Commentary, Education, News

Uh oh, the sausage biscuits didn’t work. Our budget is still a mess.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

To hear North Carolina’s legislative leaders put it Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper is nowhere to be found.

While these earnest lawmakers toiled on their $24 billion budget compromise in recent days, Cooper was in New York, they complained, as if we could presume that the Democrat couldn’t be pulled from his junket, sunbathing atop the Chrysler Building, pillowed by a pile of “big city liberal” cash.

As if Cooper and company have not been engaged with legislative leaders for days, weeks and months before Cooper’s New York soiree, a political story with all the depth of a Tweet and the nutritional content of a Twinkie.

“We held this off as long as we could, hoping we could get some input from the governor, but here we are today,” groaned Sen. Harry Brown, the Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget panel.

The putrescent hog farms of Duplin County smell better than this.

Whatever you may think of Cooper, it’s a safe assumption that North Carolina’s journalists, and its people, have a memory surpassing that of a fruit fly.

They may recall legislative leaders’ incessant “bad faith” negotiations, the humiliation of HB2, last year’s unprecedented backdoor budgeting in a conference report, the openly gerrymandered maps, the allegations that they deceived a federal court, cuts crafted in the early morning hours to eviscerate political rivals, and the summoning of legislators following a hurricane to revoke powers from the newly-elected Cooper in December 2016.

The Hamburglar has more credibility than these folks.

Even last week’s sausage biscuit bargaining at the Capitol yielded nothing, while staffers for Cooper and legislative Republicans fired potshots on Twitter.

Democrats said Republicans weren’t willing to come to the table; Republicans countered that the governor had made Medicaid expansion — a cacophony in the far-right Republican caucus and nowhere else on this tortured Earth — a central point of negotiations.

“I’d rather have a budget that reflects a portion of our priorities than no budget at all,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger told reporters Tuesday.

Education funding was the greatest amount ever spent in North Carolina history,  Speaker Tim Moore boasted. Good, now we’ll have to see if that raw number means a blessed thing when adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending, and the needs of a school system that’s been underfunded for the lion’s share of Republican reign.

The knowledge that Moore and House lawmakers cracked on school infrastructure makes for a bad start. At least Moore and company were willing to consider a bond referendum for the state’s $8 billion-plus in school infrastructure needs, but the compromise budget’s “pay-as-you-go” Senate spending plan reeks.

We spoke about “bad faith” earlier, and those who can recall the high-stakes, brouhaha over class-size funding in recent years can appreciate why K-12 advocates are not likely to trust that lawmakers will deliver on school construction needs over the next decade without a bond.

The minority party, which has the votes to sustain a veto, was not impressed.

“Democrats have been clear about our budget priorities: Medicaid expansion, a statewide school construction bond, and no more corporate tax cuts,” Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue said Tuesday. “The conference report fails to acknowledge any of these; and it makes clear that Republicans don’t understand the value of finding common ground.”

As of this writing, Cooper had no official statement, but his spokespeople didn’t hold back.

The veto seems a foregone conclusion. But compromise, and a fair one that recognizes the priorities of both parties, is not.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

We haven’t seen it yet, but North Carolina’s budget has veto written all over it

As of this moment, we — the huddled people, press and politicos of North Carolina — haven’t seen a draft of lawmakers’ agreed upon budget, but given the latest dispatch from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, this one has veto written all over it.

Which is to say that our turgid budget process, which was supposed to wrap before the July 1 beginning of the fiscal year, may last weeks and even months.

Stated Cooper spokesperson, Ford Porter, Monday morning:

“We want a budget that invests in teacher pay instead of more tax cuts for corporations, that has a school and infrastructure bond instead of a slush fund, and that includes Medicaid expansion to insure 500,000 more North Carolinians. Right now, legislative Republicans are not interested in serious negotiations on these issues, but we hope they will change their minds and agree to put everything on the table as Governor Cooper has.”

Cooper’s office spoke out, with many expecting a proposed budget from House and Senate conferees in a matter of hours. Of course, no one’s seen the thing, a trademark of North Carolina’s surreptitious budget “process.” But the stagecraft squabbling by lawmakers and Cooper’s reps leaves little reason for optimism.

As The Insider‘s Colin Campbell reported, even a sausage biscuit confab Friday at the Capitol with Cooper, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and House Speaker Tim Moore, was a blunt failure.

From The Insider:

On Friday morning, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger walked to the old Capitol building to meet with Cooper and House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, D-Wake. Berger was spotted carrying a bag of Bojangles’ sausage biscuits, while both legislative leaders were carrying binders labeled “budget compromise options.” One of those proposals involves agreeing to a special legislative session “to address health access issues, including Medicaid expansion,” according to a joint statement from Berger and Moore.

“The governor previously proposed a ‘two-track’ solution and wants Medicaid to be ‘part of the conversation,'” the joint statement said. “This meets both of those requests. The governor rejected the proposal. We’ve asked for concrete compromise proposals from the governor for nearly two weeks now. He has refused to provide them.” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said Friday that during the meeting Cooper and Jackson “made clear to Republican leaders that they oppose corporate tax cuts, unaccountable school vouchers and the SCIF slush fund and said that any budget compromise has to include discussion of Medicaid expansion, a school and infrastructure bond and significantly higher teacher salaries. Gov. Cooper indicated today that these items are negotiable, but Republican leaders have nearly completed their budget and are unwilling to discuss all of these important priorities that benefit our state.”

With legislators’ veto-proof majority torpedoed last year, this is the first time Cooper and legislators have been forced to haggle over the budget. Which is to say that we’ve never seen this negotiation before. Which is to say that the only thing we know is what we don’t know.

Every indication is legislators are intractable on Cooper’s biggest prize, Medicaid expansion, a damnably durable position for GOP legislators that’s as cold-hearted as it is illogical. But it’s clear that another round of GOP-authored tax cuts, school choice spending and a K-12 bond are on the table too.

The latter may be a key wedge in these deliberations. Moore’s already specified his tardy support for a statewide bond, while Berger retains his trademark acerbity on the subject. To recap, North Carolina faces billions in school facility demands. Moore has been willing to create a bond for at least a portion of those needs, but Berger’s more conservative Senate is loathe to take on the debt.

The tit-for-tat deliberation is just beginning. Miles to go, it seems.

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.