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Group: Big Macs, McNuggets Should Be Sold Without Antibiotics

gr-44209-1-1The company known for its “Golden Arches” is being asked to make its burgers, chicken nuggets and other menu items antibiotic-free. It’s estimated that nearly 70% of all antibiotics sold in the US are used in raising livestock and poultry. McDonald’s sells more than 1,000,000,000 pounds of beef each year, and Pamela Clough with the watchdog US Public Interest Research Group says if the fast-food giant required its suppliers to stop raising meat with antibiotics, it would prompt sweeping changes in the industry, “If they were to make this change, it would be the equivalent of banning antibiotics in meat production in a small country. And so, if they make this commitment, it could really change the paradigm of the market and make antibiotic-free meat more affordable and more accessible for everybody”

Some medical experts say the overuse of antibiotics is creating antibiotic-resistant infections that are serious public health threats. McDonald’s says it recognizes the importance of combating antibiotic resistance and an update to its policy on antibiotic use in food animals is due out this year.

Other restaurants, including Panera and Chipotle, say they already use only antibiotic-free meats, and the Chick-fil-A chain has made a commitment to only purchase chicken raised without antibiotics by 2020. In 2003, McDonald’s implemented a policy about antibiotics, but Clough says it didn’t go far enough, “It only applied to some suppliers, and didn’t require even these suppliers to only purchase meat raised without antibiotics. It had to do with antibiotics used for growth promotion versus disease prevention. In the end, we need stronger action.”

The fast food giant announced last year that it will start transitioning to sustainable beef by 2016, but Clough says it wasn’t specific about the definition of “sustainable.”

Calls Today to End Corporate Influence in Elections

Protest events are planned around the nation today to mark the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court. The ruling removed limits on the amount of money an independent organization can spend on political campaigns.

Adam Sotak with Democracy North Carolina says the result is that millionaires and billionaires have greater influence over elections at every level of government, “We the people need to be in the driver’s seat of our elections, not wealthy special interests who are able to hide behind shadow groups and spend exorbitant amounts of money.”

A recent report on campaign spending on Senate races by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since Citizens United, spending by outside groups has doubled. In 2014, North Carolina’s Senate race received attention for the most outside money, with groups spending $80,000,000.

Stephen Spaulding with the nonpartisan group Common Cause, says political campaign spending from undisclosed sources topped $170,000,000 dollars in 2014, and was more than $300,000,000 during the 2012 presidential election, “And we’re well over $500 million money that is untraceable, that has been dumped into our elections, that otherwise likely would not have been spent, but for Citizens United.”

Spaulding says the impact of Citizens United could be reduced or even eliminated with tougher disclosure laws for independent campaign spending. He also thinks lawmakers should support a constitutional amendment giving Congress and the states the power to regulate campaign spending and require full disclosure of its sources.

Medicaid Expansion Not Yet Off the Table in NC

Despite opposition from some state lawmakers, Medicaid expansion is not off the table in North Carolina. At the start of the 2015 legislative session last week, Senate President Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) both dismissed the idea of expansion. But Governor McCrory has said he would be open to the idea if federal officials allow the state to develop its own plan.

Nicole Dozier with the NC Justice Center’s Health Access Coalition says it’s time for leaders to listen to the people, “Lawmakers are elected to serve the people who entrust that leadership in them. The leadership is saying there’s no case for it, they’re not convinced, but the counties they come from there are people there who say they do need it.”

Dozier says Medicaid expansion would extend health insurance to nearly 500 thousand people and would bring money into communities. And if it had happened in 2014, she says over 370 new jobs would have been created in Berger’s district of Rockingham County; and over 500 jobs in Moore’s district of Cleveland County.

Opponents of expansion say it would still increase the state’s already overrun Medicaid expenses, but Dozier argues the federal government would take on the bulk of the initial cost, “Lawmakers say that the Medicaid system is broken, it’s a big part of the budget and it is. But the system isn’t broken and any system can always be improved, and if you bring the federal dollars down you have the money to reform it.”

