Commentary

Last week’s ruling that North Carolina tax dollars may be used to support private schools with literally no standards of accountability at all has generated some scathing editorials from the state’s major newspapers. Here are a few excerpts:

From Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“It is distressing on its face, this idea that public money can go toward the expenses of private schooling. It crosses the divide between public and private, between church and state, between common sense and partisan ideology.

And yet, in a ruling with a clear partisan flavor, the North Carolina Supreme Court, having snatched the confrontation over a school voucher program out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals where it should properly have gone, has upheld the Republican legislature’s voucher program. This is a devastating ruling for the future of public education.”

From the Greensboro News & Record:

“In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court unanimously delivered its landmark Leandro ruling that declared the state has an obligation to offer every child a “sound, basic education.”

In a 4-3 decision Thursday, the court regrettably took a big step back from that principle, finding that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is constitutional.”

From the Fayetteville Observer (after noting that it does not oppose vouchers):

“That said, we do have a deep concern about the lack of accountability in the voucher program, an issue raised in Justice Robin Hudson’s dissent. ‘The main constitutional flaw in this program,’ she wrote, ‘is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear.’

The investment of tax dollars must be accompanied by accountability. The General Assembly needs to remedy that problem. If it does, we expect the voucher program to improve the lot of some students who otherwise might fall into the cracks and never see success.”

Stay tuned. There will be lots more like this to come.
Commentary

A BuzzFeed News Investigation published today, The New American Slavery: Invited to the U.S. Foreign Workers Find a Nightmare, details many of the abuses experienced by workers in the H-2A and H-2B visa program. One of the H-2 workers profiled by BuzzFeed put it simply:

We live where we work and we can’t leave. We are tied to the company. Our visas are in the company’s name. If the pay and working conditions aren’t as we wish, who can we complain to? We are like modern-day slaves.

This is certainly not the first report to highlight the problems with the two programs that allow U.S. employers to import foreign workers for unskilled labor– in March of this year the Government Accountability Office released a lengthy report about the problems with both visa programs and calling for increased protections for the workers.  But it comes at a time when employers who have built their business models around employing cheap foreign labor are using all of their political power to try to weaken workers protections and oversight of the programs.  A bill pushed by H-2B employers and approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last month would eliminate long overdue protections which were finally published by USDOL and USDHS in April and which took effect immediately.

The BuzzFeed story is long and its not exactly light Friday afternoon reading, but it’s worth the time.  H-2A and H-2B workers are never going to be able to lobby Congress the same way their employers have been.  But maybe as more reports like this one are published and more people learn about this modern program that the workers describe as slavery, Congress will have to start paying attention to the workers’ voice too.

Commentary, News

School-vouchers1. State’s highest court upholds school voucher program despite lack of accountability and standards

In a 4-3 decision that defies principles of accountability to taxpayers and students alike, the elected Republican justices of the state Supreme Court today upheld a school voucher program that allows taxpayer dollars to fund tuition for private schools having virtually no obligation to provide North Carolina students with even a basic education.

Chief Justice Mark Martin, writing for the majority and joined by Justices Robert Edmunds, Paul Newby and Barbara Jackson, couched the opinion in terms of judicial restraint and deference to the legislature, saying that the court’s role was “limited to a determination of whether the legislation is plainly and clearly prohibited by the constitution.” [Continue reading…]

Tillman_edu2. Senate bill proposes ending DPI control of charter school oversight

Administration and oversight for public charter schools has been handled by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for years — but Senator Jerry Tillman, a longtime supporter of charter schools, wants to change that.

“DPI was never in love…with charter schools,” Sen. Tillman (R-Randolph) said in a Senate Education Committee hearing on Tuesday as he introduced to fellow lawmakers a gutted version of House Bill 334, which would transfer the Office of Charter Schools out of the Department of Public Instruction, placing it under the State Board of Education. [Continue reading…]

ff-723153. Still no urgency in Raleigh with budget almost a month late 

At first glance, it seemed like just another disturbing week at the General Assembly.

A Senate committee approved a plan to give homebuilders a tax break that will cost local governments millions of dollars a year, another Senate committee passed a bill to weaken the state’s already anemic gun laws, and another panel considered a proposal to block state environmental officials from developing plans to cut carbon emissions in response to forthcoming rules from the EPA.

