NC Politics in the News (Sept. 16)

September 16, 2008

Pardon Our Dust

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1. Women in Government
Barbara Barrett
McClathy Newspapers
When GOP presidential nominee John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, he ensured that North Carolina voters would have a chance this year to elect a woman at every level of government. Beyond Palin’s historic appointment as the first GOP vice presidential nominee, Democrat Beverly Perdue could become North Carolina’s first female governor. Six women are running for the Council of State. And a woman will win the election for U.S. senator; the lone man in the race serves as only token opposition. “It’s great. It’s time we got women out there,” said Kim Cotton of Pittsboro, chairwoman of the N.C. Young Republicans. “Regardless of party, I think there are some qualified women on both sides.” Nationally, North Carolina ranks 19th in the number of women in its state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“It’s a building, growing thing,” said GOP state Secretary of Labor Cherie Berry, who is seeking re-election. “I don’t put a lot of stock in whether women are being held back, because I don’t think they are. Look at the ticket in North Carolina. . You start adding them up and there are a lot of women on the upper part of the ballot.” Karen O’Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, said that there are still hurdles for women to overcome when it comes to politics. “The glass ceiling definitely still exists,” said O’Connor. State Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, recalled that on her first day in office 10 years ago, she walked into the legislators’ cafeteria only to be asked to leave. She was shocked. “That would never happen to a man,” said Hagan, who is running to unseat Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Still, Hagan said of this fall’s ballot, “It’s an exciting time. Women are very involved in running for public office. And they win.”
2. Rate Increase
John Murawski
The News & Observer
Progress Energy agreed last week to spread out a proposed rate increase over three years. Instead of raising residential rates by 16.2 percent, the Raleigh utility will raise rates 11.5 percent effective Dec. 1 and collect the rest in subsequent years. The proposal, filed Friday with the state Utilities Commission, is subject to the commission’s approval. A hearing has been set for Sept. 16 in Raleigh. The proposal would raise the monthly bill for a residential customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity from about $97 to about $108. Progress reached the settlement with the state’s consumer advocacy agency, the Public Staff. Industrial customers also agreed. Electric utilities are allowed by state law to pass through their cost of fuel. The primary fuels used by Progress to generate electricity are coal and uranium. Most of the rate increase will pay for rising fuel costs, but a portion will pay for renewable energy and for chemicals used to prevent pollution at coal-burning power plants
3. Health Insurance
Lex Alexander
The News and Record
The nonprofit N.C. Justice Center is proposing a healthcare plan that would cover all North Carolinians. The plan calls on state and federal governments, employers, hospitals and families to shoulder the costs. The center has not said how much he program is expected to cost. And many of the plan’s provisions would require action by state and federal lawmakers. The plan calls for the state to raise its cigarette tax by about 65 cents per pack to help pay for the program. The center also wants the state to consolidate small-business and individual health insurance markets to spread risk across a larger population. And it would require private insurers to insure people with pre-existing medical conditions at the same rates as those without.
Individuals or families who could afford health insurance would have to buy it or pay a penalty on their state income taxes once a full range of affordable options for health insurance is in place. Employers would have to offer standard health coverage – which isn’t defined – or help subsidize a pool of affordable, private health insurance plans. Private insurers wouldn’t be required to offer plans. Lew Borman, spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina declined to comment on the plan, saying the company had not had time to analyze it. The proposal also calls on the state to establish a state/university partnership to research what’s causing increases in health care costs and examine the effectiveness of expensive drugs and treatments.
4. Worker’s Compensation
The News & Observer
Workers’ compensation insurance rates will be dropping in North Carolina next year for the first time in five years. The North Carolina Rate Bureau has requested an average drop of 4.4 percent for 2009. The Rate Bureau represents more than 150 companies that offer workers’ compensation insurance policies to employers in the state. State Insurance Department spokeswoman Kristin Milam said the agency is reviewing the filing to determine if a 4.4 percent cut is enough. The department has 60 days to review the request. Rate Bureau general manager Ray Evans said the reduction comes after several years of increases. Evans also said the cost of claims has been lower than expected and the number of workplace accidents is down.
