Commentary, News

New legislation would open up the job market for millions of North Carolinians

(Note: The following is a joint statement issued Monday by Bill Rowe, general counsel and deputy director of advocacy for the progressive N.C. Justice Center, Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit; and Jon Guze, director of legal studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation. The legislation it references, House Bill 770, is slated to be considered Tuesday morning by the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

The North Carolina Senate is currently considering a carefully crafted piece of legislation that creates new employment opportunities for millions of North Carolinians by making it easier for them to train for and be admitted to licensed occupations. The bill is a revised version of HB 770 (“Freedom to Work/OLB Reform”), and it combines the best features of two previously filed companion bills: SB 305—which was filed in March by Senator Andy Wells and Senator Warren Daniel—and the original version of HB 770—which was filed in April by Speaker Pro Tempore Sarah Stevens and approved last month by the North Carolina House of Representatives.

In North Carolina, more than 70 private boards and public agencies set licensing standards for approximately 180 different licensed occupations, and these occupations account for about 1/3 of all the jobs in the state. The standards currently in place tend to exclude people with criminal records and those who cannot afford extensive education and training. Since the ostensible justification for requiring occupational licenses is to protect the public from practitioners who cannot be trusted to do their work honestly, competently, and safely, these kinds of requirements make a certain amount of sense. However, as currently implemented, they go too far and exclude too many.

Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Criminal Records

An estimated 2 million North Carolinians—more than 25% of the working-age population—already have criminal records, and thousands more are convicted of crimes every year. Excluding all those people from a third of all jobs seems excessive on its face, but there’s another reason why such blanket exclusions are a bad idea. Nationally, more than 60% of people with criminal records remain unemployed a year after rejoining society, partially due to licensing restrictions.  Research shows that work plays a significant role in preventing dependency and is an indicator of how likely someone is to re-offend. If we want to discourage recidivism, therefore, we need to remove unnecessary restrictions on employment.

HB 770 does precisely that by requiring all licensing authorities, including state licensing agencies and private licensing boards, to review their existing policies with regard to applicants’ criminal histories and update those policies in specific ways. Rather than relying on blanket bans, agencies and boards will only be able to deny licenses on the basis of an applicant’s criminal record when the underlying crime is related to the duties and responsibilities of the licensed occupation or is of a violent or sexual nature. HB 770 also prohibits licensing boards from using non-specific and subjective considerations like “moral turpitude” and “good character” to determine whether someone will receive a work license.

HB 770 adds greater transparency to the process by requiring boards and agencies to state the considerations that will be used to grant or deny a license on their websites and on their application forms, and by requiring them to report to the General Assembly on how many applications are granted and denied, and the result when the applicant has a criminal record.  It also gives licensees the ability to petition a licensing board for a determination of whether the individual’s criminal history will disqualify the individual from obtaining a license before they begin mandatory educational and training requirements, potentially saving applicants hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours.

These kinds of reforms are far from radical or experimental. Over the past few years more than 20 states have enacted occupational licensing reforms to open up opportunities for qualified people with records. Examples include Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi.

Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Limited Financial Resources

Onerous licensing requirements don’t just exclude people with criminal records; they also exclude those who cannot afford to spend hundreds of days and thousands of dollars on education and training. HB 770 provides an alternative pathway for such people by allowing the completion of government approved, private-sector created apprenticeships to fulfill costly licensing requirements—ensuring that workers receive the training they need, but in a cost-effective way.  And because these apprenticeships are based on competency instead of time spent training, this reform opens work opportunities for young and low-income North Carolinians who would not otherwise be able to afford the high cost of training courses or the time off of work.

HB 770 is an important and timely reform that will benefit all North Carolinians. We hope it is promptly approved by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor.

Commentary, News

With “Pride Month” celebrations, Hendersonville, and North Carolina, inch forward

Hard to imagine we’d be here in this day, in this time, in this place.

The Charlotte Observer contributed a timely, if slight, feature this weekend, an exploration of rural Hendersonville’s nascent “Pride” celebration, yet another marker of North Carolina’s quiet LGBTQ revolution.

The word “revolution” is appropriate, with support for same-sex marriage surging to an unlikely 62 percent in North Carolina, a state that had overwhelmingly, heedlessly, passed a constitutional amendment to ban the practice in 2012.

The apple-picking, right-wing city joins a modest list of North Carolina locales crawling — or is it sprinting? — forward on LGBTQ pride, a few scatterbrained years after state lawmakers buffeted decency and fairness alike in crafting HB2 — a noxious anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-humanity law that’s deposed but, after all, not really dead.

As The Observer reported, Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk got behind the “Pride” event quickly, even if some of the city’s queasier and non-secular denizens stumbled over the plan.

From the feature:

Travis Parker, the pastor at Zirconia Missionary Baptist Church, said he went to rally outside the meeting because he was offended that the proclamation had effectively put the entire city’s support behind homosexuality — a sin according to the Bible, he said.

