Commentary, Legislature, News, Trump Administration

Trump administration cracks down on food stamps; new rule expected to deny assistance to 700,000 people

Beware the moments when no one is focusing on Trump administration policy, because it is usually these times when the cruelty-mongers in D.C. unfurl their most aggressively hostile regulations.

Case in point: President Trump on Wednesday unrolled a widely-expected crackdown on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program —colloquially known as “food stamps.” The new rules are expected to deny assistance to an estimated 700,000 low-income Americans.

Here is the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ (CBPP) explanation of the rule:

Those affected — SNAP participants ages 18 through 49 who aren’t raising minor children in their homes — are among the poorest of the poor, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data. Their average income is just 18 percent of the poverty line. Their average monthly SNAP benefits are about $165 per month.

A longstanding, harsh provision of SNAP limits these 18- through 49-year-olds to just three months of benefits, while not employed for at least 20 hours a week, out of every three years. Because of its severe nature, this provision of law also allows states to seek, and USDA to grant, waivers of this three-month cut-off for areas where insufficient jobs are available for these individuals, such as when unemployment is elevated.

From the provision’s enactment in 1996 until now, both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have operated under a common set of criteria in granting waivers from the three-month cut-off. And Democratic and Republican governors alike have sought and secured these waivers. Thirty-six states currently have waivers for parts of their state where unemployment is highest.

Now, the Trump Administration is abandoning this longstanding, bipartisan practice, however, and replacing it with a much more restrictive rule that will increase hunger and destitution. The new rule sharply restricts states’ ability to protect unemployed adults from the harsh time limit. It does so by substantially narrowing the criteria that states have most commonly used to qualify for waivers, thereby greatly shrinking the number of areas that can qualify for relief. As a result, the Trump Administration itself estimates that the rule will cut off basic food aid to nearly 700,000 unemployed or underemployed individuals.

In keeping with their brand, The National Review called the rule “commonsensical” Wednesday, which has the flamboyant quality of being an ugly word and an ugly statement at the same time. It makes sense only if withdrawing aid to the very poor and masking your choice as “the shrewd thing to do” constitutes a party platform.

It makes sense only if you believe that it is an aid to the United States to have more extremely poor people — people disproportionately impacted when the next recession hits.

More from CBPP:

Most of these individuals are ineligible for any other form of government financial assistance because they aren’t elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children. For many of them, SNAP is the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet.

What’s more, the final rule is more severe than the proposed rule, which itself was very harsh. States currently can request waivers when they experience rapidly rising unemployment, as typically occurs at the onset of economic downturns based on the Department of Labor’s determination that the state qualifies for extra federal unemployment benefits. But under the final rule, states must rely on historical data that would not reflect the onset of economic downturns until many months later. Moreover, far fewer areas will qualify for waivers during a widespread, national recession. A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP — its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance. Instead of mitigating a recession’s harm, the new rule will exacerbate it.

Democrats in North Carolina’s state legislature filed a bill this year that, among its provisions, aimed at repealing the state’s prohibition on the SNAP time-limit waiver, but it did not resonate with the Republican-controlled chambers. The bill was referred to a House rules committee but did not move.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline investigation: Much ado about … something?

The General Assembly’s hired investigators. (Photo: WRAL livestream)

There are too many reasons to mention why we should be skeptical of the N.C. General Assembly’s keen interest in Gov. Roy Cooper’s handling of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline permitting.

Republican lawmakers went full Barnum & Bailey last year when they attempted to extract pipeline details from Lee Lilley, Cooper’s newly-named director of legislative affairs, during a budget committee meeting. Indeed, legislators in the GOP caucus had, clearly, been watching too many episodes of Perry Mason.

And be sure that our party-obsessed Republican leadership considered political affiliation when they hired Wilmington-based Eagle Intel last year to conduct the probe at a cost of about $83,000 in public money. As Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg wrote last December, two are registered Republicans. The third is unaffiliated.

That said, there are key questions asked here about how controversial — and yes, highly political — projects are permitted. We should be asking how such projects are arrived at in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Are political and economic concerns relevant in such permits? If so, how are they measured against the pressing environmental concerns that should be paramount to the officials in Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality?

According to the General Assembly’s investigators, based on communications between Duke Energy officials, “it would be reasonable to conclude that Governor Cooper improperly used the authority and influence of his Office” to coerce the pipeline’s owners into a $57.8 million mitigation fund, although they do not offer any conclusive evidence of that nature.

Duke Energy denies it, and so does the governor’s office. And here’s this important kernel from Sorg’s story this morning:

As Policy Watch reported this year, the governor’s office and DEQ did coordinate on the timing of their respective announcements, based on communication in public records. But there is no proof in the public record that the permit approval hinged on the fund.

