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North Carolina - Democrats

04
There’s a lit stick of dynamite – and one unanswered question – being blithely passed from hand to hand in the backrooms of Raleigh: Who will the State Senators and Representatives make pay to cleanup Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds – which Duke says is going to cost $10 billion and which, Duke also says, in fairness ought to be added to its customers’ electric bills. 
 
Attorney General (and not one to look a gift horse in the mouth) Roy Cooper, who’s running for Governor, promptly disagreed, saying Duke ought to pay every penny which inspired Cooper’s Democratic allies to add an amendment to the Senate Republicans’ ‘Coal Ash Cleanup’ bill to make Duke pay. 
 
The old Bull Mooses promptly quashed the Democrats’ amendment then fell cryptically silent which oddly – given the murky waters of Senate politics – sent a crystal clear message: The Bull Mooses, after they’d just kiboshed Duke paying the $10 billion, faced a tough choice: Either tell consumers their electric bills would be going up or lay low and say nothing.
 
Silence spoke volumes.
 
Which attracted the attention of Conor (the Jessecrat) who grunted, What we have here is half-baked politicians coming up with the wrong cure for a problem.
 
Conor explained both Cooper’s and the Republicans’ solutions had more to do with politics than fixing the problem then added, The real question here is how much can Duke afford to pay?  If it has $10 billion, fine, let it pay it all.  But if Duke can only pay $1 billion then some poor soul’s got to find the backbone to tell people their electric bills are going up $9 billion.
 
Of course, even for our finest politicians, that would be just plain treacherous – imagine a Bull Moose, running for reelection, looking voters straight in the eye and saying, I voted to increase your electric bills, while at the exact same moment his opponent’s looking the exact same voters in the eye saying, Duke should pay it all.

 

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03
The Governor sent his budget over to the Senate.
 
And as Rodney Dangerfield used to say, He got no respect. It was DOA.
 
The Senate sent its budget over to the House.
 
And it got no respect either. DOA, again.
 
The House sent its budget to the Senate.
 
And met the same fate.
 
Then, just when things looked bleak, House Speaker Thom Tillis, an optimist, announced anyone who “reports there’s a big gap between the House and the Senate isn’t paying attention” and sent another, abridged, budget to the Senate.
 
He got even less respect than the Governor.
 
The old Bull Mooses declared his budget was a “gimmick” – and went home for a long weekend.

 

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01
Last year (after their big victory in the 2012 election) as soon as Republican State Senators and State Representatives got to Raleigh they went to work to cut spending and it was almost like a competition:
 
The House would announce it had cut a hundred million dollars.
 
And the Senate would top that and announce it had cut two hundred million.
 
It went on like that for months until, in the end, they’d cut more than any legislature anyone could remember but, of course, all that cutting came with a price: After they got home Republican Senators and Representatives got hammered for not giving teachers raises, for cutting the unemployment benefits, and for denying care to the poor, halt, sick and lame – Reverend William Barber even blamed them for hurting little children.
 
For awhile none of that seemed to faze legislators but a year’s a long time to listen to people saying you’ve hurt little children and the other day when I received the House Caucus newsletter (about the House’s new budget) the wind had changed. The legislator who’d sent the newsletter explained how he’d just voted to:
 
  • Raise teachers’ salaries;
  • Raise all other state employees’ salaries;
  • Give veterans in-state college tuition rates;
  • Increase Pre-K funding;
  • Hire more people to provide child welfare;
  • Hire more bureaucrats to battle coal ash;
  • Give $3 million to the Biotechnology Center;
  • Give $190 million for the Information Technology Fund;
  • And put more money for the highway fund.
 
The only cut he mentioned was a cut in ferry tolls.
 
I reckon if anyone doubts the efficiency of attacking a state legislator – they ought to read the list.

 

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30
As much as I admire the Old Bull Mooses’ single-minded pertinacity, I’ve been unkind lately to the State Senate but at dinner last night Conor, who may be the last of the Jessecrats, set me straight.
 
I’d written – a couple of days ago – how the Democratic political wizards around Raleigh believe the Senate Republicans have captured the state Chamber of Commerce, turning it into a political appendage of their campaign committee, and the proof is the state and national Chambers contributing $800,000 to a couple of Republican organizations to pay for ads to defeat Democratic Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson.
 
As soon as Conor – who has a photographic memory and a penchant for shedding light on obscure pieces of history – set down the menu last night he leaned back and said, You got it ass-backwards – or haven’t you ever heard of Stigler’s theory of ‘Regulatory Capture’?
 
I had to admit I hadn’t and grinning Conor explained how George Stigler an Economics Professor at the University of Chicago had won a Nobel Prize for his theory of Regulatory Capture – which works like this:
 
The government, with the best of intentions, sets up an agency to regulate, say, coal ash ponds and immediately the corporations who’re being regulated focus on the new agency, wining, dining, lobbying, wooing, cajoling, and making contributions to politicians to influence the new regulations.
 
At the same time, on the other side of the ledger, the average citizen (who personally has very little or no stake at all in the regulations) does nothing.
 
