Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, Higher Ed, News

The week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Over widespread opposition, DEQ approves key water quality permit for Atlantic Coast Pipeline

For more than a  year, environmental and citizens’ groups have battled against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. But today, the NC Department of Environmental Quality granted a key permit that will allow the project to begin its 160-mile route through the state.

DEQ’s Division of Water Resources announced today that it is approving the 401 water quality permit after eight months’ of review. DWR had asked for additional information five times before finalizing the permit.

Duke Energy co-owns the Atlantic Coast Pipeline with Dominion Energy. The pipeline will begin at a fracking operation in West Virginia, continue through Virginia and North Carolina, and possibly extend through South Carolina.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan said in a prepared statement that the agency “left no stone unturned in our exhaustive eight-month review of every aspect of the 401 application. Our job doesn’t and with the granting of the permit but continues as we hold the company accountable to live up to its commitments.”[Read more…]

Bonus reads:

2. Class size crisis, school inequities highlight top 10 education issues for 2018

An impending class size crisis and growing inequities between rich and poor districts are the most important issues facing North Carolina public schools in 2018, according to an annual list released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Public School Forum of N.C.

The list—prepared by the Raleigh-based policy and research outfit—arrives with state legislators still negotiating the terms of a potential respite for North Carolina’s 115 school districts, brought on by a 2016 order to cut K-3 class sizes that lacks sufficient funding to make it happen, critics say.

“The class size mandate is affecting every single school in North Carolina,” says Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum. “The ripple effect—up to ballooning classes in grades 4-12, to the risk of losing classes in upper grades, to the very real fact that there’s no way our schools can meet this mandate in seven months and also keep our arts and P.E. teachers and come up with several hundred classrooms that don’t exist today— it is a self-inflicted crisis.” [Read more…]

3. The “double-bunkings” continue: An analysis of the G.A.’s latest proposed judicial maps

How many maps does it take to hit the sweet spot when it comes to judicial redistricting?

Your guess is as good as anyone’s. Rep. Justin Burr (R-Stanly, Montgomery) unveiled another round of judicial and prosecutorial maps this week, and, like the others, he didn’t include any substantive information about the impact on judges and the people they serve.

This is the seventh version of House Bill 717 that lawmakers have entertained as a possible plan for redistricting judges and prosecutors. It’s the third set of maps that NC Policy Watch has taken on to analyze incumbency data.

There have been three different committees formed since the first time Burr made his maps public – one in the House, one in the Senate and one joint committee.

Members from each group have asked Burr, legislative staff and other key map players multiple times for incumbency information so that they could accurately assess the effect of changing judicial boundaries. So far, no one in an official General Assembly capacity has provided lawmakers with that information. [Read more…]

Bonus read:

4. Bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake: Why work requirements for Medicaid do not represent a reasonable healthcare compromise

It’s one of the great and bitter ironies of our modern American policy debates that it is conservatives who are often the chief architects of the largest and least useful government bureaucracies.

No, this is not intended as a dig at the military or our departments of transportation.

Think about it for a minute: What is the chief function of our public bureaucracies? As anyone who has ever paid a visit to their local Social Security office or argued with a school secretary over a student’s eligibility for a reduced price lunch can attest, the answer (at least when it comes to safety net programs) is to jealously guard and carefully mete out public resources. If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid such experiences, think for a moment of your health insurance company and all of the people and bureaucratic process and jargon it takes to assess your occasional claims. Now, think of what that process would be like if you were a low-income person with limited education trying to access some basic assistance that might keep you from becoming homeless.[Read more…]

5. UNC Board of Governors squares off over new healthcare partnership

A proposed partnership between Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System and UNC Health Care is further dividing an already fractured UNC Board of Governors.

When the board meets Friday morning, it will be amid cross-accusations of illegal and unethical behavior over the proposal, which would create one of the country’s largest healthcare systems.

At issue: a potential consolidation that would create a new UNC Health Care/Carolinas HealthCare joint operation that would include more than 50 hospitals and employ more than 90,000 people.

The new venture, first proposed in August and expected to be finalized early this year, would be overseen by an independent board. But in their role overseeing UNC’s medical school, the board of governors have hotly debated the deal and whether they can block it if they find it not in the system’s best interest. [Read more…]

*** Coming-up Tuesday, a very special conversation on the unfunded class-size mandate and education policy. Register today.