She adds the federal government has allowed flexibility in expansion. The majority of the 26 states that accepted federal funds last year did so through a state plan amendment option, or the continuation of a waiver.

TDozier says she’s heard from many people around the state who cannot afford health insurance, but need it for themselves and their families so they can stay healthy and live a productive life, “For folks to not be eligible for help because they make too little who work every day, who are in construction, and in home health industry, and food and beverage. Those are the stories that break my heart, the people who deserve access to health care.

At 24%, North Carolina has one of the highest rates of uninsured adults in the nation.

North Carolina Honors Dr. King through the Lens of Service

The life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will be remembered and honored today through acts of service in North Carolina and around the country. The federal holiday became a national day of service in 1994.

Samantha Warfield, with the Corporation for National and Community Service, says every year, more and more people become engaged and want to give back to their community, “Young people have grown up in school learning about what Dr. King does through the lens of service, whether through service learning projects or through history lessons. And we hope that Dr. King would be proud of a day that’s named in his honor and the work that’s being done.”

Tag: In North Carolina, schools, universities, businesses, and community organizations are hosting service events around the state. Volunteers are doing a variety of projects including sorting donations at food pantries, delivering meals to home-bound individuals, creating care packages for the homeless, and cleaning up neighborhoods.

Natasha Wayne with the United Way of the Greater Triangle says they are hosting nearly 40 projects today throughout the area. She says the day allows groups and organizations to step outside of their own mission and join others in common cause, “MLK Day is a day of service allows everyone to come together and further the vision and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, helping us to transform our community into a stronger, more powerful place.”

Wayne says engaging children and students in the MLK Day of Service can lead to a lifetime of giving back to their community, “Oftentimes the problems that we face as a community feel very overwhelming, but it’s important to help, particularly students, understand that every little bit that you do is helping. That way they kind of grow up with that and then feel part of their community from the beginning.”

According to a recent report, North Carolinians contributed nearly $5,000,000,000 of service through more than 211 million hours of volunteering in 2013.

Texas Hearing Has Implications for North Carolina’s Immigrants

North Carolina is among states involved in the national battle over immigration reform, with a court hearing today in Texas on a lawsuit filed over President Obama’s executive action. About two dozen states, including North Carolina, are seeking an injunction against the plan, claiming it’s unconstitutional.

But Hector Vaca with Action NC says removing the threat of deportation for certain undocumented workers, students and their parents – which is what the president’s order does – is vital for future financial stability, “This would also mean more people would be able to come out of the shadows and contribute to the local economy by purchasing. And it would also means stronger workers rights for immigrants and for everybody else. The governor and the 25 states that are suing, it sounds to us like they just don’t understand it.”

An estimated 120,000 people in North Carolina would qualify for the president’s executive action, which Vaca says would generate about $170,000,000 in tax revenue in five years.

Vaca says this battle playing out in the courts again points to the need for Congress to act on comprehensive, just and realistic immigration reform. He says another benefit, beyond the economic impact and the impact on these families, is that North Carolina’s roads would be safer, “If these people could get this executive action, they would be able to qualify for driver’s licenses, which means more people would be buying car insurance, therefore more people would be insured on the road.”

Under Obama’s executive order, up to 5,000,000 immigrants would be eligible to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs.

Petco pulls China-made food, treats from shelves

Petco has begun the New Year by quickly fulfilling one of its main resolutions — Removing all dog and cat treats made in China from its store shelves and website.

The past few years have brought headlines of tens of thousands of American pets becoming ill after eating Chinese-produced pet food; and over 1,000 pets have actually died after consuming these contaminated treats.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to investigate the link between pet sickness and treats made in China, Petco has made good on its promise to remove these treats from its 1,300 stores across the nation as well as its website. Vets from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have faced this issue before and speak to the history of problems with pet treats produced in China as well as the ongoing efforts to provide American pets with safe food. Here are some answers to questions that may surface from these new headlines:

Is Petco the only retailer to pull Chinese-produced pet foods?

While Petco is the first to pull Chinese-produced pet treats, it has been reported that PetSmart, Inc is going to follow in its footsteps and pull these treats later in 2015.

