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  • Focus on Recovery

    The General Assembly’s Job Number One should be focusing on recovery from the economic devastation wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular attention paid to immediately fixing the state’s broken unemployment benefits system. But in the 2020 short session, lawmakers have also turned their attention to other matters, one of which is welcome news indeed. Reps. Steven Ross (R-Alamance) and Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba) have introduced House Bill 1111, also known as the “Sunshine Amendment.’’ Simply put, the legislation gets serious about safeguarding the p ublic’s right to know what their government is up to. It would codify that right in the N.C. Constitution and add requirements that any move to curb current public access to government records and meetings would have to clear a supermajority – two-thirds of the vote – in both the state House and Senate. If the measure clears the legislature, it will be on the statewide ballot as a constitutional amendment in November for approval by N.C. voters. Similar measures have passed in California and Florida by wide margins. The need for such an amendment is obvious. Elected officials and the state bureaucracy work for and are paid by the taxpayers. It’s our right to know where our tax dollars are going and how decisions are made. The matter has added urgency here in the days of coronavirus, when the very nature of public meetings has changed radically from in-person gatherings to Zoom meetings, emails, instant messaging and texts. Those are all public record. Another good reason is the contraction of media in the state, particularly the press corps covering state government. We live in a state with a population of 10 million people, and a big, complex government serves their need. The press needs every bit of help it can in keeping the public informed. Media lawyer John Bussian, who represents the N.C. Press Association and the Carolina Journal, told CJ “Given the light the virus crisis has shed on the need for government accountability — and the need for the government to be upfront with people — there couldn’t be a better time for the Sunshine Amendment to be put on the ballot.” This one’s a no-brainer. We hope legislative leaders give it the attention it deserves.

  • Pandemic offers chance to remedy structural ills

    The Covid-19 pandemic highlights long-standing social ills, but it also offers an opportunity for government to experiment with actions to correct some of the dynamics that undermine our social structure and threaten our stability as a nation. Widening income, wealth, education and health care disparities contribute to political polarization, but so far there’s little evidence the political will exists to improve conditions that keep some in society down while enriching others. The influx of Covid-19 stimulus money offers North Carolina an opportunity to address some of these problems. Failure to face them now imposes future fiscal and social costs on everyone. The pandemic exposes historical social dynamics, according to Jay Pearson of the Sanford Public Policy School at Duke. He researches structural inequality and its influence on health determinants. The dynamics “are playing out exactly the way those of us studying it have been arguing they would for the last 40 years.” The most at risk include African Americans, Latinx, essential workers, the elderly and people without enough food. This partial Covid-19 worry list demonstrates the crisis at hand: an expected rebound in Covid deaths, post-lockdown; a drop in U.S. spending: and a 14.7 percent unemployment rate. Frontline, essential workers, earning low wages in person-to-person high-contact jobs, sometimes without sick pay, are among the most vulnerable. Some are even penalized for calling in sick. They face a choice between working, and exposing family to a deadly virus, or not working and going without pay. Either could be life-threatening. North Carolina could implement public policies that benefit these high-risk workers—janitors, bus drivers, cashiers, and more. Such policies could not only lift the consistently marginalized, but also save taxpayers money down the road. For example, when meat packing firms refuse to pay, and may even penalize workers for sick time, it could be argued that this amounts to a business subsidy for a behavior that endangers others. Such practices cost taxpayers, even absent a pandemic, through lower productivityand higher healthcare costs. Besides helping workers, requiring companies to offer paid sick time, as a number of states do, could go far in preventing the spread of Covid-19 as the state’s economy reopens. Another option would be to make better use of existing social assistance. Unemployment insurance and Medicaid are designed to support the jobless and uninsured, but North Carolina’s programs have draconian eligibility standards. Almost 11 percent of North Carolinians have no health insurance, the tenth highest rate in the nation. That threatens the health and finances of the uninsured, who may forgo preventive care and accrue medical debt. Only adults who are elderly, blind, pregnant, or living with the certified-disabled or dependent children are eligible for Medicaid. Even uninsured parents of children who are covered often can’t qualify: the adult threshold is $8,004 of annual income for a family of three, less than half that of the poverty line. Fewer than 10 percent of unemployed workers receive unemployment benefits, ranking North Carolina fiftieth among all states; the average unemployment check is $277 per week, with an average span of 8.7 weeks, next-to-last in the nation. In terms of lives saved (‘human capital’ in econ-speak), improving conditions that perpetuate social ills is not only doing good, it saves money. Every dollar spent on air pollution control, for instance, generates $30 in benefits, largely in healthcare and worker productivity, owing to fewer respiratory ailments, especially among children and old people. The 1.6 billion in Covid-19 relief allocated by the N.C. legislature, in federal CARES funds, allowed for expanded SNAP (food voucher) benefits for the poor. The money has also added to unemployment benefits. But the legislators failed to expand Medicaid eligibility nor did they revise North Carolina’s barriers to unemployment benefits. These trillions of pandemic dollars could address structural changes in health infrastructure and employment. That could include living wages and paid sick leave that would benefit all North Carolinians. “People are calling it a stimulus check—it’s a legitimate response to a social service need,” Duke’s Jay Pearson says. “I’m not sure the funds coming from the [federal government] are going to have an impact on the populations bearing the brunt.” That would be the shame of the pandemic: that we not only lose valuable lives, but fail to reclaim those who are endangered all the time, through chronic poverty and lack of opportunity.

