Editorial: NC could be on the precipice of historic moment for public education

For decades now, North Carolina has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide every child in the state with the sound basic education to which they are constitutionally entitled. There are a lot of things that have contributed to this failure, but first and foremost of course, is the General Assembly’s chronic refusal to appropriate adequate funding.

The situation has grown so dire, notes yesterday’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com, that GOP leaders on Jones Street could be on the verge of having other state actors make the decision to do what’s necessary and right for them.

Leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly are at a crossroads concerning the most significant issue that confronts the state – fulfilling the state Constitution’s pledge, the right, that every child must have access to a quality education.

If they don’t act, the governor will. It has happened before. In his latest order Judge David Lee is sending a clear and unequivocal message. It will happen again.

The legislature should, in the budget it sends to Gov. Roy Cooper, clearly commit to implementing the non-partisan, independent and professionally developed Comprehensive Remedial Plan that will bring quality education to all school children. It should fully-fund the first two years of the plan.

But here’s what else legislators should know. If they don’t act, the governor will. Not only does the governor have the authority to direct funding to implement the order – but should for some reason Gov. Roy Cooper be reluctant, Superior Court Judge David Lee has the power to order Cooper to use his authority to get it done.

The editorial then goes on to explain how there is precedent for such an action by the executive on school funding. In 2005, then-Gov. Mike Easley took action to fund items (low-wealth schools, at-risk students, teacher recruitment, high school reform and pre-kindergarten programs) listed in a report from Judge Howard Manning.

The bottom line, according to the editorial:

The budget the legislature sends to the governor should include both funding for the next two years of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan for providing every child access to a quality education and a commitment to fully implement the plan over the next eight years.

Do that — include Medicaid expansion and Cooper’s plan for spending federal COVID-19 relief funds – and they’d have a deal he couldn’t refuse no matter what else – tax cuts, pork barrel spending for favored legislators — they might stuff into the spending plan.

Or, as the headline to the editorial puts it more succinctly, legislative leaders need to decide whether they’re going to be part of the solution or the problem.

Click here to read the entire essay.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt walks back comments about Senate fearing backlash over Critical Race Theory ban

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt has walked back comments she made last week suggesting the state Senate is reluctant to take up a bill prohibiting school districts from teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) because it fears a backlash from corporate interests.

Truitt, a Republican, made the comment June 10 during a “meet and greet” with Orange County Republicans.

“I shared that I thought the Senate may not take up the bill (House Bill 324) out of concern for bad publicity with the business community,” Truitt said in a statement. “In conversations since, it’s clear the Senate will move a bill they feel is in the best interest of NC, its students, and will not bend to the whims of corporations and tech companies.”

Republican-led legislatures across the country have sought to pass laws prohibiting the teaching of CRT, an academic theory that examines how American racism has shaped public policy.

Critics contend CRT is divisive and paints whites as “irredeemable” racists. “It’s the idea that every aspect of American society is racist,” Truitt explained.

Meanwhile, those who support CRT say it’s important that children learn “hard, uncomfortable truths” about America’s racial history, which includes slavery, Jim Crow Law and the brutal lynching of Blacks at the hands of white mobs.

Truitt had speculated in Orange County that Senate leaders are worried that companies such as Apple and Google, both of which plan to make substantial investments in the state, would react negatively to HB 324.

In 2016, the passage of House Bill 2 requiring people to use public bathrooms that match their birth gender and excluded gay and transgender people from discrimination protections touched off an tsunami of outrage among companies doing business in the state.

HB 2 was repealed after businesses, musicians and others began to cancel investment plans and performances.

“The kind of cowardice that we saw during House Bill 2 with corporations boycotting us is the same cowardice we see in corporations today,” Truitt said in Orange County.

Earlier this year, Truitt fought against the inclusion of phrases such as systemic racism, systemic discrimination and gender identity in the state’s new social studies standards.

However, Truitt had never been as explicit about her opposition to CRT as she was in the statement walking back comments about the Senate’s reluctance to take up HB 324.

“As your superintendent, I will continue to do everything I can to stop CRT and eradicate it from classrooms,” Truitt said. “Republicans in NC are united on this.”

The superintendent has faced criticism in some conservative quarters for not doing enough to rid North Carolina schools of CRT. Education First Alliance NC, a conservative group linked to a national organization that has vowed to fight against CRT, has been especially critical of Truitt.

Truitt sought to shore up her conservative credentials while in Orange County.

