Under the Dome

Morning Memo: NC's new brand; protests expected to swell

NORTH CAROLINA'S NEW BRAND: "North Carolina’s national brand may be changing – but not the way Gov. Pat McCrory intended when he talked during his campaign about the Tar Heel state undergoing an image makeover," writes columnist Rob Christensen. "… The new brand that McCrory seems to want is that North Carolina is more business-friendly. But since he took office in January, the state has been undergoing a brand change of a very different kind. The sharp rightward turn of the legislature and the Moral Monday protests have turned North Carolina into one of the nation’s top political spectacles. … The national coverage is worth millions of dollars of publicity. Unfortunately for North Carolina, it may also be the wrong kind of publicity." Read more here.

TODAY AT THE STATEHOUSE: They’re back! The House, after taking off a week to let its conflicts with the Senate – taxes, budgets, gun control – simmer, will be back in town Monday night. The calendar is mostly low-profile, local bills except for a final vote on the bill creating a separate regulatory board for charter schools. The state charter school board would be responsible for handing out new charters and shutting down inadequate schools. The bill would dilute the state Board of Education’s powers. The Senate passed the bill in May. Also back: Moral Monday demonstrations, which are expected to draw huge crowds after the Senate's approval of a major abortion bill.

***Get a complete roundup of political news from the extended holiday weekend below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

WILL WE EVER GET A BUDGET?: Trying to agree on what constitutes tax reform is holding up final approval of a budget, since you can’t have a budget if you don’t know how much money is coming in from taxes. Legislators have extended until July 31 their deadline for this fiscal year’s budget.

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Republican from Forsyth County, told The Associated Press overhauling the tax code is “a complicated, difficult issue that takes time to work thorough. I feel fairly confident that if tax reform were not on the table, we would have been done.”

At the same time, the House and Senate versions of the budget have significant conflicts. “We have quite a number of things to be discussed,” Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Wake County, told the AP. More on legislative overtime here.

GIFFORDS VISITS RALEIGH TO RALLY FOR GUN CONTROLS: Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had traveled more than 8,000 miles, across seven states in seven days, to deliver her message. For Giffords, 43, the words came haltingly and with effort. “Fight, fight, fight,” she said.

Giffords urged a small discussion group gathered Sunday at The Pit restaurant to take on the battle to expand criminal background checks on gun sales, speaking two years after being severely wounded in a mass shooting.

Giffords’ visit to the Triangle was marked by an opposition group’s offer of free ammunition to anyone who could locate one stop on her group’s schedule. It was the last stop on what Giffords called her Rights and Responsibilities tour. Full story.

THE MUSIC OF MORAL MONDAY: In a way, it was just another angry song about love gone bad. As a local all-star band played a country-rock raveup, American Aquarium lead singer BJ Barham read words from a lyric cheat sheet and belted them out in a key of righteous indignation that would have done Bob Dylan proud: “It’s a drag when people hide behind religion/ “Doin’ evil through and through/ “But since you wanna go there, let us ask a question/ “Is this here what Jesus would do?”

Subsequent verses speculated that Jesus “wouldn’t care for Art Pope” and would be “in that Raleigh jailhouse with the other righteous ones” arrested at the weekly “Moral Monday” protest rallies. Afterward, there was prolonged applause from the 100 or so people gathered at Durham nightspot the Pinhook. … This was an open rehearsal for the NC Music Love Army, a grassroots group at the forefront of a growing local protest-music movement. The Army consists of several dozen musicians banded together to protest what they consider the legislature’s “regressive” actions on abortion, unemployment and other issues. Full story.

HOG WASTE BACK IN SPOTLIGHT: Nearly 600 residents of Eastern North Carolina have notified Smithfield Foods that they plan to file lawsuits charging that stench, flies and pollution from the world’s largest pork producer have deprived them of the use and enjoyment of their property. The 588 complaints, known as “farm nuisance disputes,” were filed in the Wake County Courthouse on Wednesday. The filings complain about the storage of hog waste in lagoons and the spraying of liquid manure on adjoining land.

The complaints were filed as the North Carolina General Assembly contemplates changes in the law governing agricultural and forestry nuisance complaints. The state House and Senate have each passed bills tweaking the way farm nuisance complaints are handled. The Senate version, however, contains a clause requiring complainants who lose in court to pay the legal costs incurred by the farmer who defends a suit. Full story.

THE ABORTION BILL returns to the spotlight this week when it gets a hearing the House. Will they rush it to the floor or think about it until the clock runs out? The three must-reads to set up the debate:

--WHAT IT DOES: Sweeping new rules that could limit abortions in the state passed the state Senate along party lines Wednesday after a fiery debate that roused spectators and led the lieutenant governor to order onlookers removed from the gallery. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 29-12 after a debate that invoked faith, constitutional rights and health statistics. The bill’s supporters say the proposal will increase safety, but opponents said the real intent is to restrict abortions. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. That chamber has already approved some of the provisions in the bill. Full story.

