Commentary, News

This Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Free speech policy, controversial conservative academic on the agenda for UNC Board of Governors meeting

The UNC Board of Governors is holding its last meeting of 2017 Friday, where the latest of its many recent controversies is expected to come to a crescendo, even as the next is cued up.

The full board is expected to vote on a controversial new speech policy that civil liberties advocates, students, staff and faculty groups worry could chill speech and discourage certain types of protest on UNC’s 17 campuses. [Continue reading…]

***BONUS READ: UNC Board of Governors: Some speech is “more free” than others

2. Stretched regulators to state lawmakers: We have no idea what’s in most closed NC landfills

Just south of Candler off the Pisgah Highway is a lovely piece of property on Little Piney Mountain Road. Wooded, with creeks nearby, it would be an idyllic retreat for those who love the bucolic hills and valleys of western North Carolina.

Yet part of this same land was the site of the old Buncombe County Landfill, where before 1983, trash from the area was dumped into an open pit.  [Continue reading…]

3. Delayed action by state Superintendent creates big hurdles for legislature’s mandated audit

When Joni Robbins, a section chief in the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, closes bidding next week for an upcoming audit of the state’s top K-12 agency, state leaders will have a little more than four months to find a vendor and begin work on a weighty review of the department’s operations.

But past and present leaders in the state’s public schools say they worry about the speed and depth of the deep-dive, organizational review led by Superintendent Mark Johnson’s office, which comes with a report due to the legislature by May 1..  [Continue reading…]

***BONUS READ: Task Force on Education Finance Reform meeting shows need for new approach

4. Maps, mayhem and merriment: Where things stand with North Carolina redistricting

If the General Assembly were an army, their troops would be spread too thin.

Lawmakers made a tactical decision this year to redraw judicial district boundaries. On another battle front, they’re trying to correct several previous mapmaking mistakes: Unconstitutional legislative and congressional redistricting, the latter of which they’re still disputing in court. [Continue reading…]

***BONUS READ: Democrats protest Senate committee meeting after GOP ‘silences’ Governor’s speaker

5. Plutocrats on the march: Trumpists prepare to raze another vital common good law

It’s hard to keep up these days with the flood of poisonous ideas spewing from Donald Trump’s junta by the Potomac. At times, it seems as if Trump is not just a pal and admirer of Vladimir Putin, but that he is, quite literally, attempting to institute his own American version of the corrupt kleptocracy that the Russian dictator has constructed from the rubble of the old Soviet Union. Pick a public policy topic (any topic), type in a quick web search, and one can almost invariably and instantly find several ways in which the Prevaricator/Predator-in-Chief and his cronies are trying to undermine and/or sell-off our American democracy.

Perhaps it’s because of this point – the fact that we can still, at least, search online and keep track of most of the skullduggery Trump is up to – that one of the president’s currently extant initiatives rates as among the most frightening. The subject is the somewhat difficult-to-grasp, but massively important issue of “net neutrality” – the idea that Internet service providers must treat all websites the same when it comes to the speed and quality with which they connect web users to them. [Continue reading…]


UNC Board of Governors hosts conservative academic star, looks to emulate his program

Professor Robert George of Princeton University speaks to the UNC Board of Governors Friday.


When the UNC Board of Governors hosted conservative Professor Robert George of Princeton Friday morning, it was quickly apparent the board has more than a passing interest in replicating his James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

How could they take his concept and up-size it to fit the much larger UNC system, board member David Powers asked.

How could they get make the center what they want while getting around concerns from faculty about academic freedom, asked board member Bob Rucho.

Several board members joked about hiring George away from Princeton.

George, for his part, mostly talked about creating a spectrum of ideological thought on the campus of Princeton.  He credited his center’s success to his collaboration with left-wing professors like his friend Cornel West, with whom he has taught students at the center.

“If the Madison program is thought of as a conservative program that is because its leader, me, is a conservative,” George said.

“We run the program in such a way as to enhance the conversation – the quality of conversation – on the campus by expanding the range of viewpoints,” George told the board. “It effects the overall ethos on the campus, which I’m very pleased to say is one of openness.”

But the center’s goal, he said, has not been to create a conservative “safe space” for conservative students or faculty.

The center’s private funders, like the John M. Olin Foundation, do not necessarily share that view.

