Commentary, News

Benefits1. Lawmakers weigh options to reduce state commitment to retiree health benefits

Despite the fact that North Carolina already ranks near the bottom nationally in the generosity of its retiree health plan—better only than Georgia—Senate and House lawmakers met on Monday to mull over ways to address the plan’s looming unfunded liability, with some options including a reduction and even elimination of the state’s commitment to providing its workers with retiree health benefits.

Highlighting an unfunded liability of $25.5 billion for the Retiree Health Benefit Fund that is expected to grow at least another ten billion dollars by 2020, a new legislative report presented to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee suggests a number of ways to reduce that debt. [Continue reading…]

School-vouchers2. One question voucher scheme supporters never answer

Several months ago on a public affairs television show, the host asked one of the two guests why he was opposed to the school voucher scheme that was upheld last week by the N.C Supreme Court.

The guest cited the lack of accountability in how the program spent taxpayer money and pointed out that students at some voucher schools were being taught that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and that slaves were treated well.

The host seemed taken aback and asked where in the world that was that being taught and was told that many of the roughly 700 schools eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers are fundamentalist Christian academies that use the A-Beka Book curriculum and books from Bob Jones University Press that include the inaccurate and offensive claims. [Continue reading…]

Lindenmuth3. Ex-head of NC’s public-private economic development group got $30K bonus to stay, left three months later

The former head of North Carolina’s public-private economic development group received a $30,000 “stay” bonus in January, an enticement that only kept him at the new endeavor for three months.

Richard Lindenmuth, a Raleigh business executive, was selected in January 2014 to get the largely publicly-funded Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina off the ground. He had specialized in helping troubled companies but had no prior economic development experience.

The public-private partnership, which received $17.5 million in state funding last year, has been a central piece of Gov. Pat McCrory’s economic development strategy, after state lawmakers granted the McCrory administration’s request to move Commerce’s job recruitment, tourism and marketing arms out of state government. [Continue reading…]


sm-7744. Death penalty secrecy bill headed to governor’s desk

Secret and swift.

That’s what executions in North Carolina would become under a bill headed to the governor’s desk for signature.

Despite recent examples of botched prosecutions here that sent innocent men to death row – Henry McCollum comes to mind – and botched executions elsewhere in the country, state lawmakers this morning adopted H774, which eliminates obstacles that have kept the state from carrying out the death penalty since 2006.

The bill cuts off public debate by exempting the Department of Public Safety from rule-making requirements when executions are involved, eases restrictions on the type of drug used for lethal injections, and allows medical professionals other than doctors to monitor the process.

It also aims to gag opposition. [Continue reading…]

WB-727155.The “history” excuse doesn’t wash either
The most dangerous explanation of Confederate flag and monument defenders for their obstructionism

The ongoing debate over the continued (and, indeed, expanding) celebration of the confederate flag on thousands of North Carolina license plates and the recent enactment of a law forbidding local governments from removing confederate monuments has once again placed North Carolina and its leaders in an unfavorable national light. Even as officials in South Carolina moved to take down the flag from their state capitol, North Carolina leaders seem content to point fingers and shrug their shoulders one day and then double down on defending confederate symbols the next.

All of this is especially embarrassing for Governor McCrory. [Continue reading…]

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7-6-15 NCPW CARTOON

News

Earlier this week, health care advocates across the nation marked a milestone: the 50th anniversary of the Medicaid and Medicare programs.

To mark the occasion, the good folks at North Carolina Health News have put together a useful interactive map, demonstrating how Medicaid benefits the residents of each county in our state.

Here’s a snapshot of how the program benefits Rockingham County, the home county of Senate President Phil Berger:

nchealthnewsmapClick here (and scroll down) to view the full map and read more about how Medicaid provides lifesaving health care to the most vulnerable people in North Carolina.

This weekend, NC Policy Watch will discuss Medicaid expansion on its weekly radio show, News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon.

Joining Chris will be Joan Alker, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families.

Alker discusses CCF’s new report on how parents and kids benefit from closing North Carolina’s Medicaid coverage gap.  (CCF recently traveled to North Carolina to release the report in partnership with NC Child and the NC Health Access Coalition.)

Below Alker talks about why Governor Pat McCrory is overdue in presenting  a state-specific plan for Medicaid expansion:

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News
Paul Stam 2

Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake)

Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake) told WPTF on Thursday that despite stalled budget talks that have kept the state waiting a month past the deadline for a deal that spells out how the government should run its schools and other agencies, North Carolinians should take heart — everything is running smoothly.

“Every other time I’ve been down here where there was a [budget] delay, they would fund the government you know at 80 or 90 percent of [the] last year,” Stam told WPTF radio host Patrick Johnson yesterday morning.

“This time it’s being funded at 100 percent plus of last year’s budget, so nothing is being shortchanged,” said Stam. “You know, pay raises will be — whatever they end up being — will be retroactive to July 1, but it’s not like the operation of government is being affected.”

Stam’s assessment of how the state is coping with operating under a stopgap measure while lawmakers do battle over a 2015-17 budget agreement doesn’t quite line up with what I’m hearing is happening on the ground.

Public schools are trying to figure out how to staff their schools in the face of potentially having to lay off more than 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years—and they are still unsure of how much their staff will even earn this fall.

“We are getting ready to open our classroom doors. … And we don’t have a clue yet if we’re going to have to (lay off) 500 teacher assistants or try to hire almost 140 new teachers,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school board member Tim Morgan, a Republican, said at a recent meeting.

While a continuing resolution to keep government operations funded is in place through August 14, Rep. Larry Hall questioned chief budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) this week about whether or not teacher assistants are funded at the same level as last year until a budget deal is reached.

