Commentary, Environment, News

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. PW exclusive: Moore County locates new elementary school near pollution, hazardous waste sites in Aberdeen

Racial, economic composition of school raises environmental justice concerns  

On the edge of Aberdeen lay a lovely tract of land that was easy to miss while speeding down Highway 5. Stippled with young to middle-aged pine trees, it historically had been used for timbering, but now the landowner, BVM Properties, was ready to sell.

Where BVM saw an opportunity to offload land, which some who knew the town’s history viewed as undesirable, Moore County School District officials envisioned possibility: The 22 acres would accommodate a new and larger elementary school for Aberdeen kids. It would be filled with light and equipped with modern technology, and plenty of outdoor space where its 800 children in Pre-K through fifth grade could play. [Read more…]


2. The case of the vanishing budget: How N.C.’s secretive budget “process” is bad for the public good

If, in this precise moment, you’re wondering where North Carolina’s multi-billion dollar budget is, the same one that sets crucial policy and spending parameters for state agencies, that dictates classroom funding levels for 1.5 million schoolchildren, that sets pay levels for thousands of state employees, retirees and teachers, it’s in the same place it’s always been.

Not, I fear, in a public space – a mic’d up committee room or in a clerk’s trusty hands – it exists, without hyperbole, mostly in Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s brain.

And, to a lesser extent, in the care of the most powerful lawmakers atop a GOP-dominated House and Senate conference committee, a committee that, as of this moment, has yet to schedule a single public meeting, or a single hearing to listen to the public, in all its wild, untamed glory. [Read more…]


3. Refusal to close the Medicaid coverage gap echoes a dark era from the South’s past


In his recent “must read” book on the history of Jim Crow and how it shaped (and was itself shaped) by a typical town of the deep South (“Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White,” Harvard University Press), UNC Chapel Hill historian Prof. William Sturkey provides numerous illuminating and, often, maddening details of the harsh realities of the racial apartheid that was conjured up and enforced by the white supremacists who dominated so much of southern society for so long.

There are the horrific stories of the lynchings and other murders carried out by white mobs. There are the stories of African-American residents who fled north when given a chance and of others who, despite the frequent terrors and indignities of Jim Crow, stayed, persevered and built lives for themselves and their families. There are the stories of white business leaders who, despite their commitment to segregation, helped inadvertently usher in change by embracing elements of modern capitalism and interstate commerce. And there are the stories of how the residents of segregated Black communities came to build their own vibrant institutions – many of which ultimately helped give rise to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th Century.

About a third of the way through the book, however, Sturkey relates a truly remarkable and tragically telling anecdote from the Great Depression that rings eerily familiar in 2019.[Read more…]


4. Despite local opposition, N.C. charter board clears two new Wake County schools

The state Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) on Monday unanimously stood by its approval of two charters in Wake County, despite public opposition from leaders in North Carolina’s largest school district.

CSAB members said Wake officials’ concerns about Wake County Preparatory Academy and North Raleigh Charter Academy reflect “philosophical” differences about the value of charters, rather than fear of school re-segregation or charter saturation.

Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB, said Wake officials have taken the position that if “parents aren’t making the choice we like, maybe we shouldn’t let them have the choice.” [Read more…]


5. Sources link UNC-Vidant dispute to ongoing battles between Board of Governors and ECU

As lawmakers work to negotiate a final state budget by the end of the month, the ongoing conflict between Vidant Health and the UNC System continues to unfold through public jabs and in private mediation.

In the balance:

Tens of millions in Medicaid reimbursements to one of eastern North Carolina’s most vital hospital systems.

Vidant Medical Center’s status as East Carolina University’s teaching hospital.

And the direction — and independence — of the governing board of the hospital. [Read more…]


6. NC Sheriffs’ Association changes stance on anti-immigration bill to support harsher version

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association has backed down from its opposition of House Bill 370, an anti-immigration measure drummed up by Republican legislators who are using the Trump administration’s rhetoric to try and force law enforcement into working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A Senate Rules committee heard an updated version of HB 370 yesterday but did not vote on the measure. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary committee, and if it gets through there, it will be re-referred to Senate Rules.

