The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. A courageous judge taps the brakes on a rogue General Assembly

In case you missed it, there was an enormously important ruling issued last Friday afternoon by a Wake County Superior Court judge that ought to rekindle the public’s belief in (and support for) democratic, constitutional government.

The case – NAACP and Clean Air North Carolina v. Moore and Berger – was originally filed last summer and it challenged the constitutionality of four of the constitutional amendments approved by the General Assembly during the final days of the regular 2018 legislative session. Two of those four amendments – the ones that sought to strip power from the Governor – were ultimately rewritten in response to a separate court ruling and then defeated by voters in November. The other two, however, which sought to mandate a new voter ID requirement for North Carolina elections and to lower the cap on the state income tax, were ultimately approved by voters.

The argument behind the plaintiffs’ challenge was simple and straightforward – namely that it should be unconstitutional for state lawmakers to pass constitutional amendments when they have been elected under electoral maps that have themselves been declared unconstitutional (as has been the case in North Carolina for some time).

In his ruling on Friday, Judge Bryan Collins agreed and struck down both the voter ID and tax cap schemes. He put it this way in his eminently reasonable ruling:[Read more…]

2. House Speaker advances bond plan for K-12 and higher ed
Senate leaders still cool to the idea of borrowing

The divide between leadership of the state House and Senate over how to pay for billions in school construction needs widened significantly Thursday when House Republicans filed a bill calling for a $1.9 billion education bond.

Under House Bill 241, $1.5 billion in bond money, pending voter approval, would be earmarked for K-12 construction and renovation projects.

The UNC System and state community colleges would get $200 million each.

House Speaker Tim Moore, (R-Cleveland), said the state’s strong fiscal position, Triple A credit ratings, flush reserves and revenue surplus, makes the education bond a sound fiscal move that will quickly deliver money to school districts.

“There’s currently a competitive bond market and the state can borrow now at very favorable interest rates,” Moore said. “The opportunity is now and waiting can only end up costing the state more down the road.” [Read more…]

3. Cooper signs bill restoring state Court of Appeals bench to 15 judges

The State Court of Appeals bench has officially been restored to 15 judges since Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill today reversing a GOP measure that shrunk it to 12 judges.

Senate Bill 75 became law today, almost two years after former Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican who represented Stanly and Montgomery counties, sponsored the original measure shrinking the court, House Bill 239.

“A strong and unbowed, independent judiciary that works as part of our system of checks and balances is critical to our democracy and freedom,” Cooper wrote in a statement after signing the new bill.

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) filed SB 75 last week. They never responded to requests for comment about what spurred the change of heart to restore the number of judges on the court, though it was likely because litigation over the initial bill shrinking the bench was set to go before the state Supreme Court on Monday.[Read more…]

4. Duke University is killing regional light rail, while air pollution from cars kills people.

The irony is not lost on me, or many people, that the heart of the Duke Medical Center district — a congested stretch of Erwin Road, between Fulton and Trent streets — is hazardous to public health.

Put aside for the moment, the imminent physical peril that threatens bicyclists on those thoroughfares or pedestrians attempting to cross the streets, even if the walk sign assures them it’s safe to do so. The longer-term damage stems from the thousands of cars that pass by, that stack up 10 deep at the stoplights, that circle the dizzying mazes inside parking garages in search of a free space, that idle at valet parking or patient drop-off.

Air pollution from those thousands of tailpipes contribute to some of the very diseases and disorders that Duke doctors, nurses and researchers are trying to cure: asthma, heart disease, cancer, reduced lung function and premature death. MIT researchers estimated that in 2005 air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years. [Read more…]

5. The state of the state? Divided, volatile and—maybe—on the rise

Gov. Roy Cooper’s Monday address to both chambers of the legislature – the “State of the State” – was, of course, pageantry.

Not that it’s entirely low-stakes, that it doesn’t mean something for the governor, strolling into chambers so dominated by his nemeses in the Republican Party, to run down a blueprint for a purple-state makeover. There’s something to be said for the bully pulpit after all.

But Cooper’s moderate agenda – a sensible approach to funding public schools, Medicaid expansion and job growth – is no secret.

And there’s little chance of convincing the three men perched behind him Monday – Senate President Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, almost certainly Cooper’s opponent in 2020. [Read more…]

6. Gun violence debate renewed with introduction of competing bills in the NC House

This month marked the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The deadliest high school mass shooting in American history, the Parkland tragedy made more urgent the always contentious political issue of gun laws.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans support putting strong or moderate restrictions on firearms, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released earlier this month. That includes 85 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans.

That sentiment fueled many of the campaigns that led to Democratic congressional gains in the latest election and helped spur the U.S. House approving expanded background checks this week for gun sales, including at gun shows and on the Internet.

But in the North Carolina General Assembly, where two very different gun bills were filed this month, the standoff over gun laws looks much as it has for years. [Read more…]

7. Upcoming event:

North Carolina’s death penalty: On life support? Join us March 12th for our next Crucial Conversation

Here’s something you might not know: North Carolina hasn’t executed a prisoner since 2006, but the state – home to a boom in capital murder trials during the 1990s – houses the country’s sixth largest “death row” population.

That’s one of a series of sobering details in “Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row,” a report published in 2018 by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, the state’s leading advocacy organization on capital punishment.

Learn more and register today for this special event.

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