New bill would provide schools with free feminine hygiene products, exempt them from state sales tax

A new bill would exempt sales tax on feminine hygiene products and make them free in public schools through a recurring grant program, Rep. Julie von Haefen, the primary bill sponsor said Tuesday.

At a press conference at the General Assembly, students and legislators explained how the measure could help families afford feminine hygiene products, which can be expensive.

“It is a monthly expense that many individuals and families simply can not afford,” said von Haefen (D-Wake) at the press conference. “Access to menstrual products is a factor that impacts students well being, attendance and performance. For this reason, we worked hard in a bipartisan effort to ensure that the budget had funding for The Feminine Hygiene Products Grant Program.”

The funds would be directed to public schools to purchase the products.

Feminine hygiene products will include tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins and other similar products. Grooming and hygiene products such as cleaning products, soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, etc. are not included in the bill.

Von Haefen also mentioned how the rise of inflation is a key factor in the affordability of feminine hygiene products. The products are considered luxury items, and subject to a 4.75% state sales tax, too.

“This tax has a disproportionate impact on low-income menstruators and can lead to having to choose one essential over another,” said one Cary high school student. “For low-income students, in particular, a lack of access in affordability of [menstrual] products can make a difference in their education.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen (D-Wake)

Currently, states such as Virginia, New York and California have already passed legislation requiring schools to provide free menstrual products for students. More than 20 states have also ended the sales tax on feminine hygiene products – some include Vermont and Maine.

Students and advocates also mentioned the safety measures the bill will give those who need the products – menstruates have had to resort to using toilet paper and rags to manage feminine hygiene – such measures can be unsanitary.

Some students have also had to go to their school’s front office to receive menstrual products or leave early altogether – hindering attendance and learning.

The Menstrual Equity for All bill will be the next step of what the assembly had previously passed for local schools and diaper banks to reduce menstrual poverty and increase equity for families who can not afford feminine hygiene products.

The End Menstrual Poverty Act, passed last year as part of the state budget, let public school units apply for grants of up to $5,000 to purchase feminine hygiene products. Grants were awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Money ran out in less than a week according to The Department of Public Instruction, which sent a report to the legislature. 

The $250,000 appropriation was claimed in less than a week, and fewer than half of the 134 applications were funded. The legislature made the money available only for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Funding for the grant program in the new bill will be appropriated from the General Fund to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) with $500,000 in recurring funds going into the next fiscal year. 

Along with Rep. Haefen, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake), Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham), and Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg). Sen. Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) helped appropriate the funding for the bill, with Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) assisting with last year’s funding.

James Burrell is a summer journalism fellow with NC Policy Watch, sponsored by the States Newsroom. He graduated from NC Central University, where he co-edited the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.

New legislation would allow DEQ to regulate some types of PFAS in drinking water

The Cape Fear River, the drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people, is contaminated with PFAS, some of it from groundwater seeps originating at the Chemours plant in north Bladen County. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

After five years without meaningful legislation on PFAS contamination, North Carolina could adopt its own threshold for the toxic compounds in drinking water, under a new bill introduced in the General Assembly yesterday.

House Bill 1095 would authorize the state’s Environmental Management Commission to adopt a maximum contaminant level for one or more per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances compounds. Currently, there is only a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion for total PFAS in drinking water, which is legally unenforceable. For GenX, a type of PFAS, the goal is 140 ppt.

State health and environmental officials have advised not to drink water that contains more than 10 ppt of any individual compound.

Depending on exposure levels, PFAS have been linked to multiple health problems, including thyroid disorders, reproductive and fetal development problems, immune system deficiencies and kidney and testicular cancers. In addition to drinking water, PFAS are found in microwave popcorn bags, fast food containers, stain- and grease-resistant fabrics, and hundreds of other consumer products.

The EPA has yet to regulate PFAS in drinking water, although it plans to release a more stringent toxicity assessment for GenX and PFBS this year. States can use those assessments to set their own regulations.

North Carolina lags behind several states in regulating PFAS. Michigan and New York, for example, have maximum contaminant thresholds of 8 ppt and 10 ppt, respectively for certain types of the compounds.

PFAS don’t break down in the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Traditional drinking water treatment systems can’t remove the compounds.

