- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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Sept. 22

Greensboro News & Record on state’s rail service:

High-speed passenger rail service isn’t much good if the train takes the long route. So it’s encouraging that North Carolina, Virginia and the Federal Railroad Administration are moving toward shortening the rail distance between Raleigh and Richmond.

In turn, that will result in faster travel from Greensboro to Washington and New York.

Anyone who boards Amtrak’s Carolinian in Greensboro bound for Richmond or destinations farther north experiences the problem. When the train reaches Raleigh (after stops in Burlington, Durham and Cary), it turns southeast toward Smithfield and Selma. Only after stopping there does it take a northerly direction. It stops in Wilson and Rocky Mount before proceeding into Virginia.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has a plan for a more direct route - due north from Raleigh to Richmond, via Petersburg, Virginia. This line would not only be shorter by about 35 miles but faster because it would be built to allow train speeds as fast as 110 mph. That’s not really fast compared to trains in Europe, Japan and China, but it would be a big improvement. With fewer stops and greater speeds, the nearly eight-hour travel time to Washington could be cut by 75 minutes.

(The Crescent, which runs through central Virginia and has fewer stops, carries passengers from Greensboro to Washington in just over six hours, if it’s on schedule.)

Passenger rail service has struggled to compete with airlines and highways. It will never be faster than flying, although it’s cheaper and more comfortable, but it must outpace driving. If someone can drive in less time than taking the train, and gas prices are low, then why not drive? So trains must travel faster. But that depends on having the rails that can accommodate faster trains. Curves must be gentler in many places and grade crossings have to be eliminated or at least made safer.

Rail’s competition with highways is also influenced by increasing traffic. Try driving between Richmond and Washington on I-95. Traffic is frequently bumper-to-bumper.

“Without a strong passenger rail system, the Southeast’s growth will be choked by congestion for a very long time,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last week in a news release. Rail is already an alternative, but it will look much better if it picks up speed.

The price tag to construct a new rail line between Raleigh and Richmond will run into the billions of dollars. But so would widening highways to improve traffic flow farther north. And when gas prices go up again, the cost of driving will increase.

This country might never match Europe or Japan for the quality of passenger rail service, but it can’t afford to miss opportunities to do better. And the same traffic congestion that slows commuters and highway travelers raises the cost of moving goods and materials by truck.

So rail also figures into North Carolina’s 25-year transportation plan for commercial reasons. Businesses need better rail connections with the state’s ports and airports and between cities and industrial parks.

There is also a strong argument for light rail. The state plan, approved by the Board of Transportation last month, considers “potential commuter and light rail in the Triangle, Triad and Metrolina regions.” Moving people without clogging highways is a plus for everyone. Unfortunately, the legislature isn’t interested in light rail options, limiting state contributions to any project to $500,000 a year.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who was mayor of Charlotte when that city developed its light rail system, knows the value of forward-thinking transportation policy. He must get the legislature on board. North Carolina can’t afford to get stuck in traffic or on a slow train taking the long route.

Online:

https://www.greensboro.com

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Sept. 18

The Asheville Citizen-Times on the state’s stance on solar energy and jobs:

Politicians in North Carolina, as do politicians everywhere, talk about the importance of creating and retaining jobs. Evidently a majority of North Carolina legislators don’t mean it when those jobs are in renewable energy. North Carolina provides 35 percent in tax credits up to a $2.5 million cap for major renewable-energy generating projects. Smaller amounts are provided for residential projects. This is in addition to the 30 percent federal tax credit.

The state credits also apply to wind, hydropower, geothermal and biomass, but the primary beneficiary has been the solar power industry. In the last four years North Carolina has gone from very little production to ranking fourth in the nation. North Carolina produces more electricity from the sun than all other Southeastern states combined.

At the start of the year, solar installations were producing nearly 1,100 megawatts of electricity. Projects to add another 800 megawatts are underway. Asheville-based FLS Energy alone is installing 250 megawatts.

The facilities already installed produce enough power for 116,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. With those installations come jobs. SEIA says the state has more than 189 solar-energy companies employing 5,600 people. More than 50 of those people work for FLS Energy and hundreds more are employed building FLS projects.

RTI International says clean energy has supported 44,500 full-time-equivalent jobs, with $3.5 billion invested between 2007 and 2014. For every dollar spent on renewable energy tax credits, $1.54 is generated in state and local taxes.

Solar power is especially important for maintaining otherwise marginal farms, according to Gary Lanier, who heads economic development in Columbus County. “When landowners use some land for solar power generation, they often find their land income increasing by 500 percent or more,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, the belated North Carolina budget ends the program as of Dec. 31, though some projects already underway will continue to receive the credits. The House had wanted to continue the credits, while the Senate wanted to eliminate them and Gov. Pat McCrory wanted to continue them for projects other than solar.

