COVID-19, Legislature

New legislative committee focuses on COVID-19 pandemic

House Speaker Tim Moore

House Speaker Tim Moore has appointed 44 Republicans and 29 Democrats to the House Select Committee on COVID-19. It includes smaller working groups for economic support, health care, education, and continuity of state operations, such as emergency services, elections and public safety.

The full committee and working groups will primarily work remotely, such as by telephone or video conferencing, and “minimize gatherings of staff and members.”

“The health and safety of members, staff and the public shall be prioritized, Rep. Moore wrote in a document creating the select committee.

The select committee will study and if necessary, introduce legislation to address the “anticipated economic impacts,” including job loss, reduced consumer spending, and health care resources and response. Measures could include “economic and regulatory relief.”

The committee has not scheduled a meeting, but people can sign up for committee notices by email.

Commentary, COVID-19, Legislature, Trump Administration

From DC to NC, our leaders were not ready for coronavirus

These times are surreal. And these words feel surreal to write.

But many of our leaders, from the White House to the U.S. Senate to the N.C. General Assembly, are criminally incompetent, truth-starved, and woefully unprepared for the coronavirus.

President Trump, while reading from a teleprompter, flubbed his words and the truth multiple times while addressing the nation Wednesday evening, a fitting performance from a commander-in-chief who has lied, manipulated and tortured the truth multiple times during this COVID-19 outbreak. A leader whose administration even now seeks to cut funds to the Centers for Disease Control.

In a crisis requiring credibility, Donald Trump has none. He is George W. Bush, arms crossed, face an impenetrable mask while New Orleans’ 9th Ward drowns, declaring: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

Our leaders, from the White House to the U.S. Senate to the N.C. General Assembly, are criminally incompetent, truth-starved, and woefully unprepared for the coronavirus.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate torpedoed an emergency paid sick leave bill this week, claiming, per the usual GOP line, that now is not the time to burden employers.

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

And in Raleigh, NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen chastened Republican lawmakers in the NC General Assembly this week, reminding them of their ill-considered attempt last year to budget in $42 million in cuts for her already overburdened agency. As evidenced by Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2019 veto, Republicans in the legislature and Cooper couldn’t agree on a great many things in 2019. Thankfully, this was one of them.

“As I think about the crisis that we are preparing for,” Cohen told mostly unrepentant legislators, “I don’t see how that would have been tenable in any way, even if without COVID-19. There was no scenario on which we could have delivered on the expectations you have of our department.”

NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen (left) and Gov. Roy Cooper (right)

Republicans attempted to pass the blame to Cooper, but however it is spun, there is no one else, no one, responsible for their egregious attempts to slash public health funding in 2019, cuts that are not just ludicrous in hindsight. They were ridiculous in the moment too.

Indeed, “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.”

To be sure, coronavirus would have been a disaster no matter who was in power, Democrats or Republicans. Its exponential spread makes governments, hospitals and businesses inevitably look flat-footed. But it is hard to imagine a group more unfit for leadership than these figures in D.C. and Raleigh, figures who should comfort not confound.

There will be those who screech that now is not a time to politicize a crisis, but they forget that there is nothing, nor has there even been, anything very political about the truth. Now is the time to demand accountability the most, no matter how normalized dishonesty may have become in the last four years.

We will come through this, of course. And hopefully we will do so with a broader appreciation for public health, good government and timely, factual information. It remains to be seen however whether we will emerge with the same respect for many of our leaders.

Commentary, Legislature

The enduring cruelty of NC Republicans’ broken unemployment insurance program

The most stirring moment of this week’s soporific rehash of NC’s cruelly outmoded unemployment system was, alas, its last.

Sen. Wiley Nickel, the lone Democrat on the joint committee, urged lawmakers to revisit their gouging 2013 cuts to the unemployment program, which today ranks NC among the stingiest in the nation. 

In those heady days, when conservatives didn’t have to worry about pesky things like a veto from the governor, legislators reduced the size and duration of unemployment checks ostensibly to assuage a $2.7 billion debt to the federal government. NC was one of numerous states to sink into debt during the recession as employers jettisoned workers, although you get the distinct feeling these days that some of these hardliners might have done so just for yuks too.

General Assembly leadership has been loath to reconsider the system today—even Nickel’s modest proposal this week that NC adjust payments for inflation—despite a resurgent economy and $3 billion socked away in the program’s savings. 

