Commentary, Legislature

Legislative fail: Health care special session

Image: Adobe Stock

When Rachel Radford made the trip to Raleigh Wednesday morning, she was hoping to get the chance to talk with her legislators about expanding Medicaid.

“So many families like mine have the most unappreciated, most overlooked job to care for children who have special abilities,” said Radford, a parent and advocate from Goldsboro NC. “Unfortunately caring for children with special needs is not a job that comes with health insurance. Every parent needs health coverage so that we can survive to care for our children. We need our legislators to pass Medicaid expansion swiftly.”

Unfortunately Rachel’s legislators weren’t there to listen.

Speaker Moore and Senate Pro Tem Berger had called legislators to Raleigh for a “special session” that was supposed to be about health care. That session was called to order on Tuesday morning. Legislators adjourned and left Raleigh the same day with no budget, and no action on health care.

Once again, legislative leaders did not allow any discussion or vote to expand Medicaid – despite the fact that they have a bipartisan bill on the table in HB 655.

More than half a million North Carolinians, including Rachel and her husband, can’t see a doctor when they need one, because reliable health insurance is out of reach. Children need healthy parents by their sides. And children are more likely to have health coverage and get the care they need, when their parents are covered. To drive that point home, in 2018 the number of uninsured children in North Carolina increased for the second year in a row.

House Speaker Tim Moore promised a House vote on the compromise legislation in September, when House members voted to override the Governor’s veto of the state budget.

“I said, we will actually vote on the Carolina Cares Medicaid bill. I’m going to keep my word. We’re going to vote on that bill,” Moore stated in his press conference after the veto override, adding that the vote would take place the following week.

Months later, the House has still not been allowed to vote on the issue, and the Senate has never even discussed it in a committee meeting. Speaking to NC Health News last week, bill sponsor Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) made it clear that Moore and Berger are the ones standing in the way of action on his compromise bill.

“I think the House is in a good position to move it whenever we decide to do that, whenever leadership decides to give me the okay to move forward,” Lambeth said.

Meanwhile thousands of people in every North Carolina county have no access to affordable health coverage. We need legislative leaders to put political games aside and get the job done.

Three-quarters of states have already accepted the federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs. These states are saving money and getting care to those who need it most, according to dozens of peer-reviewed studies. Kansas just announced they will be the latest “red” state to expand Medicaid.North Carolina should be the next.

Adam Sotak is NC Child’s Public Engagement Director. His article initially appeared on the NC Child website.

Commentary, Education, Legislature

Leandro report: Principal pay plan harms high-need schools

This week, the much-anticipated Leandro report by WestEd was finally made public.

The report is the result of a comprehensive, year-long study by non-partisan education consultants appointed by North Carolina’s courts to take a systematic look at whether the state is living up to its constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education” to each child.

It provides a detailed road map for improvements that need to be made to ensure that we are meeting the educational needs of our students, including how we pay our school leaders.

One critical area of need WestEd identified is providing “a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.”  That need echoes existing research which finds that having an effective principal in place is crucial to the success of a school, especially those that serve our most disadvantaged students.  Clearly one of the most important ways we can ensure we have the right principals where they are most needed is through an effective compensation model.

North Carolina’s principal pay system was overhauled in 2017, after our ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation.  The new pay plan, which was crafted with intense lobbying by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, compensates school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year, with overall pay fluctuating accordingly on an annual basis.

The Leandro report finds that North Carolina’s system for paying principals “works against the state’s meeting the requirement of a qualified principal in every school” because it “creates a disincentive for effective principals to work in underperforming schools, which often take more than one year to improve and meet or exceed targets for growth.”  As it currently stands, if a principal who has been rated ‘effective’ moves into a low-performing school, he or she has a very short period of time to bring test scores up before seeing a reduction in salary.

Of principals who were surveyed for the Leandro study, 24% said that, as a result of the new principal pay policy, they would “seek to retire as soon as possible,” “leave to obtain principalship in another school,” or “leave the principalship.”  A whopping 44% said they “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the compensation model.

WestEd’s recommendation is for a major overhaul of principal compensation.  Instead of tying pay solely to test scores, the report calls for broadening indicators of progress to include measures related to things like teacher recruitment/retention and school working conditions.  It suggests that North Carolina create “incentives, rather than disincentives, for working in high-need schools,” potentially including the following:

*A meaningful supplement for principals who take a position to turn around a persistently failing school

*Protection against principals having a salary reduction if they go to work in low-performing, hard-to-staff school in order to enable multiyear efforts to improve these schools

The WestEd report should serve as a major wake up call to state lawmakers who must now take action to ensure compliance with the Leandro court decision.  There’s no better place to start than working toward ensuring stable leadership in our neediest schools.

Justin Parmenter is an educator and public school advocate who lives in Charlotte. He blogs regularly at Notes from The Chalkboard.

Commentary, Legislature, News, Trump Administration

Trump administration cracks down on food stamps; new rule expected to deny assistance to 700,000 people

Beware the moments when no one is focusing on Trump administration policy, because it is usually these times when the cruelty-mongers in D.C. unfurl their most aggressively hostile regulations.

