Commentary, News

Good government watchdogs file suit against Forest, Berger and Moore over December special session

North Carolina lawmakers have rushed through a lot of high profile and controversial legislation in recent years, often with little or no opportunity for the public to be informed (much less comment) on the proposals under consideration.

Today, one of the state’s leading good government watchdogs called them on it. This is from a press release distributed by advocates at Common Cause North Carolina at a press conference that took place at the state Legislative Building this morning:

Common Cause Files “Right to Instruct Their Representatives” Lawsuit Challenging the Constitutionality of the NCGA’s Fourth Extra Session in December 2016

RALEIGH—Common Cause NC and 10 North Carolina citizens today filed suit in Wake County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of the process that the General Assembly used to enact sweeping legislation by a hastily convened special session in December 2016.

At the heart of the challenge is a violation of citizens’ constitutional right to “instruct their representatives” — a right expressly guaranteed by Article I, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution.

“In December 2016, the General Assembly — with no notice to the public — convened a special session, cut off debate, and rushed through legislation that changed the fundamental structure of state government,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause NC. “The right of the people ‘to instruct their representatives’ is meaningless if they have no notice and no opportunity to be heard.”

The release goes on to explain that Common Cause and the individual plaintiffs from around the state are asking the court to declare the General Assembly’s fourth extra session of 2016 (which took place December 14-16) unconstitutional and void the two bills passed during the session (Senate Bill 4, which changed the structure of state and county boards of elections and the State Ethics Commission, created partisan appellate judicial elections, and stripped the newly elected governor of the power to administer the Industrial Commission and House Bill 17, which curtailed the governor’s appointive powers and transferred power from the State Board of Education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction).

The court complaint (which is a fascinating read) puts it this way:

“The lack of advance notice to the public about the Fourth Extra Session and the sharply abbreviated legislative process denied plaintiffs and other interested citizens any meaningful opportunity to communicate with the ir representatives bout the potential effect of the bills, in violation of plaintiffs’ right under Article I, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution to ‘instruct their representatives….’

There was no emergency requiring the Fourth Extra Session, and no circumstances justified the lack of notice and the lack of opportunity for citizens to instruct their representatives….

Seeking to restrict public scrutiny, participation and debate, Defendants concealed from the public and the media the contents of House Bill 17 and Senate Bill 4 before convening the Fourth Extra Session.”

The lawsuit is, by the plaintiffs’ admission, a groundbreaking effort. The courts have not previously taken action to invalidate a legislative session in recent memory based on an abuse of process. As the old saying foes, however, “there’s a first time for everything.” Let’s hope this lawsuit brings about such an event.

Commentary, HB2

Leading sports columnist: NCAA wimps out

Once again this morning, some of the most incisive comments on the saga of North Carolina’s LGBTQ discrimination law can be found on the sports page — in this case the sports page of Raleigh’s News & Observer.

As was reported in the post below, the NCAA relented yesterday on its North Carolina HB2 boycott in response to the weak and inadequate “repeal” of the law that state leaders fashioned a few weeks back. To his great credit, however, columnist Luke DeCock isn’t happy about it. As the veteran journalist observes in “Back to business as usual quickly for NCAA in NC,” the change yesterday was basically a wimp out:

“In politics, as in sports, you don’t always get what you deserve. North Carolina got what it needed from the NCAA on Tuesday, but not what it deserved.

If the NCAA was serious about honoring the commitment it made to LGBT rights back in September when it pulled this year’s events from North Carolina and threatened to exclude the state entirely from this round of bidding, it would have found a way to reward North Carolina for acknowledging the error of its ways while still punishing it for not fully repealing House Bill 2, some interim position designed to encourage the state to be more welcoming to the NCAA’s constituents.

That’s not what happened. North Carolina went right back to most favored nation status with the NCAA over the four-year bid cycle announced Tuesday, landing 26 events encompassing 35 different championships, including the beloved first and second rounds of the men’s basketball tournament in 2020 and 2021. Only three states were awarded more: Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana. Ohio, California and Texas were just behind.

The NBA, NCAA and ACC were all, to varying degrees, involved in brokering the inadequate compromise known as HB142, a step forward from HB2 but only a partial one, thanks to the unwillingness of the Republican majority to countenance the full, necessary repeal of HB2, and the new deal gave everyone the political cover they needed to get back in business with North Carolina. So they did. Or will shortly, in the case of the NBA.

North Carolina did get slapped around a little bit. The basketball subregionals were either going to be a 3/1 or 2/2 split between North and South Carolina, and Greenville, S.C., won out in 2022 over Charlotte. The state was passed over yet again for a men’s basketball regional, as it has been since 2008.”

After detailing which games will be played where, DeCock closes this way:
“Only seven months after the NCAA took a principled stand on behalf of its LGBT athletes, coaches, administrators and fans, it passed on the opportunity to match the degree of HB2 repeal with decisions that acknowledged progress while still encouraging further change. Instead, it’s back to business as usual, in North Carolina and elsewhere.”
In other words, caring and thinking people have a lot more work to do to bring actual justice and equality to North Carolina. Let’s keep at it.
Commentary, Trump Administration

Yet another disastrous Trump budget proposal: Slashing low-income energy assistance

Imagine: It’s January, and your car — the car you share with your partner to get to and from work — has just broken down. It has not been a particularly cold winter, but the apartment you rent is not well insulated so it is generally miserable unless you turn the heater up high. Upon arriving home you discover that your heating bill has arrived and it’s three times what you can afford. You will now have to choose whether to pay to get your car fixed so you can get to work, or pay the heating bill or risk a shut off by the gas company.

