Commentary

Editorial blasts Berger and Moore over cynical response to prison tragedy

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the lead editorial in today’s Charlotte Observer“Phil Berger and Tim Moore play politics in the face of tragedy.” In it, the authors rightfully blast the two legislative leaders for their convoluted attempt to deflect blame that ought rightfully to be directed their way for the recent tragic murder of a prison guard. According to Berger and Moore, it’s not the horrific conditions and pathetic underfunding that plague our prison system that are at the heart of the problem; it’s the general demise of the death penalty (and the supposed failure of Governor Cooper and Attorney General Stein to aggressively push for its reinstatement) that are to blame. Here’s the conclusion to the Observer editorial:

“North Carolina’s de facto death penalty moratorium – which is in place for reasons far beyond Cooper and Stein – has little to do with the deaths of the four prison employees at Pasquotank Correctional Institution or that of officer Meggan Callahan at Bertie Correctional Institution.

The real problem, as multiple experts have explained to Observer reporters Ames Alexander and Gavin Off, is skeletal staffing, numerous vacancies and minimal training for officers who are put in dangerous situations. Low pay exacerbates the state’s inability to attract people to the job.

Justin Smith was the only correctional officer in a sewing plant at the Pasquotank prison watching more than 30 inmates who had access to scissors and other potential weapons when an escape attempt began. In Bertie, Callahan had half the number of staffers under her as she was supposed to have when an inmate beat her to death with a fire extinguisher. About a quarter to a fifth of positions have been vacant at those prisons.

A national study of prison management by Duke University released last week urges North Carolina to increase hiring, in part through referral and signing bonuses. It also found that North Carolina needs to beef up its officer training, which is shorter than that of most other states Duke reviewed. It also cited the state’s low pay for prison officers, which is about $8,000 below the national average at maximum security prisons despite recent raises.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents Pasquotank County, is wisely pushing for these kinds of solutions and others.

Those are the kinds of reforms that the state’s prisons and its vulnerable officers need. What it doesn’t need are the legislature’s so-called leaders trying to score political points amid tragedies.”

Commentary

The best op-ed of the weekend

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the essay that ran in Saturday’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer by Andrew Stettner of the Century Foundation highlighting North Carolina’s unemployment insurance system that was gutted by conservatives in response to the Great Recession. Here are some excerpts from “NC should restore unemployment cuts”:

“A report this week by The Century Foundation, a national public policy think tank, details how North Carolina has one of the least generous and most restrictive unemployment insurance programs of any state in the U.S., despite a dramatic turnaround in the state’s unemployment trust fund, which has gone from more than $2.5 billion in debt to a $3 billion surplus.

North Carolina has kept in place its 12-week limit on receiving assistance – currently the lowest in the country. The maximum benefit amount has remained frozen, too. As a result, only one in 10 jobless workers in North Carolina receive an unemployment payment in 2017, the third-lowest in the country. That’s down from 43 percent in 2009.

Employers, on the other hand, are benefiting greatly from the turnaround. According to the Century Foundation report, business owners paid only 0.42 percent in unemployment taxes in 2017, down from the 1-plus percent rate they paid in 2012. That amounts to an average savings of $282 per employee. What’s more, North Carolina businesses are expected to enjoy a second-straight 0.5 percent reduction in unemployment taxes in 2018.

In other words, employers are benefiting from a recovered unemployment trust fund and growing economy. For workers, however, it still feels like 2013.

North Carolina has a responsibility to fix this imbalance, take a fresh look at the system, and restore unemployment benefits to their pre-recession levels. The money is there to do so: North Carolina is one of 29 states that now meets the Department of Labor’s standards for having enough money in the trust fund to withstand the next recession. By federal standards, the state now has nearly five times as much in reserves than it had in 2007….

