The Senate’s proposed budget takes a step to tackle period poverty

As a new student at NC A&T State University, Lena Vann learned how difficult it was to find affordable menstrual supplies.

“As a college student, they were not always accessible or available to me,” she said.

That experience and attending a school with activism in its DNA led Vann to start The Black Period Project, an organization that provides supplies to schools – mostly to Title 1 middle schools in the Triad. The Black Period Project started in 2019 and since that time has delivered hundreds of packs of pads, liners, and wipes along with a resource card so students would know which adults in the school were storing them.

When school buildings were closed in the pandemic, the project delivered hygiene packs to student food pick-up points.

Vann, now a rising senior, said she always keeps hygiene kits in her car for homeless menstruators.

“As someone who feels privileged to attend school, I thought, what about people who can’t advocate for themselves? What about young girls or trans boys? Who is helping them? When I looked at the period advocacy space, there were not a lot of Black women or young Black women. I decided in March 2019 it was going to be me.”

While period poverty for years has been framed as an international problem, there’s more awareness of its impact in the United States. Realizing that some students are missing school because they cannot afford period products, states have begun taking steps to ease some of the financial burden.

The Georgia legislature put $1.5 million in its budget this year for menstrual supplies for schools and community centers in low-income areas, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

A new Vermont law requires schools make the products free in female and gender-neutral bathrooms.

A handful of other states require schools to make supplies freely available in all public school bathrooms or in low-income schools.

In North Carolina, the Senate budget proposes to make $250,000 in grants available to schools for feminine hygiene products.

State Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat, proposed a bill that would make the money available. The state Department of Public Instruction supports the line item. Murdock said that GOP Sen. Deanna Ballard, who helps lead the Senate’s education budget committee, advocated for including the money in the Senate spending plan.

Murdock said she considers the $250,000 funding a pilot project to see who applies for the money. An immediate focus is trying to keep the proposal in the version of the budget the House is writing.

“This pilot program is the first step. We need to take this issue of period poverty seriously, and follow our neighbors such as Georgia,” she said.

Diaper Bank of North Carolina started On the Spot in 2016, delivering period products to schools that want them. Diaper Bank executive director Michelle Old said it would probably cost about $500,000 to supply all the schools.

Teachers in middle and high schools know some menstruating students miss school because they cannot afford hygiene products, Old said.

“We really feel that period supplies are school supplies and dignity is not a privilege and it is not something that menstruating individuals should have to make a choice about,” Old said.

NC Senate leader wants to ban consideration of race in UNC admissions and government contracting

Senate leader Phil Berger said the Senate will propose a state constitutional amendment similar to a California ballot initiative that triggered a decline in underrepresented minority students earning undergraduate and graduate degrees and resulted in fewer public contracts going to minority- and women-owned businesses.

At news conference Wednesday centered on critical race theory in public schools, Berger said the Senate would propose a constitutional amendment similar to what were called civil rights initiatives in California and Michigan.

California in 1996 passed a constitutional ban on affirmative action in school admissions and public contracting. The proposed North Carolina constitutional amendment in Berger’s Medium post is identical to the California amendment language:

“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, an individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

Berger, a Republican, said the intent was for the proposed amendment to appear on the next primary ballot.

The president of the North Carolina NAACP, in a statement, condemned the proposal.

“The continued frontal assaults on humanity levied by the rogue leader of the Senate is evidence of a man leading from his fears,” said the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman.  “It is apparent that the more wrenches he can toss into an already broken democratic system the better off he thinks they are. Perhaps this will be the catalyst that will cause the eyes of NC to pop open and exercise their right to vote.”

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed an executive order in 2017 stating a goal of obtaining 10% of state purchases from historically underutilized businesses. The order also established an advisory council on under-utilized businesses.

A 2015 study for the Equal Justice Society found that the California amendment resulted in a minority- and women-owned businesses losing $1 billion to $1.1 billion a year in state and local contracts, in 2015 dollars.

Students for Fair Admissions is suing UNC-Chapel Hill in federal court for  considering race in admissions. UNC-Chapel Hill considers race as one of many factors, according to the university.

Edward Blum, an affirmative-action opponent, started Students for Fair Admissions. It is also suing  Harvard University. The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Harvard’s admissions process in a decision last November.

A federal District Court judge held a hearing in the UNC-Chapel Hill case last year.

The NC Justice Center is co-counsel representing alumni of color who have intervened in the lawsuit. NC Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.

