Friday, January 30, 2015

H267: Lost opportunity on toll road accountability

With the WidenI77.org lawsuit announced ten days ago, it's worth taking a few minutes to look back and think about that proverbial question – “How did we get here?”

The various issues the lawsuit seeks to address can be grouped into two main categories: constitutional questions around whether or not the North Carolina General Assembly delegated too much of its authority and responsibility to the NCDOT and questions about whether or not the specific setup of this project using Public Private Partnerships is in the “public interest”.

Said another way, did the General Assembly seek to avoid all of the politically uncomfortable aspects of the project by burying the details in the opaqueness of a government agency and a private enterprise?

Many people probably do not remember this, but the early HOT Lanes plan for I-77 back in 2009 was much different than what is being planned now.  Back then, it was a plan to simply extend the existing HOV lanes up to Exit 28 and convert them to HOT.  It would have remained free to riders with only two passengers, and it would have cost just $50-60 million in 2009 dollars.  If the State had received grant funding from the Federal stimulus in 2010, commuters would very likely already be riding on those lanes by now.

The plan back then was so different from what we have on the table now that even some of the current plan’s harshest critics supported the earlier version.  Cornelius Commissioner Dave Gilroy actually voted for a resolution supporting the 2010 grant request.  Now, he staunchly opposes the current plan that is headed to court.

Over the course of the upcoming legal proceedings the public should learn if the courts see tolls as a form of taxation or if they are strictly user fees.  We’ll also learn if handing off public infrastructure to private companies for potentially unlimited profits is something that’s considered in the “public interest” and good public policy.

One thing we do already know is that the General Assembly had the opportunity to pass a law during the last legislature that could have been used to address may or all of the legal questions the project now faces, and we also know lawmakers deliberately and repeatedly chose not to take that opportunity.

The tale of H267 in the NC House during the 2013-2014 legislature is the kind of thing that turns a lot of people off when it comes to how our government runs.  However, if the WidenI77.org lawsuit is successful in stopping the HOT Lane project, H267 could also be looked at as the point which made that victory possible.

In a nutshell, here's what happened with this bill.

In March of 2013, H267 was filed with the title “An act to prohibit the imposition of tolls on an existing interstate without prior approval of the general assembly.”    This bill sounds like it would require a vote by legislators on each individual toll road project.  However, when asked if this bill would apply to the I77 project, one of the bill’s primary sponsors,Rep John Torbett (R-Gaston), replied at the time:
“I feel I-77 has already been determined and changing it would be a step backward. This bill should take effect on any new thoughts relative to tolling additional Interstates.”

Strike 1 against open government.

Then the legislative sausage making begins.

In May of 2013, H267 went into the house Transportation Committee co-chaired by Mecklenburg County’s own Bill Brawley (R).  A bill that went into the committee requiring a vote on toll roads individually comes out as a bill about how to implement toll roads generally.  The bill has a bunch of provisions on how tolls will be collected, but any reference an “act of the  General Assembly” - meaning a vote – is removed.

Strike  2 against open government.

Before the bill is passed out of the House later that month, there is an attempt to re-insert the language requiring an “act of the general assembly” before the bill was sent to the Senate.  Only 16 brave souls in the entire NC House voted for the amendment.

Strike 3.  Open government goes down swinging.

Eighteen months later, this project is headed to court.  Many if not all of the issues raised in the the WidenI77.org lawsuit could have been addressed by an “act of the the General Assembly” if H267 had passed as originally worded.

However, that would require our elected officials to fully stand behind tolling projects in public and on the record.  For projects that few people want, it's much easier to let the unelected bureaucrats at NCDOT and the faceless money men at  companies like Cintra take the heat.
This is your government.

As the new legislature gets back to work this week in Raleigh, let's hope they do better than this in the future.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sling TV First Impression...the missing link for cord cutters.

After a week of using the new Sling TV streaming service under its "reviewer program", here's what I'll tell you:

It is pretty awesome!

But you have to appreciate it for what it is...an inexpensive alternative with limited channels compared to much more expensive packages with many more channels than most people will ever watch.

When it goes live to the general public in a couple of weeks, it is hard to see it not taking off and over time increasing the number of cord cutters significantly.

Here are my first impressions:

As a slimmed down bundle it covers all of the bases for an entertInment package...news, sports, casual TV browsing and some stuff for kids.