Case in point: President Trump on Wednesday unrolled a widely-expected crackdown on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program —colloquially known as “food stamps.” The new rules are expected to deny assistance to an estimated 700,000 low-income Americans.

Here is the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ (CBPP) explanation of the rule:

Those affected — SNAP participants ages 18 through 49 who aren’t raising minor children in their homes — are among the poorest of the poor, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Their average income is just 18 percent of the poverty line. Their average monthly SNAP benefits are about $165 per month.

A longstanding, harsh provision of SNAP limits these 18- through 49-year-olds to just three months of benefits, while not employed for at least 20 hours a week, out of every three years. Because of its severe nature, this provision of law also allows states to seek, and USDA to grant, waivers of this three-month cut-off for areas where insufficient jobs are available for these individuals, such as when unemployment is elevated.

From the provision’s enactment in 1996 until now, both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have operated under a common set of criteria in granting waivers from the three-month cut-off. And Democratic and Republican governors alike have sought and secured these waivers. Thirty-six states currently have waivers for parts of their state where unemployment is highest.

Now, the Trump Administration is abandoning this longstanding, bipartisan practice, however, and replacing it with a much more restrictive rule that will increase hunger and destitution. The new rule sharply restricts states’ ability to protect unemployed adults from the harsh time limit. It does so by substantially narrowing the criteria that states have most commonly used to qualify for waivers, thereby greatly shrinking the number of areas that can qualify for relief. As a result, the Trump Administration itself estimates that the rule will cut off basic food aid to nearly 700,000 unemployed or underemployed individuals.

In keeping with their brand, The National Review called the rule “commonsensical” Wednesday, which has the flamboyant quality of being an ugly word and an ugly statement at the same time. It makes sense only if withdrawing aid to the very poor and masking your choice as “the shrewd thing to do” constitutes a party platform.

It makes sense only if you believe that it is an aid to the United States to have more extremely poor people — people disproportionately impacted when the next recession hits.

More from CBPP:

Most of these individuals are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children. For many of them, SNAP is the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet.

What’s more, the final rule is more severe than the proposed rule, which itself was very harsh. States currently can request waivers when they experience rapidly rising unemployment, as typically occurs at the onset of economic downturns based on the Department of Labor’s determination that the state qualifies for extra federal unemployment benefits. But under the final rule, states must rely on historical data that would not reflect the onset of economic downturns until many months later. Moreover, far fewer areas will qualify for waivers during a widespread, national recession. A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP — its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance. Instead of mitigating a recession’s harm, the new rule will exacerbate it.

Democrats in North Carolina’s state legislature filed a bill this year that, among its provisions, aimed at repealing the state’s prohibition on the SNAP time-limit waiver, but it did not resonate with the Republican-controlled chambers. The bill was referred to a House rules committee but did not move.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline investigation: Much ado about … something?

The General Assembly’s hired investigators. (Photo: WRAL livestream)

There are too many reasons to mention why we should be skeptical of the N.C. General Assembly’s keen interest in Gov. Roy Cooper’s handling of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline permitting.

Republican lawmakers went full Barnum & Bailey last year when they attempted to extract pipeline details from Lee Lilley, Cooper’s newly-named director of legislative affairs, during a budget committee meeting. Indeed, legislators in the GOP caucus had, clearly, been watching too many episodes of Perry Mason.

And be sure that our party-obsessed Republican leadership considered political affiliation when they hired Wilmington-based Eagle Intel last year to conduct the probe at a cost of about $83,000 in public money. As Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg wrote last December, two are registered Republicans. The third is unaffiliated.

That said, there are key questions asked here about how controversial — and yes, highly political — projects are permitted. We should be asking how such projects are arrived at in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Are political and economic concerns relevant in such permits? If so, how are they measured against the pressing environmental concerns that should be paramount to the officials in Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality?

According to the General Assembly’s investigators, based on communications between Duke Energy officials, “it would be reasonable to conclude that Governor Cooper improperly used the authority and influence of his Office” to coerce the pipeline’s owners into a $57.8 million mitigation fund, although they do not offer any conclusive evidence of that nature.

Duke Energy denies it, and so does the governor’s office. And here’s this important kernel from Sorg’s story this morning:

As Policy Watch reported this year, the governor’s office and DEQ did coordinate on the timing of their respective announcements, based on communication in public records. But there is no proof in the public record that the permit approval hinged on the fund.

It is a striking coincidence that Republicans in Raleigh are searching desperately for evidence of “quid pro quo” but their counterparts in Washington, D.C., haven’t a passing interest in uncovering such a thing.

Later in their conclusions, the investigators wrote that “the information suggests that criminal violations may have occurred.” But after tossing that bombshell, they acknowledged Wednesday they had not reviewed state and federal statutes because their investigation was convened to consider civil matters.

Gov. Roy Cooper

According to WRAL, they arrived at that conclusion “based on the inconsistencies they found in people’s statements and actions, which in their experience as federal agents suggests wrongdoing.”

