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Prof. Zeynap Tufecki, Image: UNC

Prof. Zeynap Tufecki, Image: UNC

In case you missed it, be sure to check out the fine op-ed that ran in the Sunday New York Times by UNC Assistant Professor of Library Science Zeynap Tufecki. “Why the Post Office Makes America Great” is a powerful reminder of why investment in common good, public institutions is essential for the maintenance and growth of a healthy society.

In it, Tufecki, a Turkish immigrant, explains how amazed she was when she first came to the United States and discovered the easy accessibility of institutions like the U.S. Mail and public libraries. Indeed, she had to work hard to convince her friends back in Turkey that she wasn’t lying when she told them that postal workers would pick up mail free of charge six days a week from private mailboxes throughout the country.

She concludes the essay this way:

“Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the link between infrastructure, innovation — and even ruthless competition. Much of our modern economy thrives here because you can order things online and expect them to be delivered. There are major private delivery services, too, but the United States Postal Service is often better equipped to make it to certain destinations. In fact, Internet sellers, and even private carriers, often use the U.S.P.S. as their delivery mechanism to addresses outside densely populated cities.

Almost every aspect of the most innovative parts of the United States, from cutting-edge medical research to its technology scene, thrives on publicly funded infrastructure. The post office is struggling these days, in some ways because of how much people rely on the web to do much of what they used to turn to the post office for. But the Internet is a testament to infrastructure, too: It exists partly because the National Science Foundation funded much of the research that makes it possible. Even some of the Internet’s biggest companies, like Google, got a start from N.S.F.-funded research.

Infrastructure is often the least-appreciated part of what makes a country strong, and what makes innovation take flight. From my spot in line at the post office, I see a country that does both well; not a country that emphasizes one at the expense of the other.”

Would that our passionate friends in the anti-government Right would read Prof. Zufecki’s commonsense observations and take them to heart.

Commentary

Pretty low, according to the editorial board of the Winston-Salem Journal. An editorial posted over the weekend highlighted the dreadful/shameless effort of far right social conservatives led by Rep. Paul Stam and his protege, Senator Chad Barefoot (both of Wake County), to slip in a last minute provision that would have repealed all sorts of local ordinances — including some that ban wrongful discrimination against LGBT citizens, seniors and veterans. Here’s the Journal:

“Before ending its session early Wednesday morning, members of the legislature took one more crack at government overreach, trying to pass measures that would limit the authority and decision-making ability of local city and county governments. And they did so through underhanded methods that should put them to shame.

Members of a conference committee led by Sen. Chad Barefoot and Rep. Paul Stam — a panel of House and Senate members that is supposed to hash out the differences between their bills — inserted new language into an old bill, then used a procedural maneuver to send it to the Rules Committee, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported. From there, the bill would have gone to the House floor for a vote before members could absorb its implications…

If passed, it could have overhauled a wide range of nondiscrimination ordinances, housing regulations and workplace regulations that some cities and counties have adopted or may adopt. It would have banned local ordinances to establish a higher minimum wage. It would have voided local ordinances governing housing and rental practices, possibly affecting Winston-Salem’s efforts to encourage housing diversity, Mayor Allen Joines told The Associated Press….

It’s hard to discern a motive for this attempt at tying local governments’ hands, beyond simply exerting more and more control — which seems to be motive enough for this legislature, as seen by previous attempts this session to restructure local elections and redraw districts to Republicans’ advantage. The legislation would have hit the LGBT community and the poor, making their lives more difficult than they already are.

It also seems to be common practice now to try to sneak these changes through rather than permit debate….

Fortunately, the legislation failed, but we condemn these repeated underhanded tactics. This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work.”

Unfortunately, such deceptive maneuvers are increasingly the tactics of choice on Jones Street, where not only does the current crop of lawmakers have little use for the public structures and systems of good government, they also have little use for the rules of transparency and openness that make it work properly.

Click here to read the entire editorial.

Commentary

In yet another round of rather remarkable hypocrisy for a group comprised of members who have repeatedly complained about the supposed problems of “state government mandates” and threats to “local control,” state lawmakers are advancing bills in  the waning days of session to seize more power in Raleigh at the expense of local governments.

