Commentary, Defending Democracy

Today’s must read: National courts and law expert on mounting threats to American democracy

Ian Millhiser

While it’s clear that the age of Trump is a profoundly dark period in American history, as a general rule, caring and thinking Americans would do well to steer clear of conspiracy theories and alarmist assessments of where things stand and what lies ahead. After all, the nation has weathered many terrible, even existential, threats during the last 240+ years and will certainly survive the present one.

That said; burying one’s head in the sand is no solution either. The better we appreciate the depths to which the powers-that-be are dragging the nation during the current regressive spasm, the better our chances of fashioning an effective resistance and pulling out of the national nosedive as soon as possible.

With this in mind, today’s “must read” is a brief essay by courts and law expert Ian Millhiser of the Center for American Progress. As Millhiser explains in “American democracy is failing. The courts are finally starting to notice.” the current mess is deep and dangerous:

“There is something profoundly wrong with the United States of America’s system of government.

For proof, briefly take stock of the last ten years in American democracy, in which a combination of factors — the filibuster, the way we draw legislative districts, Senate malapportionment, and the Electoral College — converged to rob American voters of a meaningful ability to choose their own leaders.”

Millhiser then goes on to flesh out this list by reminding us of the details — including the Republican minority’s use of the filibuster to undermine the Obama presidency, the extreme gerrymandering that helped transform Congress and numerous state legislatures (including North Carolina’s) in 2010, and the outrageous blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. As he sums it up:

“The government of the United States no longer derives its powers from the consent of the governed. And by the time voters head to the polls in November to elect a new Congress, America will have existed in this state of profound undemocracy for nearly a decade.”

And while Millhiser sees rays of hope in the growing trend (in the courts and elsewhere) to combat gerrymandering and the move to abolish or render obsolete the Electoral College, he worries that the problems posed by geographic clustering (in which progressives tend to gather in a handful of states and large urban areas) combined with the undemocratic Senate (in which Wyoming gets the same number of votes as California) may be too large to overcome without some important constitutional amendments. Here’s is sobering conclusion: Read more

Commentary

Editorials blast legislature’s sweetheart deal for Duplin County golf community

Rep. Jimmy Dixon

When a conservative majorities seized control of the legislature back in 2011, they came to power under a welcome pledge of promoting transparency and open process. Today, sadly, these pledges ring hollow. If anything, sweetheart deals and special gifts for favored fat cats are just as common as ever.

See for example the recent story by investigative reporter Dan Kane in Raleigh’s News & Observer about how a powerful state lawmaker (Rep. Jimmy Dixon) slipped a special $830,000 appropriation into the state budget last year. The money was to address water and sewer concerns at an exclusive golf community in Duplin County started by the powerful hog farming magnate, Wendell Murphy. This despite the fact that a separate state fund already exists to prioritize and allocate funds to such projects and that the nearest impacted town – Wallace – hadn’t even requested the money. Dixon had also received more than $42,000 in political contributions down through the years from Murphy, his family and employees.

Happily, important voices are now speaking out against the giveaway. Yesterday’s lead editorial in the News & Observer put it this way:

“This kind of special interest legislation may be a tradition in North Carolina – Republicans learned it well from Democrats, true enough – but it’s not healthy and not appropriate. If ever there were a bill aimed at helping out a specific business, it’s this one, and what makes it all the more objectionable is that hog farming made Wendell Murphy a very wealthy man, one who could easily afford to finance a sewer upgrade….

Wendell Murphy has been most generous to his alma mater, N.C. State, and he’s no doubt been generous to worthy causes in his home county. But even though Dixon and others connected to Murphy say the former state senator had nothing to do with getting this appropriation done, Murphy should have stepped in front of this.

Alas, this is old-fashioned, back-scratching politics, practiced at taxpayer expense. And it’s hardly a glorious tradition, now is it?”

And this morning, a critical editorial in the Fayetteville Observer notes that the giveaway comes at the same time that lawmakers have been denying funding to clean up pollution problems impacting large swaths of the state:

“We have no fundamental problem with earmarks. Local lawmakers should be able to recommend and push for funds for the local projects that they know will benefit their own communities. Road construction, school buildings, park acquisitions, museums and other public facilities, even municipal sewer installations — there are long lists of projects that are an appropriate use of taxpayer funding, things that improve the quality of life in our communities. But we’re not at all sure that such prompt, generous funding is appropriate in service to wealthy developers, especially when it doesn’t quite pass the sniff test, given the political donations involved. And it’s especially unfortunate when the General Assembly loads more than $70 million in earmarks into the budget but is refusing to help state agencies combat a bona fide public health and safety emergency in and around the Cape Fear River — or anywhere else in the state, for that matter.

That sends a pretty ugly message.”

Let’s hope the chorus continues to grow.

Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend

There were lots of good ones, but the vote here is for the Saturday entry from the Wilmington Star-News“N.C. Senate drags feet on class-size fix.” As the editorial points out:

“To recap: A few years ago, the General Assembly ordered that class sizes in grades K through 3 be reduced. Not a bad idea.

But the Honorables provided no funding. That means school districts have to scrimp, save and work it out for themselves, with local money.

In New Hanover County, the school system is going to have to hire up to 48 new elementary teachers — and come up with classrooms for them.

