Commentary, Legislature, News, Trump Administration

Trump administration cracks down on food stamps; new rule expected to deny assistance to 700,000 people

Beware the moments when no one is focusing on Trump administration policy, because it is usually these times when the cruelty-mongers in D.C. unfurl their most aggressively hostile regulations.

Case in point: President Trump on Wednesday unrolled a widely-expected crackdown on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program —colloquially known as “food stamps.” The new rules are expected to deny assistance to an estimated 700,000 low-income Americans.

Here is the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ (CBPP) explanation of the rule:

Those affected — SNAP participants ages 18 through 49 who aren’t raising minor children in their homes — are among the poorest of the poor, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Their average income is just 18 percent of the poverty line. Their average monthly SNAP benefits are about $165 per month.

A longstanding, harsh provision of SNAP limits these 18- through 49-year-olds to just three months of benefits, while not employed for at least 20 hours a week, out of every three years. Because of its severe nature, this provision of law also allows states to seek, and USDA to grant, waivers of this three-month cut-off for areas where insufficient jobs are available for these individuals, such as when unemployment is elevated.

From the provision’s enactment in 1996 until now, both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have operated under a common set of criteria in granting waivers from the three-month cut-off. And Democratic and Republican governors alike have sought and secured these waivers. Thirty-six states currently have waivers for parts of their state where unemployment is highest.

Now, the Trump Administration is abandoning this longstanding, bipartisan practice, however, and replacing it with a much more restrictive rule that will increase hunger and destitution. The new rule sharply restricts states’ ability to protect unemployed adults from the harsh time limit. It does so by substantially narrowing the criteria that states have most commonly used to qualify for waivers, thereby greatly shrinking the number of areas that can qualify for relief. As a result, the Trump Administration itself estimates that the rule will cut off basic food aid to nearly 700,000 unemployed or underemployed individuals.

In keeping with their brand, The National Review called the rule “commonsensical” Wednesday, which has the flamboyant quality of being an ugly word and an ugly statement at the same time. It makes sense only if withdrawing aid to the very poor and masking your choice as “the shrewd thing to do” constitutes a party platform.

It makes sense only if you believe that it is an aid to the United States to have more extremely poor people — people disproportionately impacted when the next recession hits.

More from CBPP:

Most of these individuals are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children. For many of them, SNAP is the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet.

What’s more, the final rule is more severe than the proposed rule, which itself was very harsh. States currently can request waivers when they experience rapidly rising unemployment, as typically occurs at the onset of economic downturns based on the Department of Labor’s determination that the state qualifies for extra federal unemployment benefits. But under the final rule, states must rely on historical data that would not reflect the onset of economic downturns until many months later. Moreover, far fewer areas will qualify for waivers during a widespread, national recession. A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP — its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance. Instead of mitigating a recession’s harm, the new rule will exacerbate it.

Democrats in North Carolina’s state legislature filed a bill this year that, among its provisions, aimed at repealing the state’s prohibition on the SNAP time-limit waiver, but it did not resonate with the Republican-controlled chambers. The bill was referred to a House rules committee but did not move.

Commentary, News

Calling UNC’s $2.5 million Silent Sam payout a “sham” is too kind. It’s an outrage.

Calling the UNC Board of Governors’ sly announcement last week of a $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans a “sham” — as the McClatchy editorial board team did Monday — is overly kind.

It is a disgrace. It is an embarrassment. It is an outrage. It is, frankly, appalling the leadership of North Carolina’s esteemed university system would quietly negotiate an accord with an organization like the SCV with no public vetting, and to release the terms of said deal the afternoon before Thanksgiving.

No one in North Carolina should forget our history, which is precisely why the university system should not be kowtowing with an organization with such a fantastical version of it, one in which slavery is reduced to a bit part in the Civil War.

