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18
When hundreds of teachers leave in the middle of the school year – in one of the nation’s best places to live and one of its best school systems – we have a crisis. But Republicans are in denial, and Democrats have a winning issue for this fall.
 
About one out of every 15 teachers in the Wake County schools has resigned this year. That’s up 41 percent from last year.
 
Republican leader Skip Stam sees no problem. His response was essentially, “Nothing to see here. Move along.”
 
You begin to think that Republicans’ callousness toward public schools and teachers has blinded them to the political consequences here. If your child loses a teacher, you want action and answers – not denial and evasion.
 
Underwood School Principal Jackie Jordan said she’ll lose five teachers, or 25 percent of the school’s total, by the end of this school year. The N&O said, “She noted that two of her teachers have had their houses foreclosed on this year and that one teacher is receiving food stamps.”
 
“If we’re losing teachers at this rate, what’s happening in other schools around the state that may not have as much support from the community, that may not have a beautiful facility?” Jordan said.
 
Amen.

 

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13
Misery loves company and right here, in Raleigh, it’s led to a pretty strange alliance. Governor McCrory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources and President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency have joined arms.
 
To whip the ‘coal ash’ problem.
 
According to the newspaper reports the Governor is “pleased” but, so far, the EPA hasn’t had much kind to say about DENR. In fact, the other morning the newspapers reported the EPA was unhappy with DENR because of its too cushy settlement with Duke Energy a year ago.
 
Even worse for the DENR folks, disposing of a mountain of coal ash (that’s been building up for forty years) may not be their diciest problem. Not by a long shot.
 
Coal ash is a catastrophe. But Grand Jury Investigations and subpoenas flying through the air are an altogether more worrisome development. Dancing the ‘ole political two step’ with an FBI agent doesn’t work. And in Grand Jury investigations people testify under oath so fibbing is off the table. If you’re a DENR employee or a lobbyist who lobbied a DENR employee you’re face to face with a cold hard fact – the Grand Jury is looking for an answer to a simple question: Did someone in DENR cut Duke Power a break? And did he or she get anything in return?
 
This kind of investigation can be the deadliest calamity in politics. There’re no backroom fixes. No quarter is given. And the consequences can be a lot more unfortunate than losing an election.

 

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09
This is a story about how even “good” money – that is, money spent for candidates and causes I like – can be bad.
 
It’s a story about how outside donors and independent campaigns, not candidates and office-holders, are setting the political agenda. You can walk, and run, but money talks.
 
Most every poll you see in North Carolina today shows that education is the number one issue. And the Republican legislature’s biggest vulnerability – as is Thom Tillis’s – is its war against teachers and public schools.
 
But what issue dominates the pro-Democratic TV ads? It’s not education. It’s the environment, clean air and water, and the coal ash spill.
 
Now, those are great issues. Great Democratic issues. But why is TV filled with ads about the environment, and not education?
 
Because the big donors – big national and in-state donors – care more about environmental issues than education issues.
 
This is what the United States Supreme Court in effect believes should happen: People with money should be able to decide the agenda and define the issues. The Court says that is fundamental in our Constitution.
 
You can decide for yourself whether that’s good or bad. But how many ads can you afford?

 

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04
Just as ObamaCare divides the nation politically, it divides Democrats strategically. Does it spell disaster in November, or can we score points with it?
 
The President took the ball to the basket this week. His message: 7-plus million Americans signed up. Millions of Americans can now get health care. Republicans are just obstructionists and have no plan to help people.
 
James Carville, for one, is arguing that Obamacare can be a winner in November.
 
“After Alex Sink was sunk in the Florida special congressional race in February, my fellow Democratic strategists went back to their get-out-the-vote strategy and feared another 1994 or 2010 landslide election for the GOP. Well, Democratic voters might now be motivated to stand by the administration’s top legislative achievement more than ever — the same ABC/Post poll found that Democratic support for ObamaCare has reached 76 percent, which is up 11 percentage points from January. My fellow Democrats feared we didn’t have a motivating issue ... well, Republican opposition to the law, to no one’s surprise, is at 78 percent.
 
“I like being on the side of healthcare consumer. I think that is a winning argument for Democrats.”
 
Other Democratic strategists don’t believe the story arc has changed. It still isn’t a winner, and it won’t be, they say.
 
