Courts & the Law, News, Voting

Republican senator to critic of GOP’s controversial voting reforms: “Stop bothering people at such an hour.”

Sen. Rick Horner, R-Johnson, Nash, Wilson

“Stop bothering people at such an hour.”

A Republican North Carolina senator had this to say in an email late Thursday to one woman’s criticism of surprise, GOP-led voting reforms unveiled at the legislature this week.

On Friday, Policy Watch obtained a copy of the terse email exchange, in which Sen. Rick Horner, a one-term Republican who represents Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties, took a Raleigh woman to task.

Horner was firing back at Joanne Rohde of Raleigh, who blasted GOP legislators for their efforts to overhaul early voting and voter ID laws late in the short session.

Rohde is not one of Horner’s constituents, but her email—which was timestamped at 10:59 p.m. Thursday—was directed to all of the state’s Senators. Horner’s reply was sent at 11:06 p.m. Thursday.

From Rohde’s email:

Our State Legislature is the poster child of hollowing out Democracy from within.  Shame on those of you promoting legislation that thwarts the intent of the Supreme Court ruling.  Shame on those of you limiting our basic right to vote.  Shame for sneaking around in the middle of the night changing laws without public discourse.

You think no one is watching, or no one cares; or maybe you just think [you’re] untouchable.  But you’re wrong.  Not only will I cast my vote against those working against our democratic principles, but I will spend my weekends knocking on doors and making calls to make sure that as many citizens as possible know what you’re doing.  And I assure you, I’m not alone.

It appears the lawmaker copied all of his Senate colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, on the response. It’s unclear whether that was intentional or unintentional.

Horner couldn’t be immediately reached for an interview Friday afternoon.

Voting rights advocates are fired up over new Republican proposals to nix a major early voting day and revive voter ID requirements.

House Speaker Tim Moore announced the voter ID bill Monday, which would put it to voters to decide whether the state requires mandatory photo IDs at the polls, an idea that’s been widely denounced for its potential impact on minority voters.

Two years ago, a federal court shot down the GOP’s 2013 voter ID law, writing that it targeted African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.”

The new legislation is awaiting review in a House elections committee.

Meanwhile, GOP legislators in the House gutted a 2017 tax cut bill from the Senate this week, reintroducing the measure as “The Uniform & Expanded Early Voting Act.”

The bill’s sparked fierce criticism because it would do away with early voting on the Saturday before Election Day, a particularly popular day.

The legislation swept through the state House Thursday and Friday amid often bitter debate. After its approval Friday morning, state Senate lawmakers placed it on their calendar for a possible vote Friday.

[Update: The Senate approved the House-amended bill Friday afternoon. Horner voted to approve the proposal. It’s now bound for Gov. Roy Cooper.]

Education, News

WRAL: With thousands of teachers descending on Raleigh, records show Superintendent Mark Johnson wrestled with how to respond

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

If you haven’t yet, head over to WRAL for an in-depth exploration of N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s emails and texts in the days before more than 20,000 teachers and K-12 advocates swarmed Raleigh last month.

Here’s one highlight of the WRAL report, which included a review of almost 100 pages of Johnson’s texts and emails:

Johnson consulted with three public relations advisers in the weeks before the protest “to explain to the public why he didn’t support the rally and wouldn’t be attending. He worked to highlight ways he has supported teachers and pondered where he should spend the day on May 16 as thousands of educators descended on downtown Raleigh.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for a public official in Johnson’s position to huddle with P.R. advisers to prepare a response to a major political event like this. But the top public school administrator rankled some when he opted last month to speak out against the protest and spent the day reportedly visiting schools more than 100 miles away in Craven County.

The event, which was led by public school advocates in the N.C. Association of Educators, forced 42 of the state’s 115 school districts to close as teachers headed to Raleigh. It was an unprecedented gathering, which directed blistering criticism at mostly Republican leaders in the state legislature over a decade of waning state funding.