The university and the people of North Carolina can be thankful that the racist statue no longer stands at UNC’s grassy McCorkle Place, but they shouldn’t have to do so while stomaching a payment to a group like this. Both sides should explain how they arrived at this deal, which seemed to arrive concurrently or even before the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed their suit, as the Durham attorney T. Greg Doucette elucidated on Twitter last week. How? Why?

At this moment, the board’s words and deeds continue to speak loudly, and not in the right way, about this supposedly silent statue.

Read part of the McClatchy editorial below:

For more than a year, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors has tried to resolve a problem that didn’t really exist: What should it do with Silent Sam? The Confederate statue with its racist roots had been topped by protesters on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in August 2018. Agree with the method or not, Silent Sam no longer was a safety hazard or a source of pain and controversy to the school community.

But instead of merely giving the statue away or keeping it closeted, the board decided last week to pay millions of dollars to a Confederate sympathy group to take the statue off the UNC System’s hands. In a whisper-like announcement the afternoon before Thanksgiving, the UNC system said it had agreed to settle a lawsuit involving Silent Sam by giving $2.5 million to the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The resolution “does what is best for the university,” said BOG member Jim Holmes. In reality, it’s a resolution that brings new problems and new shame to the UNC system, and it comes with new questions about the money and timing of the agreement.

First, the timing. UNC’s announcement Wednesday began: “This morning a judge entered a consent judgment in a lawsuit involving the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam.“ But documents show that the lawsuit was both filed and settled on Wednesday, the same day as the UNC announcement. The odd timing was discovered by attorney and former BOG member Greg Doucette, who noted that the board met at 10 a.m. Wednesday to approve a settlement that clearly had been agreed to before a lawsuit had even been filed. The board should address what was behind that legal maneuvering, including what legal standing the off-campus Sons of Confederate Veterans had, if any, to bring a lawsuit regarding the statue.

As for the $2.5 million, the university says that it will not come from state money, but from the interest earnings of the UNC system’s privately funded endowment. That’s money, however, that might be used to fund worthy and urgent needs that fit the UNC system’s core mission of educating students. Instead, it will go to an organization that promotes a revisionist history overwhelmingly rejected by serious historians, an organization that hosted a distasteful “secession ball” in South Carolina less than a decade ago and continues to propagate the historical fiction that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.

It’s also a group that chooses to ignore the distress that symbols of the Confederacy bring to many of its fellow Americans. Now, that group will raise Silent Sam and bring the same pain to another North Carolina community, and it will do so with millions of the University of North Carolina system’s dollars. It’s an inadequate and clumsy resolution, a washing of hands that continues to stain our state.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline investigation: Much ado about … something?

The General Assembly’s hired investigators. (Photo: WRAL livestream)

There are too many reasons to mention why we should be skeptical of the N.C. General Assembly’s keen interest in Gov. Roy Cooper’s handling of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline permitting.

Republican lawmakers went full Barnum & Bailey last year when they attempted to extract pipeline details from Lee Lilley, Cooper’s newly-named director of legislative affairs, during a budget committee meeting. Indeed, legislators in the GOP caucus had, clearly, been watching too many episodes of Perry Mason.

And be sure that our party-obsessed Republican leadership considered political affiliation when they hired Wilmington-based Eagle Intel last year to conduct the probe at a cost of about $83,000 in public money. As Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg wrote last December, two are registered Republicans. The third is unaffiliated.

That said, there are key questions asked here about how controversial — and yes, highly political — projects are permitted. We should be asking how such projects are arrived at in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Are political and economic concerns relevant in such permits? If so, how are they measured against the pressing environmental concerns that should be paramount to the officials in Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality?

According to the General Assembly’s investigators, based on communications between Duke Energy officials, “it would be reasonable to conclude that Governor Cooper improperly used the authority and influence of his Office” to coerce the pipeline’s owners into a $57.8 million mitigation fund, although they do not offer any conclusive evidence of that nature.

Duke Energy denies it, and so does the governor’s office. And here’s this important kernel from Sorg’s story this morning:

As Policy Watch reported this year, the governor’s office and DEQ did coordinate on the timing of their respective announcements, based on communication in public records. But there is no proof in the public record that the permit approval hinged on the fund.

