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Safeguards on law enforcement drones sought in bipartisan bill

A bipartisan bill filed this week would place firm restrictions on drones. The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union immediately praised the legislation as providing needed safeguards.

“Across the country, law enforcement agencies are greatly expanding their use of domestic drones to conduct surveillance on citizens, often without any oversight,” state ACLU policy director Sarah Preston said in a statement.

Democrats blast Romney and Ryan

Just minutes after Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan had round table discussion at Big Eds, the Democrats responded with a sidewalk news conference a few blocks away at the Wilmoore Cafe.

Congressman Brad Miller said it just a little over a decade ago the U.S. was running a but surplus. But he said a Republican president with the help of a Republican Congress ran up a deficit mainly by cutting taxes for the wealthy – something they are now proposing to more of.

“They promised there would be explosive economic growth if that happened,” Miller said. “We have seen in the last decade that that is not how it worked out. We now have the lowest taxes for the richest 1 percent we have had since 1931. The policies of the Great Depression is now what they propose to get us out of what some economists call a lesser depression.''

Obama surrogates tout economic growth

President Barack Obama's campaign surrogates said today there was evidence that North Carolina's manufacturing economy was coming back.

“Things are slowly getting better,” said Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines. “We have just seen our unemployment rate in Forsyth County drop to 8.8 percent which is well below the state average.”

In every one of the last 23 months, Joines said the private sector has added jobs.

In North Carolina, manufacturing exports grew by over 19 percent from 2010 and 2011, he said.

State Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, said “the last thing we can afford is to go back to the same exact tried and failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place. That is the real choice for North Carolinians and all Americans this fall.”

“Governor (Mitt) Romney's budget proposes to cut critical investments in our community colleges and  infrastructure and clean energy sources, that have been vital to job growth in North Carolina,” Harrison said.

The teleconference was set up by the Obama campaign in conjunction with the president's appearance at a Boeing plant in Seattle today in which he was talking about the growth in manufacturing jobs.

Bill would set no limit for oil spill damages to state

The state House is considering a bill that would lift a cap on liability for damages caused by oil spills.

In 1989 in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the state adopted a cap on damages that mirrors the federal cap, currently $75 million. The House bill would set no limit on what the state could collect from a company responsible for a spill of oil or other hazardous materials off the coast.

And if the bill were to become law before any oil from the BP spill reaches the state, there would be no cap on damages that could be found against BP, said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who is one of the bill's primary sponsors. 

A BP-sized spill off the state's coast could wreak havoc, destroy wildlife and harm tourism and livelihoods for decades, Harrison said. A limit on damages couldn't account for that harm.

"If someone destroys our natural resources...I don't know how you account for all those losses," Harrison said. 

The bill would also force a review of the requirements for permitting offshore drilling and of the state's plans for handling an oil spill. Harrison said state officials are already preparing for the possibility that oil from the Gulf of Mexico will make it to the state's coast.

The bill seems likely to meet objection from those who say it would end offshore drilling in North Carolina before it begins. With no cap, a company might not be able to buy liability insurance, and therefore could not afford to explore for oil or natural gas.

"My only concern is we don't do anything that does prevent offshore exploration because we won't have tourists coming in either if we have $8 a gallon gas," said Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican.

Rep. Pryor Gibson, an Anson County Democrat, noted that the bill could have unforeseen consequences. He made a point of the fact that representatives of the petroleum industry have not weighed in on the issue.

"I think we're probably doing more than we know we're doing," Gibson said. "I think it's too much too fast." 

Legislators seek to dump Massey coal

A group of Democratic legislators is backing a bill that would force the state treasurer to sell off all pension investments in Massey Energy Corp., the coal giant whose safety and environmental record has been under scrutiny since an April mine explosion killed 29 men.

"Massey has been a bad actor, and it has been a bad investment," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who is one of the bill's primary sponsors. "It would probably take only about 5 minutes to divest the state's money from Massey and invest it with a more responsible company."

The state employee pension plan's investment in Massey is about $17.4 million in stock, out of a total plan portfolio of $68.7 billion.

Last month, State Treasurer Janet Cowell joined with pension plan administrators from other states to urge institutional investors to vote against the reelection of current members of the Massey board, which they said had steered the company to put profits over safety and environmental stewardship.

In the past 10 years, 52 Massey miners have died in accidents while the company has raked up massive state and federal fines. The company accrued $12.9 million in fines during 2009, prior to the Big Branch disaster in West Virginia earlier this year.