All due respect to their experience, but such a statement seems ill-conceived or partisan in intent unless there is something to back up that assertion.

It is the sort of thing that, without evidence, seems engineered to be a pull-quote in a campaign ad because it is rendered in an “official” report.

Are we really to proceed with such a Molotov cocktail of a conclusion based on what can be accurately described as a hunch?

That, frankly, will not do.

This whole affair is much ado about something. But it is stunning how little we can conclude about that “something” after this 82-page report.

Commentary, Education, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

N.C. GOP official disputes account of suffering teacher, gets dunked on by Rep. Deb Butler

Rep. Deb Butler

(Note: This post originally published Wednesday morning on the “Notes from the Chalkboard” blog, which is maintained by Charlotte teacher and K-12 activist Justin Parmenter.)

After the N.C. Republican Party Communications Director questioned the veracity of her account of a public school teacher not having enough money for food and gas, Representative Deb “I Will Not Yield” Butler responded to his public records request by publishing the teacher’s entire heartbreaking email on Twitter.

Tuesday evening, Brunswick/New Hanover County Representative Deb Butler posted the following tweet:

Shortly after her tweet, Butler’s legislative assistant Tayler Williams received an email from North Carolina Republican Party Communications Director Jeff Hauser.  Hauser was making a formal records request that Butler turn over the email she claimed to have received from the teacher.

That’s right.  The N.C. GOP didn’t believe a North Carolina teacher could be struggling to this degree.

In response to the request, Butler asked the teacher for permission to publish the email in its entirety and posted it on Twitter just an hour after Hauser asked for it.

You can read the gut-wrenching account of this Brunswick County teacher’s financial struggles in its entirety below:

…a local teacher here in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  I wanted to express my concern and frustration over the requirements and qualifications required for any form of public assistance.  I realize that there are large amounts of families that are in tight financial situations but I am having difficulty with the fact that as a state employee who works extremely hard every day and I am not able to receive help.  I am a single mom with zero support from my child’s father. He has been unable to be located and works under the table so I cannot track his employment. I have been denied any form of help, from Medicaid for my daughter to food stamps and childcare vouchers.  I understand that I am employed and I am thankful for this every day but when I submit my information to try to get any assistance, I am denied because my Gross amount of pay is utilized, rather than my take home pay. According to my paycheck, I make $4,840 a month.  This is not accurate. I have to take into consideration that I only get paid 10 times a year and therefore I have set up at Summer Cash account through SECU to help save money for the months I am not paid in the Summer. I take out $600 from each paycheck for that amount which leaves me with $4,240.  I also have supplemental insurances to help cover emergencies since I am the only income for my family. This costs $440.32 a month. I am now at $3,799 a month. Then I have to take into account that I have state, federal, retirement, social security, and medicare taken from my paycheck for the amount of $1,070.89.  I am now bringing home $2,728.79. With my take home pay, I have monthly bills that I have to pay. I pay $975 a month in rent, $130 in utilities, my phone bill is $143, car insurance is $100, insurance for my daughters health and dental is $84. I have student loan payments at $336 a month. I have personal loan payments each month from trying to cover months that I was extremely in debt.  These total $393. I have to pay day care each week at $90 a week so on average that is $405. I am at $162.79 left. I also have credit card payments each month that cost $156.00. I have $6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise. I am currently in debt from not being able to pay all of my bills each month. I am $504 in debt to one student loan company and $672 to another.  My bank account currently sits at $0.64. I have another week before payday.

If you would so willing to help explain to me what I can do about this I would greatly appreciate it.  I am trying extremely hard each month to make it day to day. I often go without food in order to make sure that my daughter is provided for.  I depend on the charity of friends to help cook me dinner with leftovers since they know how hard I am struggling. I have sold off everything I can in my household to try to supplement my income and I try to pick up babysitting jobs or tutoring to make ends meet.  I am asking for your help as my local representative with this. I know I am not the only teacher in this situation. I realize that some strides are being taken to help with teacher pay but I need help now. If I would be able to get any kind of assistance I would be more than grateful.

It’s hard to imagine being less in tune to the realities of life for a North Carolina public school teacher than the Republican Party is right now.  Earlier this month our General Assembly passed a bill which was inaccurately titled the “Strengthening Educators’ Pay Act.” The legislation would have given teachers in years 0-15 no raise at all for the next two years and approximately $50 a month more to the majority of experienced teachers at 16 years and up.

That bill was so insulting to North Carolina’s educators, especially when paired with the massive corporate tax cut passed around the same time, that Governor Cooper vetoed it and asked the legislature to do better.  Cooper even offered to negotiate salary increases for educators independent of the Medicaid expansion issue, which has been at the heart of our four month budget impasse. The General Assembly responded by adjourning until mid-January.

When North Carolina teachers have to go hungry in order to provide for their children, you know the problem has gotten really bad. When a high-ranking representative of the majority party refuses to accept that reality, it’s clear that relying on our state legislature to step up and do the right thing is probably not realistic.  It’s an incredibly sad state of affairs.

At this point all we can really do is hope that better days lie ahead.