Primary bill sponsors are Republicans Ted Davis, Jr. (New Hanover), Frank Iler (Brunswick), and Charles Miller (Brunswick, New Hanover), and Democrat Robert Reives (Chatham, Durham).

GenX was discovered in Wilmington’s public drinking water system more than five years ago. Chemours,  100 miles upstream near the Cumberland and Bladen County line, discharged GenX into the Cape Fear River; the company is also the primary source of other PFAS in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin. PFAS  from other sources have also been detected in Pittsboro’s drinking water, in Chatham County.

Since 2017, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has installed expensive technology — at ratepayers’ expense — to sharply reduce levels of PFAS in drinking water. The proposed legislation addresses that inequity by authorizing the NC Department of Environmental Quality to order responsible parties to repay the public water system for costs associated with reducing levels of PFAS contamination below the permissible concentration level.

In turn, the public utility that had expended funds would reimburse ratepayers through a reduction in future rates.

The bill would appropriate $2 million  in nonrecurring funds for the 2022-2023 fiscal year to DEQ to carry out the legislation’s requirement. The funds would be deposited into a special PFAS Public Water Protection Fund. The NC Collaboratory, housed at UNC-Chapel Hill, would receive an additional $2 million in nonrecurring funds to, conduct research and analysis to provide scientific and  economic support for maximum contaminant levels for PFAS.

SB 830, sponsored by Sen. Kirk DeViere (D-Cumberland) would appropriate $5 million to phase out firefighting foams that contain PFAS, and replace them with materials that don’t contain those compounds. The Firefighting Foam Replacement Fund would award up to $100,000 in grants to eligible fire departments to cover costs related to the replacement.

Firefighting foam is another major source of PFAS contamination. The foam not only contaminates waterways, but has been linked to elevated levels of cancers in firefighters. PFAS has also been detected in firefighting gear.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health studied 29,992 career firefighters in San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York, and compared their cancer rates with the U.S. general population. The results of the study, published in 2020, confirmed higher rates of several cancers, including those affecting the digestive and urinary tracts, in firefighters, as well as leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Senators advance controversial ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ disregarding concerns of educators, LGBTQ advocates (w/video)

Members of the Senate Health Care Committee sought to limit debate over the Parents’ Bill of Right Thursday by restricting comments to only the portion of the bill that deals with parental consent for treatment.

But even with that narrow focus, more than half a dozen speakers told lawmakers House Bill 755 would be harmful to LGBTQ students, who may not be out to their parents or peers.

Gretchen Phillips

The current version of the bill prohibits curriculum that teaches about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. The measure also spells out parents’ legal rights to consent or withhold consent from participation in reproductive health and safety education programs.

If a child asked that a different name or pronoun be used, the school would be required to first notify the parents of the request.

Gretchen Phillips, a former teacher and Wake County parent, said she has real concerns about the health care implications of the bill.

“This is going to make it so teachers feel pressure not meet their students where their needs are, but to go by their parents’ comfort level, even when their parents’ comfort level is directly against the best interest of the mental health care of their children,” Phillips testified.

Iliana Santillan

Iliana Santillan, executive director of El Pueblo, said as a queer activist and former teacher she was troubled by the message the bill sends to young people like her own teenage daughter.

“When she was in third grader her peers would ask her why she didn’t have a Dad, why her Mom was with another woman. I am proud of who I am today,” Santillan said.

Santillan said rather than fast track this measure, lawmakers should turn their attention to the Leandro school funding plan.

“Get more nurses, get more counselors in the school system. What you are doing now is wrong and it’s going to damage families like mine. It’s going to further exacerbate the anxiety of my child.”

Olivia Neal said the bill was laden with discrimination against North Carolina’s LGBTQ community.

Olivia Neal

“I was a queer student in North Carolina public schools,” Neal said. “If this bill were made law in my youth, I would have lost many of the outlets that I had to explore and understand my identity without the interference of the government or the school system.

“Even as someone with parents who supported my queerness, I would have felt unsafe seeking help in my school, even mental health care, if I was constantly worried about being outed by my counselors before I was ready.”

Neal said students should be focused on learning in school, not worried about the backlash and abuse they might be subjected to when they return home.

“In some cases, school may be the only place where LGBTQ students can access supportive mental health care, but this bill would force them to run the risk of outing. The reality is for LGBTQ students, parents do not always have their best interest at heart.”

