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Editorial: Ag Commish Troxler needs to explain request for farm aid blank check

As Policy Watch reporter Lisa Sorg explained yesterday morning, state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has some rather grand plans for aiding farmers with state money in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

Troxler, a Republican, asked lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources yesterday for the $250 million to immediately fund the NC Farmer Recovery Reinvestment Program. The only requirements thus far are that the money would help the “underinsured and uninsurable” in 35 federally declared disaster areas with crops, livestock and poultry losses; and that a farmer must use the funds to continue in agriculture, including obtaining financing.

As Sorg’s story went on to explain, the request was met with sympathy, but  some skepticism from lawmakers. Basically, lawmakers said, if we’re going to fork out that kind of dough, you’re going to need to come forward with something more than the vague plan Troxler outlined on Monday. At the time, Troxler said “We have a draft in our minds of what it would look like.”

An editorial in today’s Fayetteville Observer echoes the sympathetic but skeptical reaction that Troxler’s proposal received:

There is no question that our farmers need help, and that it’s not just charity — agriculture is one of this state’s big industries and we can’t afford to lose it, or even see it greatly diminished. Those $1.1 billion in losses translate to a total economic impact of about $2.8 billion.

But to some of the lawmakers who listened to Troxler’s plea this week, the Farmer Recovery Reinvestment Program sounded risky — it almost boils down to loading trucks with bushels of money and sending them out to spread the funds across the state’s farmland. It comes up short on details like oversight, accountability and programs with specific goals and purposes. How will the farmers be chosen? How will the program prevent waste and fraud? Those questions need to be answered.

Even some farmers were skeptical. “You could make good headlines,” said Duplin County farmer Morris Murphy, “but if the money is not put in the right places, it won’t solve the problems we have as farmers.” It could end up, Murphy said, “a government fiasco.”

“Fundamentally I’m not opposed to it,” chief budget writer Chuck McGrady told Troxler. The Henderson County Republican said “I just don’t know if I have enough substance right now to just buy into it.” Brent Jackson — a Senate budget writer, a Sampson County Republican and a farmer — agreed and asked Troxler to provide much more information before the General Assembly reconvenes next week to consider further aid for flooding victims.

Given the magnitude of the state’s farm losses, the size of Troxler’s request isn’t out of line. But the commissioner also has to know his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly are a fiscally conservative bunch and won’t hand him a blank check. He’s got a lot of work to do, and fast. But the state’s farmers are depending on him to design a responsible farm disaster aid program and get it back to our lawmakers next week.

Indeed.

Commentary, News

Today’s “must read”: NC’s death row packed with people convicted under obsolete laws

Be sure to take just a few minutes out of your day today to check out a new, powerful and easy-to-read report from the good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row” offers a damning assessment of a broken and unjust system that has placed and left dozens of people on death row who were convicted under widely varying laws. This is from the summary:

The death penalty is all but extinct in North Carolina. Juries have recommended only a single new death sentence in the past four years. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006. Yet, North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation, with more than 140 men and women. It is a relic of another era.

More than 100 of N.C.’s death row prisoners — about three-quarters — were sentenced in the 1990s, under wildly different laws. During those years, North Carolina juries sent dozens of people a year to death row, more than Texas. The state’s courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.

Beginning in 2001, after investigations and DNA testing began to reveal innocent people on death row, a wave of reforms transformed the landscape. New laws guaranteed capital defendants such basic rights as trained defense attorneys and the right to see all the evidence in their cases. A court mandate requiring prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder — the only such requirement in the nation — was ended.

Today, the death penalty is seen as a tool to be used sparingly, instead of a bludgeon to be wielded in virtually every first-degree murder case. Yet, new laws and shifting public opinion have had little impact on prisoners sentenced in another era. The bulk of North Carolina’s death row is now made up of people who were tried 15, 20, even 25 years ago. They are prisoners of a state that has moved on, but has refused to reckon with its past.

DPL’s report, Unequal Justice, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country. The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.

84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.

73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.

 73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder. Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.

The bottom line: North Carolina’s death penalty is hopelessly obsolete and broken, and it continues to generate tremendous injustices. Click here to read the entire report and to watch a powerful video summary.