Brunswick is adding 32 teachers, setting up trailers and turning computer labs into classrooms. Much of this will be accomplished either by increasing county taxes or by robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Peter, in this case, would be students in grades four and up. Their class sizes are likely to swell, and word has it that many schools will be losing music, art, physical education and technology teachers.

The legislature needs to fix the mess they made, and since the class-size rules take effect in August, it would be nice if they could muster a bit of urgency.”

After noting that the Senate is in no hurry to address the issue, the editorial concludes:

“Of course, this is the same crowd of Republicans who assembled in a matter of days after the Charlotte’s city council passed a non-discrimination ordinance. In a special one-day session, the General Assembly passed the infamous — and completely unenforceable — HB-2, the ‘potty police’ law.

That, apparently, rose to the level of an urgent problem. The welfare of our schoolchildren and stability of our school systems? Not so much….

We wonder how they feel about the Senate’s delay in addressing a problem it helped create? A mess, by the way, that could have — and should have — been cleaned up months ago.

We urge parents and voters to ask them.”

Commentary

Tom Fetzer’s ethics issue helps make clear why he shouldn’t even be on the UNC Board of Governors

Raleigh’s News & Observer reported over the weekend about an ethical issue that’s arisen for former Raleigh mayor and Republican party boss Tom Fetzer in his role as a member of the UNC Board of Governors. It turns out that Fetzer – a member of the board’s hardcore right wing – has been meddling in the issue of the proposed combination of UNC Health Care and Charlotte-based Carolinas HeathCare System after he recused himself because of a conflict of interest. This is from the story in the N&O:

“UNC board member Tom Fetzer, a health care lobbyist, set off the spark Thursday when he questioned the legality of the proposed partnership between UNC Health Care and Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System. Fetzer’s challenge prompted the board’s leaders to advise their colleague to stay out of the matter because he has a conflict of interest.

In a thinly-veiled admonition that Fetzer may have crossed the line, he was asked by email to ‘refrain from engaging in further action related to the UNC Health Care matter’ even as the note acknowledged he had rightly recused himself from the board’s activities on the partnership.

The board will next ask the State Ethics Commission for advice on Fetzer’s ethics conflict.”

It’s hard to see how Fetzer’s behavior could be determined to be anything other than inappropriate by ethics officials (or anyone else paying attention). Earth to Tom Fetzer: “recuse” means to actually remove yourself from the consideration of a matter – not just to do it part of the time or when you feel like it.

But, of course, the very fact that Fetzer is even on the board in the first place ought to have long ago been determined to be inappropriate. Fetzer is big-time lobbyist for a bevy of high-profile clients. He gets paid big bucks to get people like Phil Berger and Tim Moore to help those clients. How can anyone in their right mind believe this fact doesn’t enter into his mental calculus when Berger and/or Moore and other state legislators make plain their desired outcomes on matters involving UNC?

Add to this the fact that the guy is also a lobbyist for, among others, the alcohol and tobacco industries and was a lobbyist in 2017 for what many rightfully consider to be gambling interests (i.e. the fantasy sports industry) and his presence on the UNC Board of Governors is rendered all the more inappropriate.

Let’s hope state ethics officials promptly inform Fetzer that he’s way out of line and that the whole experience causes a general reconsideration by all involved about any official involvement on Fetzer’s part with the university system or any other public body.

Commentary

National think tank: Why Raleigh should be among top five Amazon finalists

Image: City of Raleigh

There are lots of legitimate concerns about Raleigh’s efforts to woo a massive new 50,000 employee Amazon headquarters — the city and state’s already stretched and under-resourced infrastructure, the threat of more urban sprawl, and the costly incentives package that’s apparently being offered by state and local officials, to name three.

That said, it would appear that some people in the know think Raleigh is (or, at least, ought to be) a truly serious contender. In an article entitled “Here’s what happens when inclusion is factored into Amazon’s list of 20 HQ2 city finalists,” Raleigh makes the top five of the Brookings Institution, a venerable national think tank. This is from the article:

What good are the 50,000 new jobs the HQ2 is proposed to bring if the current population can’t access or benefit from them?

Whether or not Amazon can bring value to a city is really predicated on how much it contributes to and accelerates that place’s inclusivity—defined as how growth is distributed among different types of individuals. Bezos has an opportunity to provide a vision for an America that citizens and residents desperately need in this moment of political unrest, racial division, and global discord. Put simply, Bezos can bring disparate people together through work. Building off the strength that American cities’ diversity offer will give Bezos the moonshot and landing he sought through the competition. And if he is to build from the current diversity that the list* of 20 finalist cities has to offer, and indicate a serious focus on advancing inclusion, the list should be further winnowed down to these five cities (in no particular order):

  • Austin, TX
  • Raleigh, NC
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Nashville, TN
  • Denver, CO

We based this chart below on the numerical diversity among the finalists, as well as how well these cities maximize their diversity based on a measure of inclusion. Population and unemployment data were used alongside more robust measures of inclusion. Through its Metro Monitor analysis, the Brookings Institution tracks the economic performance of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas along three dimensions: growth, prosperity, and inclusion. It ranks cities partially from its inclusion indicators, which were employed for this exercise. Inclusion indicators measure how the benefits of growth and prosperity in a metropolitan economy—specifically, changes in employment and income—are distributed among individuals.

Click here to check out the chart and rest of the article.