McCrory claimed in his budget message that the industry had “matured” and no longer needed the credits. It is true that due to reduced costs solar energy is rapidly reaching the point where it can stand on its own, but it’s not there yet.

Another claim is that the credits raise power bills. The Charlotte Business Journal points out that power from renewable sources is sold to utilities at mandated rates designed not to increase charges for power.

As for those who say government shouldn’t be favoring one form of electric power over another, what about the $400 million Duke Energy has received from the federal government since 2000 for infrastructure improvements? This is the same Duke Energy that paid no federal income tax from 2008 to 2012, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

Incidentally, Duke also is a major recipient of payments in lieu of federal credits for solar power, to the tune of $473 million, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. It also got about half the state credits between 2007 and 2014, according to RTI International.

Renewable energy is important for a number of reasons. Besides reducing air and water pollution - natural gas is cleaner than coal but still produces some pollutants - it lessens our dependence on imported oil. Has everyone forgotten the lines at gasoline stations in 1973 and 1974 when Arab oil states cut off supplies over U.S. support for Israel?

We cannot wean ourselves from fossil fuels in the short run. But without development of renewables, we doom ourselves to ever more costly and environmentally destructive searches for supplies of oil and gas. The Arctic, opened up by the global warming to which fossil fuels have contributed, is the next frontier, and who knows what problems exploitation there may entail.

And don’t forget the clean-energy jobs.

Online:

https://www.citizen-times.com

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September 19

The News & Observer of Raleigh on a state budget that chooses decline over investment:

It is too generous to call the new state budget a spending plan. It is a spending reaction. Leaders should have a plan, a goal. This is a budget drawn by ideologues who blinked.

Much of what is laid out in the $21.7 billion budget is determined by mandatory responses to growth in education and Medicaid costs. There’s also an “I’m sorry” restoration of the medical expense deduction for seniors, a removal that provoked a strong reaction from a constituency the GOP must win.

And there are “never mind” elements in the decision not to follow the state Senate’s call to eliminate funding for teacher assistants and driver’s education, proposals that provoked teachers and parents alike.

The budget that arrived two months late is not the draconian version the Senate approved. The House - and public outcry - took the sharpest edges off the Senate’s cuts. But the modified version is hardly moderate and a long way from adequate.

There are a few positive elements. Community colleges, a resource for young people and workers displaced by the Great Recession, received a significant boost in funding. The legislature did not, as threatened, gut funding for the job-creating N.C. Biotechnology Center. And starting teacher pay will be boosted from $33,000 to $35,000. The state’s reserve fund was prudently bolstered.

But overall the budget, given inflation and population growth, remains mired at recession levels. While other states invest surpluses to increase stagnant state employee and teachers’ salaries, North Carolina’s legislature proposes a one-shot $750 bonus and gives away the recovery’s growing revenue in tax cuts to wealthy individuals and profitable, multi-state corporations that will take, but hardly need, the state’s largesse.

Middle- and low-income wage earners won’t see a meaningful boost from the tax cuts. But they will feel the bite of an expanded sales tax that applies to the cost of auto and household repairs. And they’ll see a state in decline, its public schools strapped, its public employees stiffed for yet another year and its infrastructure fraying.

Meg Wiehe, state tax policy director for the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates tax fairness, says North Carolina is virtually alone in the nation in giving away the fruits of recovery.

“It’s very counter to what we’ve seen in other states where revenue has come back and states are making investments to make up for cuts during the recession,” Wiehe says.

The only other state indulging in repeated tax cuts is Ohio, Wiehe says, but Ohio has approved a federally funded expansion of its Medicaid program and added an earned income tax credit for low-wage earners. North Carolina, along with 18 other states, is still rejecting the billions of federal health care dollars expansion would bring and has eliminated its earned income tax credit.

If North Carolina’s Republican leaders really had a spending plan, they wouldn’t have needed an extra two months to get it through a legislature with Republican super majorities in both houses.

What they came up with is a budget that follows trickle-down theories even as more Republicans rebel against that folly. Donald Trump is leading the field of Republican presidential candidates by saying he will increase taxes on the rich and won’t let “hedge fund guys rip off the people by paying no or very little in taxes.”

Most North Carolinians understand that the state won’t prosper simply by making the prosperous more so. That’s why an August Public Policy Polling poll found the General Assembly’s approval rating at 15 percent versus a 60 percent disapproval.

Republicans have one more year of legislative control before they face a reckoning with voters. Between now and then, they’ll need to show they can lead rather than cut, react, restore and guess at how much voters will tolerate.

Online:

https://www.newsobserver.com

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