Commentary, News

The Week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Conservative leaders go with corporate power over human wellbeing (and even property rights)

It usually happens a few times every legislative session: at some point during their annual stay in the state capital, North Carolina lawmakers come to a bellwether moment or two at which they provide a full expression of who they are and what they stand for. Sometimes, these moments are about race; sometimes they are about human rights or civil liberties; sometimes they are about basic questions of environmental sustainability; and sometimes they are about the clash of human beings and corporations.

Recently, we arrived at one such moment that arguably relates to all four categories. It happened when lobbyists for one of the state’s most powerful and frequently destructive industries prevailed upon conservative leaders in the state Senate to insert some significant new law changes into a previously innocuous bill. The changes would alter the relationship between industrial hog factories (“farms” seems much too genteel of a term to describe these massive and grim operations) and the mostly powerless people of limited means (many of them people of color) who tend to live nearby.

As Policy Watch environmental reporter Lisa Sorg has reported here, here and here, legislators are seeking to make it much more difficult for individuals and families injured by the overpowering and life-degrading output of these massive, corporate-controlled operations – the stench, the airborne fecal matter, the insect swarms, the buzzards, the truckloads of hog carcasses – to bring common law nuisance suits against the multinational corporations that control them. The action is in direct response to a series of lawsuits brought against the pork giant, Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of the Chinese corporate behemoth known as the WH Group. [Read more…]

***Bonus:  WATCH: Republican legislator chide colleagues on rushed process, legislation to protect “one giant corporation” (video)

2. Early voting bill stirs controversy among watchdogs, Board of Elections

3. GOP leaders seek to poison school safety bill with partisan attack on the Affordable Care Act

4. Allegations of sexism, partisanship follow local election board’s disqualification of Berger challenger

5. Landowners along potential MVP Southgate path fighting unwanted land agents still waiting for attorney general to intervene

6. PW exclusive: Previously undisclosed fiscal note says victims’ rights constitutional amendment could cost state millions

7. N.C. State’s hyped voucher study tells us nothing about N.C.’s voucher program

News

Early voting bill approved by House, despite fierce debate

Friday morning’s House debate on a controverisal early voting bill led to arguments about previous voting-related lawsuits, long-standing political grudges and more than a century of partisan back-and-forth on race, voting and good governance.

While the House ultimately approved the bill 61-40, the debate will be taken up in the Senate and – should it become law over an assumed veto by Gov. Roy Cooper — will likely carry on in the courts.

At issue: Senate Bill 325, a measure introduced when a completely unrelated bill was gutted near midnight on Wednesday and replaced with serious changes to early voting, over which Democrats and Republicans have been fighting in and out of the courts for several years. Among the changes the bill would make:

  • Early voting would begin on Wednesday, Oct. 17 and end Friday, Nov. 2. That would eliminate the final Saturday of early voting — the most popular early voting day, especially among Black voters in North Carolina. In 2014, 103,513 voters voted on that day and in 2016 it was 193,138. Unlike Election Day, early voting is a “one stop” period in which people can register to vote on the same day.
  • All early voting sites would have to have uniform hours — 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. — during weekday early voting. While weekend voting could differ from those hours, all sites would still have to have uniform hours. Right now county election boards have the flexibility to determine early voting hours based on past experience and expected traffic.

“What we set out to do was make it more reliable and dependable,” said Rep.David Lewis (R-Harnett), the bill’s sponsor. “The voters in a county would know that their early voting site was open from a certain time to a certain time for 17 days.”

But by mandating the hours of all early voting sites, Democratic lawmakers countered, the legislature will force counties to find more volunteers willing to work longer hours and the funding to run all of their early voting sites for twelve hour shifts every day. Those that cannot will likely have to scale back early voting sites, as several county board of election are already indicating they will have to do to comply with the bill.

“This bill does not expand early voting,” said Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Wake), the minority leader. “It gives counties the ability to do so at a much higher cost than they current incur. In that way it’s a huge unfunded mandate.”

“To my knowledge not one single board of elections asked for this bill,”  Jackson said. “Not one board of elections was asked to weigh in on this bill.”

Indeed, on Thursday the Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement sent a letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) asking that lawmakers give them at least 24 hours’ notice before introducing legislation that will impact the elections they have to run.

Lewis dismissed the board’s letter Friday, saying he didn’t believe board Chairman Andy Penry, an attorney, has any elections expertise.

Rep. Henry Michaux (D-Durham) argued mandating hours of operation takes flexibility away from local boards who know best when their voting sites are busy, when they are not and how many their county needs.

