Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Former House Speaker tried to strong-arm DEQ over chemicals in Jordan Lake

Harold Brubaker, the former Republican House Speaker turned powerful lobbyist, tried to ram through a scientifically dubious cleanup project for Jordan Lake and allegedly used hurricane relief funding as leverage, according to emails obtained by NCPW under the Open Records law.

Brubaker’s client, SePro, proposes using chemical treatments — the effectiveness of which has been questioned in scientific journals, by the EPA and DEQ — to clean up algae in Jordan Lake.

Last winter, Brubaker reportedly told then-DEQ Chief Deputy John Evans that if the agency didn’t sign a $1.3 million contract with Sepro, “the GA [General Assembly] would refuse to support hurricane funding.”

Evans recalled that conversation with Brubaker in an email dated Dec. 6, 2016, which he sent to six DEQ colleagues. The email reads: [Read more…]

2. Republicans advance education budget over strong Democratic objections
GOP leaders deflect criticism, promise to hear amendments next week

A key House committee signed off on the chamber’s public school budget report Thursday, despite Democrats’ complaints that they had only just received the details of that multi-billion dollar spending plan that morning.

“We’re looking at a $17.5 billion budget that we’ve seen for the first time today and we’re going to vote on it in three hours,” said Rep. Henry “Mickey” Michaux, a veteran House Democrat from Durham, Thursday morning. “No, hell no.” [Read more...]

***Bonus budget reads:

3. NC Treasurer: Court’s ruling in favor of retired workers, teachers could have ‘severe’ implications

North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell warned legislators Friday that the state may be on the hook to pay more than $100 million to retired workers and teachers if a judge’s ruling stands that they were wrongfully required to pay heath insurance premiums.

“It is my duty as North Carolina State Treasurer to call your attention to a matter that may have severe financial and practical implications for the State of North Carolina,” the letter states.

Retired teachers and state employees, including former Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, filed suit in Gaston County Superior Court in April 2012. The lawsuit became class certified and now exceeds 220,000 retirees, according to Folwell’s letter — all of whom will be entitled to premium-free health insurance for the duration of their retirement, according to a court order also issued last week.

Judge Edwin Wilson Jr. ruled that retirement health benefits are contractual and that the defendants breached that contract when class members began to be charged premiums for standard health insurance in Sept. 2011. [Read more…]

4. The most shameful thing about the Senate budget

The most shameful thing about the disastrous budget passed by the Senate two weeks ago is not the vindictive 3:00 a.m. budget cuts to education programs in Democrats’ districts.

It’s not the paltry raise given to state workers after years of neglect or the cruel refusal to give state retirees any cost of living increase at all.

It’s not the dozens of controversial policy provisions snuck into the 362-page budget bill with no debate or discussion that cuts food benefits to 133,000 people, bans new wind farms, ends the certificate of need process for health care facilities, creates education savings accounts, and more.

It’s not even the latest installment of the Senate’s Robin Hood in reverse tax scheme that cuts taxes again on the wealthy and corporations, costing the state more than $850 million that the General Assembly’s own staff says will lead to a significant budget shortfall in a few years.

It is the decision in a year of a large budget surplus to make it more likely that thousands of at-risk children in North Carolina will struggle in their lifetimes.[Read more…]

5The right-wing house of cards shudders
Court setbacks, public opinion, progressive activism and Trump bode ill for NC conservatives

Professor Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine School of Law is a nationally recognized Supreme Court watcher and elections law expert. Yesterday on his highly-trafficked Election Law Blog, Hasen posted a fascinating 13-point take of Monday morning’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down North Carolina’s hyper-gerrymandered 2011 congressional district map. After sifting through Justice Elena Kagan’s lengthy opinion and even some important footnotes, Hasen said this:

“9. Holy cow this is a big deal. It means that race and party are not really discrete categories and that discriminating on the basis of party in places of conjoined polarization is equivalent, at least sometimes, to making race the predominant factor in redistricting. This will lead to many more successful racial gerrymandering cases in the American South and elsewhere, and allow these cases to substitute for (so far unsuccessful) partisan gerrymandering claims involving some of these districts.”

