Archive for the ‘state government’ Category

What does it take for the Mount Airy City Council to use a Civil War analogy regarding central government overstepping its bounds? The possibility of the state ABC Commission taking over operations of the local liquor store. This bill actually has a number of municipalities in a tizzy (though I doubt many have commissioners joke at a public meeting “let (the state) know that in the past when something like this happened there were shots fired at Fort Sumter”), as the legislation authorizes the state to merge or close local ABC commissions if they’re stores aren’t making a healthy profit.

Based on the most recent ABC finance records, Mount Airy’s store made a 11 percent profit in 2008, better than most other ABC commissions including those in Elkin and Dobson. But a bigger concern than a shuttered store among commissioners is that the revenues the store generates won’t remain in the community. Each ABC board has a lot of leeway on where to distribute the profits, and the ones in Surry set aside large chunks for local government and/or community organizations. The state could have other ideas on how to spend that money.

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State legislators sponsor a handful of bill each session and put their names down as co-sponsors for dozens more, few of which ever come up for a vote.

The latest bill filed by Rep. Darrell McCormick probably will fall into that “never see the light of day” category, but it’s intriguing if only for the precedent it would set just by making it through committee. McCormick, a Republican who represents eastern Surry County and all of Yadkin County, has proposed legislation allowing a recall of county commissioners in Yadkin between now and the end of 2010. Triggering such a recall election would require as many signatures as the votes received by the commissioner in the last election. I don’t follow Yadkin politics closely anymore, but I imagine this issue is fueling sentiment to pick off some commissioners with unpopular views.

If the bill somehow gets through the General Assembly, imagine how many other counties might ask for this same option. That alone probably sinks its chances, meaning voters will need long memories when commissioners come up for re-elections. Most unpopular decisions fade from view by the time the next election cycle comes round.

What other bills have our local legislators filed as primary sponsors this session? Rep. Sarah Stevens has called for Motorcycle Awareness Month, a sharper crackdown on public school bullying, and allowing teens aged 15-18 to receive volunteer firefighting and rescue squad training. Sen. Don East has called for reducing the corporate income tax rate,  giving each school board to authority to set its own school start date, and funds for a Forsyth Technical Community College campus in Stokes County. McCormick is among those behind the bill to change the name of the lottery and also wants to create a committee studying grandparents’ visitation rights.

All of these bills are worth more study on their impact if they make it out of committee. That’s a big if. There are long odds against any bill making it to a floor vote, espeically those filed by freshmen legislators in the minority party.

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When the North Carolina Education Lottery was approved in the NC General Assembly in 2005 by a razor thin margin, I covered the story and was told extensively by Republican detractors that the money generated for schools would get raided whenever budgets became tight.

They were right. With the state facing its first significant budget deficit since the lottery was established, a chunk of lottery profits has been utilized to plug the multi-billion dollar hole in the general fund. The move attracted the kind of angry protest you’d expect from those counting on education funds. But one legislator representing part of Surry County has taken a more tongue in cheek route in his response.

Darrell McCormick, a Republican whose district represents the eastern third of the county, is one of four primary sponsors of a bill filed last week to strip the word “education” out of the “North Carolina Education Lottery’s” title. Sarah Stevens, Surry’s other representative in the House, is a co-sponsor.

It’s a form of protest at lottery backers reneging on their  pledge to keep those profits for schools, a major selling point in getting the lottery enacted. It’s unlikely this bill gets through to a vote in a Democrat controlled legislature, but it might tighten pressure on keeping all lottery revenues solely in the hands of schools.

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Anyone arriving at Thursday’s public hearing on a state prison in Surry County looking for some conflict on the issue, and my strong hunch is that WXII fell into that category, would have left fairly underwhelmed. While the TV news report does make note of some opposition to the concept of a prison, that was exclusively a byproduct of fierce objection to a Fibrowatt power plant near Elkin. Residents came to speak out against the plant, and with the prison public hearing next on the agenda, their comments bled over into general criticism about Surry’s economic direction.

But no one arrived Thursday specifically to voice objections to the prison, and other speakers revealed how the idea has gained favor among pretty much every elected official for Surry. As detailed in the March 6 Messenger, the area’s legislative delegation is now backing the project, and proponents continue to bend ears in Raleigh to give the county a leg up over other’s competing for the $100 million facility.

There was a huge elephant in the room, however, and that’s the great unknown of what sites the county could offer up the state for prison construction. Not just any piece of land will do. It’s got to be big (100-150 acres), near utilities, close to a highway network and not so expensive as to break the taxpayers’ back. Then of course you have the opposition almost certain to arise from those who live nearby.

With hundreds of jobs tied to this project, it continues to gain momentum in terms of support. But where exactly could a prison be placed? And will the search for that site, and the public hearings after one is selected, eventually grind the momentum to a halt?

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In what has almost become a right of legislative passage, Sen. Tony Rand has once again filed a bill that would effectively merge city school systems into the county school system. The legislation doesn’t force a merger, but it cuts out a significant pot of administrative and teaching funds given to each school district, allocating that package only once per county. So the school systems for Mount Airy and Elkin would have to pay for a big chunk of those expenses themselves using local taxes rather than rely upon the state.

