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  • Does your vote really count, or is it ‘wasted’?

    There is a lot of talk these days about protecting the integrity of the voting process. North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature passed restrictive voter ID laws, later struck down by the courts, to purportedly save us from voter fraud. As the courts noted, there’s little evidence voter fraud exists. But there’s plenty for another practice that undermines the voting process. It’s called gerrymandering. In May and June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down two North Carolina Congressional districts and 28 state House and Senate districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. The state spent millions of tax dollars defending against predictable challenges to district maps that were blatantly intended to keep Republicans in power. The N.C. GOP might have prevailed had it not packed the districts it was prepared to concede with African American voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 makes racial gerrymandering illegal. The Supreme Court has been reluctant to get involved in partisan gerrymandering, with some justices asserting that it invades a traditional domain of state authority. Lawyers for Republicans argued that African Americans weren’t packed into a few districts because of race; it was because they were Democrats. The court didn’t buy it. A majority of justices agreed that if a significant number of voters are placed in a district because of their race, it doesn’t matter what other objective lawmakers had. In cases in 1986, 2004 and 2006, a majority of the court agreed that partisan gerrymandering violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. But it has been unable to find a standard for evaluating when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far. That may be about to change. This fall the Court will hear Whitford v. Gill, a case out of Wisconsin that advances a standard called the “efficiency gap.” In the 2012 elections, Wisconsin Democrats received a majority of the statewide vote, but only 39 percent of the seats. That only happens if the districts are drawn so that Democrats’ votes have been what University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos calls “packed” and “cracked.” In this case, the Republicans had packed Democrats into a small number of districts where the Democrats won by large margins. They “cracked” the remaining Democratic votes among the majority of districts so there were too few in any of them to win, giving Republicans narrow victories. Stephanopoulos and political scientist Eric McGhee came up with the idea of using the “efficiency gap” to measure the resulting wasted votes. A panel of federal judges accepted this standard and ruled the Wisconsin districts unconstitutional, ordering them redrawn by the 2018 election. The case is now before the Supreme Court. The North Carolina maps the court ordered redrawn for racial gerrymandering gave Republicans a 10-3 majority in Congress even though the Democrats got 46 percent of the statewide Congressional vote, which would have resulted in five or six Democratic seats if districts had been drawn fairly. Those maps are among more than 40 cases where a court has had to intervene in NC redistricting since 1980, according to the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, which means Democrats were just as guilty when they controlled the state legislature. This travesty leaves voters never knowing which district they’ll be in, costs the state millions of dollars, promotes polarization and cheats voters of government that is truly representative. HB 200, a bill introduced by Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, offers one way for voters to reclaim their rightful role in choosing their representatives. It would establish a nonpartisan legislative staff to draw district maps. Just as with similar bills in previous sessions, it died in committee. Going back to 1992, about half of legislative races in North Carolina have had only one candidate on the ballot. In the 2016 campaign, about one-third of the 170 N.C. House and Senate seats were essentially decided by the filing deadline, giving voters no choice. Since 1963 when the court decided a case called Gray v. Sanders, states have had to adhere to the “one person, one vote” rule, meaning they must draw districts with roughly equal population. That rule is sabotaged when votes are “wasted.” When voting is compromised, democracy itself is compromised. If serving the state’s rather than their own interests were lawmakers’ first priority, they would pass McGrady’s bill. That’s what we should demand. Otherwise, our only hope for a process that makes “one person, one vote” mean something rests in the Supreme Court. This is the opinion of Carolina Commentary, a not-for-profit platform established for the purpose of commenting on North Carolina public policy issues. To learn more go to C

  • Who will petition to right this injustice?