  • Make voting easy and secure

    When state lawmakers return to Raleigh this week, they are expected to introduce a stand-alone elections bill that will have huge consequences for North Carolina voters. That legislation should be their first and most pressing concern. With the election barely more than six months away, time to print ballots, train poll workers, plan logistics and purchase protective gear for poll workers and voters is rapidly running through the hourglass. The first order of business should be to allocate roughly $4.5 million needed to match federal grants totaling $22.5 million available to help cover additional costs of holding an election during a pandemic. The grants include almost $11 million from the CARES Act passed in March and another $11.6 million from the Help America Vote Act passed in December 2019. Depending on the severity of the pandemic in the fall, mail-in absentee voting could increase from less than 5 percent to as much as 40 percent, according to some estimates. The cost of mail-in ballots varies from county to county, according to an investigative report by North Carolina Public Press, but postage, paper and printing will increase election costs, as will masks for poll workers and voters, sanitizing kits and other items to help keep everyone safe. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House Covid-19 task force, has predicted a resurgence in the fall and North Carolina needs to be prepared. That means lawmakers should do their part to make voting easier while continuing to guard against fraud. North Carolina already does a number of things right. Any registered voter can request an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse. Voters also have the option of one-stop in-person early voting at specified locations in their county of residence. When it comes to security, North Carolina requires voting machines to have paper ballots, which should be in use in all 100 counties by the November election, making the machines much harder to hack. But voters confined at home without access to a computer could find it challenging to access a State Absentee Ballot Request Form, which is available on the Board of Elections website and must be filled out to request a mail-in ballot. Many states allow voters to request a mail-in ballot by phone, and while that would cost more in staff time, it could be done safely by requiring the same information the written form requests. North Carolina is also one of only a handful of states that require either two witnesses or a notary public to certify an absentee ballot. Most North Carolinians live in homes with no more than two adults, meaning most sequestered at home won’t have more than one available witness, and those who live alone won’t have any. Eighty percent of states don’t have any witness requirements, and North Carolina should join them. None of the five states that send every registered voter a vote-at-home ballot (Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington) require witness or notary signatures on returned ballots. Colorado’s system is often held up as a national model and it is among the states with the highest voter turnout (60 percent vs. 48 percent nationally in the 2018 midterm elections). Colorado relies on maintaining accurate mailing lists and signature verification to insure against fraud and despite its high turnout only .0027 percent of ballots were even suspicious enough to investigate. North Carolina already uses identity verification (address, birthday, last four digits of a Social Security number, driver’s license number, etc.), which an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice listed as one of the most effective ways states can prevent mail-in ballot fraud. Others were barcodes on ballots, mail barcodes that allow tracking through the U.S. mail so voters and elections officials can tell whether ballots were delivered, secure drop-off locations and drop boxes, and post-election audits. As for the incidence of fraud, despite claims by President Trump that people cheat when they use mail-in ballots, the overwhelming evidence is that they don’t. And a huge plus for mail-in ballots is they can’t be hacked. It should be noted Trump votes by mail himself. In addition to making it easier to vote by mail, lawmakers also need to ensure the Board of Elections has the resources to hire and train enough poll workers to increase, rather than reduce, the number of polling stations. Poll workers tend to be older and many who have manned polls in the past may be reluctant to risk contracting Covid-19 and spreading it to other family members. But more poll workers, not fewer, will be needed to insure enough polling locations so long lines like those we saw during the Wisconsin primary April 7 don’t force people to choose between getting sick and exercising their most fundamental right. Nothing lawmakers do during the remainder of this short session is more urgent or more consequential than ensuring the integrity of the November election and the ability of voters to cast their ballots without risking their health.