In a 2005 essay titled “Planting the Seeds of Liberty” James Pierson, executive director of the conservative Olin Foundation, was clear that they helped found the Madison program as a “beachhead” in the conservative struggle against left wing thought in academia.

In the essay for Philanthropy magazine Pierson said the Olin foundation has, over the last two decades, spent more than $200 million on academic grants, research centers, lectures and publications to challenge the “liberal establishment” culture on campuses. He writes:

“Instead of changing the culture in the near term, perhaps we should think instead about challenging it by adding new voices, different ideas, and fundamental criticisms of the reigning orthodoxy. This may well be the best means of changing the college culture, for a few powerful voices of criticism may at some point bring the entire ideological house of cards crashing down upon itself.”

Pierson goes on to give advice for how to maintain maximum outside influence and ensure proper purity when making donations to or setting up programs or centers at universities.

For instance, he warns against funding endowments as “once the endowment check is written, the donor loses all control over the program he has funded. Any effort to exert influence after that point will generate charges of ‘meddling.'”

Pierson also suggested making short-term donations in order to keep the program properly on the leash.

“Our rule has been to fund academic programs for three years at a time, and then generally to renew funding if they proceed according to plan, but to eliminate funding if they do not,” Pierson wrote.

Pierson further wrote that his foundation also carefully chooses leaders of such centers carefully – usually from ideologically sympathetic faculty who are already in place. Be sure to avoid faculty or administrators having influence on that process, he advises, as is the normal rule in academia and especially at public universities.

“It is always dangerous to allow the university administration to choose this person, for he or she has probably been promised some administrative favor wholly irrelevant to your purposes. If there is a promising faculty member in place, seek to establish a relationship with him, perhaps by awarding a modest grant for research, coursework, or lectures. Allow that faculty member to draft a proposal and gain approval for it from his department or the college. If either tries to stop it, the faculty member can raise his own cries about “academic freedom.” But an established faculty member on the inside—or better yet, a critical mass of three or four such members—is essential for the program’s success. Once a program is launched with one or two sympathetic faculty members, they may be able to parlay this support to recruit additional faculty.

If, however, a donor cannot identify a sympathetic faculty member at a particular college, he should move on to another institution or give up altogether. A donor has to take his opportunities where he finds them and avoid an emotional attachment to a particular institution, which can lead to the funding of ineffective programs. As a friend at another foundation once said, ‘We fund the chefs, not the restaurants.'”

That mentality – of privately funded conservative centers launched and maintained as ideological beachheads in a struggle with a too-liberal culture at universities – is what is making faculty and staff at UNC nervous about a similar center at their university.

Why, they have asked, is the almost entirely Republican UNC Board of Governors – appointed by the GOP dominated General Assembly – looking at a small, private college’s program, run by America America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker”, as a model for UNC?

This turn of events is particularly disturbing, critics say, when a number of UNC centers to which the conservative board are ideologically opposed have been axed. That includes  the shuttering of UNC’s Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity, North Carolina Central University’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and East Carolina University’s Center for Biodiversity and the barring of the UNC Center for Civil Rights from litigating.

George said he was “excited that our program is being looked to as a model” by the board, but warned that funding it would be a challenge. The relatively small Madison program is run on a budget of about $2.3 million, he said. Two to three times that would be necessary to fund a center that could serve UNC, he said.

As to questions from faculty about academic freedom and challenging the foundational notions of the independence of administrators and faculty in programs and curricula on their campuses, George said he had never really run into those problems and questions.

Having spent his entire academic career at relatively small private universities rather than large, public systems, George said, he acknowledged the environments are very different.

UNC Board of Governors member David Powers chats with Robert George after Friday’s meeting.

James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, told the board that if their goal is to promote civil discourse and debate from a broad range of ideological perspectives, they needn’t “reinvent the wheel” in putting together a center.

“There are some really great models around the country – such as Texas A&M, a much more conservative system than UNC,” Anderson said.

“It’s a unique program at Princeton,” Anderson said in an interview after Friday’s discussion with George. “But it’s housed in a center and not broadly across the system. How do we take that and broaden it out so that all students get the benefit? There are universities that are already doing that, even in states that don’t have our demographic diversity – Iowa, Minnesota.”