    One of the great things about being American is our First Amendment right to petition our government for redress of grievances. A new and growing class of young Americans has such a grievance. Their government–by its actions and inaction–is ripping their lives apart and depriving many of the opportunity to grow up on their native soil. They are the American-born children whose undocumented parents are being deported under an executive order signed by President Trump soon after he took office. Take the case of Kris, Alex, Joseph and Nathan, sons of an undocumented single mother who has lived, gone to school and worked in Henderson County since 2000. Their mother, Ofelia, came to the U.S. without permission when she was 21. We agreed not to use her last name at the request of the older boys’ U.S. guardian. She was stopped at the border and questioned in English, which she did not speak or understand. She was released into the U.S. but, unknown to her, placed under a deportation order. Ofelia went to school and became a nursing assistant. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. when she was three months old, leaving her with grandparents in Mexico. Her father had become an American citizen, so he could sponsor his daughter for legal residency. In March 2001, he filed the paperwork. In 2009, the petition establishing his right to apply on her behalf was finally approved, but while waiting for an available visa, her father died. Ofelia’s opportunity to get a green card died with him, according to her attorney Joan Waldron. By this time Ofelia had a job and American-born children. She remained in the U.S., unaware of the deportation order. In 2014, the father of her youngest son falsely charged her with stalking. The charges were dropped, but brought her to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead of deporting her, ICE placed her under supervision, requiring her to check in once a year. After Trump’s change of policy, her attorney warned her that she would likely be deported. So Ofelia prepared. When the order came, she left Kris, 16, and Alex, 14, in the care of Dr. James Horwitz and his wife, Deanna. Ofelia had worked for Horwitz, a Hendersonville pediatrician, for five years. The boys are all smart and doing well in school, Deanna Horwitz said. Kris sings, dances and acts. He’s appeared in several Flat Rock Theater productions and had the lead in “Anything Goes” at the Southeastern Summer Theater Institute at Hilton Head Island on June 15 when his mother left for Mexico. Alex, who plays saxophone and lacrosse, wants to be a Marine. The youngest boys, Nathan, 4, and Joseph,10, left for Mexico with their mother, to the home of Ofelia’s 93-year-old grandfather about an hour from Guadalajara. After she arrived, Ofelia called Horwitz’s office and said she had gotten a kitten for Nathan, who was heartbroken because they’d had to give away their dog and cat. He named the kitten “Captain America.” Joseph was finding odd jobs to do for neighbors, she said. Worried that the schools would be inadequate, Ofelia took materials to homeschool her sons. “They are her life,” Horwitz said of the four boys. Ofelia had managed to buy a modest home. She had become a certified translator. She made sure her sons had the lessons, braces and other things they needed. By all accounts, our government deported a hard-working single mother rearing four young Americans, who by every indication will grow up to be successful, contributing citizens. Two have lost access to their mother. Two have been forced to leave their homeland. A backlogged, dysfunctional immigration system and inconsistent enforcement created this calamity, as it has many others. While these young Americans have their lives compromised, partisanship defeats any meaningful reform. Ofelia’s story is a perfect example of what continues to renew America’s greatness–a hard working parent who, against the odds, inspires her children to live their dreams. It is the story of many immigrant families whose enormous potential is unleashed by the heady mixture of freedom and opportunity that Americans too often take for granted because for them, it’s always been there. Who will petition for them? All of us who care about justice and about our country’s future should be their advocates. We should hound our lawmakers until they end these deportations, provide a path for the deported parents of minor American children to return to the U.S., and reform the system that set this and similar painful separations in motion. This is the opinion of Carolina Commentary, a not-for-profit platform established for the purpose of commenting on North Carolina public policy issues. To learn more go to

