News

N.C. House to roll out its education budget Thursday morning

Key budget writers in the N.C. House of Representatives are expected to roll out their proposals for public education funding early Thursday morning.

The news comes after a top House budget writer told Policy Watch last week that the chamber was likely to announce a spending plan that was considerably kinder to public schools than the budget proposed by Senate lawmakers this month.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, is expected to preside over Thursday’s 8:30 a.m. meeting. Last week, Horn said the House budget is more likely to include across-the-board raises for teachers, less severe funding cuts for the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the restoration of several early-morning cuts to education projects in Democratic-held districts. 

The Senate’s teacher pay plan included an average 3.7 percent raise, but critics said it slighted beginning and veteran teachers, focusing on mid-career educators instead.

“I think the House has a broader view with regard to teachers,” Horn told Policy Watch. “We recognize that our most experienced teachers have gotten the least reward.”

Criticism for the Senate’s $22.9 billion budget plan mounted shortly after its release two weeks ago. Some pointed to new national rankings from the nonpartisan National Education Association that placed North Carolina at 43rd in the U.S. in per-pupil spending in 2017-2018, a slight drop from the previous year, although the state’s teacher pay ranking had risen from 41st to 35th.

Of course, those rankings were not finalized with the Senate’s budget provisions included.

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

Last week, Horn also questioned a controversial Senate plan to slash DPI funding by 25 percent in the coming year. That’s about a $13.1 million cut for the state’s top K-12 agency in 2017-2018, coming on top of more than $19 million in cuts to DPI since 2009.

Democrats and public school advocates say the cuts will be most apparent in poor and low-performing school districts that need the support and intervention provided by DPI. Meanwhile, a recently-retired DPI finance head told Policy Watch the deep cuts would “totally destroy” the agency’s operations. 

Horn said he doesn’t expect House leadership to go along with such a plan.

“We ask DPI to do a lot,” said Horn. “… We want new curriculum. This year, we asked them to teach about suicide prevention. We want you to include all these things in the curriculum. Somebody has to develop that curriculum.”

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Courts & the Law, News

House committee debates, approves bill that would create delay for asbestos victims seeking recovery

Sen. Michael V. Lee (R-New Hanover) discusses a bill he sponsors that would affect asbestos-related cases. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

North Carolina lawmakers are dipping into federal issues of civil law to help national stakeholders gain momentum in delaying asbestos cancer victims from getting recovery funds.

Members of the House II Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 along party lines to advance Senate Bill 470, which would require plaintiffs in asbestos claims to disclose information about bankruptcy trust claims in personal injury actions, including the amount of monies awarded “or reasonably expected to be awarded.”

There was about an hour of debate, which mostly consisted of lawmakers asking questions of Greensboro attorney Janet Ward Black, an opponent of the bill, and Raleigh attorney Kirk Warner and D.C. attorney Mark Behrens from the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, both proponents of the bill.

Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) carried the bill and also tried to answer some questions. He told committee members that the bill received broad bipartisan support in the Senate and that it promotes transparency on behalf of asbestos victims to the court.

Black said the law is a paper tiger — there aren’t any asbestos cases filed in North Carolina state court. By the state passing such a law, it helps the asbestos industry, which is behind the law, gain momentum to get it passed in states where there is pending litigation.

Greensboro attorney Janet Ward Black speaks Tuesday at a House committee meeting against a bill that would affect asbestos cases. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“They would like to color in North Carolina on that map,” she said, referencing a map that Lee showed committee members of other states that passed similar laws.

The real end result of the bill, Black said, is to delay dying people from getting the money they are owed for recovery.

“This hurts people who are dying of asbestos disease because it is an effort by companies to complicate the process and delay, delay, delay,” she said.

Cases involving North Carolinians who have asbestos disease are filed in federal court and are very isolated, according to Black. There are about 50 cases currently pending in federal court — an estimate on the high side.

North Carolina is a “contributory negligence” state that does not require companies to pay recovery funds to victims who made a decision not to protect themselves from asbestos and requires a bigger burden of plaintiffs to prove wrongdoing.

Warner and Behrens said SB470 would prevent current asbestos victims from robbing future victims of recovery funds, insinuating the current system makes it easier for double-dipping.

Debate, at times, got very deep into complicated tort law and civil procedure.

The bill was successfully amended by Rep. Joe John (D-Wake), to make it so it wouldn’t affect pending claims, and Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), to eliminate Section 2, which requires plaintiffs to provide the amount of consideration paid for a release or covenant not to sue, including any monies awarded or reasonably expected to be rewarded from a bankruptcy trust.

News, Trump Administration

Report: Trump education budget slams the working class that helped elect him president

Donald Trump speaking

President Trump’s newly-released K-12 budget would hurt the working class voters who helped elect him president in November, according to a new report from The Atlantic.

The report comes with Trump announcing plans to slash spending on the federal education department by more than $9 billion as the Republican president seeks to bolster the school choice programs touted by Trump and his controversial education chief, Betsy DeVos.

That’s not surprising. Trump has long been outspoken in his desire to increase the federal investment in charters and private schools, although his budget’s call to slash $166 million in U.S. grants for career and technical education programs and halve the size of a federal work-study program are being viewed as something of a surprise, particularly given widespread support for such programs among both Republicans and Democrats.

From The Atlantic:

Trump’s education budget, which was published Tuesday as part of full spending plan’s release, would eliminate more than two dozen programs. The budget “reflects a series of tough choices we have had to make when assessing the best use of taxpayer money,” DeVos said in a statement. “It ensures funding for programs with proven results for students while taking a hard look at programs that sound nice but simply haven’t yielded the desired outcomes.”

