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North Carolina

Why Do Roads Suck?

Let’s talk about roads. To start, why does it take so long to build a road? For example, planning for the I-485 loop in Charlotte first began in 1975. Construction didn’t begin until 1988. It’s still not done. Or consider I-540 in Raleigh. Planning for that road first began in the early 1970’s. Construction did not begin until 1992. It, too, remains unfinished. Even your run-of-the-mill road widening project takes an eternity to complete. When it is completed, the widening of the southern stretch of I-485, which adds all of one lane in each direction along a 9.2 mile length of highway, will take nearly three years to complete (assuming it is completed on time). Repaving 11.5 miles of I-440 in southern Wake County (the so-called “Fortify” project) is projected to take at least 3 years.

Not only do roads take forever to build, they are also prohibitively expensive. Take the I-485 expansion noted above. Simply adding one lane in each direction for 9.2 miles (or a total of 18.4 miles or road surface) is projected to cost $83.3 million. With an average daily volume of approximately 50,000 vehicles, that works out to about $1700 per car for just this project. The amount of money the government spends on just roads is obscene. Last year, the NCDOT’s budget for new construction and maintenance was $2.72 billion, which works out to about $2710 for every man, woman, and child in the state.

Even this is not enough to satisfy the voracious appetite of the state’s road-builders. The state is claiming that it no longer has enough money to pay for new construction and maintenance. So what is the solution? Toll roads! Toll roads are really quite a creative government funding mechanism, because instead of just paying for the road once at its initial construction (and some follow-up maintenance later), state tax payers get to pay all of those upfront costs plus a user fee every time they roll down the road.

A not-unusual scene of North Carolina's roads

A not-unusual scene of the chaos of North Carolina’s roads

The latest twist on toll roads is to add tolled “Guaranteed Speed Lanes” alongside existing lanes. These new tolled lanes take advantage of the waste and inefficiency of the current road design and charge you a toll (which varies by time of day and volume) to use the lane which guarantees a minimum speed limit. So, while all of the poor commuting schlubs are stuck rolling down an alleged high-speed highway at 10-15 mph, you get to blow on by them going at least 55-60 mph.

Rather than correcting the failings of the current system, the state government is increasingly looking at using these types of tolled lanes throughout North Carolina’s urban areas. Of course, this type of tolling does little to encourage more innovative roads better designed to handle daily traffic volumes. Instead, it actually encourages further waste and inefficiency in road construction, as slow-moving traffic may induce more people to use the toll lanes. Except what usually ends up happening (if the I-540 expansion is any indication) is that no-one uses the new toll roads. So, the state gets to dump a bunch of money into a road no one uses and, traffic continues to get worse. Yay!

Given the disaster that is the public highway, it’s hard to believe that this is the best we can do. Is there not a better way? After all, it would likely be pretty difficult to do much worse.

Is Tillis Being Shut Out of the (Tea) Party?

Some things I find truly mystifying. For example, the North Carolina Senate race is one of the closest races in the country. Given North Carolina’s recent electoral history, you would think the race would be a slam-dunk for the Republican candidate. After a brief moment of insanity in 2008, the state has since sent Republican super-majorities to the state General Assembly twice(!), replaced an incumbent Democrat governor with a Republican, flipped 4 Congressional districts from Democrat to Republican (going from 8D-5R to 4D-9R), re-elected a Republican Senator, and voted for the Republican Presidential candidate in 2012. So, why is the race so close and not a blow-out for Thom Tillis?

The primary reason appears to be less-than-enthusiastic support for Tillis from the right-wing of the party. Somewhere along the line, Tillis became branded with the “Establishment” label by party activists. In more conservative circles, “Establishment” typically translates into “sell-out” owing largely to the tendency among GOP leaders to avoid political fights in favor of appeasement of liberal Democrats. Definitionally, I suppose you could use the “Establishment” label in regards to Tillis. He is, after all, Speaker of the House. However, in this case, I believe that the “sell-out” corollary is inaccurate. A look at his tenure as Speaker will reveal that he is the type of leader that these activists want, even if they haven’t quite realized it yet.

