Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Education leaders say House budget falls short

Based on the state House budget plan, North Carolina teachers may be virtually assured of at least some raises in the upcoming school year, but the state’s top teacher advocacy organization says state lawmakers have still “fallen short” of their promises to educators.

“This isn’t treating us as a profession,” says Mark Jewell, a Greensboro teacher who serves as president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE). “This is a stopgap measure for funding schools.”

Jewell’s comments came hours after state House lawmakers unfurled their full biennial budget, which includes varying raises for teachers and school administrators (page 87 of the House budget) over the next two years. [Read more…]

***Bonus video: NC Justice Center education analyst Kris Nordstrom discusses efforts to ‘over fund’ unaccountable vouchers in the state budget

2. House and Senate differ over budget provision making it harder for judges to waive fees for poor defendants

You can’t get blood from a stone — it’s one of those cliché proverbs that rings especially true when it comes to debt collection.

It’s also a concept that is currently before the North Carolina General Assembly as lawmakers crafting the state budget debate a budget provision that would make it extremely cumbersome for judges across the state to waive court fines or costs for indigent defendants.

The “fee waiver” provision first appeared in the Senate budget and was later adopted in an early version of the House budget. An amendment ultimately eliminated the provision, but lawmakers at a committee meeting yesterday speculated that there would be controversy over the measure when it comes time for the two chambers to agree on a final budget.[Read more…]

3. House reallocates $250K from rural grant program to “protect” rural areas from EPA

Ahoskie, population 5,000, is nicknamed “The Only One,” because it is the only such named town in the world. Located in Hertford County, Ahoskie has seen better days, with its downtown revitalization occurring in very small steps: A coffee shop here, a theater there — and crumbling buildings in between.

Rep. Chris Millis sponsored an amendment to the House budget that would siphon $250,000 from a grant program to revive rural areas like Ahoskie and then funnel it to the Department of Agriculture in order to sue the EPA.

The Agriculture Department could use the money to hire outside counsel to fight the federal Waters of the United States rule, which clarifies the types of waterways that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. These include streams and wetlands that contribute to “navigable waters” already under CWA jurisdiction. [Read more…]

4. The conservative assault on freedom and liberty
The Right’s dishonest effort to appropriate and pervert some core American values

Here’s one thing you’ve got to hand to the modern American Right: these people can sell. Maybe it’s the presence of so many shameless TV preachers and corporate bosses within their movement. Maybe it’s the “message discipline” that comes more easily with being a mostly top-down movement. But whatever the root cause, there’s no denying that conservatives are often much better at packaging their ideas for public consumption than progressives.

For a classic case in point, consider the Right’s dogged, destructive and often successful effort to appropriate and pervert the word “freedom.” For decades now, conservatives have sought to package virtually every policy stance on their agenda as a defense of “freedom” and/or its close cousin, “liberty.” This is especially true in and around red, white and blue holidays like Memorial Day.

If one goes down the list of issues, you can almost hear the right-wing propaganda rap.[Read more…]

5. State treasurer responds to criticism of state health plan audit

When Charles Kurzman received a letter last month announcing an audit of the State Employee Health plan, it didn’t much worry him.

A similar audit had been done back in 2010 and Kurzman, a professor of sociology at UNC, had provided information about his dependents and kept everyone in the family insured.

But Kurzman quickly realized this audit was different – and more complicated.

“It took me an hour to figure out how I was supposed to comply with the treasurer’s demands,” Kurzman said. “In part because it was challenging to find the user interface that the instructions referred to.”

Navigating that interface was a whole other matter – and it had to be done. In 2010 the independent company performing the audit allowed plan members to mail in copies of supporting documents – birth and marriage certificates, adoption papers, tax returns. That was the most popular method used by respondents. This year, that option was gone. [Read more…]

Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Former House Speaker tried to strong-arm DEQ over chemicals in Jordan Lake

Harold Brubaker, the former Republican House Speaker turned powerful lobbyist, tried to ram through a scientifically dubious cleanup project for Jordan Lake and allegedly used hurricane relief funding as leverage, according to emails obtained by NCPW under the Open Records law.

Brubaker’s client, SePro, proposes using chemical treatments — the effectiveness of which has been questioned in scientific journals, by the EPA and DEQ — to clean up algae in Jordan Lake.

Last winter, Brubaker reportedly told then-DEQ Chief Deputy John Evans that if the agency didn’t sign a $1.3 million contract with Sepro, “the GA [General Assembly] would refuse to support hurricane funding.”