So far, I've watched a few college basketball games on ESPN (the main thing I've missed since cutting the cord from Mi-Connection a few months ago), and I've watched a couple of kids movies from Sling's on demand offerings.

The user interface is pretty standard across multile platforms.  That's an improvement over other streaming services which can look significantly different depending on how they are accessed.  We have a Roku 3, iPad, and Android phone hooked Sling TV. For live TV they all have the same look and feel.

A lot has been written about the so called limitations of the platform such as its single stream setup or the lack of a DVR.  Those have been a non-issue for me.

If I'm watching sports and my kids want to watch something else, they are on Netflix anyway, so that limitation doesn't matter.  Also, if I just want the TV on for back ground or to watch something mindless there's always something on TBS, TNT, Food Network, or HGTV that falls into that category.  I don't need  DVR for that.  I also use Hulu Plus which basically provides the same functionality as a DVR for most broadcast network shows I'm interested in watching.

Another common criticism I've seen of Sling TV is that it doesn't have local broadcast channels.  No, it doesn't, but a $30 digital antenna works just fine on the livingroom TV which is where I watch local news anyway.

There are two relatively minor usability issues that will take some getting used to but are not show stoppers.

The first is that different stations have different playback options such as on Food Network you can play back things for up to 3 days whereas on TBS you cannot.  Not a big deal, but still unusual.

The other unusual thing is with the on demand offering. If you want to do on demand from a mobile device such as an iPad you have to save the movie to your watchlist from the iPad Sling TV app, then go to the Dish Network website to actually rent the movie, then go back to Sling TV app to watch it.  When doing this from the Roku it can all be done in the Roku version of the Sling TV app with a single button.  That difference certainly seems like an issue that would eventually get resolved, but for now it is a bit quirky.

All in all, I would definitely recommend giving it a try once it goes public.  It could definitely save you a lot of money if you find it meets your needs.  It certainly does for me.

Now, it's time to get back to paying attention to the Duke/Notre Dame game that's been playing on ESPN2 while I've been writing this.   The Irish have just pulled ahead of the Blue Devils 71 - 70 with 1:40 to go!

Monday, January 26, 2015

This Thursday: LKN Conservtives to host Fox News Personality Col. Bill Cowan

Press Release Below....

Cornelius, N.C. – ( January 25, 2015) – Join the Lake Norman Conservatives at their  monthly meeting on Thursday, January 29th at the Galway Hooker Restaurant & Pub, 17044 Kenton Drive, Cornelius, N.C. to hear Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, USMC (Ret), military and terrorism analyst for the Fox News Channel.

Lt. Col. Cowan is expected to discuss current events as well as his new book, a political satire called “Snatching Hillary”. Copies will be available for sale.

To make reservations email lakenormanconservatives@gmail.com or register online at www.lakenormanconservatives.orgThere is no charge for the event. Social hour and dinner are from 6:00-7:00 p.m., the program will begin at 7:00. Everyone is welcome.

About Lt. Col. Cowan
A 1966 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Cowan served three and a half years on combat assignments in Vietnam as an infantry officer. He was a platoon commander along the DMZ during the fall of 1967 and served also as a platoon commander during the siege of Khe Sanh. He later spent two and a half years as an advisor the Rung Sat Special Zone, south of Saigon. Decorated many times for heroism, he also received three purple hearts for wounds received.  
    
Following the taking of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1978, he turned down a prestigious White House assignment to instead become one of the first members and only Marine in the Pentagon’s most classified counterterrorist unit. While there he conducted numerous clandestine and covert operations into the Middle East and Latin America. Notably, he was a key member of the team that went into Lebanon to hunt down those responsible for the bombing of the Marine Compound in 1983. Working directly with CIA Chief of Station William Buckley, Cowan and his team developed the plan for retaliation and identified many of the targets.  The Pentagonchose not to take action.

Immediately upon retirement in 1985, he served as a legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Warren B. Rudman and as the Senator’s primary staff assistant during the Iran/Contra hearings.  He was also one of the key staff authors of the legislation which created the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, FL.

During the late 80’s and 90’s, he often continued special activities and operations into the Middle East, dealing with terrorists and terrorism, most notably working against Hezbollah, Iran, and the Syrians on the rescue and release of Western hostages being held in Lebanon. In addition, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and while working with former CIA Director Bill Colby, he put together and executed a clandestine operation which successfully rescued a number of Western hostages being held in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait.