--THE POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis now hold a political landmine – and they have their Republican colleagues in the Senate to thank. The political implications of the move are as far-reaching as the legislation. Not only does the issue of abortion split voters, it divides the state’s most prominent GOP leaders. Full story. MORE: McCrory Mum on bill.

--THE REACTION: Tuesday night’s surprise abortion vote drew more than 500 angry protesters to the Legislative Building on Wednesday, contributing a new cause to the mostly partisan demonstrations that have attacked the General Assembly’s Republican majority for the past nine weeks. Organized overnight through social media by women’s health and reproductive rights groups and joined by hundreds of supporters, Wednesday’s protest also fueled the national news media’s newfound discovery of North Carolina politics. Full story.

UNDER PRESSURE, HOME RELEASE PROGRAM TWEAKED: State prison officials on Wednesday announced tweaks to a program that allows some minimum-security inmates nearing the end of their sentences to go home on the weekends. The changes came nearly a week after prosecutors began a campaign to end the state’s home-release program. Full story.

NC PENSION PLAN RATED ABOVE AVERAGE: A new independent report that aims to provide a more realistic evaluation of state pension plans across the country rates North Carolina’s funding gap as the sixth-lowest in the nation. The report issued last week by Moody’s Investors Service found that North Carolina’s funding gap, which takes into account the pension fund’s assets and its projected benefit payments, amounts to 18.3 percent of the state government’s annual revenue. That’s well below the national average of 60.6 percent and the median of 45.1 percent, and light years from the 241.1 percent for the Illinois state pension fund, which ranked as the worst in the country. Full story.

QUIET TALKS BETWEEN GOP, PROTESTERS DISSOLVE: One lawmaker’s quiet effort to start a dialogue between Republican legislators and ministers active in the “Moral Monday” protests has ended abruptly after the ministers accused him of bad faith for disclosing the talks. Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, started the behind-the-scenes conversations in what he called a bid to find common ground. Twice he convened a group of 10 lawmakers and about a dozen religious leaders. Tarte revealed the talks this week in response to a question from the Observer about his reaction to the weekly protests.

A statement signed Thursday by eight ministers, including three from Charlotte, said they’re breaking off talks after Tarte “brazenly breached” one of their ground rules – keeping the discussions private. “Our dialogue has now been used as an opportunity to make headlines and what appears to be a vain attempt to divide our movement,” the statement said. “As a result of what we can only conclude was a sophomoric effort to divide us, and the bad faith this represents, we have decided to discontinue the discussions.”

On Friday, Tarte called the ministers’ decision “unfortunate.” “But that’s their choice if they want to discontinue to meet,” he said. “I think that’d be sad.”

THE LAWMAKERS: The result was what Tarte called the “Social Justice Conversation Group.” He invited rank-and-file legislators, most Republican and most with what he calls a “strong faith background.” Among them: Republican Sens. Tamara Barringer of Cary and David Curtis of Denver and GOP Reps. Bill Brawley of Matthews and Jason Saine of Lincolnton. Democratic Sens. Joel Ford of Charlotte and Dan Blue of Raleigh also attended. Full story.

OREGON INLET'S NATURAL AND POLITICAL VEX: Ever since a powerful hurricane battered the Outer Banks in 1846, splitting Bodie Island from Pea Island, Oregon Inlet has been among the most treacherous stretches on the East Coast, marked by strong currents and shifting sands. How to keep it navigable has vexed engineers, politicians and fishermen since the 1800s. Full story.

GOP FACES TOUGH CHOICES ON VOTING RIGHTS ACT: When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights act last week, it handed Republicans tough questions with no easy answers over how, and where, to attract voters even GOP leaders say the party needs to stay nationally competitive. Full story.

TRANSITIONING TO OBAMACARE: A massive population shift to subsidized insurance coverage – likely to exceed 1 million people in North Carolina – is underway as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The transformation is expected to be the biggest shake-up in the nation’s medical landscape since Medicare was introduced in 1965.

As the federal government and some states work to get the program up and running, it is becoming evident that North Carolinians will have limited options – at least in the first year of the program. Out of more than a dozen insurers that now sell individual policies in the state, only three have applied to offer subsidized policies through the new federally run health insurance exchange. Only one of them, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, the state’s biggest insurance company, operates in all 100 counties. Meanwhile, three of the nation’s biggest insurers – Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Cigna – are sitting out of the program in North Carolina, at least for the first year.

That contrasts sharply with the situation in some states, where a dozen or more insurers are expected to sell individual policies – coverage purchased directly by people who don’t get insurance through their employers – under the new law. Full story.

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