Archive for State News

AAA Carolinas: Falling Gas Prices Fuel Increase in Thanksgiving Holiday Travel for North Carolinians

Almost 90 percent of North Carolinians traveling this Thanksgiving holiday will be celebrating with a road trip, while enjoying the lowest gas prices in five years.

A total of 1,345,000 North Carolinians are expected to travel 50 miles or more from home. About 1,210,500 of those travelers will drive, an increase of about 48,600 than last year.

Gas prices in North Carolina have dropped dramatically in the past two months. The statewide average is $2.77 today, down 57 cents from Labor Day, Sept. 1, when they averaged $3.34. North Carolinians are paying 46 cents less at the pump compared to last Thanksgiving, when they paid $3.23.

“Lower prices at the pump have encouraged more people to hit the road this Thanksgiving holiday to spend time with their family and friends,” said David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas. “With Thanksgiving being the busiest travel weekend of the year, we want to remind families to take extra measures to ensure safety on the highways.”

Thanksgiving is one of the most dangerous holidays for motorists due to its five-day length and the heavy traffic caused by the high number of travelers on the road. Last year, 12 people died in crashes on North Carolina highways during the holiday weekend.

The Thanksgiving holiday period is defined as Wednesday, Nov. 26 through Sunday, Nov. 30. The highest number of travelers on the road will depart for their destinations on Wednesday and most will return on Sunday.

The top five driving destinations this time of the year for people living in the Carolinas are Charlotte, Charleston, Asheville, Orlando and Myrtle Beach, according to AAA Carolinas.

Those driving through North Carolina will encounter the highest average price per gallon of unleaded gas in Asheville at $2.92; the least expensive average price is in the Charlotte-Gastonia area at $2.73.

North Carolina motorists can expect to see lower gas prices in the bordering states of South Carolina ($2.59), Virginia ($2.66), Tennessee ($2.62), and Georgia ($2.76).

Despite a small increase in airfares, up 1% from last year, more travelers are taking to the skies this year, about 92,700 or 7% of all travelers. The busiest departure date for air travel is Monday, Nov. 24, with the highest number expected to return the following Monday, Dec. 1, or later.

An estimated 40,300 (3%) will use other modes of transportation such as train, bus or boat.

Travelers not staying with relatives or friends will encounter a moderate increase in hotel rates compared to last year. AAA Three Diamond hotels average $154 per night, compared to $142 last year, while the average hotel rate for AAA Two Diamond hotels has risen 9% with an average cost of $114 per night. AAA rates hotels from one to five Diamonds based on standards in physical attributes, hospitality and amenities. AAA Three Diamond hotels represent the largest number of AAA rated accommodations.

Weekend daily car rental rates have increased 10% this year to average $55 per day.

For the latest on construction delays, go to the North Carolina Department of Transportation website, www.ncdot.org. Click on Travel & Maps and then on the Traveler Information Management System for up-to-date traffic information related to closed travel lanes, accidents or expected congestion due to special events.

South Carolina Department of Transportation prohibits lane closures on interstate highways and high-volume multilane routes during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, considered to be from noon on Wednesday, Nov. 26, until 6 a.m. Monday, Dec. 1.

Survey data is taken from AAA’s Leisure Travel Index, AAA/HIS Global Insight holiday travel forecast and AAA Carolinas data.

To estimate fuel costs, travelers can go to www.fuelcostcalculator.com to input starting city, destination, and the make and model of their car.

The free AAA Mobile app for iPhone and Android devices uses GPS navigation to help travelers map a route, find updated gas prices, view nearby member discounts and access AAA Roadside Assistance.

AAA Carolinas, an affiliate of the American Automobile Association, is a not-for-profit organization that serves more than 1.9 million members and the public with travel, automobile and insurance services while being an advocate for the safety and security of all travelers.

Sylva: National Register Adds 17 North Carolina Historic Places

The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources is pleased to announce that 17 individual properties and districts across the state have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The properties below were reviewed by the North Carolina National Register Advisory Committee and were subsequently approved by the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Officer and forwarded to the Keeper of the National Register.

“Architecture is among North Carolina’s rich cultural treasures,” Governor Pat McCrory said. “These selections are North Carolina’s adaptations of classic American styles of architecture ranging from a plantation house to a downtown auto dealership. I’m pleased these sites have merited selection to the National Register so they can be preserved, enjoyed and studied by future generations.”

“The National Register is a vital tool in the preservation of North Carolina’s historic resources,” said Susan Kluttz, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. “North Carolina is a leader in the nation’s historic preservation movement. When all of the buildings in historic districts classified as contributing to the districts’ significance are counted, it is estimated that North Carolina has approximately 73,300 National Register properties.”