Whatever the board ultimately decides to do, Anderson said, they need to get buy-in from faculty and administrators in order for it to be successful.

“At the individual campus level, you need that support,” Anderson said. “The chancellors need to be at the table. If I’m not at the table on this than I probably won’t be very supportive.”

There Anderson and George agree.

“As you’re thinking about what it should be…as you’re thinking about what the right answer is…you’re going to need a much larger program,” George said. “And it has to be a program that has buy-in from various constituencies.”

NC Budget and Tax Center

Thousands of North Carolinians stand to lose from Step #2 of the GOP tax plan

The Senate and the House in Congress have reached a deal for a tax plan that would give unnecessary tax cuts to the richest top 5 percent of Americans and most profitable corporations. This deal now clears the way for final votes next week. That this tax bill is full of tax games, roadblocks, and glitches that will drive up the federal deficit by over $1.5 trillion has been widely reported. What is not widely covered is that passing the tax plan and increasing the deficit is only the first of two steps planned by Congress.

The second step involves lawmakers using the deficit they created to justify major budget cuts to federal investments that help millions of North Carolinians.

Below is a brief list that provides the total number of North Carolinians that currently receive assistance from a major federal program that could be affected from the second step of the tax plan. Included in the total numbers are children, students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

  • Medicaid: 2,024,342
  • Medicare: 1,883,428
  • SNAP (food assistance): 972,535
  • Housing Assistance: 256,545
  • Supplemental Security Income: 233,432
  • Health Marketplace Enrollees: 549,155
  • Pell Grants: 223,633

Some Congressional leaders have already stated publicly their intent to cut programs and services starting next year. In many cases some federal programs could be cut to nothing automatically as a result of a 2010 law that Congress passed to keep itself from increasing the deficit too much.

Luis A. Toledo is a Public Policy Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.


Why can’t General Assembly leadership stop lying about their unfunded class-size mandate?

On October 3rd, a group of parents rallied at the North Carolina Legislative Building to demand that General Assembly leadership repeal or responsibly fund the unfunded class-size mandate due to go into effect in the upcoming 2018-19 school year. The rally drew a troubling response from Phil Berger, President Pro Tem of the North Carolina State Senate:

“Even though some local school leaders decided to use the extra state funding to benefit their own spending priorities instead of to reduce class sizes, those reductions have already been fully funded,”

About three weeks later, Speaker of the House, Tim Moore, was asked to weigh in on the class-size issue. He, too, gave a worrisome response, saying, “We have funded the positions.”

Why are these responses so troubling? They are wholly untrue, indicating that the two most powerful men in state government either fail to understand the biggest issue facing North Carolina’s public schools, or are purposefully lying about the issue. Read more

Courts & the Law, News

Transcript: What retired Judge Don Stephens would have told senators about judicial reform

Retired Judge Don Stephens was prepared Wednesday to address the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting on behalf of Gov. Roy Cooper but was refused the chance to speak.

Cooper appointed Stephens to express his views and the views of the judges on the bench about the consequences of judicial reform issues before the committee. GOP lawmakers decided that because Stephens did not work for the Executive branch of government, he could not speak.

The refusal prompted Democratic senators to walk out in protest. Stephens said he was not surprised and provided NC Policy Watch with the remarks he would have made had he been allowed.

Here’s what he would have told lawmakers:

Thank you for hearing me. My name is Donald Stephens. Until Nov. 1st of this year, I had the honor and privilege to serve as the Senior Resident Superior Court Judge for Wake County, the capital district. I retired at the mandatory retirement age of 72, after 33 years on the superior court bench.

I came to the superior court bench in 1984. I was elected a resident judge and re-elected five times. Those elections included two partisan statewide elections for that office in 1986 and 1988, a partisan election in my district in 1996 and two nonpartisan elections in 2004 and 2012. So I can attest that I am familiar with the election process … in practically every form.

I believe that the people in my district and the people in [North Carolina] have a strong desire to elect their judges. Historically, that system has worked to bring high quality lawyers to the trial bench – Republicans and Democrats.

I am here today at the request of Gov. [Roy] Cooper to share my views on the state of the trial judiciary in [North Carolina] and whether or not there is some kind of rot or decay that so infects that branch of government that would compel the [N.C.] legislature to take immediate, drastic remedial measures to protect the public. Read more