How can pet owners make sure the food they are giving their pets is safe?

While further investigation is underway about China-made chow, the safest bet is to purchase domestically produced pet food and treats. A vet will be able to give pet owners safe and appropriate recommendations for their pet’s diet.

What are some of the symptoms to lookout for in case pets have eaten these treats in the past?

While the investigation into these treats is still underway, the FDA has advised pet owners that symptoms can include: vomiting, decreased appetite and movement, increased urination, and water consumption. Some of the more severe symptoms have led to the diagnoses of kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding and pancreatitis.

For more information about pet food safety, visit www.AVMA.org

Gov. McCrory’s Financial Ties Questioned in Ethics Complaint

As he enters the second half of his term this week, Governor Pat McCrory is facing allegations of ethics violations. Progress North Carolina Action filed an ethics complaint against the governor, accusing him of failing to disclose ownership of stock in Duke Energy, failing to report income from Tree.com, and failing to report he was on the board of Tree.com.

Progress North Carolina Action executive director Gerrick Brenner says it shows a pattern of omission and incomplete answers that covers up conflicts of interest, “This is not some mid-level bureaucrat in state government who failed to report rental income. This is the chief executive of the ninth largest state in the country who campaigned on transparency and open and clean government, and his ethics forms are a mess.”

McCrory has previously denied any wrongdoing, and when questioned about the complaint at a news conference Monday, the governor said it would be inappropriate to respond to what he called ‘a left-wing, very closed-eyed group.’

The complaint also alleges discrepancies in how the governor describes his relationship with the firm McCrory and Company. Brenner says public documents and the firm’s own website describe the governor as a “partner,” while McCrory has only described himself as a “consultant.” “Calling himself only a consultant, he doesn’t have to answer key questions on the Statement of Economic Interest which would reveal and acknowledge that McCrory and Co. has business dealings with the state, which raises concerns about other conflicts of interest.”

Brenner says it’s a felony to intentionally fail to disclose financial interests on Statements of Economic Interest, and adds that he hopes the State Ethics Commission launches an investigation.

Turn that gift card into a gift, soon

Gift cards you got over the holidays should be considered cash that needs to be spent, and sooner rather than later.

If you set a gift card aside planning to use it in the future, you could be out of luck. The store could go out of business, or close the location near you making it more difficult to shop. You could misplace the card, or forget that you have it.

Gift cards can also lose their value over time. By law, gift cards are good for 5 years from the date of purchase. But merchants can begin charging a monthly inactivity fee if the card hasn’t been used within a year after it was bought.

Don’t let that happen. Instead, turn that little plastic card into a little something for yourself, as soon as you can.

Get more information about gift cards, and if you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly by a merchant, file a consumer complaint with our office at www.ncdoj.gov or call us toll-free within North Carolina at 1-877-NO-SCAM.

AMBER Alerts on Facebook

The North Carolina Center for Missing Persons, which issues AMBER Alerts in this state, welcomes a new partnership with Facebook to help find missing children.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children joined with Facebook to send AMBER Alerts to the social network’s community to help find missing children. Facebook’s distribution system will send AMBER Alerts to user’s News Feeds.

“Getting detailed information to the public quickly improves dramatically the ability to find an abducted child,” said Lt. Jeff Gordon, director of the N.C. Center for Missing Persons. “When the community is able to report sightings of the child, the suspect or the vehicle, especially in the first few hours, law enforcement are better able to find and recover the child safely.

Facebook authorities say that for most people, the alerts will be rare because they will only go to people within the designated search area. If a Facebook user does get an alert, it means there is an active search for an abducted child going on in that area. The alert will provide the critical information needed to potentially help reunite a child with his or her family.

Last year, an 11-year-old girl was safely recovered after a South Carolina motel employee recognized a photo of the girl in an AMBER alert she saw on Facebook. The woman called the police, and the child was found unharmed. Similar word-of-mouth efforts inspired Facebook to develop a more systematic way to help find missing children.

