Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. General Assembly-ordered cuts likely to hamper services for poor, rural schools

Support for needy districts and key positions within North Carolina’s top public school agency may be in jeopardy this week as the State Board of Education mulls ways to pass down millions in legislative cuts.

Officials confirmed that the State Board of Education could vote as early as Wednesday on how to dish out $3.2 million in General Assembly-ordered funding reductions for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican, turned over multiple options for distributing the cuts to the state board, which has provided feedback behind closed doors, Policy Watch has learned. Neither the board nor Johnson’s office would turn over specific details given the cuts broach confidential personnel matters. [Read more…]

2. From pills to heroin in Wilmington

When Gov. Roy Cooper signed the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention or STOP Act into law last month, he called it an essential tool in the fight against an opioid epidemic now gripping the state.

The law imposes limits on the prescription of opioid pain medications – no more than a five day supply of the pain medications on an initial visit. It also requires doctors electronically submit the prescriptions they write as part of a reporting system to prevent over-prescription and drug seeking behavior.

For some active addicts in Wilmington, ground zero for opioid abuse in the state, doctor shopping is a way of life. They go from doctor’s office to hospital to treatment center – some widely known as “pill mills” where it is easy to score – maintaining habits for years or decades without ever breaking the law. [Read more…]

3. Sorry Republicans, facts matter—in Raleigh and in Washington

It’s not an original thought to point out that the Trump Administration is a larger version of what has been happening in North Carolina for the last seven years, a takeover by far-right ideologues hell-bent on dismantling the fundamental institutions of the government they lead, without regard to the suffering their decisions will inflict on the people they are supposed to represent.

At least two distinct battles are now constantly raging in Raleigh in Washington. One is being led by the new regime’s political opponents both inside and outside of government who are relentlessly reminding voters of the devastating consequences of decisions to privatize public schools, repeal a health care law that has cut the number of people without insurance in half, and wage war on the environment by recklessly rolling back key regulations and abandoning efforts to address climate change.

The other battle is internal, between the new rulers and a few reasonable holdovers within their ranks from the days when the Republican Party was not dominated by vindictive extremists determined to punish their political opponents while remaking the government they detest. [Read more…]

4. GenX, Chromium 6 and 1,4-dioxane: No federal, state regulations and less guidance about how to protect drinking water

When Gov. Roy Cooper visits Wilmington on Monday, it’s unlikely that he will be greeted by the friendly faces he encountered during his campaign. Instead, the people of New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties want answers to questions about the safety of their drinking water now that the chemical GenX has been detected in it.

GenX, an “emerging contaminant,” as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency,  is entering the Cape Fear River and public water treatment plants from the Chemours plant upstream in Fayetteville.

But GenX is only one of several known emerging contaminants that have been detected in drinking water throughout the North Carolina. Chromium 6 has been found in private drinking water wells near coal ash plants; 1,4-dioxane, prevalent throughout the US,  has been found in the Haw River and other state waterways.[Read more…]

5. Trump nominates hyper-partisan conservative activist to NC federal court vacancy
Why this is not “business as usual” and should not be condoned

Sometimes all one can do is stand and marvel in slack-jawed wonder at the breathtaking brazenness, hypocrisy and double standards that Donald Trump and his allies in the modern conservative movement are willing to employ and embrace. Six months into this dark new era, it’s truly gotten to the point at which it’s hard to think of any political act under the sun that conservatives would be unwilling to engage in in order to pursue and accomplish their goal of radically overhauling the American social contract.

The ultimate manifestation of this appalling new reality is, of course, Trump’s symbiotic relationship with one of the globe’s most powerful and immoral organized crime bosses, Vladimir Putin, but there are dozens of other – if more mundane – examples.

Here in North Carolina, the steady decline in any pretense by legislative leaders of adhering to basic rules of process and open government stands out. So too does the startling willingness of self-described “Christian” conservatives to cozy up to Trump and his serial mendacity. [Read more…]

***Bonus reads from Courts & Law:

*** Upcoming Crucial Conversation luncheon on Wednesday, July 26th: Professor Nancy MacLean on her provocative new book, “Democracy in Chains”

Learn more and register today.

Environment, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. State School Superintendent muzzles communication from DPI

A directive from Superintendent Mark Johnson to temporarily halt key listserv communications from the Department of Public Instruction has some concerned the order will chill the flow of information from North Carolina’s top public school agency.

Policy Watch learned last week of Johnson’s command, which comes at a particularly busy time for central office personnel as they prep for the coming school year. This would include sorting through myriad legislative changes including 24 new reporting requirements for DPI.