Following the Gulf War and given Iran’s fervent interest to resolve the lingering hostage situation in Lebanon, Cowan was principal negotiator with the Iranians on the hostages’ release through Syria.

After the events of 9/11, Cowan was called back to government service in support of special programs and activities of national priority. In that capacity he made numerous trips to the Middle East to support special activities.  He retired from active involvement in 2013.

Bill is well known in the media. Besides over 4,000 appearances on Fox, he has been co-host for seven years of the radio and TV shows “Danger Zone” about terrorism; has appeared multiple times on “60 Minutes”; has appeared on every major network to give analysis on matters of terrorism; has been featured in four TV documentaries aired on the Military Channel, the Discovery Channel, A&E TV, and PBS; and has written dozens of editorial and opinion pieces for various U.S. newspapers.  He is currently working on a book about his experiences.

About Lake Norman Conservatives

The mission of Lake Norman Conservatives is to inform the public about issues that impact free markets, limited government, individual freedom and personal responsibility on the local, state and national levels; and to provide citizens with the knowledge, tools, and encouragement necessary to support candidates and elected officials who promote and defend these valuesWe meet the last Thursday of each month.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cord Cutting, Sling TV, and Mi-Connection

Tired of high-priced cable packages that force you to buy channels you don’t want?  Do you keep your cable solely for ESPN?  Have you already subscribed to Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu Plus and realized streaming totally changes how you watch TV?

Maybe you’ve thought about joining the small but growing number of “cord cutters” – those people who have decided to cut their cable subscriptions.

If any of these sound familiar, then you will have a new choice in coming weeks.  The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) earlier this month gave the public a glimpse of the next big thing in a home entertainment – Sling TV – by DISH Network.

Sling TV will provide access  to ESPN, ESPN II, Disney Channel, ABC Family, Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, TNT, CNN, TBS, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim – all for $20/month with no contract.

Yes, you read that right.  ESPN will be available via streaming without a contract.  Just care about college basketball?  You can get the service for a few months then drop it.  Just care about football, you can do the same.

There are downsides though.  No DVR functionality with only limited playback options is one.  It is single stream – meaning only one device can access an account at a time.  Also, it doesn't provide access to local network broadcast TV.  You still need a digital antenna and be in range of local broadcasters to get your local news.

DISH says the service will target millennials and cord cutters and is not designed to be a full replacement of your cable subscription.  What remains to be seen is what impact it will have on increasing the number of households that decide to make the leap and cut the cord.

More importantly to Davidson and Mooresville taxpayers, what impact could this service have on Mi-Connection?  The municipally owned cable provider recently had one of its best quarters ever even though it is still losing money.

With that in mind I asked the CEO of Mi-Connection, David Auger, what impact he thought Sling TV would have on the company’s growth.  Here’s what he had to say…

“My personal opinion is as follows. I believe that the launch of Sling TV will not have a material impact on our growth. However, I believe this is a significant step forward in MI-Connections and the industry’s contractual relationships with the 6 giant conglomerates (Comcast, Time Warner Inc., News Corporation, Viacom, Scripps and Disney) regarding their program bundling demands. In order for this deal to get this far, a couple of these conglomerates have given ground which is historic. I and I would assume other independent operators look forward to competing in world of smaller bundles, or even a-la-carte that provides our customers with more choice. MI-Connection has the infrastructure and technology to do so and in my opinion, this is a step in the right direction.

I would also add that MI-Connection has the most robust data offering in the markets we serve with a tremendous amount of upside opportunity. Over-the-top offerings can only increase this demand.”

That certainly sounds good, but one also has to wonder if this might be a bit of “whistling past the graveyard”.

Sling TV, particularly with its groundbreaking inclusion of ESPN, could be a game changer.  Nobody truly knows how many people that might attract or if it will catch fire outside of its target market segments.  If it does, it could very well hit Mi-Connection in its main revenue source and stymie its progress towards profitability.  According to FY2013 budget numbers on the Town of Davidson website, 58% of Mi-Connection’s revenue was expected to come from video that year with the rest split between voice and data.

As a bit of anecdotal evidence for why this could be an issue, my household “cut the cord” from Mi-Connection about three months ago.  Two of my neighbors recently told me their main reason for not also doing so was access to ESPN.

