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Sen. Elizabeth Warren stops in Greensboro on presidential campaign swing through NC; touts 'wealth tax' to help pay for education

GREENSBORO — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren kicked off her presidential campaign’s first swing through North Carolina on Thursday with a high-energy stop at N.C. A&T.

Promising $50 billion in additional federal support for A&T and other historically black colleges and universities, Warren told an enthusiastic audience of several hundred that if elected, she would help pay for that and other new social programs with a “wealth tax” of 2 percent on the super rich.

“I think we need a wealth tax,” she said, adding that the rich would not have to pay the tax on their first $50 million.

But “it’s 2 cents on every dollar after that,” she said.

Warren said the new tax also would help pay for such initiatives as universal child care, tuition-free college educations and an end to student loan debt among those who have attended college and other institutions of higher learning.

“Two cents out of the pockets of the top one-tenth of 1 percent in America,” Warren said. “And that 2 cents would fund everything I just described.”

The Democratic senator from Massachusetts spent about 90 minutes onstage at Harrison Auditorium. She was there to tape an episode of the “On One” podcast with host Angela Rye, a Democratic activist and political commentator.

Warren addressed the audience in her high-energy style before the taping, then lingered to pose for “selfies” with literally dozens of audience members at the end.

Rye kept the senator’s appearance moving with word-association questions, such as one exchange where the host said “Mike Pence,” referring to the GOP vice president, and Warren responded, “Oh no!”

Other exchanges revealed Warren is no fan of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, favors reparations to atone for slavery and racism, prefers sweet potato pie to pumpkin, would rather play poker than dominoes and does not think 16-year-old students should be allowed to vote.

The host did not challenge any of Warren’s assertions on policy and politics. But Rye did try unsuccessfully to get her guest to differentiate her policies from those of another top-of-the-pile Democratic presidential contender, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

She said the primary process puts candidates in uncomfortable territory.

“You’re not running against the bad guys, you’re running against your friends,” she said. “And yet you’re saying, ‘I’m the one to carry the ball.’”

Warren’s entourage included appearances on stage by two black Democratic congresswomen who sang her praises: U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, who now represents the Charlotte area after years of holding office in a previous district that included parts of Greensboro, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.

Pressley’s recent decision to support Warren was significant because she is a member of “The Squad,” four minority congresswomen elected in last year’s Democratic wave who have made a name for themselves by their outspoken willingness to take on the Washington establishment.

The other three Squad members — Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — have thrown their support behind Sanders.

The sheer novelty of a major presidential candidate making Greensboro her first North Carolina campaign stop drew a sizable, but not capacity crowd to the auditorium.

The questioners included A&T student Chris Samuel, a Sanders supporter in the 2016 election who said he was there to see what Warren had to offer.

“I’m just coming to hear her. I’m undecided,” Samuel said.

But Greensboro retiree Jane Walter said she knew going in that Warren was her favorite for the party’s nomination.

“I’m impressed by the number of in-depth plans that she has,” Walter said. “She has obviously done a great deal of research in pulling together ideas that are very appealing to me.”

And Warren’s performance generally was well received by the audience.

Leaving the auditorium afterwards, A&T senior TyRel Thompson said he “didn’t know who she was” before the event, but heard enough to consider himself a supporter.

His fellow A&T student, Alexis Givan, agreed: “I didn’t know much about her before, but she convinced me she’s the best.”

Those who stuck around for “selfies” with Warren actually passed their cellphones to campaign staffers, who then snapped a series of photos of them with the petite candidate in her turquoise jacket.

Greensboro resident Vanita Vactor said she couldn’t have been happier with the photos — or her interaction with Warren.

“I told her that I was a retired professor and that I wanted to see a woman be president before I died,” Vactor said as she left the stage. “She said, ‘A smart woman.’ ”

“And I said, ‘Yes, you are that woman.’ ”

The 70-year-old, two-term senator’s debut visit to North Carolina as a presidential contender was scheduled to continue Thursday evening with a town-hall meeting at a Raleigh high school.

Her itinerary also included a meeting today in Raleigh with groups focused on issues that are important to Latino residents.

North Carolina Republicans reacted strongly to Warren’s visit, saying her left-leaning approach to government would spell doom for the state’s prosperity.

“Her plans would rip more than 200 million people off of their private health insurance, eliminate more than two million jobs and send our economy spiraling toward another depression,” said Michael Whatley, chairman of the state Republican Party.

N.C. teachers could get 4.9% raises through an offer by the state GOP leaders

Republican senators in the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh increased their pay-raise proposal for public-school teachers Thursday in a bid to put more pressure on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to approve a minibudget bill.

Cooper has until Monday to decide whether to sign the pay legislation, Senate Bill 354; make it his 11th veto of the 2019 legislative session; or let it become law without his signature, which he has done with two bills.

SB354 would raise public-school employees’ pay by an average of 3.9%, retroactive to July 1. On Oct. 30, in party line votes, the Senate passed the bill 28-20 and the House approved it 62-46.

