Commentary, Defending Democracy, Education, Environment, News

This week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

Don’t get shut out — RSVP today for the upcoming March 28 Crucial Conversation luncheon with state Budget Director Charles Perusse and Senior Advisor to the Governor, Ken Eudyclick here to learn more!

1. Following an acrimonious start, state takeover program settling into North Carolina school

Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County looks like most elementary schools in rural North Carolina.

The 1950s-era school building — located along North Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., in Rowland — is showing its age, but is well-kept.

During a reporter’s visit in February, students, dressed in the school uniform of polo shirts and khakis, are quiet and orderly as they line up to change classes or go to lunch.

[Read more…]

** Bonus read: Senate bill would put brakes on charter school expansion
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2. Facing resistance from some sheriffs, N.C. lawmakers seek to force cooperation with ICE

A “detainer” from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a request for local law enforcement to hold individuals they believe are not lawful citizens in jail or prison for up to 48 hours until the federal agency can take custody and begin deportation proceedings.

Detainers are not judicial orders signed by any court official, and they are not arrest warrants that require any kind of finding of probable cause. The individuals targeted by detainer requests are typically otherwise eligible for release from jail or prison.

Some law enforcement entities honor ICE detainer requests, but, recently, some sheriffs across North Carolina have decided to end voluntary cooperation with the federal agency – in fact, they were elected on that platform, often over their more conservative counterparts. [Read more…]

** Bonus read: New ABA report: Immigration courts ‘irredeemably dysfunctional’ and on ‘brink of collapse’

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3. After East Carolina chancellor’s ouster, a UNC Board of Governors on the brink

When Cecil Staton announced his resignation as chancellor of East Carolina University this week, it had an air of inevitability, but not because of Staton’s performance since his hiring in 2016.

While the UNC System will not release the results of his last “360 job review,” two members of the UNC Board of Governors confirmed to Policy Watch it was a positive one. The members spoke on the condition that their identities remain confidential because they were discussing personnel information the system deems privileged.

(Staton has asked the system to release the review, but it has thus far declined to do so.)  [Read more…]

** Bonus read: ECU Foundation Chair: Staton “was bullied from the beginning”
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4. Duke U. scientists to focus on radon, coal ash, flame retardants in Iredell thyroid cancer cluster probe

Something is changing the genetic code in the cells of young girls in Iredell County.

Duke University scientists last night released preliminary findings of 18 months’ of study into potential causes of papillary thyroid cancer among teen girls, some as young as 13, in the ZIP codes of 28115 and 28117. Those areas include neighborhoods on or near Lake Norman.

Heather Stapleton and Kate Hoffman emphasized that more study is needed, but that radon gas in indoor air, which is naturally occurring, and radioactivity in soil, which could be the result of coal ash, deserve further scrutiny. Three homes in their study where people had been recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer also had significantly elevated levels of compounds used in flame retardants. [Read more…] ===
5. Change comes again to the UNC system, but not to the Board of Governors

Everyone’s taking a powder in the UNC system these days.

Everyone, it seems, but the powerful individuals on the UNC Board of Governors, an onerously large pack of political hell-raisers and right-wingers who’ve sullied the “crown jewel,” North Carolina’s decorated and bedeviled university system.

Whatever you think of Cecil Staton, an ex-Georgia lawmaker turned ECU chancellor whose tortured political history threatened to overshadow his academic pedigree, his departure this week is a disaster, an unofficial sacking that smells malodorously like some kind of coup. [Read more]

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6. Getting real about the minimum wage

A new and promising push to raise North Carolina’s minimum wage gets underway today. Lawmakers and advocates will convene a press conference at the General Assembly this morning to announce the introduction of House Bill 366 – a proposal to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next five years and index it to inflation thereafter. A Senate companion bill will be introduced shortly.

In a rational policy environment, such a move would be widely accepted as a long overdue “no brainer” – the kind of step that any healthy society would implement as a matter of course to keep its economy strong and balanced. The data in support of such a change are compelling and plentiful.

Among the findings in a new report from the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project…[Read more…]

** Bonus read: Report: Why raising the minimum wage is good for everyone
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7. Editorial Cartoon:

 

News

Watchdog nonprofit files detailed complaint regarding misconduct of NC anti-abortion outfit

In case you missed it yesterday, the good people at the Washington, DC-based watchdog group, the Campaign for Accountability filed a 93-page complaint with North Carolina officials regarding what it alleges to be the unlawful activities of an anti-abortion group that has received significant state funding. Of course, the problems caused by so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” are nothing new in our state. Click here to read an essay on the subject written last year by a family physician based in Hillsborough and here to read more about state funding for these troublesome outfits.

