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Friday Forward News Roundup

U.S. Economy Grows at 3.3% in Q4 2023 Amidst Consumer Spending and Inflation Concerns

The U.S. economy grew at a faster-than-expected pace of 3.3% annually in the fourth quarter, with consumer spending being a driving force, despite high interest rates and persistent inflation. This marked the sixth consecutive quarter with GDP growth above 2%, and inflationary measures showed signs of easing, with consumer prices rising at a 1.7% annual rate. There is growing optimism that the Federal Reserve's efforts to control inflation will lead to a "soft landing," and despite earlier predictions, the economy has remained resilient, with job growth and low unemployment rates. (ABC 11)

Charlotte's Duke Energy Announces Job Cuts Amid Clean Energy Transition

Duke Energy, one of Charlotte's largest employers with nearly 28,000 employees, has confirmed job cuts as part of a company reorganization. While the exact number of job losses and the timing were not disclosed, Duke Energy stated that it expects limited workforce impacts across its service territories. The company is undergoing a transition towards clean energy, aiming for net-zero methane emissions from its natural gas business by 2030 and planning to exit coal by 2035. This transformation includes significant investments in solar, wind, battery storage, nuclear, and hydrogen technologies as it works towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (News & Observer)

North Carolina Withholds Cash Incentives from Bandwidth Inc. Over Job Creation Shortfall

Bandwidth Inc., a North Carolina company, will not receive tens of millions of dollars in cash incentives from the state government due to falling short of its job creation goals. The company had announced plans in 2020 to create nearly 1,200 jobs as part of building a headquarters campus in Raleigh. However, it has only added 87 jobs since then and cited its purchase of a Belgium-based company as a factor that led to expansion opportunities beyond North Carolina. Consequently, Bandwidth decided to exit its grant agreement with the state. (WRAL)

DEHN Inc. to Invest $38.6 Million in New US Headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, Creating 195 Jobs

German electrical engineering company DEHN Inc. has announced plans to build its new US headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, with an investment of approximately $38.6 million. The company intends to create 195 new jobs and will lease a 30,000-square-foot space in Mooresville's Merino Mill while constructing its new headquarters and manufacturing facility. DEHN chose the Charlotte region and North Carolina due to the area's culture, workforce diversity, and other factors. The project is expected to boost North Carolina's economy by $523 million, with the state offering a $1.17 million incentive as part of a Job Development Investment Grant. (Queen City News)

Rising Consumer Sentiment Amidst Falling Inflation Expectations, Yet Essential Grocery Costs Remain High

American consumer sentiment has improved significantly in recent months, with a measure by the University of Michigan experiencing its largest increase since 1991. Inflation expectations among Americans have reached their lowest point in nearly three years, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Despite the positive trends, essential items like groceries remain significantly more expensive than they were before the pandemic, with prices for chicken up by approximately 25%, bread up by 25%, and milk up by 18%. (News & Record)

Mecklenburg County Commissioners Prioritize Affordable Housing and Anti-Displacement Efforts at Annual Retreat

The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners began its annual retreat with a focus on 2024 priorities including affordable housing and anti-displacement efforts. Notably, the county has invested in six Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (NOAH) projects since 2020, preserving over 1,000 units priced below the market rate, and 48 families have transitioned from homeless shelters to NOAH units. While there have been successes in programs like Critical Home Repair and housing assistance for formerly incarcerated individuals, Commissioner Mark Jerrell emphasizes the need for continued efforts, including enhancing re-entry programs and further investing in naturally occurring affordable housing. (WCNC)

North Carolina Public Schools Awarded $35 Million for Enhanced Safety Measures and Mental Health Training

North Carolina public schools have been awarded $35 million in new safety grants to enhance school security measures, including the installation of weapons detectors and staff training for addressing students' mental health issues. These grants have been distributed to 230 school districts and charter schools across the state as part of the School Safety Grant program launched in 2018. Notable recipients include Onslow County receiving $700,000, with Cabarrus, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Johnston, Wake, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth counties each receiving $500,000, while Uwharrie Charter Academy in Asheboro received the largest charter school grant of $200,684. Additionally, the implementation of metal detectors in some schools, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, has significantly reduced gun-related incidents from 78 to just three cases. (News & Observer)

