Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

North Carolina redistricting litigation: What the heck is going on?

Less than 24 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked some of a special master’s districts from being implemented, plaintiffs in a similar racial gerrymandering case have asked a state court to get involved.

And a little more than an hour after the new challenge was announced, Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) called a press conference to complain about all the redistricting litigation.

“Here we go again,” he said. “These liberal dark money groups financed and controlled by allies of the Democratic party are determined to use and abuse the court system to achieve unprecedented chaos. In short, it appears that they will sue until North Carolina is blue despite what the people, despite what the voters want.”

It does seem like there’s been a lot of redistricting litigation going on, but it hasn’t just been Democrats taking advantage of their legal options — the GOP has also filed their fair share of documents, including a number of emergency pleas to higher courts when they don’t get the ruling they want.

There’s a saying about glass houses, but instead of getting into that, check out this breakdown of the most recent redistricting case:

  • When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that 28 House and Senate districts were racially gerrymandered, lawmakers redrew the districts.
  • The plaintiffs — voters harmed by the unconstitutional gerrymandering — challenged 12 of those redrawn districts alleging state and federal constitutional violations.
  • A federal three-judge panel appointed a special master to evaluate and potentially redraw those districts. Stanford Law Professor Nathaniel Persily agreed they were unconstitutional and redrew the districts.
  • After briefings and a hearing on Persily’s maps, the panel ordered they be enacted over lawmakers’ redrawn plans for this year’s elections.
  • Lawmakers immediately filed an emergency request for the U.S. Supreme Court to block the ruling and announced they planned to appeal. One of the points they made was that the federal court should not have ruled on state constitutional issues (a ban on mid-decade redistricting), as was the case with House districts in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. “Any state-law challenge to HD36, HD37, HD40, HD41, and HD105 thus must be filed in state court, where state judges familiar with the state constitution can address the unsettled question of how N.C. Const. art. II, §5(4) applies when a federal court invalidates a duly enacted map.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court issues a split order: some of the special master’s maps can be used in this year’s elections and some can’t, at least temporarily pending an appeal. The districts that can’t be used are the ones that involve questions of state law.
  • The plaintiffs in a racial gerrymandering case that challenged legislative maps at the state level filed a court document asking state judges to order new districts into effect in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, where they accused lawmakers of violating the mid-decade redistricting ban.
  • Lewis calls a press conference to criticize plaintiffs for filing more litigation.
News

Higher Education, LGBTQ groups oppose PROSPER Act

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) is one of a number of Republicans in Congress pushing the PROSPER Act, which they call “higher education’s long overdue reform.”

But a number of prominent higher education voices and LGBTQ groups are pushing back on the act, saying it will further restrict access to higher education and could make it harder to enforce anti-discrimination policies.

In a joint statement with Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) Foxx, in her role as chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, recently touted the act despite mounting criticisms since it came out of committee back in December.

“With six million unfilled jobs and over a trillion dollars in student debt, simply reauthorizing the Higher Education Act will help no one,” the joint statemtn read. “A hard truth that students, families, and institutions must face is that the promise of a postsecondary education is broken. We need a higher education system that is designed to meet the needs of today’s students and has the flexibility to innovate for tomorrow’s workforce opportunities.”

A recent NBC News report outlined concerns about the 600-page bill’s emphasis on religious liberty allowing for more religious discrimination, as in the recent case of a University of Iowa’s Business Leaders in Christ student group, which sued the school for the right to prevent gay students from holding leadership positions.

From the report:

Jenny Pizer, law and policy director at Lambda Legal, told NBC News this provision fails to recognize that colleges and universities are already grappling with the “best way to maintain an environment open to diverse opinions” while at the same time protecting the wellbeing of all students on campus.

“A school should be able to say, ‘We are only giving official recognition and support to groups that are not discriminatory.’”

 Pizer said organizations like BLinC are trying to “have it both ways.” Namely, she said, they want to be able to exclude certain students while still receiving university (and taxpayer) funds while doing so.

“That’s what the extreme right is pushing for here,” she added.

 

On Monday a group of 35 Higher Education groups sent a letter to House leaders opposing the act.

 

 

 

NC Budget and Tax Center, Poverty and Policy Matters

December 2017 local labor market release: A closer look at the Sandhills

Amid rosy data showing that 98 counties had unemployment levels lower in 2017 than in 2016 there is plenty of evidence that many North Carolinians are still hurting. Over the broader period since the start of the Great Recession, 57 counties still have fewer employed workers than at that time, and 27 counties have unemployment levels at least one percentage point above the state average. The pain felt in these communities, that are in many ways worse off now than they were before the Great Recession, prove that the tax cut only approach has failed much of North Carolina. We must focus on an economic strategy that supports a recovery for the unemployed and their families throughout all the state’s communities.