The AMBER Alert system issues media alerts when a law enforcement agency determines that a child was abducted and is in imminent danger.

Here’s how Facebook will complement existing AMBER Alert distribution systems:

1) Reach – Facebook’s distribution system will get the AMBER Alert to everyone who is logged into Facebook (on both mobile and desktop) during the alert if they are within the designated search area as specified by law enforcement.
2) Comprehensive Information – the alert will include important details about the child such as a photo, description, location of the abduction, and any other available information that can be provided to the public to aid in the search for the missing child.
3) Community Involvement – the Facebook system enables people to share the alert with friends and link to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for the most up-to-date information about the case.

AMBER Alerts are a child abduction alert system that started in the United States in 1996. AMBER stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response and was named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas.

The decision to declare an AMBER Alert in North Carolina is made by the N.C. Center for Missing Persons. Information in an AMBER Alert usually includes the name and description of the abductee, a description of the suspected abductor, and a description and license plate number of the abductor’s vehicle.

Public Meetings in North Carolina Over Controversial Pipeline

Public meetings are underway this week in North Carolina on a proposed project that is already spurring a legal battle in Virginia. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be 550 miles long, and carry one-and-a-half billion cubic feet of natural gas a day through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

Professor Peter Swartz studies energy policy and environmental issues at UNC Charlotte and says despite environmental concerns, in North Carolina, the benefits of the pipeline seem to outweigh the costs, “Resistance is coming from those who are bearing the costs but aren’t getting much in the way of the benefits – western Virginia, the area near the Shenandoah Valley. That is obviously a beautiful area and it’s not going to be enhanced by having a pipeline through it.”

Dominion is suing dozens of the hundreds of Virginia landowners who are refusing to allow the company to survey for the pipeline. Landowners in North Carolina have been less resistant, with only a few refusals. Dominion is leading public meetings about the project Wednesday in Smithfield, and Thursday in Jackson.

Swartz says the natural gas the pipeline would carry could stabilize electricity costs, provide an alternative to coal plants, and improve the economy in the eastern part of North Carolina. But its fate may come down to the outcome of the legal battle in Virginia, where Swartz says landowners are putting up a good fight, “They have every reason to fight it. Even if they don’t think they’re going to ultimately prevail, landowners will then get greater compensation for allowing the pipeline, and they’ll probably also get greater expense put on trying to make sure that the chance of damage is as small as possible.”

According to Dominion, laws in North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia allow the company to access private land to survey.

Radon Testing in North Carolina

As the turning of the seasons brings colder weather and North Carolinians snuggle in their households keeping doors and windows closed to stay warm, it is an excellent time to make plans for home radon testing.

Radon is the odorless, colorless gas that is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Each year up to 22,000 deaths in the U.S. are attributed to radon-induced lung cancer. Roughly 54 percent of those diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer are expected to live no more than five years after diagnosis.

The Radon Program, part of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, provides information to families and homeowners about radon gas. Information includes how to test for radon gas and how to lower the radon levels within a home. Lowering the radon levels in a home lowers the risk of lung cancer.

Eighty-three agencies and organizations across North Carolina are partnering with the Radon Program during January – National Radon Action Month – to provide free short-term radon test kits. Limited supplies of test kits are being made available locally at each of the sites, listed on the Radon Program website: www.ncradon.org. Nearly 7,000 kits are being distributed statewide. Only one kit is needed per home to determine if your home radon level requires action.

The Radon Program also offers the free kits via its website. Once the supply of free kits has been exhausted, the Radon Program website will provide radon test kits at a reduced cost of $5.34 while supplies last. Kits cost about $15 at retail outlets.

The program’s website includes a new radon map application. The application provides information about the number of tests that have been conducted within a zip code as well as the highest radon level recorded in that zip code. The app also links to a list of certified professionals who can assist in testing or fixing the radon issue in tested homes that return readings above a safe level.

Costs for lowering home radon levels average about $1,500. The N.C. Radon Protection Section provides information on its web page for families who may qualify for financial assistance to meet that expense. For more information visit www.ncradon.org and select Financial Assistance from the navigation aid in the left margin.