The final version reiterates many of the funding priorities outlined in the  “skinny”—i.e., preliminary—budget released in March, which had already made it clear that Trump wanted to get rid of the relatively small education programs that, in the eyes of the administration, lack the evidence and reach needed to prove they’re worthy of investment. The congressional deal struck at the beginning of this month to keep the government running into September, on the other hand, maintains level funding for many of the education programs Trump wants to do away with or trim down.

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Commentary, News

Renee Ellmers nabs gig in Trump administration

Renee Ellmers has been named to a mid-level post in the Trump administration. The former North Carolina congresswoman, who initially won election as a conservative political outsider in 2010 and then saw herself branded as a traitor to the conservative cause by groups like the Koch brother-funded Americans for Prosperity — a switch that helped lead to her defeat in a 2016 Republican primary with George Holding (this despite her endorsement of Donald Trump) — has been named the Regional Director for Region 4 of the Department of Health and Human Services in Atlanta.

This is from an email sent by the acting director, Natalie Brevard Perry:

Dear valued stakeholders:

I am pleased to formally welcome Renee Ellmers as the new Regional Director for HHS Region 4, effective Monday!  After orientation at HHS Headquarters, her first day in Atlanta will be Wednesday, May 24, 2017.

Ms. Ellmers comes to us from the great state of North Carolina with a strong background in public service. For the past six years, she served as the U.S. Representative for North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District. In Congress, she served on the Health Subcommittee of the Energy & Commerce Committee.  Ms. Ellmers shared “I ran for office in 2010 because of the changes that were happening in healthcare policy; I wanted to be a voice for healthcare providers. After the 2016 election, I saw an opportunity to join the Department of Health and Human Services to serve the American people by helping the Administration provide patient-centered, quality healthcare.”

Ms. Ellmers is a Registered Nurse. She received a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Oakland University. She currently lives in Dunn, North Carolina with her husband of 23 years, Brent, who is a General Surgeon, and her son Ben, a student at North Carolina University.

Welcome, Ms. Ellmers!

It will be interesting to see what the folks at AFP have to say about this appointment of someone whose defeat the group described as “a victory for economic freedom and a testament to the grassroots movement.” Although the announcement doesn’t make it clear, one presumes Ellmers will not be attempting to commute to such an important post from Dunn and will be moving to Atlanta.

Environment

Under proposed billboard legislation, outdoor advertising companies have more property rights than people living near hog farms

(Photo from www.bitemefirearms.net)

O n the way to the beach along US 70, the billboards, like the landscape, change in tone: Further inland, billboards bearing “Bite Me Firearms” dominate the highway, while closer to the coast, ads featuring women touting the benefits of breast augmentation become common.

More billboards could cover the roadsides after the House Finance Committee today bundled portions of four measures into one mega-legislation, giving more power to outdoor advertising companies. The changes were part of a proposed committee substitute to House Bill 581. Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, is the sponsor.

If HB 581 becomes law, billboard companies would have even greater latitude in where they can place their signs (including the retina-burning digital versions), the amount taxpayers would pony up if a sign must be removed, and the number of trees that can be felled to make the ads visible.

This legislation also overrides parts of local billboard ordinances. Durham, for example, prohibits digital billboards inside the city limits. Under HB 581, companies can switch out their static billboards for flashing ones, regardless of local regulations.

Outdoor advertising companies could also relocate billboards to places they are currently prohibited, as long as they are in the same jurisdiction. For example, there is a two-mile section of the Durham Freeway, from about Exit 11 (Alston Avenue) to Exit 13 (Chapel Hill Street) — the “gateway” to the city, where billboards are not allowed. Under this language, a billboard could be moved from outside that zone and into it, as long as the sign originated in Durham.

Of concern to environmental advocates is the potential loss of trees as a result of the measure. If a company decides trees are obscuring the view of the ad — which, according to the legislation, has a “right to be visibly seen” — that greenery can be clear cut, even in medians and at exit ramps. According to the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, dogwoods and redbuds would lose their current protected status.

HB 581: a major giveaway of taxpayer revenues, trees & local government control Click To Tweet

“The bill is a major giveaway of public money and assets — including taxpayer revenues, the public’s trees and local government control,” said Molly Diggins, Sierra Club state director, in a statement, “to shore up and increase the profitability of an industry that is increasingly becoming obsolete.”

In referring to taxpayer revenues, Diggins is referring to a portion of the bill that forces state or local governments that require the removal of a sign — to build a bridge, for example — to pay for lost advertising revenue, as opposed to covering only the replacement cost of the sign.

As a philosophical exercise, contrast this billboard provision with the hog nuisance lawsuit legislation — now law.

Under the nuisance bill, citizens who sue a hog farm over quality of life issues (and win) can receive compensation only for the fair value of their property, not the loss of their health or enjoyment of their home.

The billboard measure, though, flips that scenario. A company is not limited to only the fair value of the sign; the company can be compensated for “loss.”

How advertising revenue would be calculated is also unclear. Sometimes billboard companies heavily discount outdoor ads to nonprofits or government agencies. (This is not for purely altruistic reasons. These near-freebies help fill the excess inventory; empty billboards are not a good look for outdoor advertising companies.) So would the government agency be charged the full advertising rate? Or just the amount the advertiser was paying at the time?

Either way, the advertising company that erects a billboard objectifying women has more property rights than people living near industrialized hog farms.