Commentary, Legislature, News, Trump Administration

The Week’s Top Stories on Policy Watch


1. The price NC is paying for Tillis’s loyalty to Trump

The spectacle of Senator Thom Tillis’s spiritless kowtowing to Donald Trump in recent months has truly been something to behold.

It wasn’t that long ago that Tillis was talking big about the need for humane immigration reform policies and the need to combat efforts to undermine investigations into Russian meddling in our democracy.

Boy, did a few shots across the bow from the far right about a possible 2020 GOP primary challenge change all of that. First, of course, came Tillis’s “flip-flop for the ages” on the question of Trump’s declaring a national emergency with respect to the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border. [Read more…]

2. Right and left find rare bit of common ground on “second chance” legislation

More than 1,000 people descended on the state Legislative Building Wednesday to lobby for the Second Chance Act – a bill they say will profoundly change the lives of those with criminal charges or convictions on their record.

Senate Bill 562 would automatically expunge criminal charges that have been dismissed or disposed of as “not guilty” after December 1, 2019. It would also allow people to petition to have all non-violent felony convictions expunged after 10 years of good behavior.

That will help people with records avoid employment and housing discrimination, the bill’s supporters say, getting them back to work and making it easier for them to move on with their lives and make a contribution to society.[Read more…]

 

3. ‘Reform is the answer:’ Voters gather at legislature to lobby for an end to gerrymandering

Redistricting reform is around the corner, and when it happens, it could move quickly. North Carolinians just have to think about what they want from that reform.

“We do have a voice; we do have an opportunity,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina, a voting rights organization that has pushed for redistricting reform for over a decade.

About 60 “tried and true advocates” and voters gathered Tuesday at the legislature for the “People’s Lobby Day to End Gerrymandering.” They spoke to lawmakers and their legislative assistants to encourage support or thank them for their support of one of the six redistricting reform bills currently pending. [Read more…]


4. Damn the politics, impeach Donald Trump. Now.

When Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote in March that President Trump should be impeached, perhaps, for the writer, some doubt remained even then as to the president’s ultimate guilt or innocence.

“Impeachment is a process, not an outcome,” he wrote. “A rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.”

That was two months ago, eons in the Trump universe, a parallel dimension in which the orange debaser in office can stack exponential transgressions upon transgressions, seemingly impervious to time or space. That includes his latest embarrassment, a shallow and, ultimately failed, effort to shape the coverage of the Mueller Report. [Read more…]


5. Education Secretary Betsy Devos pushes her school choice agenda at conference for education writers

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

One could never mistake U.S, Education Secretary Betsy Devos for a victim, but she sure played one Monday during the 72nd Education Writers Seminar being held in Baltimore.

Standing before a roomful of education writers from across the nation, Devos sternly accused Big Media of using her name to score page views.

“As much as many of you in the media use my name as click bait, or try to make it all about me, it’s not,” Devos said. Education is not about Betsy Devos, nor about any other individual. It’s about students.”

If the truth be told, Devos does have a way of generating unfavorable news reports.[Read more…]

 

6. Sampling shows PFAS, GenX in groundwater wells in New Hanover County; contaminants not detected in drinking water


State environmental regulators are sampling groundwater from monitoring wells in northern New Hanover County after perfluorinated compounds, including GenX, were detected in six of 25 wells that supply the Richardson water treatment plant.

However, the compounds were not detected in finished drinking water.

The plant, operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, provides drinking water to several communities, including Murrayville, Wrightsboro, and parts of Castle Hayne and Odgen. The source of this public water supply is groundwater tapped from the Castle Hayne and PeeDee aquifers.

While most of the utility’s water treatment plants withdraw from the river, the Richardson plant uses groundwater.[Read more…]

 

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

News, Trump Administration

Meadows has Trump’s back on Twitter, and Trump loves it

Rep. Mark Meadows

President Donald Trump

WASHINGTON — Rep. Mark Meadows has been showing up a lot lately on President Trump’s Twitter feed.

The 11th District North Carolina Republican and chairman of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus is one of Trump’s most fervent defenders, and he’s been using Twitter to lash out against the president’s critics since Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report was released last week.