“Nobody said they couldn’t have a picnic,” Parker said, but “for the mayor to speak on behalf of all of Hendersonville was offensive to many people.”

The council itself was no less divided. The pride proclamation, said Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens, has stirred up more uproar than any other issue in the 12 years he’s been in office.

Like Stephens, the rest of city council — including three Republicans and one unaffiliated member — said they felt Volk had gone over their heads to support an issue they did not feel should get an official backing from local government.

“I don’t know that it’s the government’s job to endorse certain lifestyles and ideologies,” Stephens said. “When you know it’s a hot button issue, common sense says you just generally stay away from it.”

All four of them expressed their opposition to Volk on the proclamation, which only requires the backing of the mayor. And now, they say, they’re working to amend city law so future proclamations must be voted on by the whole council.

“It just doesn’t need to be publicized and supported by the city,” Stephens said. “What people do in private needs to stay in private.”

Parker said he led a prayer meeting of several hundred people at the site of the picnic on Thursday evening. They asked that picnic attendees would “see the goodness of God” and that local government would revert from what they saw as a sign of the end of times.

“It’s a great demonstration of love,” Parker said. “Hate would not be doing or saying anything.”

Read more

Commentary, Legislature, News

Opinion: How N.C. Republicans used division to consolidate power

Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

We’re now less than a week removed from a climactic veto override vote on Republicans’ “born-alive” abortion bill, one designed as much to fire up social conservatives as to make any kind of real change to abortion laws.

And the news is replete with hot-takes about its impacts on the GOP and Gov. Roy Cooper’s agenda, but Politics N.C.’s Thomas Mills has a sharp take today, scrutinizing how the state’s GOP power base has used discordant legislation to bolster their power in the past, typically at the expense of good governance, North Carolina’s reputation and, of course, general decency.

Instead of a blow-by-blow analysis of the state budget — in its chrysalis stage with a GOP hand-picked conference committee from both the House and Senate — we’re mostly left to digest a lurid clash of religion, intrusive government, and a bitterly endangered Roe v. Wade, all issues lawmakers would rather talk about than their reliably miserly budgeting.

Lawmakers should get to work on actual policymaking, beginning with Medicaid expansion, a move that could actually save lives.

Read Mills’ take below:

The so-called “Born Alive” bill that Roy Cooper vetoed is the most controversial bill of the legislative session so far. The bill and the veto override are accomplishing the goals of the GOP and continuing a tactic that’s helped them maintain power. They are energizing their base while dividing the state. It’s no way to govern and a sharp departure from the principles that helped North Carolina become the state it is today.

The bill itself would have impacted very few people. It required doctors to give medical treatment to fetuses that “survive” abortions. The bill addressed so-called late term abortions. Virtually all of them are performed either because the fetus is non-viable or the life of the mother is at risk. The bill would likely have forced mothers to carry to term babies with severe handicaps that wouldn’t survive long after birth.

Really, though, the bill is not about abortion. It’s about division. It drives a wedge between pro-choice activists who oppose the bill and less informed people who don’t understand it. The strategy follows a pattern we’ve seen since Republicans took control of the General Assembly back in 2010.

They divided the state with Amendment One in an effort to excite the right side of the GOP by casting the Democrats as the party of gay rights. They passed the most egregious voter suppression bill in the country to restrict access to the polls, narrowly targeting vulnerable, older African-Americans. In the wake of the Charleston massacre, when South Carolina was taking down Confederate memorials, the GOP in the legislature enacted legislation to protect North Carolina’s monuments to the Confederacy. They passed HB2 to fire up their base by burnishing their anti-transgender credentials. They’ve used division, not unity, as a governing strategy.

And they used division to try to consolidate power, though often unsuccessfully. They made nonpartisan judicial races partisan. They did the same thing to local school board and city council races. They redistricted municipal and county districts to give Republicans the advantage, overriding the will of local governments. They politicized the UNC Board of Governors, leaving it in turmoil that still exists today.

When Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, their divisive tactics were new to North Carolina, even if they’ve been adopted nationally today. Modern North Carolina was built by avoiding sharp social divisions. Instead, leaders of both parties used moderation as a governing philosophy. The state was never part the vanguard of change, but, unlike their Southern neighbors, they weren’t putting up roadblocks, either.

State leaders from Democrat Jim Hunt to Republican Jim Martin tried to keep a lid on social unrest by allowing history to drag us forward, focusing instead on building a strong economic infrastructure and educational system. They believed that good jobs and good schools were the keys to our future. While the late 1960s and early 1970s saw social turbulence, the upheaval was less than other states and we became a destination for businesses and families looking for stability, progress and opportunity.

