Defending Democracy, News

Campaign finance watchdog calls for investigation of Cherokees’ soaring political donations, connections to gambling legislation

Veteran North Carolina campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall is calling on the State Board of Elections to investigate the campaign finance contributions of one of the state’s most active givers.

This is from a news release Hall (pictured at left) distributed this afternoon:

With the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) pushing legislation (SB-154/HB-302) to add sports wagering to a sprawling gambling operation, it’s a good time to look at the tribe’s clout in the NC General Assembly.

Turns out EBCI donated $570,400 to state legislators, other candidates and political committees in the 2018 election – and a total of $1,300,000 in the past three elections, which ranks it among the three biggest PACs in the state, along with the Duke Energy PAC and NC Realtors PAC.

It also turns out that it’s long past time for the State Board of Elections to conduct a thorough audit of EBCI’s political arm.

Reviewing EBCI’s contributions is especially difficult because, unlike other PACs and contrary to state law, it does not file its disclosure reports electronically.  You have to slog through PDF’s of paper reports posted on the State Board’s website; the reports are not searchable or easily converted into a single data file. They also don’t always match what recipients report they received as a campaign donation.  My analysis uncovered more than two dozen mismatched contributions – i.e., discrepancies in what EBCI and the recipient reported….

EBCI’s political giving is unique. Other PACs are required to amass their money by soliciting donations from their members, executives, and supporters. EBCI doles out millions to its tribal members – over $150 million in per-capita payments in 2018 alone – but it is not required to ask its 15,000 members for money to build up a tribal PAC. Instead, in the early 2000s, EBCI argued it was a sovereign nation, not a normal corporation or association, and it received special permission from the State Board of Elections to donate directly from its non-gambling business revenues, i.e., profits from its hotels, restaurants, etc., which have grown rapidly because of its expanding casino operations.

The $570,400 donated to state politicians and committees in the 2018 election is four times the $136,250 it gave in the 2006 election….

My request for the State Board to conduct its first comprehensive audit and investigation of EBCI’s political donations is attached. The letter provides additional examples of discrepancies, background information, and a table with over 400 EBCI contributions.

Click here to read Hall’s letter to elections board executive director Kim Strach. Click here and here to see the legislation referred to in Hall’s letter.

Education, NC Budget and Tax Center

New report: Legislation to address NC’s school building crisis would only begin to address school facility needs

North Carolina lawmakers are debating two proposals that would direct state money to fund long overdue public school construction needs, but both fall short of offering sustainable solutions for the state, according to a new report from the NC Justice Center. Ultimately, rolling back tax cuts made in the last several years could completely address the state’s school building needs without undermining funding for education.

“Where students learn matters for their educational outcomes,” said Kris Nordstrom, Senior Policy Analyst with the Justice Center’s Education & Law Project and co-author of the report. “Leaving children to learn in unhealthy, unsafe environments will have a negative impact on their well-being now and in the future as well as our state’s educational goals.”

North Carolina has a massive backlog in needed investments such as school construction and repairs, the report said, across a range of projects in communities facing very different demographic and fiscal challenges. Rapidly growing populations in some urban parts of the state drive needs for construction, while economically struggling communities lack the tax base to fix aging and dilapidated school buildings.

Moreover, the state of our schools is a self-inflicted wound, the report said, due to tax cuts passed by lawmakers since 2013, which have reduced state revenues by approximately $3.6 billion per year. Between changes to the corporate income tax and failures to deliver on promised education lottery funding, lawmakers have diverted nearly $2.5 billion from school construction funding since 2006.

“Even compared to the depths of the Recession, North Carolina schools today have fewer teachers, assistant principals, instructional support personnel, teacher assistants, and supplies,” Nordstrom said. “Had leaders chosen a different path that did not undermine state funding, we could have kept pace with both school construction and operating needs.”

Read the full report.

The new legislation proposed to help close these gaps – House Bill 241 (which would issue bonds to fund school capital needs) and Senate Bill 5 (which earmarks General Fund revenue to public school capital) – differ in how they would pay for increased school construction but share two common features: Read more

Commentary

Tillis: Skillfully manipulating the media with symbolic gestures

Sen. Thom Tillis has garnered himself a smattering of national attention recently by making some modest gestures of opposition to one of Donald Trump’s most outrageous actions — the plan to fund his border wall via a declaration of national emergency. (As an aside, isn’t it interesting that he chose to speak out in the Washington Post rather than a home state news outlet?)

And while any opposition that can be mustered to the policies of the Great Prevaricator is certainly better than nothing, it needs to be pointed out that:

a) Tillis’s opposition is purely symbolic (the votes simply aren’t there to override a Trump veto on the issue), and

b) on the fights that really do matter, Tillis continues to vote and act in lockstep with Trump.

In other words, any talk of Tillis being some kind of “maverick” is just plain silly.