Do New Solar Rules for NC Allow for Slow-Walking Contracts?

 Rules for solar power in North Carolina remain intact under an order the state Utilities Commission recently released. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rules for solar power in North Carolina remain intact under an order the state Utilities Commission recently released. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

As North Carolinians rang in the New Year, state regulators released long-anticipated rules for solar power in the state. Solar developers wanted expanded eligibility for contracts, and utilities proposed measures that would limit access. The state Utilities Commission rejected both proposals and kept the basic framework for solar the same.

egal counsel with NC WARN, John Runkle, says the issue at hand is that the real value of solar is not being recognized, and the rules allow Duke Energy to slow-walk contract and interconnection negotiations, “A contract might take six months, eight months, nine months. Rather than, I mean it’s a pretty well understood technology. As much money as you want to spend on solar, there’s someone willing to put up a good solid solar system for you.”

Runkle says the price of solar has gone down considerably, and there is great potential to expand it around the state. But he adds that without timely contracts and consistent rates, investors can become discouraged and turn away from profitable solar projects.

Duke has been cited as saying it does support solar development, and a spokesman recently pointed to the 278 megawatts of solar capacity the utility has contracted to build or buy power from this year. But Runkle says just four percent of Duke’s projected total sales are solar, and he adds that much more solar power would be available if the company would offer standard contracts in a timely fashion, “Last year NC WARN and some other organizations put solar panels on 250 rooftops. If there were a way to do that more efficiently we could easily double that, triple that, and the big companies could put on a considerable more amount of solar.”

According to a recent report from Environment North Carolina, solar grew 127% between 2010 and 2013. It also found that the state has the potential to produce more than 30 times as much electricity from solar power as the state consumes each year.

Beware of Flu Symptoms

Along with New Year celebrations, January brings a warning from local doctors that this is one of the most active months for the flu. With the CDC announcing that the flu has reached empidemic levels, AFC/Doctors Epxress physicians want to raise awareness about the difference between the flu and a “stomach bug” so people know when it’s time to see the doctor and when they can take care of their sympoms at home.

One of the biggest myths about the flu is that is causes vomitting. But the flu is actually a highly contagious respiratory disease and vomiting is not on the list of flu symptoms. Our doctors have been seeing several different stomach bugs (gastroenteritis) go around which are contagious infections of the stomach and intestines.

Symptoms of the flu:

fever
headache
muscle aches
sore throat
cough
chills
runny nose
fatigue
*The biggest danger of the flu is that it wears your body’s ability to fight other infections that you may get while you have the flu, such as pneumonia. Sometimes these infections can cause death.

Symptoms of the “stomach bug:” (gastroenteritis)

nausea
vomiting and/or diarrhea
possible fever
*Most people recover completely. Stomach bugs can be serious for infants and the elderly who are unable to drink enough fluids to replace what they lose through vomiting and/or diarrhea.

According to the CDC, flu activity is “high” in nearly half the country. And, the past 32 flu seasons have shown that February is the most active month for the flu, followed by December and then January.

Smoke-free Law Continues to Return Benefits After Five Years

Friday, Jan. 2, marks the fifth anniversary of North Carolina’s smoke-free restaurants and bars law. The smoke-free law prohibits smoking in enclosed areas of most restaurants and bars, with limited exceptions for private clubs and some cigar bars.

The health outcome results for this law are significant and impressive, especially in such a short period of time, according to Ruth Petersen, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Section of the N.C. Division of Public Health.

“During the first year of the law, North Carolina saw a 21 percent drop in average weekly emergency department visits for heart attacks. Further studies demonstrate the law has improved air quality in North Carolina restaurants and bars and reduced emergency department visits for asthma attacks.”

An additional benefit of the smoke-free law is the reduced exposure to secondhand smoke, a known risk factor for cancer, heart disease, stroke and asthma. In 2006, a report issued by the United States Surgeon General stated that scientific evidence indicates that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.

