Commentary

From the good people at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation

“Death penalty advocates say executions are needed to puni:sh a small handful of the “worst of the worst” criminals. However, a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation finds that the death penalty in North Carolina is being used broadly and indiscriminately, with little regard for the strength of the evidence against defendants — and putting innocent people at risk of being sentenced to die.

On Trial for Their Lives: The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina is the first study in the United States of cases in which people were charged or prosecuted capitally but never convicted. The study finds that 56 people since 1989 — about two a year — have been capitally prosecuted in North Carolina despite evidence too weak to prove their guilt. The wrongful prosecutions happened in 31 counties in every region of the state.

The report comes on the heels of the exoneration of Henry McCollum, North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate. It exposes another facet of a capital punishment system that targets innocent people with the death penalty. Considering that only 40 people have been executed in North Carolina in the time period the report covers, more people have faced the death penalty and not been convicted of a crime than have been executed in North Carolina.”

Commentary

In the aftermath of last week’s unveiling of the dreadful North Carolina Senate budget proposal, this morning’s “must read” is an op-ed in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer by children’s advocate Jason Langberg. In it, Langberg explains why North Carolina’s system of allocating funds to educate children with special needs is already disastrously inadequate — even before this year’s General Assembly gets through with it. Here’s Langberg:

“Students with disabilities may struggle in school for many reasons. For starters, it’s difficult to overcome the adverse educational effects of some disabilities. Other potential causes include the correlation between disability and poverty, rigid testing policies and practices, misallocation of resources, lack of staff training or effectiveness, or failures in service delivery. However, the biggest problem that plagues these students and the hard-working educators who serve them is inadequate and inequitable resources.

The state gives local school districts and charter schools a set amount of money per SWD in the district or school. In 2014-15, that amount was $3,926.97. However, state law also arbitrarily caps per student funding at 12.5 percent of the student population. The cap was established in the early 1980s amid panic after the passage of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a way to limit expenditures and deter over-identification. Three decades later, it hasn’t changed.

The cap is unacceptably low and effectively penalizes districts with higher percentages of students with disabilities. Read More

Commentary, News

wordle-g6161. NC Senate unveils education budget that guts teacher assistants, rewards less experienced teachers
Senate proposes cutting more than 8,500* teacher assistant positions

Senate leaders unveiled portions of a 2015-17 budget proposal Monday that gives teachers an average four percent pay raise and lowers class sizes in the early grades— but much like last year’s initial Senate proposal, the budget would also substantially gut funding for teacher assistants by eliminating more than 8,500* TA jobs over the biennium.

The Senate plan also spends considerably less than the House proposal on teacher pay raises with the bulk of the new funding targeted toward early career teachers. The highest percentage salary increase would go to a teacher with four years of experience, while veteran teachers with 25 years’ experience and on would see no raises at all as their base salaries would be capped at $50,000. [Continue Reading…]

ff-616-2015b2.The Senate’s 504-page budget manifesto
Senate leaders didn’t just unveil a budget proposal this week, they released a 504-page ideological wish list that makes dramatic changes to the state Medicaid system, repeals important health care regulations, rewrites economic development policy, changes who oversees the licensing of teachers and prohibits Wake County from voting on a half-cent sales tax increase for transit improvements.

It creates new state departments, changes the way local sales tax revenues are distributed, ends a longstanding tax break for nonprofits, and closes a school for mentally ill children.

It ends state funding for the NC Biotechnology Center, the Human Relations Commission, the Office of Minority Health and the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership.

And it eliminates more than 8,500 teacher assistant jobs in public schools while increasing funding for the state’s sketchy and likely unconstitutional school voucher scheme.[Continue Reading…]

Senator Tom Apodaca 3. The vindictiveness of the Senate’s bully budget
One of the most telling moments in the consideration of the Senate budget this week came toward the end of Wednesday’s floor debate when powerful Senate Rules Chair and Republican enforcer Tom Apodaca amended the bill to take $3 million away from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law and give it to a health education center in his area.

Apodaca didn’t fully explain why he was taking money away from the law school or why he didn’t make the change in the weeks of secret meetings Senate leaders held to put the budget together. [Continue Reading…]

Supreme-court4. First Monday in October, last Monday in June:  What’s left at the U.S. Supreme Court?
Just as the first Monday in October marks the opening of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new term, the last days of June signal the announcement of opinions in the court’s most high-profile cases.

That’s true again this year. With just 12 days to go till term end, the high court still has 17 cases awaiting decision – most of those raising questions of significant public interest.

Why the late June rush?

