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In spending stalemate, N.C. Republicans advance 'mini-budgets'

RALEIGH — Frustrated by a two-month budget impasse, North Carolina Republicans on Tuesday advanced narrowed tax and spending legislation that seeks to take away some bargaining chips from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The House and Senate debated and voted on several bills that would increase pay for state employees and state law enforcement officers, as well as for local school workers like custodians and other non-instructors. Another piece of legislation that passed the Senate would give one-time refunds to everyone who owed state income tax last year, with some couples getting $250, thanks to a large revenue surplus.

Cooper sounded irked by the Republican strategy in a news conference later Tuesday, calling it “another trick” by GOP leaders whom he says won’t come to the budget negotiating table. But he declined to say whether he’d sign or veto the measures, several of which could be on his desk later this week.

Everything except the tax rebate bill originates almost exactly from the two-year budget measure Cooper vetoed June 28 because it lacked Medicaid expansion and generous teacher raises.

House Republicans, whose majority is no longer veto-proof, have been unable to entice enough Democrats to vote for an override. This failure — along with Cooper’s emphasis on getting Medicaid expansion approved and the GOP’s opposition to considering the idea now — has led to idled negotiations for several weeks.

So legislative leaders last week revealed their plans to essentially approve “mini-budgets” full of pay raises and the tax break, then essentially dare Cooper to veto the bills when they reach his desk. The bills represent popular ideas that stand less risk for vetoes and greater likelihood of an override. Three of the employee salary bills passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday. But one received tentative House approval on a mostly party-line vote.

“I would not have anticipated (Cooper) being so bull-headed about having Medicaid expansion, knowing that it’s an issue that doesn’t have consensus,” said Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican and a senior budget-writer. “But nevertheless, that’s the pathway that he’s chosen to move forward, and if he’s chooses to veto pay raises, that’s on the governor.”

The governor has repeatedly rejected Republican arguments that he must secure Medicaid expansion before budget talks can advance. Cooper made a budget compromise offer last month, but Republicans haven’t publicly responded with a counteroffer.

“Instead, we get congressional-style piecemeal budget bills,” Cooper said Tuesday. He added it’s the Republicans who won’t officially negotiate unless his efforts to cover hundreds of thousands of additional working people are set aside.

“I’m not going to do that. It has to be part of our discussion,” the governor said, citing meetings he’s had with the uninsured and their struggles. “They hope that Raleigh would listen. We owe it to them to work to close this health care coverage gap.”

The mini-budget bills, which largely cut and paste items from the vetoed two-year budget, would:

  • give 2.5% pay raises annually to rank-and-file state employees and state law enforcement for the next two years, with bonus and incentives for correctional officers working in hard-to-staff prisons or who are moved to higher-security prisons.
  • give 1% raises this year to non-certified local school personnel.
  • provide cost-of-living bonuses in 2019 and 2020 for state retirees equal to 0.5% of their annual pensions.
  • complete final funding and more changes so the state Medicaid system can switch later this year from a fee-for-service program to a managed-care program. Conventional insurers and a physician partnership will soon be treating up to 1.6 million Medicaid recipients. The “prepaid health plan” doesn’t address Medicaid expansion through the 2010 health care law, which Cooper is seeking.

Republicans have not yet rolled out a bill to address public school teacher raises. Saine said one will come out later. The GOP budget offered average 3.8% pay raises for teachers over two years. Cooper’s latest offer would provide 8.5% average raises over the same time.

Cooper said he sent letters Tuesday to scores of UNC System chancellors, community college presidents, public school superintendents and county commissioners urging them to lobby legislators and tell them to negotiate with Cooper a “responsible budget that works for all North Carolinians.”


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The healing arts

The city of Greensboro, Cone Health, and community partners recently launched Parkinson’s and the Arts, a free program that allows individuals with Parkinson’s disease to use dance, art, music, drama and improv comedy as therapy. It’s offered from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesdays at the Van Dyke Performance Space at the Greensboro Cultural Center. Dance is the focus though Oct. 8, hosted by the Dance Project. Find more photos at greensboro.com.


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Third mystery donation covers remaining meal debt in Guilford County Schools

GREENSBORO — Thanks to a series of anonymous donations, no student in Guilford County Schools owes money for previous unpaid meals.

Late last week, a married couple offered to pay $32,228.25 — the remaining lunch debt for the entire school system.

It marked the third such donation announced in a two-week period.

Two weeks ago, the school district said that an anonymous donor had paid off $10,500 in school meal debt for the schools in High Point.

A week later, another donor wrote a check for $3,800 to pay the debt for the schools in Jamestown.

In all, the anonymous donors covered more than $46,500 in unpaid meals.

The latest gift shows “how one act of kindness can quickly spread throughout an entire community,” Angie Henry, the district’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday in a news release.

Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, said the couple that made the latest donation had been moved by seeing the similar stories recently and saw an opportunity to help out families in their own community.

The community foundation is involved because the couple used what is called a “donor-advised fund.”

Such funds, set up by a donor at a public charity, allow the donor to receive charitable tax-deduction benefits up front. The donor then can recommend grants from their fund over time.