The listing of a property in the National Register places no obligation or restriction on a private owner using private resources to maintain or alter the property. Over the years, various federal and state incentives have been introduced to assist private preservation initiatives, including tax credits for the rehabilitation of National Register properties. As of Jan. 1, 2014, 3,000 rehabilitation projects with total estimated expenditures of $1.7 billion have been completed.

Downtown Sylva Historic District, Sylva, Jackson County, listed 9/03/14

Located in the county seat of Jackson County, the Downtown Sylva Historic District covers approximately 13 acres and includes 44 contributing buildings and structures primarily along Main, Mill, Landis, and Jackson streets. The period of significance begins in 1900, with the construction of the Sylva Pharmacy at 596-600 West Main Street, and extends to 1964, when the Modernist United States Post Office building was completed. The Downtown Sylva Historic District is locally significant in the areas of architecture and commerce.

Prescribed Burns in Cheoah Ranger District

The U.S. Forest Service plans to conduct a prescribed burn today on approximately 28 acres in the Cheoah Ranger District, Nantahala National Forest. The burn will take place off of FS Road 2630, near the Panther Creek and Duck Branch communities, which are approximately 15 miles east of the District Office.

The purpose of this burn is to reduce hazardous fuels and prepare the ground for planting seedlings.

Public safety is the highest priority during a prescribed burn. The public should beware of smoke and fire engines in the area.

NC Urged to “Keep Pedal to the Metal” with Solar Growth

On Thursday, Environment North Carolina released a report outlining the reasons North Carolina should continue its brisk pace for solar-energy development, and generate 20 percent of its power from solar by 2030. Photo courtesy of Environment North Carolina.

On Thursday, Environment North Carolina released a report outlining the reasons North Carolina should continue its brisk pace for solar-energy development, and generate 20 percent of its power from solar by 2030. Photo courtesy of Environment North Carolina.

North Carolinians have the power of the sun to be thankful for as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, according to a new report from Environment North Carolina. The analysis found the state has one of the fastest-growing solar industries in the country, growing by 127% in recent years. It also recommends a goal for North Carolina to generate 20% of its energy from the sun by the year 2030.

Maya Gold with Environment North Carolina says it is within reach, “North Carolina is definitely a leader when it comes to solar on a national level. So, to take solar power to the next level, our leaders just have to keep their foot on the accelerator, and certainly not put on the brakes.”
Tag: Gold says for the state to reach the goal, it will need to maintain a solar installation growth rate of 26% a year. She adds North Carolina’s solar tax credits are playing a large role in the growth and are some of the most generous in the country.

However, the state’s solar tax credits are set to expire at the end of 2015. Gold says the economic benefits that come as a result of creating cleaner energy are one reason to renew them, “The solar industry is definitely a huge contributor to the economy. You can’t have solar energy in North Carolina without jobs for North Carolinians.”

According to Environment North Carolina, the state’s solar industry employs 3,100 people. Gold says a 20% reliance on solar would eliminate the equivalent of carbon pollution from 4,500,000 vehicles each year, and put the state close to reaching the EPA’s Clean Power Plan benchmark. That proposal requires cutting carbon pollution from power plants 40% by 2030.

Tobacco: Kids Can’t Smoke It, But They Pick It in NC

ome children working with tobacco plants wear trash bags to protect themselves from absorbing nicotine from the wet leaves. Kids are especially vulnerable to what's known as green tobacco sickness, essentially the nicotine poisoning of a non-smoker with the blood nicotine level of a pack-a-day habit. Photo credit: Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch.

ome children working with tobacco plants wear trash bags to protect themselves from absorbing nicotine from the wet leaves. Kids are especially vulnerable to what’s known as green tobacco sickness, essentially the nicotine poisoning of a non-smoker with the blood nicotine level of a pack-a-day habit. Photo credit: Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch.

Children half the age that they could legally smoke are reportedly laboring in tobacco fields in North Carolina. It’s hard to tell how many or how old they are. But a study by Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee or “FLOC,” found one in ten working in North Carolina tobacco fields is younger than 18.

FLOC’s Baldemar Velasquez says children work to help their families get by typically start in their early teens – but sometimes much younger, “Seven, eight on up. We’ve seen kids this summer that were 13, 15 – and they’d tell us they’d worked in tobacco for seven years, five years.”

The major tobacco companies all have policies against child labor, but a federal loophole intended for farm families leaves the practice in a legal gray area. Most growers insist they obey the law, to the best of their ability.