On Thursday, a statement from the office of N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, contained a proposal that would up the teacher raise to 4.9% for all teachers, as well as provide a $1,000 bonus.

The proposal was presented earlier this week to Democratic Sens. Dan Blue and Darren Jackson, both of Wake County, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee leadership team.

The committee leaders also cited a willingness to discuss the Republicans’ proposal to move the headquarters of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services from Raleigh to Oxford.

Cooper has said the GOP budget does not contain a large enough pay increase for public-school teachers — he has proposed an 8.6% raise.

The issue is one of the two main reasons Cooper vetoed the GOP-drafted state budget compromise, House Bill 966, on June 28, the other being the lack of Medicaid expansion legislation. The budget stalemate reaches Day 133 today.

“We gave the Senate Democrats one more chance to show they support teachers,” Republican Sens. Harry Brown of Onslow County, Kathy Harrington of Gaston County and Brent Jackson of Sampson County said in a joint statement, expressing similar comments made when SB250 was ratified Oct. 30.

“Instead, they’re backing Gov. Cooper’s Medicaid ultimatum,” the statement said. “It’s clear that Democrats are intent on blocking any and all teacher raises so they can turn around and blame Republicans.”

Dory MacMillan, Cooper’s press secretary, said that “the only ultimatum has come from dishonest Republican legislative leaders who insist on a budget veto override, which gives them sweeping corporate tax cuts and $380 million in pork projects instead of adequate teacher pay raises.”

“Republican leaders know full well that the governor has offered time and again to negotiate these educator pay raises separate and apart from Medicaid expansion or any other budget issue,” MacMillan said.

According to said John Dinan, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and a national expert on state legislatures, splitting the difference between Republican and Democratic positions on teacher pay “has always been the obvious way to negotiate an end to the monthslong budget standoff.”

“It is easy to see how the parties could engage in give and take on teacher pay and some other budget issues,” Dinan said.

“The key question is whether the governor is willing to engage in such give and take at this point, given the strong stand he has long taken on Medicaid expansion,” he said, “or alternatively whether one or several Democrats are willing to take such a deal and claim a partial win on teacher pay increases.”

To override Cooper’s budget veto with full attendance, Senate Republicans need to persuade at least one Democratic senator to support the override. The Senate has not held an override vote on Cooper’s other nine vetoes.

“I suspect legislative leaders are aiming this proposal more at Democratic senators than at Gov. Cooper,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group based in Raleigh.

“Republicans believe that Cooper will accept no deals that do not include his Obamacare version of Medicaid expansion,” Kokai said. “If that’s true, then the amount of money devoted to higher teacher pay is irrelevant to the governor.

“But a higher teacher pay provision might prove more enticing to Democratic legislators who lack Cooper’s devotion to that single political goal.”

Kokai said the latest adjournment resolution allowing for the Nov. 13 session “gave (GOP legislative leaders) some wiggle room to tackle legislation other than redistricting.”

A sweetener was added to SB250 before it was ratified: a 4.4% pay-supplement increase. The catch: The supplement increase only goes into effect if Senate Republicans gain the Democratic vote needed to override Cooper’s budget veto.

The N.C. Association of Educators responded to the pay-supplement offer on Oct. 30 by calling it “wildly insulting to educators of every level.”

Mark Jewell, the group’s president, said that “even with these proposed increases, education support professionals would still be getting less than other state employees have already received, and our retirees are ignored entirely.”

House Republican leaders waited 76 days to conduct their veto override vote of the state budget compromise in controversial manner Sept. 11. Most Democratic members were not on the floor because they said they had been told by Republican House leadership that no votes would be taken during the first session that day.

The Senate did not take a veto override vote on the budget even though it was on the floor agenda for four days before the session was temporary adjourned Oct. 31.

Now it can’t come up for a vote until Jan. 14 at the earliest.

Cooper has signed all but one of the minibudget bills, the lone veto being for HB555, which contained $218 million in startup funding from the proposed state budget for the Medicaid managed-care transformation initiative now set for a Feb. 1 statewide start.

Berger said in an Oct. 31 statement that through the minibudget process, the legislature “passed funding that totals 98.5% of the original $24 billion (budget) it passed in June.”

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Warren wins 2020 backing of influential group of black women

A group of more than 100 black female activists is endorsing Elizabeth Warren for president, saying her stances on a range of issues speak directly to black voters.

In a letter released on Thursday, the group Black Womxn For says its endorsement is an extension of activism that has helped shape a progressive agenda in the 2020 Democratic primary.

The group calls Warren a “leader” and “partner” with a proven track record and understanding of structural racism and inequality who is willing to be held accountable.

The group’s director, Angela Peoples, says she hopes the letter will encourage other black women to support the Massachusetts senator publicly.

NCDOT leader says fiscal crisis will ease soon, but some say bailout is still needed

RALEIGH — The N.C. Department of Transportation will begin to emerge from its financial troubles early next year without an additional infusion of cash from the General Assembly, according to Secretary of Transportation Jim Trogdon.