Evans recalled that conversation with Brubaker in an email dated Dec. 6, 2016, which he sent to six DEQ colleagues. The email reads: [Read more…]

2. Republicans advance education budget over strong Democratic objections
GOP leaders deflect criticism, promise to hear amendments next week

A key House committee signed off on the chamber’s public school budget report Thursday, despite Democrats’ complaints that they had only just received the details of that multi-billion dollar spending plan that morning.

“We’re looking at a $17.5 billion budget that we’ve seen for the first time today and we’re going to vote on it in three hours,” said Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, a veteran House Democrat from Durham, Thursday morning. “No, hell no.” [Read more...]

***Bonus budget reads:

3. NC Treasurer: Court’s ruling in favor of retired workers, teachers could have ‘severe’ implications

North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell warned legislators Friday that the state may be on the hook to pay more than $100 million to retired workers and teachers if a judge’s ruling stands that they were wrongfully required to pay heath insurance premiums.

“It is my duty as North Carolina State Treasurer to call your attention to a matter that may have severe financial and practical implications for the State of North Carolina,” the letter states.

Retired teachers and state employees, including former Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, filed suit in Gaston County Superior Court in April 2012. The lawsuit became class certified and now exceeds 220,000 retirees, according to Folwell’s letter — all of whom will be entitled to premium-free health insurance for the duration of their retirement, according to a court order also issued last week.

Judge Edwin Wilson Jr. ruled that retirement health benefits are contractual and that the defendants breached that contract when class members began to be charged premiums for standard health insurance in Sept. 2011. [Read more…]

4. The most shameful thing about the Senate budget

The most shameful thing about the disastrous budget passed by the Senate two weeks ago is not the vindictive 3:00 a.m. budget cuts to education programs in Democrats’ districts.

It’s not the paltry raise given to state workers after years of neglect or the cruel refusal to give state retirees any cost of living increase at all.

It’s not the dozens of controversial policy provisions snuck into the 362-page budget bill with no debate or discussion that cuts food benefits to 133,000 people, bans new wind farms, ends the certificate of need process for health care facilities, creates education savings accounts, and more.

It’s not even the latest installment of the Senate’s Robin Hood in reverse tax scheme that cuts taxes again on the wealthy and corporations, costing the state more than $850 million that the General Assembly’s own staff says will lead to a significant budget shortfall in a few years.

It is the decision in a year of a large budget surplus to make it more likely that thousands of at-risk children in North Carolina will struggle in their lifetimes.[Read more…]

5The right-wing house of cards shudders
Court setbacks, public opinion, progressive activism and Trump bode ill for NC conservatives

Professor Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law is a nationally recognized Supreme Court watcher and elections law expert. Yesterday on his highly-trafficked Election Law Blog, Hasen posted a fascinating 13-point take of Monday morning’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down North Carolina’s hyper-gerrymandered 2011 congressional district map. After sifting through Justice Elena Kagan’s lengthy opinion and even some important footnotes, Hasen said this:

“9. Holy cow this is a big deal. It means that race and party are not really discrete categories and that discriminating on the basis of party in places of conjoined polarization is equivalent, at least sometimes, to making race the predominant factor in redistricting. This will lead to many more successful racial gerrymandering cases in the American South and elsewhere, and allow these cases to substitute for (so far unsuccessful) partisan gerrymandering claims involving some of these districts.”

After noting the wondrous fact that Justice Clarence Thomas signed on to Kagan’s opinion and that more gerrymandering cases from North Carolina are on their way up through the federal courts, Hasen added this as his final point: [Read more…]

***Bonus read: Assessing the Supreme Court’s gerrymandering decision


Last week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. An offensive, belligerent and vindictive display in the halls of government

The last week has featured some of the most offensive, belligerent, and vindictive behavior by elected officials in generations—and that is not a reference to President Trump and his associates in Washington, though the characterization fits there too.

No, this startling episode came in the middle of the night last week in Raleigh when furious Republican leaders of the state Senate interrupted a debate on the state budget with a recess to meet with legislative staff.

They returned from the break with an amendment to the budget to punish Democratic senators by slashing funding for education projects in their districts and cutting the budgets of other programs and institutions represented by Democrats, from the N.C. Museum of Art to downtown revitalization efforts.[Read more…]

2. Trump, NC conservative leaders to eastern NC: “Drop dead”
Hurricane Matthew non-response sets a new low when it comes to basics of governing

With the increasingly precarious situation in which he finds his presidency vis a vis the inquiries of the Senate Intelligence Committee, one would think that Donald Trump might well be taking any and all steps available to cozy up to the Committee’s chairman, North Carolina’s Richard Burr. Weirdly, however, no such actions were in evidence last week when it came to one of the most basic components of running the federal government – meting out disaster relief funds.