  • Buckle up for a new way of life

    The Coronavirus will change the world, the nation and North Carolina forever. When you consider what we have learned and what we have given up, how we have transformed our lives during this pandemic will change the way we live, work and play. Almost every aspect of American life will be altered going forward. We knew that at some point in time we would continue down the road of digital transformation. That’s been speeded up by the virus. Let’s review some of the changes we can expect in our lives. Social distancing will not go away and we will lose the centuries old common greetings of a hand shake and a hug. The handshake which originated in the 5th Century B.C. in Greece will be doomed in this new reality of practicing safe behavior. The handshake was a gesture of peaceful intentions by extending your right hand to show you were not holding a weapon. Now it’s about the elbow! The old-fashioned show of affection and friendship, the hug, which originated 450 years ago in Scandinavia, is now a practice that is taboo, a result of the fear of being contaminated. Hopefully, in time these two gestures of greeting and friendship will come back to our society and the world. Technology appears to be the biggest winner during this war against the plague. We can expect to see a transition from touch screens to voice controls, much like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo. Smartphones will gain greater importance for conducting business, banking, travel, etc., especially with the pending rollout of 5G. When you review the different aspects of how we live, all options are on the table. In education, more and more parents who can afford it, will opt for digital learning to gain greater control of the education of their children. For the children in rural North Carolina, the issue of broadband and access to computers becomes more and more important for equal access. Educators have discovered they can instruct students from afar with comprehensive lessons plans and interaction of students using video, instant research and engagement via broadband and laptop computers. In North Carolina, every child enrolled in school is being exposed to digital learning, which is impacting the education being provided during the pandemic. Educators and parents have to prepare themselves for the changes that emanated from this period for the near future. Colleges will offer more online classes potentially impacting the trend of rising tuition fees. The media, which is always important during crises, has been challenged and diminished as a result of the move to digital. The mainstream media, specifically print publishing will be forced to increase their migration to digital or risk extinction as a source of news and information, as people expect and deserve immediate access to news and information that impacts their lives. In the medical field, the increase in telehealth and virtual doctor visits will gain a foothold for medical care, with fewer visits to medical centers and hospitals. P rescriptions will be filled online and mailed to patients with greater frequency as patients try and avoid going to the hospitals for care. We can expect expansion of hospitals and medical care to combat the annual return of Covid-19. More online ordering of prepared food, grocery items and other goods will be done online and delivered to the sanctuary of homes via delivery services and in time with drones. Financial transactions and banking will accelerate and e-commerce will expand employing a cashless system. We can expect savings accounts to grow as people will want to ensure they have emergency funds and access to credit via mobile apps. Business meetings and conferences will move even more toward video conferencing and reduced air travel as we have learned to communicate and work differently. The new technology, 5G will accelerate internet speed of delivery for personal and business operations. We can expect a decrease in of non-violent crime incarceration to reduce overcrowding of jails and prisons. The world, the nation and local communities will be searching for ways to avoid another pandemic by forever changing their lifestyles and being well stocked on the important consumer products of toilet paper, paper towels and all of the sanitizing products that we long have taken for granted. We live in a different world and it will continue to change. The good old days are just that, old days. Buckle up for the new way of life that will emerge after the world gets the better of the Coronavirus.

  • Coronavirus implications for the Census

    There’s a lot of speculation around the state regarding how long the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will last in North Carolina. Weeks? Months? The betting line here is 10 years. That’s how long it will be before the next Census. The Census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution, strives to count every individual in the country. The data is used to determine political representation and determines redistricting at the federal, state and local levels. It is also used to determine the distribution of more than $675 billion in annual funding, or more than $4 trillion over the course of the decade the data will be used. The 2020 Census is underway, and North Carolina isn’t doing so well when it comes to self-response rates. As for March 28, the national response rate for the Census stood at 30.2 percent. North Carolina checked in at 27.7 percent. But some counties fell far, far below that number. In the western part of the state, Jackson County is a picturesque locale encircled by the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge escarpment. It’s home to Western Carolina University, Southwestern Community College and a wealthy retirement community in Cashiers at the south end. The response rate there was 11.9 percent. If that doesn’t pick up, it’s going to cost the county in federal funding for schools, public safety, seniors services, food assistance, you name it. The calculation for the county is that the Census count will deliver $1,600 in federal funding for each person counted, or $16,000 over the next decade. The response rates will pack a punch on a county that’s going to need help getting back on its feet – like every city, county and state in the country in a post-coronavirus world – if they don’t improve. Likely many mostly rural counties, Jackson faces some challenges with internet access in the rugged terrain of the southern Appalachians. The Census rollout has also been walloped by COVID-19. The public library had geared up to offer internet access for those who couldn’t access the form at home, but closed as a health precaution. Other community partners that stepped up also have had to step back. Another complicating factor comes with the thousands of students at WCU caught off guard by the shuttering of the institution after they’d departed for spring break. “In general, students in colleges and universities temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 virus will still be counted as part of this process. Even if they are home on Census day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residence criteria which states they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time. We are asking schools to contact their students and remind them to respond. “Per the Census Bureau’s residence criteria, in most cases students living away from home at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” North Carolina needs to get its response rate up. There are no do-overs. Once it’s completed, we live with the results for the next decade. Next time you’re able to venture out, take a moment to slow down and think about the impact of tax dollars on your life and the lives of those you love. How are the roads? What’s the state of public transportation for those who need it? Are services for seniors readily accessible? How about child care? Census returns mean a lot to seniors, a lot to students and to young children. We can’t stress the latter enough, and children up to the age of 4 are at a higher risk of being undercounted. During the 2010 Census the Census Bureau estimated 25,000 young children weren’t counted in North Carolina, the eight-highest undercount in the nation. Should that happen again, that translates to $400 million off the table over a decade that should have been dedicated to a vulnerable population. If people don’t get counted, it’s not like money is being saved. The tax dollars work their way up the pipeline to be reallocated. What goes up, contrary to the saying, doesn’t always come down. Stand up and be counted. If not for yourself, for your loved ones and neighbors