Late last night, the Senate passed and sent to the House a bill that will, among other troubling things, reduce the number of forms of ID government officials, including police, can accept. In addition, IDs handed out by individual cities and embassies would no longer be recognized. WRAL has the story here.

Meanwhile, the conference committee report on a bill that was originally dealt with sex trafficking prevention, emerged yesterday with all new language that would place all new sorts of limits on local governments with respect to their ability to mandate wage standards and prohibit discrimination in the provision of goods, services and accommodations. (Click here and scroll to page 8.)

As is so often the case in the General Assembly these days, the language appears to have materialized out of nowhere without discussion so it’s hard to say exactly what its effect will be. But given the recent shenanigans on Jones Street and the hostility the leaders there have displayed toward immigrants, LGBT citizens and other frequent targets of discrimination, there is reason to be very concerned. Stay tuned.

 

NC Budget and Tax Center

A provision in the budget will, if enacted, will change the way sales tax is distributed. The budget creates a new pot of $84.8 million to be distributed to county and municipal governments for economic development, public education, and community college purposes.

Similar Senate proposals earlier this session met a frosty reception in the House and a promise from Governor McCrory to veto any budget that included such a move. On the surface, what’s in the budget looks very different from earlier proposals, and there are important distinctions, but the cumulative impact is actually quite similar to what we have already seen.

Before getting into the details on how the new system would work, a few top-level points should be underscored:

  • It is good to discuss how we can help struggling local communities to meet the economic and educational challenges that they face: This proposal is rooted in a very real fact. Many local communities, particularly in rural North Carolina, are strapped. Regardless of what you think about the proposals floated this session, it is good to see the legislative leaders acknowledging that many local communities don’t have the resources to build a strong economy or provide a sound education.
  • This proposal won’t fix the economic problems in rural North Carolina: None of the proposals to date would generate enough revenue to meet the economic and educational challenges that many communities face. In fact, the legislature has contributed to the problem in recent years by limiting how local governments can raise funds and by cutting back on what the state passes along to the local level. The budget proposal would set aside almost $85 million for suburban and rural counties, which isn’t chump change, but still not enough to make up for years of under-investment.

The actual budget mechanism for shifting funds around is a bit complicated, and we won’t know the real effect for some time, but the cumulative impact is likely to be similar to proposals we’ve seen already: Read More

News

If local school boards need a way to hold county commissions accountable when it comes to providing sufficient local funds for schools, they may soon lose a key feather in their hats — the ability to sue.

Senate lawmakers passed an amended House bill Wednesday that strips local school boards of their ability to sue the county in the event they believe the commissioners should provide more local funds for the district’s schools.

Similar to a bill that was defeated in the House earlier in the legislative session, NC School Boards Association lobbyist Leanne Winner says the current measure would change the dynamic in local communities when it comes to negotiating local budgets.

“School boards are the only elected body in North Carolina that doesn’t have ability to raise its own revenue,” said Winner. “School boards are also the body to which the state has given responsibility to provide the opportunity for children to receive a sound basic education. If a school board doesn’t have resources necessary to do that, there has to be some kind of mechanism available to be able to deal with those financial issues.”

Senator Dan Soucek (R-Watauga) amended HB 561 quietly on the Senate floor Tuesday to strip the school boards of their power to sue county commissions for the next five years, citing a need for a “cooling off period” between local governments and school boards. Other supporters of the bill say it’s a waste of money for counties to sue themselves.

In 2013, the Union County school board sued the county over a budget dispute which resulted in a $91 judgment that was overturned by an appellate court.

Winner says it’s important for school boards to have the possibility of litigation as a negotiating tactic when working on a local budget.

“While the process is not used very often, the notion that it exists helps bring people to the table to to do more for their community,” said Winner.

Without a way to push county commissions to sufficiently fund public schools, local school boards will have to rely even more on the state’s coffers to fulfill their constitutional requirement to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education for all.

North Carolina has seen state-funded per pupil investment fall considerably over the past several years. Since 2008, per pupil funding has dropped nearly 15 percent according to the Center on Budget and Public Policy, ranking among the lowest in the nation.

The Senate version of the bill must now go back to the House for concurrence. Given House lawmakers’ defeat of a similar measure earlier this session, it’s unclear if a second attempt will prove successful.