“The smoke-free law was an important milestone for North Carolina,” said Cumberland County Health Director Buck Wilson, incoming president of the N.C. Association of Local Health Directors. “The law changed the way we look at smoking and secondhand smoke. It’s hard to imagine going backwards; people in North Carolina really enjoy their smoke-free restaurants and bars.”

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA) worked to help pass the statewide law, which not only prohibits smoking indoors in virtually all restaurants and bars, but also specifies that no more than 20 percent of a lodging establishment’s guest rooms may be designated for smoking.

“NCRLA is proud to support this initiative, which improves the health and well-being of North Carolina hospitality patrons and employees,” said NCLRA President and CEO Lynn Minges. “The smoke-free law has helped create a safer, more pleasant atmosphere in our state’s bars and restaurants without harming our industry’s bottom line.”

Make a Plan: Tips to Stay Safe at New Year’s Parties

Nationwide, as many as 800 people die in car crashes involving a drunk driver every December. It’s why this month is one of the most dangerous times on the nation’s roads and why organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving are working hard to make sure people take precautions so they don’t hurt themselves or someone else.

Jan Withers is the national president of MADD, “We know too much now. We all know about designated drivers. We all know the dangers, but the key is not to decide after you’ve had some alcohol in your system. We really need to make a sober decision – before we ever start drinking – how we’re going to get home safely.”

Last year, 366 people died in drunk-driving accidents in North Carolina, costing the state more than two-billion dollars. Withers says in addition to planning for your own safe ride home, it’s important to evaluate the alcohol intake of your friends before letting them leave a holiday party, and don’t be afraid to prevent them from getting behind the wheel.

Withers knows first-hand the devastation drunk driving can cause, having lost her daughter to a drunk driver 23 years ago, “Some days it seems like yesterday because the pain is so intense, and sometimes, of course, it seems like a lifetime ago – but, indeed, the hole in my heart never goes away.”

This month, local police departments and the state Highway Patrol are planning additional patrols for drunk drivers. If you witness a suspected drunk driver, you can call *FHP from your cell phone. Drivers caught while driving impaired face an automatic suspension of their driving privileges for 30 days while they await trial and the possibility of losing their license for at least a year after their first conviction.

North Carolina surpasses Michigan to become the nation’s ninth-most populous state

North Carolina grew by 95,047 people during a 12-month period ending in 2014 and surpassed Michigan to become the ninth-most populous state in the nation, according to estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“People want to live in a place where they can fulfill their potential,” Governor McCrory said, “And for an increasing number of Americans and people throughout the world, that place is North Carolina.”

The governor cited job creation, lower taxes and the state’s quality of life as some of the reasons for North Carolina’s growth.

The Census Bureau pegged the state’s population at 9,943,964. The population increase of 95,047 was the sixth-largest in the nation from July 1, 2013 until July 1, 2014. In 2010, North Carolina’s population was 9,535,483 and 8,049,313 in 2000.

The Census Bureau produces population estimates each year, allowing the public to gauge the growth and demographic composition of the nation, states and communities.

FALLING GAS PRICES HELP BOOST NORTH CAROLINA YEAR-END HOLIDAY TRAVEL TO RECORD NUMBERS

Nearly three million North Carolinians will travel 50 miles or more for the Christmas/New Year’s holiday, according to AAA Carolinas.

The record number – 2,939,500 – represents an increase of 113,000 compared to last year. An estimated 2,675,000, or 91% of total travelers, plan to drive to their destination.

“Falling gas prices and an improving economy has led to more North Carolinians traveling to celebrate the holidays and ring in the New Year with family and friends,” said David E. Parsons, president and CEO of AAA Carolinas. “With most people hitting the roads during this time, we want to stress the importance of buckling up, avoiding drinking and driving, texting behind the wheel and speeding.”

The 13-day Christmas/New Year’s travel holiday is defined as Tuesday, Dec. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 4, which is one day longer than the travel period last year.

As the longest holiday travel period of the year, it is also one of the deadliest. Last year, 42 people died on North Carolina roads during the year-end holiday travel period – that’s 5 more fatalities than in 2012.

