Here’s how much NC Republicans’ redistricting lawyers cost taxpayers

Thomas Farr

About $2.9 million in taxpayer money has gone to law firms Republican legislators hired to do redistricting work for them in the last round of map-drawing, work that included representing GOP leaders in redistricting lawsuits.

Invoices from law firms for redistricting work date from late November 2021 to July 2022, according to an accounting from the Legislative Services Office that NC Policy Watch obtained through a public records request. The payments over those months went to two law firms, Baker & Hostetler and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. Phillip Strach is partner at Nelson Mullins and often takes the lead in oral arguments in North Carolina redistricting cases. Thomas Farr is another partner with the firm who has represented North Carolina Republicans though several rounds of redistricting litigation since at least 2001.

The list of invoices does not include any from Cooper & Kirk, the Washington law firm representing legislators before the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore vs. Harper. In that pivotal case, Republican legislators are seeking to bar state courts from hearing cases concerning congressional redistricting and other matters related to elections for federal offices. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in that case late this year or early next year.

Voting rights groups and voters backed by the National Redistricting Foundation sued Republican legislators over congressional and legislative districts the Republican-led General Assembly approved last year.

The legislature must redraw election maps after each census to balance populations in districts. North Carolina’s population growth resulted in the state gaining a 14th congressional seat.

North Carolina has a decades-long history of legal battles over plans for election districts, and this year’s redistricting fit that pattern.

The state Supreme Court in February struck down the congressional and legislative maps, saying they were partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution. The court’s four Democrats ordered the maps thrown out, while its three Republicans dissented.

After that court loss, the legislature redrew the state House, state Senate, and congressional maps. A three-judge panel accepted the redrawn maps for state House and Senate, but rejected the legislature’s second attempt at a congressional plan. The three Superior Court judges drew the congressional districts with the help of three special masters. That court-drawn map is in place for the 2022 election.

Lawyers on both sides of the case filed motions at every step.

Lawmakers aren’t done with redistricting. North Carolina’s congressional map is good for one election cycle. The legislature intends to redraw congressional districts in time for the 2024 election.

Some of the same lawyers North Carolina Republicans hired also worked on redistricting in Ohio and Louisiana. Baker & Hostetler worked with Louisiana Republicans this year, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. Strach and Farr helped represent the Louisiana secretary of state in a racial gerrymandering case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Republican legislative leaders in Ohio hired Strach and Farr to represent them in court challenges and to advise the state’s Legislative Task Force on Redistricting, the Ohio Capital Journal reported.

A shortage in voter registration forms frustrates NC nonprofits

The state does not have enough updated voter registration forms to distribute to nonprofit organizations that run registration drives, local elections offices, and other locations as the election season enters its crucial final weeks.

(Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

State agency spokesmen pin the shortage on supply chain problems that make it difficult for the state prisons’ business operation to find paper. Correction Enterprises prints voter registration application forms for the state Board of Elections.

Voter registration forms had to be updated this summer to add the Green Party as an option for party affiliation and to change the “attestation” regarding felony convictions. A panel of state Appeals Court judges said in late July said that people on probation, parole, or post-release supervision for felony convictions can vote.

The outdated version of the voter registration application requires people sign a statement under penalty of perjury saying they are not on probation or parole for a felony. The updated registration application drops that language and replaces it with a statement saying the person signing is not in prison or jail for a felony.

Nonprofits that register voters have been frustrated by the shortage of forms  they order in bulk from the state Board of Elections.

Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, communications director for North Carolina Asian Americans Together, said the group has constantly checked with the state elections office about updated forms only to be told that there aren’t any available.

The state board said in a press release that the old forms were okay to use, but voter registration groups worried about having people sign a form where they’re asked to say something that isn’t true.

“This has been extremely frustrating,” said Kate Fellman, executive director of You Can Vote. The nonprofit has an unfilled order for thousands of forms. To work around the shortage, You Can Vote printed updated forms from the state Board of Elections website.

“We didn’t want to use the old forms,” she said.

Joselle Torres, Democracy North Carolina communications director, said getting updated forms is a priority. Nonprofits that register voters also want an official statement saying the old form is okay so people can use it with confidence, Torres said.

Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said in an email that it ordered 545,000 forms and is expecting to receive 115,000 today. Those will be distributed right away, he wrote.

