From the battle to preserve American democracy to charter school chaos: The week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Experts say Black lawmakers are sure to lose seats under new NC legislative maps

2. Former Three Rivers principal describes chaos at charter school, which state plans to close

7. The inflation blame game: Five important facts to keep in mind

The subject of inflation has been on many tongues in the public policy world of late – especially as Republican politicians comb every nook and cranny of the news cycle for topics with which to launch broadsides at the Biden administration.

In November, North Carolina Congressman Ted Budd – a candidate for Richard Burr’s soon-to-be-available U.S. Senate seat – introduced a snarky bill that would “require all personnel in the Biden White House to complete a financial literacy course focused on inflation.”

More recently, Sen. Thom Tillis has echoed this familiar conservative refrain by issuing a statement blaming the surge in prices over the past year on the Biden administration’s “out-of-control spending.”

Not surprisingly, both attacks are, in the immortal words of the iconic baseball commentator Bob Uecker in the film “Major League,” “just a bit outside.” [Read more…]

8. MLK Day numbers: The battle to preserve American democracy

9. Weekly Radio Interviews and Daily Commentaries:

Click here for the latest podcasts from PW Director Rob Schofield.

10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

From gerrymandered maps, to conflicting COVID-19 messages, to I-95 purgatory: The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

In this issue:

1. Panel of judges says new redistricting plans do not violate the NC constitution

Maps for new congressional and legislative districts do not violate the state constitution and can be used in the next election, a three-judge panel said in a decision Tuesday that will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The NC League of Conservation Voters, Common Cause, the state NAACP, and voters backed by the National Redistricting Foundation challenged the maps, saying they are extreme partisan gerrymanders that dilute Black voters’ power. The three cases have been consolidated.

The same three-judge panel last year dismissed or ruled against these lawsuits.

The state Supreme Court granted the challengers’ requests for expediated appeals. The Supreme Court halted candidate filing for the 2022 primaries, and moved the primaries from March 8 to May 17.[Read more…]

2. Gerrymandering and its impact on the legitimacy of our democracy

This week saw the beginning of another season in North Carolina: redistricting lawsuit season.

Experienced followers of North Carolina politics expect it; it is every bit as reliable—maybe more so these days—than the shift from fall to winter. For those new to the state, prepare yourselves for stormy political weather. Cries of racial discrimination will be met with oaths of racial blindness. Courts for the coming decade will be filled with graphs and maps and explanations of modeling algorithms, while lawyers debate the legality of newly approved legislative and congressional district maps. As political science professors, and as engaged citizens, we feel that the public and courtroom debate over the legality of the maps has distracted us from a more fundamental concern: gerrymandering’s impact on the legitimacy of our democracy.

The distinction between legality and legitimacy is key. Legitimacy concerns adherence to objective or widely-held normative values and principles. In the United States, we judge the legitimacy of laws based on how well they conform to fundamental principles of American political morality: equality, the security of rights (including for those in the minority), and the sovereignty of the people.[Read more...]

3. Election experts: Still more to be done on state, federal elections before 2022 midterms

A panel of experts on election security hosted a conversation on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. Their goal was to provide an update on how election security had been updated or improved since the 2020 election.

But really, their hope was to not let history repeat itself.

The four spoke about what needs to be done to continue safeguarding elections in 2022 and beyond as part of the National Task Force On Election Crises.

The question of whether 2022 will be better off than the rocky 2020 election period remains to be seen, but panelists discussed a number of positive issues, as well as a range of concerns: from disinformation by Russia and China to chain-of-custody issues regarding ballots. [Read more...]

4. At Appalachian State, students whipsawed over conflicting COVID-19 messages from faculty, administration

Students at Appalachian State University in Boone are getting conflicting messages from faculty and administrators as tensions over the university’s handling of COVID-19 in the spring semester boil over.

In an open letter to students sent Sunday evening, Richard Rheingans, a professor in the Department of Sustainable Development, wrote the university is “failing to provide the leadership, guidance and support that students, faculty and the broader community needs.”

