept. 11, state Sen. Paul Lowe was leaving a Democratic caucus meeting at the North Carolina General Assembly when he stopped, angrily grabbed a reporter’s phone, and threw it across the room. While a video recording of the incident was widely viewed, what really happened in the caucus room and what led up to that confrontation hasn’t been clear. Now, documents show a conclusion by police that Lowe committed an assault inside the room. He has not been charged. The records also reveal infighting between Senate Democrats and allegations against multiple senators that include sexually harassing comments.

Bill seeks easier N.C. ballot access in fall during pandemic (AP reports) -- North Carolina voters would have more options in requesting absentee ballots and officials would get funds to keep precincts cleaned and staffed, according to legislation advancing at the General Assembly to address COVID-19 challenges.

Pandemic prompts lawmakers to make changes for fall elections (WRAL-TV reports) -- An elections bill responding to the coronavirus pandemic moved through two House committees Wednesday with strong bipartisan support. It's clear, however, that there's also some bipartisan discomfort with the measure.

Pension Forfeitures (The Insider reports) -- Sen. Jerry Tillman slowed down a vote on the Senate floor for a bill meant to protect felons from getting their pensions if their crime is related to their jobs.

Black women and girls would get more power and protections in new NC bills (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- Black women and girls get a seat at the table at the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute of Advocacy and Social Action in Raleigh. If a proposed bill makes it through the General Assembly, they could also have a seat at a much larger table and potential to influence statewide policy. Senate Bill 775, which would establish the Black Women and Girls Task Force, is one of them. The task force would “give us the opportunity for black women and girls to be understood,” Jayda Coleman said.

N.C, House bill would allow business owners to sue over shutdowns (Winston-Salem Journal reports) -- A Republican-sponsored N.C. House bill would amend the state’s Constitution to allow businesses to pursue legal action when they are closed partially or completely by a governor’s executive order. If signed into law, the constitutional amendment contained in House Bill 1174 would be on the November ballot. The bill was placed Tuesday in the House Judiciary committee. A bill requesting a constitutional amendment requires three-fifths majorities in both chambers to be put on the ballot. A constitutional amendment bill cannot be vetoed by the governor.

Outdoor seating could allow bars to reopen, restaurants to expand under bills moving through Senate (WRAL-TV reports) -- North Carolina bars - their doors still shuttered by executive order - could serve patrons outdoors during the pandemic in legislation heading to the Senate floor.

BUDGET PLANS (The Insider reports) -- Appropriations committees in the House and Senate will start working on budget bills this morning, but this year’s process could look different than previous short sessions. Today’s agendas feature spending bills for individual programs, and Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow and a top Senate budget writer, said that’s how his chamber plans to handle the 2020-2021 fiscal year’s most pressing funding needs as the state confronts a multi-billion-dollar shortfall. He’s filed 19 separate budget bills, each with different “must-do” projects, three of which will be on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agenda this morning.

Open government guarantee belongs in NC Constitution (Wilson Times) -- There’s no partisan advantage in strengthening public access to government records and meetings. Sunshine laws apply to boards, offices and agencies equally regardless of officials’ political affiliation. There’s no reason HB 1111 shouldn’t enjoy full support from the House Democratic Caucus as well as the House Republican Caucus. Constitutional amendments offer a rare chance for direct democracy in North Carolina. In passing HB 1111, lawmakers will clear space for sunshine on your ballot, then give you the last word. You deserve the opportunity to decide the issue on Election Day.

CORONAVIRUS 2020
As COVID races through Mountaire Farms poultry plant, workers deemed vital feel dispensable (N.C. Health News reports) -- Mountaire criticized for moving too slowly to protect workers who weren’t aware of coronavirus cases in workplace.

Dentist offices say they are struggling to find PPE (WRAL-TV reports) -- It's been four weeks since dentist offices were allowed to reopen for regular, non emergency procedures. Some dentist offices are struggling to get supplies and PPE.

Survey: NC Families Struggling, Yet Don’t Support Reopening (Public News Service reports) -- A survey of more than 1,300 North Carolina families finds more than 60% say they have lost income, or expect to, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Released by the groups ParentsTogether and Down Home North Carolina, the poll also found respondents do not support fully reopening the state's economy now.

Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort reopening for patrons (AP reports) -- A North Carolina casino says it’s ready to reopen its doors to patrons.

N.C. Speedway Packs Its Stands, Drawing Governor’s Rebuke (NY Times reports) -- The track’s determination not to police the crowd, and the local sheriff’s department’s refusal to intervene, underscored the confusion and conflict that can occur as sports reopen in the pandemic.