Velasquez says he worked harvesting tobacco as a teen, and started with his family at age six. He says “it was either that or not eating.” He says families, often here illegally and paid low wages, are at the mercy of labor contractors. And economic pressures mean farm owners and cigarette companies look the other way when crew leaders break the law, “Doesn’t matter to the crew leader, the labor contractor, because he gets the money from the harvest. He doesn’t care how small the hands are that are putting the cut tobacco on the trailer, as long as the acres get done.”

According to a separate report from Human Rights Watch, half of tobacco workers make below minimum wage. It found 12-hour days are common, and 16-hour days not unusual. The reports say the kids are especially vulnerable to green tobacco sickness, a type of nicotine poisoning.

Velasquez remembers getting dizzy and nauseous, with high blood nicotine levels, “When you try to eat, nothing tastes right. Workers say they try to drink milk ’cause it’s the only thing that they can consume when you get really, really sick.”

Off the farms, the US eliminated most child labor decades ago. Velasquez says the fights that unions won in the mills of North Carolina still have to be fought in the tobacco fields.

“These are symptoms of a broader labor problem. We used to have children in the mines of America, textile mills of America. When unions were formed, they negotiated away those conditions.”

Experts Predict Looming Budget Crisis in North Carolina Following Tax Cuts

North Carolina lawmakers are likely enjoying some downtime after the legislative session and a midterm election, but experts predict there is a tough job waiting on them in Raleigh. A report from the Office of the State Controller indicates tax revenues are down almost $400,000,000 dollars compared with the same time last year. That’s a 6% drop in revenue.

Alexandra Sirota with the NC Budget and Tax Center says it’s not a problem the State Assembly will be able to ignore in January, “This is a serious issue. It’s self imposed in that policymakers chose to reduce our revenue. Now they’re going to have to make choices about some pretty deep cuts.”

Sirota and others believe the decreased revenue is a result of personal and corporate income tax cuts. Additional tax cuts will take effect on January 1st, unless lawmakers call a special session to stop the cuts from taking place. State revenue is expected to get a boost in the form of sales tax revenue from holiday shopping.

Opponents of North Carolina’s recent tax cuts point to the problems experienced in Kansas, where large tax cuts have resulted in cuts to public education and have not resulted in a growth in the state’s economy as its governor predicted.

Gerrick Brenner with Progress NC Action believes North Carolina could share a parallel experience with the midwestern state if action isn’t taken,”There’s been a windfall for the wealthy and for corporations. Some people have actually had their taxes go up if you’re at the lower income brackets. And who is going to pay for this budget mess? It’s going to be our public schools, our universities, vital services that need state funding to happen.”

Brenner points out that Governor Pat McCrory promised in his 2013 State of the State Address that tax reform would not result in less revenue for the state.

Sirota says her analysis indicates the state will have to cut programs or raise taxes in order to balance the budget, as mandated by the state constitution, “What we’re seeing is that fewer dollars are coming in because the tax plan that was passed gave significant tax cuts to the wealthy and profitable corporations. As a result, we don’t have the money to make investments for a stronger North Carolina.”

Caring for Caregivers: Holidays Add Stress for Family of Sick and Aging

Lou Henderson spent 20 years caring for his wife and recently decided to place her in assisted care. Photo credit: Holly Pilson

Lou Henderson spent 20 years caring for his wife and recently decided to place her in assisted care. Photo credit: Holly Pilson

For every twinkle of a holiday light and crinkle of wrapping paper, there’s stress associated with this time of year, especially for the thousands of North Carolinians tasked with caring for a loved one. Adding to their concern are waiting lists for existing services across the state that help support family caregivers.

Lou Henderson of Maxton understands the stress of being a caregiver. After caring for his ailing wife for 20 years, he made the tough decision to place her in a nursing facility, “It got to the place where it was affecting me more than it was her, so I had to do something or I was going to be ended up somewhere. It’s not sad. It’s just something I knew I had to do.”

November is National Family Caregivers Month. According to AARP, there are an estimated 42,000,000 caregivers in the US. There are resources available to help people care for their loved ones. Many of them can be found at caregivers.org.

Bob Palombo is president of AARP North Carolina and is also a caregiver to his mother. He says the holidays are a particular time of stress for caregivers as they juggle holiday and family obligations and his organization is doing what it can to reach out to them, “Caregivers don’t always ask for help. They do it because it’s a service to their parent or relative and they don’t like to seek help in all cases, and we need to be able to provide the information and resources for them.”

Nationwide, it’s estimated family caregivers provide an estimated 450,000,000 dollars worth of unpaid care to aging relatives and friends.