NCDPI Releases Guidebook to Promote AI Literacy in North Carolina Public Schools

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) has released a guidebook on the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in North Carolina's public schools. This initiative aims to prepare students for the challenges of rapidly evolving technology and promote AI literacy across all grade levels and curriculum areas. The guidebook encourages responsible incorporation of AI as a learning tool, covering aspects such as administrative tasks, data analysis, personalized teaching methods, and addressing concerns like cheating and student data protection. NCDPI collaborated with AI for Education to create the "EVERY" framework, providing ethical guidance for AI implementation, and acknowledges the importance of familiarizing students with AI usage, as AI and machine learning specialists are expected to be the fastest-growing occupation in the next five years, with a projected 40% growth trajectory and one million new jobs created. Additionally, 75% of companies plan to implement generative AI by 2027, according to the World Economic Forum's "Future of Jobs Report 2023." NCDPI is the fourth state education department in the U.S. to provide such instruction on AI implementation in schools. (North State Journal)

UNC System Introduces "The Next NC Scholarship" to Make Higher Education More Accessible

The UNC System in North Carolina has introduced The Next NC Scholarship, offering a minimum $5,000 scholarship to students from families with incomes of $80,000 or less at any of the system's 16 universities. The scholarship, funded through a combination of federal Pell grants and state aid, covers tuition and fees at the state's 58 community colleges, with community college students receiving at least $3,000. Approximately 55% of households in the state qualify for this scholarship, aiming to make higher education more accessible and affordable amid declining enrollment and demographic challenges in the UNC System. (NC Newsline)

Local Government Commission Approves Financial Requests for Infrastructure and Community Projects Across North Carolina

The Local Government Commission (LGC) has approved several financial requests, including $100 million in general obligation bonds for Holly Springs to expand its parks and recreation facilities, driven by the town's population doubling since 2010. Other approved projects include an $85 million bond for Fuquay-Varina to expand wastewater treatment facilities, $58 million for Huntersville to enhance streets, paths, and recreation facilities, $15 million for Beech Mountain to improve its water system, and $50 million for Wendell to fund parks, greenways, and transportation improvements. Additionally, there are approvals for North Topsail Beach's $5.6 million installment purchase for a fire station replacement, Waynesville's nearly $4.9 million increase in a State Revolving Fund Loan for wastewater treatment plant improvements, and Liberty's $214,122 installment purchase for public safety radios. Plans for $2.5 billion in general obligation bonds for school projects in Mecklenburg County were also discussed, with a vote scheduled for the February meeting. (North State Journal)

Durham Public Schools Board Faces Employee Frustration Over Raises Reversal

Tensions flared at a Durham Public Schools board meeting as employees sought answers for the sudden revocation of their recent raises. Around 1,300 employees received emails stating that their raises would be terminated due to an accounting error in how years of service were calculated, causing confusion and anger among staff. The school board voted to maintain the raises until the end of January, allocating $4.5 million from the district's budget reserves to cover the cost, but the root cause of the budgetary oversight and its impact on future pay remains unclear, leading to continued uncertainty among affected employees. (WUNC)

Raleigh's Advance Community Health Launches OBGYN Clinic to Tackle Maternal and Infant Mortality Disparities

A Raleigh-based community health center, Advance Community Health, is launching an OBGYN clinic to address the higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, particularly in underserved communities. The clinic will offer group prenatal care, known for reducing preterm births, and will also initiate a parenting program for fathers. Dr. Lisa Vendeland is leading the OBGYN services, which will include a team of healthcare professionals such as nurses, nurse practitioners, a dietician, and social workers. This initiative seeks to provide comprehensive prenatal care and support services, with a focus on addressing disparities often linked to socioeconomic factors like poverty. (NC Newsline)

