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Health numbers1. Senate pushes to eliminate health retirement benefits for North Carolina’s teachers and state retirees

Buried deep in the Senate budget proposal that lawmakers passed last week is a provision that would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016.

“This puts the state at a major disadvantage in the recruitment and retention of state employees, teachers, and university faculty compared to other states,” said Chuck Stone, director of operations for the State Employees Association of NC (SEANC), of the Senate’s push to jettison the health retirement benefit.

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Berger-Moore-McCrory2. The missing sense of urgency in Raleigh

It promises to be a long hot summer in the Legislative Building in Raleigh as House and Senate leaders try to come up with a final budget agreement for the next two years with hundreds of millions of dollars and dozens of policy issues in dispute between the two chambers’ spending plans.

A report prepared by staff members that lists the differences between the House and Senate budget runs 372 pages long and does not include many of the major policy sticking points like Medicaid reform and changing the way local sales tax revenues are distributed.

Nobody seems eager to start tackling the daunting process. Speaker Tim Moore says the House is prepared to stay in Raleigh and Senate leaders vow not to adjourn until Medicaid reform is finished.

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Fair-housing3. Senate budget also took aim at anti-discrimination law

North Carolina might scale back its efforts to fight unlawful discrimination, if a Senate budget provision to repeal the state’s fair housing act is adopted as law.
The provision, which would repeal the State Fair Housing Act and shut down the state office that investigates discrimination complaints, was buried deep in the 500-plus budget (pages 390-391) that was made public and quickly passed the chamber last week.

The elimination of the state anti-discrimination measures got no attention during debates when the budget passed the Republican-controlled Senate last Thursday.

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Voter ID4. Lesson learned on Voter ID

Last week’s abrupt turnabout in the General Assembly on Voter ID surprised lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as attorneys in the lawsuits set for trial this summer.

The changes, which include provisions allowing voters lacking photo ID to cast a provisional ballot once they’ve signed a sworn statement indicating that they had a “reasonable impediment” to getting such an ID, surfaced at the last minute as part of a joint House and Senate compromise to House Bill 836.

The House, while supporting the changes as improvements on an otherwise bad law, decried the lack of process and wondered aloud what happened to bring about such a quick reversal.

“Why now,” asked Rep. Mickey Michaux. “This could have been done two years ago.”

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Gun tragedy5. Hints of hope amongst the carnage: Average North Carolinians are pushing back against the gun fundamentalists…and winning

It’s hard to feel very optimistic about much of anything in the aftermath of last week’s horrific tragedy/terrorist act in South Carolina. The idea that a hate-filled sociopath could and would enter a sanctuary of peace and then execute nine innocent, welcoming people with whom he had been purporting to engage in Bible study minutes before is so shocking and disturbing that it almost renders rational responses impossible….

And yet, unspeakably horrific as the murders were, there are growing signs that maybe, just maybe, the cumulative impact of this nation’s ever-lengthening list of mass murders and racist hate crimes is finally starting to move public opinion and policy in a positive direction.

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News

Voter IDA new analysis of voter registration data shows that under the McCrory administration, North Carolina may be systematically failing to provide state residents with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for public assistance — such as food stamps or welfare — in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

Commonly called the “Motor Voter Law,” the Act requires public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices to provide voter registration services whenever someone applies for benefits, renews or recertifies benefits, or changes an address with the agency, unless the person declines these services in writing.

Affected programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”), the Medicaid program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”).

According to Democracy NC, voter registration applications initiated at public assistance agencies have dropped dramatically since McCrory took office. They fell from an annual average of 38,400 between 2007 and 2012 to an average of only 16,000 in the past two years, a decline of more than 50 percent.

The organization also reports that last fall it and other voting-rights groups checked out 19 public assistance agencies across the state  and found after interviews that up to 75 percent of the clients at the agencies did not see a registration question on agency forms and were not asked whether they would like to register to vote, as required by federal law.

Also, according to this piece in the The Daily Kos:

From 1995 through 2012, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBOE) published on its web site annual summaries (in the form of Excel spreadsheets) of its NVRA compliance data. But, beginning in 2013 (when McCrory took office), that practice appears to have come to a halt, and no annual summaries are available there for McCrory’s term (2013-2014).

Here’s a graph from that article showing the apparent decline:

(Source: DocDawg for Daily Kos)

(Source: DocDawg for Daily Kos)

Democracy NC, Action NC, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute sent a notice letter today to the State Board of Elections  and the Department of Health and Human Services, advising both of their findings and giving the state 90 days to comply with the law or face yet another voting rights lawsuit.

North Carolina is already in the throes voting rights battles in the courts. Three federal lawsuits — including one brought by the Justice Department — and another action in state court, all concerning the state’s so called “Monster Voting Law,” are now pending.

The state is also fighting a challenge to its 2011 voter redistricting plan, a case that is now back in state Supreme Court after being remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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News

In papers filed with the state Supreme Court yesterday, lawmakers told the justices there was no reason to expedite proceedings in the North Carolina redistricting case, Dickson v. Rucho, sent back here last week by the U.S. Supreme Court — at least not within the time frame that challengers to the state’s redistricting plan want.

That order by the nation’s highest court came on the heels of its earlier decision in a similar case out of Alabama, in which the justices held that the Voting Rights Act required lawmakers to assess whether minorities had the ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice and to draw voting lines in order to facilitate that goal — not, as Alabama had done, to achieve specific numerical minority percentages.

