Commentary, News

GOP fiddles while Trump shutdown mess grows more dire by the day

In case you missed it, be sure to check out a story posted Wednesday at NC Health News by former Policy Watch investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska. In “Federal shutdown starting to leave mark in NC,” Ovaska details the growing crisis that Donald Trump’s border wall shutdown is is causing for average people in North Carolina like U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Rochelle Poe. Here’s an excerpt:

Four weeks into the federal government shutdown, Rochelle Poe is distraught, unable to pay the January rent for her Raleigh townhome and facing possible eviction.

Poe, a 20-year employee and mortgage underwriter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the threat of eviction over her $1,092 overdue rent has made it difficult to sleep or eat. She’s tried selling belongings, taking purses to a consignment shop and listing a new TV on Facebook’s Marketplace. Friends have chipped in money for groceries and gas.

“We want to go back work,” Poe said, about herself and fellow federal workers. “We’re not looking for a handout or anything, we just want to go back to our jobs so we can pay our bills.”

Also frustrating, she said, is a lack of collective anger from the public over the shutdown, with a fraction of the nation’s workforce affected.

“There’s no real outrage about the fact that we are going without,” Poe said.

Word came Wednesday, the same day her landlord said eviction proceedings would start, that a friend could loan Poe the rent money. It brought obvious relief but still leaves Poe with little to live on while she waits to find out when she can start working again.

“I was able to sleep last night for the first time in weeks,” Poe said.

Ovaska’s story goes on to detail several other troubling shutdown-related developments, including in the vital areas of housing and hunger assistance for people in need. The story notes that Orange County officials have started to advise potential new applicants for SNAP food assistance benefits that they likely will not be able to sign up as a result of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to do nothing to address the growing crisis. Indeed, as Think Progress journalist Amanda Michelle Gomez reported yesterday, McConnell has instead decided to devote the Senate’s attention to things like the consideration of destructive and impossible-to-pass anti-abortion legislation.

In the midst of the longest-ever government shutdown in U.S. history, Senate Republicans have instead decided to consider a bill on Thursday to codify existing restrictions that make it harder for low-income people to get abortions…. Read more

Commentary, Environment, News

Editorial: It’s past time for North Carolina lawmakers to embrace clean energy

An insightful new editorial from Capitol Broadcasting Corporation says North Carolina lawmakers should take heed of the growing demand for a state-mandated rebate program for solar power users.

The piece examines how the program’s popularity among consumers — Duke Energy received 2,000 applications over a two-day period this month — far exceeds the number of rebates that are available.

Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg has documented legislators’ reluctance to embrace clean energy programs, as well as the messy clean-up associated with the state’s not-so-clean energy production.

Now, quite clearly, it’s time for state policymakers to approach clean energy with the same excitement as North Carolina businesses and residents.

Read the editorial below:

In just two days earlier this month Duke Energy received about 2,000 applications for a share of $10 million in rebates to North Carolina homeowners, businesses and non-profits to install rooftop solar power panels.

That was way more applicants than money – about $10 million – available.

In the second year, of a five-year, $62-million state-mandated program, the company expects to distribute more than 1,700 rebates. The program opened Jan. 2.By the end of the week the program was sold out…  Last year, the first year of the program, it awarded about $8.5 million – more than 90 percent of the 1,700 rebates to homeowners.

What’s the impact of the program? A year ago, there were 5,700 Duke rooftop solar customers. Today there are more than 9,000 – a nearly 60 percent increase. “Our rebates are driving solar adoption in the state,” said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.

The rebates are significant – up to $6,000 for homeowners, $50,000 for businesses and $75,000 for non-profits such as faith-based facilities. The rebates are in addition to a federal tax credit of 30 percent (which drops to 26 percent in 2020).

This program is a win all around. Electric power is generated without nuclear or fossil fuels. Consumers and the company avoid significant costs for both the fuel burned and the proper storage or disposal of the waste generated. No dealing with radioactive trash or toxic coal ash.

Consumers both get a break on the cost of installing the solar panels and on their utility bill. Duke Energy increases its generating capacity without the significant investment of building new power plants.

Public officials along with public and private energy generators and distributors should take notice and look for appropriate ways to encourage expanded residential use of renewable energy. Gov. Roy Cooper has noticed and has been leading efforts to grow the clean energy economy.

Our legislative leaders have been out of step with both North Carolinians desires and our neighboring states energy policies. Virginia and South Carolina have looked to expand opportunities for solar capacity and offshore wind energy development while appropriately remaining highly skeptical at efforts to make our coastal waters open to fossil fuel exploration and development.

North Carolina’s legislators have passed laws making it more difficult to deploy offshore wind energy – even though studies have shown the state has one of the best resources for it on the east coast. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has designated two areas off the state’s coast appropriate for wind energy development.

These solar rebates were gone in a flash. It should be a bright signal to North Carolina policy makers. It is past time to expand opportunities to embrace renewable energy and put the state back on the road to national leadership in growing its clean energy economy.

Commentary

Civil rights groups to tech giants: Don’t sell face surveillance to the government

In case you missed it yesterday, the ACLU issued a demand to Microsoft, Amazon and Google yesterday that the companies not sell face surveillance technology to the government.

This is from the release that accompanied the demand:

A coalition of over 85 racial justice, faith, and civil, human, and immigrants’ rights groups today sent letters to Microsoft, Amazon, and Google demanding the companies commit not to sell face surveillance technology to the government.

The coalition makes it clear to each company that a decision to provide face surveillance technology to the government threatens the safety of community members and will also undermine public trust in its business.