It is a striking coincidence that Republicans in Raleigh are searching desperately for evidence of “quid pro quo” but their counterparts in Washington, D.C., haven’t a passing interest in uncovering such a thing.

Later in their conclusions, the investigators wrote that “the information suggests that criminal violations may have occurred.” But after tossing that bombshell, they acknowledged Wednesday they had not reviewed state and federal statutes because their investigation was convened to consider civil matters.

Gov. Roy Cooper

According to WRAL, they arrived at that conclusion “based on the inconsistencies they found in people’s statements and actions, which in their experience as federal agents suggests wrongdoing.”

All due respect to their experience, but such a statement seems ill-conceived or partisan in intent unless there is something to back up that assertion.

It is the sort of thing that, without evidence, seems engineered to be a pull-quote in a campaign ad because it is rendered in an “official” report.

Are we really to proceed with such a Molotov cocktail of a conclusion based on what can be accurately described as a hunch?

That, frankly, will not do.

This whole affair is much ado about something. But it is stunning how little we can conclude about that “something” after this 82-page report.

Commentary, Education, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

N.C. GOP official disputes account of suffering teacher, gets dunked on by Rep. Deb Butler

Rep. Deb Butler

(Note: This post originally published Wednesday morning on the “Notes from the Chalkboard” blog, which is maintained by Charlotte teacher and K-12 activist Justin Parmenter.)

After the N.C. Republican Party Communications Director questioned the veracity of her account of a public school teacher not having enough money for food and gas, Representative Deb “I Will Not Yield” Butler responded to his public records request by publishing the teacher’s entire heartbreaking email on Twitter.

Tuesday evening, Brunswick/New Hanover County Representative Deb Butler posted the following tweet:

Shortly after her tweet, Butler’s legislative assistant Tayler Williams received an email from North Carolina Republican Party Communications Director Jeff Hauser.  Hauser was making a formal records request that Butler turn over the email she claimed to have received from the teacher.

That’s right.  The N.C. GOP didn’t believe a North Carolina teacher could be struggling to this degree.

In response to the request, Butler asked the teacher for permission to publish the email in its entirety and posted it on Twitter just an hour after Hauser asked for it.

You can read the gut-wrenching account of this Brunswick County teacher’s financial struggles in its entirety below:

…a local teacher here in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  I wanted to express my concern and frustration over the requirements and qualifications required for any form of public assistance.  I realize that there are large amounts of families that are in tight financial situations but I am having difficulty with the fact that as a state employee who works extremely hard every day and I am not able to receive help.  I am a single mom with zero support from my child’s father. He has been unable to be located and works under the table so I cannot track his employment. I have been denied any form of help, from Medicaid for my daughter to food stamps and childcare vouchers.  I understand that I am employed and I am thankful for this every day but when I submit my information to try to get any assistance, I am denied because my Gross amount of pay is utilized, rather than my take home pay. According to my paycheck, I make $4,840 a month.  This is not accurate. I have to take into consideration that I only get paid 10 times a year and therefore I have set up at Summer Cash account through SECU to help save money for the months I am not paid in the Summer. I take out $600 from each paycheck for that amount which leaves me with $4,240.  I also have supplemental insurances to help cover emergencies since I am the only income for my family. This costs $440.32 a month. I am now at $3,799 a month. Then I have to take into account that I have state, federal, retirement, social security, and medicare taken from my paycheck for the amount of $1,070.89.  I am now bringing home $2,728.79. With my take home pay, I have monthly bills that I have to pay. I pay $975 a month in rent, $130 in utilities, my phone bill is $143, car insurance is $100, insurance for my daughters health and dental is $84. I have student loan payments at $336 a month. I have personal loan payments each month from trying to cover months that I was extremely in debt.  These total $393. I have to pay day care each week at $90 a week so on average that is $405. I am at $162.79 left. I also have credit card payments each month that cost $156.00. I have $6.79 left in my bank account to now cover gas, groceries, and miscellaneous items that always arise. I am currently in debt from not being able to pay all of my bills each month. I am $504 in debt to one student loan company and $672 to another.  My bank account currently sits at $0.64. I have another week before payday.

If you would so willing to help explain to me what I can do about this I would greatly appreciate it.  I am trying extremely hard each month to make it day to day. I often go without food in order to make sure that my daughter is provided for.  I depend on the charity of friends to help cook me dinner with leftovers since they know how hard I am struggling. I have sold off everything I can in my household to try to supplement my income and I try to pick up babysitting jobs or tutoring to make ends meet.  I am asking for your help as my local representative with this. I know I am not the only teacher in this situation. I realize that some strides are being taken to help with teacher pay but I need help now. If I would be able to get any kind of assistance I would be more than grateful.

