Commentary

K12, Inc.It may be 10 days before Christmas, but there are still a lot of worrisome/controversial policy decisions taking shape in the halls of state government this week. As noted in this morning’s Weekly Briefing, a state legislative committee will meet this Friday to recommend rolling back some important consumer protections in the mortgage lending industry.

Now, comes word that a special committee appointed by the State Board of Education will be meeting tomorrow to interview two private, for-profit companies seeking to run virtual charter schools in North Carolina — at least one of which (K12, Inc.) has been shown on numerous occasions to be a predatory failure. As Bloomberg Business Week reported last month:

“K12 Inc. (LRN) was heralded as the next revolution in schooling. Billionaire Michael Milken backed it, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush praised it. Now the online education pioneer is failing to live up to its promise.

Plagued by subpar test scores, the largest operator of online public schools in the U.S. has lost management contracts or been threatened with school shutdowns in five states this year. The National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled in April that students can no longer count credits from 24 K12 high schools toward athletic scholarships.”

Of course, K12, Inc. isn’t an unknown to the State Board of Ed. To its credit, the Board has been holding the troubled company and its whole scam at bay for years. Unfortunately, K12, Inc. lobbyists prevailed upon the privatizers at the General Assembly to slip a provision into the state budget bill this past summer which directs the Board to approve two virtual charters as part of a “pilot” program. Now, low and behold, there are only two applicants for those slots.

Whether this means that the State Board will roll over and approve K-12, Inc. or show some backbone and tell the company and its buddies in the legislature to stuff it remains to be seen. Let’s hope for the latter eventuality.

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Commentary

taxcutBThere have been multiple stories in recent days detailing the destructive impact that conservative budget and tax policy is having on essential public structures and services in North Carolina. During a time in which most states are rebounding and expanding public investments, North Carolina continues to muddle along and scrimp by like one of Art Pope’s weathered, low-rent chain stores.

Just yesterday, Chris Fitzsimon reported on the disgraceful situation in the Rockingham County public schools (home to Senate leader Phil Berger) while Cedric Johnson highlighted the self-inflicted budget crisis afflicting our courts system.

Now, this morning, comes an excellent editorial that sums up the absurd situation and the driving force behind it: destructive and unnecessary tax cuts. As this morning’s lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer explains:

“The General Assembly’s Republican leaders appear remarkably calm about what is shaping up to be either a serious budget shortfall or an income tax shock for those who have not had enough state tax withheld.

Tax revenue flowing into the state is running about $190 million below projections following tax cuts that took effect in January. That is worrisome because state spending already is at a spartan level. There’s no slack for filling the budget hole with easy cuts. The state could dip into its rainy day fund (even though it’s not a rainy day), but that simply puts off the budget reckoning for a year.

State Rep. Skip Stam, a Wake County Republican and House speaker pro tem, said the budget shortfall isn’t much given the state’s $21.1 billion budget and the federal government’s spending on North Carolina’s Medicaid and transportation projects. He told Time Warner Cable News, ‘The difference is hardly even a rounding error.’ A rounding error? It seems like more than that to state agencies that are trying to meet the needs of a growing state. Their budgets have been tightened first by the Great Recession and then by Republicans taking control of the General Assembly in 2011.”

The editorial concludes this way:

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NC Budget and Tax Center

The Charlotte Observer reports of the strain on the state’s court system in the wake of state budget cuts in recent years. The state’s court system is expected to run out of funding for juror pay by April of next year, the Charlotte Observer highlights.

The ability of the state’s court system to operate effectively has been increasingly challenged amid cuts in state funding over the years. While other states have adopted technology and incorporated electronic filing systems, North Carolina continues to use a paper-based system, which slows down the judicial process. The time taken to complete civil and criminal cases has increased in recent years, the Charlotte Observer article notes, resulting in a judicial system that is inefficient, more costly, and less customer-friendly.

State lawmakers quoted in the article note their unawareness of the pending funding shortage for juror pay and state that the General Assembly is being asked for money that it doesn’t have. This is increasingly clear as stories throughout the state have highlighted yet another announcement that the state’s revenue collections are below projections.  Official estimates now put the revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year at $190 million.

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Commentary

Patrick McHenryPoliticians of both political parties in Washington are scrambling to defend their support of the pork-barrel-laden budget bill that funds the federal government for the rest of the year—and predictably gives Wall Street a huge break.

North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry defended his support of the bill in an especially troubling way, bragging in his weekly update to constituents that the bill slashed funding for the EPA.

Additionally the funding legislation passed Thursday includes a number of important changes including cuts to EPA funding and staffing, cuts that will drop the agency to levels last seen in the 1980s.

That’s quite an accomplishment McHenry is touting, reducing the funding for the agency that protects our water and air and land to the level it was funded 30 years ago.

Wonder if McHenry checked with Governor Pat McCrory before he boasted about slashing the funding.  It was only three months ago when he signed the coal ash bill passed by the General Assembly  that McCrory promised to partner with EPA to  “hold Duke Energy accountable for violations of the federal Clean Water Act at the Eden facility and its 13 other coal plants in the state.”

It will be hard to count on the EPA to do its job as a “partner” in cracking down on coal ash pollution if folks like Rep. McHenry keep crusading to make it unable to do its job.

Unless of course that was the plan all along.

Commentary

healthcare.govIf you don’t have affordable health insurance through an employer then now is your chance to shop for a plan on the individual market. New options are now available and many people can get help paying premiums. In fact, in 2014 more than 90 percent of people who enrolled in an insurance plan through healthcare.gov in North Carolina received financial assistance, and of this group the average premium was $80 per month. This is for a comprehensive policy.

The current open enrollment period  stretches until February 15, 2015, but if you want your benefits to start on January 1 then today is the day to purchase a plan. This is true no matter when you bought insurance in 2014.

The website is working smoothly these days but you don’t have to navigate the process by yourself. Plenty of health insurance agents are ready to assist you. Also, application counselors and navigators based at nonprofits around the state can help. They are all volunteers or grant funded and have no financial incentives to steer you toward any particular company or plan. You can check out this website to find help in your area. You can also call 1-855-733-3711.

It is especially important to shop around even if you bought a policy. If you don’t actively switch plans then you will be automatically reenrolled. But with new options and more companies competing in the state reenrollment is unlikely to get you the best deal. As with most products, you need to shop around.

Another reason to buy a policy today is that you aren’t stuck with the plan you choose. To prevent a gap in coverage you can purchase a policy now and continue investigating your options during open enrollment. As long as you act before February 15 then you can opt for a different plan. Last year once you chose a policy you were stuck. This year you can change plans during the entire open enrollment period.

Unfortunately, many people trying to obtain coverage will discover that they fall into the Medicaid gap in North Carolina. Because the state legislature has refused to expand Medicaid working families earning less than 100 percent of federal poverty level may still find coverage unaffordable, and they won’t get help paying premiums. If our lawmakers choose to act in the next legislative session then most struggling citizens will be able to obtain comprehensive insurance.