“I am a pro-life conservative who believes that the nine scariest words in the English language are; ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” Truitt said, paraphrasing one of former president Ronald Reagan’s more memorable quips.

NC GOP lawmakers advance election laws changes premised on Trump’s delusions and lies

North Carolina legislators – offering what amounts to a snappy salute in the direction of Mar-a-Lago – are well on their way toward fixing an election law that’s anything but broken.

If they succeed, they will have managed to inject a dose of inconvenience and uncertainty into the state’s system of mail-in absentee voting, which proved so popular last fall as an alternative to in-person voting during the pandemic.

Mail-in voting, Tar Heel style, worked just fine despite a record turnout. But that hasn’t stopped our former president from complaining about any voting regime that allows ballots received after Election Day to be counted, even if they were provably mailed by an Election Day deadline.

It’s part of Donald Trump’s ongoing grand exercise in cynical disinformation intended to convince Americans that he defeated Joe Biden, facts to the contrary – an exercise that plainly spurred the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.

For the past dozen years, an otherwise eligible North Carolinian who wanted to vote by mail has had until Election Day proper to send in his or her ballot. It has to be postmarked to show that it was cast no later than that day. To be counted, it must be received by the voter’s county elections board within three days afterward.

In essence, that has put absentee voters on the same footing as those who go to the polls in person. People in both categories could wait until Election Day to finalize their choices and fill out their ballots – a voter-friendly accommodation that in the aggregate helps boost the quality of those chosen.

There was one notable exception to that process. Last year, with absentee ballot volumes soaring off the charts at the same time mail deliveries were bogging down because of ill-conceived and ill-timed cost-cutting efforts by the Postal Service, the deadline for receipt was stretched to nine days after Election Day.

That drove Republican legislators up the wall. They claimed the State Board of Elections had usurped legislative prerogatives in making the change, even though a court challenge along those lines flopped. Three state senators – Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine, Paul Newton of Mount Pleasant and Warren Daniel of Morganton – began pushing to strip away the post-election grace period entirely.

False on fraud

Thus emerged Senate Bill 326, now dubbed the Election Day Integrity Act. The bill was approved by Senate elections and rules committees on June 9 and June 10, respectively. It has a clear path forward with support from the full chamber’s Republican majority. The larger picture: Donald Trump claims, with zero justification, that post-Election Day ballot counting is a recipe for fraud. His allies then jump to abolish a provision that helps all voters, of whichever party or none, and that has functioned apparently without a hitch.

Democratic Sen. Natasha Marcus of Charlotte unloosed one of several volleys of criticism directed at the bill during committee proceedings. She told the elections panel it would force absentee voters to guess when their ballots would have to be mailed so they would be counted, leaving them “at the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service.” Which, of course, has been dogged by suspicion that delivery slowdowns were engineered by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the big-time Trump campaign donor from Greensboro.

Although bill sponsors maintained that voters would adjust to the new requirement, they failed to acknowledge that in 2020, plenty of valid ballots came in after Election Day. That suggests many voters took advantage of all the available time, perhaps to decide on their preferred candidates (Trump and Biden were at the top of a very long ballot). The upshot of making the mailed-ballot option clunkier and less reliable: as Marcus put it, “Bipartisan disenfranchisement.”

Sen. Daniel framed the bill as an effort to boost voters’ confidence that election results are fairly and honestly recorded. “Dragging out the process breeds distrust,” he said, asserting that 28 states already require mailed absentee ballots to be received no later than Election Day.

Of course that means North Carolina, with its grace period, already has plenty of company – and far better for our state to encourage more voting rather than less, even if that runs afoul of Trump’s bogus “stolen election” theory.  Read more

After passing the House, bill regulating PFAS in firefighting foam lingers in Senate

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, has co-sponsored several bills that would regulate toxic PFAS in North Carolina. (Photo: NCGA)

Lawmakers dedicated to eradicating “forever chemicals” from water supplies across the state filed three bills this session that would more stringently regulate PFAS, also known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Only one has made it out of committee and has a chance of becoming law.

While the larger, sweeping bills were aspirational, legislation regulating toxic fire foam did pass the full House in May, raising hopes that this year could be more promising. 

“You would have thought that after Gen X in the Cape Fear, that we would get more movement than we have,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), who has worked on PFAS legislation for years. “But we couldn’t even take a crisis and turn it into really strong legislation, so we’ve got these sort of incremental approaches.”

PFAS are a large group of human-made chemicals commonly used in industrial production, firefighting foams and consumer products. They have chemical properties which make them water-, oil-,  and grease- resistant, and difficult to degrade.