5. Car Insurance
The News & Record
The Associated Press
State Insurance Commissioner Jim Long has signed an order requiring a 16.1 percent reduction in private passenger auto rates and an 11.7 percent reduction in motorcycle liability rates, effective Jan. 1. The state held hearings in July and August after the Rate Bureau requested a 12.9 percent increase in rates. During the hearings, a state Department of Insurance attorney argued that the market for auto insurance had not changed significantly since last year, when companies did not seek a rate increase, according to a news release. Long said he decided the requested increase “just wasn’t warranted.” “It’s the largest increase they’ve requested in almost 15 years,” he said. Under state law, Long sets the maximum allowable rate that auto insurance companies can charge in North Carolina; companies can and regularly do offer discounts to their policyholders.
Rate Bureau general manager Ray Evans said the board was “surprised at the magnitude of the decrease.” “We don’t think that’s the appropriate decision,” he said. The board meets next week and will decide whether to accept Long’s decision or appeal it, he said. Department experts said the bureau mistakenly included claims arising from the North Carolina Reinsurance Facility when determining its proposed rate increase. The facility insures riskier drivers, and bureau rates don’t apply to them. Instead, the facility files a separate rate proposal using its own claims data. But Evans said the facility also insures some drivers whom it believes should be included in its rate computations. If the bureau appeals Long’s decision, then companies can raise their rates and hold the difference in escrow. If the bureau loses the appeal, companies would have to refund the money in escrow, plus interest.
6.  Green Buildings
Martha Quillin
The News & Observer
Gov. Mike Easley has asked the state Building Code Council to help make North Carolina one of the most energy-efficient states in the country by requiring better construction techniques. On Tuesday, Easley sent his top policy adviser to tell the council to design an energy code – part of the state’s building code – that would require buildings to be 30 percent more energy efficient than those built to national standards. “You folks have the opportunity to make a difference,” Alan Hirsch, Easley’s senior policy adviser, told the council. Hirsch also announced to the council two grants, worth a total of $550,000, that will help teach local inspectors how to enforce the existing energy code and to encourage architects, engineers and others to go beyond the code to build structures that will save money and reduce energy waste for decades to come. The Building Code Council makes the rules that govern every aspect of a building’s construction. With a $50,000 grant from the National Governor’s Association and $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy, a team of organizations with an interest in the state’s energy use will hold training sessions on energy code and energy-efficient construction. The group also will work with the Building Code Council to help it find ways to expedite updates to the energy code.
7. Hiring Freeze
The Associated Press
The state Department of Transportation has initiated a hiring freeze over budget concerns and an anticipated shortfall in the Federal Highway Trust Fund, according to a memo from the department. The memo from Angela Faulk, the department’s director of human resources, said the freeze will remain in effect until U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters “determines our financial future as impacted by the U.S. Senate Highway Trust Fund Solvency Bill proposal now under consideration.” No new positions will be posted at DOT, but positions that have already begun the hiring process will be completed. The department will not reallocate positions, the memo said. Faulk’s memo was issued Tuesday. Peters is asking Congress for short-term relief by passing legislation that would make an additional $8 billion available for the fund, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week.
The U.S. House has already approved the bill. The Senate had tried several times this year, and as recently as Monday, to funnel money into the fund, only to be blocked by Republicans who wanted to offer amendments or who objected to transferring $8 billion from the Treasury’s general fund into the trust fund, which is made up of money coming from the federal gasoline tax. The primary funding source for the Federal Highway Trust Fund is a federal gasoline tax. But as motorists cut back on their driving to combat high gasoline prices, the federal government is losing about $3.2 billion that should go toward road construction projects. In North Carolina, DOT officials said in July the agency could lose around $300 million, less than 10 percent of the DOT’s $4 billion budget. About 10,000 industry jobs could be lost statewide.