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Crunch time in Raleigh with money, schools, and power all on the table

Here in the last week of October, almost four months after a new state budget was supposed to have been in place and with multiple plot-lines coming to a head, North Carolina’s government is like a somewhat rickety aircraft stressed to the limits amid a thunderstorm.

Not only that, but there’s fighting in the cockpit!

  • Republican chiefs in the General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper seem to be in the final stages of negotiating a budget that Cooper – for a change – won’t feel obliged to veto.
  • Figuring in the talks has been a possible broadening of the state’s Medicaid program, as the governor to his credit long has sought and his legislative foes long have resisted. From Cooper’s standpoint, simply getting to the point of considering Medicaid expansion that would improve health care access for many thousands of low-income citizens has to represent progress, compared to legislators’ flat-out refusals in recent years.
  • In tandem with the budget dispute is the latest chapter in the state’s long struggle over funding for public schools – in particular, those schools serving high proportions of economically challenged families and communities.
  • A judge who oversees the state’s response to a court ruling that aimed to bolster    schools in high-poverty districts is threatening to force the legislature’s hand if it doesn’t include more public education funds in the pending budget deal.
  • Legislators already accuse Superior Court Judge David Lee of overstepping his authority, so we could be on the brink of a massive collision between branches of government. What’s at stake is nothing less than the ability of many thousands of students to get the “sound basic” education to which the state Supreme Court has said they’re constitutionally entitled.
  • As if the turbulence over the budget and its school finance provisions weren’t serious enough, the legislature is moving toward decisions that could profoundly affect the make-up of the state’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly itself for years to come. As required so that every vote carries more or less equal weight, new congressional and legislative voting districts are being drawn in accord with population growth and shifts revealed by the 2020 census.
  • Here’s the question: Will Republicans seeking to shape districts in their candidates’ favor resort to the kind of gerrymandering that courts repeatedly have found to be unconstitutional in discriminating against African-American voters and in some instances against voters who happen to be Democrats? Voting rights advocates, including groups such as the N.C. Council of Churches, hope to see the process end with all voters given a fair chance to influence the choice of their elected leaders and thus the policies that have an inside track toward adoption.

Budget conflicts

Gov. Cooper in 2019 vetoed the legislature’s last stab at passing a budget according to the usual two-year schedule, and his Democratic allies in the state House and Senate joined in sufficient numbers to block Republican attempts at a veto override.

The deal-breakers for the governor boiled down to low-ball expenditures for public schools, including teacher pay; tax cuts that continued to hamper the state’s ability to invest in a range of programs; and a refusal to expand Medicaid despite the anticipated health and economic benefits.

Since then, the pandemic has put North Carolina through a tragic stress test. Gaps between our affluent, metro-area counties and their rural, small-town counterparts – gaps in health care, job opportunities, school quality – have been magnified. A new openness to Medicaid expansion on the part of some Republican legislators – encouraged by GOP officials in several mountain counties hammered by the virus and loss of jobs – could be an understandable response.

But if expansion still doesn’t have enough support to be included in the budget that’s now in final talks, as it may well not, at least advocates could push for an agreement to have it fully considered as a stand-alone measure. There can be no credible objections to accepting a huge new infusion of federal Medicaid funds for which the state would qualify, or to improving health-care access for people who now typically can’t afford even the routine care that many among us take for granted.

Fairer for teachers?

The budget being negotiated is packaged as Senate Bill 105. Technically, it’s in a conference committee where differences between versions approved by the House and Senate are supposed to be resolved. At last report, a consensus version had been presented to Cooper for his review and presumed counter-offer. If there is a deal, it seems certain to include raises for teachers and other state employees that were delayed by the 2019 budget veto.

Republican legislators seem never to miss a chance to get crosswise with public school teachers – for instance, in their ongoing, misguided effort to require American history to be taught without referring to white racism as a key factor. But it would take a hard-hearted politician indeed to continue skimping on teachers’ salaries despite all the difficulties teachers have had to endure amid the pandemic as they did their duty on their students’ behalf. That’s doubly the case in the context of salaries that are mediocre at best in national rankings.