This is from a release that accompanied the new complaint:

Today, Campaign for Accountability (“CfA”), a government watchdog group focused on public accountability, called on North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen, and the Internal Auditor for the Department of Health and Human Services, David King, to investigate and terminate a contract between the Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”) and Human Coalition. In 2017, as a part of its appropriation to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship (“CPCF”), North Carolina awarded Human Coalition a two-year grant totaling $600,000. The funding was intended to enable Human Coalition to develop a Continuum of Care pilot program to assist women experiencing unexpected pregnancies to carry their pregnancies to full term, but the organization appears to be using the appropriated funds to support religious activities in violation of the United States and North Carolina Constitutions, as well as the explicit terms of its CPCF appropriation.

Read the complaint here. 

CfA Counsel Alice Huling said, “The state granted Human Coalition funding to help support women with unplanned pregnancies, yet the reality is, those taxpayer funds have been spent proselytizing, which is not the same as actual healthcare. North Carolina’s governor, attorney general, and Department of Health and Human Services should investigate Human Coalition’s misuse of taxpayer dollars and terminate the contract.”

Human Coalition, a Texas-based nonprofit opposing abortion, was first incorporated in North Carolina in 2015, and first took over operation of the Curo Women’s Care Clinic of Raleigh in 2016. In June 2017, the General Assembly appropriated $1.3 million to fund Pregnancy Care Initiatives at CPCF and required CPCF to transfer $300,000 each year to Human Coalition for its Continuum of Care pilot program.

Both the state and federal constitutions prohibit the use of public funds to promote or endorse religious activities. In addition, the CPCF appropriation agreement explicitly provides that Continuum of Care funding “shall be used for nonsectarian purposes only.”

Nevertheless, Human Coalition has improperly used its state funding for religious purposes. For example, the organization’s volunteer applications ask whether applicants have “made a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” and how they rate their “knowledge of what the Bible teaches about abortion.” Similarly, while pairing women with trained mentors is an explicit requirement of the Continuum of Care program, Human Coalition’s mentoring program is designed to “help connect clients to the church.”

Ms. Huling continued, “Human Coalition has been spending taxpayer money on overtly religious activities in violation of the state and federal constitutions as well as the explicit terms of its grant agreement. The only question now is: will the state allow this unconstitutional program to continue?”

State leaders need to respond ASAP.

Commentary

Raleigh lawyer pens scathing letter to Tillis over emergency declaration flip-flop

Last June in this space, we featured a powerful letter to Sen. Thom Tillis from veteran Raleigh business attorney Press Millen about the horrific situation in American immigration detention facilities.

Happily Millen is back at it — this time with a scathing critique of Tillis’s epic flip-flop last week on the legislation to disapprove of President Trump’s emergency declaration.

Dear Senator Tillis:

I must say I was very disappointed in your vote to uphold the president’s state-of-emergency declaration. For several weeks, you had said you would vote against it. Then, at the last minute, you voted in favor of it.

This seemed particularly odd because so many of your Republican colleagues – not just the squishy types like Collins and Murkowski – but folks like Rubio and even Wicker of Mississippi – had the guts to stand up to the president.

Knowledgeable political observers say  you did it because some far-right North Carolina Republicans started threatening you with a primary challenge next year. I’m not so knowledgeable, but I suspect that’s true.

I get it that humans are programmed for self-preservation and politicians may have an especially strong version of that genetic trait. But all of this has me wondering what the point of you as our senator is. If you are this easily bullied, what purpose are you serving? Is the next year and a half just going to be one vote after another where you look to your right and look to your left, figure out where the worst beating is going to come from, and then vote and climb back in your hole?

Believe me when I say that I was no fan of our late Senator Helms. I didn’t vote for him once; I never even considered it. I disagreed with the vast majority of his positions. Yet it never occurred to me that he decided how to vote by putting his finger up in the air like some confused golfer.

Whatever you want to say about Senator Helms, he had the courage of his convictions. It’s not clear to me that you have any convictions. As for courage, today’s vote shows you are entirely lacking in it.

Surely there must be a better way for you to spend your days than being such a non-entity as a senator. I recognize that it’s a prestigious job, but at some level the country-club life must be beckoning you. For us constituents, it’s becoming embarrassing.

From my perspective, North Carolina would be better served by someone – Republican or Democrat – who actually seemed to have some affinity for the job and an ability to do it.

Press Millen

p.s.  It’s also disappointing that the only way to communicate with is by typing into this white box on your website so that we can get an AutoReply from you saying that our views are very important to you. I’ve dealt with cable companies that managed to generate more warm interactions.