Palombo says state lawmakers should recognize the financial value of the service caregivers provide,”Those caregivers save the state millions and millions of dollars by taking care of that as opposed to someone going into another facility. We need to help these seniors.”

Experts say it’s important for caregivers to recognize the signs of stress and burnout in taking care of their loved ones, find support from others and ask for help.

Agreement Reached in Red Wolf Lawsuit against Wildlife Commission

Agreement Reached in Red Wolf Lawsuit against Wildlife Commission RALEIGH,
N.C. (Nov. 14, 2014) – An agreement has been reached in a lawsuit against
the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which will restore conditional
coyote hunting in the five-county red wolf reintroduction area of eastern
North Carolina.

The agreement will restore daytime coyote hunting on private lands in Dare,
Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington counties by licensed or otherwise
authorized hunters, with a special permit obtained from the Wildlife
Commission and subsequent reporting of kill. In the other 95 counties of the
state, coyote hunters may hunt during daytime or at night using artificial
lights, and no special permit or reporting of coyote harvests is required.

The agreement stems from a lawsuit brought by the Southern Environmental Law
Center on behalf of the Red Wolf Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife and the
Animal Welfare Institute. The suit alleged the N.C. Wildlife Resources
Commission violated the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing coyote
hunting in Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington counties where a
non-essential experimental re-introduction of the red wolf is occurring. A
court-ordered injunction issued in May halted coyote hunting in the five
counties, except under extremely limited circumstances.

This agreement restores opportunities for landowners and others to manage
coyotes on their properties through daytime hunting. Coyotes are found in
all 100 counties of the state and pose a predatory threat to pets, livestock
and native wildlife. Hunting and trapping are effective tools for landowners
to manage coyote populations on a localized basis.

Restoration of coyote hunting in the five-county red wolf reintroduction
area requires the Commission invoke rulemaking to implement these changes.
This process will be initiated as quickly as possible. Interested persons
will be able to follow the progress of rulemaking by visiting

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission requested a programmatic review of
the red wolf reintroduction in June. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will
evaluate the program in the areas of science, management and public
attitudes. The evaluation will be used to determine whether the red wolf
introduction program is meeting the goals and objectives established under
special rules of the Endangered Species Act. That determination is expected
to be finalized in early 2015.

Landowners are permitted to “take” or kill a red wolf or a coyote if it
attacks their livestock or pets, or if it endangers human life. A red wolf
that is killed incidentally by any type of legal activity, such as hunting
coyotes following state regulations, does not constitute a violation of
federal regulations, provided that the taking is not intentional or willful.
It also must be reported within 24 hours to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service at 1-855-496-5837 or N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission at

Forest Service proposes logging Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest

In what conservation groups flag as a dramatic shift, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing industrial-scale logging in the vast majority of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina — about 700,000 acres, or an area bigger than the Great Smoky Mountain National Park — instead of protecting popular backcountry recreation destinations and conserving the Blue Ridge landscapes treasured by residents and tourists from across the United States.

“Under the law and for everyone who enjoys America’s forests, the Forest Service’s first priority should be fixing the mistakes of the past — restoring the parts of the forest already damaged by prior logging,” said DJ Gerken, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “But the misguided logging plan proposed by the agency will repeat those old mistakes, causing more damage and putting the healthiest forests we have left on the chopping block. The people who use and love these forests won’t stand for cutting them down.”

The Forest Service’s new proposal would inevitably increase logging over the levels of recent years, though the precise amount has not been disclosed.

“This increase would come from ramping up logging all over the forest, including backcountry areas like the South Mills River area, home to the popular Black Mountain Trail,” said Hugh Irwin, conservation planner for The Wilderness Society.

According to Forest Service documents, such areas would be managed for “timber production,” which it interprets as “the purposeful growing and harvesting of crops of trees to be cut into logs.”

This industrial-style logging would also require cutting new roads for trucks and equipment into sensitive, unspoiled backcountry areas.

“Not only is that destructive and disruptive, it’s also fiscally irresponsible,” said Irwin. “The agency shouldn’t be expanding its road system when it can’t even afford to maintain the roads it already has.”

Agency reports confirm that the Forest Service has less than 13 percent of the funds needed to maintain its existing roads, leading to safety and water quality problems. Several popular roads remain closed due to unrepaired washouts.

“This proposal is absolutely the wrong direction for the forest,” said Ben Prater, director of conservation for Wild South. “Times have changed, and our mountain economy doesn’t depend just on logging anymore. We should be capitalizing on our wonderful Blue Ridge forests, not cutting them down. Treating practically the entire Pisgah-Nantahala as a ‘crop’ is simply irresponsible.”

The Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest has become a tourism and recreation destination, and revenue generated by visitors is a major driver of the western North Carolina economy. The National Forests of North Carolina are the third most visited national forest in the country. Industrial logging not only damages scenery and natural features, which are the key draw for half of those visits, but also requires popular areas to be closed to the public for months at a time while trees are being cut.

“They’re our public lands,” said Prater. “Where is the balance?”
Public participation is important to the planning process underway, in which the U.S. Forest Service will decide how to manage the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forests for the next 15 years.

The public can comment by email at NCplanrevision@fs.fed.us.

Board of Elections Holds Canvass

Boards of election in all 100 counties were slated to meet Friday morning for what’s called the canvass. Outstanding provisional ballots and mail-in absentee votes deemed lawfully cast are added to candidate totals, which are also checked for math errors.

After that’s completed, candidates in very close races have until late Monday afternoon or noon Tuesday — depending on the contest — to request recounts.

The State Board of Elections is supposed to meet Nov. 25 to certify most results, including the U.S. Senate race.

NC Breathes a Little Easier in 2014, Literally.

gr-42838-1-1It’s the time of year when North Carolinians are holding their breath for the next freeze warning, but the latest data on 2014 ozone levels in the state indicates people can take a small sigh of relief about the air they breathe. Ozone levels in the state were the lowest on record this year.

It’s the first time the state hasn’t exceeded the federal ozone standard since the 1970s, but June Blotnick with Clean Air Carolina says with ozone levels in metro areas such as Charlotte still hitting 75 parts per billion, there is more work to be done, “While we can celebrate the decreasing levels of ozone in the state, our work is far from over to improve air quality to where it’s healthy. ”

While ozone levels were at record low levels for the second time in the last two years, the EPA is expected to release updated federal ozone standards in December. Blotnick says their standard could be between 60 and 70 parts per billion, which would place levels in many metropolitan cities above federal standards.

The improved ozone levels are believed to be a result of cooler temperatures this summer and reduced emissions from power plants. Blotnick says there is support from groups such as hers, elected officials and citizens to expand clean energy in North Carolina, “North Carolina is really in a great position in the country to improve our air quality even more and create jobs by reducing carbon from the power sector. ”

A Division of Air Quality report shows that the state’s coal-fired power plants have cut their nitrogen oxide emissions by at least 80% since 2002.

Coal Ash Clean Up Debate Continues

North Carolina regulators have ordered Duke Energy to resubmit its proposal for assessing theextent of groundwater contamination leaking from 33 coal ash dumps across the state after deeming the company’s current plans “inadequate.”

The N.C. Division of Water Resources has given Duke 30 days to resubmit the plans with a list of proposed changes. Duke is required to perform the assessments by a new state law passed in response to the massive Feb. 2 spill at a plant in Eden that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with gray sludge.

Coal ash contains numerous toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and mercury. State regulators have said all of Duke’s unlined waste pits are contaminating groundwater. Duke had submitted its required monitoring plans to the state in September.

SBA Backs Almost Half a Billion Dollars to North Carolina Small Businesses in 2014

U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs placed almost half a billion dollars into the hands of North Carolina small businesses during fiscal year ended September 30, 2014, guarantying 845 loans for almost $449 million.

During the year, 746 loans were approved through its flagship 7(a) program for almost $383 million. Through SBA’s 504 fixed-asset financing program, Certified Development Companies approved 99 loans for about $66.1 million. That’s down 3.5% in dollars over 2013, when SBA approved 917 loans for over $465 million.

“Almost half a billion dollars in SBA funding enabled small businesses to create jobs and support our state’s economy,” said SBA District Director Lynn Douthett. “Thanks to all of our lending partners who provide the access to capital that help our small businesses grow and succeed.

Wells Fargo was North Carolina’s top 7(a) lender ranked by number of loans, with 160 for almost $48 million. Yadkin Bank landed the number two spot with 69 loans for over $78 million.

Business Expansion Funding Corporation (BEFCOR) was the state’s top certified development company in 504 loans. BEFCOR approved 46 loans for $25.7 million. Self-Help Ventures Fund followed with 32 loans for $19.4 million.

12 Planning Tips for Social Security Benefits

Helping clients plan for Social Security benefits may involve a lot of information gathering and research, but doing so could save them a heap of headaches and a lot of money. Here are 12 planning tips that stand out to me as potential opportunities. These can provide great relief and keep your clients out of the danger zone.

