Commentary

Mark Johnson’s budget advisor played part in funding issue he’s now criticizing while part of the McCrory administration

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

In case you missed it this morning, be sure to check out Education Reporter Billy Ball’s fascinating story over on the main Policy Watch site (“Mark Johnson accused of misleading the public regarding literacy program spending”). The story highlights the latest bit of maddening behavior from the state’s perpetually befuddled Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson.

As Ball reports, people in the know (like former superintendent June Atkinson and DPI’s former longtime finance chief Philip Price) are setting the record straight with respect to some of Johnson’s most recent bogus claims about state education spending. In particular, as both Atkinson and Price point out, Johnson is just plain wrong in one of his recent attempts to blast Atkinson’s administration for “disturbing spending practices.”

Indeed (and here’s the real kicker), the subject of Johnson’s unfounded griping — that DPI had supposedly screwed up distributing $15 million is “Read to Achieve” funds — was actually the handiwork (at least in part) of his (Johnson’s) current senior budget advisor, Chloe Gossage.

As Ball explains, Johnson has attacked his predecessors for failing to spend the Read to Achieve funds, but the fact of the matter is that one of the reasons for the decision not to expend all the money was a directive from then-Governor McCrory’s Office of State Budget and Management.  This is from Ball’s story:

“Johnson’s own chief budget advisor, Chloe Gossage, played a part in that fracas. When officials with the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) intervened in October 2015, Gossage—the former policy director for ex-Gov. Pat McCrory—was the OSBM’s chief operating officer.

And an October 2015 email obtained by Policy Watch appears to indicate that Gossage was in consultation with OSBM’s assistant state budget officer for education, Adam Brueggemann, on DPI’s Read to Achieve budget wrangling.

But, despite Gossage’s involvement, Johnson’s office didn’t offer any further context last month on their criticism of DPI’s spending habits. Now, Atkinson suggests Johnson is using the controversy to fuel long-standing Republican criticism of DPI’s funding priorities.”

You got that? Johnson is trying to make political hay by attacking his predecessor for something his budget advisor was, at least in part, responsible for. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Unfortunately, when it come to Superintendent Johnson, the sad reality is that crazy, made up stuff is an almost daily occurrence.

Commentary

Yet another dire warning about the GOP’s effort to rig the state courts

A Greensboro News & Record editorial tells it like it is with respect to the ongoing effort of legislative Republicans to remake and rig the state courts.

The editorial comes in response to a public event that took place in the Gate City last week with the help of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. After spelling out the long list of dramatic changes on the courts imposed in recent years (including making all judicial races partisan, ending public financing, gerrymandering districts, shrinking the Court of Appeals to prevent Governor Cooper from appointing new judges and, more recently, considering constitutional amendments to impose much more radical changes), the editorial (“Court meddling demands scrutiny”) concludes this way:

“The public should never be hit by so many significant changes at once — especially changes motivated by partisan politics.

Fortunately, people who seemed unaware of recent actions are starting to pay attention. A meeting sponsored by several advocacy groups last week drew 175 people to Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel. It was the second of a dozen forums planned for cities across the state.

The discussion was moderated by Elon Law professor David Levine, but only Democratic legislators attended. Republican Rep. Jon Hardister at least sent a statement, although his claim that court changes are not driven by partisan politics isn’t believable. When one of the first moves is to put party labels on court elections, it’s a partisan exercise.

At the District Court level, the introduction of gerrymandering is clearly calculated to help Republicans win judicial seats — for all that matters. Divorces, child support, traffic violations and small-dollar civil suits have nothing to do with partisan politics. But splitting the Guilford County electorate will deny voters the opportunity to choose most of the local judges they will face if they have to go to court.

The Court of Appeals was reduced in size only after Democrat Roy Cooper was elected as governor. The move prevents him from appointing replacements when judges reach the mandatory retirement age.

The worst possible change would be to cut short all judicial terms. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges are granted eight-year terms so that they aren’t constantly pushed and pulled by the politics of the moment. In the federal system, judges serve lifetime terms for that reason. That’s how important the founders believed it was to insulate them from politics. Serving only two years between elections, judges would have to raise money and campaign virtually all the time. The idea is absurd.

Why might this happen? In 2016, Democrats gained a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court. This legislative scheme would nullify that election and throw the entire court up for grabs in 2018. The public should reject political shenanigans in the judicial branch of government.”

Commentary

Condemnations of mental health execs, board continue to pour in

As today’s Weekly Briefing highlights, public officials are frequently playing with fire when they attempt to use “market forces” (mots notably, greed) as a tool in the delivery of core public structures and services. The recent flame out of the state’s largest mental health provider (Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions) offers more convincing proof of this proposition.

As today’s lead editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal (“A shameful severance”) explains, the money Cardinal attempted to bestow on its execs in a lousy imitation of life in corporate America in the age of Trump could have gone a long way toward actually helping people in need:

“The Journal’s Richard Craver reported: ‘Legislators, state health officials and health-care advocates have pointed to the $3.8 million in paid severance to four executives of Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions as a worrisome sign of exorbitant spending and private-sector greed overcoming the managed-care organization’s public-health mission. But what would $3.8 million pay for in terms of additional behavioral-health services within Cardinal’s 20-county network? The network includes Alamance, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Rockingham and Stokes counties.

