News

New Elon Poll looks at NC views on opioid crisis

If you’ve followed NC Policy Watch’s ongoing coverage of the opioid epidemic and the state’s reaction to it, you’ll want to check out the results of the latest Elon University Poll.

Among its findings: about one in three North Carolinians surveyed have been personally affected by opioid dependence or has a close relationship with someone who has.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of those polled viewed prescription drugs as more of a problem than illicit street drugs like heroin. That lines up with the opinions of experts who study the problem.

Most respondents also believe their community does not have the proper resources to deal with the problem.

That shouldn’t come as a shock to those who have been following the state response to the problem.

The state budget passed over the summer improved funding for the state’s Controlled Substances Reporting System and funneled $10 million in federal grants to treatment services.

But it was well under what the governor called for in his suggested budget and only about half of what was called for in the bi-partisan Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act.

A small pilot program to treat opiate overdoses was funded in Wilmington, one of the worst places in the country for opioid abuse.

What may be a surprise is the divide over how best to handle the problem.

From the poll:

Political party affiliation produced little variation in the responses across many of the questions related to the opioid crisis in this survey, but not when it comes to opinions about the best way to address the issue — the criminal justice system vs. the health care system.

Overall, 56 percent of respondents said the health care system is the best way to deal with the problem, with 61 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents holding that view compared to 48 percent of Republicans. As for favoring the criminal justice system, 31 percent of Republicans held that view compared to 18 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of independents. Overall, 21 percent favored the criminal justice system.

The poll – a live-caller, dual-frame (landline and cell phone) survey of 771 registered voters in North Carolina – was conducted Nov. 6-9 and has a margin of error +/-3.5 percent.

Commentary, News

Must read: Did Trump’s federal court nominee for NC lie to the Senate?

Thomas Farr

Be sure to check out a story in Durham’s Indy Week by reporters Tommy Goldsmith and Erica Hellerstein about Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr — Donald Trump’s controversial nominee to fill the decade-old vacancy on the federal district court in North Carolina’s Eastern District.

This is from the story “Did Former Helms Lawyer Thomas Farr Lie to the Senate Judiciary Committee? It Sure Looks That Way.”:

Raleigh lawyer Thomas Farr, a nominee for a federal judgeship, knew well in advance about a controversial 1990 postcard campaign designed by Republicans to intimidate blacks who wanted to vote, according to a former Department of Justice investigator.

The statements made this week by Gerald Hebert, a federal attorney in 1990, directly contradict Farr’s sworn testimony in September before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that he only heard about it after a Justice Department letter responding to the plan….

Hebert told the INDY Wednesday that he learned about the role Farr played planning the postcards when responding to complaints to the Justice Department about the 1990 senatorial campaign of the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms.

A meeting planning “ballot security” efforts—including the intimidating postcards—included Farr and took place in mid-October before the November election between Helms, who won, and then-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, Hebert says, referring to contemporaneous handwritten notes.

“We talked to Farr, and he confirmed a lot of what we’d heard,” Hebert told the INDY Wednesday. “I don’t think he can really claim that the first he heard of it from a Justice Department letter.”

Yet that’s exactly what he did.

The Justice Department eventually charged the state Republican Party and the Helms campaign, for which Farr was lead counsel, with violating African-American voters’ rights by sending more than one hundred thousand postcards, mostly to black neighborhoods, suggesting that recipients were ineligible to vote and could be prosecuted if they tried.

“He was certainly involved in the scheme as it was being developed,” Hebert told this reporter for a 2009 News & Observer story….

Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, an association of public interest and civil rights organizations formed in 1979, says Hebert’s account of Farr’s early involvement makes sense given what she called Farr’s long record of voter suppression efforts.

“There’s certainly a clear discrepancy between what Mr. Farr testified to under oath to the committee and what has and will be reported about his activities with Helms regarding voter suppression,” Aron says. “A key qualification for a judge is impeccable honesty. This raises a whole slew of questions.”