A speedway defied NC’s COVID-19 order. The governor needs to respond firmly (N.C. McClatchy editorial) -- Gov. Roy Cooper says he’s “examining options” on how to respond after an Alamance County speedway opened on Saturday, drawing a crowd of more than 2,500 spectators in violation of his order limiting outdoor gatherings to no more than 25 people. Cooper’s first response was to blast all involved with defying his pandemic social distancing order. He called the Ace Speedway event what it was: “dangerous and reckless.” Next the governor should seek a court order barring further races at Ace Speedway. He should also explore what action he might take against the county attorney who approved the event and the sheriff who refused to enforce the prohibition.

NC officials say packed Alamance speedway race was only allowed to have 25 spectators (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- Alamance County officials said they consulted Gov. Roy Cooper’s office before last Saturday’s race at ACE Speedway and created a safety plan with state health officials to protect the heavy crowd. North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, though, maintains it urged the speedway to hold its race without fans, and that the final plans called for a crowd no bigger than 25 with spectators getting health screenings. Asked about the race that the county said had 2,550 attendants on the speedway’s 50 acres, Cooper said Tuesday in a press briefing he is “considering all options” to stop large gatherings.

Gym owners sue Cooper over restrictions keeping them closed (WRAL-TV reports) -- Gym owners from across eastern North Carolina filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Roy Cooper, alleging that restrictions he put in place during the coronavirus pandemic keeping their businesses closed are unconstitutional.

Some COVID-19 patients in Fayetteville see results from Remdesivir (WRAL-TV reports) -- Cape Fear Valley Medical Center started using the drug to fight COVID-19 about two weeks ago, and they said the early results seem very promising.

PPE by parachute? Novant takes flight with drones to get Charlotte-area doctors supplies (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- Novant Health will soon be distributing critical medical equipment like personal protective equipment to some local doctors by parachute. The hospital system launched an emergency drone delivery program this week, working with drone delivery company Zipline.

Southern Pines woman banned from playground, facing charges after removing caution tape (WRAL-TV reports) -- A Southern Pines woman, Emily Rainey, recorded herself removing caution tape from the downtown park playground and posted it to Facebook. Rainey is charged with injury to personal property. Southern Pines police say she's done this before, too.

CAMPAIGN 2020
If the Republican convention leaves Charlotte, other states ‘chomping at the bit’ (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- If the Republican National Convention leaves Charlotte, Joe Gruters would welcome it with open arms. “Florida is definitely rolling out the red carpet,” said Gruters, the state’s Republican chairman. “I hope we get the opportunity because we’re chomping at the bit.” So, apparently, are other states.

GOP campaigns pick up steam ahead of NC-11 second primary (Waynesville Mountaineer reports) -- For an election that early on garnered attention from national media and top-tier politicians, the second primary to see which Republican will advance to the general election for North Carolina’s 11th congressional district has fallen by the wayside. Overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic the last few months, early voting for the contest is set to start in just a couple of weeks, and the candidates, Lynda Bennett of Haywood County and Madison Cawthorn of Henderson County, are planning their final push.

MOSTLY FALSE: Biden says small business missed out on 40% of bailout funds (PolitiFact/WRAL-TV) -- The government's primary response has been the Paycheck Protection Program, which distributed more than $500 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses to use for payroll, mortgages, rent and utilities. But Biden claimed much of that effort missed the intended target -- small businesses.

POLICY & POLITICS
N.C.’s new uncle Mike Sprayberry is a calming presence in troubling times​ (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- Of all these new characters who have taken outsized roles in our day-to-day lives in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, none are quite like State Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry, who somehow manages to combine folksy charm with military mannerisms and steadfast optimism. His avuncular bearing complements the crisp gravitas of Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, with whom he is almost always paired at afternoon briefings, and the professorial efficiency of Gov. Roy Cooper.

Head of N.C. unemployment office replaced by ex-legislator (AP reports) -- Gov. Roy Cooper replaced the head of the state unemployment benefits office on Wednesday with a former legislator as the agency struggles to address an unprecedented onslaught of pandemic-related job loss claims.

Head of NC unemployment office replaced in surprise announcement (WRAL-TV reports) -- Lockhart Taylor is out at the Division of Employment Security, and former lawmaker and Gov. Bev Perdue adviser Pryor Gibson is in.

US House allows proxy voting, and one North Carolina rep will cast another’s vote (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- The U.S. House of Representatives was set to allow proxy voting for the first time in history Wednesday in response to the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, was among the members planning to have someone else vote for them. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, was to cast Price’s vote, according to a letter Price sent to the clerk of the House.

Sister of Minneapolis man who died in police custody lives in NC, speaks out (WRAL-TV reports) -- The video showing 46-year-old George Floyd saying he can't breathe while an officer seems to be pressing on his neck went viral. The four involved officers have been fired. But for Floyd's sister, who lives in North Carolina, there will be no justice until the officers are charged with murder.

