Commentary

Two can’t miss events in January

If the impending winter weather leaves you stranded at the computer over the next couple days, here are a pair of outstanding January events to add to your calendar:

William Spriggs

Dr. William Spriggs

Number One is the January 18, NC Policy watch Crucial Conversation luncheon, “What is the true state of the economy and how do we make it work for everyone?

As new administrations take office in Washington and Raleigh, there is much debate about the true state of the national and North Carolina economies. While many regions and population subgroups are experiencing good times, large segments of our state and nation continue to fall further and further behind.

Is this a permanent state of affairs or is there real hope for building on the progress of the past eight years and addressing this divide? What are the specific issues to which average citizens should be paying attention as they seek to follow and participate in this debate?

Please join us as we pose these and other timely questions to a very special guest speaker, Dr. William Spriggs, Chief Economist for the national AFL-CIO. The event will take place Wednesday January 18 at 12:00 noon at the N.C. State McKimmon Center in Raleigh. Click here for more information and to register.

Event Number Two is a very special conference on Saturday January 28 in Chapel Hill entitled “Beyond Gun Violence: A Conference for People of Faith and Conscience about Ending America’s Deadly Epidemic.”

The event, which is being spearheaded by the N.C. Council of Churches and North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, will feature an array of national and state-level heavy hitters, including the Rev. Matthew Crebbin, Senior Minister of the Newtown Congregational Church, Mark Carman, American Coalition for Responsible Gun Ownership and James Atwood, theologian and author of “America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé.” The conference will run from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and take place at the United Church of Chapel Hill, 1321 MLK Blvd. Click here for more information and here to register.

Commentary

Major newspapers agree: GOP education takeover is unconstitutional

Incoming DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Incoming DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

Today’s court hearing on the challenge to the legislative attempt to seize control of the state’s public education system from the state Board of Education and vest it all in the over-matched hands of the state’s woefully inexperienced new Superintendent of Public Instruction has been postponed at the request of the defendants, but there should be no doubt about the ultimate outcome according to the state’s major newspapers. This morning, the editorial page of the Charlotte Observer joined the Greensboro News & Record and Raleigh’s News & Observer (among others) in condemning the scheme.

Here’s the Observer:

“…on public schools, the Constitution is clear: The General Assembly crafts laws involving education policy. The State School Board, not the Superintendent, is in charge of making and administering rules and regulations within those laws.

We hope and expect the courts to strike down most, if not all, of House Bill 17. It would be far from the first time that judges have had to remind Republican lawmakers of the limits of their power.”

And here’s the N&R on Tuesday of this week:

“This [the legislative takeover attempt] provoked a sharp reaction from the man McCrory appointed to chair the board — Bill Cobey, a former Republican congressman and state party chairman. He and a majority of board members voted to go to court.

State Senate leader Phil Berger claimed they didn’t have a case. That’s what he said when McCrory sued, with support from former Govs. Jim Martin and Jim Hunt, to block the creation of regulatory commissions that the governors said intruded into executive authority. The state Supreme Court sided with McCrory, giving him an important victory against legislative overreach. This time, McCrory chose to give in.

Fortunately, Cobey has the fortitude to stand up for executive authority. His board, which is an executive agency, can hardly supervise and administer the schools if it has no say over the hiring of top administrators and the expenditure of funds. The legislature may intend to further restrict Cooper’s power by limiting what his appointees to the board can do, but the constitutional issue is more important. The authors of the document clearly meant for the superintendent to carry out the directives of the board, not to operate independently of it. There’s nothing partisan about that.

The courts should strike down this measure.”

And here’s the N&O:

“GOP lawmakers want to do the following: give Johnson virtually all hiring power, remove the board’s approval of contracts, put administrative officers of charter schools under Johnson. The Republican leadership claims Democrats took away power from the superintendent’s office in the mid-1990s for political reasons and they’re just correcting that. In reality, what GOP chiefs are likely up to is to give power to Johnson, believing he will take orders from them. He is, after all, new to state government and thin on administrative experience.

