Under the Dome

Morning Memo: Feds to challenge N.C. voting law; Senate candidates scrap for cash

FEDS TO CHALLENGE NORTH CAROLINA’S VOTING LAW: The U.S. Department of Justice will file a lawsuit Monday to stop North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which critics have said is the most sweeping law of its kind, according to a person briefed on the department’s plans.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who has said he will fight state voting laws that he sees as discriminatory, will announce the lawsuit at noon Monday, along with the three U.S. attorneys from the state. Critics said the law will disenfranchise African-American and elderly voters, while the Republican-led General Assembly in Raleigh said the law will protect the state’s voters from potential fraud.

***Read more on the forthcoming lawsuit, get #NCSEN updates and a roundup of North Carolina political headlines below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

Cooper changes his committee to make it more gubernatorial

In another sign that Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is laying the ground work for a gubernatorial bid in 2016, he has officially changed the name of his political committee from Cooper for Attorney General to Cooper for North Carolina.

Cooper has stepped up his visibility and has been privately telling Democrats of his interest in challenging Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Two Democrats have already announced, former state Rep. Ken Spaulding of Durham and former Chapel Hill town council member James Protzman.

Croom named administrative law judge

Craig Croom, a former Wake County judge, has been appointed as an administrative law judge by Chief Judge Julian Mann.

Croom replaces Joe Webster who left late last year become U.S. Magistrate Judge in the Middle District.

Croom who has been in private practice since January, had served as a special Wake County Superior Court Judge in 2011-2012, as a Wake County District Court Judge from 1999-2011, and as an assistant district attorney from 1995-1999.

He also worked as a Wake County deputy sheriff for two years.

Hagan explains vote on continuing resolution, Obamacare

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan on her vote for the continuing resolution. “Congress should never play political games with the most basic function of keeping the government running,'' Hagan said in an updated statement.

"A shutdown threatens to harm middle-class North Carolinians by jeopardizing paychecks and Tuition Assistance for our service members and risking further delays for veterans seeking to obtain their hard-earned benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Social Security payments for seniors who rely on that program to buy basic necessities like food and medicine could be in jeopardy, and loans to small businesses could be delayed.

“North Carolinians didn't elect me to shut down the government, harm our state's families, and jeopardize our economic recovery. I reject the political games being played in Congress, and I urge the House to pass the Senate’s plan that keeps the government running at currently reduced spending levels and prevents a damaging government shutdown.”

Burr explains vote on continuing resolution, Obamacare

Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted Friday to allow a plan to keep the federal government open past Tuesday to go forward, while maintaining Obamacare.

Burr was one of 25 Republicans who voted to shut down debate in a 79-19 vote.

“I have voted 56 times to defeat, dismantle, and defund Obamacare,'' Burr said in a statement. "When Obamacare was first brought before the Senate in 2009, my fellow Republicans and I on the HELP Committee did everything in our power to stop this bill from moving forward. After Democrats rammed it through committee on a straight party-line vote, Senator Coburn and I spent countless hours on the Senate floor to rally against the bill and used every procedural tactic at our disposal to block its passage. Unfortunately, the 2008 elections gave Democrats an overwhelming majority in Washington, which they used to force Obamacare into law.''

Les Merritt submits letter of resignation from Ethics Commission

State Ethics Commission member Les Merritt submitted his letter of resignation Friday, addressing concerns about a conflict with his work as a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services contractor.

"I have certainly enjoyed my tenure and consider serving on the Ethics Commission a privilege," he wrote. "The work of the commission is very important and I know all the commission members and staff are honorable people, serving the state of North Carolina for the right reasons.

"In that regard, I do not want even the 'appearance of a conflict of interest' to cast a shadow on the integrity of the commission," he concluded.

Merritt Resignation Ltr 9-27-13.pdf

State names interim Medicaid director

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services named an acting Medicaid director with Carol Steckel leaving the agency.

Sandy Terrell, the Medicaid chief operating officer, will serve in the role as the department searches for a permanent replacement, Secretary Aldona Wos announced Friday. She will start Oct. 11, when Steckel's resignation is effective. "Since 2010, Sandy has been an integral part of the (Division of Medical Assistance) organization, and her role as chief operating officer at Medicaid uniquely qualifies her to assist in this transition," Wos said in a statement.

Steckel announced her departure earlier this week to work for a Florida-based company that wants the state's business.

Thom Tillis tries to deflect ethical questions

U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis danced around a question about his recent appointments of big donors to UNC posts and tried to pivot to attack Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

In an interview with CQ/Roll Call posted online Thursday, Tillis faced a question about a News & Observer report that showed major donors to his campaign getting seats on the UNC Board of Governors. Tillis called the storyline "tired old arguments" and his appointees "some of the greatest people in North Carolina."