It is a striking coincidence that Republicans in Raleigh are searching desperately for evidence of “quid pro quo” but their counterparts in Washington, D.C., haven’t a passing interest in uncovering such a thing.

Later in their conclusions, the investigators wrote that “the information suggests that criminal violations may have occurred.” But after tossing that bombshell, they acknowledged Wednesday they had not reviewed state and federal statutes because their investigation was convened to consider civil matters.

Gov. Roy Cooper

According to WRAL, they arrived at that conclusion “based on the inconsistencies they found in people’s statements and actions, which in their experience as federal agents suggests wrongdoing.”

All due respect to their experience, but such a statement seems ill-conceived or partisan in intent unless there is something to back up that assertion.

It is the sort of thing that, without evidence, seems engineered to be a pull-quote in a campaign ad because it is rendered in an “official” report.

Are we really to proceed with such a Molotov cocktail of a conclusion based on what can be accurately described as a hunch?

That, frankly, will not do.

This whole affair is much ado about something. But it is stunning how little we can conclude about that “something” after this 82-page report.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Legislature

Editorial: Judges should toss the legislature’s gerrymandered Congressional maps again

Sen. Jerry Tillman

No one will ever confuse our state legislators with cat burglars.

Indeed, as a McClatchy editorial pointed out Tuesday, the N.C. General Assembly’s continued abuse of the map-making process is as obvious as the sun in the sky. The key, of course, is whether the courts see it as such.

Here’s hoping judges were listening when longtime GOP Sen. Jerry Tillman blurted out that the new Congressional maps authored by state lawmakers is, of course, another partisan gerrymander.

It is reason number, oh, 5,000 that the N.C. General Assembly should not be trusted with the redrawing of districts. Calling upon this legislature to create a nonpartisan map is akin to asking a dog to act like a cat.

From the new McClatchy editorial:

It’s sometimes best not to attach too much importance to the things that come out of N.C. Sen. Jerry Tillman’s mouth. He can be the cringe-inducing uncle at the Thanksgiving table, picking unnecessary fights and uttering caustic remarks that make even his fellow Republicans wince. But last Friday, as the N.C. Senate debated a new round of Congressional district maps, Tillman grabbed a microphone and sprinkled some revealing truth into his usual dose of snideness. We hope that Superior Court judges, who will soon declare whether those those Congressional districts are valid, were listening.

Tillman was apparently offended that Democrats were ungrateful about the new maps, which would likely result in an 8-5 Congressional majority for Republicans instead of the 10-3 edge that the current gerrymandered maps gives the GOP. Democrats and members of the public argued the maps were still partisan, so Tillman rose to give folks a civics lesson on redistricting.

“Evidently you have not read the Constitution,” said the gentleman from Archdale, who noted that he was “absolutely appalled at the lack of knowledge about what the Constitution says.”

 “It says that in redistricting matters, it is the province of the states and it then becomes the province of the prevailing party. It doesn’t say one thing about splitting a county or a precinct. It doesn’t say anything about being fair.”

So if the prevailing party gets to draw the maps, says Tillman: “Do you think it should be anything other than partisan?”

Well, yes. So do the Superior Court judges who sent the maps back to Republicans last month with the admonition that their “extreme partisan gerrymandering” was “contrary to the fundamental right of North Carolina citizens to have elections conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”

The new maps, however, suffer from that same kind of extreme gerrymandering. They continue to lock in a predetermined result, just one that’s two districts more favorable to Democrats than the old maps. That might be more palatable to seat counters in Congress, but it’s no better for North Carolina voters.

How sure are those outcomes? Compared to a computer simulation of 1,000 nonpartisan maps, almost every newly drawn district was an extreme partisan outlier, according to a filing Friday from the plaintiffs in Harper v Lewis, who filed suit against the original congressional districts. (Those computer simulations came from the respected Dr. Jowei Chen, whose maps were used by NC Republicans in drawing new and fairer legislative districts for 2020.)