Time passes and all the flattering and wooing and contributing (in hopes of getting their friends appointed to the agency’s staff) bears fruit and, suddenly, instead of regulating the corporation the agency’s been captured by it.Then a worse thing happens: The agency starts passing regulations to help the corporation by giving it an edge over its competitors.
 
According to Professor Stigler it’s a problem there’s no avoiding and ‘Regulatory Capture’ is a threat every regulatory agency faces by its very nature – protecting an agency from external pressure may be a palliative but in the end, Stigler warns, no regulator at all is better than a captured one.
 
Conor began ticking off examples of regulatory capture – explaining how the Securities and Exchange Commission was set up to protect the public from Wall Street but now protects Wall Street from the public – then rolled through a list of bills the State  Senate had passed which the local Chamber of Commerce supported and said: So wouldn’t you say instead of the Senate capturing the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber captured the Senate?

 

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26
Mike, a young down-the-line rock-ribbed Republican partisan who sees eye to eye with Senator Bob Rucho (who once tweeted ‘Obamacare has done more damage than the Nazis’) but is too smart to say anything that foolish within earshot of a reporter, and Jim who would like Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for President because Hilary’s too conservative were arguing across the table when Conor, a small town lawyer and, by my reckoning, the last of the Jessecrats, interrupted and said:
 
Alright. If Bob Rucho’s not the most powerful Old Bull in the Senate he’s pretty close to it so when he woke up one morning and in a flash of revelation saw there were too many frivolous lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies (when they sell a fellow a drug that’s supposed to cure his high blood pressure but instead lands him in the ER with a stroke) it was just a matter of time before he pulled the pin on the grenade and – Conor waved both hands – kaboom.
 
Well you have to admit, Mike said, there are way too many lawsuits, and Conor said one frivolous lawsuit was too many but there’s a simple way to stop that: Punish the people who file them. After all, nothing stops foolishness like a big fine or jail time but Senator Rucho’s hadn’t done that so now a lot of folks were wondering whether he’d  had a different goal in mind all along and all his talk about frivolous lawsuits was just a fig leaf.
 
Don’t get me wrong, Conor added, I’m not saying Bob Rucho’s malicious, a politician finding the wrong cure for a problem’s nothing new – it happens every day. But giving a guilty pharmaceutical company immunity from practically all lawsuits has to be some kind of a first.
 
Mike was trying to come up with a way to derail Conor but before he could say a word Conor struck again saying Republicans like to say people ought to work and stand on their own two feet and take care of themselves and when they get in a jam the government shouldn’t bail them out but for some strange reason when it comes to pharmaceutical companies (in Senator Rucho’s eyes) personal responsibility doesn’t apply – when a pharmaceutical company screws up the government ought to step in and take it off the hook.

 

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25
When the ‘anti-frackers’ launched their million dollar ad campaign to defeat Chad Barefoot and three other Republican State Senators the Senate Republican Caucus returned fire, calling on Barefoot’s opponent to denounce the flood of “special interest money” pouring into the district then added, “Who knows what Sarah Crawford (Barefoot’s opponent) has promised these people.”
 
That night gathered around the dinner table with an eclectic collection of Democratic and Republican partisans, lawyers, and political consultants, Conor, a small-town lawyer who may be the last of the Jessecrats said, In the simple black and white world of Republican heroes and Democratic villains what the ‘anti-frackers’ are up to is pure villainy but there’re two sides to every coin.
 
Mike, who greatly admires the work of the Republican State Senators, leaned forward, braced himself on both elbows and said, I expect I’ll probably regret this – but how’s that? and Conor explained how the ‘pro-frackers’ have been contributing pretty steadily to Republican Bob Rucho who’d just passed their bill to jump-start fracking and give the fracking companies a million dollar government subsidy and how, back in April, the local Chamber of Commerce and its cousin the US Chamber of Commerce had given $800,000 to Republican groups to pay for ads to defeat Democratic Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson and how, after the election, Senator Rucho had introduced a bill to give Chamber members (like pharmaceutical companies) immunity when they sell a fellow a drug that’s supposed to cure his diabetes but, instead, lands him in ER with a stroke.
 
Mike didn’t like where the conversation was heading – so he said: So you don’t think fracking means more jobs? and Conor said, We’re not talking about jobs. We’re talking about your Republican kettle calling my Democratic pot black.

 

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24
For years they’ve been the best of buddies. Soul mates. Like peas and carrots.  But, now, they’ve had a falling out…followed by blows being struck.
 
Reaching into the treasury in Washington and pulling out a wad of other people’s money to give to your friends is as old an American tradition as apple pie. 
 
Back before the Civil War, Congressmen in the Western and Northern states got together to take money from people in the South (with tariffs) to build ‘internal improvements’ (like roads) in the West and protect textile mills in New England.
 
During the Gilded Age, Congressmen from just about everywhere voted to give cash and land and subsidies to railroad tycoons.
 