It’s hard to imagine being less in tune to the realities of life for a North Carolina public school teacher than the Republican Party is right now.  Earlier this month our General Assembly passed a bill which was inaccurately titled the “Strengthening Educators’ Pay Act.” The legislation would have given teachers in years 0-15 no raise at all for the next two years and approximately $50 a month more to the majority of experienced teachers at 16 years and up.

That bill was so insulting to North Carolina’s educators, especially when paired with the massive corporate tax cut passed around the same time, that Governor Cooper vetoed it and asked the legislature to do better.  Cooper even offered to negotiate salary increases for educators independent of the Medicaid expansion issue, which has been at the heart of our four month budget impasse. The General Assembly responded by adjourning until mid-January.

When North Carolina teachers have to go hungry in order to provide for their children, you know the problem has gotten really bad. When a high-ranking representative of the majority party refuses to accept that reality, it’s clear that relying on our state legislature to step up and do the right thing is probably not realistic.  It’s an incredibly sad state of affairs.

At this point all we can really do is hope that better days lie ahead.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Legislature

Editorial: Judges should toss the legislature’s gerrymandered Congressional maps again

Sen. Jerry Tillman

No one will ever confuse our state legislators with cat burglars.

Indeed, as a McClatchy editorial pointed out Tuesday, the N.C. General Assembly’s continued abuse of the map-making process is as obvious as the sun in the sky. The key, of course, is whether the courts see it as such.

Here’s hoping judges were listening when longtime GOP Sen. Jerry Tillman blurted out that the new Congressional maps authored by state lawmakers is, of course, another partisan gerrymander.

It is reason number, oh, 5,000 that the N.C. General Assembly should not be trusted with the redrawing of districts. Calling upon this legislature to create a nonpartisan map is akin to asking a dog to act like a cat.

From the new McClatchy editorial:

It’s sometimes best not to attach too much importance to the things that come out of N.C. Sen. Jerry Tillman’s mouth. He can be the cringe-inducing uncle at the Thanksgiving table, picking unnecessary fights and uttering caustic remarks that make even his fellow Republicans wince. But last Friday, as the N.C. Senate debated a new round of Congressional district maps, Tillman grabbed a microphone and sprinkled some revealing truth into his usual dose of snideness. We hope that Superior Court judges, who will soon declare whether those those Congressional districts are valid, were listening.

Tillman was apparently offended that Democrats were ungrateful about the new maps, which would likely result in an 8-5 Congressional majority for Republicans instead of the 10-3 edge that the current gerrymandered maps gives the GOP. Democrats and members of the public argued the maps were still partisan, so Tillman rose to give folks a civics lesson on redistricting.

“Evidently you have not read the Constitution,” said the gentleman from Archdale, who noted that he was “absolutely appalled at the lack of knowledge about what the Constitution says.”

 “It says that in redistricting matters, it is the province of the states and it then becomes the province of the prevailing party. It doesn’t say one thing about splitting a county or a precinct. It doesn’t say anything about being fair.”

So if the prevailing party gets to draw the maps, says Tillman: “Do you think it should be anything other than partisan?”

Well, yes. So do the Superior Court judges who sent the maps back to Republicans last month with the admonition that their “extreme partisan gerrymandering” was “contrary to the fundamental right of North Carolina citizens to have elections conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”

The new maps, however, suffer from that same kind of extreme gerrymandering. They continue to lock in a predetermined result, just one that’s two districts more favorable to Democrats than the old maps. That might be more palatable to seat counters in Congress, but it’s no better for North Carolina voters.

How sure are those outcomes? Compared to a computer simulation of 1,000 nonpartisan maps, almost every newly drawn district was an extreme partisan outlier, according to a filing Friday from the plaintiffs in Harper v Lewis, who filed suit against the original congressional districts. (Those computer simulations came from the respected Dr. Jowei Chen, whose maps were used by NC Republicans in drawing new and fairer legislative districts for 2020.)

Plaintiffs also argue that several of the districts — including NC-09 and NC-12 that touch Mecklenburg County — are “near carbon copies of the prior gerrymandered districts,” attorney Daniel Jacobson told the editorial board Monday. In other words, the maps that Republicans approved Friday suffer from the same flaws as the maps the judges rejected. They still pack districts demographically to ward off competitiveness. They still steal the voices of voters. They’re still unconstitutional, regardless of Jerry Tillman’s interpretation of what the Constitution might allow.

Notably, when Tillman was done speaking, fellow Republican Sen. Paul Newton noted that Tillman wasn’t involved in the map drawing process. But senators know — as does the public — that what Tillman suggests is true. “It’s set up to be partisan,” he said. “Do you think we’re gonna draw Democrat maps?”