"It is disingenuous at the very best probably misleading or dishonest in reality because (Democrats) did it at levels that we would never allow," Tillis said.

NAACP begins voting rights radio campaign

The North Carolina NAACP State Conference has begun airing a new radio ad across the state urging people who think they have difficulty voting to call a toll-free hotline number of 855-664-3487.

In the ad, the Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP president, said the new voting laws passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. McCrory are among "the most restrictive voting measures in the country.''

"The law will make it harder for seniors, students and people of color to vote and their ballots counted.''

The ad is being paid for by the Advancement Project, a civil rights nonprofit.

Morning Memo: Hagan gets opponent; Records show deeper DHHS troubles

KAY HAGAN GETS A FEISTY CHALLENGER: All the attention is focused on the Republicans vying to replace Democrat Kay Hagan in the U.S. Senate. But Hagan, too, will face a primary challenger. The Fayetteville Observer reports that Fred Westphal, a retired educator from outside Fayetteville, plans to make a bid. And he’s mighty sure of his chances. "She doesn’t have a chance against me," Westphal, 76, told The Fayetteville Observer. "She won’t get the party nomination."

INTERNAL EMAILS SHED MORE LIGHT ON DHHS TROUBLES: The state agency overseeing the new computer system that sends money to health professionals treating poor patients downplayed problems with the software even as complaints rolled in to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office from doctors, dentists and medical equipment companies.

Correspondence obtained by The News & Observer from McCrory’s office show that complaints were flowing in from frustrated health care providers, with some appealing directly to his chief of staff and his lawyer, by the end of July. Those complaints were passed on to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the system. On Aug. 5, DHHS sent out the news release "NCTracks is on Track."

***Read more from the DHHS records and get a full political news roundup below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

Pete Brunstetter says he won't seek U.S. Senate seat

State Sen. Pete Brunstetter announced Thursday he will not seek the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Kay Hagan.

The Winston-Salem Republican's announcement comes days after Senate leader Phil Berger decided against a bid. It could mean the Republican field is set but some GOP operatives still see room for a vibrant challenge from the party's right wing.

In a statement, Brunstetter did not go into detail about his reasoning, saying the "task must fall to someone else."

"The Republican nominee will have my full support in the general election," he said in a statement. "Meanwhile, I will remain focused on the many critical issues facing the state of North Carolina as I continue my work in the NC Senate."

Burr helps put together drug safety bill

Sen. Richard Burr was involved in hammering out legislation this week designed to help ensure the safety of compounded drugs and track all prescription drugs from the manufacturing plant to the drug store.

Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, was part of a group of House-Senate bipartisan group, that developed legislation this week. The group began meeting a year ago, after a meningitis outbreak caused by contaminated compounded drugs from the New England Compounding Center.

"Securing our nation's drug supply chain is critical to the health and safety of the American people,'' Burr said in a statement. "The American people deserve the peace of mind to know that the medicines they take are safe and effective. This bill establishes a uniform system that improves the security and safety of drug for consumers.''

The group was led on the Senate side by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, Al Franken, D-Minn, Pat Roberts, R-Kan, Michael Bennett, D-Colo., and Burr.

Burr sponsors infant mortality resolution

Sen. Richard Burr this week led a bi-partisan effort in the Senate to increase awareness about infant mortality and access to prenatal care.

Burr, a Republican, and Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, sponsored a resolution, commemorating September as National Infant Mortality Awareness Month.

They called on the Department of Health and Human Services to spread awareness about the contributing factors in the 25,000 infant deaths each year.

"Community-based programs, such as outreach, home visitation, case management, and health education may help substantially reduce infant morality,'' Burr said in a statement. "This resolution is a small way to recognize and support efforts to reduce infant deaths, low birth weight, pre-term births, and disparities in perinatal outcomes through continued education about infant mortality and the contributing factors.''

Advocacy group says two-thirds of legislature failed environment

Environment North Carolina says 112 lawmakers received a failing grade by their marks this session with only one Republican receiving a passing score.

The group's 2013 legislative scorecard put 65 percent of the 170-member N.C. General Assembly in the failing category based on nine contested votes in the House and 13 in the Senate. Nearly two-thirds of the Senate didn't pass the environmental advocacy group's test.

“This year, the Senate approved extreme measures to rush the state into fracking, do away with protections for our beaches, rivers and lakes, and dismantle our environmental commissions,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, Environment North Carolina state director, in a statement. “Given all the Senate’s attacks on the environment this year, their dismal scores are disappointing, but not all that surprising.”

Berger and Tillis not exactly best buddies

The coolness between Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis was on full display in this interview with News 14's Tim Boyum.

Berger, who this week announced he would not run for the U.S. Senate, was asked if he would support Tillis. Berger said he would support the nominee, and spoke highly of fellow Sen. Pete Brunsettter, who is considering the race.

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