“PFAS don’t break down, they move from place to place, they accumulate in living organisms, and the ones we’ve studied show adverse health effects.” said Jamie DeWitt, associate professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology at East Carolina University.

Highest exposures have been documented in people who live near industries that use PFAS in their products and individuals whose drinking water is contaminated with high levels of PFAS.

PFAS have been termed “forever chemicals” because they persist in the environment for decades and are found in the organs, tissues, and blood of both people and animals. The amount of PFAS in an individual’s system increases with higher exposure. 

High levels of PFAS have been linked to higher blood cholesterol, increased risk of thyroid disease, and decreased vaccine response. They can also cause reproductive issues such as decreased fertility in women, increased risk of pregnancy complications, and lower infant birth weight.

“As a toxicologist who tries to understand how PFAS exposure affects the immune system, it’s surprising to me that more data aren’t available on their health effects,” DeWitt said.

The full House passed a bill banning the use of foam containing PFAS during firefighting training Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover) is the primary sponsor. There are 13 co-sponsors, 11 of them Democrats and two Republicans. Harrison said she expects the bill to pass this session.

“We had this small bill to tackle this easy piece. That took a few years to get past the industry,” Harrison said.

 The bill, HB 355, would also require fire departments to report their use of aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF). PFAS is a major ingredient in AFFF, which are effective at extinguishing caused by flammable liquids. In December 2019, Congress directed the military to phase out the use of PFAS firefighting foam by 2024.

But in North Carolina, broader bills, including one that would impose an outright ban on PFAS within the state, Harrison said, were filed to be purely aspirational. The bill banning PFAS was also filed last session, but did not pass.

“Getting an outright ban of that chemical is going to be tough right now, in the current political climate,” Harrison said. 

Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) is the primary sponsor of HB 444, which would compel companies who discharge PFAS into public water supplies to provide permanent water replacements. 

Butler said the bill is a “natural extension” of a bill passed in 2018, which mandated that companies like Chemours provide alternative water supplies to those people with contaminated private wells.

However, the bill never got out of committee.

The bill’s intent is to reduce the cost and burden of providing safe water on the ratepayers of public water supplies. As authorities attempt to remove PFAS using new technology, this would save users of public water supplies increased water bills.

Butler uses Wilmington as an example. Currently, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is building a $50 million granulated carbon filtration system to get PFAS out of the public drinking supply. If passed, the bill would compel Chemours to pay for the technology. 

Harrison is the primary sponsor on two other PFAS-related bills — HB 502, calling for increased mitigation measures, and HB 503, which directs agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Environmental Quality to study issues associated with PFAS contamination in areas like the Cape Fear River. It also requires the Office of State Budget and Management to estimate the costs of PFAS contamination in the state. 

Both stalled in committee and it is unlikely they will be taken up this session.

It’s been five years since the Wilmington Star News first reported that GenX, a member of PFAS, was found in the Cape Fear River, tipping off a state-wide investigation. Data in 2020 showed that the level of PFOS in the Cape Fear River Basin was more than 14 times greater than what the federal Environmental Protection Agency has advised is safe. 

The contamination was traced to Fayetteville Works, a manufacturing site that the Chemours Company has run since 2015. It was run by DuPont prior to that, when the plant began discharging GenX since at least the 1980s, when chemical giant DuPont owned the plant. 

The Department of Environmental Quality mandated Chemours to stop dumping toxic waste into the Cape Fear River, and the company signed a consent order in 2019 with treatment measures designed to stop 99% of residual PFAS from seeping into the river. Most recently, North Carolina environmental regulators fined Chemours almost $200,000 for failing to meet the terms of the consent order.

Neither DEQ nor the EPA has enforceable drinking water standards and regulations on PFAS.

Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat, lives in New Hanover County where PFAS entered the drinking water supply. (Photo: NCGA)

How other states have regulated PFAS

Because of these chemicals’ prevalence and the negative effects, lawmakers in many states have proposed legislation to reduce the impact on their constituents.

New Jersey has taken aim at PFAS by passing their own Safe Drinking Water Act. The act specified that in the first quarter of 2021 all public water systems would begin monitoring two types of the compounds — PFOA and PFOS — and that levels would not exceed 13 parts per trillion.

In California, lawmakers have created comprehensive legislation of PFAS monitoring and notification. Chapter 4, Article 3 of the California Safe Drinking Water Act states that if the amount of PFAS in any water system is found to be above the set maximum level, those in charge of the water system must notify those who use said system within 30 days of the confirmed PFAS detection.