In part it’s due to timing. Historically, thirty percent more cases argued during the term are decided in June than in any other preceding month, and most of those were argued in March or April.

There’s more to it though, say authors of a recent article in the Duke Law Journal.

The justices have legacy and reputational concerns. The more controversial the case, the more likely several of them will write dissenting and concurring opinions that are carefully crafted, given historical import and impact. [Continue Reading…]

so-college_story5. NC Senate and House differ on approach to funding higher education
The state’s higher education system saw its enrollment growth funded in the Senate budget proposal released this week, a cost of nearly $130 million over the next two years, but also saw another year of significant discretionary cuts handed to campuses.

After the 504-page budget spent a whirlwind day in committee meetings Tuesday, the Republican-led Senate is expected to vote on full budget Wednesday and Thursday.

If it passes, as is expected, it’ll move to the House, and then top House and Senate leaders will begin meeting behind closed doors to hash out the final budget.

The Senate budget took aim at a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill-based education policy center, the Hunt Institute, named for former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. The center hosts an annual bipartisan retreat on education policy and challenges to public education for state lawmakers, as well as similar gatherings for the nation’s governors. [Continue Reading…]

News

A few short lines in the 2015-17 Senate budget would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees hired after January 1, 2016.

“This will negatively impact the state’s ability to recruit good, qualified folks,” said Richard Rogers, executive director of the North Carolina Retired Governmental Employees’ Association. “In the future, I don’t see folks sticking with state government for the long term or for a career.

Current law provides teachers and state employees with a paid health insurance plan for the duration of retirement. It’s a graduated system, said Rogers, so employees must work a certain number of years in order to receive the maximum benefit of a fully-paid health insurance plan.

The Senate budget provision, located deep in the biennial proposal that was released and passed by Senators this week, would affect teachers and state employees who join the workforce after January 1, 2016 by eliminating the health insurance benefit altogether.

senatebudget

The provision also affects those who stop out of the workforce and withdraw their retirement benefits from the state system, then re-join the workforce after January 1, 2016. Those state employees would also forfeit their retiree health insurance benefits.

The retiree state health plan provides health care coverage to more than 685,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, state hospital staff and their dependents, according to the plan’s website.

The General Assembly is expected to spend the rest of the summer hammering out a final 2015-17 budget for the state. Stay tuned to see if the Senate’s proposal to axe retirement health benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

News

Voter ID“Huge” and “unexpected” – that is how Democracy NC is describing the move by the NC legislature to modify the state’s voter ID law on Thursday. The election modification now allows  voters without photo ID to cast provisional ballots.

The voter would need to complete a reasonable impediment declaration, detailing why they could not present a valid photo ID. Impediments could include a lack of transportation, family responsibilities, or even one’s work schedule.

Bob Hall, executive director for the watchdog group Democracy NC, issued the following statement on the passage of House Bill 836:

On the heels of hundreds of citizen complaints at voter ID hearings across the state, and after years of mounting public and legal pressure, we are pleased that the NC General Assembly has decided to modify the needless voter ID hurdle that North Carolina voters will face starting in 2016.

Even if just one percent of registered voters do not have an acceptable government photo ID, that would mean over 60,000 North Carolinians would be cheated out of having their voices heard in an election.

The new provisions in HB-836, passed by wide margins in both the NC Senate and House yesterday, add a measure of protection for legitimate voters, a back-up way to provide documentation or confidential data that verify the person at the poll is the voter.  The new “reasonable impediment” provision still requires the extra time and uncertainty of filling out a provisional ballot, but now there’s a better chance that the vote will actually be counted.

In the context of a needless and likely unconstitutional law, this is clearly a victory for citizens and citizen participation. During his comments yesterday about HB-836, Rep. David Lewis acknowledged the importance of citizen voices at the recent voter ID rule-making hearings across the state. Democracy North Carolina played a leading role in encouraging hundreds of citizens to attend and speak out at these hearings, and we will continue to work hard to make sure no one is blocked from voting.

Two other points about today’s changes are vitally important. First, most states with ID provisions include versions of the back-up protections adopted in HB-836; not including them threatened to sink the entire ID requirement in a fair court of law.

Second, other provisions remain in the anti-voter Monster Law that are already denying honest citizens their right to vote. Earlier this week, Democracy NC released a report that identified 2,344 voters whose ballots were rejected in 2014 because of changes made by that law; their ballots would have counted in 2012. They are the visible tip of the iceberg of tens of thousands of voters harmed by the many parts of the Monster Law.

We hope that these other measures, along with the convoluted ID requirement, will soon be struck down in court – particularly the elimination of same-day registration, pre-registration for teens, and out-of-precinct provisional ballots.

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