Commentary

Two fine essays sum up the dreadful state of affairs at the General Assembly

In case you missed them, a pair of fine essays — one a weekend Charlotte Observer/News & Observer editorial and the other an op-ed by UNC law professor Gene Nichol that was featured in this morning’s N&O — do a great job of capturing the toxic essence of the 2019 General Assembly.

After pointing out the destructive folly of Trump’s giveaway to corporate America at the national level, the two McClatchy editorial boards put it this way in “The verdict is in on NC tax cuts. They’re not working.”:

This umpteenth example of the false promise of trickle-down economics raises anew questions about North Carolina’s aggressive cutting of corporate taxes. The Republican-led General Assembly started phasing in tax cuts in 2013 that now cost about $3.6 billion a year in lost revenue. The estate tax was eliminated and the progressive income tax was reduced to a flat tax, but the most dramatic cut was a reduction in the corporate tax rate. Since 2013 it has been reduced from a high of 6.9 percent — then the highest in the Southeast — to 2.5 percent today. Among 44 states that have a corporate tax, North Carolina’s is the lowest.

What has been the effect? State employees, teachers and state services have certainly felt the reduction in state revenue. But the boom that was supposed to come with making the state more “business friendly” hasn’t happened. The economy has grown as the state’s population has increased and the national economic recovery has lifted all states, but North Carolina’s mix of tax cuts and spending austerity has produced more pain than gain.

Michael Mazerov, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute based in Washington, D.C., analyzed data for North Carolina’s job growth and overall economic growth since passage of the tax cuts. His conclusion: “Looking back to when (the cuts) started at the end of 2013, the state has underperformed most of its neighbors in terms of overall economic growth as measured by GDP.”

“…The bottom line is that North Carolina, like Kansas before it, has shown that cutting taxes does not have much, if any, positive impact on job creation,” Mazerov said.

Gene Nichol

Jeff Jackson

Nichol’s essay (“The arrogance of abusive power in NC”) is an indictment of the abusive behavior that Republican leaders have made their trademark in running state government in recent years. In it, he lauds the recent speech of Democratic state senator Jeff Jackson, who challenged Republicans to have an “up or down” vote on a budget veto override and who was then responded to with churlish — even juvenile — behavior from his GOP colleagues in the Senate. Here’s the conclusion:

“Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Randolph County then rose, with a sneer on his face, asking “for a moment of personal privilege.” Facing Jackson, Tillman said:

“I might expect some criticism about calling the vote from many people. But you’d be the last one to advise me on that. I don’t believe we need your advice on when to call the vote. We’ll call the vote at the right time. I hope you’ll miss it. But nevertheless we’ll call it.”

When Tillman said “I hope you’ll miss it” the Republican senators erupted in derisive laughter. Jackson stood tall. The Republicans oozed slime. Sen. Berger deemed Jackson’s opposition to vote manipulation “infantile.” Watch the tape. Decide which camp disgusts.

It might be helpful to recall that this Republican General Assembly has repeatedly been found by every kind of court in the land – federal, state, trial, appellate, Republican, Democrat and bi-partisan – to have boldly and deliberately abused its power and prerogative. Judges have consistently determined that Republican leaders have lied about proffered justifications for their constitutionally violative schemes. On the House side, they misled and cheated their Democratic colleagues to get an override vote. And both chambers have forced Tar Heel taxpayers to pay millions of dollars to defend their illicit ventures in federal and state tribunals. Yet they remain, apparently, unchastened.

Tillman’s profane arrogance is, of course, his own. His leader, and his Republican colleagues, no doubt, enjoyed sharing the fun. But this dishonorable train wreck demeans us all, not just the Republican senators who demonstrated how despicable they can be.

We can’t allow the nation to believe, one minute longer, that this represents North Carolina.”

Commentary

Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Trump hates dogs

And then there were… I dunno, 15, 18?

Lapsed lanky frat boy Beto O’ Rourke, he of the earnest f-bombs and ubiquitous rolled-up shirt sleeves (ready to work for you!) has dropped out of the prez race.

As Trump gleefully described it, “he dropped out like a dog.”

Yes, because that’s what dogs do in Trumpland. You fetch, roll over for a vigorous tummy rub, do something unspeakable to a table leg and finally decide you don’t have enough money to run for president.

This was just the most recent in a barrage of anti-dog rhetoric employed by the president. Like “nasty” as his go-to playground insult for women he finds threatening, “like a dog” is frequently hauled out for the gents.

And so, naturally, when mega-terrorist and bonsai aficionado Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed last week, he “died like a dog,” according to Trump.

What does he mean by that? Did Baghdadi eat a bad sock? The obsession with condemning behavior as “like a dog,” goes back to the days when Trump was just a wee huckster on a reality TV show, according to “Slate.”