Rheingans, a former health economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who spent more than two decades teaching in schools of public health, said the university isn’t taking the necessary steps to protect students, faculty and staff on campus.

“In so many ways, the Appalachian State administration has failed us throughout this pandemic and now, despite a month of warning that we would face another major covid surge, they have done virtually nothing to set us up for a safe, undisrupted semester,” Rheingans wrote. [Read more...]

5. Air testing planned for neighborhood adjacent to contaminated former missile plant in Burlington

7. Takeaways from a snowy night in I-95 purgatory

“My boss told me if I didn’t come in, I’d get fired.” So spoke a rather grumpy but nonetheless sight-for-sore-eyes Exxon attendant near Manassas, Va., last Monday night around 10 o’clock, as he mercifully allowed my wife, Noelle, and I to fill our gas tank and use the restrooms. The circumstances of our visit – we had recently taken leave from the excruciating slog of a snowbound Interstate 95 a couple miles east – made both services essential.

We had departed the snail-like train of vehicles with the expectation of escaping for the night to some hastily arranged hotel reservations closer to the highway only to find the hotel in question and all surrounding businesses dark and without power amid a rutted patchwork of icy, unplowed parking lots. After a few moments of “what in the heck do we do now?” conversation, it became apparent that the best alternative was to try to gas up and return to the interstate crawl in hopes that the road would somehow clear.

As it turned out, the road didn’t clear – it closed – and we ended up spending the night parked on an entry ramp to the highway, dozing occasionally to the oddly comforting diesel hum of idling 18-wheelers and sporadically running our own engine to stay warm in the 17-degree chill. Around 8:30 the next morning, we followed the lead of some other lucky souls and backed off the ramp and onto the now passably plowed side roads, which eventually led west to even clearer highways and a roundabout route home. By nightfall Tuesday, 30 hours after leaving New York City, we were back in North Carolina – grateful, tired and not too much worse for wear. [Read more…]

8. EPA launches civil rights inquiry into DEQ’s permitting of biogas systems on hog farms

The Environmental Protection Agency is opening an investigation into whether state regulators violated civil rights law when last spring, they granted permits to four industrialized hog farms that are installing anaerobic digesters to produce biogas for renewable energy. The investigation is in response to a complaint against the NC Department of Environmental Quality filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing several community groups.

SELC alleges that when DEQ granted the general permits to the Smithfield-owned farms, the agency failed to protect the surrounding communities from air and water pollution. A disproportionate share of the hundreds of families who live around the hog operations in Duplin and Sampson County are Black and Latino.

Under a federal civil rights law, known as Title VI, entities that receive federal funds can’t from discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin —intentionally or unintentionally. [Read more…]

9. Weekly Radio Interviews and Daily Commentaries:

Click here to listen to the latest from Policy Watch Executive Director Rob Schofield.

10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

Pitt County School Board votes to reinstate mask mandate amid omicron surge (video)

The Pitt County Board of Education had hoped masking would be optional when students returned in January. But board members voted 6-2 Monday night to require masks for students, teachers and staff to combat rising COVID cases.

Pitt County Health Director Dr. John Silvernail joining the public hearing remotely told the school board the spread of omicron leaves little choice.

“Right now we have a surge coming at us that’s going to require the quarantining of many children when we go back to school, if we have unmasked students mixed with masked students,” Dr. Silvernail advised.

He said that could set up a domino effect of parents needing to skip work as well.

“When that student is quarantined, then someone has to stay home with that student, and that takes Mom or Dad out of work, and many of our folks work in the healthcare system. Our healthcare system is already strapped.”

About 1 in 5 COVID tests in Pitt County are coming back positive for the virus.

“This virus is in the community. We don’t need to stick our head in the sand and act like it’s not affecting people,” said James Tripp, the board chair.

“I think in order to protect the healthcare system, to help protect the community, to ask you to go mandatory mask until we get to the backside of omicron is very reasonable,”  said Silvernail.

Pitt County Schools currently serves more than 24,000 students.

The school board will revisit the mask mandate at its February meeting.