Our social evolution was too slow for some people and too fast for others, but hit the sweet spot for most North Carolinians. We may not have been a leader in the march to marriage equality, but we didn’t have an amendment fight until the GOP took control. We saw slow but steady progress on voting rights to atone for almost 100 years of Jim Crow disenfranchisement until these new, radical Republicans decided too many black people were voting for Democrats.

Republican leaders have made division a governing principle. The goal is power, not progress. They’ve cast moderation aside, hoping that a sharply divided state can keep them in power by motivating their base. It may or may not be good politics, but it’s definitely bad for North Carolina.


Commentary, Education, Higher Ed, Legislature

Editorial: Despite controversy, UNC system has high marks among alumni

UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith

Despite a reactionary Board of Governors that’s struggled mightily in its erratic handling of Silent Sam, picked bizarre fights with its administrators, frightened its own leaders out the door, and, most recently, traipsed heedlessly over open meetings laws, a recent Gallup survey found UNC alumni overwhelmingly believe their education in the 16-campus system has been a boon.

The Winston-Salem Journal‘s editorial board applauded the poll’s results this weekend, but warned that the omnipresent controversy swirling about the system’s controlling board may soon be a hindrance.

The paper’s right. UNC leaders need a swift reappraisal of their priorities, coincidentally the priorities of an extraordinarily right-wing state legislature. North Carolina is, all things considered, a purple state, but its brain-trust on the BOG and in the legislature governs deep in the red.

Read on for the paper’s editorial:

Alumni of the University of North Carolina system are in a better position than most people to judge how good a job the system’s 16 schools are doing.

Across the state, there are always plenty of people ready to criticize this or that in the system and fret over how much it all costs. But if you want the insight of those who in a position to know, ask people who studied at one of the schools and who have drawn on that experience as they make their way through adult life.

That’s why the positive results of a recent Gallup survey of 77,695 UNC system alumni are worthy of attention.

An impressive 64% of those who responded to the survey said they strongly agreed that their undergraduate education was worth its cost. By way of comparison, that’s 11% better than among similar alumni groups from public institutions across the country, and 14% better than among graduates of all colleges.

Responses of UNC system alumni also showed why they feel so strongly that their education was worthwhile: They’ve put the education to good use. They have higher than average rates of advanced degrees after college, and their average personal and household income figures are considerably higher than those of college graduates across the nation.

So, controversies and rising costs notwithstanding, that’s pretty strong evidence that the UNC system is doing a good job and making a difference in the lives of the people who study there.

There is one cloud worth noting in this otherwise rosy report. The respondents to the survey were older and whiter than the total population of alumni, about 77% white and with an average age of 48. It would be useful to hear from more minority alums, and from younger graduates.

Gallup officials said that the skewed results were typical: those are the groups that tend to be more responsive to surveys, and it happens everywhere, so national comparisons are still valid.

In practical terms, what do these positive results mean? They should mean that taxpayers, legislators and other leaders will see how important it is to make a UNC system education accessible to as many people as possible. These results are strong arguments for working to keep tuition affordable and to offer financial aid for deserving students who might not go to college otherwise.

The positive results are also reason to continue to invest in the people and facilities that make a UNC education so worthwhile.

And this evidence that the UNC system has been doing a lot right, for a long time, makes a strong case that legislators and the UNC Board of Governors should work to attract good administrators and then let them do their jobs.

The positive survey results are definitely not a reason to be complacent and think that the university system will continue to be successful no matter what. Attempts by the board and legislators to micromanage the universities, tinker with the curriculum and demand that schools be run as businesses will take their toll on outcomes and attitudes. So will turmoil of the sort we’ve seen with three top system administrators leaving in the first three months of this year.

The Gallup survey is strong evidence that, over the last several decades, North Carolina’s university system has served its people well.

Let’s do all we can to build on that strong foundation.

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

How Trump’s defiance may only bring us closer to impeachment

The president, our orange obfuscation factory in chief, is playing chicken with Congress again, insisting to the press this week that he won’t be negotiating with top Democrats until they halt their investigations of him.

If, perchance, you harbored some doubt that the president would put his own self-interest above that of his country — and if so: What? How? Where have you been? — Trump scuttled an infrastructure summit this week with the peevish ultimatum.

But Trump’s refusal to cooperate with the ongoing House probes — instructing former White House counsel Don McGahn to defy a House committee subpoena — seems likely to only bring us closer to impeachment proceedings. Recall that McGahn is an integral figure in the Mueller report’s most damning accounts of possible obstruction of justice charges.

I wrote at Policy Watch this month that none of us has any time for Democrats’ ceaseless hand-wringing over impeachment, not with a lawless commander-in-chief in the White House.

And Democrats’ nascent star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seems to agree.

This week, The Atlantic‘s David A. Graham wrote a piece about how Trump’s combative stance with the House investigation makes his impeachment all the more likely.