“Don’t you think the people in their own communities know…waht the standards in those particular communities are?” Michaeux said. “Don’t you think they know what is best for the rules and operations for those communities?”

Several Democratic lawmakers alluded to the way in which the bill would impact Black voters, who disproportionately vote on the Saturday before an election – when, they said, the campaign is the hottest. Having been dealt defeats in federal court in which their voting laws were found to target Black voters, House Democrats argued, does the General Assembly really want to wade back into that fight?

Lewis and other Republicans rejected this criticism, saying they found a 2016 federal federal court ruling that they had “”target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” to be inflammatory and not the final word on the case, which the Supreme Court declined to take up in May.

Lewis blamed Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, both Democrats, for asking to withdraw the appeal to the Supreme Court after unseating their Republican predecessors last year.

The early voting bill, passed on Thursday, will now move to the Senate, where lawmakers are already gearing up for a similar debate.

 

agriculture, Environment

WATCH: Republican legislator chide colleagues on rushed process, legislation to protect “one giant corporation” (video)

If you missed it with this week’s marathon sessions at the General Assembly, be sure to take 14 minutes this weekend to listen to Rep. John Blust repeatedly challenge his colleagues on the House floor for their efforts to rush through the controversial Farm Act.

(As Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg has reported SB 711 would all but erase the rights of neighbors of industrialized hog farms to sue for nuisance. The bill follows a $50 million dollar verdict in April in which Smithfield Foods lost a high profile nuisance suit to several Bladen County families.)

Rep. Blust, a Guilford County Republican, blasted legislative leaders for fast tracking the bill in response to an April court ruling, and then refusing to allow any amendments to be considered.

“We’re the people’s house and the people’s legislature, and we ought to do business in a deliberative fashion that befits the trust that’s been bestowed on us by the people.”

And for those who opted not to speak up, Blust offered this blunt assessment:

“What we do here is not a small matter. And people who really don’t want to look at these bills and have the debates, there’s still time till August to go ahead and take your name off the ballot and your party can  replace you. This is our duty.”

Click below to watch Rep. Blust’s full 14 minute speech:

In the end, the Republican-controlled House voted 65-42 to approve the farm Act, sending the measure to Governor Roy Cooper’s desk.

News

ACLU sues state over failure to help prisoners battling deadly disease

This is from the good people at the ACLU of NC:

ACLU & Incarcerated People Sue N.C. for Failure to Provide Life-Saving Treatment

Three people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons who suffer from Hepatitis C filed a federal class-action lawsuit against state officials today, arguing that North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) refuses to provide medically necessary, life-saving treatment for this highly communicable disease for no justifiable reason.

Hepatitis C is the most deadly infectious disease in the U.S., killing more Americans than the next 60 infectious diseases combined. North Carolina does not provide universal testing for Hepatitis C for all people incarcerated, even though the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease and the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommend doing so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as one third of all people incarcerated in the U.S. suffer from the contagious disease. If left untreated, Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, portal hypertension, painful symptoms, and death.

“North Carolina’s cruel and arbitrary refusal to treat or even test incarcerated people for this deadly but curable disease has created a public health crisis that puts everyone at risk,” said Emily Seawell, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. “The vast majority of people incarcerated will one day return to their communities. Not testing or treating everyone incarcerated for Hepatitis C guarantees that countless people will return to communities suffering from a highly communicable disease, leading to increased suffering and death that will ultimately cost more for taxpayers.”

The three men’s class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of all people incarcerated in North Carolina with Hepatitis C, argues that the state’s denial of medical service violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Read more

Defending Democracy, News

Expert: Want to preserve our democracy? End gerrymandering (with video)

If this week’s roller coaster legislative sessions have left you reeling, take time today to learn about how redistricting reform could greatly improve the political discourse in our state.

Tom Ross, former President of the University of North Carolina system and co-chairman of the bi-partisan board of directors of North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform, will speak at Campbell University’s School of Law in downtown Raleigh at noon to address the benefits of reforming the way North Carolina draws its Congressional and legislative districts.

Mr. Ross’ presentation will include an update on the redistricting cases before the Supreme Court and other critical legal battles.  He will also outline a plan of action for North Carolina to fairly draw Congressional and state districts.

NC Policy Watch had the opportunity to talk with Ross this week about the benefits of an independent system of redistricting where politicians do not draw their own districts.

This afternoon’s event is open to the public and is co-sponsored by the North Carolina Business Council and North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform. It will take place in room 313 at Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, located at 225 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh.

Doors will open at 11:30am and the presentation will start at 12:00pm.