Though Farr was approved in a narrow and partisan 11-9 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, his nomination has yet to be taken up by the full Senate. Click here to read the rest of this damning story.

Courts & the Law, News

Farm workers, civil rights groups file federal lawsuit over NC Farm Act

Farm workers and civil rights groups announced a federal lawsuit outside the legislature Wednesday over a recently passed law that inhibits farm workers from unionizing. (Photo by Carol Brooke)

North Carolina farm workers and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit this week challenging a state law that inhibits the ability of farm workers to organize and make collective bargaining agreements with employers.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the only farm workers’ union in the state — the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) — and two individual farm workers. It was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the North Carolina Justice Center and the Law Offices of Robert J. Willis.

The suit argues that the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017, Senate Bill 617, impedes farm workers’ First Amendment right to participate in unions, and asserts that the law is discriminatory, as more than 90 percent of the state’s agricultural workers are Latino.

The groups are asking the court to block implementation of the law as litigation proceeds. They gathered Wednesday outside the legislature for a press conference about the matter.

“Politicians that are also growers shouldn’t pass self-serving laws simply because they don’t want their workers to unionize,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. “With the continuation of Jim Crow-era laws that aim to stop a now almost entirely Latino workforce from organizing, this is an affront to freedom of association and smacks of racism. Companies like Reynolds American should be embarrassed that growers in their supply chains are attacking the very farm workers who make their companies’ wealth.”

More than 100,000 farmworkers provide labor to North Carolina farms, helping to generate more than $12 billion for the state economy, according to the ACLU. The vast majority are Latinos and work seasonally, many under temporary visas.

SB617 bars farm worker unions from entering into agreements with employers to have union dues transferred from paychecks — even if the union members want it, and even if the employer agrees to the arrangement.

(Photo by Carol Brooke)

Because North Carolina is a so-called “right-to-work” state, dues deductions can only occur when individual workers choose to have dues deducted, according to the ACLU. Many of FLOC’s members are guest-workers who lack ready access to U.S. bank accounts, credit cards and other means of making regular union dues payments, and they therefore rely on dues transfer arrangements to pay their union dues. If those arrangements become invalid, the union will be required to divert most of its limited resources to collecting dues individually from each worker.

The law also prohibits agricultural producers from signing any agreement with a union relating to a lawsuit, such as a settlement in which an employer agrees to recognize a union, or a collective bargaining agreement that includes a promise not to sue. FLOC has used such voluntary agreements with employers to secure critical improvements in working conditions at farms, such as higher wages and an end to exploitative recruitment fees and blacklisting.

In addition, FLOC has successfully challenged tobacco giants, such as Reynolds American to acknowledge their responsibility for the conditions workers face in their supply chains. The new law introduces major obstacles to FLOC’s ability to renew its existing agreements and pursue more in the future.

(Photo by Carol Brooke)

“Farmworkers are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers in the state,” said Clermont Ripley, a staff attorney with the NC Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. NC Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch. “They arguably need a union more than anyone else. In passing the Farm Act, our legislature — staunchly opposed to organized labor and unquestioningly deferential to the interests of big business — has further weakened the ability of farmworkers to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers.”

The law’s primary sponsor was Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson), who owns Jackson Farming Company and was recently sued for wage theft by Latino farm workers who were helped by FLOC.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin, Wayne), an owner of Jimmy Dixon farm in Duplin County, was the only legislator to speak in favor of the anti-worker provisions in the bill on the House floor. He said the law was necessary because “there seems to be a growing wave of folks that are interested in farm labor.”

Environment

A long night ahead in Garysburg: Public hearing on Atlantic Coast Pipeline air permit

This illustration shows the parts of a natural gas compressor station. These stations can leak various pollutants, including the greenhouse gas methane and particulate matter. (Illustration: Courtesy Ohio EPA and Nexus Transmission)

Fifty-six tons of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — entered the air over Northampton County in 2015, and that amount could increase if a compressor station is built there as part of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Co-owned by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, the controversial $5.5 billion project would pipe natural gas from a fracking operation in West Virginia through Virginia and North Carolina — and possibly South Carolina.

