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Fixing redistricting process

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

North Carolina voters got less than half a loaf from three federal judges last week. The decision was just one more step in tweaking an election system that is hopelessly broken.

The judges ordered the General Assembly to finish redrawing legislative districts by September. But they rejected pleas for a special election, which means the unconstitutional districts will remain in force through the 2018 elections.

The panel ruled in August 2016 that 28 state House and Senate districts were illegally drawn based on racial considerations. Republican lawmakers have said they’ll have to alter two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 170 districts while fixing the 28 cited.

The idea was to cram as many African-Americans, who mostly vote for Democrats, into as few districts as possible, increasing Republicans’ chances of winning other districts. The concept of creating so-called majority-minority districts to increase African-American representation has been upheld, but this time the GOP crammed too much, the judges said.

Gerrymandering is as old as, well, Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor who in 1812 signed a state redistricting bill that created one district shaped somewhat like a salamander. Both parties have practiced it diligently, in North Carolina and elsewhere. What has changed is the advent of technology that makes it possible to gerrymander much more efficiently.

How efficiently? The two parties are roughly equal in North Carolina, as shows by the close gubernatorial race last year. Yet, Republicans control 10 of 13 seats in the U.S. House, 74 of 120 N.C. House seats and 35 of 50 seats in the N.C. Senate.

Quite simply, the effect of the most recent court ruling is to leave half of North Carolina’s people effectively without a voice in state government until 2019. We understand the cost and confusion that would result from multiple elections next year, but the price is little enough to pay for fair representation.

In the long run, however, the only answer is to take districting out of the hands of those who benefit from how the lines are drawn. The Iowa example is instructive here.

In 1980, Iowa set up an independent five-member Legislative Services Agency to draw the lines for legislative and congressional districts. The majority and minority leaders of each house of the Iowa legislature pick one member apiece and those four pick the fifth.

The districts must be “convenient and contiguous,” they must “preserve the integrity of political subdivisions like counties and cities” and they must “to the extent consistent with other requirements, (be) reasonably compact.”

The maps are presented to the legislature, which may approve or reject the bill without altering it (the legislature can provide feedback). If the legislature rejects the plan, the LSA must draft a second proposal. If the legislature rejects the second proposal, the LSA must draft a third, and final, set of maps. If the legislature rejects this plan, it may then approve its own maps.

Since the implementation of this process, the state legislature has never chosen not to approve an LSA proposal, or to alter the law.

When Democrats controlled the General Assembly, Republicans wanted an independent commission and Democrats did not. Now, Democrats want one and Republicans don’t.

Well, not all Republicans. Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville was prime sponsor of a House bill this year to set up an Iowa-style system in North Carolina. Neither that bill nor a Senate companion went anywhere. All of Buncombe’s four Democratic legislators were on board.

We hope McGrady renews his efforts next year and get enough of his fellow Republicans on board so that voters in the future can get a full loaf.

The Asheville Citizen-Times

Advancing wind and solar

Smart politicians can tell which way the wind is blowing, which may be how Gov. Roy Cooper worked out of a political dilemma last week.

Cooper signed House Bill 589 but immediately issued an executive order to mitigate an unwise, anti-industry provision added by the Senate.

In whole, the bill advances the development of solar power in North Carolina. It was supported by renewable energy groups, many environmentalists and Duke Energy.

The Senate added an 18-month moratorium on permitting new wind energy projects, claiming a review was needed to find out the impact on military operations.

This “dealt a huge — and totally unnecessary — blow” to eastern North Carolina communities, the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association said.

It was unnecessary because both the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense must approve wind-energy developments. If they find that the giant wind turbines — as tall as 400 feet — pose a hazard to civilian or military aviation, radar or other operations, they can say no. They don’t need help from the N.C. legislature.

This moratorium was an expression of opposition to wind energy in general. It tells developers to go somewhere else.

Cooper sent a different message. His order directs the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and Coastal Resources Commission to expedite “pre-application and review and processing” of permits for new or expanded wind-energy developments so final permits can be granted as quickly as possible when the moratorium expires on Dec. 31, 2018. It also tells the Department of Commerce to continue recruiting wind-energy companies.

Only one industrial wind-energy project is operating in North Carolina, the Amazon Wind Farm US East in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. More than 100 turbines are running, and that number could increase later. Apex Clean Energy is proposing a project of similar size in the same region but expressed serious concerns about the moratorium.

Cooper’s reassurances could soothe nervous investors, but there are legitimate worries that an 18-month halt could be extended if the Senate maintains its anti-wind posture. That would be a costly mistake.

Wind is a growing part of the nation’s energy portfolio. No wonder. It’s abundant, clean and free. Of course there are significant costs to capturing wind energy, but those costs are declining. Furthermore, producing turbines creates good manufacturing jobs. Leasing land to place these turbines puts money into property owners’ hands. Often, they’re farmers who can still grow crops or graze livestock on most of their land with little disruption. And these projects pay millions in local taxes to help support schools and other services.

North Carolina doesn’t have coal. It has relatively modest deposits of natural gas, yet to be tapped. There could be oil or gas offshore, where drilling is risky and expensive.

It has plenty of wind and sun. As technologies improve for capturing these renewable resources, it makes more and more commercial sense to move in that direction. That’s which way the wind is blowing.

News & Record of Greensboro

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Humans of Greenville

@HumansofGville

Local photographer Joe Pellegrino explores Greenville to create a photographic census of its people.

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