  • The best way to master an elephant

    It sometimes seems that when politicians of different political persuasions talk about the economy, and many other issues, they are like the old parable of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men know nothing of elephants. Each touches a different part of the elephant’s body and explains what an elephant is like based on his experience. Their explanations are so wildly different that they suspect each other of lying and come to blows. We’re all inclined to believe we know the truth based on our subjective experience which, despite our best efforts, is limited. That makes it extremely difficult for those of us who don’t have time to spend hours climbing all over a smelly pachyderm to grasp how we should approach the powerful animal. And, of course, there are plenty of politicians who shade the truth to their advantage, intentionally tell partial truths and/or downright lies. Take for instance President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech. In his version of the U.S. economy, “jobs are booming, incomes soaring (and) poverty is plummeting… I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been,” the president said. Then there’s Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders’ version. “This is the richest country on Earth and we have 40 million in poverty, 34 million with no health insurance and half our people living paycheck to paycheck,” he wrote on Twitter. What are North Carolina voters to make of this? Well, according to the North Carolina Justice Center, a non-profit that advocates for economic justice, while the stock market has doubled in value since 2010 when we began to recover from the Great Recession, wages for working North Carolinians have hardly budged. The Justice Center reports that the hourly wage in November 2019 was about $4.70 higher than in 2010, but inflation has wiped out virtually all of the increase. The center reports that throughout most of the 2000s, up until the Great Recession, well more than 60 percent of North Carolinians reported having a job. And while employment prospects have improved since the worst of the recession, recent labor market figures showed only 59.3 percent of North Carolinians had a job. The president said “real median household income is now at the highest level ever recorded.” But the Justice Center reports that median household income in North Carolina at the end of this decade still hasn’t reached year 2000 levels, despite recent growth. (Some of that growth has been driven by a tight labor market, and some can be attributed to raises in the minimum wage at state and local levels. The federal minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade.) To the point of Trump’s market claims, according to a CNN Business analysis of how stocks performed under recent presidents, during the same first 763 trading days of their presidencies, stocks grew 42 percent under President Bill Clinton (the same as Trump), 45 percent under President George H.W. Bush, and 64 percent under President Barack Obama. In reality, the stock market growth under all these presidents, including President Trump, had more to do with when during the economic cycle they took office, than it did from any of their own actions or policies. That said, trade policies, regulation, monetary policy, taxes and government spending all affect the economy. But the president has only indirect control of most of these areas, as President Trump has learned. Then there are factors over which the president has no control, such as technological innovation and weather related disasters, that can impact the economy. Monetary policy is the realm of the Federal Reserve, and while the president nominates, the Senate must approve Federal Reserve governors who serve 14-year terms, meaning few presidents get to appoint an entire board. The president shares most of the power he has over the economy with Congress, where the federal budget, trade policies and laws from which regulatory policy flows must be approved. So, as we look to the coming elections, we need to take sweeping claims and soundbites about the economy with a grain of salt, no matter the candidate responsible for them. More importantly, we need to evaluate the economic proposals of our state candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives, along with those of candidates for president. The economy, like so many other issues, is far more complicated than any politician can fit into a soundbite. Trump’s approach to improving it has been tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation and renegotiating trade policies. Sanders, who represents the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, advocates higher taxes on the rich to fund social programs, a $15 federal minimum wage, and greater worker rights. More moderate Democratic candidates, like Pete Buttigieg, argue that investments in education, infrastructure and health would pay for themselves and stimulate the economy. Which of these approaches would actually do more to benefit average Americans? That’s the question we Americans will decide in November. As we make that decision, we should bear in mind that our system of government was designed to bring diverse approaches to the table in order to capture a more comprehensive picture of the whole and to allow for respectful debate and compromise. We should reject politicians for whom self-interest takes priority over public service, those who make grandiose promises they cannot achieve alone, those for whom “compromise” is a dirty word, and those who have gotten sucked into a culture of acrimony and negativism. It’s time we remembered that governing is a collaborative process. Before it’s too late.