Blue Cross NC Challenges Award of 2025 State Health Plan Contract to Aetna

Blue Cross NC has challenged the decision to award the 2025 contract for the State Health Plan administration to Aetna, following an announcement by State Treasurer Dale Folwell in January 2023. Blue Cross NC argued that the State Health Plan (SHP) had scored the bidders' proposals irrationally and failed to evaluate provider networks appropriately. Aetna, on the other hand, maintained that it was awarded the contract based on superior scoring and compliance with the SHP's requirements, and it had stronger network pricing guarantees. Blue Cross NC received a total score of 4 points, while Aetna scored 6 points in the evaluation process, leading to the ongoing legal challenge. (News & Observer)

FTC Files Lawsuit to Halt Novant Health's Acquisition of Iredell County Hospitals

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a lawsuit to block Novant Health's $320 million acquisition of two Iredell County hospitals, Lake Norman Regional Medical Center and Davis Regional Medical Center, both north of Charlotte, from Community Health Systems. The FTC argues that the deal would negatively impact patients, potentially leading to higher out-of-pocket costs for critical healthcare services. Novant Health has contested the FTC's position, while North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein has expressed agreement with the commission's concerns. The FTC also claims that Novant's dominance in the area could lead to significantly higher healthcare costs, with Novant potentially controlling nearly 65% of the market for in-patient general acute care services in the eastern Lake Norman area if the acquisition proceeds. (Charlotte Observer)

North Carolina State Health Plan Ends Coverage for Weight-Loss Drugs Due to Rising Costs

The North Carolina State Health Plan's board of trustees voted 4-3 to terminate all coverage for popular weight-loss drugs, including Wegovy and Saxenda, starting from April 1. This decision comes as the plan grapples with rising costs, having spent an estimated $102 million on these medications in 2023, accounting for 10% of its total pharmacy spending. The board considered alternatives but expressed concerns about the significantly higher drug costs and the plan being pressured into accepting unreasonable prices. Ending coverage is expected to save the plan nearly $100 million in 2024. The plan's staff explained that imposing criteria for coverage, such as nutritionist visits or supervised weight-loss programs, would negate the savings achieved through manufacturer rebates. Despite receiving substantial rebates in the past, the plan lost these rebates when it imposed a moratorium on Wegovy prescriptions, leading to the current decision to terminate coverage. CVS Caremark, responsible for negotiating drug prices, called on manufacturers like Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly to offer fair prices to North Carolina's public servants, emphasizing their commitment to securing the lowest net cost for weight-loss drugs. (News & Observer)

Opposition Grows Over Crossover Timber Project in Nantahala National Forest

The U.S. Forest Service's Crossover timber project in the Nantahala National Forest faces opposition due to the presence of 98 acres of rare old-growth forest. A proposed Forest Service policy may impact future projects by emphasizing the preservation of old-growth forests, sparking concerns about top-down influence on local collaboration. However, local organizations and the public will remain influential in shaping future forest management efforts. (WFAE)

North Carolina Sports Betting Set to Kick Off on March 11, Just in Time for Basketball Tournaments

The North Carolina Lottery Commission has set March 11 as the official start date for sports betting in the state. This decision comes ahead of major basketball tournaments, including the ACC Tournament and NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments. Once launched, individuals aged 21 and older can place bets on professional, college, or Olympic-style sports. Nine entities have applied for licenses to offer sports betting, and customers will be able to create accounts and deposit money with licensed operators starting from March 1. In-person sports betting and parimutuel betting on horse racing will also be introduced on a case-by-case basis. (CBS 17)

Medical Mentorship Program in Buncombe County Under Legal Scrutiny for Alleged Racial Exclusion

The Medical Mentorship Program in Buncombe County is facing legal scrutiny for allegedly excluding white and Asian students from participating in the internship opportunity. The program, run by the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), offers a semester-long shadowing experience in healthcare facilities for high school seniors interested in pursuing a career in medicine. The program has been criticized for discrimination based on skin color, and two civil complaints have been filed by the watchdog group WNC Citizens for Equality, one with the US Department of Education against the school districts and another with the US Department of Health and Human Services against MAHEC. The complaints allege violations of civil rights, specifically the 14th Amendment and Title VI, and seek to prompt investigations and remedies for the alleged violations. (Carolina Journal)

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