Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Bipartisan lawmakers: The time for redistricting reform is now

Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham) announced Wednesday he and other lawmakers were sponsoring a redistricting reform bill they expect to gain steam this session. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Litigation and uncertainty about which political party will have the most power in the future may finally propel North Carolina lawmakers to pass redistricting reform.

A bipartisan group of legislators gathered Wednesday morning to announce House Bill 69, which would create an independent redistricting commission to draw election maps with transparency and public input. It would bring an end to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina.

“At this point in time, you have neighborhoods being separated, homeowner’s associations being separated, students at the same university voting in separate districts – that can’t happen,” said Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Chatham, Durham). “That’s the type of thing that makes people feel government’s broken. We’ve got a chance with this step, with this bill, to move that narrative forward, to change people’s opinions.”

He and Representatives Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) are the primary sponsors of the measure, and several other. It’s expected to be one of several bills introduced this session that will address redistricting.

“We’re trying to create a series of different options for the legislature to look it,” McGrady said. “If we don’t want a commission bill, perhaps we could go down another road.”

One of those roads could be a constitutional amendment to make independent redistricting a permanent part of the state’s political landscape.

McGrady said the time for change is now — Republicans and Democrats would rather be part of the redistricting process rather than let one party or the other be in power for the foreseeable future. He added that he would be remiss not to mention the legal context for change: there is one North Carolina partisan redistricting case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court and another that looks like it could eventually get to the state Supreme Court.

“I think legislators don’t like the prospect that we may have the judiciary doing our redistricting for us,” McGrady said.

He would not discuss the details of conversations he’d had with legislative GOP leadership, who have not prioritized this issue since being in the majority. He did say, though, that he’s shared several draft bills with them that get to the same end goal.

“Having carried this bill in the past, in the recent past, it didn’t get much of a say, it didn’t get much of a say, didn’t get much of a conversation with leadership,” he said. “My leaders are telling me [now] they want to see what we’re going to put forward. … Again, I just sense a different feel with leadership.”

HB 69 creates an 11-person commission — four members from the majority political party, four members from the minority party and three members who aren’t affiliated with either of the two main parties. The Office of the State Auditor would randomly select committee members from a list of nominees chosen by lawmakers.

Members of several North Carolina organizations showed their support Wednesday for redistricting reform at a legislative press conference announcing a bill to end gerrymandering. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

No member or a relative of the member can have been appointed or elected to public office or to a state board or commission within five years of serving on the commission. Members are also disqualified if they or a relative worked for a political party or campaign or worked as a lobbyist within five years of service.

Members also cannot be part of the General Assembly or Congress and they can’t have a financial relationship with the Governor. Members also are not eligible to be appointed to a state board or commission, work for a political party or campaign or work as a lobbyist during their time on the commission.

Members of the independent redistricting committee are charged with drawing maps with contiguous lines and compact areas. They would be prohibited from using the political affiliations of voters, previous election results, demographic information and the locations of incumbents’ addresses. They are requested to serve four-year terms.

“We want change,” said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. “There is no one perfect change, we just know that we need something better than we have now.”

Pinsky said people in North Carolina have been trying to change the redistricting process for 50 years.

Common Cause NC Executive Director Bob Phillips said it’s been eight years since a redistricting reform bill was heard in a legislative committee.

“Let the debate begin,” he said. “Having legislators discuss this, having public input, that’s what democracy is supposed to be about.”

He added that House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger sponsored a similar redistricting reform bill years ago when they were in the minority.

“The leadership today thought this was a good idea 10 years ago,” Phillips said. “Yes, the were not in power, but as been said here, it was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. And I would ask the leadership, come back to the cause, pun intended.”

Commentary

Veteran journalist: The economic ground is shifting under Trump (even on Fox news)

Hedrick Smith

[Cross-posted from the website Reclaim the American Dream.]

Behind the hollow sparring over the border wall and government shutdowns, the ground is shifting under President Trump and the political pendulum is swinging toward a new economic agenda. Even conservative Fox News reports that American voters, by a huge margin, now want to reverse the Trump tax cut of 2017 and increase taxes on the super-rich.

The media ballyhoo of the moment trumpets the tax-the-rich proposals from Democratic presidential hopefuls, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and first-term House Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

But an even more stunning political harbinger is the cry of anguish for the middle class by Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson. Last month, Carlson issued a stinging warning to America’s “ruling class” that creating “a country where a shrinking percentage of the population is taking home an ever-expanding proportion of the money is not a recipe for a stable society.”

In a passionate rant that sent shock waves through right-wing think tanks and talk radio, Carlson challenged the pro-business orthodoxy of free market capitalism, pointing as evidence of its failure to “stunning out-of-wedlock birthrates, high male unemployment, a terrifying drug epidemic.”

We are ruled by mercenaries

“Our leaders don’t care,” Carlson declared. “We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule….They don’t even bother to understand our problems. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them.”

Tucker Carlson

His peroration: “If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it is happening in the inner city or on Wall Street….Any economic system that weakens and destroys families is not worth having. “

What so alarmed Carlson is the spreading cancer of economic inequality that has been metastasizing for nearly four decades, since the captains of Corporate America abandoned the share-the-wealth stakeholder capitalism that lifted the middle class in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s and replaced it with rampant shareholder capitalism that showers 80% to 90% of the nation’s economic gains to Wall Street hedge funds, the top 1% of investors, CEOs and their corporate minions. Read more

Education

Public schools supporters feel snubbed by Superintendent Mark Johnson’s invitation only event

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Suzanne Miller has a general admission ticket to State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s big dinner event on Feb. 19, but she still can’t go.
Miller, an organizer for N.C. Families for Testing Reform, received an email Wednesday explaining that attendance is by invitation only.
So, the ticket Miller scored last month on eventbrite.com won’t get her through the doors of the Raleigh Convention Center where Johnson promises to make a “major announcement” about the state’s education system.
“If it’s a public announcement about public education, why is it being made behind closed doors?” Miller asked.