Listen & Learn: A closer look at what is and isn’t working in education policy

If you missed it over the weekend, make time today to listen to veteran state education policy analyst Kris Nordstrom, who recently released the report, The Unraveling—Poorly-crafted Education Policies Are Failing North Carolina’s Children.

In a radio interview with Policy Watch director Rob Schofield, Nordstrom discusses the unfunded class-size mandate and the folly of folding major policy changes into the state budget bill with little or no debate.

Nordstrom and Senator Jay Chaudhuri will be our special guests next Tuesday (January 30th) at Policy Watch’s first Crucial Conversation for 2018.

Chaudhuri is a member of the Senate Committee on Education and Higher Education and sponsor of legislation to repeal the unfunded class size mandate.

Click here to register for the Crucial Conversation: Public schools in crisis.


CLARION CALL: Reflections on the First Anniversary of the Women’s March

The following is an op-ed by Margaret Toman, a retired union member, activist, and a volunteer at the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, and Jeremy Sprinkle, the organization’s communications director.

Jeremy Sprinkle and Margaret Toman

On January 21, 2017, the now legendary Women’s March drew millions onto the streets in all 50 states and in 32 countries in the aftermath of a flawed U.S. presidential election and the inauguration of a racist President at the helm of a sharply divided country. Over 17,000 people, most of them women and girls, marched through downtown Raleigh in a pink-hatted sea of outrage and solidarity against racism and sexism, affirming that “Women’s rights are human rights.” The Women’s March ignited a spark of hope in a winter of despair — hope that fueled a year of organized resistance which led to important victories.

Several states and municipalities have adopted a $15 minimum wage or moved in that direction with more raises pending. Federal judges have rejected political gerrymandering, invalidated Muslim travel bans, and protected the Dreamers. Women are running for office around the country and winning. Black women helped to elect a labor-endorsed candidate from Alabama to the U.S. Senate for the first time in a generation, and Virginia voters sent packing politicians hostile to the interests of working families. Despite being under constant attack as “fake news,” our free press survives, and with every fresh reported outrage coming from policymakers in Raleigh and Washington, new allies join us and invigorate the resistance.

Today, we commemorate the Women’s March at the “Rally on Raleigh” and vow our continuing solidarity. We dare not linger long in celebration. History is holding up a mirror that we cannot evade. A year ago, we looked into that mirror and took collective action. Clear-eyed and resolute, we look into it again today.

We see avarice and corruption driving official policy, human rights under sustained assault, and our coffers emptied for war and tax cuts for the rich. We see the President making excuses for white supremacists who threaten our black, brown, and LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We see Lady Liberty’s torch light flicker as our government tears immigrants striving for the American dream from their families and communities, while letting unconscionable corporate greed suppress the wages and freedoms of people laboring for a better life. We all know these working folks. They pick our cucumbers, deliver our newspapers, serve our food, drive our school buses, care for our children and our elders. They are people who, when payday comes, might have to choose between paying rent or electricity, who sometimes stand in long lines at food pantries, and who watch skyrocketing housing prices with visceral fear, aware that there is not enough affordable shelter for everyone. We see mothers working two jobs who barely see their children, caregivers upholding high standards for love while watching their own future slip away, construction workers laboring in dangerous conditions under which too many die.

We resolve to act when those at the top use their power to line their silk pockets by taking public resources and the wealth working people create. We resolve to petition our lawmakers to raise North Carolina’s minimum wage to a family-sustaining wage, and to run for office and become the voice of working people in government if they will not. We resolve to show up and walk the next “Fight for $15 and a union” picket line. We resolve to support people exercising their freedom to join forces in the workplace so they can negotiate collectively for a better life. We will continue to be our courageous, creative, and catalyzing selves.

We resolve to do these things because history is pressing upon us a sense of urgency, a clarion call to liberate our confidence from fear. Our liberation is born of connection and a realization that we are all in this together — the student paying loans who cannot afford a down payment on a house, the cancer patient who cannot buy critically necessary medication, the elder whose social security is being threatened. All of us, organizers, donors, activists, voters, and volunteers, are a unified force who will forget no one. No ignorant politician, cruel policy, or unconstitutional law can overcome the power of our solidarity or halt our march for justice. We affirm with author/activist Jonathan Smucker: “It is selfish to jump ship when there are not enough lifeboats for everyone. We must conspire to take the helm.”

