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Steven LaRoque, the former Kinston state lawmaker facing federal charges of stealing from two federally-funded non-profits he ran, will find out this week if a judge agrees the dozen criminal charges in the case should be thrown out.

LaRoque-PC

Steven LaRoque, at a 2011 press conference.

A pre-trial motions hearing, scheduled for 9 a.m. tomorrow at the federal courthouse in Greenville, will be a sealed hearing and closed to the public, according to an order filed by Senior U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard.

LaRoque’s trial – his second, after the first ended in a mistrial because of juror misconduct — is scheduled to begin on Feb. 2.

The Kinston Republican is accused of taking $300,000 for his personal use from an economic development group he ran that was funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural business lending program. LaRoque is also facing accusations that, instead of funding struggling businesses to spur economic growth, he used federal money to offer loans to personal associates and political allies, and then took money to fund his campaign and buy jewelry, replica Faberge eggs and a Greenville ice skating rink.

The federal investigation began shortly after N.C. Policy Watch published a 2011 investigation into LaRoque’s management of the federally-funded non-profits.

LaRoque, a former member of House Republican leadership team, has maintained he is innocent of criminal wrongdoing, and that the money in question was owed to him.

Howard wrote in his Jan. 6 order (scroll down or click here to read) that he is sealing the hearing and closing it to the public in order to hear confidential information that may come up in response to a motion LaRoque filed seeking information about the grand jury that indicted him.

Grand jury proceedings are, by design, secret and details about the inner workings of the groups are very rarely released to the public.

“This hearing will be sealed due to the potential for disclosure of grand jury documents or other materials,” Howard wrote.

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Commentary

The Daily Beast reported yesterday on the fact that, despite America’s rapidly growing racial and ethnic diversity, the United States Congress remains an overwhelming white, male and Christian-dominated institution.

“The breakdown of the 114th Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male, and 92 percent Christian….It’s impossible to make the claim that our Congress accurately reflects the demographics of our nation. And it’s not missing by a little but a lot. If Congress accurately reflected our nation on the basis of race, about 63 percent would be white, not 80 percent. Blacks would hold about 13 percent of the seats and Latinos 17 percent.”

Sadly, a look at the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives reveals a striking similar pattern.

In the North Carolina general population, less than one in three individuals is a non-Hispanic white male — around 32%. In state government, however, white men continue to monopolize government leadership positions. In the General Assembly, a quick count shows that more than 64% of the lawmakers (109 out of 170) are non-Hispanic white men. Minorities, who make up more than 35% of the state’s population inhabit just 20% of the seats in General Assembly. And all of those minority members are African American. Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are completely unrepresented despite making up as much as 13% of the population.

Interestingly, white women are also badly underrepresented in the General Assembly. Despite making up around a third of the population, they fill just 15.2% of the seats on Jones Street. Obviously, they fare better in the Council of State — filling five of nine positions. But, of course, the fact that the other four are filled by white men serves to highlight that racial diversity amongst statewide elected officials is essentially non-existent.

As for religion, the Daily Beast notes that: Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

Voters in Mecklenburg, Guilford, and Rockingham counties each rejected a ballot initiative to increase its local sales tax by one-quarter cent. Under these referendums, consumers would have paid 25 cents in additional sales tax per $100 spent on goods and services subject to sales tax. The sales tax increase was expected to generate around $32 million for Mecklenburg County, $14 million for Guilford County, and $1.5 million for Rockingham County in additional local revenue each year.

This rejection of a sales tax increase highlights the tenuous reality of funding for public education in North Carolina. Last year, state lawmakers passed a tax plan that significantly reduced revenue available for public schools and other important public services. The tax plan has proven to be more costly than state policymakers’ initial estimate and the implications of this self-imposed revenue crisis will reverberate across the state in the years ahead. Meanwhile, some local governments are bracing for the revenue losses associated with the elimination of the local privilege license tax, which goes into effect next July.

Of the three counties rejecting a proposed sales tax increase, Mecklenburg County has experienced significant growth in its student population in recent years. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is the second largest, and one of the fastest growing school systems in the state. For the most recent 2013-14 school year, more than 144,000 students were enrolled in CMS, with nearly 10,000 additional students entering CMS classrooms since 2008. Guilford County has experienced modest growth in its student population (1,326 additional students) while the student population for Rockingham County has declined (990 fewer students) since 2008. Read More

Commentary

With massive majorities in both legislative houses and a governor who would poses little more than an occasional speed bump — if that — to their plans for reactionary change, North Carolina’s far right movement appears poised to roll back the clock a few more decades when the new General Assembly convenes next January. On virtually every issue — from taxes to health care to education to an array of social issues — North Carolinians should get ready for a new onslaught of reactionary laws.

School vouchers for every student? Constitutional spending caps to eviscerate public spending? An attempt to confer “personhood” on embryos? New efforts to merge church and state? Just name the extreme/outlandish idea and you can pretty much rest assured that there will be a proposal to implement it and that many such efforts will succeed.

Some, of course, depends on who the new House Speaker turns out to be and just how far he (it will almost assuredly be a “he”) wants to push things. If it’s a McCrory ally or someone like him, it’s conceivable that there could me some moderation. If, on the other hand, it’s a reactionary true believer like Paul Stam or someone of his ilk, things could get very grim very fast.

Observers looking for some inklings of hope in all of this might want to consider some of the ballot initiative results from other states last night in which even very conservative voters made clear that here not ready to go that far. In both Colorado and North Dakota, for instance, voters overwhelmingly rejected “personhood” amendments that would have  conferred constitutional rights on fertilized eggs. In other states, voters strongly supported increases in the minimum wage.

Perhaps these votes will be interpreted by the far right powers-that-be in North Carolina as demonstrations of the obvious truth that voters are not nearly as reactionary they are and that, as much as they’d like to, pushing the envelope with a truly extreme agenda could backfire. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with true believers, it’s just as likely that they will see 2015 as their “big chance” to do what they’ve always wanted. Based on the performance during the last four years, the latter scenario seems the most likely.

Commentary

The Greenville Daily Reflector ran an editorial this week (which the Charlotte Observer re-ran in part of this morning) that rightfully decries the shell game played by the General Assembly this year in shifting the costs of driver’s education off on to the parents of high schoolers.

In passing the cost of driver education to parents of high school students, state lawmakers appear to be playing a shell game with the taxes North Carolina drivers have been paying for 57 years to support the program. When tax dollars earmarked for specified services no longer pay for those services, the government should not get to keep the money.

If that is what is happening in the case of a $3 charge added to license plate fees for driver education, it represents more than an injustice to taxpayers. It collides head-on with the conservative ideology espoused by the majority leadership in Raleigh….

What is not debatable is that for nearly 60 years tax dollars have been flowing from the pockets of every North Carolina motorist to pay for driver education. To remove the service with no relief to those paying for it — and requiring others to pay again — amounts to something akin to highway robbery.

Not what we should expect from a GOP-led Legislature that professes a desire to shrink government’s reach into our personal lives.

What the piece should have noted, of course, is that rather than being some kind of aberration, “fee for service” government is the right’s favored model these days, while the notion of broadly applicable, fairly distributed taxes are quickly becoming a thing of the past.