Miller said the eventbrite.com page didn’t mention that an invitation would be needed when she signed up to attend the event.

Susan Book, of Save Our Schools NC, also took issue with the invitation only event.
“There are quite of few teaches I know who signed up but are not going to be able to go,” Book said. “We support public education, so why can’t we be in the room? If you’re going to make a major announcement about public education, there shouldn’t be an invite list. It doesn’t sit right with me.”
In an email message to those who received tickets through eventbrite.com but no official invitation, Johnson said there isn’t room to accommodate everyone who wants to attend the event.
“Due to the response from invited educators, policy makers, and philanthropic and community leaders, we are at capacity,” Johnson wrote. “We regret that we will not be able to provide you a seat for the dinner.”
Johnson could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
The invitation to Johnson’s event notes that no tax money will be spent on the dinner and program.
A spokesman for the superintendent declined to say who is paying for the event.
But Johnson’s “major announcement” has fueled speculation that North Carolina will be one of five states selected for a new K-12 initiative funded by the conservative Koch network.
Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, told reporters attending a fundraiser and retreat in California that the initiative would operate in five states and affect 15 million students.
Hooks said the initiative includes investments in curriculum to better support teachers and students, new technology to help families find the right options for their kids and public policy reforms that begin to get at the root causes of challenges in the nation’s education system.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Veteran academic to discuss NC’s racial wealth gap

The N.C. Budget and Tax Center will host its latest “Economy for All” event next Wednesday, February 20 in Durham. The event will feature Professor Sandy Darity, who is a professor of Economics, Public Policy, and African and African American Studies at Duke University. He will discuss the state of North Carolina’s racial wealth gap and what we can do to foster equity.

This is the official invitation from the Budget & Tax Center:

“Each year the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center, hosts a talk on economic issues in our state.  Under the banner of Economy for All, this event seeks to shape current debate about the role of public policy in advancing more equitable economic outcomes and informing the general public about the issues that we must address to fully realize our potential for greater well-being.

This year, we would like to invite you to join us to hear from Professor Sandy Darity about his extensive work on advancing an equitable economy in our country and the policy choices that can make that possible.”

Here are the event details:

Date: Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Time: Networking reception from 5:30p – 6:15p and discussion panel from 6:15p – 7:30p

Location: The Boiler Room (320 Blackwell St #101, Durham, NC 27701)

Click here to check out the event Facebook page and RSVP.

Environment

NC residents demand more action from environmental justice board

Jamie Cole of the NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed the group’s possible recommendation on the proposed swine farm permits.

During a brief break at yesterday’s convening of the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, a man introduced himself to me as Bill. A recent transplant to Wilmington, Bill had decided to spend some precious hours of his retirement listening to the myriad environmental crises that have buffeted the state: coal ash, GenX, methyl bromide, natural gas pipelines, the wood pellet industry, uranium and cyanide plumes, swine waste.

At one point, Bill turned to me, a tinge of buyer’s remorse in his voice, and lamented, “This state is the den of iniquity.”

Bill, it’s worth noting, is from New Jersey.  Yes, New Jersey, home of 105 Superfund sites, a childhood cancer cluster in Toms River, and some of the worst air pollution in the nation.

Although the meeting agenda was wide, it wasn’t deep, four hours being insufficient to delve into the public’s concerns. “This board is moving too slowly,” said John Wagner, who had trekked from Pittsboro to Wilmington for the event. “We have critical issues in this state and we’re running out of time.”

Wagner’s remarks pointed to the public’s impatience with the board. It lacks a sense of urgency. It has yet to advise NC Department of Environmental Quality on how to best communicate with underserved communities, particularly those without reliable access to the Internet or newspapers.  It needs to set an agenda for the DEQ, not vice versa. And it needs to wield its power. Although the board lacks rule-making authority, its members nonetheless can influence decisions at the highest levels of the department.

Part of the problem is the 16-member board meets quarterly, but considering the issues facing the state, that is too seldom. (The Environmental Management Commission, for example, meets every other month.) As a result, the board can’t be nimble in its feedback to DEQ. The deadline for public comment on Duke Energy’s plans to clean up coal ash at six sites is Friday; the affected communities unanimous in wanting the material fully excavated from unlined pits and put in dry storage. Another deadline regarding swine farm permits is looming. That short time frame forces the board and its subcommittees to scramble to write their recommendations and resolutions to DEQ.

“This board is the respected environmental experts of the state,” said Dana Sargent of Cape Fear River Watch. “The process is too slow.” DEQ’s decision how to regulate swine farms, will affect 2,300 facilities in eastern North Carolina. And the next permitting doesn’t occur until 2024. If the board doesn’t chime in now, Sargent said, “you’ll have to wait another five years.”

Sargent also pushed the board to advise DEQ to regulate perfluorinated compounds — PFAS — as a class, which the department has the statutory authority to do. (The EPA is announcing its rules on PFAS tomorrow, Feb. 14, at 9 a.m.) “Our state is failing these [affected] communities.”

Read more