  • Centuries of Separate but Unequal Education

    In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the Leandro v. State case that the state educational apparatus systematically violated the constitutional rights of North Carolina children by failing to ensure the universal opportunity to a sound basic education. Despite this ruling, for over twenty years the state has not provided a basic education for all its children, especially children of lower social economic status and minority children, specifically African Americans. In reviewing a report written by Ethan Roy and James E. Ford for the Center for Racial Equality in Education entitled “Deep Rooted” A Brief History of Race and Education in North Carolina, it is clear that education in North Carolina has been controversial and racially polarizing and continues to be to this day. The state is very proud of its educational system, and there is a belief that the state is a special place in the nation where education is championed, especially the UNC system. However, history tells us that as one of the original 13 colonies in 1663, North Carolina, like other southern states, built its economy on the backs of uneducated slaves. African-Americans were denied any opportunity for the most basic education. During this time slavery was the primary labor system supporting the economic power engine that created stability across the state and great wealth today for many families. A major concern of NC slave owners during this time and for many years later was to not expose slaves to literacy. The slave owners believed that not exposing slaves to literacy reduced the potential for uprisings and independent thinking. Despite these restrictions on learning, many slaves and free blacks sought stealth methods to educate each other, especially those slaves who gained their freedom. This was the situation for over 100 years and was highlighted by legislation passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1830 that said, “Any free person, who shall hereafter teach any slave within this state to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any book or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State.” Poor whites were also lacking in education. However, i n 1825, the North Carolina legislature created a state literacy fund and later offered matching grants to support primary schools. North Carolina became the first state to offer publicly funded universal white education. Blacks were left out of this legislation. Many blacks gained their education as soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation. For many years there was violence and intimidation to keep blacks in their place with regards to education. In 1868, North Carolina officially adopted black education and created a universal public-school system for blacks that was challenged by whites who feared integrated schools. In 1896, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision created a legal precedent of separate but equal education. But it was not equal. As an example, the per pupil funding in 1920 was $3,442 for white schools and $500 for black schools. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that public schools separated by race where inherently unequal and violated black children’s Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. Despite this ruling, whites continued to seek separate schools for their children. In 1964, President Johnson, signed the Civil Rights Act. This law enabled the US Attorney General to bring forward lawsuits on behalf of black plaintiffs in local school districts practicing segregation. This legislation and the resistance to integration resulted in black community schools being closed and thousands of black teachers and administrators losing their jobs. As more time passed, busing was implemented. The 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg ruling gave school districts the authority to mandate busing of students which resulted in most black students being bused to white schools with white teachers. A result of busing was white flight to the suburbs in the 1970’s and 1980’s so that urban schools became increasingly occupied by black students. As we fast forward to today, we have a similar circumstance where families are moving to NC Charter schools, private schools (through vouchers) and home schools appear to be a new mechanism for white flight and re-segregating NC schools. It’s important to note that non-growth in traditional public school enrollment due to families leaving for other options critically undermines public schools’ ability to have basic funding to provide a sound basic education to all children. Enrollment shifts to other options means a lack of clarity about whether the children who leave traditional public schools are receiving a sound basic education-as the schools are not held accountable to the same standards that traditional public schools are. The Leandro decision addresses the issue of public schools not receiving the basic education they deserve in North Carolina. Challenges and ongoing litigation have kept the Leandro ruling from being implemented. In 2019, WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development and service agency that works with education communities to promote excellence and achieve equity, published a court-ordered plan that provides recommendations for actions to advance the state’s efforts to achieve compliance with the Leandro decision. The report was made public in December. According to the report prepared by WestEd, “the future prosperity and well-being of the state’s citizens requires successfully educating all of its children. North Carolina’s current education system fails to meet the education needs of many of its children and thereby fails to provide for the future success of these individuals, their communities, and the state.” We would hope that despite the history of racial segregation, separate but unequal education, white flight, the advent of charter schools, that this report will change 300 hundred years of unequal education. The future of North Carolina in a world that is becoming smaller everyday depends on implementing the findings for the betterment of students, parents and everyone involved in educating the children of North Carolina.