No. Voters just want them to be fair.

 

Environment, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Senior advisor to lawmakers: Gov. Cooper’s office didn’t meddle in DEQ permitting of Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The segments in red indicate where construction on the pipeline was to begin in 2019; construction scheduled for 2019 along the segment in blue. The project is on hold while the US Supreme Court weighs the utilities’ appeal of a lower court’s rejection of key federal permits in Virginia. (Map: Atlantic Coast Pipeline)

Skepticism about the economic promises of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline prompted Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to establish a $57.8 million mitigation fund, a top official told lawmakers this morning. 

Ken Eudy, senior advisor to the governor, told the Joint Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Cooper did not use a key water quality permit as pressure utilities to create the fund.

“From the outset, Gov. Cooper told Duke Energy the permitting would be handled by experts at DEQ based on the science, technology and the law” Eudy said. “There was no interference.”

Duke Energy and Dominion Energy are majority owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The 600-mile project would start at a fracked gas operation in West Virginia, travel through Virginia and enter North Carolina near Garysburg in Northampton County. From there, it would route 160 miles through eight counties: Northampton, Halifax, Wilson, Nash, Johnston, Cumberland, Sampson and Robeson. 

These counties, Eudy said, “bear all of the risk and reap none of the reward.”

Eudy reiterated what had been disclosed in public documents, but his comments did underscore major turning points in the ACP controversy: 

  • Eastern North Carolinians, even business interests, became increasingly skeptical about the supposed economic promise of the ACP.
  • Meanwhile, opposition to the project was intensifying.
  • Duke Energy appeared impatient and concerned about the state’s lengthy permitting process.

After months of review and requests for more information from the utilities, the NC Department of Environmental Quality approved the essential water quality permit — a 401 — on Jan. 26, 2018. Within two hours of that approval, the governor’s office announced the mitigation fund and a memorandum of understanding, which was voluntary, with Dominion Energy. Immediately, environmental advocates and Republican lawmakers — rarely on the same side of an issue — speculated that a quid pro quo was at work.

The governor’s office and DEQ have consistently denied the permit was contingent upon the fund. In statements and transcripts released earlier this week, 10 DEQ employees told investigators they did not know of the fund until after the media reported on it.

This was a project most farmers and residents didn’t meet with open arms

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good called the governor’s office repeatedly, according to public documents. Eudy said Good “was concerned and frustrated about the slow pace” of the permitting process.

Eudy told lawmakers that the governor’s office “had been updated on the status of a series of permits” — erosion and sedimentation, air quality and water quality. “We were kept in the loop of the timing [of the permits] but not the substance,” he said.

Cooper’s office began discussing the possibility of a fund in 2017, after DEQ and the Department of Commerce held several listening sessions in eastern North Carolina. Most of the people who attended those sessions opposed the pipeline — for safety, environmental and social justice reasons — although a few economic developers spoke in favor of it.

“If the ACP received the permits we wanted the pipeline to have economic development. Much of the property had been taken by eminent domain,” Eudy said. “This was a project most farmers and residents didn’t meet with open arms.”

To garner support for the project, ACP, LLC had purchased TV ads touting the jobs the pipeline would allegedly create. But as it became clear that the ACP would include only three connection points along the 160-mile route through North Carolina, “people in those ads began questioning those promises,” Eudy said.

Top Commerce and DEQ officials discussed how the pipeline, if permitted, could benefit Eastern North Carolina, “in light of the concerns people had raised,” Eudy said. 

Eudy said that Commerce officials said “one of the best way to create jobs was to encourage solar development.”

Under the terms of the fund, the utilities would pay in installments, and the money would be held by a trustee for disbursal. The money was to be used for environmental mitigation, economic development in eastern North Carolina and renewable energy projects in that region.

One of the best way to create jobs was to encourage solar development

Meanwhile, Eudy was also trying to mediate an impasse between Duke Energy and solar energy developers t over House Bill 589. The 2017 legislation was supposed to help accelerate solar energy projects statewide. However, Duke Energy had placed stipulations on grid interconnections, causing a  backlog that was costly for developers.

“We hoped to announce resolution to House Bill 589 and the mitigation fund to present a full picture of the state’s energy future,” Eudy said.

“Did we do things perfectly? No, we did not,” Eudy said of the MOU. “We didn’t nail down in writing how the fund would be administered.”

In 2018, state lawmakers passed a bill diverting the money to public school districts in the eight affected counties. The utilities have paid none of those funds because pipeline construction has been halted while the legality of several federal permits was considered by the US Court of Appeals — and now will be heard by the US Supreme Court.