After California passed its ban, applications by Black, American Indian, Chicano, and other Latinos to University of California schools dropped, according to a 2015 study by authors at UC-Riverside and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Most under-represented minority students became at least 40% less likely to be admitted to the more selective UC-Berkeley and UCLA campuses, according to a 2020 study from an economist with the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC-Berkeley. That started a cascade of under-represented minority student enrollment in less-selective colleges.

“Prop 209 caused a substantial decline in the number of high-earning early-career URM Californians that persists more than 20 years later,” the study concluded.

If North Carolina were to ban consideration of race, admissions of students of color would decline at UNC-Chapel Hill,  said Jack Holtzman, an NC Justice Center attorney.

UNC does not use a quota system, he said.

“No specific seats are reserved. That is long gone. Everybody is reviewed with the same process. It is a matter of whether a university would be allowed to look at the whole student, including whether they have experienced racism,” he said.

Experiencing diversity at the university “is part of the complete education of our students,” he said.

Gov. Cooper vetoes GOP bill cutting off federal unemployment benefits

Governor Roy Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday vetoed a bill that would have ended the extra $300-a-week in federal money that unemployed people in the state receive.

Republicans pushed the bill, saying the federal unemployment insurance supplement s contributing to a labor shortage because it keeps people from looking for work.

Others argue that it’s a lack of childcare, worry about contracting COVID, or people seeking jobs better than the ones they had that’s contributing to the struggles employers are having filling vacancies.

More than 20 Republican-led states have opted out of the federal unemployment supplement.

All North Carolina Senate Democrats voted against the bill, making it unlikely that the legislature will be able to override Cooper’s veto. The federal unemployment supplement is set to expire September 6 of this year. Three House Democrats joined Republicans in passing the bill by a vote of 66-44.

Senate bill 116 also directed $250 million from this year’s federal rescue plan be used for subsidized childcare.

Senate Republicans initially proposed offering signing bonuses to people who took jobs, anticipating Cooper would veto a measure cutting off the federal supplement.

Cooper, a Democrat, said in his veto message that ending the supplemental benefit would hurt the state.

“Unemployment is declining with more people getting vaccinated and into the workforce as North Carolina has strengthened work search requirements for those receiving benefits,” Cooper said in a statement.

“The federal help that this bill cuts off will only last a few more weeks and it supplements North Carolina’s state benefits, which are among the stingiest in the country. Prematurely stopping these benefits hurts our state by sending back money that could be injected into our economy with people using it for things like food and rent. I support strong efforts to make more quality childcare available and to provide businesses with funds for hiring bonuses and the bill falls short on both of these.”

ProPublica last year called North Carolina the worst state to be unemployed. Republicans beginning in 2013 restricted eligibility and cut maximum benefits and the duration of benefits.

A working paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco published in May posited that the federal unemployment supplement contributed slightly to job-finding rates.

The estimated impact of the extra $300 is “that each month in early 2021, about seven out of 28 unemployed individuals receive job offers that they would normally accept, but one of the seven decides to decline the offer due to the availability of the extra $300 per week in UI payments,” they wrote.

Senate leader Phil Berger’s office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. In a statement on Medium, Berger said manufacturers will end up sending jobs to other countries.

“It’s a shame to see Gov. Cooper incentivize people not to work instead of addressing our state’s severe labor shortage,” Berger wrote.

U.S. Supreme Court upholds Arizona’s ban on out-of-precinct voting. What could it mean for North Carolina voters?

The U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an Arizona law that bans out-of-precinct voting could signal repercussions for North Carolina voters.

Tossing out ballots cast by people who vote in the wrong precinct was part of the 2013 North Carolina law best known for requiring voter photo ID.

A federal appeals court struck down the law in 2016 saying its provisions “targeted African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Several lawsuits challenging voter photo ID in North Carolina are ongoing.

North Carolina voters who go to the wrong precinct on Election Day have their choices count for races in which they are eligible to vote, as long as they vote in their home county.

The U.S. Supreme Court opinion handed down Thursday could clear the way for North Carolina legislators to try for an out-of-precinct ballot ban.

Opponents of the Arizona election provisions argued they disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In the 6-3 opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Having to identify one’s polling place and then travel there to vote does not exceed the usual burdens of voting.’”

NC Republican Rep. Grey Mills, chairman of the House Election Law and Campaign Finance Committee, and GOP Senators Warren Daniel, Ralph Hise, and Paul Newton, co-chairmen of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, did not respond to email Thursday.

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said in an interview that he hoped the legislature would not attempt another out-of-precinct ballot ban.

In any case, Phillips doubted such a bill would survive a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

“Given what happened eight years ago and Republicans losing that legal battle – they would have a fight on their hands again if they tried to pass that,” Phillips said. “I cannot imagine that Democrats would join Republicans in passing that kind of law and having the Governor sign it.”