My guess – as I blogged last week (see “Move On”) – is that this issue, like a long-running TV series, is about to run down. By November, swing voters won’t know whether ObamaCare is good or bad or whether what’s bad about health care is due to ObamaCare or just the general screwed-up system we have.
 
Something else will happen. Crisis in Ukraine? Republican overreach? Another X Factor? ObamaCare is already baked into this cake. November is seven months away. We’ve got a long way to go.

 

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04
A year ago when my health insurance went up I grumbled and blamed Blue Cross. Then, this year, my new bill arrived and the premium went up again even more. But this time I didn’t blame Blue Cross. I laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of one man: Barack Obama.
 
In bygone days, when George Bush wanted to invade Iraq Colin Powell warned, Sure, you can whip Iraq, but that’s not the problem – the problem is after you whip Iraq you own it. What happens then?
 
Back in 2009, someone should have warned President Obama, Sure, you can pass Obamacare, but the problem is after you do you ‘own’ healthcare – every premium increase is going to be your premium increase.  
 
The President moved heaven and earth and won but now, five years later, it hasn’t turned out the way he expected: Every time a premium goes up he gets blamed. Which proves the old proverb, Be careful what you wish for…

 

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01
A doctor is a simple creature. He measures achievement by a straightforward standard – the Hippocratic Oath.
 
A businessman also measures success by a simple standard – money, income and outgo.
 
But a bureaucrat has the misfortune of breathing and walking in the murky world of insider politics. Which is like no other world on earth.
 
Take Medicaid.
 
State Bureaucrats who work for state government run the program, but Washington pays most (roughly 2/3rds) of the bills. 
 
And, awhile back, some well-intentioned soul, I guess in Congress, decided if the bureaucrats in Raleigh mismanaged Medicaid and wasted Washington’s money the state should pay the money back. 
 
Which sounded fine.  It sounded like ‘accountability’ in the normal world.
 
But, in politics, ‘accountability’ led to an unintended consequence. 
 
The other day the News & Observer reported the State Auditor had reviewed a sample of 280 Medicaid claims and found $439,000 in overpayments.
 
That doesn’t sound too bad – but, in fact, last year the state paid 88 million Medicaid claims. So if an audit of 280 claims turned up $440,000 in waste – what on earth would an audit of all the claims turn up?
 
The answer is no one has a clue. Not the State Auditor. Or the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Or the Governor. 
 
And there’s a simple reason why:  That well-intended law someone in Washington passed years ago.
 
Follow the math.
 
If an audit (of the entire Medicaid program) found, say, $500 million in waste the state would be out its third of the money – $167,000 million. And it’d probably never see that money again.
 
But, in addition, the state would have to repay Washington for its 2/3rds of the money – $333 million.
 
So, in all, the state’s out a total of $500 million.
 
On the other hand, if the state does nothing, and doesn’t look for any waste, it doesn’t have to repay Washington a penny. It’s still out $167 million. But that beats being out $500 million. And that’s where the law of unintended consequences comes into play.
 
Naturally, no bureaucrat in state government is set on rooting out the waste in Medicaid.

 

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01
It’s amazing how fast politicians go from being all for openness and transparency to all-out for keeping public information from the public.
 
Take the Republican legislators’ fight to keep secret their emails about redistricting. Hmmm, wonder what they might be hiding there?
 
Then take DENR. Last Friday at about 5 pm, the department dumped 900 files and 13,000 pages of records about coal ash. Hmmm. (For the uninitiated, a 5 pm Friday document dump is the classic PR strategy for hiding something.)
 
Then, the DENR website promptly crashed. Hmmm. I’m still waiting for Republicans to howl about that like they did yesterday when the Affordable Care Act website crashed with heavy sign-up traffic.
 
But there’s a problem with that old PR strategy in a new digital media world. Now everybody, not just a few overworked reporters and researchers, can search the documents and find out what the politicians and bureaucrats are hiding.
 
WRAL provided a helpful link where you can do your own investigating. Have at it here.

 

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31
I don’t know why but I’ve become absorbed by the machinations of bureaucrats – it’s a bit like watching Alice in Wonderland: Down is up, and up is down.
 
Take hard work.
 
Businessmen work hard to get ahead.
 
Students work hard for better grades.
 
But who joins a bureaucracy to work hard?
 
The most prominent bureaucracies in North Carolina are the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DHHS has the most problems. Because it’s biggest. But lately, with the Duke coal ash spill, DENR’s been in the most trouble.
 