‘The Winston-Salem Journal asked a provider of mental-health and substance-abuse services in the Triad and statewide to offer estimates for seven main categories. Here’s what it could mean: As many as 26,000 initial evaluations at an average rate of $145, or 43,000 individual therapy sessions at an average rate of $88, or 12,649 bed days at a facility-based crisis center. The provider agreed to offer the estimates as long as it was not identified out of concern about being perceived as taking a side in the intense political and regulatory dispute. The provider also stressed the caveat that the state’s seven behavioral-health managed-care organizations, MCOs, may or may not be allowed by the state to use administrative money for recipient services.’

Understood. But by any reasonable measure, the packages going to former Executive Director Richard Topping and the others are far too much. The DHHS told the Journal that administrative funds can be used for consumer services but typically aren’t. Much of the money that went to severance packages could have gone to vulnerable patients in the Cardinal network, the state’s largest managed-care organization for behavioral health.

Thank goodness the state has temporarily taken over this organization. It may be too late to pull back the severance packages, but we look forward to the DHHS and county commissions choosing a new Cardinal board that will finally use public dollars well to serve our most vulnerable.”

Commentary

The nation (unfortunately) follows North Carolina’s lead in slashing taxes and services

If you haven’t seen it already, an article in the business section of yesterday’s Washington Post (“What happened when North Carolina cut taxes like the GOP plans to for the country”) is worth your time if you get a few minutes.

The article includes comments from various conservative voices endorsing the tax cuts, but the conclusion of the article really gets to the heart of the matter:

While North Carolina’s economy has chugged along, signs of strain on state spending have increased. The state budget has not kept pace with a growing population, said Alexandra Sirota, director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, a left-leaning nonprofit.

“Pretty soon, we’re not going to have enough money,” Sirota said.

The state legislature’s Fiscal Research Division agrees. It projects budget shortfalls of at least $1.2?billion starting in 2019.

The squeeze has already hit public schools.

In North Carolina, the state government provides the bulk of public education funding. And while the overall contribution is up, per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, is down. Plus, there are about 10,000 fewer public school teachers in the state, despite growing enrollment, said Mark Jewell of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

The school system serving Burlington is struggling, said Alamance-Burlington Schools superintendent Bill Harrison.

Anyone claiming schools are better off after the tax cuts is “using smoke and mirrors,” Harrison said.

Harrison rattled off a string of numbers to make his point. Funding for school supplies has dropped 20?percent, he said. His schools get 33?percent less money for textbooks now than a decade ago.

“I heard it every year: Why doesn’t my child have a textbook?” Harrison said.

[T-shirt factory owner Eric] Henry’s wife, Lisa, taught preschool for children with disabilities for almost three decades. She retired in 2015 after watching several years in which state lawmakers made cuts to public schools, including by underfunding teacher pay raises.

“It just felt like a huge slap in the face,” Lisa Henry said.

As the sun started to set, Henry drove back to his company. Just a few employees were still around. None of them said they’d noticed the state tax cuts.

“Other than the roads not getting taken care of,” said Eric Michel, 33, chief logistics officer.

And no one in the office has gotten a big pay raise since the tax cut, either.

Henry hoped that if the company kept growing, that the orders kept coming in, he could afford to pay his workers more.

“But the seeds for that were planted long ago,” he said.

Commentary

Supreme Court expert: The fatal flaw in the Trump administration’s argument in LGBT wedding cake case

U.S. Supreme Court expert Ian Millhiser has a fascinating post this morning at Think Progress. His conclusion: Trump administration lawyers may be inadvertently undermining their own arguments in this week’s big case out of Coloradoin which the Court will decide whether it’s okay to discriminate in the provision of public accommodations to LGBT customers.

Here’s Millhiser:

Nearly half-a-century ago, in a case called Newman v. Piggie Park, a racist restaurant owner claimed he could refuse to serve black customers because a ban on such discrimination “contravenes the will of God.” In a unanimous opinion, the justices treated this claim as little more than a bad joke. In a footnote, Piggie Park labeled the argument that a religious objection could overcome federal law’s ban on discrimination as “so patently frivolous that a denial of counsel fees to the petitioners would be manifestly inequitable.”

Masterpiece Cakeshop presents this same issue to the Supreme Court once again, this time with a gay couple playing the role of the disfavored minority. It also presents a closely related issue: whether a baker can refuse to serve a same-sex couple if he claims that serving them would violate his free speech rights.

As the lawyers for Jack Phillips, the baker at the heart of this case, claim in their brief, Phillips’ “custom cakes necessarily express ideas about marriage and the couple” and “declare an opinion…that the couple’s wedding ‘should be celebrated.’” So a law requiring Phillips not to discriminate against same-sex couples, the baker’s lawyers claim, would effectively force him to express a message that he does not agree with — that a union between two men or two women is worthy of celebration.

One danger inherent in Phillips’ argument, even if you agree that he personally should be allowed to defy anti-discrimination law, is that a victory for this one business owner could enable many others to engage in illegal discrimination. Read more