Changes to the bill were made after some lawmakers agreed to work with the Sheriffs’ Association and they crafted an alternative to the initial proposal, which would have punished law enforcement that didn’t honor ICE detainer requests with a hefty fine.[Read more…]


7. Catch-up on our latest Apple podcasts hosted by Policy Watch Director Rob Schofield. 


8. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

By John Cole


Editorial decries silence from Tillis, Burr, NC reps as Trump hits new low

Be sure to check out this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on (“Presidential character, honesty matter. Congress needs to account for Trump”), which calls out Donald Trump once again for his serial dishonesty and immorality and the embarrassingly craven behavior of North Carolina’s Republican congressional delegation in enabling Trump, and even egging him on.

The latest chapter in this tragic saga emerged yesterday when Trump told ABC News that he would be open to receiving information provided by a foreign government on a political opponent. As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times explains this morning:

In a new interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, parts of which were released on Wednesday evening, Donald Trump announced his willingness to betray and subvert American democracy, again. Asked what he would do if he were offered foreign dirt on an opponent in 2020, he said he’d take it, and pooh-poohed the idea of calling federal law enforcement.

“Oh, let me call the F.B.I.,” he said derisively. “Give me a break, life doesn’t work that way.”

That Trump has no loyalty to his country, its institutions and the integrity of its elections is not surprising. That he feels no need to fake it is alarming. With the end of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, House Democrats’ craven fear of launching an impeachment inquiry, and the abject capitulation of Republicans to Trumpian authoritarianism, the president is reveling in his own impunity.

The CBC editorial offered this on-the-money take:

It is painful to watch and listen to President Donald Trump. There seems to be no end to the deception, disrespect, arrogance, meanness and plain old lying.

He even says it is OK to take information about his political opponents from foreign governments and not bother to alert the FBI.

This has nothing to do with politics or policies. It is all about character and the corruption of core values.

To see sobering confirmation that Trump’s latest treachery seemed not to bother Senator Thom Tillis, check out the news that emerged late yesterday after Tillis was asked what he would do if he received dirt on his opponent from a foreign government. According to multiple news outlets (click here and here), Tillis seemed to indicate that while he would contact the FBI, he would also be open to using the information.

Again, the CBC editorial:

North Carolina voters didn’t elect senators who would tolerate lying – especially on the scale exhibited by Trump. Yet Thom Tillis and Richard Burr haven’t uttered a peep of concern. They owe their constituents an explanation….

What does Donald Trump have to do – how extreme does it have to get – before Congress does its job. That job is to stand up to lying, demand the president tell the truth and act within the Constitution.

Even in Donald Trump’s Washington character must count. Demanding that a president is honest and his comportment match the high station of the office isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s the duty of Congress.

Honesty and integrity must matter.


The video Phil Berger needs to watch

If there is a single person who stands in the way of providing life-affirming health insurance to a half-million uninsured human beings and, quite literally, saving the lives of thousands of North Carolinians (particularly those caught up in the opioid crisis) it’s Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Berger is a husband and father and grandfather and it just seem impossible to believe that he could view the testimony of the two men in the video below that was recently shared by the good people at NC Child — two men who look and sound an awful lot like him — and adhere to his heartless stance.

C’mon Senator Berger — take a chance, open your heart and let your inner humanity come to the surface. It won’t hurt.

Commentary, Trump Administration

Trump administration rule change would stymie workers’ suits against employers

“The Future of Work.”

It sounds so promising, with its emphasis on flexibility, app-based employment, and following your passion.  Some of that future is here now, and it’s not living up to the promise.