Take, for example, the critical issue of the ongoing right-wing assault on the federal courts. Just yesterday, Tillis continued his knee-jerk support for Trump’s parade of unqualified ideologues by supporting Allison Rushing of North Carolina, who will join the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This is from a statement issued by the nonpartisan Alliance for Justice on Rushing (a lawyer with only nine years’ experience who once interned for a far right group backing the “recriminalization of homosexuality in the U.S.”):

“In confirming Allison Rushing, the GOP-led Senate is reaffirming that political partisanship matters much more than experience when it comes to judicial nominations under the Trump Administration. Rushing graduated from law school in 2007, so her resume is short — but it’s already packed with the kind of hard-right activities and affiliations that are de rigueur for Trump judicial nominees, including membership in the Federalist Society and work for the Alliance Defending Freedom – an extreme anti-LGBTQ group. Sadly, Rushing now has a lifetime seat on the federal bench, where she could have the opportunity to adjudicate the rights of millions of Americans for four or five decades.”

Right after that, Tillis voted to support Trump’s dreadful nomination of anti-Affordable Care Act crusader, Chad Readler. Again, here’s the Alliance for Justice — this time from a powerful post entitled “Chad Readler’s lack of conscience”:

“In his role at DOJ, Readler filed the government’s brief in the case, in which the Trump Administration argued that key provisions of the ACA were unconstitutional. Tellingly, Readler was then nominated to a highly influential federal judgeship in the Sixth Circuit – on the very same day he filed his brief.

Readler’s decision to file the brief was so striking that three Justice Department lawyers refused to sign it, and a veteran Justice Department lawyer resigned in protest. Chad Readler, in contrast, apparently could sleep at night knowing that if his legal argument was successful, over 50 million Americans, including cancer patients, people with disabilities, and pregnant women, would lose health insurance.

Should we have expected anything different from Readler? The answer, sadly, is no.

Like almost all Trump judicial nominees, Readler has a record of working to undermine constitutional rights and legal protections for all Americans. He has attacked voting rights and rights for women and LGBTQ Americans; worked to eliminate the right to public education in Ohio; defended attacks on immigrants; and sought to weaken protections for workers and consumers.”

And, of course, even as Tillis makes feints designed to win over the national media, he continues to inundate voters back home with pleas for money to help him “stand with President Trump,” fight for “border security” and “keep our country safe.”

The bottom line: Tillis is continuing to do what he’s always done — present himself to the public as a modern, affable and seemingly reasonable conservative while, at the same time, doing virtually everything in his power to advance the agenda of the far right. Let’s hope his constituents catch on soon.

Commentary

National absentee ballot expert: Five things NC needs to fix

Amber McReynolds is executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute, the former election director for Denver, Colo., and was recognized as a “Top Public Official of the Year” by Governing Magazine for her work to reform and improve the voting process. Yesterday, she published an op-ed in the Washington, DC newsletter, The Hill, (“Here’s how North Carolina can prevent election fraud from happening again”) in which she explained what North Carolina needs to do to fix it’s flawed absentee ballot system. Here are her recommendations of the issues that need to be addressed:

Burdensome witness requirements: In virtually every other state, a voter need only sign his or her ballot return envelope. Election officials compare that signature with the official signature on file before validating the ballot. In the West, we use 100 percent signature verification at the elections office, with bipartisan judges and immediate notification with a reasonable timeline to “fix” any questionable signatures.

But in North Carolina, the voter must get the ballot witnessed by two persons, 18 years or older, or by a public notary (NC Gen Stat § 163-231). This undue burden can confuse voters and leave them reliant upon someone else to help. This was the opening exploited by political operatives last fall.

Insufficient drop-off options for voters: If a North Carolina voter has not mailed the absentee ballot back soon enough, state law requires hand delivery to a county election office, which may be many miles away (NC Gen Stat §163-231). And by law, that person must be a close relative.  But for those who have trouble meeting the delivery requirements, or don’t know the rules, it opens a door that others can walk through.

In contrast, in Colorado we supplement returning ballots via the U.S. mail with ample secure drop boxes, available, 24/7 until the official close of voting. In addition, we operate staffed “vote centers” where voters can receive assistance or replace lost ballots. That makes voting by mail convenient throughout the cycle, and keeps the door closed to those who would take advantage of a North Carolina-like model.

Lack of a ballot tracking system: In Western states, voting by mail has been widely used over time and systems are advanced. There are proven tools that provide voters with superb customer service, the ability to track their ballot (as you would a package), and to confirm that it was properly received (examples: Ballot TRACE or Ballot Scout).

Many states and local jurisdictions now utilize ballot tracking that notifies voters by text or email about the status of their ballot, from the time it is mailed to when it has been received by the election official, verified and sent to the counting room. This provides voters and election officials complete visibility of the mail ballot envelope at each step in the process, which is key to deterring and detecting interference. Read more

News

Breaking: State Board of Elections sets dates for new election in 9th congressional district

Pursuant to a newly enacted state law that requires a complete new election in the 9th congressional district now that the State Board of Elections has voided Rev. Mark Harris’ tainted victory last November, the board acted today to set the dates for the new election.

The dates:

March 11: Candidate filing period commences

May 14: Primary election

Sept. 10: General election or runoff, if necessary, for primary

Nov. 5 General election if runoff held on Sept. 10.