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Strategy of smaller budget bills gains traction with N.C. legislators, encourages GOP legislative leaders to expand scope

The “mini-budget bill” approach of North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders continues to gain momentum in Raleigh two months into a state budget stalemate.

The approach is serving, so far, as an effective legislative end-around to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s June 28 veto of the 2019-21 budget crafted by Republicans.

Four bills allowing for 5% state employee pay raises cleared both chambers of the General Assembly this week. The bills would free up state money for the raises, retroactive to July 1.

The bills affect the Highway Patrol (House Bill 126), certain state employees (HB226), correctional officers (HB609) the State Bureau of Investigation, and N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement (HB777). The bills passed without a single “no” vote.

Republican legislative leaders and Cooper submitted the same pay raise level in their respective budget proposals.

“This has been a responsible approach to put into law those areas where there is broad agreement,” N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Eden, said during a news conference Wednesday. “This represents progress and responsible governing, and we hope it will help build trust.”

Mitch Kokai, a senior policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group, said it “seems unlikely” Cooper would veto bills that have won unanimous support in both chambers.

“He might allow the bills to become law without his signature,” Kokai said. “Or he might sign the bills, praise the workers who will see pay raises, and at the same time criticize lawmakers for passing piecemeal budget bills that he has labeled a ‘gimmick’ or ‘trick.’ ”

None of the four bills deals with pay raises for public-school educators. Cooper’s compromise proposal includes an average 8.5% raise for teachers, while the GOP budget offers a 3.8% raise.

Berger said that while he is willing to talk with Cooper and Democratic leaders about those raises, he stressed the gap between their funding proposals is too large for the end-around strategy.

Cooper has criticized the mini-budget approach, particularly in regard to raises for educators.

“Republican leaders have avoided negotiations by trying to override the governor’s veto and suggesting a series of mini budgets instead of a single spending plan,” Cooper’s office said in a statement. “Where is the Republican counteroffer?

“Republican stalling means many teachers start a new school year this week without a state pay raise. The Republican proposal is not enough to stay competitive with recent pay raises in neighboring states. A significant raise is needed to help attract and retain more high-quality educators,” the statement said.

Wayne Goodwin, the chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party, said the piecemeal budget proposals “are nothing more than political gimmicks from Republicans who refuse to compromise or negotiate.”

“Republican leaders are so used to getting their way that they’re willing to forgo good public policy and cost taxpayers millions of dollars for a budget that doesn’t come close to meeting North Carolina’s needs on public schools or affordable health care,” he said.

Health care

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, supports tackling the mini-budget bills and/or passing the state budget first, and then taking up health care issues in a special session later this year.

Cooper has balked at a special session, saying it is “a fantasy to think Medicaid expansion would happen” in one.

So far, bills to expand Medicaid have failed to advance in the legislature. However, a bill aimed at transforming the program, HB155, has cleared the Senate and gained preliminary House approval. If passed, it would free up $218 million in start-up money to change the program to managed care.

Analysts say Cooper could veto the bill in his pursuit of some form of Medicaid expansion.

Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University, said it is likely Cooper will veto one of the mini-budget bills.

“It very well might include raises, but I think he is even more likely to veto the Taxpayer Refund Act as a test of strength and solidarity with other members of his party,” Madjd-Sadjadi said, referring to a bill that would take $680 million of a budget surplus and return it to taxpayers — up to $125 to taxpayers who filed singly or $250 to couples who filed jointly.

Cooper and Democratic legislative leaders have said the refunds could be better spent teacher pay raises or school construction.

Madjd-Sadjadi warned that, if not headed off, the piecemeal strategy “could be just the end-around that Republicans need to essentially pass their budget without actually trying to override the veto.”

Other bills advance

Berger revealed additional bills Wednesday designed to advance GOP budget legislation. They include rape kit testing, enhancing school safety measures, disaster assistance relief and correctional infrastructure improvements.

Those bills will not be taken up until Sept. 9 at the earliest after the legislature returns from a recess next week.

Berger said those bills should have broad support as well and shouldn’t be held any longer than necessary in the budget stalemate.