NC lawmakers may help teens who can’t get driver’s licenses during COVID-19 pandemic (N.C. McClatchy reports) -- Teens who have seen their efforts to become licensed drivers interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak may soon get some relief from the General Assembly. The state Division of Motor Vehicles stopped offering road tests to drivers in mid-March as part of a larger strategy to prevent the spread of coronavirus among DMV customers and staff. The only exceptions are for commercial driver’s licenses and medical evaluations. Road tests remain suspended even as restrictions on most businesses have been relaxed. DMV hasn’t set a date to resume them, said spokesman Steve Abbott, but hopes it can when North Carolina enters the next phase of reopening under Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan, which could be several weeks from now.

Pandemic stalls DMV testing, frustrating those waiting on driver's licenses (WRAL-TV reports) -- Teens across North Carolina and their parents are frustrated that the state Division of Motor Vehicles has no idea when it will resume the road tests needed to obtain a driver's license.

HAL TARLETON: Burr's affable nature didn't suggest scandal (Wilson Times column) -- Maybe I misjudged Richard Burr from the very beginning. He’s in deep doo-doo right now, as the first President Bush used that term, and The Wilson Times has termed him “toast.”

N.C. man sentenced in ‘gun pipeline’ scheme (AP reports) -- A North Carolina man accused of running a “gun pipeline” that furnished firearms to dozens of buyers in other states was sentenced to prison Tuesday, according to the U.S. Justice Department. William John Shaw Jr., 37, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on eight counts of making false statements while purchasing firearms, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina announced in a statement.

EDUCATION
UNC-CH faculty, staff balk at returning to campus in August (WRAL-TV reports) -- Some faculty and staff of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say they don't support plans to reopen campus in August, calling it irresponsible and dangerous.

Commissioners To CMS: Boost Minimum Wage Or Lose $11 Million (WFAE-FM reports) -- Mecklenburg County commissioners informally approved a budget Wednesday that holds the property tax rate steady. It gives Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools a $26 million increase, but withholds $11 million of that unless CMS pays hourly employees at least $15 an hour.

Johnston County Public Schools names new superintendent, will start July 1 (WRAL-TV reports) -- Dr. Eric Bracy has been named the next superintendent of Johnston County Public Schools, the Johnston County Board of Education announced Wednesday.

Did some charter schools double-dip in federal coronavirus relief funding? (Washington Post reports) -- Some charter school advocates said charter schools have every right to take PPP money as well as the money they will receive from the Education Stabilization Fund. Their operations have been disrupted, too, they say, and just like traditional public schools, their students face hardships. Many say they continue to be underfunded through the regular district funding formulas. In N.C., however, a new report from NC Policy Watch, a project of the N.C. Justice Center, a progressive research and advocacy organization, says local spending for charters in the state “exceeds” that of traditional public schools. But some charter schools that chose not to apply for PPP money said that source of funding was not meant for charter schools but instead for small businesses and small nonprofits that had been crippled during the pandemic. Because public school funding had not stopped, charters shouldn’t be included in PPP, they said.

ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT
Utilities panel refuses to make Duke Energy waive fees for NC factories during pandemic (Charlotte Observer reports) -- North Carolina’s Utilities Commission has denied a request that it order Duke Energy to temporarily waive fixed monthly charges affecting commercial and industrial customers during the coronavirus pandemic. The commission agreed with Charlotte-based Duke that waiving fees for hard-hit factories and other businesses could shift extra costs to other customers. The Carolina Utility Customers Association, a manufacturers’ trade group, had sought to waive fees by both of Duke’s N.C. utilities and by Dominion Energy North Carolina, which serves the state’s northeastern corner.

Where Storms Are Lore, Folks See Change (Coastal Review reports) -- Fishing villages were settled by “hardy families who were accustomed to foul weather and remote lifestyles. But numerous hurricanes and northeasters near the end of the century had tested the endurance of the people known as ‘Ca’e Bankers,’” Jay Barnes wrote in his book, “North Carolina’s Hurricane History.” Excerpts of the book are included in Harm’s Way Digital Archive, Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center’s online exhibit chronicling more than 100 years of storms that devastated the North Carolina coast, including the September hurricane of 1933, or storm of ’33, Hazel in 1954, Dennis and Floyd both in 1999, Isabel in 2003 and Irene in 2011.

... AND MORE
Margaret Locklear Lerner, a ‘role model’ in the Lumbee Indian community, died after contracting covid-19 (Washington Post reports) -- Margaret Locklear Lerner was a Lumbee Indian, the ninth of 11 children of tenant farmers in Lumberton, North Carolina. She lost her parents to illness when she was a teen, put herself through college, got on the train for Washington, D.C., during World War II and ended up working for the National Security Agency as a communications analyst, with top-secret clearance. Lerner died May 14 at the age of 97, a week after she was hospitalized and tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

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