Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend

There have been a lot of editorials lamenting the poor environmental protection enforcement that allowed the GenX chemical disaster to hit southeastern North Carolina, but this Sunday’s Fayetteville Observer really hit the nail on the head with its assessment of why and how lax North Carolina law is at fault. Simply put, the editorial blasts what is, in effect, North Carolina’s “innocent till proven guilty” approach to pollutants.

After acknowledging strong recent actions and the fact that accidents are always going to be a problem, the editorial (“The way we regulate water quality needs rethinking”) concludes this way:

“The problem is that this and most other states follow a backwards process in regulating what goes into our waterways — and thus into our municipal water systems. We allow businesses and industries to pour their wastes into rivers and streams and only limit those chemicals that are on a comparatively short list of proven poisons. But our rivers and streams — and the people who drink the water that comes from them — aren’t in a court of law where suspects are innocent until proven guilty. That principle shouldn’t apply to industrial chemicals. Rather, companies shouldn’t be allowed to discharge chemicals into waterways until they can prove that the chemicals are harmless, at least when they are sufficiently diluted.

We have substantial doubts about the safety of GenX, and yet Chemours and DuPont were allowed to discharge it because it wasn’t on a list of dangerous chemicals. Nor is the chemical that preceded GenX in the Teflon manufacturing process, C8. But C8 has been more extensively tested. Like GenX, it has been linked to cancers in animals and some researchers say it is likely that it can cause cancer in humans as well. But despite those findings, federal and state regulators have only begun to consider reasonable limits for those chemicals in our water supply.

After the GenX problem erupted into public view last summer, the state required Chemours to find alternative disposal methods for the chemical and banned its outfall into the river. That should be state policy with all chemicals whose effects are unknown, especially those from chemical families like those that produce C8 and GenX.

When the General Assembly returns to Raleigh in January, it’s urgent that its leaders create a commission that not only looks into the GenX problem, but also takes a deeper look at the way the state regulates — or more often fails to regulate — what industries are dumping into our water supply. This is a question that affects the health and safety of every North Carolina resident, and it can’t be allowed to become a political football.”

Commentary, News

BREAKING: New analysis shows GOP tax plan would be “devastating” to North Carolina nonprofits

This is usually the time of year during which conservative politicians undertake a hypocritical pivot from their ideological crusade against all things public and pay a smidgen of lip service  to the notion of helping out nonprofits who help people in need. You know how this goes: Day One though Nine – vote to slash Food Stamps and public assistance; Day Ten – appear at a press conference touting local food banks and rescue missions that struggle to feed the hungry.

This year, it appears the annual about-face will require an even higher degree of gymnastic skill. New analysis released today by the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits shows that the GOP tax bills making their way through Congress would prove hugely detrimental to charitable giving and “devastating” to the same nonprofit service agencies that conservative lawmakers will be touting next week. This is from a release distributed by the Center today:

Analysis Shows Negative Effects of Tax Reform Bills for the Work of North Carolina’s Nonprofits

RALEIGH – A new analysis of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act indicates that several provisions of the congressional tax reform plans would make it harder for charitable nonprofits throughout North Carolina to provide critical services in their communities.

The analysis from the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits highlights the key nonprofit provisions in the tax reform bills that were approved yesterday by the full U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. Among the concerns highlighted are:

  1. The changes to the individual income tax structure (House and Senate bills) would reduce charitable giving by between $12 billion and $20 billion every year;
  2. The potential to inject partisan politics into the work of 501(c)(3) organizations (House bill) would damage the public’s trust in churches, nonprofits, and foundations;
  3. The elimination of a key financing option for private nonprofits (House bill) would make it harder for many nonprofits to expand their operations; and
  4. The imposition of new taxes on some tax-exempt organizations to pay for tax cuts (House and Senate bills) would take resources away from nonprofits’ work in communities across the state.

These and other challenges are outlined in the Center’s comparison of nonprofit provisions in the House and Senate tax plans.