From WRAL:

The records revealed he received both praise and criticism from the public for his decision not to attend the rally. Some thanked him for refusing to support an event that “hurts the kids and has caused undue hardship,” while others viewed his refusal to participate as a “lack of support” for teachers.

The superintendent did not respond to all emails from the public. But when he did, he promised to listen, even to those he disagreed with, and shared a list of his top education priorities, including more literacy support for students and reducing over-testing.

Johnson, a Republican, also wrote about his strained relationship with the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the teacher rally, and said he and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, “actually agree on a lot of issues when it comes to education.”

Superintendent: ‘So this is growing’

Johnson and his staff watched closely as school districts across the state began announcing they would close May 16 due to teachers’ requests to take a personal day to attend the rally. Durham canceled first and was quickly followed by Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

“So this is growing,” Johnson texted his public relations advisers. “Will definitely need a statement for Monday.”

Over several days, the superintendent and his team work-shopped potential comments to send to the media. Johnson’s first draft, which included a reference to “partisan tactics,” was soon shortened and softened.

Drew Elliot, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, was one of three advisers helping Johnson craft a statement and work on messaging about the rally. The superintendent also sought help from Graham Wilson, his community outreach coordinator, and Jonathan Felts, who chaired his transition committee after the election and occasionally helps with political messaging on a volunteer basis.

“We didn’t quite know what [the May 16 event] was going be,” Elliot said, explaining why it took several days for the superintendent to put out a statement. “When you have an elected official who’s a Council of State member, his words carry weight. So he doesn’t like to just come off as uninformed or flippant about things.”

The superintendent couldn’t delay responding much longer. Reporters gathered at an event in Winston-Salem on May 7, where Johnson was announcing a new literacy initiative, were the first to question him publicly about the teacher rally.

“I do not plan to attend a protest on a school day,” Johnson said, explaining that he “absolutely” supports teachers but that the protest would affect others, including school workers and parents.

After the event, he texted his advisers to let them know the press conference went “fine.” He assured them that he stuck to his talking points about the rally, but said he expected some “protestors against me now.” There were no prepared, written talking points, his spokesman later explained: “I think he just meant that he didn’t get off on some tangent with a reporter.”

Education, News

State budget corrections bill: A new bonus for municipal charters, suicide hotline to endure?

House Speaker Tim Moore (L) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R)

With North Carolina lawmakers seeking an exit from Raleigh in the coming days, the legislative activity has been, shall we say, frantic.

One key portion of the debate to follow is the development of the legislature’s technical corrections bill, which lawmakers typically use to tidy up loose ends, or in some cases, inject new controversial policies into their spending plan.

Given the speedy and secretive manner in which state legislators developed this year’s budget, many expected this year’s $23.9 billion spending plan—which did not allow for amendments—would be rife with necessary corrections.

In case all of the activity leaves you dizzied, WRAL has a rundown of the highlights of that technical corrections bill, which is moving through the legislature today. And a major budget provision that threatens to drastically alter how North Carolina funds public schools is facing a change, although not in the way that public school advocates were seeking.

Read on.

From WRAL:

Lawmakers have found money to keep the state Suicide Prevention Lifeline running.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services has been relying on federal mental health grants to fund the hotline, which is run out of a Greenville-based call center. But policy changes no longer allowed the state to use those grants for it, and the hotline faced a July 1 cutoff.

No money for the program was included in the $23.9 billion state budget, which took effect Tuesday following the legislature’s override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. So, lawmakers included a provision in the annual “budget technical corrections” bill to provide $348,558 a year to operate it for at least the next three years.

The technical corrections bill also provides some wiggle room for the planned Durham/Chapel Hill light rail line to obtain state funding and backs off a demand that people wishing to join the State Highway Patrol take out loans to pay for their trooper training.

