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Morning Roundup: Big money defined state races in 2012

In North Carolina, big money mattered. It fueled million-dollar legislative campaigns and lifted Republicans to record majorities in the state House and Senate. Political parties, especially Republicans, unleashed their firepower. And outside spending topped $14 million, according to the Institute for Southern Studies. More than $12 million was spent on just 10 races. Read more here.

More political headlines:

--The 2012 presidential election will be remembered as the year of the pollster. And Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling finished at the top of the list. Read a Q-and-A with pollster Tom Jensen about the firm's secrets.

Troxler defends agency, employee in turkey tipoff controversy

N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler defended his agency's top poultry expert and denied knowing about her call to the veterinarian of a company under criminal investigation.

Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, the director of animal health programs in the agriculture department's poultry division, allegedly tipped off Butterball officials to a raid at its Shannon facility, thwarting an investigation after undercover footage showed animal abuse.

In an interview Thursday, Troxler said he couldn't say too much because of the pending criminal investigation and his agency's personnel inquiry. "This is about loose lips and I'm not going to be a part of that," he said. But he made clear he didn't know about Mason's call and rejected suggestions about problems at the agency made by Progress NC, a liberal advocacy group.

Troxler, agriculture department under fire after Butterball raid

A state agriculture department regulator regrets tipping off Butterball officials about a law enforcement raid.

The Fayetteville Observer reports that Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, the director of animal health programs in the department's poultry division, issued a notarized statement through her lawyer saying her actions "reflected poorly" on the agency. She said her motive in telling the veterinarian working for Butterball's Shannon facility was to "curtail avain abuse."

Mason said no one at the department told her to contact the company's veterinarian -- but that isn't stopping Progress NC, a liberal advocacy group, from taking aim at Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican.

N.C. Agriculture Dept under scrutiny after Butterball tipoff

A liberal group is asking asking state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler to answer questions about his department's behavior during a raid last month on a Butterball turkey farm in Hoke County last month.

Butterball officials were tipped off about the raid by a veterinarian, Dr. Sarah Mason, with the state Department of Agriculture, according to reports on WTVD and WRAL.

“It is absolutely inappropriate for any public official to tamper with a law enforcement investigation, much less, tip off an offender about a upcoming raid,” said Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress North Carolina in a statement. “Commissioner Troxler has some serious questions to answer about his agency's attitude towards the rule of law.”

The raid had been spurred by hidden camera videos taken by an animal rights group called Mercy for Animals, whose activists had worked undercover at the farm for three weeks.

The Hoke County District Attorney's office had contacted the agriculture department prior to the raid to inquire whether they wanted to assist with the inspection of the turkeys. Officials charged that an the director of animal health programs contacted a veterinarian employed by Butterball “and informed them she had heard there was an investigation into Butterball farm in Hoke County.

The search warrant seized phone records between the department of agriculture and Butterball from five days before the raid until late last week, according to ABC News.

Agriculture Commissioner, State Auditor dispute audit

The state Department of Agriculture is focused on finishing a new system for tracking safety violations at propane companies after a state audit released last week faulted the agency for failing to penalize rule-breakers.

In an interview Tuesday, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said the full system of tracking violations and penalties will be finished within four months. The deadline is new. The department started using the first phase of the tracking system in September, but there had been no certain date for completing the rest of it.

An investigative report from state Auditor Beth Wood's office was critical of the department for collecting only $4,100 in fines from Oct. 1, 2009, to Sept. 30, 2010, when investigators had found 7,466 violations at propane plants, trucks, dispensing stations and homes, some of them public safety hazards.

Wood said she was disappointed that Troxler appeared to be downplaying the audit findings but appreciated that he was pushing the violation tracking program to completion."They want to reason with these companies to get them into compliance," she said. "When you walk into a plant and it has more than 340 violations, that shows you their system isn't working." Read more here.

Perdue's Facebook page slammed by animal rights activists

Gov. Bev Perdue's Facebook fan page is being bombarded by animal rights activists who are urging her to investigate claims of abuse at a Robeson County animal shelter.

The posts, many by people with profile pictures that feature dogs or cats, began sometime before noon Tuesday and have continued an unrelenting assault. 

Comments ask Perdue, a Democrat, things like "Have you ever heard the scream of terror from a dog being gassed to death?" or make suggestions such as "Perhaps this would be a good time to order your minions to CEAST AND DESIST already!"