Those driving to their destinations will encounter the lowest gas prices since 2009. North Carolinians are currently paying 74 cents less for a gallon of gas than they were a year ago. Gas prices in North Carolina are 24 cents lower than they were on Thanksgiving Day. The statewide average is currently $3.48 and prices are expected to continue their decline through the start of 2015, due to an abundant supply domestically and less people driving in the winter months.

North Carolina motorists will find the cheapest gas in Charlotte at $2.43 and the most expensive gas in Boone at $2.67. For those traveling through South Carolina, the average price per gallon is 21 cents lower than North Carolina’s.

An estimated 156,700 North Carolinians will fly to their destinations, a slight increase from last year.

Driven by low-cost carriers, airfares are down 7% from a year ago, averaging $186 for the top 40 U.S routes. However, car rental rates are up 4% from a year ago to $66 per day.

Hotel rates for AAA Three Diamond hotels have increased by 4% from a year ago, averaging $143 per night. AAA Two Diamond hotels average $108 per night, a 5% increase from last year.

With holiday parties frequently held between Christmas and New Year’s, drunk driving is always a major problem during this travel period. AAA advises drivers to assign a designated driver or call a cab if they are planning to consume alcohol.

North Carolina’s “Booze It & Lose It” campaign which started Dec.12 and runs through Jan. 4, includes checkpoints and stepped-up patrols to remove impaired drivers from North Carolina roads.

During the holiday period, unexpected weather or vehicle problems may leave motorists stranded. AAA Carolinas recommends keeping an emergency kit in your car that includes:
Cell phone and car charger
Blankets and flashlight with extra batteries
First aid kit
Drinking water and non-perishable snacks
Small shovel and a sack of sand or cat litter for traction
Windshield scraper
Battery booster cables
Emergency triangle reflectors
Change of clothes, including socks and shoes

North Carolina suspends most construction projects during the holiday travel period, with these exceptions:
U.S. 158 (Elizabeth Street) in Elizabeth City is reduced to one lane in each direction from Road Street to the Pasquotank River Bridge for resurfacing and construction of a new bridge.
U.S. 158 in Currituck and Dare counties will have traffic in a two way and a two lane pattern on the U.S. 158 Bridge over the Currituck Sound due to the ongoing deck rehabilitation.
U.S. 264 in Dare County will be reduced to one of two lanes controlled by temporary traffic signals in three locations for the replacement of three bridges. Lane closures are located between Stumpy Point and the Hyde County line.
U.S. 158 in Hertford County between Murfreesboro and Winton may be reduced to one of two lanes in the eastbound lanes for paving operations.
N.C. 12 in Dare County South of Bonner Bridge may be reduced to one of two lanes to continue clearing sand adjacent to the road from the recent nor’easter storm. Impacts should be minor.
I-440 in Raleigh is in a two-lane pattern in both directions between I-40 and U.S. 64/264. Also there may be lane closures the nights of Dec. 29 and 30.
I-73 in Guilford County is reduced to two lanes in each direction between I-40 and I-85 for a new interchange with High Point Road.

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

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.

Connect with AAA Carolinas on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AAAcarolinas and follow us on Twitter at @AAAcarolinas.

Report: A Growing Number of Unaffiliated Voters in NC

Voter turnout increased in North Carolina’s recent midterms, and several key voter sub-groups had a large part in influencing its outcome. New data released from Democracy North Carolina found that Democrats, older Americans, and African Americans all participated in greater numbers, compared to the 2010 midterm.

The biggest share of new voters came from independents – explains Bob Hall, with Democracy NC, “They tend to kind of split their tickets between this and that. It turned out that at the top of the ticket, the Republican Thom Tillis won, but all three of the Democrats running for the State Supreme Court won their seats, those are nonpartisan races.”

In spite of higher turnout for Democrats and African Americans, who tend to favor the Democratic party, Hall says Republican men still turned out in higher numbers, and Thom Tillis had greater appeal for independent voters and conservative Democrats. Alleghany, Yancey and Chatham Counties had the highest turnouts – reaching as high as 60%.