Whenever this comes up, boards and staff from both of Surry’s city school districts cry foul and launch an agressive lobbying campaign against the bill, especially in Elkin. Rand is among the most powerful legislators in Raleigh, and could probably push this  through if he really wanted, but thus far he’s seemed content to simply float the idea each year and then back off. Maybe this is the year we see action, or maybe it’s just another unrealized threat to city school districts.

Either way, expect a heated response from the local school boards and probably some emails to staff and parents urging them take up the cause of saving the city school district. It’s a complex debate involving the most efficient way to educate students, with many of the same arguments already being exchanged on both sides in Davidson County. It would certainly simplify the process of districting and school construction and save the state millions to merge. The question is whether the success of our city school districts (relative to state averages) rests on their independent status or on strong faculty who wouldn’t be lost in a merger.

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Governor-elect Bev Perdue is on a listening tour across the state, and folks in Surry have plenty to say.

But while the new chief executive for North Carolina has made plenty of stops in more heavily populated areas such as Greenville or the Triad, she has yet to arrive in this corner of the state. That had a number of local government types chatting Monday during the bus ride to Taylorsville’s prison on booking Perdue in Mount Airy. There’s PR and photo-op potential on her end (she got a big endorsement during primary season from Andy Griffith after all) and we get the chance to get her ear on local initiatives needing state assistance.

But where does she go? Debate flew back and forth on whether to sit Perdue down in an abandoned factory (a jarring image that might cause her handlers to balk) or give her the more cushy Snappy Lunch treatment in a play for more face time and thus more chances to plead their case.

With the county’s legislative delegation both rookies, it would be nice to have some identity and recognition from the governor’s office. Here’s hoping a visit, wherever it takes Perdue, can come together before inauguration day.

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prisonIn the coming weeks, Mount Airy Commissioner Dean Brown will be giving a series of presentations on the virtues of having a state prison in Mount Airy, a project he’s been spearheading for several months now. The city council got the hear his spiel first Thursday night, and the result was something akin to those “he’s just like us” political ads trying to paint a candidate in a relatable light. Except instead of trying to humanize politicians, this one humanizes the prisoners who would be sent to Surry if the county lands one of three correctional facilities needed in North Carolina during the next several years. It was complete with slides of prisoners doing everything from sports to landscaping to music to reading to fishing. Yes, even fishing (they earned a trip for good behavior). Some excerpts from Brown, who spent decades teaching in state prisons:


“They’re people just like us. We need to remember that. They’re not wicked, evil people who want to kill.”

“They form bands … in their spare time they learn to read. And they love to eat junk food.”

“If you walk through a prison at night, you’d think you were at an Army barracks. You’d hear people sleeping, saying prayers, crying — yes, grown men do cry — people playing chess, cards or checkers, someone playing guitar. You’d find pictures of loved ones and all the letters that were ever sent to each inmate. For some reason they save every one.”

“You will not find shanks under every mattress the way you see on TV. You will find a lot of Bibles.”


“You’ll have to be reminded after the facility has been built for a few years that the prison is even there. It will not be built on Main Street. It will not affect Andy and Barney in any way. You can ignore it if you don’t like having a correctional facility. It won’t affect you at all.”

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Regardless of statewide voting that saw Democrat Kay Hagan win comfortably and Barack Obama win very marginally, Surry County still gave a resounding nod to the GOP. 

Take a look at the breakdown of votes by county and it’s clear that the northwest Piedmont was very much McCain country. Here in Surry, every Republican running for state or federal office did better here when compared to the district or state as a whole.

Democrats have gained pockets of support in the municipalities — which can be seen in the breakdowns of straight ticket voting or the Dole/Hagan race — and the number voting Democrat in the presidential race is up slightly from 2004. But there’s no spinning the fact that Republicans are still strong across the board, even though they aren’t in the majority in terms of voter registration. They even managed to elect one of their own, Sarah Stevens, to a House seat held by a three-term incumbent in Jim Harrell whose district leans Democratic.

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“Project X” is fast going to turn into Project U.

Dean Brown may have given his pursuit of a state prison a mysterious sounding title. But now that’s it’s out in the open, it really comes down to what You think. This has all the ingredients of a classic economic recruitment project (search for a site, offering incentives, competing with other counties, determining the worth of the new jobs) but with a huge new twist — public support is critical. Unlike recruitment of private industry, pursuit of a prison will be out in the open, and the state politicians that will have to sign off on the final site don’t want to deal with backlash from picking an unpopular location. They don’t have to, as there’s plenty of locations to choose from.

This came up repeatedly in a presentation Thursday Department of Corrections officials gave to representatives from local government. Without public backing, the project is a no go. So the first question on everyone’s mind is, “what’s a fair and comprehensive way of determining public support, or lack thereof?”

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We’re hitting crunch time when it comes to voter registration, with the deadline on Friday. Since the Democratic primary in May, 1,666 new voters have registered in Surry, almost evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and those unaffiliated. Take a look at county registration stats over the past year and it’s evident that the latter group, independents, is experiencing the largest growth. Compared to 2004, that demographic is up almost 25 percent in Surry, perhaps reflecting North Carolina’s recent battleground state status.

With the number of Democratic and Republican registrations almost even in Surry, those independents will go a long way in deciding who the county supports for state and national races.

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