Commentary, News

GOP state senator opposes constitutional amendment that he voted to place on the ballot

There are a lot of strange and confusing aspects to the story surrounding the slate of constitutional amendments that Republican legislators have placed on the November ballot. Here, however, is an especially weird and perplexing one: It turns out that Wesley Meredith, a Republican senator from Fayetteville opposes the Republican-driven amendment to alter how North Carolina would fill judicial vacancies. The amendment, as you will recall, shifts the lion’s share of the power in such matters from the Governor to the General Assembly.

As reported by the Fayetteville Observer Meredith made public his opposition to the amendment during a community forum the other day. He did it again earlier today in an interview with Policy Watch. In the interview, Meredith expressed the strong belief that the current system for electing judges and filling judicial vacancies via gubernatorial appointment works well and has worked well for years under both Republican and Democratic governors.

What’s especially noteworthy about Meredith’s stance on the issue, of course, is that he is a Republican and the amendment (which is widely recognized and derided by many as a Republican Party power grab) was passed by both houses of the General Assembly with almost exclusively Republican votes.

What’s even stranger is that one of those Republican votes was Meredith himself.

On June 25, Meredith voted “aye” on both second and third reading on the Senate floor to send the original version of the amendment (a measure misleadingly dubbed the “Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment”) to the ballot.

Sen. Wesley Meredith

That amendment was later declared unconstitutional by the state courts and rewritten during a hastily convened August special session that was held just weeks before the start of absentee voting. During the special session, Meredith again voted twice in favor of the new version of the proposal and three times in opposition to proposed Democratic efforts to amend the measure.

When pressed this morning for an explanation of the rather striking contradiction involved in publicly opposing an amendment that he himself had helped to place on the ballot, Meredith seemed to struggle. First, he observed that he had refused to sign onto the resolution in which the General Assembly called itself back into special session to rewrite the unconstitutional amendment. When asked however why he voted for the new and revised amendment once the session had been convened, Meredith claimed, that it was his (erroneous) understanding that if he had not done so, the original unconstitutional amendment would have somehow gone back on the ballot. He also claimed that he had sought to speak out on the matter in debate, but was not recognized by the presiding officer.

Meredith had less of an explanation and seemed flummoxed when asked about the original June vote. Instead of addressing the question directly, he instead observed that there had been a lot of confusing votes and discussions on judicial selection issues, reiterated his general support for the status quo and offered an apology if he had gotten any of the “dates” surrounding the matter mixed up.

The bottom line: If ever there was powerful indictment of all six constitutional amendments that appear on the ballot this fall, Meredith is it.  Simply put, if a veteran state senator — a man who cast numerous critical votes to place the amendments on the ballot — is so deeply confused about the action he has taken that he both a) didn’t understand the impact of his own action and/or b) has done a 180 degree flip flop on one critically important amendment in just a matter of weeks, something is decidedly rotten in the state of Denmark.

Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend: The absurd list of conditions not covered by junk GOP healthcare plans

Be sure to check out the excellent editorial that ran over the weekend in the Charlotte Observer that lays out the hard truth about Republican “health care reform” plans. In Do you have a preexisting condition that Republicans don’t want to cover? Check this list” the Observer explains the folly of conservative schemes to allow the sale of low-cost junk insurance plans that will simply return the country to the pre-Obamacare bad old days.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at the kinds of condition no covered. This is from the editorial’s analysis of a junk plan Republicans are allowing to be sold in Iowa ( a similar scheme failed in North Carolina earlier this year):

It’s a list that should alarm Americans — not only those who can’t afford full-coverage health insurance, but anyone who has had or might someday suffer from the following conditions:

  • Ear, nose or throat.
  • Lung or respiratory.
  • Diabetes/growth/hormonal.
  • Liver or pancreas.
  • Urinary system.
  • Digestive or stomach.
  • Blood artery.
  • Heart or coronary.
  • Brain or nervous system.
  • Bone or skeletal.
  • Autoimmune
  • Reproductive.
  • Mental
  • Muscle/tissue
  • Transplant

That covers, well, pretty much everything.