Before the recession, someone who was laid off because their company closed or department downsized could count on up to six months of help with keeping their family fed and rent paid. In turn, those people continued to participate in the economy, doing their part to pay taxes and support local businesses. Since the 2013 rollback in benefits, however, these North Carolinians have been less capable of supporting their family, in turn giving less back into the economy as a whole.

This holiday season, even though the economy is growing, many of us will think of friends, family members or neighbors who recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Consider the 100 workers at Avery Dennison in Greensboro, whose jobs making labels were outsourced overseas this September.

It’s a story repeated in communities across the state, especially rural ones, who are not enjoying the full fruit of the current economic expansion. It is our obligation to fulfill the government’s promise to support these workers as they find their next job, especially when we have the means to do it.

Right now, we can and must offer greater support for the unemployed. The North Carolina legislature should act to restore these benefits, strengthen the economy and guard against the next downturn.”

Commentary

Burr and Tillis wage class warfare on behalf of the 1%

Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Thom Tillis

If you’re looking for the most accurate summation of the GOP tax legislation working its way through Congress and the scandalous actions of North Carolina’s two U.S. senators in aiding and abetting the massive rip-off that’s being perpetrated on average Americans, be sure to read Professor Gene Nichol’s scathing op-ed in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer.

Here are some excerpts from “N.C. Senators vote to ignore the poor, serve the rich”:

“Richard Burr and Tom Tillis voted enthusiastically last week for the Senate tax bill. No hesitation on the home front. The North Carolina boys are all in for the McConnell-Trump knavery.

Burr and Tillis know, or should, the following. The United States is the wealthiest country on earth. It also has higher poverty, and especially, child poverty rates than any other advanced nation. It has the advanced world’s greatest income inequality – the largest gaps between rich and poor. It has among the worst economic mobility rates – if you’re born poor here, you are more apt to stay that way than in other major countries. Our radical economic polarization continues to rise annually. We are the richest, the poorest and the most unequal nation in the world. And North Carolina is worse, on all these measures, than the nation as a whole.

So what is the Tillis-Burr remedy? They voted to borrow over a trillion dollars to create the largest tax cut in history – calling it a cut – but, a la North Carolina, it will raise taxes for the bottom half to give gigantic cuts to the richest corporations and the one-percenters. The bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that, on average, taxpayers earning $75,000 or less will end up paying more in taxes. The bottom 80 percent will enjoy a cut of 0.3 percent, one-third of a percent. The top 1 percent will get about 20 times that. Thirteen million will lose their health care….

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published a huge study two years ago, based on data collected between 1981 and 2002. It concluded: ‘America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened … the preferences of the average (citizen) appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.’ All that matters, they determined, are the dictates of the donor class. The two professors could have short-circuited the massive project and just interviewed Burr and Tillis.

This is not a mistake. It is not a policy error or miscalculation. It is a crime. It is a middle-class-crushing penalty, not a boon. And for many poor people, poised to lose health care, it is a potential death warrant.

Burr and Tillis announce – if millions are in poverty, well, tough. If the poorest are required to pay more and left again in the shadows without medical treatment, we’re unmoved. Our paymasters have spoken. We are their lapdogs. For us, those at the bottom don’t actually exist. All that matters is the money.”

Click here to read the entire essay.

Commentary

Property rights crusaders nowhere to be found in Atlantic Coast Pipeline controversy

Image: Adobe Stock

That faint echo you hear of of crickets chirping is the sound emanating from the offices of North Carolina’s conservative think tanks on the subject of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The ACP is one of the most important environmental and economic development stories in North Carolina right now and has been for some time.

Energy companies and economic development interests are pushing hard for the pipeline and have even gone so far in recent months as to flood the radio airwaves with ads promoting the possible arrival of the pipeline as a giant economic boon to the eastern part of the state. Meanwhile, many environmental and community-based activists have been pushing just as hard against the pipeline based on their deep concerns about what it will do to our air, water, land and vulnerable species.