Trump appreciates Meadows having his back.

On Thursday, the president retweeted two of Meadows’ posts attacking House Democrats over their response to the Mueller report. Trump retweeted another post linking to a news article about one of Meadows’ tweets.

In one post that Trump shared with his nearly 60 million Twitter followers, Meadows wrote, “We knew they wouldn’t give up. The collusion delusion fell flat, and now reports say House Democrats are preparing to “ramp up” their investigations of President Trump. Not “move on”—“ramp up.” They’re doubling down. This is a myopic obsession with politically targeting POTUS.”

Trump also retweeted a post in which Meadows blasted Democrats for demanding an unredacted version of the Mueller report. “They’re not interested in transparency. They want a political foil,” Meadows wrote.

Trump on Thursday retweeted a flurry of posts from Republican members of Congress attacking the Mueller investigation, criticizing Democratic lawmakers and backing Trump’s calls for a national emergency along the southern U.S. border.

The president’s retweets came after he fired off a series of his own posts, including sharp criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden — who formally jumped into the 2020 presidential race.

He wrote to Biden: “Welcome to the race Sleepy Joe. I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign. It will be nasty – you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!”

Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.

News, Trump Administration

Report: Trump filling up federal judiciary with clones of Mike Pence

President Donald Trump’s confirmed lifetime federal judges are overwhelmingly white men with records of opposing abortion, LGBTQ rights and voting rights, according to a new report.

Jennifer Bendery with the Huffington Post wrote this week about how Trump is making the courts less diverse.

A whopping 90 percent of the Trump picks confirmed for appeals courts in his first two years in office were white, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis. Ten percent were Asian American. He didn’t confirm any African American or Hispanic circuit judges.

In that same period, 92 percent of his confirmed district court judges were white. Four percent were Asian American, 2 percent were African American and 2 percent were Hispanic.

As for the gender breakdown, 80 percent of Trump’s confirmed appeals court judges and 74 percent of those approved for the district courts were male.

For some context, 65 percent of President Barack Obama’s confirmed appeals court judges were white, as were 63 percent of those he placed on district courts. In terms of gender, 56 percent of Obama’s confirmed appeals court judges and 59 percent of his confirmed district court judges were male, per the CRS analysis.

Less diversity, Bendery wrote, means fewer of the people making decisions on the nation’s most powerful courts reflect the demographics of the populations they serve, which limits perspectives on critical issues like abortion rights, criminal justice and employment discrimination.

An example of this can be seen in North Carolina, where Trump has nominated Thomas Farr multiple times to the U.S. District Court bench in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Farr is a white man with strong ties to white supremacy and voter suppression, and the Eastern District of North Carolina houses almost half of the state’s Black population.

Obama had nominated both Jennifer May-Parker, the Chief of the Appellate Division at the United States Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of North Carolina, and Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court justice and vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but they were blocked by the GOP-led Senate at the time. If either had gotten the judgeship, they would have been the first federal judges of color in North Carolina history for years.

Farr has not been confirmed to the seat, which is the longest running vacancy in the nation at over 13 years.

Trump didn’t nominate any African American women to be appeals or district judges during his first two years — though last month he nominated two, according to the Huffington Post piece. He hasn’t nominated any Native American judges. And he’s nominated two LGBTQ people for federal court seats, but neither have been confirmed.

More than 80 percent of Trump’s judges are also members of the Federalist Society — including U.S. Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — a powerful Washington-based organization of conservative lawyers that has been feeding the White House the names of young, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-voting rights attorneys to confirm to judgeships.

The White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been laser-focused on filling appeals court vacancies because these courts often have the last word in federal cases. The Supreme Court only hears about 100 to 150 cases every year, compared to the more than 50,000 cases heard by appeals courts.

To date, Trump has won confirmation of 37 appeals court judges and 58 district court judges. At the appeals court level, that’s more than any president has confirmed in his first two years and means that one in five judges on the nation’s appeals courts was nominated by Trump.

McConnell is now turning his attention to the 125 vacancies on district courts. Republicans blew up the Senate rules last month to make it a lot easier to confirm district court judges, so it’s possible they’ll fill all of those vacancies by the end of Trump’s first term.