The company also engages in the widely criticized practice of mountain top removal mining, in which explosives and heavy machinery are used to cut away mountain peaks to get at the coal underneath, filling in the valleys and streams below with the rubble.

Despite the efforts of Cowell and others, the Massey board members were reelected even as the company's stock price has plummeted. Though the state treasurer has the authority to order the sale of Massey stock on her own, the legislators said approval of the proposed bill would send a stronger message.

"If we do this in North Carolina, it'll provide a precedent for other states to do the same thing," said Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat who helped led a similar effort to divest state funds from Sudan due to the genocide in Darfur.

House kills funding for ports study

The state House agreed to strip from its budget funding for a study to add a $3 billion state port in Southport.

The House voted 104-11 in favor of Rep. Pricey Harrison's amendment to the budget. Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, said the study was envisioned as a public-private partnership, but the N.C. Ports Authority had not found any partners after four years. She said the project would raise a host of environmental problems.

"I'd describe it as a Global TransPark on steroids," Harrison said.

The project would entail dredging in water that is home to endangered species. It would displace 66 million cubic yards of sand and be located near two nuclear reactors. Her amendment would allow the N.C. Ports Authority to pay for the study out of its money.

"I think the ports ought to pay for this project," Harrison said.

State Rep. Bill Owens, an Elizabeth City Democrat, said the issue was sure to get more discussion when the House's $18.9 billion budget bill goes to conference with the Senate.

"We need to know more about the port, everything it's going to do before we start spending money on it," Owens said, adding that the project does not appear to be supported by the community.

Rep. Frank Iler, an Oak Island Republican said the money for the study was slipped into the budget.

"It's literally a way to sneak it into the budget," Iler said.

The study could cost as much as $10 million.

Marshall attends White House event

Democratic Senate candidate Elaine Marshall attended a White House Christmas Party Tuesday night.

Marshall, who is secretary of state, was one hundreds of state officials from across the country invited, Rob Christensen reports. Other Democratic North Carolinians attending included state Rep. Verla Insko of Chapel Hill, state Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and state Treasurer Janet Cowell.

So that means on Tuesday, three North Carolina Senate candidates were having some sort of interaction with President Barack Obama.

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr was appearing at a rally to protest the president's health care plan, Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham was taking a call from Obama in his hometown in Lexington, and Marshall was attending a White House party.

Insko to attend White House event

State Rep. Verla Insko plans to attend a White House reception next week that is being held to recognize state lawmakers working on health care reform.

Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat, is one of 40 lawmakers participating in the White House State Legislators Working Group on Health Care Reform, according to a news release.

The group of about 40 state lawmakers from around the nation plan and initiate state-level activities in support of President Barack Obama’s health care reform efforts. In North Carolina, state legislators held community meetings to discuss health care and met with Sen. Kay Hagan and their members of Congress to discuss the cost to states of delaying health care reform.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, also plans to attend the Dec. 15 reception.

Harrison wants BCBS investigation

Rep. Pricey Harrison has asked for an investigation into Blue Cross and Blue Shield's campaign against the public option health care proposal.

Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, has asked the Attorney General and N.C. Department of Insurance to look into whether the insurer violated the state's do-not-call registry with a robocall and whether it is proper for the insurer to use premiums to pay for mailers, reports Mark Binker of the Greensboro News & Record.

"We are a fully taxed medical services and hospital corporation," Borman said, adding that the company paid $162 million in federal, state and local taxes last year.

However, the fact the company paid taxes does not make it a for-profit company, said Adam Searing, a health policy expert with liberal-leaning advocacy group The North Carolina Justice Center.

"They are a nonprofit organization," Searing said. "They are organized under a special part of the nonprofit corporation law in North Carolina. They have a nonprofit board."

Goodwin helped ensure victory

N.C. Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin helped push the candidacy of newly-elected Rep. Chris Heagarty, of Raleigh.

In the days leading up to Saturday's vote for Heagarty, Goodwin signed on to a mail piece endorsing him (click the link below), as did two legislators, and the brochure was distributed to Democratic Party leaders in the 41st district. Ty Harrell resigned that seat in September amid a campaign finance investigation. Under the law, leaders from the outgoing lawmaker's party pick his or her successor.

Goodwin and Heagarty are both Democrats, as are Rep. Pricey Harrison, of Greensboro, and Rosa Gill, of Raleigh, who also appeared in the brochure. Goodwin was on the board of the N.C. Center for Voter Education for two of the seven years that Heagarty was director, and the two are good enough friends that they were at each other's weddings.

Heagarty also was aided by an endorsement from Wake County teachers.

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