More pay for teachers is a component in the court-supervised plan to address the school shortcomings identified via the Leandro lawsuit. That plan, approved by Judge Lee in June, calls for an additional $5.6 billion in public education spending over the next seven years. The allotment for the first two years would be $1.75 billion, helping attract and retain well-qualified school personnel, boost pre-K programs and strengthen school systems in poorer areas.

Legislative proposals have come up well short of that, with the House recommending a reported $752.1 million during the first two years and the Senate $405.0 million. Lee has maintained that’s not good enough. During a court hearing on Oct. 18, he asserted his authority to compel the legislature to honor the school-improvement plan he endorsed in June, but said he’d defer any action at least until Nov. 8 to see how the budget talks play out.

Top legislative Republicans have bristled at Lee’s claim of authority to direct state spending. But there are several precedents in other states where judges have intervened forcefully to uphold students’ right under their state constitution to attend schools well-enough funded to meet their needs. With North Carolina sitting on a budget surplus pegged at more than $6 billion, legislators’ excuses for non-compliance with the spending increase Lee has agreed is necessary seem, well, lame.

District decisions

These are the same legislators who have charge of the ticklish process of reconfiguring their own voting districts, as well as the districts from which North Carolina’s members of the U.S. House are elected. Call it a coincidence, but a sorry one, that our state for the last three decades has been ground zero for legal battles over redistricting. The recurring argument involves the extent to which the General Assembly’s majority party has abused its line-drawing prerogatives to give its candidates the upper hand.

So long as redistricting is entrusted to the legislature, in which one party calls the shots and the other is more or less limited to baying at the moon, giving districts a partisan tilt is perhaps to be expected. Yet redistricting as carried out under Republican control during the last 10-year cycle not only was unfair, it was an utter failure of fairness. That was the judgment rendered by state and federal courts when the voting maps were challenged on constitutional grounds.

The current process should be conducted in accord with standards laid down in the course of those lawsuits. In particular, African-American voters – who tend to vote Democratic – or others who simply are registered Democrats aren’t supposed to be “packed” into specially tailored districts so as to dilute their influence in adjacent districts where Republican candidates would have clear sailing. Nor are they supposed to be “cracked” or scattered among districts in ways that undercut their voices at the polls.

Meaningful public input while maps were being drafted would have made the process more credible. But public involvement, via hearings and access to map-drawing at the Legislative Building, has been mostly an opaque exercise in going through the motions despite an upsurge of criticism from fair-districting advocates.

In the state’s congressional elections last year, the overall Democratic vote total edged the GOP total. The split was 50.0 percent Democratic versus 49.4 percent Republican. Yet because of gerrymandered U.S. House districts, Democrats have had to settle for minority status in the delegation North Carolina sends to Washington. That delegation now stands at 8-5 with Republicans in the advantage. (There had been 10 Republicans since the elections of 2014, although the party’s share of the overall vote wasn’t as large.)

Since the state’s growing population means it will gain another House seat in the 2022 elections, what will the new margin be? Some maps proposed by legislative leaders reportedly would be expected to result in as many as 10 or 11 Republican wins — significant in a closely divided Congress. Concentrations of Democratic voters in metro counties would be parceled out into separate districts, reducing their influence.

Much attention throughout the country has focused on Republican efforts – dancing to the tune of the disgraced former president – to tighten up on voting laws so as to make it harder for Democratic-leaning citizens to vote or for their votes to be fairly counted. That’s in itself a stinging and intolerable insult to our system of government.

To that insult can be added the injury of voting districts pre-cooked to yield results sustaining the power and influence of those who drew the lines. Those of us who believe that the principles of the U.S. Constitution, as idealistic as they may be, are worth upholding in the interests of all cannot stand back and allow this legislature yet again to stack the redistricting deck without hearing our demand: “Don’t do it!”

This post has been updated.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer.

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