Perdue is a dog owner and she posted a comment on her Facebook page in which she said she opposes the use of gas chambers to euthanize animals.

"Animal rights advocates have admirably campaigned hard for this cause and they should continue to press the General Assembly to come to a resolution that will treat animals humanely," Perdue wrote. 

She included a link to the Veterinary Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture, which enforces state regulations on euthanizing animals. The department is not a part of Perdue's administration.

UPDATE: Perdue filed a new update at 4:40 p.m.

To everyone concerned about allegations of animal cruelty in Robeson County – I hear you and I appreciate your passionate calls for action.

My office has contacted the Commissioner of Agriculture’s staff directly, as well as the sheriff of Robeson County. I understand the State Vet’s Office within the Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal shelters in this state, has already sent an inspector to Robeson County. I trust they will ensure that state laws are being properly followed by the shelters there.

Due to the high volume of posts – most of which are polite but some of which could be construed as offensive – I am asking you to post only comments to this status update. Do not post independently to the wall. Posts to the wall will be archived, but will be deleted.

Thank you for taking the time to publicly engage in issues that are important to you.

No gifts for Ag employees

State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler doesn't want department employees taking gifts from contractors, either.

The agriculture department intends to "comply with the spirit and intent" of the executive order Gov. Beverly Perdue signed Thursday, said Brian Long, a department spokesman.

The department is going to tell employees not to take gifts, but some of the details Perdue laid out in her order, such as getting everyone to certify in writing that they know about the ban, may present logistical problems and take time to accomplish, Long said.

"The intent of the order is certainly something we're going to comply with," Long said. "Certainly, we should not be taking gifts."

Worker commuted on state dime for years

The N.C. Agriculture Department allowed a deputy director to use a state vehicle to commute to Raleigh from Reidsville, without reimbursement, for three years, according to the State Auditor's Office.

A management letter from auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat, found that Patrick Jones, a deputy director of the Pesticide Section was driving his state car to Raleigh four days a week, a financial benefit of $36,546. Wood's office was tipped about the car though the office's anonymous hotline.

State workers are allowed commuting privileges if the employee works from home. For that designation, and its exemption from having to pay back the state to apply, the employee cannot drive to Raleigh more than twice a week.

Wood's letter recommended that Jones be required to repay the state.

In a response, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican, downplayed the case, saying that Jones and his supervisor intended for Jones to rarely drive to Raleigh. But the department's involvement in the Ag-Mart pesticide case required him to be in Raleigh more often.

More after the jump.

audit letter.pdf

Budget: Natural and Economic Resources

Natural and economic resources includes the state's agricultural and environmental agencies as well as the departments of labor and commerce.

All agencies within this category will see vacant positions eliminated.

The budget proposal would also:

* Increase the annual fee to register pesticides administered by the Department of Agriculture from $100 to $150 to raise $500,000.

* Require the Labor Department to charge enough fees for an apprenticeship program to raise $450,000. The figure would offset a 25 percent reduction in funding for the program.

* Eliminate 70 vacant positions in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to save $3.4 million.

* Reduce by $50 million each year for two years the appropriation to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

* Require the Department of Commerce to sell the state's King Air plane and reduce all costs associated with operating it, including a pilot position, to save $148,000 this year and $296,000 next year.

Milk chugged for charity

The atmosphere was more Thunderdome than Under the Dome at the annual House vs. Senate milk-chugging for charity contest Wednesday.

Pages and legislative assistants hollered for their favorite chamber ("Go Senate! Come on House!) and specators jockeyed for a view of six distiguished public officeholders sucking on straws jammed into tiny plastic milk bottles.

Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican, was not above a little pre-chug smack talk.

"This is the sound of your defeat," he said to his Senate opponents as he silently popped off the plastic cap of one of his milk bottles.

The contest was sponsored by the state's dairy industry and the Department of Agriculture.

Reps. Lewis, Arthur Williams (D-Washington) and Roger West (R-Marble) challenged Sens. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville), Bob Atwater (D-Chapel Hill) and Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville).

It appeared to be a fair contest, although there were some rumblings about non-regulation straws and early chugging. The Senate team finished first, earning $200 for their favorite, as yet unnamed, charity. The House team will get $100 for charity.

(News & Observer photo by TAKAAKI IWABU).

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