Commentary

On HB2: Love and compassion winning, McCrory losing

LGBT rainbowIt’s increasingly clear that, much as he and his allies did with the battle over marriage equality, Gov. Pat McCrory is losing the fight over HB2 and its promotion of discrimination against LGBT North Carolinians. The latest signal comes from the Governor’s home town, where, the Charlotte Observer reports, the Guv has been reduced to whining that education officials in the state (including UNC President and GOP loyalist Margaret Spellings) are ignoring his demands that they discriminate against transgender students.

Earlier this week, the Charlotte Mecklenberg school system announced that it would follow Spellings’ lead and federal court directives to honor the gender identity of students. As CMS Superintendent Ann Clark said at the time:

“This is about courage, understanding and compassion. These are our children. These are the community’s children.”

Not surprisingly, this has gotten the Guv’s dander up. Yesterday, he released a statement accusing CMS of changing “basic expectations of privacy for students” and “purposely breaking state law.”

It’s not clear what McCrory will do next. Perhaps he will try to bring a lawsuit against CMS, but, of course, if he does that, he’ll be bucking a powerful trend in the the federal courts, which have been siding with those who would combat LGBT discrimination. Like George Wallace, Orval Faubus  and other pro-discrimination southern governors of the past, McCrory is clearly fighting a losing battle here against love, tolerance and progress.

Let’s hope McCrory sees the light sometime soon, but for now, his stubborn obstructionism is enough to call to mind Joseph Welch’s famous 1954 take-down of Joseph McCarthy during the senator’s anti-communist witch hunts:

“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Note: For those interested in continuing the effort to help open the Governor’s eyes, there will be a “Rally Against Hate” this evening in Raleigh. This is from the event’s Facebook page:

“Join us by Bicentennial Plaza in Raleigh THIS Wednesday, June 22, at 6:30pm for a Rally Against Hate. This rally will be an opportunity to remember the tragedy in Orlando and how it has impacted our community in North Carolina. We will also show our determination to fight against harmful legislation that impacts the lives of LGBTQ North Carolinians by calling for full repeal of HB2 and to pass needed protections for LGBTQ residents and visitors.With less than two weeks until the legislature adjourns, we must be louder than ever. Bring your flags, banners, and signs; invite your friends and family; and let’s come together in Raleigh as a community to stand united against hate in our state.”

Commentary

Higher ed group blasts state Senate’s income tax constitutional amendment

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the excellent essay that appears on the on the website of the group Higher Education Works regarding the North Carolina Senate’s dreadful proposal to enact a constitutional amendment capping the state income tax. As the essay notes, the proposal would usher in “government by auto-pilot” that would likely prove disastrous to our already damaged colleges and universities:

Commentary

International visitors work in North Carolina, nationally through J-1 program

If you have traveled to the Outer Banks recently, chances are you have been waited on by an international student. Stores, restaurants, and hotels on the North Carolina coast are increasingly turning to temporary foreign workers to fill customer service and cleaning positions in the summers.

These workers come to North Carolina on what is known as a J-1 visa. The J-1 program was developed to provide a cultural exchange experience for international visitors. Described by the State Department as a “work and student-based exchange visitor program,” the J-1 program attracted 6,927 people to North Carolina in 2014 for a variety of different programs, among them camp counselor, au pair, intern, trainee, and summer work travel. A few of the programs are designed as specific learning opportunities for international visitors, scholars, and students, but others place people into short-term employment.

While some J-1 workers undoubtedly have a positive experience with their host employer, others have found the promised cultural exchange and training to be sadly lacking. Unfortunately, some J-1 workers have experienced exploitative working conditions. Dozens of J-1 workers from Asia and Eastern Europe went on strike in 2011 to protest working conditions at the Hershey packing facility where they were placed. A year later, the Department of Labor settled their complaint against the plant for $213,000 in back wages and $143,000 in safety and health violations.

Au pair workers on J-1 visas recently won an important victory when a federal judge in Colorado allowed their lawsuit against multiple cultural exchange sponsoring agencies to go forward. The workers, typically paid $197.75 per week, allege that the sponsoring agencies illegally conspired to keep wages low and failed to ensure they were paid the minimum wage and overtime. Au pair workers can get in touch with the attorneys conducting this litigation here.

J-1 workers in North Carolina can learn more about their rights through the North Carolina Justice Center’s new J-1 worker factsheet, found here.

Commentary

The General Assembly’s war on sustainable energy continues

windfarmIn case you missed it — or have simply become numb to the repeated actions in this vein — it’s worth noting that the North Carolina Senate took yet another ill-advised step to undermine the move to sustainable energy yesterday.

This statement was distributed last night by the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club:

Senate Bill Blows Against Wind Industry: Measure Would Undercut Planned Wind Energy Projects in North Carolina

This evening the NC Senate gave final approval to H 763, a measure that would give more than one state agency the ability to deny permits for new wind energy projects. The bill adds several new layers of regulation to potential applicants for wind farm permits to legislation adopted in 2013. The NC Department of Environmental Quality already has the ability to deny permits for wind development.  Wind developers must also separately secure clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The measure now goes to the House for a concurrence vote.

