Courts & the Law, News

Brennan Center remembers Citizens United 10 years later; urges reform

Ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door in Citizens United for mega-wealthy donors to infuse big money into political races across the nation.

Or, as the Brennan Center for Justice put it, the high court “slashed commonsense limits on campaign cash and set America’s campaign finance system on a path to overwhelming dominance by the ultra-wealthy few.” The non-profit at New York University released its analysis this week on House Resolution 1, the reform law that would counter Citizens United.

H.R. 1 is a public financing program that would “amplify the voices of small donors, so the flood of megadonor money can be balanced by supercharged funding from regular people.” The Brennan Center’s analysis shows it would fundamentally transform campaign financing for the better.

Since Citizens United, the share of election funding from megadonors has mushroomed: in 2016, a few donors of more than $100,000 accounted for more than half of all election spending, dwarfing the money given by millions of small donors. Even with the boom in grassroots engagement and small donations in 2018, small donors were overshadowed by megadonors. Without reform, the gap is only going to widen.

The imbalance in campaign finance has made many Americans frustrated and cynical. But while it may be easy to see the current state of money in politics as inevitable, the truth is powerful fixes are available to restore balance and empower everyday people.

Public campaign financing has succeeded in changing the way politicians raise money in states and cities across the country, from Maine to Arizona and New York City to Los Angeles. It reduces candidates’ need to chase big donors and makes typical Americans the most important source of funds. The boost that public financing gives small donors is needed now more than ever because non-millionaires simply can’t keep up with the gains at the top.

North Carolina defunded its public financing program years ago, and it subsequently led to millions in outside spending for the election of now state Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan which shifted the court’s ideological balance to the left.

Previous Brennan Center research has shown that million-dollar campaigns for state supreme court seats were fast becoming the national norm. Dark, untraceable funds are flooding judicial races, and national political groups and business interests regularly pour money into these campaigns.

And this year isn’t expected to be any different as Republicans have a chance to win more seats and even out the ideology across the bench. There are three seats on the state Supreme Court up for election, and each race will be competitive.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who was appointed to the helm earlier this year, will run against Associate Justice Paul Newby, currently the most senior on the court and the only Republican, to keep her place on the bench. North Carolina Court of Appeals Judges Lucy Inman, a registered Democrat, and Phil Berger Jr., a registered Republican, will vie for the seat Newby leaves behind.

And finally, on the high court, former lawmaker Tamara Barringer, a Republican, will challenge current Associate Justice Mark Davis, a Democrat, in his effort to stay seated after being appointed earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper.

H.R. 1, the For the People Act, was passed by the House congressional delegation in March 2019, and it is a comprehensive democracy reform package that would help quell big and dark money in political campaign races.

The bill includes a system of public financing for House elections that would multiply small contributions by matching donations of $200 or less at a rate of six to one, according to the Brennan Center analysis. A $200 donation would get a $1,200 match, making it worth $1,400 to the campaign. Candidates can choose to opt in if they show they have substantial public support. Those participating may not accept more than $1,000 in private funds from each donor — significantly lower than the contribution limit of $5,600 for the 2020 election cycle. And the amount of public funds each candidate can earn in an election cycle is capped.

Read the Brennan Center’s full analysis here about how H.R. 1 would turn the current funding landscape on its head.

News, public health

Must watch documentary on the troubling rise in NC youth suicides premieres Thursday

North Carolina’s teen suicide rate has doubled in the past decade. In fact, suicide is the second leading cause of deaths among children ages 10-17 in our state.

It’s a troubling fact that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

This Thursday, WRAL-TV will premiere its latest documentary on the subject in which a young woman shares her own story of overcoming depression, anxiety and an attempted suicide while highlighting the lessons she learned along the way.

Clay Johnson, the documentary’s producer, recently sat down with NC Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield to preview “Out of the Darkness”:

The documentary “Out of the Darkness” premieres on WRAL-TV as well as its web and streaming platforms this Thursday, January 23 at 7 p.m.

For more on this topic, be sure to listen to our recent interview with Michelle Hughes, Executive Director of NC Child, in which we discussed what policymakers should do to address the crisis.

For those who may be seeking help, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Higher Ed, News

Watchdog files complaint over NC Heritage PAC, Sons of Confederate Veterans

Citizen watchdog Bob Hall filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections Wednesday alleging the NC Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans illegally financed a political action committee that attributed donations to individuals who were not true donors and filed false campaign finance disclosure reports with the state board.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have come under increased scrutiny since the controversial UNC Board of Governors settlement that gave the group the Silent Sam Confederate monument, $2.5 million in a non-profit trust and  a separate $74,999 payment to assure that the group would not use Confederate flags in on-campus protests.

Hall’s complaint is based partially on reporting by The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s independent student newspaper, in which unnamed members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans group described potentially illegal actions by the group in the creation and funding of the NC Heritage PAC. In his complaint Hall says he has also spoken with members of the group, which he does not name, who have given him further details about the dealings of the group and the PAC.

The DTH Media Corporation, the non-profit that operates The Daily Tar Heel, has also sued the UNC Board of Governors over the controversial Silent Sam settlement, alleging violations of the state open meetings law.

Hall’s complaint asks for a comprehensive investigation and that the board of elections terminate the NC Heritage PAC and require state legislators, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and various political campaigns to return $28,500 given by the PAC. Among the legislators who received funds from the PAC are Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, each of whom received $2,500 from the PAC.

 

 

Read the entire complaint here.

Higher Ed, News

Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weigh in on state budget stalemate

The Western Carolina University Board of Trustees weighed in on the state budget stalemate Tuesday, passing a resolution calling on lawmakers to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s  veto of the budget passed by the General Assembly’s Republican majority.

The move comes after last week’s meeting of the the UNC Board of Governors where that board passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed state budget – the subject of a months’ long political struggle between Cooper, a Democrat, and the legislative Republicans.

The board of governors’ resolution called for “all boards of trustees to create and approve a concurring resolution as soon as practical.”

Western Carolina appears to be the first university whose board of trustees has done so.

The resolution was passed in a special telephone meeting of the board Tuesday afternoon. One board member was absent, two abstained and all others voted to approve the resolution.

The UNC Board of Governors is appointed by the Republican dominated state House and Senate. The board of governors in turn appoint members of the boards of trustees of the UNC system’s constituent schools. The current, 24-member board of governors is entirely composed of members who are Republican or unaffiliated. No Democrats serve on the board.

 

Education

There’s movement in the Leandro case. Attorneys for defendants, plaintiffs agree to work to improve K-12 education

Superior Court Judge David Lee

The defendants and plaintiffs in the quarter-century-old Leandro case have agreed to work together to create a plan to improve K-12 education in North Carolina.

Superior Court Judge David Lee signed a consent order Monday, and gave attorneys 60 days to submit a plan that spells out how the parties intend to meet the short-term goals recommended in the West Ed report released in December. Plans to meet longer-term goals will come later.

WestEd, an independent consultant, was ordered by Lee to conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and to bring back recommendations for improvement. Its report will serve as the framework for the attorney’s plan.

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the State Supreme Court stepped in and held that every child has a right to a “sound, basic education under the state constitution.

The WestEd recommendations carry a hefty price tag of more than $8 billion over the next eight years.

Lee said he’s bound by law to ensure the state lives up to its constitutional obligations.

“To me that means I’m also bound by what the state Supreme Court said back there in 1997 and that is, if somebody else doesn’t do it, the court has to do it, ill equipped though it may be.” Lee said. “I think I would be dodging my constitutional duty if I didn’t push this and do what needs to be done. I’m not afraid to do that.”

See the full story Wednesday at ncpolicywatch.com