In Johnson’s message, recently obtained by Policy Watch, the superintendent wrote the department would “take a break in the distribution of information to the field and to other lists for stakeholders” following last month’s retirement of the agency’s longtime communications chief. [Read more…]

2. Opioid crisis hits Wilmington area hard; lack of public resources hinders response

Wilmington is bustling this summer.

Downtown, horse-drawn carriages take tourists along the riverfront the city advertises as “America’s best” where they drink at local pubs, eat seafood, sip cold brew coffee in cafes that also sell designer shoes and limited-edition t-shirts.

But a five minute drive from thriving Princess Street – down 3rd street along the Cape Fear Historic By-Way past monuments to Confederate soldiers and meticulously restored historic homes – you turn onto Dawson Street.

Here dusty curb markets with barred windows begin to replace the hip eateries with seasonal menus, public housing projects the bed and breakfast inns. You’ll find few historical markers here – but walk a few blocks and you’ll be stepping over discarded hypodermic needles. North Carolina’s place in the national opioid crisis is nothing new here – and the news that Wilmington is the top city in the nation for opioid abuse doesn’t surprise people. [Read more…]

3. A nonpartisan confirmation of the dangerous new normal in North Carolina
State legislative leaders this week dismissed a report by their own nonpartisan legislative staff showing the latest round of tax changes will create a budget shortfall of more than a billion dollars in two years, growing to $1.4 billion two years after that.

The projections came in response to a request made by Democratic leaders in the Senate during the budget debate warning about the impact of the tax cuts, the bulk of which will go to corporations and wealthy families.

The analysis prompted headlines about a looming budget gap and revenue problems and Democratic leaders said it confirmed Governor Roy Cooper’s characterization of the Republican budget as irresponsible. [Read more…]

*** Bonus Video: NC Justice Center director Rick Glazier on education funding and  missed opportunities in the state budget  (Click to watch)

4. Judging by today’s event, protesters are starting to get to Tillis

It’s dumb mistake that almost all elected officials succumb to at one time or another, but with a relatively experienced politician like Thom Tillis, you think he’d already know better. Unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina’s junior senator will have to learn his lesson the hard way.

And that lesson?

Don’t disrespect your constituents.

Oh, there’s no doubt it’s got to be tempting — especially when the constituents in question are protesters who disagree with your actions on their behalf. But, make no mistake, today’s unfortunate action by Senator Tillis and his staff to refuse access to his Raleigh office — even to folks that merely wanted to deliver a letter on the Senate healthcare bill on behalf of the 100+ protesters outside — was a major blunder. (Note: A Facebook report from High Point indicates Tillis has called in the police to keep wild and crazy protesters away there as well.) [Read more…]

5. DEQ, DHHS at loggerheads again, still bickering over drinking water risks of hexavalent chromium

People living near Duke Energy coal plants — Roxboro, Mayo and Belew’s Creek, in particular — don’t know whom or what to believe.

In 2015, state health officials said their drinking water was unsafe because of contamination from hexavalent chromium in their wells. Months later, top state health and environmental officials, even Gov. McCrory, assured them it was safe. Then in 2016, in a series of depositions, state health department scientists said that it wasn’t.

And now, well, the health and environmental departments are at loggerheads again. [Read more…]

***Bonus feature:  Trial judges gain new, valuable resources in Judicial Fellowship program

*** Upcoming event on Wednesday July 26: Crucial Conversation Luncheon – Prof. Nancy MacLean on her provocative new book, “Democracy in Chains”

Nancy MacLean is an award-winning scholar of the twentieth-century U.S., whose new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, has been described by Publishers Weekly as “a thoroughly researched and gripping narrative… [and] a feat of American intellectual and political history.” Booklist called it “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.”

Learn more and register today.

News

Missed opportunities in the state budget (w/video)

Coming-up this weekend on News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon, we hear from Rick Glazier, executive director of the NC Justice Center on missed opportunities in the 2017-19 state budget. For a preview of our radio interview, click below:

The NC Budget & Tax Center also outlined several of the missed opportunities in a new brief they released this week. Here’s an excerpt of from that report on inadequate investments in our public schools.

• Classroom Teachers: The new budget does not provide any of the estimated $293 million needed by schools to meet the state-mandated class size reduction requirements – creating an unfunded mandate that passes the buck down to local communities.

• Classroom Supplies and Materials: Lawmakers provide no additional state funding for classroom materials and instructional supplies; funding is around half its peak 2009 investment level when adjusted for inflation. Rather than increase state funding for classroom supplies and instructional material, lawmakers recently reinstated a deduction into the tax code for up to $250 that teachers can claim, for state income tax purposes, for out-of-pocket expenses incurred to pay for classroom supplies.