 

Commentary

Desperate for excuses, NC Senate Republican leaders try new ploy to forestall closing Medicaid gap

You’ve got to hand it to North Carolina Senate Republicans: just when it looked like they’d all but run out of excuses in their costly and deadly crusade to keep a half-million North Carolinians from obtaining health insurance, they’ve manufactured a new and preposterous one out of whole cloth.

In case you missed the whole silly charade, it happened on Wednesday when the Republicans voted to “table” a proposed Democratic amendment to a health bill. The amendment would have provided for the Medicaid expansion that’s so long overdue in the state. After the vote, some Republicans advanced the silly claim that because the amendment was “tabled,” Senate rules technically proscribe the consideration of the matter for the rest of the legislative session. Medicaid expansion, therefore, is “dead” for 2019, went the argument.

This claim is, in a word, preposterous. What’s next — a claim that Sen. Phil Berger’s dog ate his copy of the proposal?

Senate “rules” are not laws or constitutional provisions. They are merely self-imposed guidelines that are waived and/or suspended every day. As Sen. Jay Chaudhuri pointed out, the Senate suspended its rules earlier this week in order to speed passage of new voter ID legislation.

If someone ever wanted to attempt to invoke such a rule later in the 2019 session in an effort to prevent a vote on Medicaid expansion and it was somehow adjudged to be a proper motion, the rule could be easily waived.

The bottom line: As Sen. Minority Leader Dan Blue told WRAL’s Travis Fain, “This rule is not going to keep us from debating the issues that are important to North Carolinians. Nothing has changed. If it’s going to take Medicaid expansion to pass a budget, it will take Medicaid expansion. … If they want to expand Medicaid and this rule is in the way, you suspend the rule.”

Blue is absolutely right. Republicans are not going to be able to deny the overwhelming will of the people (a recent Meredith College poll found that North Carolinians support Medicaid expansion by a margin of better than four-to-one) by invoking obscure parliamentary rules. At some point in 2019, Republicans are going to have to come around on this issue. The people and simple justice demand it.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Burr, Tillis, help Senate confirm true extremist to nation’s second highest court

Sen. Richard Burr

Sen. Thom Tillis

It’s easy to become numb to the steady parade of extreme reactionaries that the Trump administration continues to install in offices of great responsibility, but here’s one that folks ought to take notice of. Today, the United States Senate approved Trump’s nomination of Neomi Rao to serve as a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — the court generally recognized as the nation’s second highest. Rao takes the slot vacated by Brett Kavanaugh when he ascended to the Supreme Court. North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Thom Tillis both voted “yes” on the nomination.

Check out what the nonpartisan court watchers at the Alliance for Justice had to say about today’s vote and Rao’s abhorrently extreme views:

“The Senate voted today to confirm Neomi Rao for Brett Kavanaugh’s old seat on the D.C. Circuit over the objections of advocates and communities representing millions of Americans, including sexual assault survivors, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and people with disabilities. Rao has blamed sexual assault survivors for being attacked, shamed women for seeking equality in the workplace, belittled the fight for racial justice, and demeaned LGBTQ people. She has proven her willingness to put her dangerous rhetoric into policy time and time again during her tenure at OIRA, rolling back public protections for these communities, the environment, immigrants, and more. She has made clear she wants to use the courts to weaken protections for health and safety, workers, and consumers. Neomi Rao is unfit to serve for a lifetime on the federal bench, but Senate Republicans strong-armed members of their own party to confirm her anyway. With this vote, they have proven that they will go to outrageous lengths to pack our courts with more of Trump’s abhorrent judicial nominees.”

And this is from the good people at the Center for American Progress:

“President Donald Trump and the Senate majority are trying to pack the courts with yet another narrow-minded, partisan judge who will put the interests of big business and the wealthy before those of everyone else. While serving as Trump’s regulatory czar, Neomi Rao signed off again and again on regulations that give powerful corporations special breaks at the expense of people’s health and safety. She has also shown a disturbing bias against victims of sexual assault and has an unacceptable history of disparaging women’s rights.

But this is about more than just one judge; it’s about the whole conservative court-packing scheme playing out before our eyes. The Senate majority refused to confirm scores of federal judges in the last two years of the Obama administration and is now changing the rules to fill those stolen seats as fast as humanly possible. Conservatives have cut home-state senators out of the process, ignored negative ratings from the American Bar Association, and rubber-stamped judges without looking closely at their records. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is trying to put the process on steroids by changing the rules for district court judges. Court-packing is happening right now. And if we do nothing, it’s going to have consequences for an entire generation. We need to fight for a fair-minded judiciary that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”

All in all, it’s a truly sad day for the country.