So State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey, a former GOP congressman, is mad enough to take the issue to court, likely setting up a long legal fight. A Wake Superior Court Judge, Don Stephens, issued a temporary restraining order to block the legislature’s move for now.

This is an important confrontation. The State Board may be political, but it’s not in the thick of the partisan fray, and needs to stay above that in order to engage in reasonable, balanced judgments about the direction of public education.”

All in all, it looks like GOP legislators may be headed for what seems like their umpteenth defeat at the hands of state and federal courts. No wonder they’ve been trying to rig that decision making venue too.

Commentary

Why Burr and Tillis should oppose Trump nominee for Attorney General

Reject Sessions banner

Image: People for the American Way – www.pfaw.org

The American Right’s capacity for rolling back the clock on progress and retrieving hateful ideas and prejudices from the ash heap of history never ceases to amaze. Just when you thought the march of time and human progress had finally put nails in the coffins of any number of of regressive beliefs and practices, up pops the “Heil Trump” crowd, the KKK or, more immediately, the nomination of a possible U.S. Attorney General that all of these hateful creeps must be celebrating.

The person at issue, of course, is Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions — President-elect Donald Trump’s execrable nominee for A.G. For those who may have been shielding themselves from the hateful lunacy of people you might have reasonably dismissed as mere flotsam and jetsam from the racist fringe, you owe it yourself to familiarize yourself  with this very troubled man and his frightening past. In the coming days, Sessions will go before Thom Tillis, Richard Burr and his other colleagues in the U.S. Senate — the same Senate that refused to consider the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland — to consider whether he is qualified to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

In response, an array of civil rights and civil liberties groups have been marshaling a campaign to oppose the nomination. One of the best summaries of the countless problems with the Sessions nomination comes from the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that as a matter of organizational policy doesn’t even take an official position on nominees. The ACLU’s detailed report is entitled “The Confirmation Sessions” and it ought to be required reading for all Americans who care about their country and its Constitution. Here is a brief summary:

More than thirty years ago, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, was in a similar situation as he will be on January 10 when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing. Tapped by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship in 1986, Sessions sat before the very same committee for his previous confirmation hearing. Things did not go well.

Witnesses accused Sessions, then the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Alabama, of repeatedly making racially insensitive and racist remarks. Thomas Figures — a former assistant U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, who worked for Sessions — told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his former boss said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned members smoked pot. Sessions said the comment wasn’t serious. Figures, an African-American man, also alleged that Sessions called him “boy” and told him “to be careful what you say to white folks.” Sessions denied this, too.

But Figures wasn’t alone. Read more

Commentary

Editorial: Hypocritical former DEQ chief should be fired

Donald van der Vaart

Donald van der Vaart

One of this morning’s best editorials comes from Capitol Broadcasting Company/WRAL.com and it concerns the outrageous actions of former state Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Donald van der Vaart. As you may recall from NC Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg’s story from last week, van der Vaart’s actions of late have been quite extraordinary.

After spending more than a year heading DEQ (formerly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and doing pretty much everything in his power to undermine the agency’s mission (including shamelessly standing up for polluting industries against reasonable environmental regulations), van der Vaart capped off his disastrous tenure by — we are not making this up — demoting himself to a protected agency job wherein he would be protected from being replaced by the incoming Cooper administration.

This is from the CBC/WRAL editorial:

“Donald van der Vaart, the self-demoting former N.C. Department of Environmental Quality secretary, is proving that he can dish it out, but can’t take it himself.

While he saw the need two years ago to have people around him in step with his vision and policy goals, he doesn’t feel Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper deserves the same.

Just as he was being informed by Cooper that his services would no longer be needed van der Vaart, who’s been very publicly campaigning for a job in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration, made sure he gave himself a comfortable landing within his own agency. He also made sure he was where he’d be able to subvert and thwart the new administration’s mission.

He and his top deputy, John Evans, demoted themselves into non-political jobs in DEQ’s Air Quality Division. Essentially, they’re attempting to protect themselves from being fired or reassigned at will – which might have happened if they’d stayed in their old Gov. Pat McCrory administration jobs.

