Commentary, Legislature

Seven years later, the GOP’s unemployment reforms still haunt NC

When North Carolina lawmakers meet Tuesday morning to consider the state’s sickly unemployment insurance system, even though there is no publicly available agenda yet (what else is new?) you should expect a few things.

Expect them to talk about the benefits of cutting employers’ taxes. Expect them to regale you with fantastical stories about the “Carolina Comeback,” Pat McCrory and the GOP’s miserly plan for a top-heavy economy that continues to offer arguably the worst unemployment benefits in the nation. Expect them to laud their ingenuity in penny-pinching for the next recession while many thousands of impoverished North Carolinians never really emerged from the last one.

But don’t expect them to call their 2013 reforms to unemployment insurance a failure. And, to their credit, it’s not a failure if you are of the mind that reducing the tax burden for businesses should come at the cost of any sort of functioning safety net for blue-collar workers. Indeed, the wan and cruel system that NC deploys today, one of the least effective in the nation at returning job-seekers to the market, would seem to be precisely what McCrory and company sought way back in 2013.

“I think where we are is a good thing. What is the point of your presentation?” Rep. Dana Bumgardner, a Republican from Gaston County, reportedly groused in 2018, when Wayne Vroman of the D.C.-based Urban Institute explained how lawmakers had only socked away more than $3 billion in the unemployment trust fund by slashing the amount and duration of benefits at a prodigious rate.

Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston

In other words, lawmakers padded the trust fund at the great expense of those it was intended to benefit.

Congratulations, we’ve saved your hand, but, condolences, the fingers had to go.

Those NC residents that were so severely chastened by a callous unemployment system were not lent speed back into gainful employment, as legislative leaders would suggest. Instead, they failed to find work or were driven from the job market altogether, a seriously suppressing outcome for any economy.

That is the point, Rep. Bumgardner.

It is, it seems, ever the point with this legislative majority which glorifies tax cuts and vilifies welfare programs above all others.

Bumgardner and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance, which is composed entirely of Republicans save for the Wake County Democrat Wiley Nickel, will be back in in action Tuesday morning.

It is time, past time, to reconsider NC’s unemployment insurance.

Education

New and damning evidence emerges in Department of Public Instruction spying case

[Cross-posted from the website Notes from the Chalkboard]

New evidence has emerged which substantiates allegations by former Department of Public Instruction director Carolyn Guthrie that her personal text messages were illegally monitored by someone on Superintendent Mark Johnson’s staff more than a year after her retirement in 2017.

A screenshot of Guthrie’s FindMy app taken in February of 2019 shows a MacBook Air with a device name of cguthrie-k2268 actively syncing to her personal iCloud account. An IT employee at DPI confirmed that this device name is consistent with the naming scheme the Department of Public Instruction uses for employee computers.

DPI has refused to turn over documents which could help shed light on exactly who was monitoring Guthrie’s communications without her knowledge. But deposition transcripts and related exhibits obtained through a public records request to the Department of Information Technology reveal important new details about the case.

The information calls into question Superintendent Mark Johnson’s sworn testimony about how DPI obtained the text message that was used to cancel the K-3 reading assessment procurement after an evaluation committee had recommended Amplify’s mClass tool. That cancellation paved the way for Johnson to make his controversial contract award to Istation.

Background:  

Carolyn Guthrie served as DPI’s K-3 Literacy Director from December 2012 until September 2017. While in that role, she purchased MacBook Air laptops for everyone on the team including herself, which was somewhat unusual in an agency dominated by Windows devices.

Guthrie set up text message forwarding from her personal iPhone to the laptop for convenience. When she retired, she neglected to log out of her personal iCloud account before turning her laptop in.

On her last day at DPI, August 31, 2017, Carolyn Guthrie handed her MacBook to IT employee Haider Qasim, who assured her that the device would be wiped per department protocol. Guthrie walked off into her retirement and never gave the laptop a second thought. *Qasim did not respond to multiple voice mails requesting comment.*

In December of 2018, representatives of the K-3 reading assessment Request for Purchase evaluation team met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to inform him of their recommendation that North Carolina should continue using Amplify’s mClass tool.

About a month later,  on January 8, 2019, Johnson called a meeting with voting members of the evaluation team. At the meeting, he gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. According to deposition testimony by committee member Susan Laney, some of those present felt his remarks were intended to influence their votes in favor of Istation. At Johnson’s request, the committee voted again. Again Amplify came out on top.