Workers misclassified as independent contractors lose out on valuable benefits.  Workers cobble together multiple “gigs” in a vain attempt to keep their financial heads above water.  And corporations make out like bandits by very effectively distancing themselves from any responsibility for their employees.

Now the Trump Administration wants to increase that distance.  They propose to do so by adopting new regulations that change how you determine when a top level corporation is sufficiently involved in an employee’s work, limiting a worker’s ability to sue them – not just the middleman – when those employees aren’t paid correctly.

Right now, there is a broad test used by courts to determine who is an employer when there is more than one possible answer to that question.  The proposed new rule would significantly narrow that test – making it much harder for workers to go up the food chain and sue the entity that may be most responsible for the wage violation.  Not unexpectedly, that higher level company may also be the only one who can afford to pay the workers who have been cheated.

In 2014, dozens of hardworking janitorial employees who cleaned Durham schools learned that the subcontractor who employed them had declared bankruptcy and would not be paying them their final two weeks of wages.  Not only that, but the workers were owed overtime and back wages for underpayment of the promised hourly rate.

Because these workers were jointly employed by the school system and the higher level contractor, as well as their bankrupt subcontractor, they were able to reach a settlement and receive back wages.  Had the proposed new rule been in effect at the time, it is unlikely these workers would have been able to recover anything, since the contractor and school system who contracted out the work would probably not be considered employers who were responsible for ensuring the workers were properly paid.

Temporary workers and those who work through staffing agencies will be particularly impacted if the proposed joint employer rule goes into effect.  In North Carolina, temporary employment has grown faster than in the nation as a whole, increasing by 52 percent between 2009 and 2014.[1]  Temporary and staffing work has particularly increased in low-wage, “blue-collar” occupations, especially in more hazardous industries such as construction, manufacturing and logistics.

If the joint employer rule goes into effect, it will incentivize the use of temporary, staffing, and subcontracted workers rather than direct hires because it will protect companies from liability.  This is a problem because these so-called “contingent” workers earn considerably less money than permanent, direct-hire workers.  Contingent workers lose out on training, benefits, and overtime pay.  Read more

Commentary, Education

NC needs to dramatically expand early childhood education…the genuine kind

[Cross-posted from the blog of veteran North Carolina educator Justin Parmenter, Notes from the Chalkboard.]

As members of the North Carolina House and Senate huddle behind closed doors to hash out a budget compromise which may well include a controversial online Pre-K pilot, a new report by the non-partisan Program Evaluation Division of the North Carolina General Assembly recommends an increased focus on early childhood learning.

Earlier this session, Union County Representative Craig Horn introduced legislation to create a virtual Pre-K pilot program.  The program would provide in-home access to online preschool for North Carolina children who are living below the federal poverty line and would test the feasibility of expanding access to all preschool-aged children in the state.

The Senate declined to include the pilot in its budget, but Horn has vowed to keep fighting for it–despite the fact that dozens of early childhood education experts have called for an end to such programs, pointing to the dangers of increased screen time and the importance of relational learning opportunities with actual human beings.  Those experts recommend instead expanding access to high-quality Pre-K, which North Carolina has received national attention for not sufficiently funding.

Now the General Assembly’s non-partisan Program Evaluation Division has issued a report which falls very much in line with the recommendations of the experts.

Entitled ‘North Carolina Should Focus on Early Childhood Learning in Order to Raise Achievement in Predominantly Disadvantaged School Districts,’ the report points out that the disadvantaged districts in our state which manage to maintain high levels of achievement are those that focus on early education.

The Program Evaluation Division concludes that the General Assembly should require low performing schools to add an early childhood learning improvement component to their currently required improvement plans and also that the G.A. should require the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to comprehensively assess early childhood learning for districts across the state.

Responding the PED’s recommendations, State Superintendent Mark Johnson suggested that ‘personalized learning,’ a catch phrase for students learning on their own using computer software, is a great way to improve early learning results.

I bet I can find dozens of early childhood education experts who disagree.