If a person is past their full retirement age (age 66) and is submitting the initial application for Social Security retirement benefits, be sure to claim the allowed six months of retroactive benefits. One important question to consider is if your clients should start full retirement age at age 66 or wait until age 70. Life expectancy data shows that a person who retires at age 66 will live until 86.2, and a person who retires at age 70 will live until he or she is 87. With this in mind, I suggest waiting until age 70 to begin receiving benefits. Keep in mind there is an exception; the break-even point is age 81, so if your family history shows that most members do not live beyond their early 80s, it may not be beneficial to wait.
If you suspended Social Security benefits at or after full retirement age and are on Medicare Part B, pay the premium out of your own pocket. The government will pay your Medicare Part B premium if you have suspended benefits, but then you will not get the eight percent per year delayed retirement credits. Medicare Part B premium increases are limited to the increase in Social Security benefits if you are collecting benefits, but not if you have suspended benefits. You will be subjecting yourself to potentially higher increases in the Medicare Part B premium by suspending benefits between full retirement age and age 70. This applies to singles with less than $85,000 of income and joint filers with less than $170,000 of income. People with incomes greater than those amounts are currently subject to much higher premiums for Medicare Part B.
For single individuals who do not need the income, consider a file-and-suspend strategy that allows one to lock in the larger monthly benefits later and hedge their bets with the ability to reinstate at any point with retroactive benefits. An important risk consideration for any delay in receiving Social Security benefit payments is that after death, Social Security benefits aren’t retroactive. A sudden and untimely death during the delay in receiving Social Security retirement benefits leaves a surviving spouse or estate with no value in hand for the years Social Security was not taken. If this risk of loss of value is a concern, one solution might be to verify life insurance coverage for this amount through age 70.
Be sure you are aware of the benefits related to certain spousal age differences. With the 2014 full retirement age, the file-and-suspend provision is only beneficial with a spousal benefit if the lower earner is older than the high wage earner is or is less than eight years younger than the high wage earner is. The smaller the difference in ages, the bigger the benefit. Assuming the Social Security retirement benefit is not needed, the file-and-suspend option should be used in most situations with a wage earner and a nonworking spouse. It should also often be used when the lower-earning spouse’s lifetime earnings are significantly less than the higher-earning spouse’s.
When working with two high-earning spouses of equal ages who both want to delay benefits to age 70 in order to earn delayed retirement credits, your best bet is to help them decide which spouse should claim the spousal benefit at full retirement age. Because no couple will be the exact same age and have the exact same primary insurance amount, the answer will be different for each couple.
Applying for Social Security benefits relating to marital status (retirement, survivor and disability) for same-sex married couples is important, regardless of meeting the current requirements. If you have clients who are ultimately found to be eligible, they can possibly get benefits retroactive to the filing date.
Members of same-sex marriages should carefully consider the effect their choice of state of domicile (residence) will have on their Social Security benefits. This refers to the residence they lived in at the time of application or while the claim is pending a final determination. After the claim is approved, the state of residence does not matter.
For the self-employed husband and wife who work together, who are beginning to collect Social Security: this would be the time to shift income to the younger spouse and have the initial enrollee lower their wages to the maximum allowable at age 62 to avoid a payback. That allows the household to enjoy the highest possible benefit for the first four years in which either spouse is eligible.
Remind your clients and their parents who are widow(er)s to evaluate whether they should begin to collect Social Security at age 60 as a survivors benefit. The Social Security Administration will not notify them of their eligibility for survivors benefits.
Be aware: There may be some confusion on the repay and reapply option. Prior to Dec. 8, 2010, there was no 12-month or once-in-a-lifetime restriction, and many media articles promoted this option as an interest-free loan. Although it is still a valuable tool, it is important to be aware of the limitations in advance so clients who would benefit from it can do so within the time limits.
Verify the type of Social Security benefit your client is planning on receiving. For example, the government pension offset only applies to the government employee who receives survivor or widow(er) benefits, not the worker’s benefit.
If the government worker had a previous earnings record that qualified them for Social Security, their Social Security benefit would not be subject to the government pension offset.
If the government worker dies and the spouse receives a survivors benefit from the government pension, then the government pension offset does not apply.
When speaking with clients, clarify the federal plan from which they will receive benefits. The government pension offset only applies to federal government employees under the Civil Service Retirement System because they are not a part of the Social Security system. In 1984, the current plan, known as the Federal Employee Retirement System, was created. Employees covered under this plan do contribute to Social Security and Medicare and are not subject to the government pension offset; they would receive both their full pension and full Social Security benefit.
Bonus Tips for Clients Who Have Gone or Are Going Through a Divorce:

Remember that the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years for an ex-spouse to collect benefits. If you are advising a soon-to-be-divorced lower earner whose marriage is in its ninth year, you might advise him or her to wait a bit longer with this timeline in mind.
In order to maintain as many Social Security options as possible, a 50-something client who has been in a long marriage may want to wait until after age 60 to remarry.
For more tips, commonly asked client questions and advisor solutions and in-depth information on advising your clients in this area, reference The CPA’s Guide to Social Security Planning from the AICPA Personal Financial Planning Section. Download a free excerpt on the AICPA PFP Section’s retirement resources page. The agenda for the 2015 AICPA Advanced PFP Conference in January includes sessions on Social Security planning and other advanced retirement and personal financial planning topics.

Theodore J. Sarenski, CPA/PFS, CFP®, AEP, CEP, President, Blue Ocean Strategic Capital, Inc. Ted’s firm delivers customized service for individuals, retirement plans, non-profit organizations, endowments and foundations. He is the author of The CPA’s Guide to Social Security Planning and will be speaking on the “Nuances of Social Security” at the 2015 AICPA Advanced PFP Conference.

– See more at: http://blog.aicpa.org/2014/11/12-planning-tips-for-social-security-benefits.html#sthash.X4QkWxj9.78zRyk56.dpuf

Governor McCrory Advocates for Oil and Gas Development in Mid-Atlantic

Governor Pat McCrory, chairman of the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, reiterated his support for Outer Continental Shelf energy development today at a workshop in downtown Raleigh’s Nature Research Center.

“Exploring the potential oil and gas reserves located in the Outer Continental Shelf will solidify North Carolina’s position as an energy leader and drive us to energy independence,” Governor McCrory said. “Our power generation is becoming more dependent on natural gas as a fuel source. Increasing availability of natural gas will strengthen our economy and contribute to economic prosperity for decades to come.”

The governor took part in a Q&A session, which was open to the media, on the topic with Dr. Donald van der Vaart, energy policy adviser and deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Department Secretary John Skvarla also took part in the program.

During the Q&A, Governor McCrory stressed that both environmental protections and revenue sharing are necessary for production to take place.

“The largest employment impact of Atlantic OCS oil and natural gas activity is projected in the Mid-Atlantic States of North and South Carolina and Virginia,” the governor continued.

Governor McCrory cited information from the Quest Offshore Resources that points toward dramatic economic benefits from OCS gas and oil development for the state. The impact to North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia combined by 2035 would be 116,000 jobs, $56 billion in cumulative spending, $9 billion annually and $9.5 billion from revenue sharing. The numbers are based off of previous estimates of offshore resources. BOEM recently increased estimates for the Mid-Atlantic.

Van der Vaart and Governor McCrory discussed revenue sharing in depth, mentioning the need to split revenue between the federal government, the state and coastal communities.

Addressing the need for environmental precautions, the governor noted that responsible resource development is in everyone’s best interest. He acknowledged there are risks associated with any type of economic and energy development and that a significant amount of investment would be needed to provide the support facilities and processing capacity required for development and production.

The Q&A session also covered the governor’s role as chairman of the Offshore Continental Shelf Governors Coalition; continued efforts to pass equitable revenue sharing legislation in Congress; and the development of a responsible “Five Year Program” that includes lease sales in all unleased areas that have state support, including the mid-Atlantic planning area, the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea planning areas (Alaska) and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Winter Safety for Wood Burning Stoves and Fireplaces

With the arrival of cold weather, many North Carolinians are beginning to use their wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. The N.C. Forest Service reminds stove users to never dump hot ashes or coals into a wooded area. If you do, you’re risking not only your home, but your neighbor’s as well.
In Mitchell County recently, an eight-acre fire on Humpback Mountain damaged two homes. The suspected cause of the blaze was stove or fireplace ashes that had been dumped outside a residence.
The simple solution to preventing this type of fire is to properly dispose of stove ashes. Soak them in water in a metal bucket, stir them about, or only put them in an area where the wind won’t cause them to spread to combustible fuel such as leaves, pine needles, or other forest litter.

North Carolina Leading Country in Reduction of Uninsured Children

North Carolina ranks second in the country when it comes to the reduction of uninsured children. That’s according to a report released today by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. As of 2013, the number of uninsured children in the state stands at a little more than 144,000- about 30,000 fewer than 2011.

Michelle Hughes with NC Child says having insurance improves the overall well-being of a child, “We know that healthy children perform better in school. What is really good news for North Carolina is that we are insuring more children in our state, and so that means we have healthier children who are going to do better as adults.”