None of us are millennials, but all of us were looking at it as a way to cut household costs.

My setup of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus along with an expected addition of Sling TV for College Basketball season will run about $850/year less than what I paid previously.  That includes a comparable broadband connection on a promotional rate and purchase of a couple of digital antennas.

Is it for everybody?  Absolutely not.  There are definitely trade-offs.

However, after a three month experiment, I can also say I will probably never go back to a cable subscription again, and that’s the challenge Mi-Connection faces in the future.

If/when cord cutters do return to companies like Mi-Connection it will be for significantly less money as data-only subscribers.

Welcome to the brave new world out there in TV land.

This post first appeared in the Herald Weekly

Bonus Observation:  After submitting this post for publication in the Herald Weekly, I received notice from Sling TV that I would be included in their reviewers program to test the product over the next year.  Stay tuned for future reviews, but first impressions are definitely very positive.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

WidenI77 throws down the gauntlet! (Lawsuit Press Conference Pics)

Here are a few pics from Tuesday's press conference announcing the WidenI77.org legal challenge to the NCDOT/Cintra scheme to build HOT lanes on I-77 through Lake Norman.

It was well covered by local media as you can see.

If you are interested in listening to the audio, check out this link at PunditHouse.com.

If you are interested in reading the whole complaint, you can read it here at WidenI77.org.

There are a number of really interesting points in there, and it will be interesting to see how they play out.

Is a toll a fee or a tax?  Is a road that provides unlimited profit potential to a private company in the public interest?  Has the General Assembly delegated too much of its constitutional authority to the NCDOT?  Does the actual road plan which converts a portion of a general purpose lane to a HOT lane a violation of the law?

Those are all questions which this lawsuit will address.

At this point the lawsuit has not delayed anything.  Even though it appears likely the contractor will miss a Thursday deadline to secure financing, it is being reported NCDOT has said the deadline will be extended.

What's unknown is if this lawsuit may make it harder to get that financing if experts believe the points it raises have serious legal potential.

If you are interested in helping see this through, the main thing needed at this point is $$$.  Check out the WidenI77.org website and be on the lookout for their fundraisers next month.




WidenI77.org to file lawsuit today over HOT lanes

Monday evening, WidenI77.org sent our a press release announcing their intent to file suit on Tuesday to stop the HOT lanes project intended to add tolls to new lanes on the main artery through  the Lake Norman area.

This comes on the same week Cinta - the contractor who won the bid (as the sole bidder) - was scheduled to reach fancial close.  However, all indications are that the close date will not occur as required on January 22nd.

Is this a sign of problems getting the financing for the project?  Or, is it just a bump in the road towards beginning construction?  Who knows.

However, if a lawsuit gains traction, that could be a different matter all together.

Check back later today for more information. Here is the press release:

Cornelius, N.C. – January 20, 2015 – Widen I-77 and Matt Arnold of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, the legal counsel  retained by Widen I-77, filed a legal complaint in Mecklenburg County Superior Court this morning to preliminarily and permanently enjoin the I-77 toll project from moving forward.

The group will hold a 10:30am press conference to discuss the case at the Law Offices of Arnold & Smith, PLLC 200 North McDowell Street, Charlotte.

The project calls for Cintra, a Spanish company, to build private toll lanes on the remaining public right-of-way and operate them under a 50 year contract. Under the terms of the contract Cintra is required to secure financing by January 22, 2015 or forfeit a $15 million deposit to the North Carolina Department of  Transportation (NCDOT). The group anticipates NCDOT will extend the financing deadline.

“We hope the bond markets recognize the financial infeasibility of this project and decide against funding it,” said Kurt Naas, a spokesman for Widen I-77 “However, the bond markets have ignored the litany of recent tolling bankruptcies, so we are moving forward with the legal challenge.”

“We are confident in our position and look forward to having our day in court. Undeniably, this is a classic David versus Goliath battle, but we are ready for the fight” said Matt Arnold, Managing Partner with Arnold & Smith, PLLC.

Widen I-77 has begun the lawsuit by filing the Complaint. The group expects to have a hearing on its request for a preliminary injunction in the coming weeks. A full trial will likely happen a year or more from now. The group expects to incur significant legal expenses throughout the process.