Forty-five percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year, according to a recent survey by the Trevor Project.

“This bill is not about securing rights for parents, it’s about trying to eradicate LGBTQ identity from public life,” Neal added.

Taylor Cortes, a former educator, said the bill was unfair for LGBTQ youth and their families.

Ari Becker

“Unfortunately there are many households where children are not safe coming out. Forcibly making children come out in environments that are hostile will absolutely put their lives at risk,” Cortes warned.

“Children are not their parents’ property. They are their own people. And if they are in an environment that is not safe to their authentic selves, they need to be protected.”

Ari Becker told lawmakers before she was a graduate student at NC State, she was a homeless LGBTQ youth.

“A student who discloses they want to use a different name or pronoun to their teacher or health care provider may have good reason not to want this reported to their parents,” Becker testified. “Forcibly outing children will put them in physical danger.”

Becker said the bill as written would allow for broad censorship, leaving some educators unable to teach about historical figures if they were part of the LGBTQ community.

Sen. Ralph Hise

“Would this result in people life me being ousted from the classroom?” Becker asked.

Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) dismissed the concerns.

“Take a school nurse, how many hours do you think they have actually spent with a child?” Hise asked his colleagues.

“When it comes to health and those sorts of things, parents have been there since the children were born. They know the mental health issues they’ve gone through; they know the physical health issues and having a school professional on limited knowledge be able to make those decisions and not inform the parents should be criminal as a matter of fact.”

As for concerns a child might face physical abuse at home from being outed, Hise said teachers with proof have a duty to report that abuse to the department of social services.

HB 755 advanced on a voice vote Thursday and moves to the Senate Rules Committee next week.

Bonus content: Watch a sampling of some of the educators and LGBTQ advocates speaking out against HB 755.

NC Senator: “Censoring school curriculums isn’t going to keep our kids alive” (w/ video)

Members of the Senate Education Committee held their first hearing Wednesday on the controversial Parents’ Bill of Rights. The legislation touted by Senate President Phil Berger a day earlier would ban teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 curriculum. It would require schools tell parents if their child wants to change their name or preferred pronouns or seek counseling.

Additionally the bill requires schools to establish a means for parents to learn about “the nature and purpose of clubs and activities offered at their child’s school” while establishing a means for parents to object to textbooks and supplementary instructional materials.

In other states, similar legislation has been dubbed by critics the ‘Don’t say gay’ bill.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri questioned the timing of House Bill 755, coming just hours after a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

“I’ll say it again, the right I care about is the right to keep our children safe in schools,” said the Wake County democrat.

Chaudhuri noted that children cannot learn if they don’t feel safe in their school.

“As a parent, I would hope we wouldn’t debate a bill that seeks to restrict what is taught to elementary school students, but instead determine how we can protect these elementary school students from school shootings, because censoring school curriculums isn’t gonna keep our kids alive.”

Sen. Mike Lee (R-New Hanover)

Committee chair Sen. Mike Lee (R-New Hanover) clearly angry was quick to criticize Chaudhuri for diverting attention from the bill to Tuesday’s mass shooting.

“This about not teaching five, six, seven, eight-year-olds things that are not age appropriate. This is about parent having the opportunity to participate in their children lives,” Lee responded.

Chaudhuri said he was not using the bill as a political platform.

“I am simply reflecting the emails and communications that came into my office in the last 24-hours that expressed outrage about the fact that we are doing nothing to keep our children safe.”

EqualityNC also rejected the notion SB755 would protect students.

“We face a teacher shortage and the NC GOP wants to make your teachers a target for extremists to harass and sue,” the LGBTQ+ rights organization tweeted.

Another aspect of the bill states health care provider who provide treatment for a child without first obtaining written consent from that child’s parent could face disciplinary action and a fine of $5,000.

HB 755 will be heard Thursday at 10:00am in the Senate Health Care Committee.

Click below to hear Sen. Chaudhuri’s remarks:

 

Photo gallery: Hundreds gather in Raleigh for abortion rights, preservation of Roe

Hundreds braved thunderstorms Saturday to gather at the state capitol and rally for abortion rights. Demonstrators in Raleigh protested the anticipated overturning of Roe v. Wade and the threat of new anti-abortion legislation at the state level. Similar ‘Bans Off Our Bodies’ events were held across the state and nation.

Across the street four men mounted a counter protest.