“The tax reform proposals, as currently written in both the House and Senate, would be devastating for nonprofits throughout North Carolina and to the communities they serve,” said David Heinen, Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits. “Both proposals would lead to a sharp reduction in charitable giving because only about five percent of North Carolinians would be eligible for the charitable deduction. Furthermore, the weakening of the Johnson Amendment in the House bill could destroy the public’s trust in nonprofits’ work if 501(c)(3) nonprofits are allowed to become known as Democratic charities and Republican charities rather than the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are today.”

Commentary

Busting Tim Moore’s myths about public schools

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

Be sure to check out the lead editorial on WRAL.com this morning, in which North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore is taken to task for his mythologizing about public education in a recent opinion column.

In Moore’s column, he makes the following claims in the second sentence:

“Changes already in effect include four consecutive teacher pay raises, an improved approach to state education funding, a successful Read to Achieve literacy program and expanded school choice for low-income families.”

Now here’s the editorial (“Speaker Moore’s boasting about education doesn’t add up”) in response:

“Let’s start with four contentions in the second sentence of his column:

  • ‘Four consecutive teacher pay raises.’ FACT: Teacher pay has increased for those with the least experience while it has stagnated or been cut for those with more experience. Additionally, pay cuts for longevity and advanced degrees coupled with increased costs of benefits drive out the best and most experienced in our classrooms.  North Carolina average teacher pay remains $9,000 behind the national average.
  • ‘Improved approach to state education funding.’ FACT: Education funding in North Carolina is in an unresolved crisis of the legislature’s making. An unfunded demand to cut class size continues to leave local school systems in budget-planning chaos that threatens art, music, language arts and physical-ed instruction in our schools.
  • ‘Successful ‘Read to Achieve’ literacy program.’ FACT: Surveys of North Carolina teachers indicate barely a quarter say the program has had a positive impact and 40 percent say it’s been negative.
  • ‘Expanded school choice for low-income families.’ FACT: The lack of demonstrable educational achievement, accountability and transparency in the “opportunity scholarship” private school voucher program is an irresistible invitation to fraud, waste, abuse and corruption. There are already signals of that a plenty. Look at what’s happening at the Fayetteville private school that is the single-greatest recipient of voucher funds. Its basketball coach pleaded guilty to embezzling hundreds of thousands of state tax withholding dollars.

Now, that’s just Speaker Moore’s second sentence.

Moore shouldn’t claim advances in education when, in too many cases, the reality is that it’s been two steps backward followed by a single step forward. That means we’re still behind.”

After detailing several statistics demonstrating the lackluster support conservative lawmakers have provided to public education, the editorial closes this way:

“The reality is that Moore and his ideological soulmates in the General Assembly are more intent on cutting taxes for big corporations and the wealthy than providing the needed funding for properly paid teachers and quality public schools.

When it comes to doing more for education in North Carolina, Moore’s boasting is no more than school-yard trash talk. All platitudes, with little to back it up.”

Exactly.

Commentary, News

Must read: Did Trump’s federal court nominee for NC lie to the Senate?

Thomas Farr

Be sure to check out a story in Durham’s Indy Week by reporters Tommy Goldsmith and Erica Hellerstein about Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr — Donald Trump’s controversial nominee to fill the decade-old vacancy on the federal district court in North Carolina’s Eastern District.

This is from the story “Did Former Helms Lawyer Thomas Farr Lie to the Senate Judiciary Committee? It Sure Looks That Way.”:

Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr, a nominee for a federal judgeship, knew well in advance about a controversial 1990 postcard campaign designed by Republicans to intimidate blacks who wanted to vote, according to a former Department of Justice investigator.

The statements made this week by Gerald Hebert, a federal attorney in 1990, directly contradict Farr’s sworn testimony in September before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that he only heard about it after a Justice Department letter responding to the plan….

Hebert told the INDY Wednesday that he learned about the role Farr played planning the postcards when responding to complaints to the Justice Department about the 1990 senatorial campaign of the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.

A meeting planning “ballot security” efforts—including the intimidating postcards—included Farr and took place in mid-October before the November election between Helms, who won, and then-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, Hebert says, referring to contemporaneous handwritten notes.