From this day in January 2018 onward, in honor of the Women’s March, the Resistance, and the commitments that bind us, let us now turn to face with unity and resolve the challenges of the days leading to November 6, when we will take the helm together, and dance.

Margaret Toman is a retired union member, activist, and a volunteer at the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, where Jeremy Sprinkle serves as communications director.

Commentary, Defending Democracy, Environment, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch


1. Supreme Court blocks lower court’s order for NC to redraw partisan congressional maps

The U.S. Supreme Court has granted state lawmakers’ request to block a lower court’s order for them to redraw the 2016 congressional maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

The order was released Thursday evening. It grants the stay pending the timely filing and disposition of an appeal.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor would have denied the stay, according to the order.

The U.S. District Court ruled last week that state lawmakers intended to maximize partisan advantage when drawing the 2016 congressional map and thereby discriminated against non-Republican voters. A three-judge panel gave the legislature until 5 p.m. Jan. 24 to redraw the maps and said they would also hire a special master for time’s sake.

Lawmakers requested a stay from the panel — it was denied — and the Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the League of Women Voters, a plaintiff in the one of the two partisan gerrymandering cases, urged the Supreme Court to move quickly through the appeals process. [Read more…]

2. GOP senator’s email promises “relief” to class size crisis in March

A fix for North Carolina’s class size crisis in March?

A GOP senator from Wake County tells his constituents that he believes state lawmakers will proffer “relief” when they return in March, according to an email obtained by Policy Watch.

“We are still trying to gather information from all 100 counties of the state, to ensure that any fix is amiable to all,” Sen. John Alexander wrote in an email last week.

Alexander—who co-chairs a key Senate budget committee—was responding to pleas for the state legislature to provide additional funds or flexibility to local school districts in advance of a pending mandate that they slash class sizes in grades K-3.

The Wake County senator wrote that the relief comes after “much discussion, research and hard work over the last several months,” although he offered no specifics on any plan. [Read more…]

3. Is Trump finally approaching his McCarthy moment?
Latest racist attacks on immigrants could be an important tipping point

As bleak as our national political landscape may seem right now, it’s worth remembering that it is far from the only time in American history in which a dangerous, dishonest and delusional con artist has held a position of great prominence. In the early 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin rode his paranoid and dishonest witch hunt against supposed “communist subversion” to become one of the most famous and powerful men in the nation.

It seems hard to imagine now, but there was a time during which even President Dwight Eisenhower, the enormously popular and well-respected hero of World War II, lacked the political courage to take on McCarthy in public, even though he knew him to be a dishonest charlatan. [Read more…]

4. Historical Commission members to grapple with Confederate monuments issue next week

Back in September, the N.C. Historical Commission put off a decision on removing three Confederate monuments from the State Capitol grounds. Instead, the commission formed a task force to study the politically fraught issue, which the North Carolina General Assembly dropped into their laps with a 2015 law that makes it more difficult to remove such statues.

Next Monday at 3 p.m., that task force – the Confederate Monuments Study Committee – will have its first meeting via teleconference. The public can listen in via a livestream on the YouTube site of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

With the issue of Confederate monuments such as “Silent Sam” on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill still a controversial one, the group’s work could have wide-ranging implications.

David Ruffin, chairman of the Historical Commission, says that the issue is still a sensitive one and the group will have to reach some consensus. [Read more...]

5. Strange bedfellows? Polluters, environmental groups form new coalition to lobby state government

On a cozy autumn evening at the luxurious Umstead Hotel in Cary, a medley of corporate luminaries, state lawmakers and environmentalists made small talk and mingled over drinks. The occasion: the formation of a new “unconventional partnership” with a “bold mission.”

North Carolina Forever, said Kathy Higgins, vice president of corporate affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield, “will bring together diverse interests” to encourage  “reasonable and necessary investments” in land conservation and water protection.

Shared on Facebook, the 27-minute video features Higgins, who is also NC Forever’s board chairwoman, invoking Article 14, Section 5 of the state constitution. It reads, in part:

“It shall be the policy of this State to conserve and protect its lands and waters for the benefit of all its citizenry … to acquire and preserve park, recreational, and scenic areas, to control and limit the pollution of our air and water ….”

She concluded: “We’re grateful to Smithfield Foods,” which started a similar group, Virginiaforever, 10 years ago, “for bringing us this model.” [Read more…]

*** Bonus read: Digging out: Let’s keep the de-icer, road salt out of our water supply