The utilities have applied to the NC Department of Environmental Quality for a permit operate a new compressor station for the pipeline in Pleasant Hill, near the Virginia border. The station will include natural-gas fired compressor turbines, an emergency generator, storage tanks and other equipment. The purpose of the station is to boost pressure in the pipeline to send natural gas farther down the line.

That request prompted DEQ to hold a public hearing tonight at 6 p.m. at Garysburg Town Hall, 504 Old Highway Road. Speakers can register beginning at 5 p.m.

Compressor stations can emit volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, greenhouse gases, and small amounts of hazardous air pollutants, such as benzene, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene.

With just 20,000 residents — 58 percent of them Black — Northampton County nonetheless is home to several polluting industries. Many of them involve the timber sector: paper and pulp mills, and an Enviva wood pellet plant.

Air permits allow industry to emit certain amounts of pollution, based on federal and state regulations.

For example, industrial sources legally emitted over 239,000 tons of carbon dioxide and nearly 100 tons of ultrafine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, in 2015, according to DEQ’s air emissions inventory database. PM 2.5 is especially harmful because the particles are so small they easily enter and burrow into the lungs, and can cause respiratory illness.

Northampton County industry was responsible for another 48,000 pounds of formaldehyde, 3,232 pounds of benzene, plus dozens more pollutants in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available.

News

Expert urges caution as North Carolina lawmakers consider school funding overhaul

An expert in school funding models told North Carolina lawmakers Wednesday they should tread lightly to avoid “unintended consequences” as they consider a major face-lift for K-12 funding.

Michael Griffith, a school finance strategist with the Education Commission of the States—an interstate compact for K-12 policymaking—said legislators should also court public feedback.

“The  more you can bring the public into the process, the better it’s going to be,” Griffith said. “And the easier it’s going to be for them to accept the formula.”

Griffith addressed a pivotal legislative panel that, over the next two years or more, is expected to prepare a comprehensive overhaul of the state funding system or patch shortfalls detailed in a scathing 2016 report.

It’s unclear if or when state House and Senate legislators on the Joint Legislative Task Force for Education Finance Reform would hold public feedback sessions on the proposed overhaul, which is expected to steer leaders toward a simpler funding model.

Lawmakers rebuffed calls to include representation from local school district finance offices when they created the task force this year.

The panel, which is likely to produce an interim report sometime in 2018, will move in its first meetings to develop members’ knowledge base on the complicated funding method.

The state’s system hinges on 37 separate allocations for various K-12 needs, which dictate how local governments receive cash from state coffers. Separate allocations exist for teachers, classroom supplies, students with limited English proficiency as well as poor and rural counties.

N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

Lawmakers are pushing for a “student-based” funding method, whereby the state sets a certain dollar amount per student and builds in weights for students in need of additional support.

“In order for us to grasp really the scope and extent of what’s in front of us, we need to learn a lot more about how we got here, what other states are doing and what our options are,” said Rep. Craig Horn, the Union County Republican who spearheaded this year’s efforts to launch the task force.

Griffith was the only presenter on Wednesday’s agenda. An expert who says he’s read all 50 states’ funding formulas, Griffith characterized North Carolina’s model as complicated, but not the most complicated in the nation.

However, he criticized the system as being overly “rigid,” requiring constant adjustment by state leaders as they reconfigure public school costs.

Griffith also reminded lawmakers that other methods such as the student-based funding model don’t necessarily guarantee greater equity for students, a key consideration as legislators consider doing away with various allocations erected to dispense more cash to high-needs districts.

Whatever the state’s decision, Griffith emphasized the difficulty and controversy baked into a complete funding model change, suggesting legislators extend at least a temporary “hold harmless” provision in to any funding model change that would buffer any districts that may lose dollars.

A date for the task force’s next meeting has not been determined yet. Stay tuned to Policy Watch for more updates.