“We talked to Farr, and he confirmed a lot of what we’d heard,” Hebert told the INDY Wednesday. “I don’t think he can really claim that the first he heard of it from a Justice Department letter.”

Yet that’s exactly what he did.

The Justice Department eventually charged the state Republican Party and the Helms campaign, for which Farr was lead counsel, with violating African-American voters’ rights by sending more than one hundred thousand postcards, mostly to black neighborhoods, suggesting that recipients were ineligible to vote and could be prosecuted if they tried.

“He was certainly involved in the scheme as it was being developed,” Hebert told this reporter for a 2009 News & Observer story….

Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, an association of public interest and civil rights organizations formed in 1979, says Hebert’s account of Farr’s early involvement makes sense given what she called Farr’s long record of voter suppression efforts.

“There’s certainly a clear discrepancy between what Mr. Farr testified to under oath to the committee and what has and will be reported about his activities with Helms regarding voter suppression,” Aron says. “A key qualification for a judge is impeccable honesty. This raises a whole slew of questions.”

Though Farr was approved in a narrow and partisan 11-9 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, his nomination has yet to be taken up by the full Senate. Click here to read the rest of this damning story.

Commentary

A life condemned: Remembering my client who died on death row

[Cross-posted from the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.]

By Elizabeth Hambourger

I’m a capital defense lawyer. At any given time, I represent a dozen or more men and women who are either on death row or charged with first-degree murder. Death is an inescapable part of my work, but that’s been true this year more than most. In January, my client Ricky “Coolie” Gray was executed in Virginia. And although North Carolina has not executed anyone in over a decade, those confined to our death row are beginning to die of old age and sickness. In October, my client Terry Ball died of natural causes at Central Prison. Much has been written about Coolie’s life. Terry, by contrast, slipped away with barely a mention after living on death row for almost 25 years. I believe his life is worth remembering, and that his story, like all my clients’ stories, hold keys to understanding the origins of crime and our shared humanity with people labeled the worst of the worst.

Terry grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. His parents lost their first-born child in a farming accident, but they did their loving best for Terry and his sister. Terry’s problems seem to have begun at age 10, when he was hit by a car and spent eight weeks in the hospital. The head trauma he suffered permanently changed him. His grades fell and he became defiant with his parents. However, the severity of his brain injury was not fully diagnosed at the time.

Perhaps it was because of this brain damage that Terry made the fateful decision to run away from home at 13. He was in love with a girl named Kim and their parents didn’t approve of the relationship, so Terry and Kim ran off together to Cincinnati. A man named Jerry Wood approached the pair at a bus station and offered them a place to stay. Terry and Kim gratefully accepted, having no idea that Wood was not only a career criminal but a serial rapist of runaway and neglected boys. Wood was at that very moment wanted by police for felony assault.

Elizabeth Hambourger

Wood quickly put Kim on a bus back home but forced Terry to remain with him for the next month, raping him repeatedly, keeping him high on drugs, and forcing him to steal. Eventually Terry managed to escape. But when he returned home, he was treated not as a victim but a delinquent and placed in a juvenile detention center as punishment for running away.

Terry’s parents and the mental health workers at the detention center seemed unable to confront the reality that Terry had been raped. Because of the stigma and misinformation surrounding homosexuality in the 1970s, they accused him of being gay instead of treating him as a victim of sexual assault. One psychiatrist wrote: “When he was away from home, he travelled all over the country with a 32-year-old male. This association raised the question of possible homosexuality; Terry denies this… The parents… at the present time appear to be concerned in case the label of homosexual will be applied to Terry.” Terry never received any treatment or even recognition of the trauma he’d been through, and Jerry Wood was never prosecuted for it. Today, Wood is serving a 45-year sentence in Pennsylvania for the rapes of two other children.

Without treatment, Terry turned to drug use, a trick he’d learned from Jerry Wood to dull his pain, shame, and rage. He enlisted, but was discharged from the Navy because of addiction and then committed several violent drug-motivated robberies. He served prison terms for beating a woman with a hammer and slitting a young man’s throat. By some stroke of luck, both victims survived. Read more