“We have been able to take this step because our neighbors cared enough and donated generously,” added Naas. “Our opponents have retained two huge law firms- one with offices throughout the South and the other based in New York City. They have very deep pockets. We will take the case as far as our resources allow.”

To cover anticipated legal expenses the group has planned three Lake Norman area information sessions/fund raisers:

February 2, 7pm
Vinyl Pi 
15906 Old Statesville Road
Huntersville

February 17, 7pm
Charles Mack Center
215 North Main Street
Mooresville

February 19, 7pm
Waltrip Racing
20310 Chartwell Drive
Cornelius

Friday, January 16, 2015

NMRW hosts reception for Senator Thom Tillis

This past Friday, the North Mecklenburg Republican Women (NMRW) hosted a private reception for the newly installed junior United States Senator from North Carolina, North Meckenburg’s very own Thom Tillis.

Less of a hardcore political event, than an opportunity for the Senator and his wife, Susan, to thank supporters for their efforts over the course of the campaign, the event at the Northstone Country Club in Huntersville attracted a full RSVP list of about 200 people.  It included everyone from young campaign volunteers to seasoned politicians from the local, State, and Federal levels.

Landing the first big local appearance after the Senator’s swearing-in last week was a bit of a public relations coup for the NMRW.  But then again, it is not surprising either.  Senator Tillis was a founding member of the group when it was established as an official Republican Party organization back in 2009.  (The NMRW allows men to join as auxiliary members.)

It was also fitting that the NMRW hosted the first local appearance after Tillis’s swearing-in. One could argue the group provided a bit of good luck the last time he spoke there prior to the final push before election-day, so it was nice to see the Senator acknowledge the group with that honor.

Readers may remember the first installment of this column for the Herald Weekly back in early October of last year.  At that point, candidate-Tillis was knotted in a tight race with Kay Hagan where Hagan had been maintaining a stubbornly persistent lead of 2-4% in almost all of the polls.

Tillis gave a more aggressive speech at that October NMRW meeting than was being reflected in his campaign’s commercials at the time.   It seemed like the kind of speech that could turn the race if given enough traction with the public.  Here’s what that earlier column said.

“In short, he displayed the confidence of someone who has done this before all across the state, someone who knows his electorate, and someone who understands what is coming over the next few weeks until election-day.  If that Thom Tillis comes through in the ads and debates between now and November 4th, the national pundits who have all but written off this contest could very well be in for a big surprise.”

Little did anyone know then, that just a few days later on October 7th after the next debate with Hagan an event would occur giving the Tillis campaign the boost it needed to get over the top.  That event was Kay Hagan’s admission that she had skipped an Armed Services Committee meeting on the terror group ISIS to attend a fundraiser for her campaign..

The day after the election, Tillis Campaign Manager, Jordan Shaw, told the Charlotte Observer the Hagan admission was a “critical point”.  A week after that debate the NRSC dumped over $6 million more into the campaign to help capitalize on the opportunity in the home stretch.  This combined with another news item outside the campaign’s control – the Ebola crisis in Africa – allowing the Tillis campaign to take over the conversation and turn the tide of an impossibly close race.

As a frame of reference on how close this race turned out to be, Tillis won by the smallest percentage margin of any of the nine Republican pickups this year.  His margin was 1.7% - 49% to 47.3%.  Other than Alaska, he also had the smallest margin of victory based on raw vote counts - 49,000 votes out of nearly 2.9 million votes cast.

One interesting post election analysis done by RealClearPolitics.com showed that if the overall electorate had turned out to mirror the demographics of the 2012 presidential cycle, the North Carolina race was the only Senate race where the outcome would have been different.  Meaning, if the electorate had been younger and less white as it typically is during presidential cycles, Tillis would have been the only new Republican Senator not headed to Washington, D.C.

With a race that tight, here is something interesting to ponder…

What if Kay Hagan had decided to attend that one meeting she skipped?  What if she had gone to work that day instead of attending a fundraiser?

If she had, things certainly might be different.  However, that’s not how it turned out.  Thom Tillis did win the election, and he is headed to Washington.  Somewhat ironically, he will also be sitting in Hagan’s old seat on the Armed Services Committee.

There's certainly a lesson in there somewhere.  Maybe it’s to always be prepared and to make every opportunity count because you never know which decision might turn out to be the most important one you make.  Or, maybe it is just to always keep a lucky rabbit’s foot in your pocket.

In politics, both lessons apply.