Legislature, News

2017 legislative session convenes with glimpse of what’s to come; call for bipartisan effort among lawmakers

The North Carolina Senate unanimously passed its rules Wednesday for the 2017 legislative session, including how it will consider confirming gubernatorial nominations or appointments. The rule does not state any sort of timeline for the process.

For the first time in North Carolina history, the General Assembly passed a bill during one of the special sessions in December requiring Senate approval over Cabinet Secretary appointees.

You can find many of the appointees Gov. Roy Cooper has announced here.

There was no discussion from Senators about the new rule and it remains unclear when the process will get underway. The Senate adjourned until Jan. 25.

RULE 49. Consideration of Gubernatorial Nominations or Appointments. – When received by the Principal Clerk, written notice of a gubernatorial nomination or appointment that requires confirmation by the General Assembly or the Senate shall be read in session and shall be referred by the Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate, or in his absence the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, to the appropriate Senate committee. The Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate may file an appropriate resolution for consideration of the nomination or appointment. For statewide or at-large nominations or appointments, the Principal Clerk shall transmit a copy of the notice of nomination or appointment to the Senator or Senators representing the county in which the nominee or appointee resides. For nominations or appointments of persons to represent a particular district or region of the State, the Principal Clerk shall transmit a copy of the notice of nomination or appointment to the Senator or Senators representing all or a portion of the particular district or region to be represented. The chair of the Senate committee receiving referral of any nomination or appointment shall determine the procedure by which the committee shall consider that nomination or appointment and may make a report of its recommendation to the Senate.

In other news from the meeting Wednesday, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) was again elected President Pro Tem. Sen. Louis Pate (R-Lenoir, Pitt, Wayne) was elected Deputy President Pro Tem.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

In his address to fellow legislators, Berger thanked them for placing their confidence in him and said he would do the best job he could. He commended the General Assembly for increasing jobs across the state, cutting the unemployment rate, reducing taxes for North Carolinians and increasing teacher pay to more than $50,000 per year for the first time in the state’s history.

He also said that most of what the General Assembly works on is not controversial and most laws passed with “overwhelming bipartisan support.” He said no matter what legislators’ political party, they are all there to help the state thrive and citizens reach their full potential.

“Members, as we consider the task ahead at the start of this session, let us remember all that we can accomplish when we work together,” Berger said. “And let us remember all that can be achieved as we continue down this new path for our state.”

Berger also gave a glimpse of what’s to come this session, noting intentions to maintain budget and spending discipline and a commitment to tax policies that will help return North Carolina to good fiscal health.

Let me be clear, we will not under circumstances return to the failed tax and spend policies of the past that gave us the mess that we had in 2011,” he said. “We’ll continue to look for ways to reduce the tax burden on families, small businesses and other job creators, helping them keep more of their earned money. We’ll continue efforts to reform and improve public education for our students and have already committed to raising the average teacher pay to $55,000 over the next two years. We’ll remain focused on providing a bright future for our children and helping build a stable workforce that will attract businesses to this state.”

Senators will work, he said, to foster a better business climate and to continue building state reserves to be well-prepared for the future.

Working across the aisle

After a series of tense and contentious extra sessions last month, the N.C. House officially convened the legislative session Wednesday on a more hopeful note.

Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) was elected to a second term as Speaker of the House and called for a renewed sense of

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore

congeniality.

“We will not always agree, but let us disagree respectfully and with kindness,” Moore said.

Strained by election season and divided by a number of important social and political issues, bipartisanship was in short supply in 2016.

But new Minority Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) extended a hand across the aisle Wednesday to second the nomination of Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) for speaker pro tempore. Jackson praised Stevens’ own spirit of bipartisan cooperation and said she will lead the House well on occasions when Moore is absent.

Beyond the housekeeping of electing new leadership, welcoming new members and taking their oaths, the House did little beyond the ceremonial Wednesday. Like the Senate, they adjourned until noon on January 25 – a move telegraphed earlier this week by a fundraising e-mail from Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), the powerful chair of the House Rules Committee.

Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch contributed to this report.

News

Media report: New DPI superintendent hires former McCrory staffers

New DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

New DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

We’ve talked at Policy Watch about how reluctant new Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Mark Johnson has been to reveal the particulars of his plans for reforming a public school system he slammed as “outdated” last week. 

