Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, election fraud, News

The Week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. DEQ orders Duke Energy to excavate remaining coal ash impoundments

Duke Energy must excavate its final nine coal ash impoundments at six plants, state environmental regulators announced today, overruling the utility’s concerns that the method would be too expensive and environmentally risky.

“DEQ rigorously reviewed the proposals, and the science points us clearly to excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment,” said DEQ Secretary Michael Regan in a prepared statement.

“Today’s action sends another clear message that protecting public health and natural resources is a top priority of the Cooper administration.”

Duke had proposed to either cap the material in place — in leaking, unlined landfills — or to develop a “hybrid” of excavation and cap-in-place. At public meetings across the state, residents demanded that DEQ force the utility to fully excavate all of the material and place it in a lined landfill.[Read more…]

Bonus read: The big Duke coal ash clean-up: Where things stand and what to expect next

2. A $400 win for teachers could cost North Carolina school districts $40 million

Superintendent Mark Johnson can’t seem to win for losing.

Johnson was part of big press conference Wednesday at the state Legislative Building during which he and State Sen. Andy Wells, (R-Catawba) partnered to announce their proposal of a new program to give the state’s 94,000 licensed teachers $400 a year each to buy classrooms supplies.

The announcement could have been a celebratory occasion.

But there was one missing element: Lisa Godwin.

Godwin, the 2017 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, was listed as a press conference participant but decided not to attend because of concern about how the program would be funded.[Read more…]

Bonus read: Superintendent Mark Johnson takes issue with critics who say SB 580 robs ‘Peter to pay Paul’

3. Four initial takeaways from the Robin Hayes corruption case

This has been another remarkable week in North Carolina. Once again, a dark cloud of corruption has descended upon and enveloped the state’s politics as federal prosecutors unsealed an extraordinary grand jury indictment of one of the state’s best known politicians and a trio of well-heeled businessmen.

Among other things, the indictment accuses Robin Hayes – a scion of the Cannon textile dynasty, as well as a former congressman, state representative, Republican gubernatorial nominee and, until this week, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party* – of participating in a brazen scheme to bribe the state’s Republican Insurance Commissioner with illegal campaign contributions. Also indicted were the state’s largest individual political donor – Durham businessman Greg Lindberg – and two of his employees, John Palermo and John Gray.

What’s more, there could be more indictments on the way. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, who cooperated with federal officials and apparently wore a wire that captured some of the most incriminating statements described in the indictment, told the Charlotte Observer yesterday that “There could be more indictments to come. We don’t know what may happen. And with a case this complex and complicated, it may take months and months and months or years to get everything sorted out.” [Read more…]

4. After sweeping order, an end to coal ash in NC? All bets are off.

North Carolina’s coal ash problem didn’t begin in February 2014, when a corrugated pipe at a Rockingham County Duke Energy facility vomited 39,000 tons of coal ash and about 27 million gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River.

The documented dangers of the coal byproduct predated even a one billion gallon spill in Kingston, Tennessee, six years prior, a spill large enough to fill thousands of Olympic swimming pools.

And North Carolina’s coal ash problem didn’t end hours later, when the billion-dollar, energy juggernaut assured North Carolina officials, incorrectly, that the river – about 70 miles of which was coated in a blue-gray, toxic plume – was no drinking water supply.[Read more…]

5. NC lawmakers push Medicaid work requirements as patients, advocates and courts push back

Emily Henderson was kicked off of Medicaid last year when she went from making $8 per hour at her job to $10 per hour. The raise put her over the income limit. Her son, who is diabetic, remains covered, but she has to choose more often than not between paying to take care of her own health without insurance coverage and paying her bills.

Her story of losing coverage is one that could become a reality for many more people if Republican lawmakers in the North Carolina General Assembly pass a bill to implement work reporting requirements for “able-bodied” adults who receive Medicaid health benefits.

The current income limits are “already making it difficult,” Henderson said. “They’re handcuffing people to poverty to maintain healthcare,” she continued.[Read more…]

6. House Speaker needs to take action regarding lawmaker accused of domestic violence

By many of the usual political metrics, State Rep. Cody Henson ought to be an up and comer.