North Carolina lawmakers operated under the same mistaken premise when designing the state’s 2011 plan, according to challengers.

Here’s Eddie Speas, one of the attorneys representing those challengers:

One of the things we think is important in the Alabama case is that the Alabama legislature engaged in a mechanical process when drawing districts that is inconsistent with the sensitive, strict scrutiny and narrow tailoring that the Supreme Court said has to happen in these redistricting plans.

And North Carolina lawmakers were guilty of this sin twice: First they adopted the rule that they would draw majority – minority districts in numbers proportional to the state’s black population. And then they drew each of those districts to have at least 50 percent total black voting age population.

Just after the Supreme Court order sending the case back, plan challengers asked the state’s high court to expedite the case — hoping to get a final resolution and any necessary redistricting changes in place in time for elections in 2016.

Lawmakers opposed that request yesterday, arguing that they needed time to fully brief the arguments they managed already to outline for the court and citing, ironically, scheduling conflicts they had with trial dates in the federal voter suppression cases.

(Several of the attorneys for the plan’s challengers are also involved in the federal cases.)

It’s been rare in recent history for the state Supreme Court to hear cases during the summer months.

However, with Chief Justice Mark Martin at the helm, the court has begun taking certain cases directly (bypassing the usual appeal process) and setting quick argument dates.

In October 2014, the court took up five cases for expedited review, including the challenge to the private school voucher program.

The court has also expedited argument in the appeal of the Governor’s lawsuit against the legislative leaders concerning commission appointments, setting that down for June 30.

To read the redistricting plan challengers’ request for expedited review, click here.

To read the lawmakers’ opposition, click here.

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News

VoteWake County Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan  has refused to dismiss a case challenging the state’s voter ID law, sending the case to trial in July instead.

Under the so-called monster voting law passed in 2013, voters will have to show one of seven forms of photo identification to cast a ballot starting in 2016.

“On behalf of our clients, we look forward to trying this case in July and demonstrating the disenfranchising effect of the photo ID requirement,” said Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s George Eppsteiner, one of attorneys for the parties challenging the law.

Those parties include 78-year-old Alberta Currie, whose family picked cotton and tobacco on Robeson County fields and who has no birth certificate because she was born at home. She has voted consistently since she first became eligible to vote in 1956. She does not have a photo ID and cannot obtain one in North Carolina without a birth certificate.

Joining her in the lawsuit, Currie v. North Carolina — filed in August 2013 when three federal actions were likewise filed — are several other individuals as well as the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and the North Carolina A. Phillip Randolph Institute.

Together they allege that the photo ID requirement creates a new qualification to vote and discriminates against African-American voters, all in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.

At a hearing in late January, both the state and the challengers asked the court enter judgment in their favor based solely upon their respective court pleadings.

In his order filed on February 24, Morgan ruled instead that the challengers’ claims that the photo ID requirement constituted an impermissible qualification on the right to vote and also violated Equal Protection provisions of the state constitution could only be decided after a full presentation of evidence at trial.

Read the full decision here.

 

News

VoteWhat were state GOP lawmakers’ intentions when they enacted House Bill 589, one of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation?

That’s the question the groups challenging the law want answered by legislators they served with subpoenas last December, asking for emails, letters, reports and other records used when pushing for voting law changes in 2013.

Plenty has transpired since then. The voting cases pending in Winston-Salem ran through the federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of a stay of the new law’s provisions, pending the November elections.

Now though the court and the parties are digging in as a mid-summer 2015 trial date looms.

And in an order issued yesterday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joi E. Peake told state lawmakers they could no longer hide behind a claim of legislative privilege and withhold certain categories of communications relevant to the claims asserted in the pending cases.

Among the documents sought are lawmakers’ communications with constituents, state agencies, lobbyists and political organizations regarding the reasons for voting law changes; studies and reports on voter fraud, race and ethnicity of voters; and analyses of costs associated with administering the new provisions.

State lawmakers’ files may be one of the few sources of proof for plaintiffs hoping to establish that those legislators had a discriminatory purpose in enacting House Bill 589 – a critical element in proving certain of plaintiffs’ constitutional claims and in obtaining future preclearance relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act.

In her ruling, Peake held that communications between legislators and third parties regarding House Bill 589 are not privileged and must be disclosed. “Third parties” would include any person or group beyond lawmakers and their staff — constituents, state agencies, lobbyists and political organizations, for example.

Peake also ruled that communications between lawmakers and outside counsel before the lawsuits were filed on August 12, 2013  are not automatically privileged and may also be subject to disclosure. The state defendants must provide a log of any such communications being withheld as privileged, with sufficient detail  for the parties and the court to assess whether they can be withheld or should be produced.

Communications between lawmakers and staff, however, remain privileged and need not be identified on a log or otherwise disclosed.

The state defendants still have the option of objecting to Peake’s order and asking for a review by the judge handling the cases, U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder.

If that happens, it may be January before documents start arriving, according to Allison Riggs, an attorney from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice representing groups challenging the law.

“We’re pleased with the ruling,” Riggs said. “We’re eager to get this relevant discovery and build the case for trial next summer. The state needs to comply with the order and produce this discovery quickly.”

For more background on the dispute over documents in the voting cases, read here.

Read Judge Peake’s order here.