Brad Deen, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said in an email Friday they were able to find paper on Sept. 20 that Correction Enterprises can use to print the rest of the Board of Elections’ order. That paper “is in the state purchasing process,” Deen wrote. When the paper is delivered, it will take four days to print and cut the forms to size.

“We understand the importance of the forms and their role in ensuring a smooth voting and election process,” Deen wrote.  “Toward that end, Correction Enterprises will expedite printing and make partial deliveries as soon as completed forms are available.”

Oct. 14 is the deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 8 election. Applications are available to download from the Board of Elections website for people who wish to register by mail. State DMV customers – people who have a Social Security number and a North Carolina driver’s license or a DMV-issued ID number can register to vote or update their addresses online.

People who miss the Oct. 14 deadline can still register if they go to vote in person during the early voting period, which starts Oct. 20 and ends Nov. 5.

Fellman said the registration form shortage has made her organization’s work harder. Sometimes local elections offices will have the updated forms, she said, but not in the quantities You Can Vote needs.

“We’re not registering fewer people, but it makes our job harder and more expensive,” she said. “Smaller groups that do voter registration, they don’t have the budget to print their own forms.”

Robert Dawkins, political director for Action NC, said they went ahead and used the old forms to register about 3,200 people after being told by the Mecklenburg County elections board that it wouldn’t be a problem.

“People cannot be disenfranchised because people cannot get their forms together,” Dawkins said.

“Do unto others as we did unto ourselves” says NC Democratic leader in favor of tax forgiveness of student loan debt

State Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said he wants the state to waive income tax on forgiven student loan debt, countering the position of  Republican Senate leader Phil Berger.

Berger told reporters Tuesday that the state would not waive income taxes on forgiven student loan debt, WUNC reported.

North Carolina is one of a handful of states that will tax student debt relief, according to the Washington Post.

An estimated 1.19 million borrowers in North Carolina will be eligible for student debt relief, according to a White House estimate released Tuesday.

President Joe Biden announced last month that borrowers with federal student loans would have up to $10,000 in debts canceled and borrowers with Pell Grants for low-income families would be eligible for up to $20,000 in debt cancellations. To be eligible, borrowers must have an annual income of less than $125,000 for an individual.

Gov. Roy Cooper last week called on Republicans to waive state income taxes on the forgiven student loan debt.

Last year, the legislature voted to waive state taxes on businesses’ forgiven Paycheck Protection Plan loans.  Nearly 260,000 federal PPP loans went to businesses in the state, according to ProPublica. Businesses owned by legislators benefited from the law they passed exempting those forgiven loans from state taxes.

Blue said it was right to waive taxes on forgiven business loans, and the legislature should do the same for forgiven student loans.

“It bothers me that we still want to burden folks,” Blue said.  “We ought to be able to do unto others as we did unto ourselves,” he said, adding that he did not receive a PPP loan.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters Wednesday, Blue and House Democratic leader Rep. Robert Reives said they were frustrated that no agreement to expand Medicaid has been reached.

Republican legislators are considering expanding Medicaid, which would make an estimated 600,000 low-income adults eligible for health insurance. The Senate bundled Medicaid expansion with changes to Certificate of Need laws in the bill it passed this year. Changes to Certificate of Needs Laws are a long-time goal for GOP senators.

North Carolina is one of a dozen states that has not expanded Medicaid.

The North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents hospitals, is fighting Certificate of Need changes.  These laws require health care providers to gain state approval before offering new services.

The Healthcare Association made an offer last week that Berger told WUNC was “not a serious proposal.”

Reives called for face-to-face negotiations that include Democratic legislators.

“We want to get it done,” he said. “Nothing works better than deadlines and people having to face each other.”

 

NC Republican leaders want a three-judge panel for the next step in a voter ID case, not the judge who initially decided against them

North Carolina’s Republican legislative leaders want a three-judge panel to determine whether the state’s voter ID constitutional amendment was legitimately on the ballot.

The state Supreme Court’s Democratic majority in a 4-3 decision last month said that proposed constitutional amendments aren’t automatically valid if legislators who voted to put the questions on the ballot were elected from unlawful districts. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 affirmed that 28 legislative districts drawn in 2011 were racial gerrymanders. Legislators elected from these districts voted in 2018 to put constitutional amendments on the ballot.

The state Supreme Court last month sent the case concerning the constitutional amendments back to the trial court to answer more questions.