Other notable items in the 28-page bill, which cleared the Senate on Wednesday and is expected to go before the House later this week, include the following:

A $200,000 earmark for Donors Choose to pay for school supplies at 35 Charlotte-area schools has been removed from the budget. The nonprofit, which steers contributions to classroom teachers’ projects, rejected the money when officials learned it was targeting schools in the new district for Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, who faces a tough re-election effort this fall.

Medicaid recipients will get $2 million to pay for eyeglasses in addition to eye exams, starting in January. Contact lenses would be paid for when medically necessary. Another $5.5 million would increase the payment rate for in-home aide services provided under the Community Alternatives Program for Disabled Adults.

Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville will lose $4 million to pay for building costs associated with new inpatient behavioral health beds. That money will instead go to Betsy Johnson Hospital in Dunn, which is in the home district of House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett.

State veterans homes will be built in the Triangle and the Triad with $27.2 million the state is putting up to match federal funding.

A provision in the budget allowed for cities to fund their own charter schools, and the technical corrections bill would let that funding go to capital expenses, such as buying or leasing buildings, in addition to operations. Regular charter schools receive no public money for buildings.

Also on the charter school front, the state Department of Public Instruction is barred from making any cuts to the Office of Charter Schools in the coming year.

The final section of the corrections bill would create the Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of College Student-Athletes, a 12-member panel that would study issues such as health insurance, injuries and profit-sharing and recommend any appropriate legislation.

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

Editorial: Trump tax law enriches him, harms people of color

In case you missed it, a May report from the progressive Roosevelt Institute skewered the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Republicans’ tax code rewrite introduced and approved in late 2017 by Congress and President Trump.

Now, head over to WRAL for a weekend editorial from former Raleigh City Council member Brad Thompson. Thompson examines exactly who wins and who loses in one of Trump’s few legislative victories since his inauguration.

From WRAL:

President Donald Trump’s new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, supported by U.S. Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., promised a huge tax cut for the middle-class, job growth, and trickle-down heaven. That was all hype.

Trump said the bill “would cost him a fortune.” The truth is he personally benefited enormously, if only from the 2.6 percent decrease in the highest tax bracket.

This new law significantly changed the tax code. It did not improve the parts of the code that were rigged against people of color. In some ways, it made the problem worse.  This law was intended to enrich the president, Congressman Holding and wealthy donors.  It did just that.

The tax cuts on corporations are much larger than for individuals. In addition, the cuts for corporations are permanent. The cuts for individuals are temporary and expire.  There is no increased job growth as a result of these corporate tax cuts.  The trickle down myth is passed down from one generation of the wealthy to the next, but it has never been true.

“Hidden Rules of Race,” a new report from the Roosevelt Institute by Darrick Hamilton and Michael Linden, brings to light four important ways in which the new tax law will negatively impact people of color. The authors conclude, “in addition to disadvantaging low- and middle-income people in favor of the rich and powerful few, the Trump tax law, specifically preys upon people of color.”

  • The Trump tax law overwhelmingly benefits millionaires and billionaires, not low-income or middle-class Americans as Trump and Holding promised. As the “Income Gap” (which the Pew Research Center calls a “Grand Canyon-sized void)” grows, the wealthy get more of the tax cuts.
  • The Trump tax law primarily benefits already wealthy people who already had access to the educational, systemic, and human resources necessary to accumulate wealth. The “Racial Wealth Gap” is the reality that the average wealth for families is much higher than for African-Americans. Our dreadful history of discrimination in housing, lending, and employment has legally obstructed the ability of African Americans to accumulate wealth over generations.
  • The Trump tax law is expected to encourage state and local governments to add fees and fines to make up lost revenue. As Peter Edelman exposes in his new book, “Not a Crime To Be Poor,” court costs, bail, fines, and incarceration for non-violent behavior all act to keep people of color in an endless loop of economic distress where great harm is done to families and communities.17
  • The Trump tax law is estimated to cost $1.9 trillion in lost revenue in the next 10 years. We have already seen that this Congress is willing to cut medical, health, and social services to offset some of their tax cuts. This is not sustainable.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

If he only knew.