Thousands of low income families in North Carolina and across the country have to make these types of decisions all the time. This is why the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) exists – it provides critical monetary support to families who need help paying their energy bills. It is also, not surprisingly, one of the programs the Trump administration’s budget blueprint proposes to eliminate.

LIHEAP is an important program for our most vulnerable communities – particularly the elderly and the disabled – who are most susceptible to extreme heat and cold. These folks and low-income families often live in lower quality housing and have disproportionately high energy burdens, meaning they are paying more than 30% of their incomes in energy bills. LIHEAP provides essential relief to families who are struggling to pay their bills, and commonly have to make difficult decisions about which essential service they will be able to pay for from month to month – e.g. prescription refills or the heating bill?

In North Carolina, LIHEAP served over 191,000 households in 2016. Out of these households, 33% included an elderly person, 35% included someone with a disability, and 22% included a child under five years old. A typical family of three receiving LIHEAP assistance has a combined income of less than $17,000 a year.

The Trump administration believes that LIHEAP is ineffective – but LIHEAP’s main success is in supporting families with short-term energy emergencies. A LIHEAP family with an elderly grandparent living in the home may be experiencing a particularly cold winter and running an inefficient heater more than usual, resulting in a higher energy bill. The grandparent may also need extra medical care because of the colder weather, generating another unexpected expense for the family and placing them teetering on the edge of utility disconnection or putting them further in debt. LIHEAP provides the short-term bill assistance needed to get a family through the winter with dignity. LIHEAP also provides families with energy-related low-cost home repairs or replacements, to give these families a leg up beyond just bill assistance.

LIHEAP is a critical part of the social safety net for low-income families, and should be expanded, not eliminated. Since 2011, Congress has cut LIHEAP funding significantly, reducing its purchasing power and its role in maintaining family stability. Currently, LIHEAP is only able to meet 17% of the actual need nationally, and 16% of the need in North Carolina according to the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition. It is essential for Congress to support our most vulnerable families first – and programs like LIHEAP do just that.

As with so many of the Trump safety net proposals, let’s hope members of Congress think twice before rubber stamping more cuts to this vital program. You can tweet to #saveLIHEAP to help share this message.

Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

Coming Trump/Ryan tax proposals promise giveaways to the rich; hard times for North Carolina

Donald Trump speakingAs my colleagues have detailed over the past few weeks, President Trump’s budget blueprint proposes significant cuts to major programs and funding that support economic opportunity, health and well-being of North Carolinians. These cuts will allow the President to pursue increases in defense spending.

They are also required if the President and Speaker Ryan are to pursue the kind of overhaul of the federal tax code that would reduce revenue significantly over time. As has also been noted, much of the discussion of the federal tax changes has also been tied to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act where savings from reducing health care coverage are hoped to allow for the depth of tax cuts desired.

While we wait for the details on federal tax changes from President Trump and Congress, it is useful to review past proposals. These proposals have included reducing the corporate income tax rate and eliminating the alternative minimum tax for corporations, reductions in personal income tax rates and transfer tax as well as elimination or capping of itemized deductions and increases in the standard deduction among many other changes.

Here is what analysts have found in reviewing these proposals.

  1. The tax plan Trump put forward during his campaign would increase the federal debt by $20.9 trillion by 2036.
  2. The “Better Way” tax plan proposed by Speaker Paul Ryan would reduce the effective tax rates for the most well-off Americans by 8 percent, a change that is four times bigger than the change in effective tax rates for any other income group.
  3. Both tax plans represent a significant tax cut for the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
  4. The Border Adjustment Tax proposal for how the US would tax corporate profits would be regressive, fail to end offshore tax avoidance and violate trade agreements.

Because North Carolina’s tax code is tied to the federal code in various ways, the changes at the federal level will have an impact on states’ revenue collection and who pays. It is difficult to say exactly what the end result for North Carolina would be not least because the state has changed so much of its tax code in recent years. However, as ITEP writes, from eliminating the estate tax to treatment of capital gains and interest to “ending the deductibility of state and local taxes, creating a new deduction for child care expenses, changing the taxation of carried interest, altering expensing of business investments, and other corporate tax changes such as “border adjustment” could all have ripple effects on state revenue systems.”

Most notable in the overall assessment of the current federal tax code proposals is that it will become less progressive. And that means many North Carolina taxpayers will face an even heavier tax load given the already regressive nature of the state’s tax code today.

Commentary

Governor Cooper is underselling his teacher pay plan

Amidst the clamor over the General Assembly’s unfunded class-size mandate, Governor Cooper’s teacher pay plan has fallen from the North Carolina education headlines. However, teacher pay will certainly return to the forefront over the coming months as the North Carolina Senate and House release their budget proposals. As a result, it’s important to have a firm understanding of the Governor’s proposal.

The Governor described his proposal as a two-year effort to increase teacher salaries by 10 percent. For year one, FY 2017-18, the Governor proposes investing $271 million in teacher raises to provide what he described as “a more than 5% average increase for teachers in 2017-18.” Additionally, the proposal would eliminate the misguided “tier system” established in 2014-15 that only provided guaranteed raises to teachers every five years.

Teacher salary proposals are among the biggest state budget items each year, and deserve outside, independent analysis. Last year, Governor McCrory and General Assembly leadership were incredibly dishonest in their description of their teacher pay plan. General Assembly leadership absurdly claimed that their plan would bring average teacher salaries above $50,150, a claim repeated by the Lieutenant Governor and on countless campaign commercials. Governor McCrory centered his campaign on the equally-false claim that he met his promise to bring average teacher salaries above $50,000. Of course, these claims were provably false at the time, and average teacher pay remains below $50,000.

Thankfully, Governor Cooper has taken a more honest approach. If anything, he’s under-selling his plan. Read more