- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

March 17

Charlotte Observer on penalizing Russia:

Given Vladimir Putin’s deaf ear to warnings about his country’s brazen occupation of Crimea, there’s a good chance the Russian president will shrug off the latest sanctions announced Monday by President Barack Obama. Those penalties, however, are an appropriate step for the U.S. and its European allies to take, so long as Obama and his partners are ready to go further.

Obama signed an executive order Monday banning visas and, more importantly, freezing the U.S. assets of seven Russians and four Ukrainians. European leaders announced similar sanctions for 21 Russians but didn’t immediately say who they are. The U.S. list includes aides and allies to the Russian president, including one of his most influential advisers, Vladislav Surkov. The common thread: Each played a role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We’re making it clear there are consequences for these actions,” Obama said Monday at the White House. The president left the door open to a diplomatic solution, although what that might be is unclear at this point. Crimea is occupied, and its citizens have voted in a Moscow-supported referendum to rejoin Russia. Putin seems unlikely to step away from all that he has choreographed thus far.

The U.S. and Europe, therefore, must be ready to expand sanctions if Putin formally annexes Crimea into Russia or moves militarily into the rest of Ukraine. Next up for the U.S. and Europe to target: Russia’s power brokers. That includes Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, and Igor Sechin, chairman of Russian oil giant Rosneft. Also on the table: Blocking Russia’s financial sector from doing business in the U.S. or Europe.

All of which could come with a cost, especially to European countries. Russia is the EU’s biggest supplier of oil and gas, and Europe exports more than $170 billion in goods annually to Russia. Should Putin respond to sanctions with his own restrictions on trade, Europe and its businesses would suffer. Putin seems to be betting thus far that countries like Germany - which has a lot to lose from a ruptured relationship with Russia - will not back significant sanctions for a small slice of the Ukraine.

But it’s Russia that stands to lose the most economically in this standoff, and it’s encouraging that one of the loudest voices critical of Putin is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She, President Obama and Europe’s other leaders should be patient with sanctions and unwavering in the face of Russian threats - be they economic or political. (Russia holds at least some sway in Iran and Syria.)

Monday brought a message - that the U.S. and Europe won’t tolerate Russia’s aggression. Should the Russian president continue not to listen, President Obama and our allies must speak even more clearly, and more firmly, with more economic and political consequences.

Online:

http://www.charlotteobserver.com

___

March 16

The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C., on DENR finally stepping up:

It has taken too long and too many questionable developments have occurred, but we are grateful that finally the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has shown a hint of spine in dealing with Duke Energy.

The record of favorable treatment, winking at violations and lax oversight before and after the energy giant’s coal ash pond have been troubling, to say the least. Evidence suggests that the insistence on loosening regulations and getting bureaucratic oversight out of the way of “creating jobs” might have gone too far, to say the least.

But this week, DENR officials rebuffed Duke’s plan to clean up 33 ash ponds at 14 plants. DENR Secretary John Skvaria - who has heretofore done verbal gyrations to defend his agency’s mild treatment of Duke - labeled the plan inadequate, according to the News and Observer of Raleigh. The agency told Duke to produce by Saturday a more detailed and comprehensive plan to remove the coal ash.

The agency’s new firmness comes as the N. C. Utilities Commission wades into the fray, legislators are preparing legislation to introduce in the session that begins in May, many assail the utility’s assertion that customers, not investors, will pay the costs to clean up the spill - and an advocacy group releases internal emails that seem to indicate the DENR staff and Duke representatives were in closer collaboration than would seem appropriate.

As Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss of The Associated Press reported, the emails “suggest state regulators were coordinating with Duke Energy before intervening in efforts by citizens groups trying to sue the company over groundwater pollution leeching from its coal-ash dumps.”

Complained Frank Holleman, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center:

“Duke is the lawbreaker. DENR is the law enforcement agency. They are supposed to be protecting the people. Instead, they are working with the lawbreaker to find a way to limit the participation of citizens groups in the law enforcement proceedings.”

Duke has charged that the law center displayed “a reckless disregard for the facts” and the exchanges may have been fairly routine in negotiations between the state agency and businesses it regulates. Still, taken with other evidence of favorable treatment of Duke, the emails raise further questions about the nature of the relationship.

The legislation Democrats are drafting would among other things require Duke to close and move all of its coal ash ponds in safe storage away from water sources, the N & O reported. It would prohibit putting any more ash into the ponds and prevent Duke from clean-up costs on to its customers.

It is important legislation the legislature should pass.

Over the ensuing weeks, the debate will continue and no doubt be further enveloped by partisan rhetoric, especially since Gov. Pat McCrory’s foes will continue to suggest his former employment by Duke compromises his objectivity.

We hope, as this process unfolds, DENR will continue to find the tenacity to enforce rigorously the state’s laws designed to protect our waterways and water supplies.

Online:

http://www.heraldsun.com

____

March 15

News and Observer, Raleigh, N.C., on UNC supporters should press for better funding:

Liberals joke that State Budget Director Art Pope, not Pat McCrory, is the real governor of North Carolina.

But now it seems they conferred the wrong title. Pope, the wealthy owner of discount stores and funder of conservative candidates and think tanks, apparently would prefer to run the University of North Carolina System. That’s the message implicit in his recent description of the university system’s budget request as “unrealistic.”

In a memo to university leaders, Pope pointedly said the university was asking for too much and should consider using money from sources other than the general fund. He said the university system had basically ignored his office’s instructions in December to keep its budget increase to no more than 2 percent.

The university responded by setting aside its request for $74 million in new construction money, but stood by its need for $108 million more in operating money.

The budget director, of course, has a duty to critically assess budget requests. But this was more than taking a sharp pencil to the university’s spending plan.

First, he characterized it as a request for an 11 percent spending increase. He got that double-digit percentage by combining the university’s request for continuing operating funds with one-time capital and repair and renovation expenses. Those types of spending usually are considered separately when the General Assembly sets the state budget. The requested operating increase is only 4.6 percent.

Second, the budget director made his objections known in a formal and public way. Instead of picking up the phone and asking UNC President Tom Ross for explanations and modifications, he held up the university as profligate. It was a politically charged move because many people resent the university’s tuition increases and its ranks of well-paid administrators.

Finally, Pope’s memo focused on increased spending without accounting for cuts to UNC’s budget in recent years. This fiscal year, the UNC system received $2.5 billion in state money for operations. That’s less than the system received in 2007-08 before a succession of annual budget cuts.

Since 2007-08, appropriations per student have dropped 7 percent, and the cost of a UNC education has shifted more to students. Funding that had been 74 percent from the state and 26 percent from tuition has slipped to 64 percent state and 36 percent tuition. North Carolina was one of only three states in the South that failed to increase its spending on higher education last year. Meanwhile, the system is struggling to retain faculty and the millions of dollars in grants that they bring in.

Pope dismissed the UNC request as ignoring the state’s tight finances, but it is Gov. McCrory and the Republican leaders of the General Assembly who have spent wantonly. The legislature and governor gave away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy. They also give up hundreds of millions in federal money by refusing to expand Medicaid and extend unemployment benefits.

Now Pope and the Republican leadership are preaching realism to UNC and others, such as veteran teachers and state employees, who have gone through years of austerity only to see the Republicans tightening the flow of state funds as the economy improves.

Pope will submit the governor’s budget in May. It’s unlikely to include the funding needed to maintain a university system that is the state’s great accomplishment and its engine for further progress. But lawmakers will set the final funding. It’s time for those who prize the university system to press for an investment that will maintain its excellence.

Online:

http://www.newsobserver.com

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