John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University who is a national expert on state legislatures, said, “It’s still not clear whether the governor has developed an exit strategy from a situation where he continues to focus on Medicaid expansion .

“The prospects are dim to nonexistent of the Senate approving any form of Medicaid expansion, whether in traditional form or an ever-so-slightly modified form of expansion as envisioned by some House members,” Dinan said.

He said it’s noteworthy that “of various mini-budget measures, the teacher-pay-raise measure is the one that has been crafted to permit amendments” and appears to offer “the best prospects for negotiation and compromise.”

“It might allow several more Democratic House members to win concessions and vote for the measure in such a way as to allow a budget to finally be passed, albeit in piecemeal fashion,” Dinan said. “And also give Democrats some concessions on an issue that is a top Democratic priority.”


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Crying foul: For many, trying to find Popeyes' new chicken sandwich has been a punch in the gut

GREENSBORO — Unless you’ve been hiding under a henhouse, you probably know that a social media firestorm has erupted over, of all things, the new fried chicken sandwich from Popeyes.

The chain, which was founded in New Orleans, is known for its fried chicken and seafood. By introducing a chicken sandwich — a weighty boneless filet topped with pickles and served on a brioche bun — to its menu, Popeyes has stepped into a new arena.

And the world is seemingly losing its collective mind.

After Popeyes made the announcement on Twitter earlier this month, competitors swiftly responded by talking smack on social media.

Chick-fil-A, which takes credit for inventing the chicken sandwich about 50 years ago, posted on Twitter: “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the (heart emoji) for the original.”

Wendy’s took a shot. So, too, did the public, posting YouTube videos, memes and comments about which fast-food chain had the best chicken sandwich.

For those lucky enough to find a Popeyes that has one, the question has been answered.

Here in the South, where eating chicken is a way of life, the jury is still out for some. Lines formed at many Popeyes locations. Stores sold out, including a location on Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro.

“We ran out of buns on Sunday and had to stop selling the sandwich,” general manager Thomas Byrd said.

On Monday, someone from the Chick-fil-A across the street brought its chicken sandwiches to Popeyes employees.

“I think it was kind of a joke,” Byrd said.

By Tuesday, the Gate City Popeyes was back to hawking sandwiches and about 100 people called to ask about their availability.

“I had to stop answering the phone,” Byrd said.

On Wednesday, business was brisk as cars crammed into the parking lot and customers cozied up to the counter.

After some failed attempts, Isaiah Williams was finally able to sink his teeth into the shifty sandwich. He took a bite and said it was better than Chick-fil-A’s counterpart.

“I like the batter. It’s crispier,” said Williams, a junior at N.C. A&T.

The expected long lines didn’t materialize Wednesday, but plenty of people were glad to finally get a taste — including Clarence Woods and his wife, Amy, from Danville, Va.

It was their second trip to Greensboro trying to score a sandwich.

Clarence moaned as he took a bite, saying, “It was worth the drive.”

Once again, the comparison to Chick-fil-A was inevitable.

“It’s way bigger than Chick-fil-A,” Clarence mused. “The only thing bad about it is that it ain’t got no cheese.”

Ebony Watkins, who lives in Winston-Salem, happened to be in the city running errands. Since Winston-Salem doesn’t have a Popeyes, she decided to swing by — with a caveat.

“I wasn’t going to wait in line 30 minutes,” she said.

Which brings us again to Williams. He was back.

“My friend called,” Williams explained, “and said to bring him one.”


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An interesting article in today's newspaper

Caught on video: Hickory man says he captured proof of his fourth encounter with Bigfoot. Page A4


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AP
N.C. lawmakers back changes to distribute hurricane funds

RALEIGH — Still unsatisfied with the state’s distribution of long-term federal housing funds after Hurricane Matthew, North Carolina Republicans led by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis are backing a proposal geared toward accelerating recovery spending for future storms.

Tillis said Wednesday that he would introduce federal legislation to attempt to speed up federal assistance to families and communities like those still struggling to rebound after Hurricane Matthew, which came ashore nearly three years ago.