  • Darkness will fall but don’t sweat it

    Buzz is starting to build mightily regarding the solar eclipse here Aug. 21, and a lot of preparations are underway. Sylva will have a full weekend of events starting on Friday the 18th and culminating with the eclipse totality at 2:35 p.m. on Monday the 21st. As Monday the 21st also marks the opening of school at Western Carolina University, that site will be host to plenty of events as well. Much more to come on these pages as summer unwinds. This is a big deal, the first total solar eclipse over the continental United States in 38 years (and that one just grazed a few states in the Northwest). It should be a grand and memorable event. A somewhat refreshing angle to the eclipse is that it’s been completely devoid, to date, of the sort of panic human beings have been so good at of late regarding such momentous events. I’m still ticked off about how Y2K intruded as the calendar turned over both a new century and new millennium as we saw 1999 wind down. Instead of enjoying being alive at a time we could see such a historic milestone, most of us were instead worried about our computers locking up, our planes crashing, our electricity going out and our food supply chains locking up, sending us all right back to the stone age. Now I’ll admit I did a bit of prepper stuff myself. Back before Thanksgiving I purchased two cans of Spam in an attempt to begin hoarding in advance of the apocalypse. The flaw in my plan was that I forgot I like Spam, and I wound up eating both cans well before Christmas, but you couldn’t say I didn’t try. We’re good at falling for panics. Back in 1806 a chicken had people in England convinced judgment day was coming. Dubbed the Prophet Hen of Leeds, the bird was apparently laying eggs with the words “Christ is coming’’ written on them. The chicken built up quite a following before someone figured out the whole thing was a hoax. How? Well, this a family newspaper and the process was pretty icky so I’m not going to go into it. Look it up yourself. In recent memory we’ve had scares over things like the Mayan calendar. Last year we had creepy clowns in the woods. Remember them? Where’d they go? Did they all get elected to Congress or what? I go down this path because eclipses were the source of a great deal of superstition in the past, and given the fear peddlers out there today, could be the source of a lot of nonsense in the here and now. What will happen? Well, it will get dark – totality is expected for 1 minute 45 seconds in Sylva, 1 minute 50 in Dillsboro, 1:55 in Cullowhee and 2:23 in Cashiers. How should you prepare? On my part, I’ve taken to leaning back in my chair at the Herald and closing my eyes, longer even than 1 minute and 50 seconds. At times I’ve gone an hour or two. My co-workers suspect I’m sleeping but I assure them it’s just simple planning ahead. When they point out two hours is a bit much, I tell them it’s in case the moon gets stuck. As to the snoring, well, I had to lie about that. (Heh, I’m new here and they’re young, so I figure I may as well run with it while I can). Come Aug. 21, the temperature will dip a good bit, street lights will pop on and some wildlife will probably be confused as all get-out. And that’s it. You will have witnessed an historic event to carry in your memory for years. Enjoy it. Jim Buchanan

  • Pressure mounting on the press

    Wow, I’m loving this version of America, the one where we are so great and all. You heard the latest on our climb back to the top, the Montana politician who last month body slammed, then punched, a reporter who questioned him about health care? I’m telling you what, that’s really great. Even greater than that, the guy doing the punching raked in donations afterwards and won election to the U.S. Congress. It would appear a lot of people approved of Republican Greg Gianforte’s beating up a member of the media. You know, the lame-stream media. The liberal media. The crooked media. Our enemies, the media, those people who are stopping us, America, from being great. A free press? To heck with it. If it doesn’t fit our world view, it can’t be true. Real news is fake news, or at least those facts we don’t like. I witnessed a journalist get pushed around, years ago, while we partnered on a story about a teacher arrested for sex crimes. The photographer and I were in a courthouse stairwell. I was trying to get comment from the suspect. Meanwhile, the photographer was backing down the stairs snapping pictures, a precarious, exposed position. Suddenly, the suspect’s brother exploded, shoving my colleague. We got out of the dicey situation a bit shaken, but otherwise unharmed. We discussed what to do. The brother who had pushed him was a court official in another county. The father, who had been in the stairwell, was a member of law enforcement. We were fully within our legal rights asking questions and taking photographs. They both knew that. We could press charges. We could call the guy’s boss. We could write an article about what had happened. Any one of those three actions could have ended the young court official’s career – almost certainly so, if he were to be convicted of misdemeanor assault or the situation was publicized. Ultimately, we did none of those things. Whether we made the correct decision is debatable, but the photographer and I decided the brother, who was clearly overwrought, embarrassed and humiliated, had acted out of those emotions. We felt sorry for him, though it did not excuse his behavior. What emotions, pray tell me, with the possible exceptions of blind anger and towering arrogance, did Gianforte feel when he attacked that Guardian reporter? Apparently, this businessman and politician had grown weary of questions. He told the reporter in the course of battering him: “I’m sick and tired of you guys.” What did he expect when he decided to seek public office? No questions? Three questions only? A two question limit? One is allowed? Before the assault and as reported by the Missoulian newspaper, in April, a man during a campaign stop said to the candidate: “Our biggest enemy is the news media.” He then asked Gianforte, “How can we rein in the news media?’” The audience member followed up his question by turning to a reporter who was sitting next to him, and “raised his hands as if he would like to wring his neck.” Gianforte smiled, pointed at the reporter and said: “It seems like there is more of us than there is of him.” “Him” is a journalist. “Us” would do away with “him.” Get it? This vision of a great America is devoid of reporters asking pesky questions. That scares the dickens out of me. And unless you are one of the Gianfortes of the world, I believe such a prospect should scare you, too. “You” and “us” are in this together, whether we are Democrats, Republicans, progressives or members of the Tea Party; whether we work for major newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post … or at a small weekly in the mountains of North Carolina. I suggest “we,” those of us who are believers in the U.S. Constitution, must keep this thing called a free press afloat. North Carolina’s Constitution frames the situation to perfection: “Freedom of speech and of the press are two of the great bulwarks of liberty and therefore shall never be restrained, but every person shall be held responsible for their abuse.” Published with permission of The Sylva Herald