Legislative Republicans want a three-judge panel to answer those questions about the amendments, not the Superior Court judge who initially ruled against them.

The state NAACP challenged the voter ID amendment and an amendment capping the state income tax rate. As the case made its way through the state court system, the NAACP won in trial court and but lost 2-1 in state Appeals Court.

The Supreme Court agreed with the core of the NAACP argument, but sent the case back to the trial court to determine, using a three-prong test, whether the voter ID amendment and the amendment capping the state income tax were properly put to voters in 2018.

The Supreme Court told the trial court to consider whether the proposed amendments immunize legislators from democratic accountability; perpetuate the ongoing exclusion of a category of voters from the political process, or intentionally discriminate against a particular category of citizens who were also discriminated against in the redistricting process that resulted in the unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts, Policy Watch has reported.

If Republicans are successful in getting a three-judge panel to apply the tests, they would be able to side-step Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins, who initially decided in the NAACP’s favor.

A lawyer for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in the court filing that a three-judge panel is the proper forum for considering the questions the Supreme Court wants answered.

Lawyers for the state NAACP said a court filing that the Republican request is frivolous, and if the Supreme Court wanted a three-judge panel involved, it would have said so.

“The Court made clear that the case be remanded back to the Trial Court that originally heard the matter, as is the normal practice,” the state NAACP’s lawyers wrote.

Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican who dissented from the Democratic majority’s decision, appoints three-judge panels.

The racial gap in infant death rates in NC widened, while the overall infant mortality rate plateaued

The state’s infant mortality rate has dropped significantly in the three decades since getting babies to their first birthdays became an official goal for the state back in the early 1990s. But in the years the state’s plan for healthy communities targeted the racial gap between Black and white babies’ death rates, that gap has just gotten wider.

Even with the overall decline, the state still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation – seventh from the bottom according to the latest CDC data. The chances that a Black baby will live long enough to see that first birthday candle is significantly lower than it is for a white infant.

The latest issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal focuses on life expectancy and includes the commentary “Back to the Future: Reflecting on Three Decades of Healthy North Carolina Infant Mortality Goals,” by Kathleen Jones-Vessey and Sarah McCracken Cobb. Both work at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The infant death rate, measured in deaths per 1,000 birth, is higher in the United States than it is in most other industrialized countries. Infant mortality is considered an indicator of overall community health.

Every 10 years, health policy experts adopt a set of goals for the state called Healthy North Carolina. The 2030 goals include decreasing the poverty rate, increasing the primary care workforce, and increasing life expectancy. The goal for infant mortality is to lower the overall rate to 6 – it was 6.8 in 2020 – and the Black/white disparity ratio to 1.5.

Jones-Vessey and Cobb write that the state has had reducing infant mortality in all of its Healthy North Carolina plans and met it once, in 2010. The target was a 7.4 infant mortality rate while the state reached 7. The state did not meet its 2020 goal of 6.3. North Carolina’s infant mortality rate largely plateaued between 2010 and 2020, and the disparity ratio between Black and white infant death rate of 2.67 was wider in 2020 than it was in 1990, when it was 2.01.

Infant health is tied to the health of birthing people, they wrote. North Carolina likely won’t meet its 2030 goals without more investments and programs aimed at improving maternal health, “as well as a strategic focus on maternal health equity and reproductive justice.”

North Carolina has had a number of committees and task forces working over the years on lowering the infant mortality rate and improving maternal health.

The Perinatal Health Equity Collective, which got its start in 2016, drafted a plan for 2022-2026 that uses data to monitor progress toward goals for lower death rates and improved maternal health, according to another journal paper by Cobb, Jessica Landes Johnson and Belinda Pettiford. Johnson and Pettiford also work at NC DHHS.

The three authors counted as a policy win allowing people who give birth to continue to have their health care expenses covered by Medicaid for up to a year. Until this year, people who used pregnancy Medicaid were cut from the government health insurance program two months after a birth.

Goals include greater availability of doula services, the authors wrote. Some of the pre-paid Medicaid plans offer them and Gov. Roy Cooper included doula reimbursement in his budget proposal, but that spending did not make it into the final budget.

A statewide doula summit is planned, and Medicaid reimbursement for doulas remains a DHHS priority, according to the commentary.

Also include in Cooper’s budget proposal was funding for group prenatal care, a strategy for reducing health disparities.  That money was not in the final budget.