Henson, a young (he was graduated from high school in 2010) Republican from western North Carolina is an ex-Marine with a winning smile. His biography on the website VoteSmart.org reports that he was an infantry machine gun team leader in the Marine Corps Reserve who then found work as a call center supervisor with a global marketing company. He is described as a member of Midway Baptist Church whose favorite quote (“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”) is attributed to Ronald Reagan.

Meanwhile, the list of contributors to his campaigns reads like a “who’s who” of the modern North Carolina political establishment:[Read more…]

7. Facing ACLU deadline, N.C. officials balk on transferring transgender inmate from men’s prison


Kanautica Zayre-Brown, a transgender woman seeking transfer out of a men’s prison in Lillington, spent much of last month in solitary confinement.

But last week, as the deadline to avoid a lawsuit from the ACLU approached, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety transferred Zayre-Brown from the Harnett County Correctional Institution. Not to a women’s prison, as she and the ACLU had requested, but to the smaller Warren Correctional Institution for men in Warren County, near the Virginia border.

“At Warren, Zayre-Brown is housed in a single cell as opposed to an open dormitory, which has been deemed the most appropriate placement at this time,” said DPS spokesman John Bull in a statement Monday. “Prisons has been and will continue diligently conducting research on legal precedent and best practices across the country with an eventual goal of moving Zayre-Brown to a female facility.”[Read more…]

8. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

Click here for a larger image

 

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The Week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1.Latest school testing proposals are emblematic of NC’s failed public ed policies

There’s an old adage – often attributed to Albert Einstein and/or Mark Twain – that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Neither Einstein nor Twain ever had occasion to review the effectiveness of North Carolina’s K-12 education policy, but it seems likely that if the two great men could be transported forward in time to the modern era to render such an assessment, each would nod, smile wistfully, and say “I told you so.”

The latest compelling indicator of this sobering reality: the recent spate of proposals from state lawmakers to overhaul both the state’s K-12 testing regimen and the system of letter “performance” grades handed out to individual schools.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported last week, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a teacher from Wilkes County, has introduced a bill that would do away with numerous tests that are inflicted on North Carolina students and teachers each year. [Read more…]

2. Supreme Court weighs its role in limiting partisan gerrymandering

U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared willing Tuesday to rein in partisan gerrymandering — desperate even, for attorneys to give them some sort of manageable numeric standard by which they could determine how much politics is too much when it comes to redistricting.

It wasn’t that simple, though, and after considering three challenges to congressional maps — two to the 2016 GOP-drawn map in North Carolina and one to a Democratic-drawn map in Maryland — at least two conservative justices seemed unconvinced to expend any more judicial energy on the issue.

Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush appointee, and Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Donald Trump appointee, both seemed hung up on the lack of a numeric solution to the problem and fixated on alternatives to court intervention.[Read more…]

Bonus read: NC Republicans double down on partisan gerrymandering

3. On Medicaid expansion, John Kasich is unchained in North Carolina


John Kasich insisted several times this week that he’s a free man.

Free from politics? Free from partisanship? Free from Trump? Certainly not free of ambition – the former Ohio governor all but acknowledged last week that he hasn’t ruled out another run for president.

Yet whatever’s unchained Kasich, be it canny political strategy or a moneymaking book deal or Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, we’re the better for it in North Carolina, at least for today.

Kasich’s savvy skewering of North Carolina Republicans during Tuesday’s N.C. Rural Center event was one part stump speech — rife with jabs at his supposedly vanquished political rivals in Ohio — and one part scolding, lambasting the GOP’s untenable and unconscionable Medicaid blockade in Raleigh. [Read more…]

4. State Superintendent Mark Johnson doesn’t support May 1 teacher protest march

State Superintendent Mark Johnson didn’t attend last year’s teacher protest march and rally for higher pay and more school funding.

And he isn’t likely to make it to the second march planned for May 1.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, said in a statement Thursday that he can’t support a protest that “forces schools to close.”