Read the full story here.

Commentary, Legislature, News, The State of Working North Carolina, Trump Administration

Trump’s overtime proposal leaves behind almost 300,000 North Carolina workers

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposal to change the salary threshold under which workers are entitled to overtime pay — to $35,308 a year from $23,600 a year.

Under federal law, people who work more than 40 hours per week are supposed to be paid 1.5 times their regular hourly rate for each overtime hour unless they fall into one of the many overtime exemptions.   The so-called “white collar” exemption allows employers to exempt salaried workers who make above the salary threshold from overtime pay if they are engaged in executive, administrative or professional duties.  Once the proposed rule takes effect, anyone making under $35,308 per year (or $679 per week) will not qualify for the exemption.

If you are experiencing déjà vu reading this, that’s because we have been here before.  Well, kind of.  In May of 2016, after two years of research and public input, the Obama DOL also published a new rule updating the salary threshold to $47,476 per year (or $913 per week).  That rule, however, was blocked by a federal court in Texas shortly before it was due to take effect.

The Trump Administration is taking credit for this proposed change, touting it for bringing “common sense, consistency, and higher wages to working Americans,” but they are actually leaving behind millions of Americans who can be required to work 50, 60 or 70 hours per week with no additional pay.

Because the 2016 rule included automatic increases every few years, by January 1, 2020 the salary level would be about $51,000 – $16,000 higher than the Trump proposal.   According to the Economic Policy Institute, the difference in salary levels means about 278,000 people in North Carolina who would have benefited from the 2016 rule are left out by the 2019 rule.  Nationally, that number is over 8 million.

Jumping to $35,308 from $23,600 may seem like a decent increase – and going from $23,600 all the way to $47,476 may strike you as extreme – but it is important to consider those numbers in context.

DOL used to periodically update the salary threshold to reflect changes in the economy and inflation, but the only time it has been updated since 1975 (setting aside the 2016 rule which was blocked) was in 2004.

According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), in the 1970s, about 65% of salaried workers earned under the threshold and were entitled to overtime pay.  The value of the salary threshold has eroded over time such that today, at the 2004 salary level, only 7% of salaried workers are under the salary threshold.

If the 1975 level was updated for inflation, it would be $55,000 today and would, likely, have the effect that the overtime requirement was originally intended to have: ensuring that overtime exempt employee are getting fairly compensated for extra  hours.

Between now and mid-May, the public can and should comment on the current salary proposal.

Clermont Ripley is a senior attorney at the N.C. Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. 

Commentary, immigration, News, Trump Administration

After Trump administration rule change, immigration visa denials soar

New data released by the U.S. Department of State show a significant uptick in the number of visa denials on grounds of public charge compared to data from prior years.

These data, in addition to the public charge rule change proposed late last year, demonstrate the Trump administration’s commitment to restricting immigration, particularly for families accessing critical resources.

While the public charge rule has existed in some form for more than 100 years, its current definition took effect in 1999 and is based on the likelihood that someone will become a “public charge” by using certain public benefits for which they are eligible.

Experts agree that the departure from previous data on visa denials is likely due to a revision made in early 2018 to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), which instructs U.S. consular officials on granting visas to immigrants and non-immigrants who are abroad and seeking to enter the U.S.

The new manual language imposes stricter rules about use of public benefits, income levels, and proof of financial support from family. This change came as part of a response to a 2017 White House Memorandum prompting increased vetting of visa applicants and others seeking entry into the United States.  While the FAM governs persons who are abroad and seeking to enter the U.S., the proposed public charge rule that is currently being reviewed at the federal level impacts those who are already inside the U.S. and are seeking to obtain a visa or green card.  The increase in denials based on public charge for visa applicants outside the U.S. could be a bellwether of what would happen if the proposed public charge regulation were to go into effect for applicants inside the U.S.

News about this dramatic increase in visa denials, along with confusion and fear about the current proposed rule,  could have a chilling effect on families accessing the programs they need to make ends meet.  It can also thwart our country’s vision of ensuring people in need can live in a country that respects and supports their well-being.

Suzy Khachaturyan is a Policy Analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.