That evening, one of those present–K-3 Literacy Consultant Abbey Whitford–had a phone conversation with Carolyn Guthrie in which she related her concerns about the unusual meeting with Johnson. Guthrie then sent a text message to another retired DPI employee, Anne Evans, which included details from the phone call.

On February 19, 2019, Abbey Whitford was unexpectedly called into a meeting with Mark Johnson’s Deputy Superintendent Pam Shue and HR Director Claire Miller. Whitford was accused of being the source of a confidentiality breach and confronted with a paper copy of the text message between Guthrie and Evans:

According to Whitford’s sworn deposition, when the meeting ended, she drove straight to Carolyn Guthrie’s house and told Guthrie she suspected that someone at DPI was monitoring her text messages. Guthrie pulled up the FindMy app on her iPhone.

Carolyn Guthrie later testified: Read more

Commentary, Legislature

The continuing madness of North Carolina’s rejection of Medicaid expansion

When they write the book on Republicans’ dominance of NC politics — although, really, I don’t want to read it, living it once is enough — here’s what they’ll say:

Yes, the decade’s economic resurgence did nothing for NC’s enduring poverty problem. Yes, the legislature’s reactionary, partisan wedge politics made NC the poster child for backwards views of LGBTQ issues. Yes, the state’s reputation for moderation and education took a nose dive. And yes, despite all of those things, despite all of those glaring errors, there is not much in the last decade that will compare to the sheer inanity of Republicans’ blockade of a federally-funded Medicaid expansion.

In two years, we’ll be a decade in the hole with Medicaid expansion, forgoing billions in federal dollars that could have stabilized hospitals, injected cash into the economy, aided the poor and made NC a healthier state if not for the fact that Barack Obama’s name was stamped on the money and represented some part of a social safety net that the GOP despises with reckless abandon. Indeed, the GOP would defy a majority of North Carolinians and health care experts, many of their own party’s most prominent leaders and logic itself to flout expansion.

Whether they pay a political price is up for debate; but the price for the poor and anyone with limited access to health care is not, as last week’s report from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found in examining NC health care. The McClatchy editorial board offered up this editorial Sunday that sums up the madness of the GOP blockade.

Read on for the money quotes:

North Carolina’s uninsured numbers would be worse had it not been for the Affordable Care Act, a law that the state’s legislative leaders resisted at every turn. Nonetheless, 447,680 North Carolinians were enrolled in ACA plans in 2019, with 94 percent of them receiving a tax credit to help them pay their premiums. If North Carolina had expanded Medicaid in 2018, the report estimates that 357,000 uninsured adults would have been eligible for the state and federal health insurance program.

To create a healthier North Carolina, expanding Medicaid is the biggest and perhaps the simplest step. But the state must also do more to reduce the causes of poverty and close the racial gaps in health conditions. That means increasing the minimum wage and the number of small businesses that offer health insurance benefits. Among North Carolina private businesses with fewer than 50 employees, only 19 percent offer health insurance, compared to 29 percent nationally, the KFF report said.

The state should also require employers to offer paid leave to workers when new children are born or adopted, or when serious personal or family health issues arise. Currently, only 12 percent of North Carolina’s workers have that benefit. Creating more parks for exercise and better access to healthy foods would also help.

Every 10 years, the state announces its health goals for the decade ahead. This year the state’s “Healthy North Carolina 2030” report called for action beyond wider access to health care. The report says, “Long-term sustainable improvements in the health and well-being of North Carolinians will only occur by addressing the social, economic, and place-based challenges that keep people from achieving optimal health.”

Tax cuts and holding out on Medicaid expansion won’t do that.

Commentary, News

New poll shows support for Gov. Cooper in state budget standoff

Gov. Roy Cooper, House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the latest Survey USA poll results regarding what North Carolinians think about some key matters of public policy. The headline takeaway: Gov. Roy Cooper continues to have a much better connection to the hearts of minds of the people of the state (even Republicans!) than conservative legislative leaders.

This is from WRAL.com:

Almost three-quarters of those polled said they would prefer school funding be increased rather than taxes cut, and a majority called for expanding Medicaid coverage to more of the state’s working poor, according to the exclusive poll by SurveyUSA….

Given a choice between providing more money for public schools or cutting business taxes to boost the economy, 71 percent of respondents said school funding was more important. Fewer than one-fifth said tax cuts should be the budget priority, while 9 percent said they weren’t sure.

GOP lawmakers included a rollback of North Carolina’s franchise tax in the $24 billion state budget they passed last summer, saying it would save businesses statewide an estimated $250 million. But Cooper vetoed the budget, saying corporate taxes had been cut enough in recent years and that it was time to invest more in education.