“The protest organizers should choose a non-school day,” Johnson said. “The legislature will be in session in Raleigh for at least another three months, a time period that spans dozens of days students are not scheduled to be in school, including spring break and summer break.” [Read more…]

Bonus reads:

5. Senate committee deals another blow to controversial environmental nonprofit

The Resource Institute, a politically connected nonprofit that received a controversial and unprecedented $5 million appropriation for hurricane recovery in last year’s budget, could lose part of its windfall, according to a bill that passed out of the Senate Rules Committee today.

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, last week had amended Senate Bill 95, which contains various appropriations, to redirect $1.6 million of RI’s original funding to North Topsail Beach to help with beach renourishment and hurricane recovery.

North Topsail Beach “already has plans in place,” Brown told his fellow lawmakers on the Rules Committee.

While that is true, Brown’s statement downplayed the disgruntlement of North Topsail town officials over the Resource Institute appropriation, which led them to petition Brown to redirect the money.  [Read more…]

Bonus read:
And the wind cried Harry: Sen. Brown introduces anti-wind energy bill — again

6. NC lawmakers introduce package of LGBTQ-friendly bills

On Thursday, Democratic state lawmakers filed three bills designed to protect LGBTQ North Carolinians from discrimination, outlaw harmful “conversion” therapy that targets them and fully repeal HB2 — the infamous law that cast an international spotlight on the state as a battleground for transgender rights.

“As a transgender woman I know that the bills filed today will have a very real impact on the lives and legal equality of LGBTQ North Carolinians,” said Allison Scott, director of policy for the Campaign for Southern Equality.

“So many attacks on the LGBTQ community are linked, rooted in the desire to wave us away,” Scott said. “The company that fires someone because of who they are, the business that refuses to sell something to a same-sex couple, the so-called ‘conversion’ therapist who tries to force someone to change a core part of themselves.

The North Carolina lawmakers who try to tell me that I can’t use the women’s restroom.”[Read more…]

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

News

Federal court strikes down N.C. abortion law

A federal judge has struck down a North Carolina law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in the case of medical emergency.

The ACLU of North Carolina,which was part of the suit, explains that Monday’s ruling solely applies to abortions pre-viability:

The court’s decision will take effect in 60 days. In his opinion, U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen, Jr. writes that “State law cannot impose an outright ban that prevents a ‘woman [from] choos[ing] to have an abortion before viability.’” Judge Osteen also references “the Supreme Court’s clear pronouncements on the pre-viability right to choose to have an abortion” as established over 40 years ago in Roe v. Wade. Furthermore, Judge Osteen noted that his ruling “accords universally with those of other federal courts that have considered the constitutionality of twenty-week bans and similar week- or event-specific abortion bans.”

“Today’s decision is a victory for the women and doctors of North Carolina,” said Genevieve Scott, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “This ban is unconstitutional and ignores the unique circumstances, challenges, and potential complications pregnant women face. Politicians taking medical options off the table for women at any stage of pregnancy is irrational and dangerous.”

“Important medical decisions throughout different points of a woman’s pregnancy, including whether to have an abortion, must be left to the woman and her doctor – not politicians,” said ACLU of North Carolina Senior Staff Attorney Irena Como. “North Carolina’s ban was written by politicians to intimidate doctors and interfere in a woman’s personal medical decisions. We’re glad the court blocked this harmful and restrictive measure while affirming that people have a constitutional right to make their own decisions about their pregnancy.”

“All decisions about pregnancy, including abortion, are deeply personal and should be decided between a woman and her doctor, without medically-unnecessary interference from politicians,” said Jenny Black, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. “This ruling affirms that right and send a clear message to politicians that women deserve our care, not our judgment.”

Read the full ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina here.

Education, Higher Ed

ECU’s Chancellor announces plans to step down

East Carolina University will soon be searching for a new chancellor to lead the Pirates.

Dr. Cecil Staton announced Monday morning that he will step down as chancellor May 3rd and remain on as an advisor to the president and the interim chancellor through the end of June. Here’s more from the ECU News Service:

Dr. Cecil Staton

“Catherine and I are very grateful for our time at ECU,” said Staton. “We have enjoyed every moment working with our inspiring students and world-class faculty and staff. As we prepare for this transition in leadership, we remain committed to the idea we arrived with – ECU’s future is full of promise. There are no limits to what ECU can attain in service to the East, North Carolina, our nation, and our world and we look forward to following the progress of this great university in the years to come.”