After noting the wondrous fact that Justice Clarence Thomas signed on to Kagan’s opinion and that more gerrymandering cases from North Carolina are on their way up through the federal courts, Hasen added this as his final point: [Read more…]


***Bonus read: Assessing the Supreme Court’s gerrymandering decision

Commentary

His words, not ours: Lt. Gov. Forest says he’s offering “reactionary commentary”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

Since winning reelection last November, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has clearly been using his mostly ceremonial office as a platform to run, more or less full-time, for Governor in 2020. As we reported in this space, Forest told attendees at a Craven County GOP event in February that he plans on being Governor of the state in 2021.

Since then, Forest has continued to spend a great deal of his time traveling the state (and the country), smiling for the camera, speaking to Republican groups and championing discriminatory laws like HB2. Rather remarkably, GOP lawmakers have now even gone to the trouble and expense of directly abetting this effort by inserting language in the state budget bill that will establish a taxpayer-funded, three-person security detail for Forest and his family that will serve at his complete discretion.

Interestingly and not surprisingly, however, despite all of the advantages that come with having a taxpayer-funded campaign platform, Forest, who has long represented the extreme right wing of the religious Right, continues to insert his foot in his mouth.

In the past, of course, Forest has raised eyebrows (and provoked guffaws) by claiming that Raleigh’s News & Observer inserts hidden message in its news headlines and co-founding an organization that purports to rate companies on their supposed devotion to conservative Christian ideals (the Sears catalog got downgraded for featuring lingerie ads). Now, if probably inadvertently, he’s done it again.

This is from a recent article in the conservative Republican publication known as North State Journal that was clearly intended to be a flattering puff piece on Forest:

“It’s obviously different,” said Forest, a Republican, of his relationship with new Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper compared to Pat McCrory. “But it doesn’t change what we do on a daily basis. It certainly changes how we react and communicate with the governor’s office and the things the governor does and says obviously there’s going to be more reactionary commentary out there from us. It’s just the way it’s got to be.” (Emphasis supplied.)

To which all a caring and thinking person can say in response is: thanks for clarifying and confirming that for us Mr. Lt. Governor. No one really had any doubts about the matter, but it’s good to see you taking ownership of your positions and ideology.

Commentary, News

Hopeful sign for NC NAACP as respected pastor seeks to succeed Rev. Barber

Rev. T. Anthony Spearman – Image: Facebook

Rev. William Barber II

A lot of North Carolina progressives have been feeling a bit of unease in recent weeks as they became aware of the impending departure of longtime NAACP President, Rev. William Barber. Rev. Barber, of course, has become national leader over the past dozen years as he transformed the North Carolina NAACP — often through sheer force of will — from what had been a troubled and often irrelevant group into one of the nation’s strongest state conferences. The notion that Barber, who announced earlier this month that he is stepping down to help launch a new national Poor People’s Campaign, will no longer be available on a daily basis to lend his formidable leadership skills has caused some caring and thinking people to worry that the organization might falter.

Happily, however, there is cause for optimism with recent word that one of Barber’s ablest lieutenants is now seeking to succeed him. Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, the senior pastor of St. Phillip A.M.E. Zion Church in Greensboro and current third vice president of the organization, has announced his formal candidacy in recent days. This is from a statement Spearman released earlier this week:

“Over the past twelve years, the N.C. NAACP founded a movement, shifting from ‘Banquets’ to ‘Battle’. The eyes of the world are on our movement in awe over the explosive growth of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly Coalition (HKonJ). In 2006, we began with sixteen coalition partners, and today we have over 200 diverse social justice organizations working to implement our 14 Point People’s Agenda in 100 counties across North Carolina.

In 2012, many of us traveled throughout N.C. to put a face on poverty, and we were utterly astounded by some of the atrocities we encountered. In 2013, the Moral Monday Movement was formed, using a five-point justice vision that we are fighting to achieve:

1. Pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that ensure economic sustainability

2. Educational equality that ensures that every child receives a high-quality, well-funded, constitutional, diverse public education;

3. Healthcare for all by ensuring access to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and by providing environmental protection.

4. Fairness in the criminal justice system by addressing continuing inequalities for black, brown, and poor white people.