Click below to hear Pitt County’s Health Director discuss school masking:

 

Editorial: Legislative leaders need to ‘stop the stall’ on Medicaid expansion, nonpartisan redistricting

Be sure to check out this morning’s lead Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial that spells out what should be the top two priorities for North Carolina’s legislators in the New Year.

This is from the editorial:

Thousands of citizens are facing COVID pandemic-related health crises without anyway to pay for the medical care they require. An estimated 621,000 people would gain health coverage with Medicaid expansion. Too many of these people are delaying and neglecting seeking the health care they desperately need until it becomes a life – and too often death – matter.

Further, our health care system is being overwhelmed and left financially challenged – particularly hospitals serving rural communities — when dealing with uninsured patients that must be treated. Hospitals not only are struggling to deal with caregivers who have been stretched to the limits, but left having to figure out how to pay for the care of those without health care coverage.

The legislature’s decision 7 years ago to ban expansion of Medicaid has already taken a steep toll on the state. From 460 to 1,860 people died in the last year from lack of Medicaid coverage – based on pre-COVID data. Through the years of the ban, that toll has been from 4,090 to 13,276.

Medicaid expansion would not cost North Carolina taxpayers a dime more than they already pay. Federal taxes paid by North Carolinians already back Medicaid expansion in 39 other states.

The editorial notes that the legislative session — now 356 days long — has offered more than enough time to study and debate Medicaid expansion as well as ample time to enact fair redistricting maps.

Over the last 10 years congressional and legislative election maps have been challenged, ruled improper, redrawn and ruled improper again – in a cycle that has resulted in essentially an illegally comprised legislature where too many North Carolinians don’t have proper representation. Yet these legislators enact laws and impose their will.

No math wizardry is needed to know that the latest plans presented by the legislature perpetuate the unfairness that leaves many of the state’s citizens without fair representation. North Carolina’s currently gerrymandered congressional districts resulted in Republicans capturing 8 of the 13 seats (62%) yet Democratic candidates actually received 51 percent of the votes in the 13 congressional elections which suggests Democrats reasonably could have won 7, or at least 6, seats.

So, just taking the latest congressional maps, it would be logical to conclude that the projected number of Democrats likely to win congressional election would increase – particularly considering the state was gaining a 14th seat.

But no. Nonpartisan projections show that it is more than likely that Republicans will capture 10 of the districts, Democrats 3 and one considered competitive.

If the General Assembly is going to stay in session it can do more than just go through the motions. It should do at least two things in this new year to vastly improve the lives and representation of North Carolinians.

Expand Medicaid.

Enact nonpartisan election redistricting.

Now.

Read the full editorial here at WRAL.com.

FDA approves booster shots for children as young as 12, as NC COVID cases rise in the New Year

COVID-19 reliefThe Food and Drug Administration has expanded its approval of COVID booster shots for 12-15 year-olds.

Monday’s approval of Pfizer’s vaccine by the FDA comes as the omicron variant continues its rapid post-holiday spread across the country.

“With the current wave of the omicron variant, it’s critical that we continue to take effective, life-saving preventative measures such as primary vaccination and boosters, mask wearing and social distancing in order to effectively fight COVID-19,” said acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock in a press release.

In making the decision, the FDA reviewed data from more than 6,300 individuals 12 through 15 years of age who received a booster dose of the vaccine.

In its announcement Monday, the FDA also noted that it would be updating the booster interval to five months after a second Pfizer dose, noting no new safety concerns for this age group.

The agency also gave its approval to a third primary dose for children 5-11 years of age, who have undergone organ transplant or who have certain serious immunocompromised conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory committee is expected to weigh-in on Pfizer boosters for those under 15 later this week.

On Monday the NC Department of Health and Human Services reported nearly 13,000 new COVID cases with more than 27% of tests conducted coming back positive for the virus.

There are 2,722 individuals currently hospitalized across North Carolina with COVID, a more than 10% increase since New Year’s Eve.

For the final week of 2021, North Carolina administered 51,767 COVID vaccines.