Republicans hold majorities in both the state House and Senate, but do not have enough votes to override vetoes on their own.

An attempt to reimpose a ban on out-of-precinct voting in North Carolina would invite another lawsuit, said Mitchell D. Brown, voting rights counsel at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The voting rights group challenged the state’s 2013 law, and filed an amicus brief in the Arizona U.S. Supreme Court case.

“We would challenge any law that bans out-of-precinct voting,” Brown said. “I think the data we have shows that there is a heavy disparate impact.”

In its amicus brief, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice described the burdens placed on Black voters in North Carolina who had their ballots thrown out because they could not get to their assigned precincts due to disability, lack of transportation, or work obligations that prevented them from traveling long distances. The North Carolina law was active for a short time in 2014.

Black voters change residences more often than white voters, and are less likely to have transportation, the brief said.

Those examples show how voting laws that appear to be neutral “can have a profound, and inevitable, adverse effect on minority voting,” the brief said.

In one case, a couple in Wayne County walked to the polling site closest to their home, but were told they were at the wrong place. Their assigned precinct was more twice the distance from their home, according to the brief.

They did not own a car, could not afford to use public transportation, and had physical disabilities that limited how far they could walk.

Because they couldn’t walk to their assigned precinct, they cast out-of-precinct ballots that ended up getting thrown out.

In the Supreme Court opinion, Alito wrote that the Arizona ban on out-of-precinct ballots was okay for 98% of voters.

“The racial disparity in burdens allegedly caused by the out-of-precinct policy is small in absolute terms,” he wrote. “Of the Arizona counties that reported out-of-precinct ballots in the 2016 general election, a little over 1% of Hispanic voters, 1% of African-American voters, and 1% of Native American voters who voted on election day cast an out-of-precinct ballot. For non-minority voters, the rate was around 0.5%. A procedure that appears to work for 98% or more of voters to whom it applies—minority and non-minority alike—is unlikely to render a system unequally open.”

Brown, the Southern Coalition lawyer, said it matters if  2% of voters are blocked by law from having their votes count.

“By definition, if 2 percent cannot access the ballot box, that’s not equal access,” Brown said. “Two percent is a lot of voters, and that could change the outcome of elections.”

The U.S. Supreme Court decision comes as dozens of states have approved or are considering more voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Cheri Beasley, a candidate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, denounced the decision.

“As more than 40 legislatures across the country work to disenfranchise voters, especially voters of color, the Supreme Court struck another blow to our democracy by giving states the ability to do just that with limited recourse,” Beasley, a former NC Supreme Court chief justice, said in a statement.

“This decision dangerously puts at risk our ability to fight against voter suppression and makes it even more urgent for Congress to act to protect Americans’ right to vote. In the Senate, I will always stand up for what’s right and will fight to protect the fundamental right to vote.”

Questions continue to mount over UNC Press board appointment

Last week Policy Watch reported on the case of Eric Muller, the renowned UNC-Chapel Hill law professor who was denied a reappointment to the UNC Press Board of Governors, despite recently being unanimously re-elected as its chairman.

As reported, the UNC Board of Governors’ refusal to accept Muller for reappointment appears to be unprecedented. Sources on the board and at the UNC System told Policy Watch Muller’s comments about the university system’s handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument and race-related issues at UNC-Chapel Hill had led conservative board members to disqualify him for reappointment.

From that story:

The UNC Board of Governors approves all appointments to the UNC Press Board of Governors. But until now, the board has followed the recommendations of the campus level nominating committee and the chancellor.

On March 24, UNC Chapel-Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sent a letter to UNC System President Peter Hans approving the nominating committee’s recommendation for the reappointment of Eric Muller, Linda Hanley-Bowdoin and Elizabeth Engelhardt.

But on May 19 the UNC System office informed Guskiewicz and UNC Press Director John Sherer the University Governance Committee would only consider Engelhardt and Hanley-Bowdoin.

[David] Powers, chair of the committee, said the board wanted to “change the membership onsome of these boards more frequently,” according to a system email obtained by Policy Watch.

That explanation didn’t make sense to UNC Press board members or others directly involved in the appointment process. Muller was being appointed to a third term on the UNC Press board, but so was Hanley-Bowdoin. Englehardt was being appointed to a second full term. The committee expressed no problem with either of their appointments.

“It’s an explanation that makes no sense on its face,” a UNC System source close to the process told Policy Watch. “It is completely illogical. You cannot appoint one person to a third term and not another and then argue people shouldn’t be serving three terms.”