5. Protect and expand voting rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, and the fundamental principle of equal protection under the law. Read more

Commentary

Blue Cross: Trump, Congress to blame for new rate hike request

How disastrous would Trumpcare be for North Carolina? This disastrous: It’s only passed one house of Congress and it’s already badly destabilizing the insurance market. This is from the NC Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project:

Today, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina announced it is requesting an average premium rate increase of 22.9 percent for individual market plans in 2018. Before the Trump administration took power, Blue Cross had been making progress in managing costs of new members who gained coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act. In 2016, the company reduced their losses on the individual market by 86 percent and returned to overall profitability. The company notes today that they were seeing the market begin to stabilize with a healthier risk pool.

However, since January, the Trump administration has deliberately undermined the health insurance markets in an attempt to cause the Affordable Care Act to fail. Despite continued requests from the health insurance industry, health care providers, and consumer advocates alike, the administration has threatened to hold hostage payments it owes to insurers for cost-sharing reductions. Blue Cross notes that this uncertainty is directly responsible for three-fifths of their requested increase (14.1 percentage points alone). Without the Trump administration destabilizing the market in such a way, Blue Cross would only seek an increase of 8.8 percent for 2018.

The administration has also undermined enrollment, threatening to not enforce the individual mandate, scaling back marketing and outreach efforts, and instituting new rules that make it harder for consumers to enroll.

The aggregate impact of these policy decisions is a climate of uncertainty and instability for the health insurance market, leaving insurers little choice other than to raise premiums higher than otherwise necessary in order to brace against potential losses. Like Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, insurers in other states have clearly attributed significant portions of their rate hikes directly to uncertainty from the federal level.

What’s more, Congress’ ongoing and misplaced attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act has further destabilized the health insurance markets, as insurers face an unclear legislative and regulatory environment moving forward. Read more

Commentary

CBO report contradicts Tillis on Trumpcare and pre-existing conditions

During a Facebook Live Q&A session on May 11, Senator Thom Tillis told North Carolinians that he is comfortable with letting states decide whether to protect people with pre-existing conditions from pricing discrimination. His rationale? No state would want to take up the American Health Care Act’s (AHCA) waivers from those protections.

Well, the experts at the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) disagree. According to the report released yesterday by Congress’ objective legislative impact scorekeeper, half of the U.S. population would live in states that waived the ban on charging people higher premiums based on health status (called “community rating”) and/or the requirement that plans cover minimum services, such as mental health and prescription drugs (called “essential health benefits”).

The CBO looks to states’ past behavior to predict whether they would take up a waiver from the essential health benefits requirement and the community rating protection. They “expect that states that previously mandated fewer benefits [be covered by health plans] would be more likely to apply for a waiver to modify the EHBs.”

Before the ACA, only 18 states mandated coverage of maternity care and only 23 states mandated some mental health benefit coverage. North Carolina was not among those states. Before the ACA, 18 states limited or prohibited pricing discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions. North Carolina was not among those states.

What’s more, the CBO expects that states with “fewer insurers” (North Carolina has one statewide insurer on the individual market) and “higher premiums” (North Carolina has the second-highest gross benchmark plan premium before subsidies in the country) would be those most likely to seek those waivers.

Here’s what the CBO says about what will happen in states that seek both waivers. Fair warning: it is shocking:

About one-sixth of the population resides in states that CBO and JCT expect would obtain waivers from EHB and community-rating requirements and make substantial changes to market regulations. Those changes would result in significantly lower premiums for those with low expected health care costs and higher nongroup enrollment by those individuals than under current law—and lower average premiums for such people than in states making moderate changes to regulations. However, over time, less healthy individuals (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would be unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.

They continue, noting that the return of medical underwriting (premium pricing based on health status and pre-existing conditions), would completely destabilize markets for people who need health care:

Eventually, CBO and JCT estimate, those premiums [for less healthy people or those with preexisting medical conditions] would be so high in some areas that the plans would have no enrollment. Such a market would be similar to the nongroup market before the enactment of the ACA, in which premiums were underwritten and plans often included high deductibles and limits on insurers’ payments and people with high expected medical costs were often unable to obtain coverage.

Sen. Tillis doesn’t seem to recognize the severe damage that the Republican health care bill would cause or the likelihood that its waivers will hit home here in North Carolina. Let’s hope that he and his colleagues in the Senate carefully read the CBO report.