Over his two terms as Speaker, Tillis has helped push North Carolina politics right-ward in a way that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. His list of accomplishments is impressive and includes most of the items on every conservative’s wish list. He helped push through one of the most significant tax cuts in North Carolina history, simplifying the tax code and dropping rates across the board. He helped restore balance to the state budget, restore stability to the state’s Medicaid spending, and took an axe to a variety of state programs (most notably at DENR). On the social issues side, he led the charge for the state marriage protection amendment in the House and helped pass a package of new abortion notification requirements and regulations. Under his leadership, the House also passed an election reform law, the most notable aspect of which was a new photo-ID requirement for all voters. He also facilitated passage and approval of new election precinct maps, which corrected many of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts and will provide a competitive landscape for Republican candidates for years to come.

In short, Tillis helped usher in the conservative revolution that has swept North Carolina politics over the last four years. He has accomplished what he was elected to do, namely restore the vitality of the state’s economy and scale back the size of the state government. North Carolina has become a model for conservative reformers in other states who are looking to restore government to its proper role. Indeed, with a little adaptation, the North Carolina model could easily be applied to many of the problems plaguing the federal government.

This is why it is so curious that Tillis has not attracted more Tea Party-esque support. One wonders, what more do they want? Tillis lacks the skillful oratory of Ted Cruz, but he has proven himself a very capable conservative reformer. In addition, on more than one occasion, he has stared down the Democrats and won. Prior to the Republicans’ super-majority status in the House, Tillis managed to override several important vetoes from Democrat Governor Bev Perdue. Without compromising his own position, he was able to pressure enough Democrats to switch votes that the House was able to override the vetoes on such things as the state budget and the lifting of the fracking moratorium. Tillis wasn’t abandoning his principles. He was convincing the Democrats to abandon theirs! The very existence of the weekly pity party on Jones Street (the so-called “Moral” Monday crowd) and the pathetic protests from the state’s most radical leftist groups should be a clue that perhaps Tillis is doing something right.

Tillis is exactly the type of reformer that conservative activists have been clamoring for. That these people are branding him with the “Establishment” label simply because he happens to hold a powerful leadership position is simply ridiculous. Would they abandon Ted Cruz if he happened to become Senate Majority Leader or if Karl Rove decided to cut him a check? The GOP needs leaders like Tillis, leaders who are willing to face down the opposition, push through conservative reforms, and assume leadership roles within the party and government. The country needs leaders like Tillis, and the Conservative Movement would be passing up on a unique opportunity to get one of their own into the Senate and (likely) into the party leadership.Despite the fact that he has attracted support from actual Rockefeller Republicans (looking at you, Jeb), Tillis is a proven conservative reformer who could do much good for the country and the party. A vote for Tillis wouldn’t be a compromise vote. It would be a step forward.

Pineville, NC – Aspiring Police State

They’re Watching You

The Charlotte Observer is reporting that the town of Pineville (which sits on Charlotte’s southern edge) is planning to install a town-wide camera monitoring network in order to “deter crime”. The first cameras are already up in the town’s center, and the police are already claiming that this is not a “covert” system designed to monitor citizens’ private lives (they swear!).

This is curious for several reasons. Most strikingly, the Observer’s report (which was published after the first cameras were already installed) is the first mention of this program from any town official. There is no mention of the program in the town council’s meeting minutes, and the town has yet to even disclose the cost of such an ambitious undertaking. Considering the privacy violations inherent in this type of blanket-coverage surveillance program, the public officials in charge of this project should be more open about its means, goals, and ends. There is also no evidence that a discussion about the legality of such program ever took place. Can the town simply film every person that happens to wander through town, or is such surveillance an illegal search prohibited by the Fourth Amendment? Or does the Pineville Police Department just expect us to trust them when they promise not to use the cameras to peer into our living rooms?

Another question that needs to be answered is whether this (possibly illegal) surveillance is even necessary. A quick perusal of the Mecklenburg County crime statistics suggests not. In the last 6 months, there has been exactly 1 crime within a one-mile radius of the town center (Pineville isn’t exactly a large town).

Pineville, NC Crime Map

Pineville, NC Crime Map

So is all of this time, effort, and invasion of privacy necessary to prevent one crime? Probably not.