A closer look at the metropolitan and micropolitan places in the Sandhills, a region that includes Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Lee, Montgomery, Moore, Richmond, and Scotland counties, reveals some troubling spots. While micro areas like Sanford (4.9%), Dunn (5%) and Pinehurst-Southern Pines (4.5%) have relatively low unemployment rates, peer places like Laurinburg (8%), Lumberton (6.4%) and Rockingham (6.1%) fare much poorer. The metropolitan area Fayetteville, which serves as an economic engine for the Sandhills region, is hamstrung by an unemployment rate at 5.5%, higher than the state average at 4.4% in December 2017. For many bedroom communities such as Hoke, Scotland, Harnett and Lee, Fayetteville’s lack of a full recovery from the Great Recession could pose a drag to their economies as jobless workers hold back on spending and face challenges in paying bills, staying in their homes.

“Beaver Creek” Photo Credit: Gerry Dincher

Other highlights from this month’s labor market data include:

• Labor force shrinkage: Nearly 60 percent of all North Carolina counties have experienced a decrease in their labor force from 2016 and pre-recession levels. Duplin and Alleghany counties have seen their labor force diminish at the state’s highest rates year over year, – dropping 5.2% and 5.3% respectively. While there are several possible reasons for this decline, it is plausible that citizens are dropping out the search for work or out-migrating to other counties.

• East of I-95 metropolitan areas continue to lag behind the rest of the state. While improving, 6 out of the 7 metropolitan statistical areas east of Interstate 95 still featured unemployment rates higher than the state average for the entirety of 2017. For 12 consecutive months, Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Greenville, Jacksonville, New Bern and Rocky Mount experienced joblessness rates higher than other metropolitan areas throughout the state.

Education, News

Superintendent Mark Johnson on controversial teacher pay comment: Phrasing was “less than stellar”

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson says his “less-than-stellar phrasing” when addressing teacher pay at a Raleigh conference last month spurred a “fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.”

Johnson addressed the controversy—in which he reportedly referred to $35,000 in teacher pay as “good money” for some educators—in an op-ed for The News & Observer Wednesday.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, has since re-emphasized calls for further teacher raises from the N.C. General Assembly.

Meanwhile, Johnson argues that context matters in his quote, which touched off a firestorm and prompted leaders in the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) to shatter tradition by announcing that the superintendent would not be invited to their annual conference this March.

From his commentary:

A key challenge facing North Carolina today is the urban-rural divide. This probably isn’t news to you. Gov. Roy Cooper started the Hometown Strong project to focus on this issue. What is surprising is how I recently triggered a statewide partisan flare-up after my admittedly inelegant attempt to highlight how this urban-rural split causes us to see things differently.

I believe transforming our education system will be a key part of bridging the urban-rural divide. I hoped to illustrate this point recently when discussing starting salaries for teachers with school board members of different political stripes. I said the state’s annual base starting pay (before local supplements) of $35,000 was a good start in some rural communities where families of all shapes, sizes, and age ranges bring home a median household income of just $33,000 a year. While we are on the right track with recent salary increases, I continued, we need to keep working to better compensate our teachers. But my less-than-stellar phrasing activated a fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.

This recent clamor actually gets to the heart of the matter, though. We are now well into the 21st century but still have students and educators who only have 20th century tools. And some of those tasked with making schools better are more focused on preserving tired partisan wedges rather than looking for innovative ways to provide more and better opportunities in rural communities.

Raising teacher pay is important, and I have consistently pushed for it. But compensation is only a piece of how we strengthen North Carolina’s public school system. Politicos can debate the personal attacks and misdirection, but I want to look for real solutions.

Teachers in rural communities deserve a professional environment that reflects the importance of their role. Last year, my team and I worked with the General Assembly to commit $105 million to replace clearly outdated school buildings in rural communities that cannot afford to build schools on their own.

Meanwhile, NCAE President Mark Jewell has said that he was invited to debate teacher pay with the superintendent on Spectrum News’ “Capital Tonight” program, although Jewell said Johnson declined the offer.

Read more

NC Budget and Tax Center

Rates of deep poverty are rising in NC and and across the nation

Just over seven percent of North Carolina households live in deep poverty, according to the 2015 American Community Survey. Deep poverty is defined as households living with incomes at or below 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or less than $12,300 per year for a family of four. This amounts to a little more than $8 per person per day to survive on. Watauga County and Scotland County experience the highest rates of deep poverty in North Carolina, where nearly a fifth of households live in deep poverty. However, these numbers are likely an inadequate representation of the actual need because income is substantially underreported in the survey.

Since 1996 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as “welfare reform,” the nation has seen a rise in the number of families living in deep poverty. This trend can largely be attributed to the disappearance of cash-based benefits to families with low incomes such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the state Earned Income Tax Credit. As a result, a stable source of cash flow has become virtually nonexistent for those living in deep poverty, and many households live off less than $2 per person per day. Children are typically hit the hardest by poverty. In North Carolina 1 in 5 children live in households with incomes below the Federal Poverty Line. Children of color are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white children.

Families living in deep poverty survive off of support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the informal economy. While cash assistance programs, such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are available, they are not adequate to meet the need of those living in extreme poverty and many families to do not apply because they do not think they will meet the program’s eligibility guidelines. In 2015, only seven percent of North Carolina families in poverty received TANF, falling far below the national average of 23 percent.