  • Vouchers are an idea that has been floated repeatedly

    Here in North Carolina, through painful experience, we know a thing or two about floods. With a flood, most of the focus – necessarily – is on not being swept away in the turbulent waters. But there’s more than the rushing waters. There’s what’s beneath – who knows what kind of contaminants picked up in the deluge, who knows what kinds of creepy-crawlies lurking beneath. That’s the way it is with Washington these days. The normal trickle of news out of the White House and Congress has turned into a flood of information. Beneath the roiling surface of that flood there are things of which we’d best be wary. While the nation is distracted by a torrent of news, political leaders inside the beltway have been busily working toward painting a bullseye on the back of Medicare – “bullseye’’ in this case being spelled v-o-u-c-h-e-r. Vouchers are an idea that has been floated repeatedly, a favorite of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin. Ryan’s vision goes by the benign moniker “A Better Way.’’ The end vision of A Better Way would offer privately managed health plans, with the government providing a stipend, or voucher, enabling people to buy their own health insurance. That sounds nice in theory, but has a lousy track record in reality. If voucher attempts had worked in the past, we’d have such a system already in place. Instead, reduced coverage, annual and lifetime caps, higher deductibles and skyrocketing cost growth promise to be the legacy of vouchers. Currently, Medicare provides a guaranteed level of coverage for doctor visits and hospital care. With vouchers, the guarantees disappear. Medicare as we have known it will cease to exist. Back when Ryan was taking the first bite at this apple in 2011, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that by 2022 health care spending under vouchers would consume about half of a typical 65-year-old’s Social Security check, compared to 22 percent under current Medicare. Spending aside, there’s also the prospect that if you couldn’t afford available plans with what a voucher is worth you’d simply be out of luck. That’s a hard sell; so don’t except to hear much about it. Instead, expect to hear a lot of talk in coming days about Medicare being doomed. You’ll also hear the phrase “entitlement reform’’ bandied about quite a bit. That’s a nasty little rhetorical shift that should be surprising, and insulting, to anyone who has paid taxes into the system during a working career. Now that you’re expecting some of that money back, it’s suddenly become an entitlement. The voucher selling point is that it would spur competition and offer more choices thanks to the wonders of the free market. But as the value of vouchers are not designed to keep pace with the rate of healthcare inflation, and given the fact private insurance costs generally rise faster than the costs of Medicare, it’s easy to see that the voucher concept simply transferring costs government to seniors – and increasing them along the way. Wendell Potter, a former health insurance industry executive turned consumer advocate, pointed out the pitfalls of the private market salvation theory in a 2015 commentary. “Consider this: one of the reasons Medicare was created in the first place was because insurance companies really didn’t want old people as customers. To discourage older folks from even applying, the insurers adopted the practice of charging people five to ten times as much as younger people for the exact same policy. Worse, they refused to sell coverage at any price to people with pre-existing conditions. It’s little wonder that growing numbers of senior citizens were going uninsured.’’(Incidentally, older folks can be charged five times what younger people pay under the ACHA. The classics never go out of style). Writing in Time Magazine, here’s what AARP President Eric Schneidewind had to say about premium care back in January: “While Speaker Ryan has dubbed his voucher-based approach ‘premium support,’ no one should be misled by the benign-sounding term. This is a clear downgrade of the Medicare benefits people have earned throughout their working lives, and the use of buzzwords like ‘modernization’ and ‘choice’ cannot hide the fact that seniors will be asked to bear more risk at greater personal cost.” Vouchers represent a static sum, which might sound nice in theory but don’t hold up under the harsh light of reality. The health of human beings is not static. Vouchers would seem to be a clunky solution should you wander out of your Goldilocks health zone. It’s easy for all this to get lost in the flood of 24/7 news alerts consuming our time these days. But there are some nasty things like the voucher push lurking underneath. We’d best keep our eyes peeled. By Jim Buchanan, AARP North Carolina