The final wrinkle in Pineville’s effort to put Orwell to shame is the town’s audacious “request” (bullying is probably a more accurate description) that the town’s businesses buy these cameras (at their own expense) and hook them up to the police department’s surveillance network. So, it’s bad enough that the town is (secretly) buying and installing these cameras, but now they want local businesses to bear the cost of this government spying. Their brazeness is simply stunning.

These cameras are an unnecessary and potentially dangerous idea. Pineville doesn’t have a crime problem, and even if it did, that wouldn’t justify obtrusive, warrantless government spying. If the town is truly concerned about crime (given Pineville’s history, it shouldn’t be), it should either hire more police or encourage local businesses to take their own security precautions. Of particular concern is the town’s almsot uniform silence on the matter and the lack of input from the citizens who live there. There is no need to transform this quiet little suburb into a First World police state.

Nuns That Aren’t So Gay

I have read with great interest the recent story of the “early retirement” of Mozilla’s CEO, Brendan Eich, who, in his ten days as CEO, managed to generate a whirlwind of controversy over his (relatively meager) financial support of California’s Proposition 8 (which was ratified by over 52% of California’s voters). That’s because the situation mirrors the situation of a nun (a Sister Jane Dominic Laurel) who gave a speech on homosexuality to a local (Catholic) high school and was subsequently “Mozilla-ed” and run out of town to take a “sabbatical”. Rather than being isolated events, these two situations are part of a pattern of (hypocritical) intolerance from the gay crusaders as they seek to crush anyone who raises even the faintest criticism of the homosexual agenda.

She's evil. Clearly.

She’s evil. Clearly.

While I’m sure Eich’s and Laurel’s resignations were completely voluntary, these events are as ominous as they are predictable. Coming from a group of people, who, for all their supposed popularity, still can’t manage to win an election, the desperate shrieking designed to end debate is a fairly routine response from leftist agitators. However, considering that the crusaders’ response to the aforementioned criticisms has all the hallmarks of a Maoist Struggle Session (complete with the requirement that the offending party submit a written apology), there is some cause for concern here. Of particular interest is the case of the Catholic nun, whose religious order presumably follows the lead of the pope, and for whom criticism of the homosexual agenda should be a given. Yet, in the face of criticism, the nuns capitulated just as quickly as the go-along to get-along types at Mozilla.

So, what explains Mozilla’s willingness to fire its CEO after a mere 10 days and the nuns prostrating themselves before the altar of political correctness? The short answer is a desire to be liked. If a crowd of people is criticizing you and drawing attention to you, it is much easier to capitulate and satisfy the hunger of the mob than to continue to draw attention to yourself. I’d be willing to bet that if the pro-marriage types picked a heretofore unknown CEO and started drawing attention to his political views in the same way the gay agitators do (assuming of course, they had no moral qualms about having a man fired for his political beliefs), they could probably force a couple “conversions” of their own. Indeed, that is why struggle sessions (in their various forms) are so popular among totalitarians. That is why these thuggish tactics are so successful. They force you to choose sides. You can either stand alone against the mob and be consumed by it, or simply give them what they want so they’ll go away. Most people opt for the latter. That is why Mozilla wasted no time in dumping its CEO (and even apologized for not doing it faster) and why the nuns threw one of their own to the wolves. It’s particularly tempting to satisfy the mob when it means sacrificing someone else. Mozilla’s board and the leadership of the Dominicans could have stood behind their people and defended them against the ludicrous demands of the mob. But they chose the easy path, to their lasting shame.

Is North Carolina Getting Schooled?

Let’s suppose a program of education funding exists that is only given to students who

  • Currently attend school
  • Plan on attending school next year
  • Are “low-income”

Let’s also suppose that this novel form of educational funding

  • Is entirely funded by the government
  • Is capped at approximately $5000 per year per student
  • May be used at any school (public or private) of the recipient’s choice

Is this some sort of backdoor attempt to re-segregate schools? Is it a nefarious plot by a bunch of closet racists in the legislature to drive poor, black children into inner-city ghettos? Or is it a sneaky attempt by the government to funnel public money to legislators’ business partners in the education industry?funny-racist-quotes

Actually, what I have just described is the Federal Pell Grant Program, a federal voucher program (of sorts) that has been used by millions of students to pay for college since its creation as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Pell Grants bear more than just a passing resemblance to North Carolina’s newly-enacted Opportunity Scholarship Program. Yet, what is apparently not even remotely controversial when applied to colleges is now the subject of several lawsuits seeking to end the scholarship program. Why is it non-objectionable for federal tax dollars to flow to public and private (and God forbid- religious) universities, but it is the re-establishment of Jim Crow to send state tax dollars to public and private elementary, middle, and high schools? No one accuses Pell Grants of segregating the nation’s colleges and universities. No one accuses Pell Grants of violating the Establishment Clause. No one accuses Pell Grants of draining funds from the public education system. Yet, the Opportunity Scholarship Program has been accused of all these things and worse. Why?