Dollar said to his knowledge, TAs were funded at the same level as last year. But when Hall asked legislative staff to weigh in, they said not quite—more than $20 million that funded TAs last year were non-recurring dollars, which means local districts didn’t get those funds to use while a continuing resolution is in place, putting more stress on their local budgets.

Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill offered a sharp rebuke to lawmakers at a public hearing on the budget convened Wednesday of this week by the House.

“Our students cannot wait for the various levels of government to conclude a budget negotiation,” said Merrill. “You’re currently debating whether to provide money that’s already been spent on tens of thousands of students. We simply can’t un-spend that money once negotiations end and the final budget is decided.”

Also at issue? Driver’s education. House lawmakers appeared this week to be unlikely to waver on their position of keeping driver’s ed fully funded, whereas the Senate is proposing to abandon funding driver’s ed altogether and eliminate the requirement for driver training in order to get a license.

The uncertainty around driver’s education has prompted some local school districts to cancel their summer driving schools—especially problematic in places where the bulk of driver training happens during the summer.

All indications point to lawmakers having to pass a second continuing resolution to keep government operations running past August 14.

“We’d all like to get out of here sooner rather than later, but I’m afraid it is gonna take a while,” Rep. Stam told WPTF, “just because there are so many disagreements.”

News

Robeson County officials settled a complaint with the federal justice department this week, saying it would take steps to improve access for disabled residents to public resources.

The federal agency had found the county had numerous violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which was passed 25 years ago) , leaving those with disabilities unable to access county services and programs as easily as other citizens.

A news release from the U.S. Justice Department about the settlement noted that Robeson County, on North Carolina’s border with South Carolina, has a poverty rate of over 30 percent, and nearly 40 percent of its population identities as Native American, and 25 percent are African-American.

According to the settlement, the county agreed to make changes to buildings and county property so that parking, building entrances, restrooms, service counters and drinking fountains can be accessed by those with physical disabilities. The sheriff’s office will also have to devise a plan so that its deputies and emergency responders can communicate with those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and accommodations will be made at voting sites so that those that use wheelchairs or who are blind or with vision issues can cast votes without hindrances.

The settlement comes the same week the N.C. Auditor’s Office released an audit that found the public school system in Robeson County misused $3 million in Medicaid funds meant for children with special needs.

From an Associated Press article about the audit:

The audit issued Monday says for three fiscal years starting in 2011, the school system did not use about $1 million per year in Medicaid reimbursements to provide services for special-needs students as required.

The school system said in a letter to the auditor’s office that it wasn’t told by state education officials that the money was required to be used for special-needs students. It acknowledges that reimbursement money went to other district needs.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said in a letter that education officials will work with Robeson County and districts statewide on how the reimbursements are used.

Click here to read the entire audit.

Robeson County officials settled a complaint with the federal justice department this week, saying it would take steps to improve access for disabled residents to public resources.

The federal agency had found the county had numerous violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which was passed 25 years ago) , leaving those with disabilities unable to access county services and programs as easily as other citizens.

A news release from the U.S. Justice Department about the settlement noted that Robeson County, on North Carolina’s border with South Carolina, has a poverty rate of over 30 percent, and nearly 40 percent of its population identities as Native American, and 25 percent is African-American.

According to the settlement, the county agreed to make changes to buildings and county property so that parking, building entrances, restrooms, service counters and drinking fountains can be accessed by those with physical disabilities. The sheriff’s office will also have to devise a plan so that its deputies and emergency responders can communicate with those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and accommodations will be made at voting sites so that those that use wheelchairs or who are blind or with vision issues can cast votes without hindrances.

The settlement comes the same week the N.C. Auditor’s Office released an audit that found the public school system in Robeson County misused $3 million in Medicaid funds meant for children with special needs.

From an Associated Press article about the audit:

The audit issued Monday says for three fiscal years starting in 2011, the school system did not use about $1 million per year in Medicaid reimbursements to provide services for special-needs students as required.

The school system said in a letter to the auditor’s office that it wasn’t told by state education officials that the money was required to be used for special-needs students. It acknowledges that reimbursement money went to other district needs.

State schools Superintendent June Atkinson said in a letter that education officials will work with Robeson County and districts statewide on how the reimbursements are used.

Click here to read the entire audit.

Commentary

A week after the state Supreme Court ruled that school vouchers were constitutional, the Rocky Mount Telegram writes it’s time for parents to ask some hard questions about the enacted “Opportunity Scholarship” program.

The editorial board writes in Friday’s paper:

School vouchersPublic schools in the Twin Counties alone have plenty of kids who would benefit from a $4,200 per-pupil stipend every year to attend a private school. Almost 70 percent of the 16,000 students in Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools and 85 percent of the 7,500 students in Edgecombe County Public Schools are on a free or reduced price lunch program. If just a quarter of all of those students applied for vouchers, where would the state find money for them? And how would a financially decimated public school system pick up the pieces and move on to educate the rest of our kids?

Those are real issues that school boards and superintendents in systems all over the state will have to wrestle with in the very near future.

While those folks are struggling with finances, parents would be smart to ask some questions, also. For example, how does academic performance at the private school I’m considering compare to performance at the public school where my child is currently enrolled?

Good luck finding an apples-to-apples answer to that. Private schools don’t have to test kids by curriculum standards required of public schools by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Educators in private schools don’t even have to be certified by anyone to teach.

If the N.C. General Assembly is going to require standardized testing in public schools as part of its accountability policy, shouldn’t it require the same of private schools where voucher recipients are spending public tax dollars?

The Supreme Court might have cleared the air on vouchers in North Carolina, but the remaining questions are likely to leave us in the fog for a while to come.

For more on the recent voucher ruling, listen to Chris Fitzsimon’s Friday radio commentary: