Commentary, Courts & the Law, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session, Voting

The week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1. The next big battle in North Carolina politics is just days away

The 2018 election may finally be in the rear view mirror, but for better or worse, the next battle over the state’s future will commence very soon – on Tuesday, November 27. That’s the day that Republican legislative leaders will convene the latest of their endless stream of “special” legislative sessions.

Unfortunately, there’s little indication that there will be anything very special about this particular convening – unless, that is, one places a high priority on voter suppression, dishonest schemes to amend the state constitution, and rump, lame duck governance in which unaccountable decision makers attempt to foist lasting change upon a mostly uninformed public.

As usual, we know very little about the specifics of the planned session at this point, but multiple news outlets have reported that it will feature the adoption of legislation to implement (i.e. flesh out the details for) some or all of three constitutional amendments approved by voters last week. That means that we could see legislation related to the amendments on voter ID, victims’ rights and hunting and fishing. The tax cap amendment requires no new legislation.[Read more…] ===
2. With the supermajority doomed, North Carolina should reconsider Medicaid expansion

Despite the manufactured panic of the migrant caravan, despite the midterm’s so-called “referendum on Trump,” despite the nation’s nonsensical gun laws, despite an election that often seemed a direct rebuke of misogynist GOP leaders and policies, the pollsters told us the 2018 election would begin and end with healthcare.

Prevailing wisdom held that, in 2010, voters were rankled by Obamacare when they tossed Democrats and other supporters of former President Obama’s signature legislation.

If past is prologue, 2018’s bad-tempered midterms would spell similar problems for Republicans, who’d, according to the polls, irritated voters by meddling with Obamacare. These days the law, warts and all, enjoys broad support in the general public, and enthusiasm for the GOP’s “repeal Obamacare or bust” campaign seemed to wane even before the late John McCain’s dramatic thumbs down.

Remarkably, a full-throated 41 percent of voters told exit pollsters last week that health care was their most important issue this year, according to NBC News, dwarfing even the economy, gun reform, and immigration. To twist Clinton strategist James Carville’s words, it’s Obamacare, stupid. [Read more…]

3. Partisan gerrymandering will be North Carolina’s next big court battle

Breaking the Republicans’ veto-proof legislative majorities was the short game for North Carolina Democrats and many voting rights activists this year. Their long game? Ending partisan gerrymandering for good in North Carolina.

Common Cause, the North Carolina Democratic Party and a group of individual voters filed a lawsuit earlier this week in Wake County Superior Court challenging the redrawn 2017 maps used in the election last week. They are using the state constitution’s Equal Protection and Free Election clauses as well as the free speech and association guarantees to make their case.

“There is nothing ‘equal’ about the ‘terms’ on which North Carolinians vote for candidates for the General Assembly,” the 69-page lawsuit states. “North Carolina’s Constitution also commands that ‘all elections shall be free’ – a provision that has no counterpart in the federal constitution. Elections to the North Carolina General Assembly are not ‘free’ when the outcomes are predetermined by partisan actors sitting behind a computer.” [Read more…]

***Bonus read: Trump nominee Farr could be confirmed to Eastern District judgeship by end of year

4. Republican legislators pledge to probe Cooper Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

The Joint Subcommittee on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline voted Wednesday to launch an investigation into Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, albeit one without an investigator — and without any notion of how much the inquiry would cost.

The investigation, spearheaded by Republican Sens. Harry Brown and Paul Newton and Rep. Dean Arp, will look into whether Gov. Roy Cooper’s $57.8 million Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Duke Energy and Dominion Energy was a “pay to play” deal to construct a segment of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in North Carolina.

The lawmakers have implied that, in exchange for ponying up the money — which Cooper would control via an escrow account — the utilities would receive key water quality permits from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). [Read more...]

5. High-powered trial lawyers joust as latest hog trial commences

Robert Thackston, who is tall, bald, with a trunk as straight as a redwood’s, removed his midnight-blue suit jacket to reveal a white twill shirt so crisp it threatened to shatter.

On the seventh floor, in Room No. 2 of the federal courthouse in Raleigh, the Texas lawyer sat at the head of a scurry of attorneys hired by Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer. He rocked in his chair and flipped through his thicket of notes, as if perusing a wine list. He raised his eyes and gazed at the grid of lights in the ceiling. He seemed to be rehearsing.
Robert Thackston

Behind him, in the gallery, fellow Texas attorney Michael Kaeske, graying but boyish, smiled and shook hands with each of the plaintiffs. The eight Black neighbors of a 6,000-head industrialized hog farm near Rose Hill in Sampson County had entrusted him with their story. It seemed to weigh on him. Flanked by lawyers from the Salisbury firm Wallace and Graham, which hired him as the lead attorney, he approached his desk and turned around to face the packed courtroom. He touched three fingers to the side of his neck, as if measuring his pulse.

The fourth hog nuisance case against Smithfield Foods began in US District Court on Wednesday. Yet even before the trial, its methods and strategies contrasted with the previous three. The farm in question, Sholar, is owned and operated by Smithfield Foods. Although in all of the cases the defendant is Smithfield, the company has often used its growers — family farmers contractually bound to corporate whims — as a public relations tool to elicit sympathy. This time, there is no family farmer. There is just Smithfield. [Read more…]

6. Folwell, State Health Plan swim against rising tide with denial of insurance coverage to transgender individuals

North Carolina is not the only state whose transgender state employees and dependents are without insurance coverage under their state’s health plan.

But the state’s blanket exclusion of treatments for gender dysphoria—from counseling and hormone treatment to gender confirmation surgery—puts it firmly in the minority.

Only 12 states in the U.S. currently have explicit exclusions of transgender and transition-related health care in their state employee health benefits. Seventeen states and Washington D.C explicitly provide for this type of care as part of their employee health benefits. Twenty-one states don’t specifically cover the treatment but do not have a blanket exclusion, making it easier for patients to appeal for some treatments and for the coverage to expand to include them.

“Generally speaking, it’s a positive trend,” said Logan Casey with the Movement Advancement Project, a Colorado-based group that tracks state stances on LGBTQ rights issues. [Read more…]

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

Commentary, Environment, Legislature, News, Special Session

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Coal ash flowing like pudding in Neuse River near Duke’s Goldsboro power plant
Matthew Starr had paddled only a half mile of a stretch of Neuse River near Duke Energy’s HF Lee plant in Goldsboro when he saw initial signs that something had gone very wrong.

“There was exposed coal ash on trees, floating in the river, on the road,” said Starr, the Upper Neuse Riverkeeper. “There was coal ash lying the ground. We scooped it up out of the water.”

Flooding from Hurricane Florence had drowned two inactive coal ash basins in five feet of water. The active basins, according to state regulators, were structurally sound, but the Half Mile Branch Creek, according to images published by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), was flowing through the inactive basin complex, which is covered in trees and other vegetation.[Read more…]

2. Tillis, Burr and other Kavanaugh supporters must cling to one or more of four very troubling beliefs
The sordid saga of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his nomination to serve a lifetime appointment on the United States Supreme Court is quickly careering toward some sort of very explosive and disturbing conclusion. Either the conservative jurist will be confirmed despite repeated allegations of dishonesty and past incidents of sexual violence or his nomination will be withdrawn or rejected based on those same allegations. In either instance, it’s a sad and remarkable state of affairs.
It’s the sexual assault allegations that have really seized the news headlines in recent days. The first allegation involves Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor and clinical psychology instructor, who says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high school party more than 35 years ago while his buddy, Mark Judge, looked on. At last word, the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to receive testimony from Ford later this week. [Read more…]

3. A word to the General Assembly: This time, keep the politics out of hurricane relief
“Both the House and the Senate, our hearts go out to all the folks that were affected by Hurricane Florence,” Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican, said Monday as a handful of GOP power-players visited a storm-wracked Wilmington.
Horn promised Senate and House leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly were toiling away behind the scenes on a relief package, one so badly-needed for portions of the state submerged by Hurricane Florence and its watery aftermath.

And top Republicans like House Majority Leader John Bell say the agenda will be limited when they return next week for an emergency session, with a focus on relief funding, teacher pay and the school calendar in districts shuttered by the storm. [Read more…]

4. A tale of two stories: price gouging in NC from consumers, business perspectives
For most, news of an impending hurricane means picking up some bread and an extra case of water, fueling up the gas tank and deciding whether to evacuate.

For some businesses though, that same news means dollar signs – it creates an opportunity to take advantage of desperate people planning for the worst.

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office has received more than 700 reports of price gouging – a prosecutable crime – since Sept. 7, when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in anticipation of Hurricane Florence. [Read more…]

5. Update from Robeson County: Florence wreaks havoc on already struggling and neglected communities
Huge pools of standing flood water still surround houses in south Lumberton’s Turner Terrace neighborhood, drawing roving clouds of mosquitoes.

Downed power lines float in the deep brown pools and lay tangled in the many fallen trees.

The stench of sewage is oppressive.

Still, many of its residents want to come home.

Adrienne Kennedy’s family has lived in this lower income Black neighborhood for three generations. But like many of her neighbors, she had to leave after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Flood damage and pervasive mold drove her and her two young sons to Fayetteville, where they still live as what she calls “climate refugees.” [Read more…]

6. Hurricane Florence is exposing North Carolina’s racial and geographic inequalities
Hurricane Florence tore through the Carolinas, leaving entire cities devastated, claiming dozens of lives, and doing what will likely be billions of dollars in damage. But this hurricane has exposed much more than tree roots and the foundations of homes — it has exposed the gross and growing inequality embedded in our state.

For years, eastern North Carolina has been home to some of the state’s most impoverished towns and communities. In 2016, 19 of the 20 poorest counties in the entire state were all located in the east. In addition to poverty, eastern North Carolina is also home to some of the state’s hungriest communities. In 2016, more than 300,000 people in the 18 counties declared disaster areas did not have enough food to eat each night. [Read more...]

News, Special Session

Legislators in surprise special session considered provision to give McCrory health care for life

Pat McCrory and the NCGAThe News and Observer reported on Christmas Day that legislation drafted but not enacted at a recent surprise special session would have kept outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory on the State Health Plan after he left office, meaning he would have received free health coverage for life.

The health care provision would have also made any outgoing Council of State member eligible for free health insurance after serving at least half a term in office, according to the newspaper.

The provision did not end up in a publicly filed bill. But the provision was discussed in closed-door Republican caucus meetings last week before it was dropped from one of the bills that swept through the legislature and reduced Cooper’s authority over appointments.

“There was a great deal of empathy for McCrory: He gave it all he could,” said Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, a Republican. “People ought to help him as much as we could.”

Daughtry and other legislators said the proposal didn’t advance far. House Speaker Tim Moore said there were too many other issues under consideration to spend much time working on the provision that would have helped McCrory, a one-term Republican.

“With all the other stuff we’ve been dealing with, that took so little bandwidth,” Moore said. “I mean, it was just a conversation about ‘this is the idea, here’s the reason,’ and the cost was just very minimal.”

Moore said the intention wasn’t to single out McCrory but to extend insurance coverage to Council of State members, noting that General Assembly members also qualify for insurance, and there has long been interest in extending that benefit to those elected department heads.

“You get folks who will leave a career in the private sector, come in for a short stint, whether it’s four years or even if it’s eight years, and they can’t fully vest for benefits,” Moore said. “If you want highly qualified people to run for those offices, it’s something you need to consider.”

Read more

Commentary, News, Special Session

This week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. Three simple truths about the legislature’s failure to repeal HB2

Here are three simple truths about yesterday’s on again, off again circus at the state Legislative Building at which state lawmakers wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars and person hours and further damaged the state’s reputation in an unsuccessful special session that was supposed to have repealed North Carolina’s all-purpose LGBT discrimination law, HB2:

#1 – The notion pushed by Senate leader Phil Berger and others that Democrats and Gov.-elect Roy Cooper were somehow responsible for the failure is utterly preposterous. [Read more…]

2. Reader Questions on Failed HB2 Repeal

Since yesterday’s failure to pass a repeal of HB2 in a hastily arranged extra session of the North Carolina General Assembly, we’ve gotten a number of questions from readers via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

Wherever you stand on the underlying issues, it’s be easy to get  confused about some of what’s happened in the last week. It’s complicated, it happened quickly and a number of politically-motivated narratives about what happened and why have emerged.

Here are answers – as best we can manage – for a few of the most-asked questions we’ve seen.[Read more…]

Anti-HB2 sign3. Legislature fails to repeal HB2 in special session; Senator says ‘we’re worse off now’ than before

In true North Carolina General Assembly fashion, all the fireworks of the fifth special legislative session of the year went off in the 11th hour – or rather, the ninth hour for those keeping track of the day.

Legislators were called to Raleigh to repeal House Bill 2 after Charlotte repealed its anti-discrimination ordinance. They left without repealing anything.

There were two bills filed Wednesday in the Senate — one introduced by Democrats to repeal HB2 in full and the other introduced by Republicans to repeal HB2 with a six-month “cooling-off period” that would prevent local governments from enacting ordinances “regulating employment practices or regulating public accommodations or access to restrooms, showers, or changing facilities.” [Read more…]


4. Roy Cooper: Legislature failed North Carolina by not repealing HB2 in full

Gov. elect Roy Cooper addressed media Wednesday night after legislators failed at a special session to repeal House Bill 2.

“Today, the legislature had a chance to do the right thing for North Carolina and they failed,” he said.

Charlotte repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance on the promise that the legislature would repeal the sweeping anti-LGBTQ bill. Cooper said at the press conference that brokering the deal was a lot of work, and he knew there were enough Republican and Democrat votes to fully repeal the law. [Read more…]

***Bonus video: Cooper: GOP’s failure to abide by brokered deal doomed HB2’s full repeal

5. State Board of Education talks possible lawsuit over legislative limits to their power

Calling House Bill 17 an attempt to “diminish the board’s constitutional authority,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey and the members of the state’s governing public school panel retired to close session to discuss their response with attorneys Tuesday morning.

Board members indicated they would not be returning to open session to discuss the matter Tuesday , which means that the panel isn’t likely to approve any lawsuits against the legislature today. Such an action would have to be conducted in open session under open records laws.

Tuesday’s specially called meeting comes hours after Gov. Pat McCrory signed the controversial Republican-led bill, which imposes strict limits on Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper and Cobey’s board. [Read more…]

HB2, News, Special Session

ACLU condemns legislature for not repealing HB2

The ACLU and Lamda Legal released a statement last night condemning the legislature for not repealing House Bill 2 during the fifth special session of the year.

The sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation was promised to be repealed if Charlotte repealed a non-discrimination ordinance it had in place. After a nine hour session, the House and Senate adjourned after much debate but no repeal action.

The ACLU’s statement:

H.B. 2 bans transgender people from accessing restrooms and public facilities consistent with their gender identity and prevents local municipalities from extending nondiscrimination protections to LGBT people. H.B. 2 is estimated to have cost North Carolina over $600 million in lost revenue from businesses concerned with the discriminatory nature of the law, and was a contributing factor in the election defeat of the outgoing Governor Pat McCrory.

“The General Assembly and Governor McCrory are playing political chicken, and North Carolinians continue to lose for it. It is an outrage that North Carolina’s lawmakers could not follow the mandate of the voters and repeal H.B. 2,” said Simone Bell, Southern Regional Director at Lambda Legal. “As long as H.B. 2 is on the books, thousands of LGBT people who call North Carolina home, especially transgender people, are being discriminated against and will never feel safe. This was a counterproductive exercise in reaffirming to the rest of the country that North Carolina wants to remain mired in this divisive dispute.”

“It is a shame that North Carolina’s General Assembly is refusing to clean up the mess they made. The support for the LGBT community from political leaders, faith leaders, businesses, and everyday people that has emerged this year will not fade. These attempts to expel transgender people from public life will not be tolerated,” said James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project. “The legislature may not be willing to undo their unconstitutional overreach and respect the rights of LGBT people, so we’ll just have to see them in court.”

The ACLU, ACLU of North Carolina, Lambda Legal and the law firm of Jenner & Block are challenging H.B. 2 in federal court on behalf of four LGBT North Carolinians and members of the ACLU of North Carolina.

With H.B. 2 in place, transgender North Carolinians are barred from using the restrooms they had used day in and day out without incident prior to the passage of the anti-trans measure in March. The repeal of H.B.2 would bring essential and immediate relief to transgender people across the state who had been put in the perilous position of being forced to avoid public restrooms or risk violation of state law.

“We will continue to fight in court for transgender people to access the restrooms that correspond to their gender identity and for equal protection for the entire LGBT community in North Carolina. State-sanctioned discrimination is unacceptable. LGBT North Carolinians and millions around the country are anxious to see an end to these dangerous displays of intolerance,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.