Commentary

Editorial: Legislature preparing to shortchange public education yet again

Be sure to check out this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com. In it, the authors take aim at the new state budget proposal that state lawmakers plan to unveil today for the way it will, once again, shortchange the most important function of state government: public education.

Here are some excerpts:

A House appropriations subcommittee unveils details today of a skimpy education budget. It offers up less than a 1-percent boost next year for North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and universities.

This is a phantom hike in the current $13.84 billion education budget, significantly less than the $14.56 billion Gov. Roy Cooper presented in his modest – and largely ignored – spending proposal last month.

The constitutional requirement for access to quality education – a “right” in our state – is not being met and it is the General Assembly’s failure. Per-student spending ranks among the lowest in the South and the nation. Teacher pay, when adjusted for inflation, is less today than it was in 2009.

While the legislature scrimps its constitutional duties, it finds plenty of money to spend on unnecessary tax breaks for corporations. The latest is a proposed $140 million annual cut in the franchise tax. That’s on top of $2.5 billion in corporate tax cutting that has already been enacted over the last five years. All that comes at a cost of meeting the VERY BASIC needs of North Carolinians.

Meanwhile, the editorial notes, legislative leaders demean our teachers by attacking them as “far left” for having the temerity to come to Raleigh next Wednesday in protest of the state’s destructive policy regime.

The editorial goes on to point out that teachers are not coming to Raleigh for themselves nearly as much as they are for their children and other overworked, understaffed, underpaid professionals in the K-12 system. Here’s the on-the-money conclusion:

These teachers want their students healthy – physically and mentally. A legislative report found that the state failed to meet its own target of one nurse for every 750 students. Today it’s one nurse for every 1,086 students. Some school districts have a single nurse serving six schools at a time. More than a quarter of the state’s middle and high schools lack a full-time nurse. Providing $45 million to staff up for school nurses isn’t an extravagance.

There are 740 school psychologists serving North Carolina’s 1.6 million public school children – a single psychologist for every 2,162 students. Mental health concerns are real, affect learning, personal safety as well as security issues for schools.

Teachers are also seeking pay raises – but not for themselves. They want increases– to at least $15 an hour – in pay for non-teaching or administrative school staff. These workers were left out of the $15-per-hour minimum that other state workers received last year. It is time to get them caught up.

They are also pressing for the expansion of Medicaid – so all students and their parents will have access to adequate health care and learning isn’t interrupted by untreated illness.

It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to legislature if building a great public education system wasn’t their primary responsibility.

The teachers should keep marching. Legislators, one way or the other, will get the message.

2020 can’t come soon enough.

News

NC lawmakers, advocates launch new effort to allow collective bargaining by public employees

Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) kicking off today’s press event in support of repealing NC’s ban on public employee collective bargaining. (Photo by Rob Schofield)

More than 600,000 public employees throughout North Carolina would obtain a right that’s been denied to them for 60 years under a pair companion bills introduced in the North Carolina House and Senate and highlighted at a press event this morning in Raleigh. House Bill 710 and Senate Bill 575 would repeal North Carolina General Statute section 95-98, the six-decade-old ban on collective bargaining by public employees.

At an event in the state Legislative Building this morning, an array of public officials and advocates decried the ban as both a Jim Crow-era violation of basic human rights and an impediment to the delivery of safe, affordable and efficient public services. North Carolina public employees — including state, county and municipal workers like teachers, police officers, and firefighters — “deserve a seat at the table” said Senator Wiley Nickel (D-Wake). North Carolina is one of only three states with such a statutory ban, Nickel added — a fact he linked to low retention and high turnover rates among public workers at all levels.

A variety of speakers followed Nickel to the podium to echo and expand upon his comments.

  • Mayor Don Hardy of Kinston — himself a law enforcement officer — reemphasized that collective bargaining is widely understood to be “a fundamental human right.”
  • City Councilwoman Vernetta Alston of Durham noted that “women and people of color” would be among the chief beneficiaries of allowing collective bargaining.
  • North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell said the change would be a “win-win in which everyone gains” and noted that even other southern “right to work” states allow collective bargaining for public workers.
  • Rick Armstrong of the Teamsters Union contrasted his experiences as a unionized UPS worker and a non-unionized Raleigh Police Department officer, noting the increased efficiency of workers in a union setting.
  • North Carolina AFL-CIO president MaryBe McMillian said the legislation is “about respect” and asked why it makes sense for North Carolina to deny rights to school bus drivers and police officers that are enjoyed by Greyhound bus drivers and shopping mall security guards.

Rep. Zach Hawkins speaking at today’s press conference (Image courtesy of the NC AFL-CIO)

In wrapping up the event, House bill sponsor Rep. Zach Hawkins (D-Durham) read from a long list of local government leaders who have endorsed the repeal and noted that collective bargaining in other states has resulted in 10-13% better pay for public employees and helped narrow the racial and gender pay gaps. He called the proposal a “good-to-great moment” for North Carolina.

It’s, of course, far from the first time that a repeal of G.S. 95-98 has been proposed over the years and bill supporters gave no indication they expect their proposal to become law during 2019 in the GOP-dominated General Assembly. That said, there was a new and notable level of optimism and enthusiasm at today’s event — a shift that Nickel attributed in part to a change he said is gradually overtaking North Carolina politics. Nickel noted that the attitudes of younger North Carolinians differ significantly from their parents and grandparents on the question of unions and labor organizing and that he, at age 43, and Hawkins (39) represent a slow, but undeniable generational shift at the General Assembly.

Both lawmakers, who were newly elected last November, indicated that they hope and intend to be around the General Assembly and to keep advancing the repeal proposal for as long as it takes to get it through.