When a candidate for the coveted role of “The Apprentice” failed to make the grade, he or she was “fired like a dog.” Which, as “Vanity Fair” recently speculated begs the question if Trump understands what dogs actually do.

In other words, most don’t technically work, so it’s not like they can ever be “fired.” Sure, you can—and should– say “bad dog!’ or similar when bowser eats his own poo or similar but you’re not going to say, “You’re fired! Good luck living off your 401k Mr. Skittles!”

Only a few truly working dogs—vested as it were—actually go about the laudable business of leading their sight-impaired owners through city streets or their brain-impaired owners through the aisles of Home Depot, a store so relentlessly dog friendly I wouldn’t be surprised to see them set up dog-rental kiosks at the entrance right beside the shopping carts. How is the average American consumer expected to shop for solar lights and elongated toilet seats without a dog? Seriously, I want to know.

The truth is, Trump has always used dogs to illustrate the lowest of the low in behavior and performance. It’s his ultimate mic drop slam. Repeatedly, he has trotted out descriptions of so-and-so begging for money “like a dog.”

Yeah, right. I was just talking to my neighbor who has three dogs the other day and he said, “They line up every morning, paws outstretched, beggin’ for some Benjamins. What do they do with all that money? No clue.”

But the question remains, why bash dogs’ character? What did a dog ever do to Trump? Is it because they embody all the qualities he lacks? Loyalty, obedience, a glossy coat?

We’ll probably never know. I blame that old bug-a-boo “limited vocabulary and 3rd grade reading level.” To be fair, Beto’s frequent cussing inspired the same criticism.

Potty language all the time, like a dog.

Celia Rivenbark is a New York Times bestselling author and columnist. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com.

Commentary

Congressman Dan Bishop should be held to account for his shameful and possibly illegal act

The behavior of President Trump’s Republican defenders in Congress is beginning to resemble less and less that of a legitimate political party and more what one would expect from of a group of juvenile gang members egging each other on to more and more outrageous acts. The latest disgraceful example comes courtesy of newbie North Carolina congressman, Dan Bishop (pictured at left).

As Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer reported yesterday evening:

U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop apparently became the first member of Congress to divulge the purported name of the whistleblower whose memo sparked the House impeachment inquiry.

The Charlotte Republican published the name in a Monday tweet.

Bishop was responding to a tweet from someone who said Republicans should refer to the person as “the leaker” or “the deep state spy in the White House.”

“100%. I refuse to cower before the authoritarian intimidation campaign. He’s not Voldemort,” Bishop replied, alluding to the Harry Potter villain who’s rarely named. “And he’s not a bona fide whistleblower. Even if he were, he wouldn’t be entitled to secrecy.”

He went on to tweet the name of a person he called “a deep state conspirator.”

Make no mistake: this is a serious and dangerous act on Bishop’s part. The whistleblower in question has already received multiple death threats. What’s more, Bishop’s action quite arguably violates federal law. As the website Charlotte Stories reported yesterday:

If the name Bishop tweeted out is determined to be the actual name of the whistleblower, there’s a chance he could be found guilty of violating one or more of the following:

  • A 1982 amendment to the National Security Act of 1947 that makes it a crime to intentionally disclose “any information identifying” a covert intelligence agent.
  • Section 1505 of the US Obstruction of Justice code, which makes it a crime if someone “corruptly, or by threats or force … influences, obstructs, or impedes … the due and proper administration of the law.”
  • Section 1513 of the US Obstruction of Justice code, which makes it a crime to retaliate against someone “for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any Federal offense.”

Federal law protecting whistleblowers is a vital bipartisan statutory scheme that goes to the very essence of a functioning democracy. By blatantly and shamefully violating such a law, Bishop is undermining the very legitimacy of American government and abetting the cause of lawless despotism.

Commentary, Trump Administration

Mark Meadows’ predictably dishonest response to impeachment hearings

It’s increasingly remarkable (and a testament to the troubled state of American politics) that supposedly intelligent and responsible people can continue to hear the details of the remarkable behavior of President Trump and his minions in the Ukraine scandal and still profess to think that there’s no “there” there. Take North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows.

As USA Today reported yesterday, Meadows (pictured at left) was his usual irresponsible and unpatriotic self in attempting to defend Trump:

After hearing for hours from Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of State, Rep. Mark Meadows, one of President Donald Trump’s fiercest defenders on Capitol Hill, left the hearing to do damage control.

The North Carolina Republican dismissed a new revelation by Taylor, that one of his staff members overheard the president ask specifically about investigations in Ukraine, and called the hours of public testimony boring….

“There’s nothing here. I mean, I can tell you in the room…more yawning going on than there is aha moments and I can tell you for a lot of us, we were probably checking our Twitter feed more than we were paying attention to some of the testimony,” Meadows said.