That’s all sadly business as usual these days in the legislative halls. And it didn’t stop there. [Continue reading…]

budget-pie4. State government shutdown ahead? Budget office gets ready for possibility

A memorandum from the state budget office issued earlier this month asks state agencies to let them know what’s essential and what’s not, in the event a budget stalemate leads to a government shutdown.

The July 14 memorandum (scroll down to read) asks agencies to go through their operations, and report back about public safety and essential services need to continue on in the event of a funding stoppage –things like keeping on the staff who feed animals at the N.C. State Zoo, emergency responders in the highway patrol and prison guards.[Continue reading…]

wb-721B5. A $60 million rip-off
The state Treasurer combats a stunning money grab by the insurance industry

If there’s a single most maddening and nonsensical argument regularly advanced by the far right, so-called “free market” think tanks funded by the Art Popes and Koch Brothers of the world, it’s probably this: the ideology-over-common sense contention that the “genius of the market” makes most consumer protection laws unnecessary.

Whether it’s airplane pilot rest, meat inspections or 400% “payday” loans, it’s generally the position of the market fundamentalists that “the market” and “consumer choice” will pretty much take care of everything. Put bluntly, once a cut rate airliner or two goes down (or a few hundred folks contract salmonella or Mad Cow Disease) consumers will wise up and take their business elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

NC Budget and Tax Center

Revenues that fuel the state budget are growing so slowly that they are not even keeping pace with population-plus-inflation growth, according to Barry Boardman who is the chief economist for the state legislature’s non-partisan Fiscal Research Division. Weak economic growth and tax cuts are keeping state revenues low, Boardman explained during a presentation that he gave to lawmakers earlier this week.

More tax cuts are looming too—a move that will sustain the damaging trend of slow revenue growth that makes it harder to meet basic needs and build a stronger economy. The House and Senate leadership put forward budgets that included additional tax cuts totaling approximately $652 million and $950 million, respectively, over the next two years.

The presentation shows that during the immediate years before the Great Recession, state revenues were growing faster than the inflation-plus-population benchmark. At that time, the state tax code was better suited and comprised of a progressive income tax based on ability to pay. The trend reversed after the 2008 fiscal year, with the population-plus-inflation growth rate outpacing revenue growth. The economic downturn caused revenues to plummet. And before revenues were able to fully recover back to pre-recession levels, lawmakers cut taxes deeply as part of the 2013 tax plan.

Revenues are not expected to outpace population-plus-inflation growth in either of the next two years; they are expected to remain below the long-run historical average. Read More

Commentary
As #WageWeek continues to celebrate local and state efforts to improve wages across the country, The Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of advocates, businesses, and elected officials engaged in innovative efforts to raise wages in local communities across North Carolina. This blog post is the next in this series, and represents a guest post from Carl Rist, board member of Durham Peoples Alliance and convener of the Economic Inequality Action team.

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These are strange times we live in. Recognizing the growing gap between rich and poor, our President has described economic inequality as the defining issue of our time. The presidential candidates from both parties are now talking openly about growing inequality, and yet, it’s now been six years since minimum wage workers got a raise.

In Durham, NC, we’ve launched an innovative effort to recognize employers that pay a “living wage” and raise up the importance of living wages in our community. Durham has long been among the leading cities when it comes to promoting living wages. Durham was the first city in North Carolina and one of the first in the nation to pass a living wage ordinance in the late 1990s. More recently, with new data from the NC Justice Center that shows that Durham has the highest median hourly wage in the state, but the 86th worst income inequality (our of our state’s 100 counties), concern has been growing about the growing gap between rich and poor in the Bull City.

When a local progressive group, the Durham People’s Alliance, began studying the issue and possible solutions, it became clear that finding a local policy solution to this growing problem would be challenging, Two years ago, the General Assembly weakened all living wage ordinances in the state by removing the ability of these ordinances to apply to all city and county contractors. What’s more, a web of state preemption laws related to our state’s constitution keeps us from passing local policies, such as local minimum wage ordinances, that would apply to all private employers.

That’s why members of the Economic Inequality “action team” of the People’s Alliance decided to work with private employers to voluntarily raise wages for workers in Durham.

Read More