  • North Carolina voters are facing a steep learning curve in 2020

    There’s all kind of new out there. New state Senate and House districts for some; New U.S. congressional districts; New voting machines; New voter ID requirements; A new, and considerably earlier, primary date. Take out your pencils, kids, because this is all going to be on the test. The first step for voters should be to figure out where they are after all the map redrawing. Go to the North Carolina Board of Elections Website Voter Lookup page, punch in your name and county, and you’ll see your congressional district, state Senate district, state House district, judicial, municipal and school districts. You’ll also see if you’re registration is active, a wise thing to check. Some of the congressional districts were redrawn dramatically; there’s a consensus that the old maps, which gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage in the congressional delegation, will likely shift to an 8-5 GOP advantage. Two districts, the 2nd and 6th, were redrawn to effectively freeze out GOP incumbents George Holding and Mark Walker. The second went from a +13 GOP seat to +19 Democratic. (These numbers reflect partisan leanings ranked against the county as a whole). The sixth shifted from R+16 to D+18. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, which crunches data and analytics from topics ranging from politics to sports, says that even with the new maps, the state is still unbalanced. As of Dec. 7, 2019, unaffiliated voters were the most numerous in the state, with nearly 2.5 million Tar Heels making that choice. There were 2.23 million Democratic Party registrations and 2.04 million Republicans. Despite those numbers, FiveThirtyEight notes the GOP would take 8 of 13 congressional seats in a GOP wave year with the new maps, and also 8 of 13 in a neutral year – and in a Democratic wave year as well. It’s estimated it would take a Blue tsunami – +13 Democratic nationally – for a majority of the state’s congressional seats to turn Democratic. Back to matters at hand: Your local board of elections can tell you what kind of ID you’ll need. Oh, and you’d better get on this, because instead of a May primary, North Carolina has moved its primary back to March 3. OK. Now that you’ve figured out where you are and what races you can vote for, now you have to figure out who your picks are. This sounds straightforward, but in North Carolina, it being North Carolina and all, there’s a bit of a twist. We use a semi-closed primary, which generally means if you’re a registered party member – Constitution, Democratic, Green, Libertarian or Republican – you can only vote in your party’s primary. No crossing the line to try to pick off someone in another party you don’t like. If you’re unaffiliated, you can pick one of those party ballots. Looking at who has registered to run for U.S. president in North Carolina, you currently have a choice of 15 Democrats if you choose that ballot, one Green Party and one Republican Party choice, two Constitution candidates, and 16 Libertarian candidates. If you’re unaffiliated and want to jump into one of the crowded races, you’ll have to research the individual candidates. Just by way of example check out Vermin Love Supreme, who’s one of the 16 Libertarian candidates. Defining characteristics: Commonly wears a boot on his head; carries a large toothbrush. Platform: Mandatory tooth brushing by rule of law. Educational outreach: In past, has campaigned on zombie apocalypse awareness. Social/economic policy: Promises a free pony to Americans. In short, tough but fair. Sure, critics say Vermin may be in the pocket of Big Pony. But if he’s elected they’ll be saying that with a stunning, bright smile. Joviality aside, voters need to get to work. We’re on the clock for 2020.

  • The New F-Word (Fairness)