But now, those looking for specifics may have a few tea leaves to read this week. According to a report from The News & Observer, Johnson has tapped some familiar faces to staff his office.

From the N&O:

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson has hired Lindsey Wakely to the job of senior policy adviser and chief legal counsel. Wakely was McCrory’s deputy general counsel and was former legal counsel for Variety Wholesalers, a company run by conservative businessman, political contributor, and former McCrory budget director Art Pope.

Kevin Wilkinson is Johnson’s special assistant. Wilkinson worked at the legislature for former Rep. Rob Bryan of Charlotte. Bryan was key to establishing the state’s Achievement School District, which the legislature created to have charter-school organizations take over up to five low-performing schools from school districts.

A law the legislature passed last month that the state Board of Education is suing over would have Johnson appoint the Achievement School District superintendent rather than the board. The law is now on hold.

Meredith Steadman, Johnson’s scheduler and special assistant, is a former McCrory scheduler.

The appointments come with Johnson in the midst of a pending court battle to determine exactly what powers he will have in his new office.

State legislation approved in late 2016 granted Johnson greater control over the state’s education budget, senior staffing, the controversial achievement school district and the state’s charter school office, although members of the State Board of Education are challenging that order in the courts.

In the meantime, Johnson has told school leaders he plans to hold a listening tour for the remainder of the year before returning with “action items.”

Commentary

Memo to GOP: If you want to “work with” Cooper, start by halting the outrageous allegations

Gov. Cooper

Gov. Roy Cooper

Rep. David Lewis, a prominent member of the leadership team in the North Carolina House of Representatives, told WRAL yesterday that legislative Republicans look forward to working with Gov. Roy Cooper this year.

“We look forward to finding common ground with the governor. We think there are things that we can work with him on and look forward to actually having a dialogue with him without having to go to court in order to talk to him.”

Let’s fervently hope Lewis means it. For years now, the General Assembly leaders have frequently treated a governor of their own party with thinly-veiled contempt and as a virtual errand boy.

Here’s the deal, though: If you’re going to “work” with someone and have productive “dialogue,” it might be a good start to stop calling them names and making outrageous allegations. This doesn’t mean one can’t have strong differences and even battle over the constitutionality of respective roles. Governor Cooper has made this clear in some of his recent statements.

Senator Phil Berger

But there’s a big difference between engaging in tough policy and legal debates and lobbing absurd and offensive personal attacks. The most obvious serial abuser in this area is Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger who has done his utmost since the election to adopt the persona of a Trump-like bully.

Listen to Berger at a gathering of business leaders in early December as reported by a right-wing blogger:

“It’s time for the Governor-elect to take a stance on the issues that surround House Bill 2. He needs to let the public know if he believes that men should be allowed in women’s and girl’s locker rooms. He needs to let us know whether middle school girls should be forced to share a locker room with middle school boys.”

And here’s Berger in a post on his own website discussing the failure of the Senate he controls to repeal HB2:

“Their action proves they [Cooper and Senate Democrats] only wanted a repeal in order to force radical social engineering and shared bathrooms across North Carolina, at the expense of our state’s families, our reputation and our economy.”

Of course, Berger is not alone. A goodly part of the GOP establishment has been lobbing dishonest and outrageous stink bombs at Cooper and one of his advisers, Ken Eudy of late. The GOP’ers claim that both Eudy and his boss are “anti-military” because Eudy had the temerity to express support in a column he wrote last summer for the thoughtful demonstrations of football player Colin Kaepernick and to call for honoring not just military personnel, but all kinds of public servants at sporting events.

Earth to the GOP: You do not build working relationships and find common ground through classless distortions and smear campaigns. Everyone understands that politics is, as the saying goes, not a pillow fight, but there’s a difference between policy disagreements and dishonest broadsides by politicians and their minions that seek to impugn the character of the men and women with whom they must work.

Let’s hope Berger and his colleagues have gotten this kind of vitriolic nonsense out of their systems, take a cue from Cooper and start to focus on working to find common ground in governing our state.  Unfortunately, if the past is any indication, such a scenario seems as if it is likely to be a long shot.

Courts & the Law, News

Charlotte Catholic School teacher fired for same-sex marriage announcement files federal suit

Illustration by Nelle Dunlap

Lonnie Billard taught drama and English at Charlotte Catholic High School for more than a decade before he was fired in 2014 for announcing his nuptials to his longtime same-sex partner on Facebook.