Staton came to ECU in 2016 following a 27-year career in Georgia where he served as a faculty member and administrator at three different colleges and universities, as a state senator responsible for Georgia’s appropriations to higher education, as a university system senior administrator, and as an interim university president. He was former UNC President Margaret Spelling’s first chancellor hire. After a national search, he was elected chancellor on April 26, 2016.

During his tenure, retooling the athletics program was a key priority. “Pirates have great passion,” Staton said. “I am grateful that we have been able to press the reset button for Pirate athletics and prepare a foundation for future success. I am enormously grateful that Dave Hart accepted my invitation to serve as Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Athletics. Together we have completed successful searches for a new Athletic Director, Head Men’s Basketball Coach, and Head Football Coach, and we’ve committed significant university resources to support our proud athletic traditions. I am confident that ECU athletics are in a good place and that our best days are ahead.”

Commenting on Staton’s tenure and leadership, ECU Board of Trustees Chairman Kieran Shanahan said, “Cecil Staton has served ECU with distinction, dedication and an uncompromising commitment to excellence. His and Catherine’s departure is a tremendous loss for our great university.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said, “ECU’s importance to this state and to Eastern North Carolina is immense and I’m grateful that Chancellor Staton answered the call to serve the Pirate community over the past three years. I’m confident he is leaving the university in good hands and with a bright future ahead as it continues to build on its success.”

Staton’s departure comes just weeks after the high-profile exit of Chancellor Carol Folt at UNC-Chapel Hill as well as System President Margaret Spellings.

(Kevin Guskiewicz is serving as the interim chancellor at Chapel Hill and Dr. Bill Roper holds the UNC System Interim President title for the 17-campus system.)

The ECU opening will certainly be a hot topic when the UNC Board of Governors holds its meeting at Appalachian State University in Boone this Thursday and Friday.

Commentary, Education, Legislature, NC Budget and Tax Center, News

The week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch

1. Gov. Cooper wants a $3.9 billion education bond, 9 percent pay raises for teachers

Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday proposed a robust $3.9 billion education bond for school construction and renovation projects.

He also called for an average nine percent pay raise for teachers over the next two years to put North Carolina on a path to become the best state in the Southeast for teacher pay in four years.

No teacher would receive less than a three percent raise in either of the next two years, under Cooper’s plan.

“North Carolina ranks 37th in teacher pay, and that’s not good enough,” Cooper said in a statement. “We need to put our schools first and that starts with paying teachers and principals better and treating them like the professionals they are.” [Read more…]

** Bonus read: Gov. Cooper’s environmental budget adds $6 million to tackle emerging contaminants
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2. How a high school basketball controversy in Charlotte encapsulates inequality in North Carolina schools

When a West Charlotte High basketball player excoriated the “B.S.” that grifted a home court playoff game from his school this week, his palpable anger made sense on many levels, just one of them actually involving sports.

The school’s gym – capacity 400 – wasn’t big enough to house West Charlotte’s hotly-anticipated match-up Tuesday with cross-town rival, Ardrey Kell High, The Charlotte Observer reported this week. So his team’s well-earned spoils, a home date in the “Lion’s den” – as locals call it – decamped and moved eight miles northeast to a neutral high school with 650 more seats.

Put aside the slight to West Charlotte’s basketball team, for a moment. Snatching home court advantage in a playoff game stings – though West Charlotte won the game anyway – but, in this week’s report, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake saw the controversy absent the fog of competition.

In a very limited sense, it’s a sports story. But in a broader sense, it’s a microcosm, a symptom of an illness in North Carolina. It’s a weary story, a story about haves and have-nots, Leake explained, writ small in high school basketball melodrama.

“We are more segregated today than we’ve ever been,” Leake sagely told The Observer reporter. “There’s a white system and a Black system.” [Read more…]

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3. RDU officials side with mining interests in clash over Umstead quarry

Umstead State Park in winter is at its least beautiful, but in no way is it ugly. Within the park’s palette of gray and rust appear plush pelts of moss in iridescent green and coarse crowns of lichens in dusty mint. Outcrops of ancient rocks, composed of minerals such as feldspar and quartz, are strewn across the forest floor like scattered teeth.