While voters age 18 to 25 increased their participation this year by three percentage points over the 2010 midterm, the youth vote still lags behind other voting blocks at just shy of 18% participation.

Bryan Perlmutter with Ignite NC says that’s why it’s imperative the state makes voting more accessible to young voters, “Young people are so important to the political process and it’s so important that they have their voices heard that the state of North Carolina needs to be making an intentional effort to make it easier for young people to vote.”

Hall says Democracy N-C’s analysis finds that the new voting rules and the subsequent voter confusion reduced overall participation by 30,000 people – which could have impacted several key races, “We want to have trained precinct officials so that people’s experience is good when they go to the polls, and if they’re slightly confused they don’t get more confused by what the precinct officials tell them.”

Hall says Hoke, Robeson and Onslow Counties had the lowest turnout.

Another Year Without Executions for NC

 Henry McCollum spent 30 years on death row before being exonerated of his crime and released. Photo courtesy of Jenny Warburg.

Henry McCollum spent 30 years on death row before being exonerated of his crime and released. Photo courtesy of Jenny Warburg.

The close of 2014 marks eight years since North Carolina has executed a person on death row. That’s also the national trend, according to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center. This year, three inmates were sentenced to death in North Carolina, far less than at a peak in the 1990s when as many as 30 new death sentences were handed down each year.

Gretchen Engel, who heads the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says people are questioning the need for the death penalty with a declining crime rate, “Ironically in this period where North Carolina has had eight years of no executions, our crime rate has steadily been declining, and violent crime included. Part of it is this idea of why do we need the death penalty?”

Nationwide, executions were carried out in seven states, down from nine in 2013. Seven death row inmates were exonerated this year in the US, including two in North Carolina who were proven innocent based on DNA evidence and released.

State lawmakers vowed to re-start executions last year, but Engel says that declaration may not be practical, as more cases of botched executions prompt people to question the humanity of the punishment, “That really amounts to putting the state in the position of advocating human experimentation with drugs – and that’s just unacceptable in a civilized society. ”

North Carolina’s execution protocol calls for the use of pentobarbital, the same drug that other states have been unable to obtain for use in executions. As of now, legal challenges to the state’s protocol have suspended executions indefinitely.

Watch Your Wallet: How to Avoid Holiday Scams

While the holidays are a time of giving, experts say con artists are ready to take whatever they can from unsuspecting North Carolinians. Whether you are shopping in person or online, Amy Nofziger with the AARP Fraud Watch Network says scammers are getting smarter, and some of their biggest cons involve fake charities, gift-card fraud and online shopping.

A newer trick, she says, is fake websites offering the hottest holiday item, “If you click on one of those links, you might think you’re getting a great price on a tablet, let’s say. But what you’re doing is going to the scammer’s fake website, entering your personal and credit card information, and that is where they victimize you.”

She recommends shoppers go to a retailer’s direct website for online shopping. North Carolianians of all ages can learn more about the red flags of fraud through the AARP Fraud Watch Network (fraudwatchnetwork.org.) It tracks trending scams, provides fraud alerts and allows registered users to share stories of fraud they’ve witnessed with others.You can check out a company or report a scam in North Carolina by calling the State Attorney General at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.

Gift cards are popular presents, and Nofziger says scammers will try cashing in on them by taking pictures of the numbers on front and back of the cards inside stores, before they are purchased, “They will wait for someone to load funds onto that gift card and then, they will drain them. So if you’re buying a gift card, make sure to inspect the gift card – look at the front, look at the back, make sure it has not been tampered with.”

Nofziger says signs that you may have become a fraud victim include suspicious activity on a credit card statement, receiving suspicious mail or unsolicited telemarketing calls. She says North Carolinians can protect themselves best by being informed, “It’s really important for people to be proactive – learn the red flags of fraud and certainly, share them with your family and friends.”

When shopping online, experts say it’s a good idea to use a credit card instead of a debit card that’s directly linked to your bank account, or pay with a pre-paid credit card.