Interestingly, one other major issue related to the ACP that one would think would be right up the alley of groups like the John Locke Foundation, the Civitas Institute and American for Prosperity is that of property rights. As Lisa Sorg of Policy Watch reported yesterday, pipeline owners have taken the extraordinary action of bringing federal lawsuits against property owners in the path of the pipeline in an effort to get them to surrender control of their land ASAP. The companies are even trying to make use of the legal tool of “quick take” — a tactic that allows the pipeline owners to gain control of the property even before they’ve paid the owners.

For years, the conservative groups listed above have railed against the use of “eminent domain” — a procedure whereby government can “condemn” private property and convert it to public use. This position comports with the view so long espoused by these groups that property rights are close to sacrosanct — even when retention by a private owner may impede a project designed for the common good.

Interestingly, however, this deep-seated position has suddenly gone missing in action of late when it comes to the ACP. A search of the websites of Locke, Civitas and AFP not only turns up no mention of concerns about property seizures by pipeline owners, it turns up nary a mention of the pipeline at all.

How can this be? How could longtime, passionate defenders of property rights not even notice that a giant organization is gobbling up the land of small property owners against their will?

One possible explanation that leaps to mind, of course, is that the ACP is about transporting natural gas — a fossil fuel of the kind produced by Koch Industries and other businesses from whom the right-wing groups have long enjoyed financial backing. Another is simply that the conservative groups love fossil fuels and anything associate with them. Judging by the relentless attacks these groups tend to voice against renewable and sustainable energy, this also seems a reasonable conclusion.

Whatever the explanation, it would be nice of the right-wing groups would at least proffer some kind of plausible explanation that passes the laugh test. We’ll be listening.

Commentary

U.S. House passes first major gun bill since Las Vegas…and it makes things worse

Rep. Richard Hudson

You’ve got to hand it to the Trumpists running the U.S. government; just about every time you think they’ve hit rock bottom, they pull out their shovels and start digging the national hole a little deeper. As Rebekah Entralgo of Think Progress reports, the latest outrage involves guns.

In the first major legislation to move forward since the horrific Las Vegas tragedy, the NRA and their paid employees in the U.S. House have approved a bill (the “Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act”) that was first put forth by North Carolina’s Richard Hudson and that would force every state in the union to abide by the laws of the states with the lowest level of regulation of concealed weapons. This is from Entralgo’s story:

The bill, called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, would effectively allow residents from states with looser restrictions on concealed weapons to circumvent states with tighter gun laws. For example, a resident of Mississippi, where it is legal to carry a concealed gun without a permit, would be able to bring their firearms into a state like New York or Massachusetts, where residents are required by law to demonstrate a need for self-protection in order to carry without a permit.

In response to Wednesday’s vote, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt by a gunman in 2012, released a statement, saying,

“Congress has failed the American people. After two of our nation’s worst mass shootings, Congress took direct instruction from the gun lobby and passed a bill that will override existing state laws and allow dangerous, untrained people to carry guns in every state and every city. Let’s be clear: These politicians are trading our safety for political contributions from the gun lobby. Studies show states with weaker concealed carry laws let people with violent criminal histories carry guns in public, and as a result those states have more violent crime and murder. If you live in a safe community now, this legislation undermines law enforcement and shreds the laws that protect you.”

In her statement, Giffords cited research out of Stanford University that found state right-to-carry legislation is linked to an increase in violent crime.

In addition to being the first major piece of gun legislation passed after two mass shootings, the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act is also the the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) first big win during the Trump presidency. The NRA, which spent roughly $50 million last year to help elect President Trump, has called the reciprocity legislation its “highest legislative priority in Congress.”

The House victory also comes as Americans nationwide begin calling for increased gun control. Gallup polling from October and November found that at least 60 percent of Americans support tighter gun laws.

There is some hope that the bill will fail to muster the 60 votes it will need to pass the Senate. Stay tuned. For more information check out the website of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence at www.ncgv.org.