The report does indicate that families living on the “brink” of poverty have the highest rate of uninsurance, and nationwide, 5.2 million children lack insurance. Although some states like North Carolina are making progress, in many states, progress appears to have stalled. Hughes says one reason may be that states have been focused instead on getting more adults covered through the Affordable Care Act.

In the last five years, nationwide, the number of uninsured children declined by one-point-seven million – thanks in part to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Next year, Congress will be voting on funding for CHIP and Joan Alker with the Georgetown Center for Children and Families says a lot is riding on the outcome of that debate, “Right now, we have just over 5,000,000 children who are uninsured in the United States. If Congress doesn’t fund that program, that number could swell to over seven-million. So, that’s a very critical decision.”

Hughes points out that research indicates healthier parents improve the lives of their children, which is why – she says – it’s important North Carolina lawmakers choose to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, “Governor McCrory and North Carolina state lawmakers really should expand Medicaid coverage to low-income parents, which will result in healthier families and healthier children.”

According to the NC Institute of Medicine, 500,000 North Carolinians would be covered if lawmakers chose to expand Medicaid.

Number of People with Diabetes in North Carolina has Doubled

The arrival of November means it’s American Diabetes Month. It comes as the prevalence of the disease continues to rise across North Carolina and the nation.

David Becker with the American Diabetes Association says the latest numbers show 29,000,000 Americans with diabetes, and the toll on health can be great, including kidney failure, blindness, amputations and more, “There are a lot of co-morbid diseases as far as diabetes and cancer and heart disease. It all kind of is interrelating.”

Becker says about 95% of those people who have diabetes have Type 2, which healthier lifestyle choices with nutrition and physical activity can help prevent. According to the National Institutes of Health, the rate of diagnosed diabetes cases in North Carolina has nearly doubled to more than 650,000. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the state.

Becker notes that even some simple, small changes with healthy eating and regular exercise can yield big results, “If you lose just seven-percent of your body weight, you can decrease your chances of getting diabetes by 58%.”

If the current trends don’t change, it’s estimated that by 2050, 30% of all Americans will have diabetes.

Education Superhighway? NC Approves Virtual Charter Schools

Starting next year, North Carolina’s charter schools will expand beyond the four walls of a classroom. State lawmakers approved a pilot program in this year’s budget that requires the state Board of Education to approve two statewide virtual charter schools – making the companies eligible for millions in public education dollars.

Yevonne Brannon with Public Schools First NC is concerned about the quality of education that state tax dollars will fund, “It’s something to really be concerned about because we’re taking tax dollars earmarked for public schools, and we’re putting them into a charter. It’s totally online. We have no way to judge its quality or judge the impact on the actual student learning.”

K-12 Incorporated and Connections Academy – the nation’s two largest online education companies – have applied for online charter school status. The schools would receive approximately nine-thousand dollars per student. Supporters of the charter programs say it will offer the state’s students more choices. The program is separate from the North Carolina Virtual Public School – currently run by the state, that offers online classes to students.

Neighboring Tennessee opened a K-12 Incorporated school four years ago but may shut the school down at the end of this year, citing three years of low test scores. Brannon says “We’re going to be pouring more students, more money away from the public schools.”

If approved, as many as three-thousand students could be enrolled in the two schools combined by the end of next year.

Voter Suppression? There’s an App for That

Early voting in North Carolina is well underway. On Election Day thousands will wait until the last minute, and there will be trained election monitors at polling stations to make sure people are given every legal opportunity to vote. This year many will be armed with a mobile application – or app – to record in real time any voting irregularities across the state.

“Election Collection” is the brain child of Sarah Moncelle with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, “Here at the office on Election Day, as the volunteers are inputting the reports, they get updated in real time to the database and also to the map so we can sort of see spatially where the patterns are. ”

Tag: Data collected from the app will be used to determine if additional staff or volunteers should be sent to particular polling locations, and also shared with groups who are monitoring the effects of North Carolina’s new voting law. More information on the midterm election can be found at NCVOTERGUIDE.ORG

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice worked with several partner groups to train volunteers on using the app. It will enable them to collect personalized accounts of issues at the polls, as well as any examples of voter suppression. Moncelle says it’s another tool for voters, in addition to the voting hotlines that are available, “The hotlines are a way for people to report what’s happening, find out their rights, find out their polling location. This app is more for like specifically documenting so that we have a more detailed documentation we can use to show the negative effects.”

On Election Day, because of North Carolina’s new voting law, there is no same-day registration and you must vote at your assigned precinct since no provisional ballots will be offered for out-of-precinct voting. You are not required to have a state issued photo ID.