The irony is that when van der Vaart became the agency’s secretary in January 2015, he moved with a quick and heavy hand to clear out key people and made room for his choices. Top department officials “stepped down” from their posts – including Assistant Secretary for Environment Mitch Gillespie and Brad Ives, assistant secretary for natural resources.”

And here’s the conclusion:

“It is unfortunate and lacks class. It reveals that van der Vaart is less concerned with the best interests of North Carolina and more with fomenting internal mayhem and looking out for what’s best for him.

If Cooper’s administration leaders can figure out a way to fire van der Vaart, they need to do it. If he wants, let him sue. Send the lawyers’ bill to the General Assembly, where there seems to be no shortage of legal defense funds.”

And if the Cooper people can’t formally get rid of van der Vaart (and Evans), it may be time for a new job reassignment in which both men get dispatched to out-of-the-way corners of the state to monitor air quality or perhaps the runoff from coal ash ponds.

Click here to read the rest of the editorial.

News

BREAKING: Gov. Cooper announces he will expand Medicaid, calls for full repeal of HB2, raising teacher pay to national average

Roy Cooper at Economic Forecast forum

Gov. Roy Cooper addressing this morning’s Economic Forecast forum

In a startlingly decisive step that took place on just the fourth day of his term in office, Governor Roy Cooper announced this morning that he will take immediate action to expand Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured North Carolinians under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. Cooper’s action, which has long been sought by health care advocates and important sectors in the health care industry, would make North Carolina the 33rd state (including the District of Columbia) to adopt Medicaid expansion. Click here to see the current list.

Cooper’s action seems certain to spur howls of protest from Republican lawmakers and conservative advocacy groups that have long derided Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act (aka”Obamacare”) as “socialized medicine.” Four years ago, at the outset of the administration of Cooper’s predecessor, Pat McCrory, North Carolina legislators enacted a law that purports to prevent the Governor from acting unilaterally to expand Medicaid. Cooper, however, believes that he has authority to act in his role as the state official empowered to craft and negotiate the “Medicaid waiver” plan that North Carolina is currently negotiating with federal officials. It is known that McCrory engaged in conversations with the Obama administration on such a possible move.

In order to underscore his belief that Medicaid expansion will provide an enormous boost to the state economy — particularly in rural areas — Cooper made his announcement at an “economic forecast forum” sponsored by the state Chamber of Commerce and the North Carolina Bankers Association. In his remarks, he stated that expansion would bring $2-4 billion in new investment to the state, create between 20,000-40,000 jobs, lower health care costs for small businesses and public entities and “light a fire” under rural communities while stopping rural hospitals from being “bulldozed.” Cooper also cited the fact that Medicaid expansion has been embraced by a bevy of conservative Republican governors across the country, including Indiana Governor and Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie. In response to expected criticisms from conservatives, Cooper also pointed out that North Carolinians are “already paying” for Medicaid expansion in those other states and that indigent care is happening now, but in the most expensive and inefficient way possible — i.e. via hospital emergency rooms.

While Cooper noted that 95% of the cost of expansion would come from the federal government, he acknowledged that North Carolina would need to come up with several million dollars in state funds to cover the other 5%. To do this, Cooper suggested the possibility of a straight state appropriation, but also touted the idea of “self-assessment” whereby hospitals — a group he noted would benefit enormously from expansion — contributed the necessary funds.

Cooper’s bold action comes, of course, at a highly confusing and fraught time for Medicaid expansion, and the Affordable Care Act itself. President-elect Trump is pledged to “repeal Obamacare” in the early days of his administration and the new Congress has already been taking steps in that direction as well. That said, there remains enormous uncertainty as to the form any such repeal might take and how it will impact states that have already expanded Medicaid. Add to all this the likelihood that state GOP lawmakers can be expected to challenge Cooper’s action — perhaps even in court — and it would not be an understatement to say that the final outcome of this story is very uncertain. All that said, Cooper’s action this morning was a striking departure from his predecessor and perhaps the strongest indication yet that the new governor intends to “give as well as he gets” in the impending battles with conservative leaders at the General Assembly.

In addition to announcing his bold action on Medicaid expansion, Read more