There are other, similar lists out there, including a lengthier list of conditions that likely would have caused a person to be denied coverage or pay more for coverage under the American Health Care Act that Republicans tried to pass in 2017. That list included acne and allergies, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

It is a reminder that what many congressional Republicans want is for there to be no Obamacare, which would mean that “health benefit plans” would be far from the only plans to treat preexisting conditions harshly.

It is also a reminder of the gap between what Republicans say about health insurance and what they appear to want. Republicans say now that they don’t want to take away such protections, but they have done little thus far to ensure that. President Trump also has assured supporters, even this week, that he would fight for patients with preexisting conditions, but government lawyers told a Texas court in June that they will no longer defend those Obamacare protections. That court could rule any day on whether the Affordable Care Act and its protections are constitutional.

Meanwhile, we check lists and wonder: How vulnerable are we going to be?

Click here to read the entire editorial.

 

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Superintendent Mark Johnson’s new website may have broken North Carolina law

A controversial website touting Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson may have broken North Carolina law, a Policy Watch investigation has found.

That’s because Johnson’s publicly-funded site launched last month without vetting by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), an agency that, under state law, is expected to review the financing and contracts for any state agency web page.

No such review was conducted for Johnson’s site, according to Bill Holmes, Director of Legislative and Public Affairs for DIT. [Read more]

** BONUS READ: Gov. Cooper names three to State Board of Education

2. Whistling past the graveyard: Conservatives ignore Florence’s dire warnings for NC

If there’s been a single most maddening public narrative to accompany the hurricane disaster that has afflicted so much of North Carolina in recent weeks, it probably has to be the chipper, upbeat tone adopted by a number of conservative politicians and think tankers that Florence was, in effect, just “business as usual” for a state located on the nation’s southeast coast.

The spiel usually goes something like this: “We’re used to hurricanes in North Carolina and to pulling together to rebuild. Between our public emergency responders and private charities, we know how to handle these kinds of situations.”

While certainly admirable on some superficial level (obviously, it’s important to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of tragedy), when you dig below the surface, it’s clear that there are some extremely problematic undertones to the “all is well” rap. [Read more]

** BONUS READ: N.C. lawmakers must change course to help rebuild from Florence and ensure resiliency

3. What’s next for for proven but underfunded hog buyout program after Florence?

Just three weeks ago, Hurricane Florence barreled ashore between Wilmington and New Bern with the ferocity of a tyrant. After unleashing 140 mile per hour winds and torrential rain along the coast, she began to mosey inland.

Then, pregnant with rain, she rested. Florence emptied her contents, and the varicose rivers ruptured their banks, leaking contaminants from hog waste lagoons, poultry operations, wastewater treatment plants, coal ash basins and hazardous waste sites into eastern North Carolina waterways.

This week at the governor’s behest, the legislature convened a special session to appropriate disaster relief funds to help communities recover after Hurricane Florence. [Read more]

4.  Lawmakers plan on long game for Hurricane Florence recovery measures

Bipartisanship has become rare in North Carolina, but lawmakers put their differences aside Tuesday to take their first step toward helping those impacted by Hurricane Florence.

“It was really nice to experience collegiality in the legislative chambers and the sort of lack of partisanship,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “That was kind of refreshing.”

She and several other Democrats recognized that the two disaster recovery bills that passed unanimously were small first steps in taking care of what the state actually needed. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bills into law Wednesday afternoon. [Read more]

5. Misogyny, racism on full display in Kavanaugh confirmation process

With a president who’s been promising to overturn Roe v Wade and re-criminalize abortion since he started campaigning, those who believe in reproductive freedom are naturally skeptical that any nominee he chooses from his list is going to leave any precedent in place that supports access to abortion.

Anti-abortion extremists have consolidated almost enough federal power to do so, and are now working to tilt the balance of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe completely, and, in the meantime, make abortion access so restrictive that virtually no one can access abortion safely or easily. And Brett Kavanaugh, having already ruled that the U.S. government preventing a young immigrant from getting an abortion—even after she met all of the requirements set out by the state of Texas—is not an undue burden, seems their guy to do it. [Read more]

6. Editorial Cartoon: “I like Burr…and Tillis too!”

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