He filed a federal lawsuit today that claims his firing violates the Civil Rights Act.

Billard is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Tin Fulton Walker and Owen. In Oct. 2014, he announced his upcoming marriage to his partner, who often accompanied him to school events and was known in the community.

The post read: “Everyone sing along…. ‘Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna’ get maa-aried. Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna’ get maa-aa-ried’. Yes, I’m finally going to make
an honest (at least legal) man out of Rich. We will be married on May 2, 2015… details to
follow. I cannot believe that I am saying this or that it is even possible. I thank all the courageous
people who had more guts than I who refused to back down and accept anything but ‘equal’. Ps.
If you don’t agree with this… keep it to yourself. You never asked my opinion about your
personal life and I am not asking yours.”

Two months later, on Christmas Day 2014, Billard learned of his termination, according to the 9-page lawsuit. He was told he was fired because of the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

On January 9, 2015, the Diocese’s Director of Communications, David Hains (“Hains”), stated publicly that Plaintiff was terminated for “going on Facebook, entering into a same-sex relationship, and saying it in a very public way that he does not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church.” Continuing to employ Plaintiff, Hains stated, “would be legitimating that relationship. The church would be saying it’s OK, and it’s not.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, argues that Billard’s firing violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex and other characteristics.

“Lonnie was fired because he announced his marriage to his longtime partner, who is a man, and that is sex discrimination, pure and simple,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “People should not be fired because of who they love. Even though Charlotte Catholic is a private religious school, it cannot illegally discriminate against an employee whose job was not religious.”

Billard said he loved being part of the Charlotte Catholic school community and that the classroom has always felt like home to him.

“I know that the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage, but I don’t think my commitment to my husband has any bearing on my work in the classroom,” he said. “I have never hidden the fact that I’m gay and my relationship with my partner was no secret at school. But whether or not the school previously knew that I am gay is not the point. People should be able to fall in love and get married without risking their jobs.”

Commentary

Lawmakers return to town today: How ugly will things get?

The General Assembly officially convenes the 2017 “long” session today (click here for a preliminary primer) and for a lot of people this is dreary prospect. The Charlotte Observer went so far this morning as to use its lead editorial to spell out its five worst fears about the impending session:

1. The legislature’s relationship with Gov. Roy Cooper will be even worse than the one it had with Pat McCrory. Cooper, a Democrat, knocked off McCrory, but if Sen. Phil Berger and the gang can pancake McCrory, think what they might do to Cooper. That Cooper is trying to ignore their law and expand Medicaid, and that legislators see him as sinking an HB2 repeal deal last month, does not get relations off to a promising start.

2. Speaking of getting pancaked, Charlotte is at the center of the legislature’s griddle. Republican leaders have had an ongoing feud with the state’s biggest city and they don’t like Mayor Jennifer Roberts. Expect bullying, through tax redistribution, stealing more governing power and other methods.

3. HB2 sits untouched. It has done so much damage to the state, but its last chance at repeal for a while may have gone when the special session went off the rails in December.

4. Voting rights are attacked further. After a tight race with Cooper, McCrory did more than seek a legitimate recount. He alleged voter fraud in more than half the counties. Many see that as laying the groundwork for further restrictions targeting phantom fraud.

5. Redistricting gets nasty. The U.S. Supreme Court put things on hold Tuesday, but the General Assembly might yet have to redraw its election district boundaries. If it does, expect hardball, with individual legislators targeted across the state.”

And sadly, that’s not all that could be on the table. Such a list could have also included the Right’s ongoing pushes to:

  • eliminate the state income tax,
  • bring back predatory “payday” lending,
  • privatize and sell of our public education system,
  • ban all abortions,
  • harass immigrants,
  • complete the takeover and evisceration of the university system, and
  • a host of other items.

The Observer editorial also included a list of hopes as well that basically boiled down to the conservatives backing off the pedal a smidge. Let’s hope that’s possible, but if it is to happen, it will take a lot more than just relying on Governor Cooper to act as a roadblock; it will take tens of thousands of North Carolinians getting off their duffs like they did during the “Moral Monday” summer of 2013 and pushing back.

Buckle your chinstraps.