Commentary

Drumbeat of criticism for GOP voter suppression efforts continues

The editorial page of Raleigh’s News & Observer joined the chorus of critics blasting state GOP boss Dallas Woodhouse this morning for his memo urging Republican Board of Election members to vote in lockstep to limit early voting opportunities in the November election.. Here’s the N&O:

“Well, you have to give him this: Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, didn’t try to be clever or subtle when he sent an email to GOP members of county boards of elections and other party members last weekend. No, he basically instructed those board members to use their majorities to curb early voting, keep polling sites closed on Sundays, close college campus voting sites and in general, to, as he put it, ‘make party line changes to early voting.’

Republican leaders believe college students and African-Americans who favor early voting or Sunday voting are liable to vote Democratic. In the spirit of the voter ID or voter suppression law passed by Republicans in the General Assembly, they’d like to do what they can to limit voting even in the wake of a federal court ruling that threw out the state’s voter ID law.

Woodhouse couches his orders to county elections officials in the terms of guarding against voter fraud. Although that’s a virtually non-existent problem in North Carolina, Republicans use the threat of it as an excuse to tamp down as many Democratic votes as possible.

But the former television reporter may have crossed the line this time in appearing to instruct county elections officials. Bob Hall of the Democracy North Carolina watchdog group that fought against the voter ID law called Woodhouse’s request ‘terribly irresponsible.’ In asking Republicans to curb early voting, Woodhouse has inadvertently helped those fighting the voter ID law as discriminatory and partisan. And he has underlined the true motives in the voter suppression laws in North Carolina and elsewhere.”

News

North Carolina schools chief renews call for comprehensive teacher pay plan

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson

North Carolina’s final budget this year may have included modest raises for teachers, but the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson renewed her calls Thursday for an improved “comprehensive teacher pay plan.”

Atkinson, speaking on a panel at an education conference organized by the N.C. Chamber of Commerce, again pitched her “wedding cake” teacher pay plan, which included competitive raises for teachers at the base.

The upper layers of the cake, according to Atkinson, would include additional sweeteners for designated teaching leaders in the school and others who step in to assist at low-performing schools.

Atkinson also talked of a $4.7 million investment in this year’s budget  geared toward a statewide digital learning plan which provides support for teachers.

“All of these work together to show teachers that we value and respect them,” Atkinson said.

The conference brought together various education leaders, at the K-12 and university levels, as well as business leaders in the state.

Atkinson also touted state partnerships with business leaders such as a middle school work program that helps students learn the keys to being a good employee, as well as a teacher summer work program placing educators in businesses.

The latter program is used to help teachers develop lesson plans to make students job-ready, she said, with the goal of making every student graduate with work experience.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Atkinson added.

As expected, the theme throughout the morning and afternoon was students’ job-readiness, and a growing gap between educators and employers when it comes to expectations for future employees.

To that end, another of Thursday’s panelists, top UNC System advisor Peter Hans, pledged renewed cooperation between the system and the state’s community colleges system under new President Margaret Spellings, calling Spellings an “education reformer.”

Read more

Courts & the Law

Department of Justice: Rivers Correctional Institution in Hertford County is a lawless place

rivers-lg

(Photo: Geo Group)

Rivers Correctional Institution is located on 257 bucolic acres on Parker’s Fishery Road, in unincorporated Hertford County. With a capacity of 1,450, the federal prison could fit about two Wintons — the closest town, population 760 or so — inside its walls.

Even though Rivers is a low-security facility — not a supermax prison — it is a desperate, violent place, where fights and sexual assaults between inmates, and fights with staff are routine. More than half of the inmates are from Washington, D.C., and many of them have been addicted to drugs.

For now, Rivers is operated by private prison company, GEO, one of three major for-profit correctional corporations that have contracts with the federal government. But those contracts will not be renewed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Today the DOJ announced that private prisons are more dangerous and inefficient than its counterparts run by the Bureau of Prisons. No existing contracts will be renewed; no new ones will be signed.

(Butner, also a federal detention unit in Granville County, is run by the Bureau of Prisons.)

As part of the investigation, DOJ officials visited Rivers and three other private federal prisons, then issued its findings in a report released by the agency’s inspector general as part of today’s announcement.

From the report:

“Rivers had the highest rates of contraband finds (excluding cell phones), inmate assaults on staff, uses of force, guilty findings on inmate discipline cases, inmate grievances, positive drug tests, inmate-on-inmate sexual misconduct and the lowest phone monitoring rate.”

The number of weapons violations was 56 percent higher in private prisons than in government facilities. The number of assaults was a third higher. Lockdowns were also used more frequently and for reasons that weren’t always justified.

Confronted with overcrowding, in 1997, the federal government began outsourcing some of its prison operations to private companies. About 12 percent — roughly 22,500 — of federal inmates are in private facilities.

According to the DOJ report, the cost of operating these private prisons has increased from approximately $562 million in fiscal year 2011 to $639 million in FY 2014.

However, this increase reflects fixed-price contracts. The payment amount does not change, even if costs are lower. An accounting of costs for specific departments or operations is not provided to the BOP, the report said.  The contractors are responsible only for submitting an invoice to the BOP at the end of each month.