At a news conference, Tillis and state legislators told stories of residents still waiting for housing repair money so they can move back into their homes. Some of the people, Tillis said, suffered more damage after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

“They’ve got to be asking the question, ‘Why isn’t that money flowing sooner?’ That’s the question we’re asking,” Tillis said at a Legislative Building news conference. “There may be a legitimate answer for a portion of it, but it’s hard to believe that it would be for all of it.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $237 million to the state in the form of a federal community block grant designed as a last resort to reimburse or pay individuals for long-term housing and infrastructure recovery. But less than 10% of these funds — separate from hundreds of millions of recovery dollars handed out soon after the storms for immediate needs — actually had been spent as of July.

The bill, which Tillis said he would file next month, would set “tangible spending goals” for state agencies that manage the grants. And cities and counties could ask HUD to send federal assistance directly to them if a state is designated a “slow spender” for 18 months.

The agency’s report said some local government employees said counties could have implemented the disaster recovery block grant themselves.

“In many instances, we have the expertise or the nature of the needs are such that we can simply streamline the process down to the local governments,” Tillis said. The legislation also would ask the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review property buyout programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management and offer suggested improvements. In these programs, residents are moved to higher ground.

In a report released in May, the legislature’s government watchdog agency blamed administrative mistakes and a lack of expertise for the block grant distribution delays. HUD has designated North Carolina a “slow spender” of the grant. The federal government this month just approved the rules for the state on how to spend another $168 million in Matthew-related money.

State Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry discouraged the idea of giving local governments direct access to funds, saying they “lack the staff expertise and capacity to administer hundreds of millions of dollars of highly regulated federal aid.”

In a release, Sprayberry said the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency, created last year in part to implement these grants, has made “significant progress in building an organization to efficiently get resources to the people who need them.”

Although Tills said he wasn’t seeking to issue blame on the North Carolina delays, Republicans have been quick to criticize Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose administration includes a state Office of Recovery and Resiliency that’s directed to manage the funds.

“We’re constantly having to hear from our constituents about the slow spending that’s been happening with the governor’s administration,” state Sen. Danny Britt of Lumberton said.

Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said late Wednesday that $93 million of the $237 million in the Matthew block grant is “spent or committed.” She blamed Tillis, who is seeking reelection next year, and Republicans for seeking to score political points while Cooper is trying “to do what’s right by storm survivors.”


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High Point University freshman arrested; 2 guns seized from his dorm room

HIGH POINT — A High Point University freshman is being held without bond after he was found with two firearms and ammunition on campus.

High Point police arrested Paul Arnold Steber, 19, in his dorm room Tuesday night.

The arrest happened after HPU students told university security officers that another student had two firearms on campus, according to a message that HPU sent to students and employees Tuesday night.

The university said in its email Tuesday night that “there is no immediate threat” to campus. HPU reported no injuries, and no shots were fired.

Steber was charged with two felony counts of possessing weapons on educational property and one felony count of communicating a threat of mass violence on educational property, according to High Point police.

WGHP-Channel 8 reported Wednesday that High Point police records said that Steber allegedly had plotted to “shoot up the school” and had a “plan and timeline to kill people.” Police said they seized two weapons from his dorm room: a 9mm semi-automatic handgun and a short-barreled 12-gauge black powder shotgun.

High Point police said they have no evidence of any additional threats.

In court Wednesday, according to WGHP, a Guilford County prosecutor said Steber had been researching mass shootings since last year and planned to kill his roommate and himself if they didn’t get into a campus fraternity. The TV station also reported that the prosecutor said Steber, who’s from Boston, picked a North Carolina college because it’s easier to buy guns here than in Massachusetts.

High Point police said Wednesday that a judge ordered Steber remain in jail without bond for up to 10 days. The judge also ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation.

A university spokeswoman said Steber is a first-year student who’s majoring in political science and that HPU has banned him from campus.

State law generally bans people from carrying and possessing guns and other weapons on college and university campuses but makes some exceptions for college employees who live on campus and concealed handgun permit holders who leave a handgun in a closed container inside a locked vehicle.