“They were really excited and pleased to be able to do this,” Sanders said. “They felt it was important.”

Henry said previously that district policy allows elementary and middle school students to charge up to five lunches and five breakfasts. After that, if they can’t pay, Henry said, the cafeterias give them a pared down, cheaper version of the daily meal.

Many students qualify for federally-funded free meals based on family need, or they go to a school in a high-poverty area where free lunch is offered for everyone. Those students don’t have to worry about this issue, Henry said.

However, she said, some families experience a dramatic change to their finances in the middle of the year. They may not know that they can and should apply for free or reduced price lunch when that happens, rather than sending students to school without.

If the donors had not stepped in, the district would have had to cover the meal debt. Anything not collected by Sept. 30 would have come out of the district’s general fund.

“Today that’s completely gone,” Henry said of the more than $46,500 in meal debt. “I know our students and parents appreciate the generosity of our community and these donors.”


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An interesting article in today's paper

Ed Hardin: Wake Forest is forced to embrace playing three straight football games on Friday. Page C1


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Pedestrian deaths keep rising in North Carolina, far outpacing population growth

RALEIGH — The number of people killed in traffic accidents in North Carolina increased again last year, but one group who had it especially hard was not riding in a car or truck: pedestrians.

Last year, 228 pedestrians were killed in the state, up 13.4 percent from the previous year, according to a report released this month by the state Division of Motor Vehicles. Since bottoming out at 148 in 2009, the number of pedestrians killed each year in North Carolina has risen 54 percent, more than five times the rate of population growth during that time.

The numbers mirror a national trend. Pedestrian deaths nationwide topped 8,000 in 1980, then declined until they reached a little more than half that number, 4,109, in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual census of motor vehicle deaths.

Since then, the number of pedestrians killed on the nation’s streets and highways has risen again, to 5,977 in 2017, the most recent year available. This spring, the Governors Highway Safety Association estimated the 2018 total based on data from the first half of the year and came up with 6,227, which would be the highest in 28 years.

“The alarm bells continue to sound on this issue,” the group’s executive director, Jonathan Adkins, said in a statement. “It’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend.”

The increases defy a simple explanation. The Governors Highway Safety Association report cited several possible factors, including the increasing distractions caused by use of cellphones, by both pedestrians and drivers, and the growing prevalence of larger vehicles, such as SUVs, that make it more likely that a collision with a pedestrian will be fatal.

Another possible factor, says Mark Ezzell, director of the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program, is that as the message not to drink and drive has taken hold, more people are drinking and walking.

“People who are in fact impaired believe it is safer to walk than get behind the wheel of a car,” Ezzell said. “They want to do the right thing.”

Alcohol use by the pedestrian is suspected in about 30 percent of fatal pedestrian accidents, according to Christopher Oliver, a traffic safety specialist for the N.C. Department of Transportation. Oliver also noted that crash reports have increasingly cited other actions by pedestrians killed on the road that contributed to the accidents, including wearing dark clothing, lying or illegally being in the roadway and failing to yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.

Of the 228 pedestrians killed in crashes last year, 78 percent died at night, primarily between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., Oliver said.

Not surprisingly, most pedestrian deaths occurred in urban counties, where more people are likely to be out on foot. But one county, Mecklenburg, had by far the highest number, with 37, more than twice as many as in Wake County, with 16.

Among the other findings from the DMV report:

  • Including pedestrians, 1,442 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2018, up 3.3 percent over the year before, but almost the same number as in 2016.
  • The number of motorcyclists killed in accidents spiked nearly 21 percent in 2018, to 169 statewide. That number fluctuates from year to year, with a less defined pattern than with pedestrians. The same number of motorcyclists died in 2015 and in 2010.
  • Eighteen bicyclists were killed on the road last year. That’s down from 30 the year before but about average for the last decade or so.
  • About 28.5 percent of fatalities were the result of crashes that involved alcohol, which matches the five-year average. In cases where use of seat belts was recorded, 41 percent of drivers and passengers who died in accidents last year were not wearing one.

The history of crash deaths in North Carolina and nationwide has been one of dramatic improvement since the 1960s. The number of people killed in the state per 100 million miles driven has dropped from nearly 7 in the mid-1960s to 1.19 last year, according to DMV. Increased use of seat belts, graduated licensing programs for teen drivers and improvements in cars and trucks themselves, such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and better protection of occupants in a crash, have all helped make driving safer.

Other factors have helped drive down the number of pedestrian deaths, including construction of more sidewalks and crosswalks and perhaps a decline in people having to walk in unsafe areas. Some of those trends may have reversed with changes in demographics and the growing preference for walking, even in areas without “appropriate facilities,” Oliver said.

There are a number of efforts aimed at improving pedestrian safety, at the local and state level. They include Watch for Me NC, a statewide campaign that marries public safety messages and community engagement with targeted law enforcement efforts in dangerous areas.

A broader effort called Vision Zero aims to reduce traffic accidents of all kinds, through research and advocacy. One of the focus areas for Vision Zero is Robeson County, where 48 people died in crashes last year, including nine pedestrians, giving it the second highest rate of fatal crashes per registered vehicles in the state, after sparsely populated Graham County.