Think about that for a moment. Faced with the solemn duty of examining whether the president of the United States engaged in illegal, even quasi-treasonous behavior in selling out the country and its foreign policy objectives for personal gain, Meadows — a man sworn to uphold the Constitution — claimed he didn’t even pay attention to the proceedings.

It was stunning and embarrassing statement.

Of course, it’s also almost assuredly untrue. Meadows and his people were listening carefully. Had anything specific emerged from the hearings that would have genuinely tended to exonerate Trump or undermine any of the witnesses, you can be sure Meadows would have been all over it.

The problem for Meadows and his allies is that the witnesses were extremely powerful and credible. As the astute Charles Pierce accurately observed:

Make no mistake. If the hearings on Tuesday were a criminal trial, the jury wouldn’t have been out long enough to order lunch. The President* of the United States ran a cheap-assed, third-rate shakedown of the new president of an embattled ally for the purpose of enlisting the new president of the embattled ally in the ratfcking of the 2020 election. Both of those are crimes. Putting them together is a third crime.

Left with no facts or law to pound on, Meadows was thus reduced to pounding on the table and appealing to the worst instincts of his misguided far right followers by, in effect, urging them to tune out the impeachment hearings altogether.

Unfortunately for Meadows and Trump, the segment of Americans willing to fall for his “nothing-to-see-here” shtick is declining rapidly.

Commentary

Rogue state superintendent keeps breaking the law

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

The state schools superintendent keeps breaking the law. Strangely, nobody at the General Assembly seems to care. Similarly, the capital press corps has shown no interest in holding his rogue actions to account.

Johnson’s lawbreaking centers around two rounds of iPad purchases, neither of which were conducted in accordance with state law.

Johnson’s spending spree on iPads first became news in August 2018 when he announced a $6.6 million purchase of iPads to support early grade literacy. That sounded like good news. But as Policy Watch’s Billy Ball reported, the purchase was highly unethical. The purchase came on the heels of Johnson attending an Apple-funded junket to California where he was wined and dined by Apple executives. Additionally, the no-bid contract for 24,000 iPads violated state protocol by failing to get approval from the Department of Information Technology, the agency that oversees tech services for state agencies.

But what went mostly unreported was that Johnson had no authority to spend the money he used to purchase those iPads. State law – put into place at Johnson’s request – clearly states that the money was to be distributed to school districts so that they could make purchases that best meet their needs.

Section 2.6 of S.L. 2017-197, the 2017 Budget Technical Corrections bill, says that unspent funds from the Read to Achieve program were to be distributed to school districts (“shall be allotted to local school administrative units”). In an August appearance on WRAL’s “On the Record,” Johnson claimed this provision is what gave him the authority to purchase iPads on his own and give them to districts.

At the time of Johnson’s first round of iPad purchases, the state had already provided districts with the devices necessary to carry out Read to Achieve. Despite the lack of a pressing need, most districts decided to keep the iPads sent to them. But about 10 percent of the iPads were returned to the state, where they sat in a warehouse for over a year.

One year later, Johnson decided to break the law again to buy even more iPads. After all, what’s the best way to respond to charges of quid pro quo? Even more quo, clearly.

This time, Johnson used a different source of funds to buy even more products from the company who paid for his trip to Cupertino. At the end of the 18-19 fiscal year, there was money left over from funds appropriated to support the Department of Public Instruction, a state agency. Johnson used these funds to buy 800 additional iPads. Based on nothing more but Johnson’s whim, 200 of the iPads were sent to Ocracoke School, and 100 were sent to Junius H. Rose High School in Greenville.

One problem: it’s illegal for agency heads to simply give away state property.

Article 3A of G.S. 143 requires any excess state-owned surplus property to be distributed via the State Surplus Property Agency. That agency can then sell the property or determine ways to distribute the property to tax-supported or nonprofit tax-exempt organizations. The iPads in question were clearly state-owned, as they were bought by a state agency with state funds. And they were clearly surplus, as they weren’t needed by anyone at DPI. Distribution of these iPads at the whim of a state agency head clearly falls in violation of these laws.

This might just sound like me dinging a guy for failing to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. But the laws are in place for a reason. Imagine a different scenario in whcih Johnson was giving away cash instead of iPads. Imagine if the teachers receiving these iPads were political supporters or were personal friends of the Superintendent. What if he unilaterally decided that funds appropriated to support children with disabilities would be better used on more iPads? There are many reasons why agency heads are prevented from doing what Johnson did: redirecting state funds meant for school districts and distributing state property to others based on nothing but personal whim.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be held accountable for breaking the law twice to purchase and distribute iPads that nobody asked for, or if he will continue to break multiple state laws without consequence.