Plaintiffs also argue that several of the districts — including NC-09 and NC-12 that touch Mecklenburg County — are “near carbon copies of the prior gerrymandered districts,” attorney Daniel Jacobson told the editorial board Monday. In other words, the maps that Republicans approved Friday suffer from the same flaws as the maps the judges rejected. They still pack districts demographically to ward off competitiveness. They still steal the voices of voters. They’re still unconstitutional, regardless of Jerry Tillman’s interpretation of what the Constitution might allow.

Notably, when Tillman was done speaking, fellow Republican Sen. Paul Newton noted that Tillman wasn’t involved in the map drawing process. But senators know — as does the public — that what Tillman suggests is true. “It’s set up to be partisan,” he said. “Do you think we’re gonna draw Democrat maps?”

No. Voters just want them to be fair.

 

Commentary, Education

Editorial: North Carolina’s “frustration” over reading scores a bipartisan problem

Food for thought in Monday’s board editorial from The Charlotte Observer, which noted that the news of lagging reading scores in North Carolina should be, all budget disputes aside, a bipartisan problem.

The news has been bad for some time as it concerns Read to Achieve, a Republican-championed initiative that has, surely for a variety of reasons, failed. It’s an expensive failure too. By January, the state had already spent more than $150 million on the program since 2012.

The board makes the righteous point that now is not the time for any political grandstanding, whether you’re a critic of Sen. Phil Berger’s GOP majority or not.

From The Observer:

It’s a club of people who care deeply about education. It’s a club that possesses both data and theories regarding what might help struggling schools and students, but it’s one that understands there are no certainties — and certainly no silver bullets. It is, above all, a club that knows the reasons students struggle are complex, that we need to try a lot of fixes and fail at some, and that all of it takes money and patience.

None of which is news to Sen. Berger, who is among the shrewdest policy makers in the state legislature. But for years, Berger’s party has largely argued that investing in education initiatives is throwing good money after bad, or that the answer is not money but school “choice” — as if private schools don’t face similar challenges as public. In fact, some education advocates believe that one of the reasons Read to Achieve has failed here is that the supporting education structure around it — including teachers and, importantly, pre-K — have been insufficiently funded by the Republicans Berger leads.

Certainly, many of those education advocates know what it’s like to get disappointing results. NAEP numbers this week also showed that nationally, fourth and eighth grade reading scores essentially have remained flat for a decade. This despite years of reforms across the country that include more precise standardized testing, stricter teacher evaluations and increased attentiveness to third-grade reading scores laws.

The results have frustrated educators across the country, just as North Carolina’s numbers surely have done for Sen. Berger. His response, however, has been at least a little heartening. Instead of using disappointing numbers as an excuse to abandon an education initiative, he worked to improve Read to Achieve, even recruiting Democrat and state school board member J.B. Buxton to help. That reform bill, however, was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who called Read to Achieve ineffective and costly.

We suspect the governor may have been holding Berger’s signature project hostage in a budget fight, just as Berger and Republicans tried to hold higher teacher pay hostage this week over that same budget. If so, that’s wrong on both counts. Investment in education shouldn’t be subject to political weaponization, regardless of who does it.

We’re encouraged, however, that state school board members are seeing a new willingness from Republican leaders to work on solutions involving struggling schools and North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, sources tell the editorial board. We believe education progress won’t be found in ideological sniping, but with a realization from both parties that improving schools is often difficult, regularly frustrating and never something we should abandon.

Republicans deserve a heap of criticism for their education policy, which has been sorely underfunded for most of a decade, however much they have spent on early-grade reading.

But now is, indeed, the time for both parties to consider resolutions. Everything should be on the table, including funding for Pre-K, turnaround schools, and overall school spending. Since 2011, and even before the GOP takeover, there has been precious little cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. That, however you choose to spin it, should be an outrage.

What comes next, we can hope, is something new.