Support for Cooper’s stance cut across all demographics in the poll. Even more than three in five of Republicans questioned and a majority of those who identify themselves as conservative ranked funding schools ahead of cutting taxes in the budget debate.

Of course, the poll results come as no particular surprise. Cooper has enjoyed relatively high popularity numbers throughout his first three years in office, while the General Assembly has consistently received low approval ratings.  The public has also consistently supported Medicaid expansion and better funding for schools — things the General Assembly has blocked for years.

Click here to see the full poll results.

Higher Ed, News

News and notes from Friday’s UNC Board of Governors meeting

Friday’s meeting of the UNC Board of Governors didn’t contain any major bombshells — but there were some noteworthy moments and comments as the board looks to move beyond recent controversies at East Carolina University and the ongoing issue of the Silent Sam Confederate monument.

SILENT SAM

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey said he was “very disappointed” that a North Carolina Superior Court judge recently scrapped the UNC System’s settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Ramsey said the university is working to get back the monument, which he said will be secured off-campus, and the $2.5 million it paid the Confederate group in the settlement.

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said emphatically that the monument will not return to campus.

Both Roper and Ramsey said the system will continue to seek a lasting and lawful solution to the issue of the monument but said they don’t want the UNC Board of Governors or the system to concentrate more on it than various more pressing issues — finding a new UNC System President and filling several vacant chancellorships among them.

No word yet on whether the system will seek to get back the $74,999 the UNC Board of Governors paid in a separate deal with the Sons of Confederate Veterans as part of an agreement to keep them from protesting on campus with Confederate flags, Ramsey said. The system’s lawyers are dealing with the question, he said.

UNC SYSTEM PRESIDENTIAL SEARCH

The UNC System has received  “several dozen” applications for UNC System president, Ramsey said Friday.

The search committee will meet next week to begin reviewing them. No timeline is set for choosing a new president for the system, he said.

Roper is scheduled to leave his interim position in June. If a new president hasn’t been found by then, he said, the board will have to deal with that situation then.

The number and quality of the candidates is a testament to the high regard in which the university system is still held, Ramsey said, despite many well publicized problems at the system level and various campuses over the last few yeas.

STATE BUDGET STANDOFF

Roper again addressed the state budget stalemate Friday.

While being careful to say he isn’t taking a political side on the issue, Roper highlighted the many problems across the system arising from the budget impasse between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican leadership of the North Carolina General Assembly.

“I say this without seeking to be political and without placing blame on any party or any single state official,” Roper said. “My concern for the UNC system is, pure and simple, non-partisan. But there is too much at stake to quibble over how our budget gets enacted. I’m passionate about seeing that it does get enacted, one way or another.”

Policy Watch previously reported that trustees at UNC Schools were bristling at a UNC Board of Governors resolution that called on state lawmakers to pass the currently proposed budget, which would require a veto override. It also gave a directive to individual boards of trustees at UNC schools across the state to pass concurring resolutions.

The legislature adjourned last month without resolving the months’ long budget stalemate and withSenate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) saying it’s possible no new state budget will be passed this fiscal year or next.

Since July, Republican legislative leaders have tried and failed to wrangle enough votes to overturn the budget veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, who among other objections, would like to see Medicaid expanded in the state.

Though many boards of trustees at UNC Systems complies, others — including UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T — said they were uncomfortable passing a resolution that specifically asked for a solution favored by Republicans in the legislature but opposed by Democrats.

Roper emphasized the problems caused by what he called “the ongoing state budget morass” and said a solution is needed, however it happens.

“The consequences of not having a budget in place are reaching every corner of our state,” Roper said. “Ultimately the impact will be felt most profoundly by the students and the communities we serve.”

Roper listed a number of high profile problems. Among them:

* Without the half-million dollars in capital funds it was anticipating, Western Carolina University has been unable to replace the outdated and failing steam plant that provides heat and hot water on campus. “The plant is one hash winter or one mechanical failure from a complete campus shut-down,” Roper said.

* The opening of the North Carolina School of Science and Math’s campus in Morganton has been postponed until next year.

*N.C A&T has been unable to renovate Carver Hall, Roper said, leaving Agriculture students working in non ADA-compliant classrooms without proper air conditioning.

* At UNC-Pembroke new health science and STEM buildings can’t move forward.

Roper said next month he and his colleagues will undertake a road trip across the state to highlight the various problems at universities that would be solved or alleviated by passing a state budget.