    With the 2020 election looming, some of “we the people” ponder the public-interest protections once found in the now-defunct 1949 Fairness Doctrine. Rooted in the 1927 Radio Act, passed to manage the public’s airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission revoked it in 1987, part of the Reagan administration’s commitment to deregulation. Resuscitation efforts have failed. As competing communication channels opened, the scarcity of broadcast spectrum became moot. The concept of airwaves as a public trust fell by the wayside. Cable television and satellite signals gained ground, and the internet, with its promise of diversity, lay on the horizon. In 2011, during the Obama administration, the FCC scrapped the doctrine’s last provisions. Today, the Restore the Fairness Doctrine Act of 2019, introduced in September (U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-HI), languishes in committee. That’s a shame. “Although the Fairness Doctrine’s effectiveness and enforceability are debatable, it encouraged sensitivity toward programming biases and provided local communities an important tool with which to hold broadcasters accountable,” writes Victor Pickard in a 2018 article in the International Journal of Communications. Pickard is professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communications. The doctrine’s larger purpose, often overlooked, was to make sure broadcast licensees covered issues of public importance in a fair manner. A lamentable loss, given continued consolidation and the polarizing, partisan news that sprang up after the doctrine’s death. Public interest issues back in the day included workers’ rights, nuclear plant construction, even diet and health. If stations failed to seek and air opposing views, they could lose licenses or face renewal problems or be required to provide time for competing views if they hadn’t been aired. In its ruling, the FCC cited the “chilling effect” on broadcasters’ free speech. Since most violations centered on failure to air valid opposing views, some broadcasters quit airing public-interest issues, and even paid programming, that might trigger their Fairness Doctrine obligations. President Reagan vetoed the bill Congress passed to reinstate the doctrine; President George H.W. Bush’s veto threat prevented another effort. The doctrine had survived one free speech challenge in 1969 when the Supreme Court upheld its first-amendment constitutionality. In its finding, SCOTUS weighed audiences’ rights more heavily than those of broadcasters, with reasoning since questioned. In 1987, the FCC found the Fairness Doctrine violated the first amendment rights of broadcasters, though no court has addressed the constitutional question. The original doctrine’s public-interest provision has often been conflated with the equal opportunity rule, which still exists, but only for political candidates, not supporters, and with exceptions. Scheduled appearances in interviews, documentaries, and spot news coverage are exempt. This applies to a wide-range of programs, even “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert, entertainment that sometimes features candidates as guests. Without a candidate’s recognizable voice or image, the equal time rule doesn’t apply. Complaints were filed against license renewals of two Wisconsin radio stations because they failed to give equal time to supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s opponent in a recall election, after the stations aired support for Walker. The FCC in 2014 dismissed those complaints: “A licensee has broad discretion—based on its right to free speech—to choose the programming that it believes serves the needs and interests of the members of its audience.” While it’s tempting to wholly blame the rise in partisan news on the doctrine’s demise, the issue is not so simple. Deregulation fueled consolidation as advances in technology changed the media-scape. Personal listening devices, for instance, made radio’s music formats less appealing and less profitable. Talk helped fill that void. The Fairness Doctrine does survive, in public discussions, though it’s often raised by conservatives as a symbol of regulatory overreach. They link it to net neutrality, the idea that internet providers should treat all data the same, rather than privilege one type of content, user, platform, website, equipment and such, over another. But this principle is irrelevant to the Fairness Doctrine. The only parallel between the two ideas, Pickard notes in an email exchange, is that “both are public interest protections that are trying to address commercial excesses in communication systems.” These days, losses in journalism and concentrated commercial media have undermined public-interest news. Policy interventions could help restore public trust. British broadcasters follow “due impartiality” rules in political coverage, Pickard notes, which sensitizes media firms and audiences to balance. What might a 21st century vision of public interest coverage look like? I posed this question to Pickard. “That news outlets should feel compelled to cover important policy issues from multiple perspectives. What, for example, Fox News is doing would not be acceptable. But it is difficult to imagine how as a society we can mandate this responsibility of highly profitable media conglomerates whose first loyalty will always be the bottom line, democracy be damned. Well-funded public alternatives may be our last, best hope.” Betty Joyce Nash reported for the Hendersonville Times-News and the Greensboro News & Record before moving to Virginia. She writes journalism and fiction from Charlottesville. In 2017, the University of New Mexico Press published Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, a book of short stories she co-edited with a colleague. The stories probe Americans’ complicated relationship to firearms. For more information, see www.bettyjoycenash.com

  • Who should solve the DACA problem?