“We are way past the crisis,” said Nickel. “I would love to have some of this money go into the economy.”

The cruelties of 2013 are just as cruel, indeed more so, if they endure in 2020.

Rep. Julia Howard, the 16-term Republican from Davie County who co-chairs the committee, seemed to bristle at the Democrat’s overtures, chiding Nickel for his “very aggressive position” in his first meeting with the panel. 

“You weren’t here,” Howard told Nickle. “Some of us were.” 

Howard’s co-chair, Sen. Andy Wells, adjourned the meeting before Nickel could respond publicly, although I doubt Nickel and Howard were disagreeing so mightily over the last season of “Dancing With the Stars” when they huddled in the committee chambers afterward. 

Howard’s patronizing retort aside, the workers of North Carolina care very little about how many terms the Mocksville Republican has served in Raleigh. If House and Senate leadership deigned to include more Democrats on the joint committee, any number of those would likely say the same to Howard, but that’s beside the point.

N.C. Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, Rowan

The cruelties of 2013 are just as cruel, indeed more so, if they endure in 2020. Seven years ago, lawmakers could at least point to ballooning federal debt as cover, but the economy has long since recovered and the state’s debt is long gone. What cover remains?  

The conflict over NC’s cellar-dwelling unemployment benefits is not borne of Nickel’s inexperience or Howard’s experience, but of an utter disconnect in philosophy. 

Telling Republicans that their benefits are as cheap as any offered in the United States hardly matters. You might as well hand over a banner proclaiming: “Mission Accomplished.” There is little, if any, regard for social welfare programs in these chambers.

And while conservatives in other states might adopt similar postures, few have been so cruelly methodical in exacting their vision, with NC’s payments being on average about $264 a week, ranking 51st in the nation. Such a pittance makes sense if you are in the habit of eating about five times a week.   

There are Republicans in the General Assembly, perhaps even on this committee, who would reduce NC’s miserly payments further if they had the opportunity. Some might dismantle the program entirely.

Indeed, if these Republicans were circus owners, they would lose the net beneath the trapeze artists too because, you know, Ayn Rand.

For all the Xeroxed wonk of these proceedings, there is real blood in this ink. But if empathy for the unemployed does not move the GOP, regard for our economy should.

Just as with Medicaid expansion, Republicans disregard their hearts and their heads because unemployment insurance stabilizes workers and states during downturns.  Such programs buffer states from the waxing and waning of the economy.

Indeed, if these Republicans were circus owners, they would lose the net beneath the trapeze artists too because, you know, Ayn Rand.

The cries for change are not simply the bleating, bleeding-heart liberals. Our economy is not the better for this characteristic cupidity. It only increases the risk that workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own are more likely to land in poverty or leave the employment sector altogether.

A report last year from the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center (Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit) found the program feckless too, with less than 10% of the state’s jobless actually receiving unemployment, last in the nation.

An impoverished workforce is a detriment to all. It is not a matter of progressivism or conservativism, but of responsibility. 

Rather than raising taxes on employers in 2013, the choice was made by Republicans and ex-Gov. Pat McCrory to rend NC’s unemployment program to shreds, to place the burden of an economic recession on workers and not employers. The GOP has made that same choice every year since. Based on Howard’s withering disregard this week, they will do it again in 2020. 

But they should not be able to do so without our concern, our chagrin, and, if they choose not to act, our condemnation. 

The problem, Rep. Howard, is not that the Democrat on your committee finds fault in your unemployment policies, or that there is even a Democrat on your committee. The problem is that in 2020 there is little reason for these closefisted policies other than callousness.  

Commentary, Legislature

Seven years later, the GOP’s unemployment reforms still haunt NC

When North Carolina lawmakers meet Tuesday morning to consider the state’s sickly unemployment insurance system, even though there is no publicly available agenda yet (what else is new?) you should expect a few things.

Expect them to talk about the benefits of cutting employers’ taxes. Expect them to regale you with fantastical stories about the “Carolina Comeback,” Pat McCrory and the GOP’s miserly plan for a top-heavy economy that continues to offer arguably the worst unemployment benefits in the nation. Expect them to laud their ingenuity in penny-pinching for the next recession while many thousands of impoverished North Carolinians never really emerged from the last one.