“Companies can’t continue to pretend that the ‘break then fix’ approach works,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties director for the ACLU of California. “History has clearly taught us that the government will exploit technologies like face surveillance to target communities of color, religious minorities, and immigrants. We are at a crossroads with face surveillance, and the choices made by these companies now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest, going to their place of worship, or simply living their lives.”

The coalition also notes in its letters that face surveillance “gives the government new power to target and single out immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color in our communities” and that “systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias.” Acknowledging both employee and shareholder calls for corporate change, the coalition reiterates that it is time for these companies to take responsibility for the impact of their technology on the privacy and safety of communities and commit not to sell face surveillance to the government….

The letters come as executives from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all spoken publicly about facial recognition technology, revealing an industry at odds on how to respond to concerns raised about government use of such technology. Read more

Commentary

Editorial: Did Richard Burr campaign violate federal law?

Sen. Richard Burr

In case you missed it, be sure to check out a new editorial posted in the Charlotte Observer entitled “Burr, NRA appear to be even tighter than we thought.” In it, the authors explore the evidence of illegal coordination between Richard Burr’s 2016 reelection campaign and the National Rifle Association.

This is from the editorial:

We already knew North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Richard Burr, was awash in NRA cash. We already knew the pro-gun group spent $5.6 million in 2016 against his Democratic opponent, Deborah Ross — twice as much as it spent on any other House or Senate candidate.

But only now do we know that Burr and the National Rifle Association may have broken the law by coordinating their advertising campaigns. Documents from the Federal Communications Commission show that the NRA’s ads in Burr’s race were authorized by the same media consultant working for Burr’s campaign, Mother Jones and The Trace reported on Friday.

That would appear to break federal law that requires candidates and outside groups to be independent of each other. Outside groups can make “independent expenditures” on so-called “issue ads,” which typically back or attack one candidate or the other. But the spending can’t be coordinated with an individual’s campaign. That law is designed in part to keep advocacy groups from exceeding contribution limits to individual candidates.

In a series of TV ads in 2016, the NRA attacked Ross for her record as a state legislator on gun control, saying she voted against gun rights and “personal liberty.” It was part of an avalanche of outside money dumped into the swing-state race with control of the U.S. Senate at stake.

Mother Jones and The Trace report that Jon Ferrell, CFO of a company called National Media Research, Planning and Placement, authorized ad purchases both for Burr’s campaign and for NRA ads in Burr’s race. He placed some TV ads in the closing weeks of the campaign as an “agent for Richard Burr Committee” and others at around the same time for the NRA against Ross. Mother Jones found similar activity in 2018 Senate races in Missouri and Montana.

Campaigns and outside groups can hire the same vendors but those vendors must have strict firewalls to prevent collaboration. A Burr campaign official suggested to the Observer editorial board that such a firewall was in place. But it’s hard to see how that’s so since Ferrell was involved with both sets of ads.

The editorial concludes by calling on the Federal Elections Commission, which has a record of being pretty slack in its enforcement of the coordination ban, to get moving and enforce it strictly in 2020 — especially given the flood of cash the NRA seems likely to dump on Thom Tillis’ campaign.
Commentary, Education

Senator Berger’s signature education program continues to fail

In October, researchers from NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation helped to confirm what many educational advocates have long claimed: North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program is a failure. This week’s State Board of Education meeting included a presentation on the evaluation, which served as an important wake-up call to North Carolina’s policymakers. However the evaluation – while rigorous and well-written – leaves many important questions unanswered.

The Read to Achieve program, created by the 2012 budget bill, is an effort to improve early-grades’ reading proficiency by refusing to promote students who fail the state’s third grade reading test. Read to Achieve was based on a similar initiative from Florida and was championed by Senator Phil Berger.

While Florida’s program coincided with improved test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there was little indication that improved scores were driven by forcing struggling young readers to repeat third grade. After all, Florida coupled its third grade retention policy with large investments in interventions to help students become better readers, such as increasing instructional time, hiring reading coaches and intervention teachers, purchasing new instructional materials, investing in teacher professional development, and offering summer reading camps to struggling young readers. In fact, a recent study found Florida’s retention policy had no impact on improving the high school graduation rates of retained students.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program took a sharply different approach, attempting to replicate Florida’s apparent success without providing any interventions to help children pass their third grade reading test. North Carolina only invested in diagnostic reading tests to help teachers identify struggling readers and summer reading camps for third graders who had already failed the state reading exam and were facing the possibility of repeating the grade. Districts were required to provide additional tutoring and instruction for failing students, but did not receive additional funding to carry out these mandates.

The Friday Institute evaluation focuses on the narrow question of whether the eligibility for additional reading help (i.e., summer reading camps, additional reading instruction) improved future reading scores for students who just barely failed their third grade reading test. Their research concludes that these interventions have provided no measurable benefit to struggling readers.

These findings are important, as they can help the state reassess and modify the supports provided to struggling readers.

However, the assessment fails to answer the question that I think most North Carolinians want to better understand: why has third grade reading performance plummeted? Since the adoption of the Read to Achieve program, North Carolina’s third grade reading performance has fallen precipitously, more than any other state test.

Are declining third-grade reading scores the product of over-stressing 8 and 9-year olds by telling them they’ll be held back if they fail? Is it because incessant testing kills kids’ (and teachers’) love of reading? Is it because these cohorts have experienced slashed funding for NC Pre-K and other classroom supports?

Regardless, the plummeting test scores and the evaluation paint a damning picture of Senator Berger’s signature education initiative. We already know the program is failing to boost reading achievement. Overall performance continues to drop. And we now know via this latest evaluation that the limited assistance provided to struggling readers has been insufficient to boost their scores. It’s clear that Read to Achieve has been a profound failure and should be abandoned.