It’s not, of course, out of the realm of possibility that Trump wants an impeachment, considering the likely possibility that a Republican-controlled Senate — buttressed with blindfolded Trump allies like North Carolina’s own Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — clears him.

That said, it should be considered just as likely that the impeachment proceedings — remember: impeachment is a proceeding, not an outcome — uncover more information than we have today, certainly more than our corrosive commander-in-chief would yield of his own accord.

Read The Atlantic piece below, and its incisive reading of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It’s certainly worth your time.

Do you remember the little woven finger traps you sometimes got as a kid, as a party favor or a reward at a fair? You could comfortably stick your fingers in, but if you tried to pull them out, the weave would tighten and you’d be stuck. Only by maneuvering gently, and not pulling too hard, could you extract yourself.

President Donald Trump finds himself in a sort of impeachment finger trap right now. He isn’t certain to be impeached—but every step he’s taking to try to squirm out of it seems to tighten the bind he’s in.

Consider the president’s tantrum on Wednesday. After inviting Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to the White House for a meeting on infrastructure, Trump stomped out of the meeting, supposedly because Pelosi had earlier accused him of participating in a cover-up. (The accusation is unrebuttably true.) Trump insists he did not throw a fit—“I was purposely very polite and calm, much as I was minutes later with the press in the Rose Garden. Can be easily proven.”—but one can’t calmly blow off a meeting. It defeats the point.

Trump has many things to be upset about. His feint on infrastructure came to nothing: Pelosi and Schumer were happy to go along with his plan, but he couldn’t rally Republican support for it. His former spokeswoman Hope Hicks has just been subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee. And his strategy of stonewalling Congress in the face of Democratic investigations is unraveling quickly. There never seemed to be much hope that it would block the probes altogether; instead, the goal appeared to be to bog down the process and run out the clock before the 2020 election.

So Trump is suggesting he won’t work with Democrats on anything until they drop their investigations. “It is not possible for them to investigate and legislate at the same time,” he tweeted. But being able to do both oversight and lawmaking is precisely how Congress is structured, and as veterans of any previous administration can attest, plenty can get done while Congress is investigating a White House.There is also no chance Democrats are going to drop their investigations, and that’s where the finger trap comes in. By and large, the House Democratic caucus has been wary of impeachment. Even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report all but accused the president of obstruction of justice and suggested that Congress ought to act, most members were content to follow Pelosi’s slow approach and to avoid open calls for impeachment.

More recently, however, that has changed—and the spark has been the White House instructing former aides like Don McGahn to neither produce documents nor testify in response to subpoenas. It’s one thing to fire the FBI director to kill an investigation, pressure aides to lie, and try to fire the special counsel—you might very well get away with only harsh words for that—but start stepping on Congress’s prerogatives, and its members start to get very angry very fast. Specifically, they start to demand impeachment inquiries.

If Trump were to follow through on his threat to not do anything with Congress until House Democrats drop their investigations, things could get even dicier. Within the next few months, the debt ceiling will need to increase and the government will need to be funded. Democrats might have been tempted to hold those bills hostage, just as Republicans have done in the past—but now Trump has given them an opportunity to pass an increase and a spending bill and dare the president to call their bluff. A senior government official told CNBC that the debt ceiling and funding are not subject to Trump’s ultimatum, but the president has demonstrated again and again that only he can speak for himself. And if he doesn’t act, and the U.S. defaults or shuts down? It could be fodder for another article of impeachment.

Thus far, Pelosi has been the brake on the members of her caucus most eager to impeach, but Trump’s erratic behavior is backing her into an ever-more-untenable situation. On Wednesday, she said, “I pray for the president of the United States. And I pray for the United States of America.” Later on Wednesday, she said, “In plain sight, this president is obstructing justice and is engaged in a cover-up. And that could be an impeachable offense.” On Thursday, she said that she was concerned for Trump’s well-being and said he was conducting an “assault on the Constitution of the United States.” But Pelosi continues to say she doesn’t support impeachment, and reportedly told Democratic lawmakers, “He wants to be impeached, so he can be exonerated by the Senate.”

With each comment like this, Pelosi’s balancing act becomes more challenging. Even if it is true that the odds of conviction in the Senate following an impeachment are very long, it’s difficult to tell your members and your constituents that the president is attacking the Constitution and has committed impeachable acts, and then decline to even launch an impeachment inquiry. There’s an analogy with the Republican rhetoric about Barack Obama: Once GOP voters were convinced that Obama was a tyrant, everything the Republican Congress did short of acting that way started to look like a betrayal, and incumbents paid a price for that in their primary elections.

While Pelosi’s explicit position is against impeachment, her implicit position, I have argued, is actually not yet. Trump’s response to the investigations is making yet closer for her and for the rest of the Democrats. His fingers are in the trap, and he’s pulling furiously, but the trap is just getting tighter.