The University Governance Committee asked Guskiewicz to advance another name for the board, but not Muller. Guskiewicz declined to do so, but did not tell the UNC Press board or the director of the UNC press that he’d gotten this request.

The UNC Board of Governors and its committees met on May 26 and 27, approving Hanley-Bowdoin and Engelhardt but not taking up Muller’s appointment. That led Lisa Levenstein, vice chair of the UNC Press board, to write to Powers and UNC System President Peter Hans on June 2 to ask why Muller was not considered and suggest his reappointment be considered at the University Governance Committee’s next meeting.

Hans and Powers didn’t respond personally. Instead, UNC System General Counsel Andrew Tripp wrote a reply on Hans’s behalf in which he declined to “speculate” on the motives for the board approving two of the names forwarded for consideration but not Muller. The UNC System President’s role in the process is simply to forward names to the board of governors, Tripp wrote in an email obtained by Policy Watch.

 

Policy Watch has requested e-mails related to the decision and is still waiting for some of its requests to be fulfilled. Hans, Guskiewicz and Powers have been silent on the issue.

But this week Policy Watch interviewed Marty Kotis, whose second term on the UNC Board of Governors is coming to a close as he prepares to join the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Kotis, one of the more outspoken of the board’s members, waved away the idea that the board’s failure to reappoint Muller was political.

“He’s served two terms on the board,” Kotis said. “That’s ten years. He was chair of the board his last term. It seems like that’s long enough to serve on a board. These aren’t lifetime appointments.”

Wouldn’t that logic also apply to Hanley-Bowdoin, who was reappointed to a third term?

Eric Muller

“We’ve been trying to get more diversity on some of these boards,” Kotis said. “Not reappointing a woman on the board wouldn’t help with that. With Muller, it’s not reappointing another white man.”

But the University Governance Committee did not ask Guskiewicz to advance the name of a woman or non-white person. It asked for a candidate who was not Muller. If diversity is now a priority on boards appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly or its appointees on the UNC Board of Governors, progress appears to be incremental at best over the last few years. The UNC Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees remain overwhelmingly white and male. Appointments to lower boards continue to lean white, male and conservative, rarely approximating the racial or gender makeup of the universities or communities they are meant to serve.

In 2019 the board of governors approved four members of the UNC Press Board of Governors. Three of those four were white men. Two of those white men were new appointments. One was a reappointment.

Muller’s case comes on the heels of the controversy over the UNC Board of Trustees denying acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure. Students, faculty, alumni and academic groups across the country are pointing to a pattern of interference with academic freedom.

Faculty at the UNC Law School released a statement last week, saying recent decisions by the board of governors and board of trustees “undermined the morale of faculty and undermine the intellectual credibility and moral integrity of the University.”

This week free speech advocacy group PEN America also weighed in on Muller’s case.

“This is another unusual incident where the motivations and judgements of UNC’s governing bodies are being rightfully called into question”, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America in a written statement. “The same principles of academic freedom that should protect Muller from retaliation for his teaching and scholarship must extend to his public commentary on UNC’s decisions, which are closely related to his field of academic expertise.”

“The onus now falls on the Board of Governors to explain the rationale for this decision, to offer some legitimate reason for their decision based on Professor Muller’s execution of his academic duties,” Friedman said. “Otherwise observers will be left wondering whether the UNC system has forfeited its commitment to reasoned disagreement, open exchange, and academic freedom in favor of a system of political interference and ideological uniformity.”

Thorsten Wagner, executive director of Fellowships and Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, also urged the board of governors to reconsider Muller’s reappointment.

“Eric L. Muller has consistently shown extraordinary ethical leadership as a professional — in his role as legal expert, academic teacher, educator, and public intellectual,” Wagner wrote For almost a decade he has been pioneering FASPE’s Law program, encouraging law students and practicing lawyers to apply the lessons from past failures of the legal profession as they critically examine constructs, current developments, and issues that raise ethical concerns.”

“He has put this self-critical perspective into practice in his leading scholarship on the role of lawyers in American-Japanese internment camps, reaching a wide audience, and in his insights on the conflicts over the ways the University of North Carolina has been dealing with the symbols of a fraught and toxic history of slavery and the Civil War,” Wagner wrote. “Irrespective of particular positions, it is Professor Muller’s ethical obligation to speak his mind in matters of professional responsibility, which he has consistently done in a respectful manner.”

“We urge the University of North Carolina to reconsider its decision not to re-appoint him to the Board of Governors of UNC Press, given his long and proven track record of ethical leadership at a time when this country, and its educational institutions, so sorely need it,” Wagner wrote.