Education, News, public health

In surprise revision to school safety bill, Senate Republicans seek insurance overhaul that may threaten NC’s Affordable Care Act marketplace

Sen. Ralph Hise unveiled a change in law Thursday that may have major implications for the Affordable Care Act.

A bipartisan-backed proposal to help North Carolina schools recruit campus psychologists received a major makeover in a Senate committee Thursday that may destabilize the state’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace, advocates say.

Senate Republicans unveiled the new portions of House Bill 933 at a committee meeting Thursday morning, potentially clearing surprise provisions aimed purportedly at lowering the threshold for small employers to offer self-funded health plans and, perhaps most importantly, clearing less-regulated association health plans for membership organizations like the N.C. Farm Bureau.

“These people, as I move around the state, are coming to me asking whether Farm Bureau can help them,” Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten told Senate lawmakers.

The Farm Bureau provides insurance, banking, and other benefits to their members in North Carolina. They also advocate for agricultural interests at the N.C. General Assembly.

Wooten and Sen. Ralph Hise, a western North Carolina Republican who co-chairs the Senate Health Care Committee, pitched the revisions to the school safety bill as a means of expanding health insurance options for residents complaining of soaring healthcare premiums.

The revisions come with federal officials considering new rules for skimpy short-term plans and association health plans. If approved by state lawmakers, the new rules would allow groups like Farm Bureau to offer health plans exempted from state oversight and from ACA regulations that protect individuals with pre-existing conditions from being excluded or facing higher premiums.

N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten

Asked Thursday whether the new Farm Bureau plan would cover pre-existing conditions, Wooten did not answer the question directly.

“Certainly, that would have to be something that we take under consideration as we move forward with this association health plan,” Wooten told legislators.

Yet Wooten reportedly indicated in a N.C. Health News report Wednesday that the organization wouldn’t be able to offer plans without underwriting, a practice that makes it more difficult for individuals with pre-existing conditions to secure coverage.

Wooten added for lawmakers Thursday that the Farm Bureau plan “would not be for everybody.”

“Certainly we would have to look at it carefully and we would tier it so people would have the ability to participate,” he said. “Obviously, some folks may be, if you look at underwriting, some folks may still be better off in the individual market and the ACA.”

Critics say the new North Carolina proposal mirrors existing exemptions for the Farm Bureau in Tennessee, which experts have linked to one of the nation’s shakiest ACA marketplaces. 

Hise’s rewrite would also scrap a state law that sets a 26-employee bar for small employers who wish to offer self-funded health plans. The proposed version Hise put out Thursday does away with that threshold altogether, although Hise said it’s his intent to ultimately set a minimum bar of 10 employees.

Some companies suggest that such plans may allow them to limit costs, although experts note they’re a much riskier option for employees.

Democrats seemed to struggle with the health care implications Thursday, particularly given Republicans bundled the reforms with a widely-supported school psychologist recruiting effort proposed in a school safety committee this year following a deadly shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school. The House approved the bill unanimously last month.

Lawmakers did not take a vote on the Senate committee rewrite Thursday, although Republicans said they may hold at a vote at the panel’s still unscheduled next meeting.

Wooten said that his group has been working on the plan for two years, although the details emerged in a Senate committee Thursday with little or no public notice.

Opponents say the state Senate measure coincides with a GOP push to allow for slim plans in alternative marketplaces catered to “healthy” individuals, a push that threatens to weaken the ACA marketplace and drive up costs for sick individuals.

Critics quickly pounced on the proposal Thursday. The progressive N.C. Justice Center issued a statement calling the reforms “dangerous new provisions that would endanger critical protections for North Carolinians with pre-existing conditions.”

[Disclosure: The Justice Center is the parent nonprofit of Policy Watch.]

More from the Justice Center statement:

Read more