  • Kicking a dead mule – how the new AHCA fails

    Why anyone would attempt to revive a health care reform bill that sank into the waters of the Potomac just weeks ago is a puzzler. Why they would revive it and attempt to pass it by making it potentially even less popular is more puzzling still. Yet that’s where we find ourselves, as the House Freedom Caucus, led by Rep. Mark Meadows, NC-11, who appears to have caved to Washington’s pressure for a dramatic “win.” Now, repealing the patient protections in the Affordable Care Act has been something of a great white whale to idealogic Captain Ahabs since the day it was passed. The House voted over 60 times to repeal the ACA’s protections, with Representatives knowing they wouldn’t be held accountable to voters stripped of those critical protections. The actuality of replace-and-repeal coming to pass likely wound up residing in the public conscience alongside the prospect of the Cubs winning the World Series. But the Cubs proved capable last year of taking a different playing field, and it’s a different playing field in Washington with complete GOP control of government. President Trump was looking long and hard for a legislative victory to cap his first 100 days, and ACA repeal topped the list of possible deals. The first effort wound up being politically toxic to the point it never made it to the House floor for a vote. Its failure wasn’t surprising. For example, most voters age 55-64 who bought health insurance on the individual market would have seen out-of-pocket shares of healthcare premiums spike about $5,800 a year in western NC. The plan also held the potential of 24 million Americans losing their health care coverage. Although the details are a moving target, the gist of the new and improved American Health Care Act appears to carry little in the way of new and zero in the way of improved. Key language worked on at least in part by Meadows and Rep. Tom MacArthur tweaks the AHCA to allow states to seek waivers to remove the patient protections, allowing insurance companies to reject customers who have pre-existing conditions such as cancer, asthma, high blood pressure, or even pregnancy. For those contemplating genetic testing, insurance companies potentially could even use genetic disposition to deny coverage. In turn, states requesting the waivers would be required to implement protections to curb cost hikes for those with pre-existing conditions – for example, high risk pools. An AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) study shows the results of states taking a dip in high risk pools, and the results aren’t encouraging. The PPI report shows premiums as much as 200 percent higher than those offered in the market, featured waiting periods of as much as a year to cover related or preexisting conditions, yearly deductibles up to $25,000 and annual coverage limits as low as $75,000, not to mention lifetime caps on coverage and restrictions on some specific benefits like prescription drug coverage. Given the onerous restrictions, it’s understandable some people put off or skipped care, with predictable adverse results. But even with the high premiums, the state programs covered on average only a little more than half of program costs and operating at a loss wasn’t uncommon. Efforts to make up shortfalls with strategies like assessments on insurers financing from general revenue funds fell short, and as a result, states often had to look to capping or closing enrollment. By the close of 2011 the state pools enrolled less than a quarter-million people, or as PPI notes, 0.6 percent of the total uninsured population in the states that had turned to pools. It’s important to stress that the temporary high-risk pools under the Affordable Care Act fared poorly as well. The free market has failed to solve the affordability problem for those with pre-existing conditions, as has the states, as has the federal government. On the political front, Meadows rightly stood firm last month and is in about as safe as seat as there is in the country. Now, however, he appears to have caved, and loyal voters who have to buy the new AHCA’s insurance will pay the price. Still, a quote used by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell back in 2013 comes to mind: “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.’’ ACHA 2.0 could carry such a kick for politicians. But far more importantly, there’s little doubt of the kick it would deliver constituents. It’s an education we can do without. By Jim Buchanan, AARP North Carolina

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