Trogdon says that by May NCDOT will be able to resume pre-construction engineering work on about half of the 900 projects the department put on hold late this summer to save money. In an interview, Trogdon also said despite the delays, he thinks all 900 projects will eventually be done on the timetable set in the state’s 10-year construction plan.

“I want to have those stay on their scheduled delivery for construction,” he said.

But the suspension of pre-construction planning continues to hurt engineering firms that the department will need when work resumes, some of which have furloughed or laid off employees. To help those firms get through the coming months, the General Assembly may yet provide a special appropriation or loan to resume more of the 900 projects sooner, according to Jim Smith, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of North Carolina.

“The leadership of both houses as well as many legislators agree that there is a critical need and something must be done,” Smith wrote in a message to the group’s members. “What form that takes remains to be seen.”

NCDOT leaders have blamed the department’s budget crisis on two forces: the weather and the costs of settling lawsuits related to the Map Act, a 30-year-old law that was found unconstitutional.

NCDOT has paid $366 million to landowners who were deprived of the full use of their property by the law, which allowed the state to reserve land for highways without buying it. NCDOT officials have said the total cost to settle the Map Act suits could top $1 billion, including the cost of acquiring the property, damages and legal fees.

Meanwhile, NCDOT says storms, including two major hurricanes, have cost NCDOT an average of $222 million a year for cleanup and repairs since 2016, compared to an average of $66 million a year over the previous decade. Hurricane Florence last fall and other snow and rain storms since then quickly depleted the department’s operations and maintenance budget in the most recent fiscal year.

Trogdon says he’d like to see the General Assembly create a mechanism for dealing with weather-related costs. Options include creating a reserve fund for weather cleanup and repairs or making special appropriations at the end of each year, he said, adding that he doesn’t have a preference.

“We just want to work with the House and the Senate to find a workable solution,” he said. “If we continue to see storms at this intensity and frequency, the old system just doesn’t work anymore.”

Answering criticism

Some in state government have criticized NCDOT’s handling of its finances. In September, a report commissioned by the Office of State Budget and Management concluded that NCDOT’s 14 geographic divisions had all overspent their budget allocations in the fiscal year ending June 30, most by at least $20 million, in part because of a lack of central oversight.

In addition, Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden and State Treasurer Dale Folwell have both publicly questioned why NCDOT did not better anticipate the Map Act expenses and continued to accelerate spending on road projects to reduce a surplus of cash that had topped $2 billion. Folwell was especially critical, calling on Gov. Roy Cooper to replace Trogdon and have NCDOT’s finances taken over by the Office of State Budget and Management.

“The NCDOT didn’t know it was speeding,” Folwell said last week. “When it was told that it was speeding, it didn’t slow down and, eventually, it didn’t slow down enough.”

Trogdon answered that criticism in a letter to legislative leaders on Monday. He said NCDOT was responding to the wishes of the General Assembly as it worked to put its cash to work and that the department repeatedly explained its progress to legislators and others in recent years. By streamlining the planning process, he said, NCDOT was able to accelerate construction of major projects, including the widening of Interstate 40 south of Raleigh and the overhaul and widening of the last four-lane section of the Raleigh Beltline, both of which are underway.

In the letter, Trogdon said NCDOT needs to work with legislators “to develop improved strategies for storm-related payments,” but doesn’t ask for a special appropriation this fall, as some legislators have proposed. Rep. John Torbett, a Republican who heads the House Transportation and Transportation Appropriations committees, introduced House Bill 967, which would provide NCDOT with $661 million for Map Act and storm-related expenses.

But that bill has failed to advance beyond the House Appropriations Committee, and members of both the House and Senate have talked about proposing alternatives when the General Assembly reconvenes next week. In a statement Wednesday, NCDOT would say only that it has been meeting with legislators regularly to “discuss the department’s cash balance issues.”

“We appreciate the interest by the General Assembly in developing possible solutions to the situation, and we will continue to partner with legislators moving forward,” the statement said.

‘Consulting purgatory’

Trogdon disclosed the planned resumption of pre-construction engineering work at a meeting of the American Council of Engineering Companies of North Carolina in Raleigh last week. Suzanne Young, whose Three Oaks Engineering of Durham counts NCDOT as it biggest client, said Trogdon told a ballroom full of engineers that 444 projects would be started between January and May, setting off speculation about which projects and exactly when.

“For some people, if it’s January or if it’s May, that really matters for their ability to keep staff and avoid layoffs,” Young said in an interview. “That’s five months of payroll if it’s the latter.”

Three Oaks Engineering has 29 employees in North Carolina, and Young said she’s avoided layoffs by putting half of those people on reduced hours and by picking up small jobs for municipalities and private developers. She described the situation with NCDOT as “transportation consulting purgatory,” and says everyone in her industry is eager to get back to work on highway projects.

“NCDOT has been great to us, so much work. They are by far our largest client,” Young said. “This is the first time we’ve been in any kind of position like this.”


Chris Seward