For several years, on behalf of a client, I’ve been studying how DENR works with corporations (in this case Alcoa) and it’s not as dull as it sounds.
 
DENR’s supposed to protect the environment but how the bureaucrats go about it depends on their individual wants and needs which brings us back to hard work.
 
The bureaucrats, basically, don’t go out and find pollution. Instead they tell a corporation like Alcoa or Duke Power, File a report, tell us if you’ve polluted, and what you’re doing about it.
 
The corporation hires lawyers who file hundreds or thousands of pages of reports that primarily say, We haven’t polluted very much and none of the pollution is a threat to anyone, so we simply propose to monitor it.
 
After that, corporate lawyers go on filing reports for years saying, We’re still monitoring – and DENR bureaucrats stamp the reports and file them and that’s it.
 
No one breaks a sweat.
 
Of course, sometimes, an unfortunate bureaucrat runs into a trickier problem.
 
A couple of years ago a group of corporations who own dams on rivers had to renew their ‘State Water Quality Certificates,’ so they all got together with the bureaucrats at DENR and more or less said, Let’s all agree this isn’t going to be a hardship for anyone.
 
That was civil enough but the bureaucrats looking at the businessmen, right off, spotted an unspoken undercurrent. Duke Energy and Progress Energy had plenty of friends in places like the Governor’s office and the legislature and, of course, no bureaucrat in his right mind wants to get on the wrong side of a powerful politician – everyone of those corporations got their ‘Water Quality Certificate.’
 
And that’s, more or less, how DENR’s worked for years.
 
The bureaucrats survived peacefully by not offending powerful politicians and, beyond that, avoided over-exertion. It all worked out happily until, as almost always happens, there was a day of reckoning.
 
The coal ash spill.
 
Suddenly the bureaucrats found themselves being slammed in newspapers and on the six o’clock news and found themselves answering awkward questions at press conferences. They were in a media maelstrom.
 
Then a worse blow fell: Subpoenas started arriving on their desks from the U.S. Attorney.  
And, in all likelihood, an even worse blow is in the works: The politicians, who they’ve been accommodating for years, are going to say, Don’t blame us. If the bureaucrats had done their job we wouldn’t have had a spill.

 

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20
A federal criminal investigation. A massive, destructive spill. Deliberate pumping of bad stuff into water that people drink.
 
Is this a description of the current Duke Energy debacle? Or a preview of hydraulic fracking for natural gas in North Carolina?
 
The Duke mess is a huge – and perhaps fatal – problem for fracking in this state. How can the governor, legislature and regulators can ever assure a skeptical public that fracking will be safe? What rules can they develop to ensure that companies from around the world with sharp drills don’t sacrifice our drinking water in exchange for quick profits?
 
After all, Duke is a mature, North Carolina-based company that used an accepted storage system for coal ash, one that was governed by plenty of rules and regulations. But one stretch of river will never be the same, Duke’s reputation and bank account will be drained before it’s all over, and political careers will suffer collateral damage.
 
We’ve seen the future, and it looks totally fracked up.

 

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17
Duke Energy badly fumbled the political/PR ball on the coal-ash spill. Duke should have quickly rolled out a clear plan to clean up the Dan River and to deal with long-term management of ash ponds.
 
All we heard was the CEO saying ratepayers would pay. Politicians filled the void with preaching, posturing and their own policy proposals. Now Duke is floating down the political river taking on water.
 
But let’s be honest here. For the last 40 years, state government – and regulators – tacitly or expressly supported what Duke did. Why? Because it was cheap to use coal to generate electricity. And the ponds were the cheapest way to store the ash. That meant North Carolina could offer cheap, plentiful electricity to industry. Which helped build a booming manufacturing economy – and employ tens of thousands of people.
 
Now the question is what to do with the stuff. The quantity is so enormous and the ash so repugnant that there’s simply nowhere to send it. Even if you could move it, it would be the state’s largest project ever: billions of dollars and a decade or more.
 
There is a parallel to the nation’s storage of nuclear fuel waste. Tens of billions of dollars (ratepayer dollars) were spent on Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. Politicians (Sen. Harry Reid) vetoed Yucca, so the nuclear waste continues to be stored at individual nuclear sites around the country. The billions of dollars were wasted. And nothing was done.
 
Given Duke’s cluelessness and the state of politics today, how do you think this one is going to work out for you?

 

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