This creates a further incentive for the private prisons to cut costs and thus, boost their profits. Medical treatment is an easy place to trim expenses, but one with potentially dire — and unconstitutional — ramifications for the inmates.

From the report:

We found examples at both the Eden Detention Center and the Rivers Correctional Institution where the reviewing CFM physician had cited deficiencies, such as delayed or incomplete treatment, in the contractors’ medical management or protocols surrounding an inmate death.

In one instance, when an inmate had trouble breathing, the contract prison medical staff told him to place a sick call, which would put him on a list of inmates waiting to be seen by medical personnel instead of being treated immediately. However, after he died, the mortality reviews showing this deficiency gave the onsite monitors no guidance on what steps to take to require corrective action. As a result, contractor deficiencies went uncorrected and corrective actions were delayed at both facilities.

The closure of the prisons could take several years. According to the Washington Post, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said it was “hard to know precisely” when all the privately run facilities would no longer have federal inmates, but that the justice department is “well on our way to ultimately eliminating the use of private prisons entirely.”

As a result of the report, GEO Group’s stock price fell 40 percent today.

Commentary

Three things North Carolina consumers need to know about Aetna’s Marketplace exit

On Monday, the health insurance giant Aetna announced it would scale back its offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, where consumers can shop around for individual health insurance plans and qualify for financial help from the federal government to afford their coverage. While Aetna ostensibly cites high costs as the reason it is pulling back from 15 states to only four, new evidence shows the move may well be part of an attempt to bully the federal government into approving a pending business deal.

Regardless of the cause, Aetna will not be offering health insurance plans in North Carolina’s Marketplace in 2017, meaning that consumers in 39 counties will no longer see these plans on the Marketplace next year. Currently, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has filed to offer plans in all 100 counties, and Cigna has filed to enter into six counties in the Triangle area.

So, what does all this mean for North Carolina consumers?

  1. Your Aetna coverage lasts until the end of the year, so keep paying premiums and getting care.

While Aetna is pulling back from the Marketplace for 2017, the plans it has sold for 2016 are still valid for the rest of the year. If you’re enrolled in a plan from either Aetna or Coventry Health Care of the Carolinas (which is owned by Aetna), you should keep paying your monthly premiums and continue to access the health care services and prescription drugs you need through the end of the year.

  1. Financial help from the Marketplace will protect you from any premium increases next year.

This year, 91.5% of North Carolinians who have Marketplace plans were able to qualify for financial assistance that lowers the cost of their monthly premiums. These subsidies, called premium tax credits, change every year to make up for changes in the premiums of plans available on the Marketplace. While media coverage tends to focus on the gross change in premiums from year to year, most enrollees don’t experience big changes in premiums thanks to their premium tax credits.

  1. Starting on November 1, you can shop around for affordable coverage for 2017.

The Open Enrollment period for 2017 coverage from the Health Insurance Marketplace starts on November 1, 2016. Whether you had a plan from Aetna, UnitedHealthcare (which also will not offer NC plans in 2017), or Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC, you can go back to the Marketplace by visiting www.HealthCare.gov or calling 1-800-318-2596 to shop around for your new options. Thanks to premium tax credits, as well as a benefit that lowered out-of-pocket costs for two-thirds of North Carolina enrollees this year, you’ll still be able to find coverage that fits your budget and meets your needs.

Don’t forget—free, expert in-person enrollment assistance is available from navigators and other assisters. You can call 1-855-733-3711, use the Get Covered Connector, or visit your local Community Health Center to schedule an appointment with an experienced assister who can help you understand and navigate your options.

NC Budget and Tax Center, TANF 20 Years Later

TANF at 20: How it contributed to a tattered safety net for struggling families

This blog is the first post in a series that will detail how lawmakers have weakened Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF) over the last 20 years, explain why TANF is a cautionary tale rather than a model for other work and income support programs, and map out a better way forward.

Come Monday, Aug. 22, it will be 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed into law what’s widely known as welfare “reform”—an overhaul of the nation’s main assistance program for families struggling to make ends meet. Lawmakers created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to, as President Clinton pledged, “end welfare as we know it.” And the 1996 welfare law did just that—the reforms created a harsh hole in the nation’s safety net for the most vulnerable families across the U.S.

The welfare law imposed a five-year limit on benefits—ending the legal right to basic assistance—with the expectation that recipients who can work do so. Policymakers also expected states to maintain a temporary safety net to help families weather short-term troubles and a bad economy. The law gave states a great deal of spending flexibility over programs when it converted federal aid to a fixed block grant, but many states like North Carolina have significantly reduced basic assistance without using TANF to help parents prepare for or connect to work.

The result: TANF does little today to help families regain their footing on the economic ladder or to connect them to work to reduce their need for supports—thus violating the purported intention of the law to move people off welfare to work. In fact, Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich, two of our nation’s foremost experts on poverty, warned President Clinton and Congress at the time that this would happen, as they recall:

“We argued that the low-wage jobs available to former welfare recipients would not pay the bills. We warned that the legislation didn’t provide adequate child care for single mothers thrown off welfare. And we cautioned that many welfare recipients faced serious barriers to success in the job market.”

Their warnings fell on deaf ears and in the end accurately depicted the fallout of TANF 20 years later. Read more