As multiple North Carolina and national news outlets reported, the Trump administration has largely denied the state’s request for federal assistance in responding to Hurricane Matthew. This from an article in Newsweek magazine: [Read more…]

3. The $1 million mystery: The Senate budget gives a low-risk hazardous waste site a major windfall — at the expense of hundreds of critical projects

Off a stub of Pine Grove Road behind the West End fire station in Havelock, an old sand mine turned wayward recycling facility has become an environmental and civic albatross. The 34-acre former Phoenix Recycling site contains an assortment of wood, metal, plastic and cardboard — plus construction and demolition detritus that has been illegally dumped there since the company closed and declared bankruptcy in 2000.

Phoenix is one of more than 3,000 inactive hazardous sites that the state has catalogued in North Carolina. Although labeled “inactive,” most of these locations are still quite active, in that they continue to pollute.

But because of their environmental histories and financial complexities, these sites are essentially environmental vagabonds. They have nowhere else to land but NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch. That branch oversees their cleanup and enforcement — albeit with too little funding each year to make a noticeable dent in the list. [Read more…]

4. NCGOP expects legislature to resurrect “monster” voting law ‘in an acceptable fashion’

North Carolina’s GOP Chairman Robin Hayes is confident the legislature will move “very quickly” to pass a new law that reflects the “monster” voting bill’s premise.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided today that it would not take on an appeal to reinstate the omnibus voter law, which would require an identification to vote, reduce early voting from 17 to 10 days, abolish same-day registration, preregistration for teens in civic classes and out-of-precinct voting.

In an unusual move, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the decision was not reflective of justices’ opinions on the merits of the case.

Republicans were disappointed in the decision but took Roberts’ statement as an opportunity to blame Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein for meddling in the case as the reason it was denied certiorari. Democrats are celebrating the decision as a victory for voting rights.[Read more…]

5. State House budget, which is likely to be kinder to public schools, expected early next week

North Carolina House legislators expect to announce their much-anticipated budget plan either Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, a top Republican budget writer tells Policy Watch.

That plan is expected to phase in across-the-board teacher pay raises, limit the Senate’s extensive cuts to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and restore some of the highly controversial K-12 funding cuts approved just after 3 a.m. last Friday, according to Rep. Craig Horn, the influential Union County Republican who sits as vice chair of the chamber’s budget committee.

“The House committee chairs have been working all this week to develop a budget to put before their committees,” said Horn.

The state lawmaker said that, “with any luck,” he expects a House floor vote on the budget plan a week after its release. Horn adds that he believes the House will allow the budget plan to make its way through committees .[Read more…]

*** Bonus read: House members push to clean up Senate’s budget ‘mess’


Senator Burr: Burden is on the New York Times to prove Comey memo exists

U.S. Senator Richard Burr is voicing skepticism about a New York Times report that President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to shut down the investigation of national security advisor Michael Flynn.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee told PBS NewsHour if Comey had written such a memo, the Times should produce it.

“Somebody is going to have to do more than just have anonymous sources on this one for me to believe that there’s something there.”

The NYT story came on the heels of a report from The Washington Post on Tuesday that suggested President Trump had shared highly-classified intelligence with Russia.

Trump tweeted earlier in the day he had the ‘right’ to share that data.

Click below to hear Senator Burr’s full interview with PBS NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardin:

News, Trump Administration

NC Congressman says Trump’s intel leak will test Congressional leadership, require independent investigation

A day after the Washington Post published a report that President Trump revealed “highly classified” intelligence to Russia’s Foreign Minister last week, Trump tweeted he had the ‘right’ to share that data.

The White House spent much of the day trying to shift the focus of the bombshell story to questioning the source of the ‘selectively’ leaked information.

Now members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are demanding information from the White House about what was shared with Russia and how this may impact national security.

Congressman David Price (NC-04) on Tuesday said this latest episode underscores the need for an independent prosecutor. (Click below to hear Rep. Price’s interview with NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon.)

“We are clearly in uncharted territory — the President has no respect for longstanding diplomatic norms or the grave responsibilities of his office, and his Administration is regularly misleading the American people. It’s time for my Republican colleagues to join Democrats in holding President Trump accountable for his actions.”

Republican Senator Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, is withholding comment on the ordeal until he has further facts:

“The Senate intelligence committee has reached out to the White House to request additional information on recent reports about alleged dissemination of intelligence information,” Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, told CNN.