Today, Democrats, like Obama,  give cash to their friends like Solyndra and Republicans do the same with their friends. More prickly, no matter how much you love Social Security and Medicare there’s no avoiding the awkward fact that, in all likelihood, mom’s going to get more money back from Social Security than she ever paid in and the difference is going to be paid with other people’s money.
 
The same malady – corporate subsidies – led to the ultra-right-wing-Koch Brothers-Art Pope-funded-Americans for Prosperity’s falling out with the ultra-right wing Republican State Senate led by Phil Berger.
 
The rumbling started when the Senate voted to take hard cash out of the state exchequer and hand it to movie production companies.
 
The first blow was struck when Americans for Prosperity branded the plan ‘Hollywood handouts.’
 
Of course, that was bound to rile the Old Bulls in the Senate: AFP running ads calling Republican Senators scoundrels six months before the election was not a happy development.

 

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23

Each year hospitals pay the state $135 million which, through some mysterious alchemy, morphs into the federal government paying the state a second $135 million (to care for Medicaid patients).  Trying to decipher the magic a newspaper described a circular flow of money that seems to work like this:

1)     The hospitals pay the state $135 million;
 
2)     The hospitals then send the state $135 million in bills for caring for Medicaid patients;
 
3)     The state then sends Washington the $135 million in bills;
 
4)     Washington then sends the state a check for $90 million – its share of the Medicaid bills;
 
5)     The state then returns the original $135 million to the hospitals;
 
6)     And, finally, the state and the hospitals figure out how to divvy up the $90 million (from Washington) that’s left in the pot. 
 
That arrangement rolled along fine (for everyone but Washington) until this year when Governor McCrory proposed the hospitals send the state another $15 million without getting their money back – which didn’t sit well with the hospitals whose lobbyist announced they were in such dire need of cash the Governor’s plan might leave ERs with no choice but to, with deep regret, turn away patients.
 
A Democratic legislator also jumped into the melee accusing the Governor of taxing ‘sick people’ – which was pretty much the end of any illuminating debate.
 
I asked a friend who’s served on his local hospital board, Are the hospitals really broke?  and he said many rural hospitals – like his – are having a tough time making ends meet but the big urban hospitals – like Carolina’s Medical Center in Charlotte – own airplanes and helicopters and pay executives seven figure salaries (and don’t have to pay taxes on profits or pay property taxes). 
 
Of course, it wouldn’t be correct to say not taxing a hospital is the same as subsidizing it but, still, being tax free is helpful – so can the hospitals afford to do as the Governor asks and pay another $15 million?
 
What we need is a little clarity.
 
If a hospital’s strapped for cash I doubt the Governor (or even the State Senate) would mind lending a helping hand but, if, on the other hand, a hospital owns an airplane or helicopter, maybe it ought to provide a bit of proof it’s broke as a church mouse.

 

 

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22
 The prevailing Democratic view of Governor McCrory is summed up by this bumper sticker a friend saw:
 
My child is an honor student.
My Governor is a moron.
 
But Governor McCrory has a chance to mount his own “Carolina Comeback” in the next few weeks.
 
He could stand up to the legislature – and even pick a fight – on something big.  Especially something big on education: Teacher pay? Common Core?
 
Now, Democrats wouldn’t fall in love with him, although they’d love to see Republicans fighting openly with each other.
 
But Democrats would suddenly start, as the voice on your GPS says, recalculating the route to 2016. They’d suddenly be faced with an incumbent who might appeal to Independents. He might even start looking like one of those rare politicians that voters yearn for, but never find. One who can stand up to both parties.

 

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20
The Old Bull Mooses in the State Senate had seen enough so they went on a rampage to repair Medicaid and, before they were done, they’d gored hospitals, doctors, the Governor and  just about everyone in sight except the people who’d written the budget that made them mad in the first place.
 
Surveying the carnage a reporter, respectfully, asked one of the Young Bulls, It appears to me you just passed a plan that ends care to 12,000 old and blind and disabled people – do I read that right?
 
The best answer the Young Bull could have given would have been to stop to explain why those blind people don’t need Medicaid.
 
A less happy (but still reasonable) answer would have been to explain why, even though they do need Medicaid, there wasn’t money to pay for it.
 
Instead, he said candidly, We didn’t cut care to 12,000 old, lame and disabled people – we only cut care to 5,300.
 
It was unfortunate.  It’s a safe bet every Republican Senator fighting a tough re-election campaign this fall is going to see that line again.
 
A moment later, the Young Bull must have felt a twinge of unease because he tried to put things in a better light but, instead, tripping over his own feet he turned a somersault head over heels, legs, hooves and tail flying.
 
A lot of the folks we’re cutting, he explained, won’t have a problem getting care because they can go on Obamacare.
 
That, of course, raised eyebrows.
 
Because the Old Bulls in the Senate are the most dead-set against Obamacare folks around. They voted down the Obamacare exchange. And killed President Obama’s Medicaid expansion, so the Young Bull’s answer didn’t quite ring true.
 
They’ve had a long and happy run ruling the roost in Raleigh but, this time, going on a rampage simply made the Old Bulls look ornery.

 

 

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