I would posit that the reason for such a visceral reaction is that the scholarship program threatens to upset the power dynamics of public education in North Carolina. Fundamentally, the public schools would have to compete on a (relatively) more equal footing with their private-sector competitors. Competition is generally a good thing, unless you’re an entrenched special-interest whose results are mediocre at best. The teacher’s union is (rightly) worried that many parents will leave their local low-performing public school and send their children to the private school just up the road, and that private school, will, among other things, actually provide an education to its students. The NAACP is worried that the success of the scholarship program will enable more (colored) children to escape the clutches of their local inner-city hell-hole and go on to live bright, happy, and successful lives. Their concern is understandable. After all, it’s hard to run a grievance industry if you have no grievances.

What's more oppressive: Scholarships or his pin stripes?

What’s more oppressive: Scholarships or his pin stripes?

Notice who comes out ahead though: the students (i.e. the supposed concern of the aforementioned special interest groups). What the scholarship program does is provide parents with a choice. If they’re happy with the local public school, nothing is making them leave. However, if another school is better suited to enable their children’s success, then the scholarship program gives them an option. The competitive pressures that the program introduces will also provide existing public schools with a reason to innovate and improve their programs. So, even children who do not take advantage of the scholarship will see benefits from the program. In the end, the only people who will be hurt by this scholarship will be those who are desperately clinging to their old ideas of power and influence. The children win.

North Carolina’s Ban on Bans

By now, everyone is likely familiar with Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban super-sized soft drinks in New York. Banning is all the rage in government these days. A simple Google search for “government bans” turns up more than 91.5 million results. Everything is banned: shark fins, guns, light bulbs, even the word “citizen”. It seems like there’s nothing the government won’t ban.

This is what makes recent legislation passed by the good people at the North Carolina General Assembly and recently signed by Governor Pat McCrory all the more interesting. The Commonsense Consumption Act (or Big Gulp Bill, as it’s more commonly known) prohibits local governments from limiting soft drink sizes and prohibits consumers from suing food and beverage makers, distributors, or advertisers for the obesity that results from over-indulgence in their products. It is, in effect, a ban on bans.Coca-Cola_Glas_mit_Eis

While most of the commentary surrounding the new law has focused on its relationship to the New York City ban, this misses the most important aspect of the law. It is an important reversal in the way that the state government views its relationship with the people. Most people have grown accustomed to the government telling them what they cannot do. However, this law exudes a more classical American sensibility in telling the government what it cannot do. This is a refreshing trend and one that will rehabilitate the relationship between the government and the citizen. This law recognizes that government attempts to micro-manage the lives of the citizenry are both futile and offensive to the right of self-determination. Particularly given the slew of recent scandals, a move towards empowering the citizenry rather than nameless, faceless bureaucrats will help restore the public’s confidence in their system of government after its botched attempts to direct everything from health care to energy consumption.

You will rarely hear a politician say that the people should not be free to make their own choices (in this case whether to drink a child-sized soda or not). However, politicians frequently argue that people should not be allowed to fail and should, in effect, be protected from themselves.

child sized soda

They do not trust the people to make their own decisions (though, they apparently trust the people to make the decision to re-elect them every few years). However, this does nothing but handicap people’s ability to succeed. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s father asks his son, “Why do we fall?” He then answers his own question, “So we can learn to get back up.” Government policy, like this law, should reflect this attitude.

North Carolina’s ban on bans is a shining example of that oft-quoted phrase, “The government that governs least, governs best.” Banning bans is not something that should be controversial because it recognizes the free agency of the individual. This law recognizes the proper ordering of the relationship between government and citizen and ought to be a template for future legislation.