The act goes on to describe that if public water PFAS levels exceed 5.1 parts per trillion, the system providing the water must take specific steps to notify those affected. Steps include, sending both letter mail and email of the notice, as well as posting the notice online, in local newspapers, and around the area affected. The notice must also describe the confirmed detection, health risks of PFAS exposure and the populations that may be vulnerable.

Do these bills do enough?

Although other states have made strides towards reducing and banning PFAS, North Carolina still has a long way to go.

“To be realistic, I don’t expect a ban on PFAS to pass in North Carolina,” Rep. Harrison said “It might pass in California, but not here. But if we set a standard of what is a best-case scenario, maybe we’ll get close to that by at least limiting its use.”

Many environmental organizations in the state have felt similarly about the lack of action  for PFAS regulation. 

In October 2020, six North Carolina environmental groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Toxic Substances Control Act, to have the Chemours chemical company fund health studies on 54 types of PFAS that were released from its Fayetteville Works plant. The petition was rejected.

One of the groups from the 2020 petition, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), stated that they believe “chemical makers have no right to expose [people] to concoctions that affect [their] family’s health.”

Right now the groups have their focus on the EPA and Biden Administration to overturn the rejected petition they filed.

Where do we go from here?

Butler warns there will be litigation pending on the bill requiring pollutants to pay for water replacements in public water supplies.

“It’s gonna take years and years and years and years, and that’s part of the polluters playbook,” Butler said. “They have very deep pockets. They can pay the lawyers forever.”

Butler fears that by the time people stop turning a blind eye to PFAS accumulation, it’ll be too late to clean them up. 

“We can all live, believe it or not, without Teflon,” Butler said. “I like the non-stick pan as much as anybody, but I don’t need them anymore.”

Ramishah Maruf is a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill.

‘There’s no integrity in it.’ Voting-rights advocates denounce NC elections legislation

Voting-rights advocates denounced moves in the legislature they said would put ballots at risk of not being counted and counties at risk of not having enough money to run elections.

“As we’re seeing across the country this year, hundreds of bills that chip away at voter access are being advanced at an alarming rate,” said Chantal Stevens, ACLU of North Carolina executive director. “The bills being considered in our General Assembly come from this national playbook.”

Speakers at a news conference Monday criticized three Senate bills

  • Senate bill 326 would set a deadline of 5 p.m. on election day for mail-in ballots, eliminating the three-day grace period for ballots postmarked by election day.
  • Senate bill 724 would require the State Board of Elections to set up an online voter registration system, even though the state Division of Motor Vehicles already has one. The news conference organizers said the proposal would “needlessly complicate online voter registration.”
  • Senate bill 725 would prohibit the State Board of Elections and county boards from accepting private donations to help fund elections. Last year, the State Board and county boards applied for grants from nonprofits to help fund elections in the pandemic, Policy Watch has reported. The State Board used the money for two mailers to voters, single-use pens, and bonuses for workers at one-stop voting sites. The legislature appropriated $100 bonuses for election day workers, but left out workers who staffed early voting sites. Those who worked at early one-stop early voting sites received $19.56 for each day they worked. The State Board and 35 counties received grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy gave elections grants to 10 counties. Conservative commentators jumped on the grants financed with Zuckerberg money, and states including Georgia and Arizona are banning outside elections donations.

“Voter suppression is about control – the ability to keep certain groups from exercising our fundamental right to choose how we are governed,” Stevens said. “Although these bills may appear to make small changes, they would have a big impact on voters and weaken our democracy.”

For more than 10 years, North Carolina has had a three-day grace period for mail-in ballots that are post-marked by election day to arrive at county elections boards.

At a Senate committee meeting last week, Sen. Paul Newton, a Republican representing District 36 in Cabarrus and Union counties, said counting ballots after election day “causes distrust in the process.”

For the 2020 elections, about 11,000 mail-in absentee ballots arrived in the three days after election day. Trash bags filled with paper were placed beside the speakers’ stand Monday to symbolize ballots that would be thrown out if the three-day window had been closed for last November’s election.

“This is called an Election Integrity Act, but there’s no integrity in it,” said La’Meshia Kaminski, Advance Carolina deputy political director. “We’ve seen this Jim Crow,” she said. “This is 2.0.”

The legislature in 2009 voted unanimously to set the mail-in ballot return deadline for three days after an election, said Jane Pinsky, director of the NC Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform. Sen. Phil Berger, now the chamber’s leader, and now-House Speaker Tim Moore were among those voting in favor.