But don’t expect them to call their 2013 reforms to unemployment insurance a failure. And, to their credit, it’s not a failure if you are of the mind that reducing the tax burden for businesses should come at the cost of any sort of functioning safety net for blue-collar workers. Indeed, the wan and cruel system that NC deploys today, one of the least effective in the nation at returning job-seekers to the market, would seem to be precisely what McCrory and company sought way back in 2013.

“I think where we are is a good thing. What is the point of your presentation?” Rep. Dana Bumgardner, a Republican from Gaston County, reportedly groused in 2018, when Wayne Vroman of the D.C.-based Urban Institute explained how lawmakers had only socked away more than $3 billion in the unemployment trust fund by slashing the amount and duration of benefits at a prodigious rate.

Rep. Dana Bumgardner, R-Gaston

In other words, lawmakers padded the trust fund at the great expense of those it was intended to benefit.

Congratulations, we’ve saved your hand, but, condolences, the fingers had to go.

Those NC residents that were so severely chastened by a callous unemployment system were not lent speed back into gainful employment, as legislative leaders would suggest. Instead, they failed to find work or were driven from the job market altogether, a seriously suppressing outcome for any economy.

That is the point, Rep. Bumgardner.

It is, it seems, ever the point with this legislative majority which glorifies tax cuts and vilifies welfare programs above all others.

Bumgardner and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance, which is composed entirely of Republicans save for the Wake County Democrat Wiley Nickel, will be back in in action Tuesday morning.

It is time, past time, to reconsider NC’s unemployment insurance.

Commentary, Legislature

The continuing madness of North Carolina’s rejection of Medicaid expansion

When they write the book on Republicans’ dominance of NC politics — although, really, I don’t want to read it, living it once is enough — here’s what they’ll say:

Yes, the decade’s economic resurgence did nothing for NC’s enduring poverty problem. Yes, the legislature’s reactionary, partisan wedge politics made NC the poster child for backwards views of LGBTQ issues. Yes, the state’s reputation for moderation and education took a nose dive. And yes, despite all of those things, despite all of those glaring errors, there is not much in the last decade that will compare to the sheer inanity of Republicans’ blockade of a federally-funded Medicaid expansion.

In two years, we’ll be a decade in the hole with Medicaid expansion, forgoing billions in federal dollars that could have stabilized hospitals, injected cash into the economy, aided the poor and made NC a healthier state if not for the fact that Barack Obama’s name was stamped on the money and represented some part of a social safety net that the GOP despises with reckless abandon. Indeed, the GOP would defy a majority of North Carolinians and health care experts, many of their own party’s most prominent leaders and logic itself to flout expansion.

Whether they pay a political price is up for debate; but the price for the poor and anyone with limited access to health care is not, as last week’s report from the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found in examining NC health care. The McClatchy editorial board offered up this editorial Sunday that sums up the madness of the GOP blockade.

Read on for the money quotes:

North Carolina’s uninsured numbers would be worse had it not been for the Affordable Care Act, a law that the state’s legislative leaders resisted at every turn. Nonetheless, 447,680 North Carolinians were enrolled in ACA plans in 2019, with 94 percent of them receiving a tax credit to help them pay their premiums. If North Carolina had expanded Medicaid in 2018, the report estimates that 357,000 uninsured adults would have been eligible for the state and federal health insurance program.

To create a healthier North Carolina, expanding Medicaid is the biggest and perhaps the simplest step. But the state must also do more to reduce the causes of poverty and close the racial gaps in health conditions. That means increasing the minimum wage and the number of small businesses that offer health insurance benefits. Among North Carolina private businesses with fewer than 50 employees, only 19 percent offer health insurance, compared to 29 percent nationally, the KFF report said.

The state should also require employers to offer paid leave to workers when new children are born or adopted, or when serious personal or family health issues arise. Currently, only 12 percent of North Carolina’s workers have that benefit. Creating more parks for exercise and better access to healthy foods would also help.

Every 10 years, the state announces its health goals for the decade ahead. This year the state’s “Healthy North Carolina 2030” report called for action beyond wider access to health care. The report says, “Long-term sustainable improvements in the health and well-being of North Carolinians will only occur by addressing the social, economic, and place-based challenges that keep people from achieving optimal health.”

Tax cuts and holding out on Medicaid expansion won’t do that.