Commentary, News

CNN story: What in the heck was Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC thinking?

In case you missed it, reporter Wayne Drash of CNN had a powerful and disturbing story yesterday about Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) and the mad vagaries of America’s private health insurance regime.

In “Insurer sent $33,000 to a man struggling with addiction. He used the cash to go on a binge — and died,” Drash tells the tragic story of an North Carolina man named Joseph Hockett II. According to the story, Hockett was a troubled 29 year old who had long struggled with addiction issues, but who had gotten enrolled in health insurance with his mother’s help in order to comply with the mandate of the Affordable Care Act.

Sometime after obtaining coverage, Hockett was attacked in a violent bar fight and incurred several thousand dollars in out-of-network emergency care medical bills. Rather, however, than paying the provider directly, BCBSNC sent a huge check to Hockett in the amount of $33,399.76. Hockett then used the cash — much more than he made in a year as a DJ in bars and strip clubs — to go on a bender which resulted in death by overdose from cocaine and heroin. This is from the story:

[Hockett’s mother, Jennifer] Alba reached out to CNN after reading a recent story detailing how Anthem and its Blue Cross entities send checks to patients for out-of-network care instead of reimbursing the providers directly.
Another woman told CNN that a family member received a check for more than $240,000 after out-of-network surgery. The practice has forced some providers to sue patients to recover the money.
Critics say it’s a tactic insurers use to pressure providers into joining their networks and accepting lower payments — one that puts patients in the middle of the fight by sending money straight to them.
The insurance industry says the policy is designed to protect patients from surprise bills and exorbitant charges from out-of-network doctors and hospitals.

All told, BCBSNC sent Hockett more than $56,000 according to Alba. She says this took place even though the insurer knew her son had an addiction problem.

A BCBSNC spokesman told CNN that the insurer only sends cash to the insured when it can’t negotiate an agreed upon payment with the health provider, but Cody Hand of the N.C. Healthcare Association (a hospital trade group) disputed that claim. Hand told CNN that “Blue Cross is using the patients as a bargaining chip.”

Whichever explanation of the BCBSNC payments to Hockett is truly accurate means little in the real world, of course. Jennifer Alba’s son was caught in the middle of a battle between an insurer and a healthcare provider and is dead because of the payments — cash she told CNN was “dirty money.” What’s more, it’s clear that Hockett is far from the only person to find himself in such terrible situation.

The bottom line: It’s hard to see the Hockett tragedy as anything other than yet another powerful indictment of what is — even for “nonprofits” like BCBSNC — an utterly absurd health care system that continues to value profits and massive salaries for physicians and insurance company execs over the lives of people. If you doubt this, spend a little time today contemplating how you could possibly make sense of the Hockett tragedy to the resident of a modern nation with universal health care like Canada, Germany or Australia.

Commentary

Conflict over Asheville civic center: Another reminder that government shouldn’t promote gambling

In an era in which they’re joined at the hip to a chronically dishonest and bigoted casino owner, it’s hard to know where religious conservatives stand these days on the issues that do not involve sex and/or trying to tell other people who to love or what to do with their own bodies. That said, the city of Asheville is currently in the midst of a controversy that used to bring the religious right together with progressives: government promotion of gambling.

It seems the city is considering naming rights offers from various private parties for the town civic enter and a leading bid comes from a gambling interest, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which is located on Native American land in far western North Carolina.

Of course, the practice of affixing the names of private businesses to public spaces like arenas and stadiums ought to be a controversial idea regardless of who or what is buying the rights. Public property belongs (or should belong) to all who inhabit a community and the practice of selling naming rights to private actors clearly undermines that notion and reinforces the destructive and increasingly prevalent view that government is an institution to which we should relate as we would a vending machine, rather than as stakeholders.

As a practical matter, however, objections to naming rights sales have been mostly sporadic and a function of whether the would be naming entity has a pleasant ring to it. In general, government leaders have tended to favor sterile, ultra-corporate sounding labels of the kind that come from banks or tech companies.

Occasionally, issues of morality creep into the discussion (Raleigh opted not to christen its new downtown music venue the “Bud Light Amphitheater” a few years back, though some attributed that to city leaders not wanting it to be known as the “BLA” rather than any real concerns about promoting alcohol consumption). For the most part, however, name rejections have been based more on whether proposals would sound corny, provincial or unpleasant, rather than morality. Hence, Bank of America Stadium and Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts: “yes”; Piggly Wiggly Field or Preparation H Arena: “probably no.”

Regardless of any past derelictions of duty, the debate in Asheville over renaming what has been known as the U.S. Cellular Center ought to raise the issue of morality for caring and thinking people of all political persuasions. This is not because some view gambling as immoral — that’s clearly an issue that America resolved long ago to leave to individuals. The issue here is government’s role in promoting it.

As national predatory gambling expert Les Bernal pointed out about the “education lottery” several years ago when he visited North Carolina, public involvement in promoting gambling makes government an accessory to a scam and a lie, even if it is an entertaining. Read more

News

Breaking: Cooper vetoes abortion bill

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 359 this morning — the proposal outlined in the post immediately below. Here is the statement issued by his office:

Today, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the following bill: 

•    Senate Bill 359: “AN ACT ESTABLISHING THE BORN-ALIVE ABORTION SURVIVORS PROTECTION ACT.” 

Gov. Cooper shared the following statement on his veto of Senate Bill 359:

“Laws already protect newborn babies and this bill is an unnecessary interference between doctors and their patients. This needless legislation would criminalize doctors and other healthcare providers for a practice that simply does not exist.”