• Textbooks: One-time state funding for textbooks and digital learning materials in the budget leaves state funding per student for this area of the public schools budget at nearly half of peak 2010 spending when adjusted for inflation.

• Professional Development: No state funding is provided and dedicated solely for professional development for classroom teachers and school leaders. Lawmakers have not included state funding for this important area of public schools for years, reflecting a lack of state support for the development of teachers and educators who are tasked with educating nearly 1.5 million students.

Read the full BTC report here.

News, public health

As Congress returns to work, Senate health care bill faces uncertain future

Members of Congress return from their July 4th recess this week with no apparent head-way on the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act.

If you missed it over the weekend on Policy Watch’s News & Views with Chris Fitzsimon, Brendan Riley with the Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project explains in clear terms why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is struggling to find the votes needed to pass their bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. (Click below to hear the full radio interview.)


And with just three weeks until Congress’ August recess, President Trump tweeted Monday he cannot imagine they would dare to leave Washington without ‘a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go.’

Environment, News, Voting

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Is North Carolina stuck in an abusive relationship?
Behavior of state leaders, state policy community raise warning flags

The last seven years in North Carolina politics and policy have been extraordinary. In a very short period of time, a once moderate state has been transformed into a kind of laboratory for far right policies and a testing ground for what we are coming to know now as Trumpism. On issue after issue, state legislative leaders have aggressively pursued an ultra-conservative agenda that seeks to radically remake the state’s social contract.

What’s more, this has not been a happy or buoyant transformation. Rather than being predicated on a positive or hopeful new vision of society, the conservative revolution in North Carolina has mostly been a counter-revolution. Even today, a point at which they enjoy veto-proof majorities and can realistically contemplate an entire decade in power, conservative legislative leaders premise most of their actions and policies more on an angry rejection of past supposed transgressions by Democrats than a coherent articulation of what they want to build. [Read more….]

2. School districts prepare for another year of class size controversy

When North Carolina legislators pushed through their $23 billion budget plan in June, it included one key, last-minute insertion in a separate technical corrections bill.

State lawmakers wrote that it’s their “intent” to use data collected this year from school districts to fund a new allotment for arts and physical education teachers beginning with the 2018-2019 school year.

Given the well-documented consternation this year over a public school funding crisis spurred by lawmakers’ demands that schools reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, it’s an important, albeit tentative, promise. [Read more….]

3. Unlikely bedfellows rally to oppose seismic air gun testing, offshore drilling near the North Carolina coast

The Atlantic Ocean has never been a silent place, what with the whales and their jabbering, the dolphins and their mating calls. The underwater sound waves of earthquakes, volcanoes and waves are background noise, akin to the hum of air conditioners in the summertime.

But over time, the noise beneath the sea grew louder, at times, even deafening. First, the ships. And over the centuries, trans-Atlantic cable, Navy sonar, submarines, even bombs.

And now, the air guns. The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering allowing energy companies to fire seismic air guns up and down the Atlantic Coast in search of oil and gas. [Read more…]

*** Editor’s note to the above story: The National Marine Fisheries Service has extended the public comment period on seismic testing to July 21.

4. Gerrymandering, the courts and the next election in North Carolina: All of your burning questions answered

It’s been a little over a month since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 28 state North Carolina House and Senate districts were racially gerrymandered but lawmakers have yet to draw new maps.

In the last month, there’s been some back-and-forth in the courts over North Carolina v. Covington, numerous headlines about the case and several rallies calling for immediate action from the legislature.

The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, where a three-judge panel will oversee the redrawing of the illegally gerrymandered maps and decide whether special elections before the regularly scheduled 2018 elections will be a proper remedy for the constitutional violations at hand.  [Read more…]

*** Bonus infographic:  Download our special timeline on gerrymandering in North Carolina
*** Bonus read: Federal three-judge panel poised to make decision in racial gerrymandering case

5. NC’s response to opioid crisis is too little, too late says lawmaker with personal expertise

Opioid overdoses took 1,200 lives in North Carolina last year – part of an 800 percent increase since 1999 whose body count has now surpassed 12,000.

So when lawmakers approved the final state budget late last month, many expected the bipartisan concern would lead to significant funding to combat the opiate problem.

But while the budget did improve funding for the state’s Controlled Substances Reporting System and funneled $10 million in federal grants to treatment services, it was well under what Gov. Roy Cooper called for in his suggested budget and only about half of what was called for in the bi-partisan Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act.

N.C. Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) said she was disappointed – but not necessarily surprised. [Read more…]