Failing to observe property lines, the park’s outcrops extend east and west of the park to 250 acres owned by the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority. Wake Stone, which has operated a quarry nearby for more than 35 years, wants the rock. The Airport Authority needs the money.

Under a controversial agreement, the Airport Authority board has leased 105 acres, known as the “Odd Fellows tract,” to Wake Stone, which, provided the test borings prove fruitful, would timber it. Then on 45 of the acres, the company would blast a pit 40 stories deep to extract the minerals, crush them and sell the material for road-building and other uses. While Wake Stone has agreed to invest millions of dollars in adjacent natural areas and mountain bike trails, the mining could continue for 25 years or more.

The lease has raised concerns about transparency and inclusiveness of the Airport Authority board, whose eight members include several real estate developers and construction company owners. The board is appointed by the Durham City Council, Durham County Commission, Raleigh City Council and Wake County Commission, but three of those four elected bodies say they were not consulted on the deal. [Read more…]

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4. Educators seethe at N.C. lawmakers’ plan to arm, deputize teachers

Two new bills filed by state lawmakers take the heated debate over gun rights and safety to one of its most controversial battlegrounds: the classroom.

House Bill 216 – The School Self-Defense Act – would make it legal for teachers and staff members to carry concealed handguns on school grounds “to respond to acts of violence or imminent threats of violence.”

Senate Bill 192 – The School Security Act of 2019 – would incentivize teachers to carry concealed weapons, provide training and pay raises for teachers who undergo law enforcement training, and make them sworn law enforcement officers too.

The House bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus) and Michael Speciale (R-Craven). The Senate bill’s primary sponsors are Senators Jerry Tillman (R-Guilford and Randolph), Ralph Hise and Warren Daniel. Hise and Daniel are Republicans from western North Carolina.[Read more…]

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5. The Equal Rights Amendment makes a long overdue comeback

There’s no denying that the American public policy environment is measurably more progressive in the aftermath of last November’s election. In Washington, congressional leaders of both parties are pushing back against President Trump’s attempt to declare a national emergency, and the U.S. House is seriously discussing proposals for a “Green New Deal” and a massive overhaul of federal ethics and voting rights laws.

Meanwhile, here in North Carolina, despite conservative majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, progressive proposals are percolating into public view at a much faster pace than in recent years. In the early days of the 2019 session, lawmakers have introduced legislation to close the state’s Medicaid gap, curb gun violence, restore master’s degree pay for teachers, raise the minimum wage, reinstate the state Earned Income Tax Credit, expand paid family and medical leave and legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

And while no one expects an easy path onto the statute books for any of these bills right away, it is possible to envision such a path in the foreseeable future – especially for the state-level proposals, given that each of them has been around for a good while and has already won approval in numerous jurisdictions. [Read more…]

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6. Charlotte Learning Academy leader “seeing red” over comment comparing graduates’ video to ‘dirt sandwich’

Charlotte Learning Academy leaders left Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting visibly shaken and “seeing red” over a comment made by Steven Walker, vice chairman of the Charter School Advisory Board, who awkwardly compared ­­videos from former students of the struggling charter school to a marketing strategy that can make a “dirt sandwich” look good.

“I’m not trying to compare the school to a dirt sandwich or anything like that but what I’m saying is that if you market something you can make it look real good,” Walker said.

The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) has recommended that Charlotte Learning Academy’s (CLA) charter not be renewed due to poor academic performance. The school serves mostly at-risk, economically disadvantaged students in grades 6-12 who find it difficult to succeed in a traditional school setting.[Read more…]

** Bonus read: State Board of Education votes to close Charlotte Learning Academy
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7. Upcoming event:

North Carolina’s death penalty: On life support? Join us Tuesday (March 12) at noon for our next Crucial Conversation

Here’s something you might not know: North Carolina hasn’t executed a prisoner since 2006, but the state – home to a boom in capital murder trials during the 1990s – houses the country’s sixth largest “death row” population.

That’s one of a series of sobering details in “Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row,” a report published in 2018 by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, the state’s leading advocacy organization on capital punishment.

Learn more and register today for this special event.