H 763 defers to maps apparently prepared at the request of the state’s Military Affairs Commission, which is housed in the Department of Commerce; not the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs.  It appears that a report on the process and protocol by which the maps were developed was never presented to a legislative committee.  It’s also unclear if there is a publicly available report on the development of the report, including the charge given to the private firm that developed the maps.

After the Senate’s vote, Melissa Dickerson, Coastal Coordinator for the NC Sierra Club issued the following statement:

“We don’t need to look any further than the Atlantic Wind project in northeastern NC to see that wind farms and the military can come to agreement on how to coexist.  It’s disappointing that the Senate seems to think we have to choose.  With tonight’s vote, the Senate appears to seek an immediate halt any new wind farms in eastern NC, despite the apparent economic and environmental benefits to rural counties.”

“Communities in eastern North Carolina should be able to attract investment from the wind industry through the comprehensive permitting process adopted by the legislature in 2013.  That process requires input from the military.  The proposed legislation adds unnecessary complexity and uncertainty for businesses navigating the wind permitting process.”

“North Carolina is a national leader in clean energy development.  Our onshore and offshore wind resources have the potential to ensure that we can responsibly meet our energy needs without creating more coal ash or air pollution.”

Meanwhile, check out this fine editorial on the same subject from this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer which explains why investment in wind energy ought to be a no-brainer.

NC Budget and Tax Center

House lawmakers approve stricter penalties for SNAP recipients

A new rule also requires DHHS to investigate modest lottery winnings

Last week, House lawmakers undercut SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program and plays a critical role in ensuring that North Carolinians have enough to eat. They made it more difficult for those who receive SNAP to access this critical nutritional support by increasing disqualification periods to the maximum level allowed under federal law. The bill also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate unreported lottery winnings in excess of $2,250 among SNAP recipients.

The approval comes just two weeks before some of North Carolina’s poorest adults, who are already living on the edge, stand to lose food assistance as the SNAP time limit returns to the state’s most-economically struggling counties. The time limit kicked in earlier this year for the 23 counties with healthier economies.

The bill that the House approved has three major sections:

1. The bill includes a work penalty provision. Under this bill, SNAP recipients that are not in compliance with work requirements would be disqualified from benefits for three months for the first issue of noncompliance, six months for the second instance, and permanently for three instances. Examples of work requirements include registering for work, participating in an employment and training program, and not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing hours to below 30 hours per week without good cause. Some people are exempted, such as children, older adults, and people unfit for work.

The reality is that 4 out of 5 SNAP participants are working or not expected to work. Nearly half of the folks on SNAP are children who—like older adults and people with a disability—are not expected to work. And work rates are high among SNAP households that can work. Rep. Bert Jones, the bill sponsor, amended the bill to only subject the head of household to the disqualification period to ensure that children are not penalized for the challenges that their parents’ face in finding work or staying on the job.

2. The bill requires the State Lottery Commission to report cash lottery winnings of $2,250 or more to the Department of Health and Human Services, who then must crosscheck that information with SNAP recipients on a monthly basis. If the department discovers that there has been a case of unreported winnings, staff would investigate the SNAP household to determine fraudulent misrepresentation, which can carry a criminal charge.

Proponents of the bill cited fraud as a motivator of this provision despite data that shows error rates are at a near modern low.  Any amount of fraud is unacceptable. The lottery provision in this bill is in line with curbing fraud, and it is in line with federal law. However, it is worth nothing that less than 1 percent of SNAP benefits go to households that are ineligible, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  That means that 99 percent of SNAP benefits go to households whom SNAP is designed to help put food on the table. The lottery cases are overblown in the media.

3. The bill authorizes a legislative study to review a federal option called categorical eligibility, which allows some North Carolina families with modest assets and low incomes—but high expenses such as child care, rent, and utilities—to be eligible for federally-funded food benefits. This policy makes sense because it enhances efficiency, saves North Carolina money, and helps at least 22,000 low-income people become eligible for food aid. Eliminating categorical eligibility, as the original bill would have done, is a substantial policy change that requires significant study. As such, the bill sponsor was wise to convert this provision into a study.

Let’s hope that the study committee reviews the compelling body of evidence demonstrating the harsh impact such a change would have on families, the operations of social service offices, and the broader local economy.

In general, the bill continues a shift in state policy designed to eliminate and/or limit public assistance and eligibility to the minimum level that is allowed. Lawmakers axed a modest but vital working family tax credit, drastically cut jobless benefits, required drug testing for some recipients of cash assistance, banned state waivers from the harsh SNAP time limit, and now again have their sights set on scaling back food assistance.

It is important for lawmakers to pivot and focus just as much attention as they have had on dismantling the safety net to growing jobs, ensuring that adults have access to jobs that pay enough to afford the basics, and investing state money into job training programs that can help these jobless workers regain their footing on the economic ladder.