    As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in mid-November about whether President Trump can end the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the court’s five conservative justices signaled their inclination toward allowing the president to do so. We’re hearing a lot these days about the rule of law. And that’s a good thing. We all need a reminder that no matter how much any elected official appeals to us, no matter how charismatic, no matter how much faith we have in that individual’s intelligence, integrity or chutzpah, our Constitution requires that person to govern according to the rule of law. Contemplating the rule of law might help those of us who are appalled at the prospect that our country might deport more than 660,000 young men and women, whose plight is no fault of their own, understand where to direct our fury. As North Carolinians, it matters because our state has the seventh largest population of DACA recipients. It isn’t just these young people who will suffer if they lose their DACA status. According to an analysis by The Center for American Progress, North Carolina is home to 24,480 DACA recipients who pay $134.8 million in federal taxes and $81.7 million in state and local taxes. Their spending power is $702.5 million. They own homes, they pay rent, they work in every sector of the economy. (Contrary to President Trump’s tweet that many are criminals, no one with a criminal record qualifies for DACA status.) Moreover, North Carolina is home to 11,600 American-citizen children of DACA recipients. How did we get to this place? Under U.S. immigration law, anyone in the country without proper documentation encounters great difficulty pursuing an education beyond high school or finding work. They live in the shadows, vulnerable to exploitation and in constant fear of being deported. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals provides undocumented young people who were brought into the country unlawfully as children a two-year renewable deferral from deportation and the right to work or attend school during that time. It does not grant them a path to citizenship. Polls show that seventy-two percent of Americans oppose the deportation of these young people. But Republicans have consistently blocked legislation to address their plight and a polarized Congress seems unable to find any workable compromise to solve the dysfunctional immigration system that created it. In exasperation, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing DACA, even though he himself admitted that he couldn’t “just bypass Congress and change the (immigration) law myself. … That’s not how a democracy works.” In another instance, he said, “I’m not the emperor … My job is to execute laws that are passed. And Congress right now has not changed what I consider to be a broken immigration system.” As Obama understood, the authority to make law resides with Congress. The authority to enforce it resides with the executive. That authority to execute the law did allow him to establish priorities for enforcing it. But it could be argued that he went beyond that. Instead of simply declaring they wouldn’t be a priority for deportation, he gave them legal status, which allows them to obtain driver’s licenses, work and pursue higher education, something the immigration law doesn’t do. Many authorities on the Constitution would argue that he overstepped his enforcement authority, actually undermining the law he was supposed to be enforcing. More to the point, if he had the authority to interpret the immigration law so liberally, his successor has the authority to take a different view. So, the first question before the Supreme Court is whether the court itself has the authority to intervene in what is, by Constitutional mandate, the authority of the executive branch to enforce the laws of the land. Should the court determine that it has the authority to review Trump’s decision to wind down the program, the administration argues that dismantling it brings enforcement back into compliance with federal immigration law which makes no exception for those brought into the country unlawfully as children. No matter how sympathetic one is to the plight of young people who have lived in the United States for almost their entire lives, most of whom can’t even remember the countries where they were born, and no matter how much they contribute to their communities or to the economies of the states where they live, it seems highly unlikely the court will block Trump from dismantling DACA. But it is not the court, or even Trump, where the primary responsibility for this despicable state of affairs lies. It lies with Congress, with the men and women we’ve elected to serve us who care more about playing to their bases than they do about reaching across the aisle to find workable compromises to solve the nation’s problems. It is at Congress that we should direct our anger and frustration, and it is to Congress that we should look for a solution. We in North Carolina, and the people of California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, Arizona and other states whose economies have grown and prospered thanks to immigrant labor, and whose states benefit from the talent and dedication of these young DACA recipients, should flood the offices of our U.S. representatives and senators with demands that they do the honorable thing. That would be to pass a law granting DACA recipients’ permanent residency and a path to citizenship before the Supreme Court hands down its decision next June. Trump has said he will sign such a bill. Let’s find out.

  • Are North Carolina public schools better today than when Mr. Johnson assumed his role as State Super

    North Carolina State Superintendent Mark Johnson was elected in 2016, defeating incumbent June Atkinson by 53,860 votes, or 1.2 percent. Johnson attended public schools, specifically the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. He went on to earn two degrees in political science and environmental studies. He earned a law degree from the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill and graduated with honors. Johnson has taught in the classroom in West Charlotte High School. “I realized that opportunity is not available to every student in this country, and it needs to be,” he has said. His background also includes serving as a school board member in Forsyth County. Mr. Johnson appears to have prepared himself for the top job for public education and educating more than 1.5 million K-12 students in North Carolina. While campaigning, he talked with reporter Jeffrey C. Billman of Indy Week about a number of important issues facing K-12 education. He discussed the ACT, where half of graduates were failing to meet a single benchmark on the ACT. He also discussed Workforce Preparedness, preparing diplomas for work rather than targeting the graduation rate, and improving African American student performance in obtaining a minimum ACT score required for college admission. Teacher Pay has been an issue for many years with North Carolina teacher pay being in the lower spectrum for national teacher pay. Johnson identified the importance of tackling the issue of over-testing for teachers and students. The goal was to focus students on how they are performing daily rather than at the year-end of grade or end of course test. Johnson spoke of the importance of using digital technology in the educational process and had great concerns on the impact of poverty on education. As we come to the end of his third year as the state’s educational leader, it is important to ask a question: Are North Carolina public schools better off today than when Mr. Johnson assumed his role as the state’s top educator? Johnsons’ outlines a focus on school safety, career pathways, early childhood education, computer science and coding, and reducing over testing. The digital initiative for third-grade reading, was met with strong opposition from the Department of Information Technology. The competing bidder argued that Johnson awarded the $8.3 million contract improperly. Johnson also was successful in achieving two major legislative goals that tie to his strategic focuses, House Bill 75 (School Safety) and Senate Bill 621 (Reduced Testing). He alienated the N.C. Association of Educators, who did not invite him to the annual convention in March of 2018, breaking an historical precedent of inviting the N.C. Superintendent to their annual convention. The reason cited in the Raleigh News and Observer was “his disruptive actions such as support of private school vouchers and controversial comments about teacher pay.” A recent Charlotte Observer editorial, “A state superintendent who wants to be a czar, speaks to the challenges and leadership style of Johnson, who came into the role with credentials as an educator, but has led like a czar as opposed to a leader that children and educators need. Unfortunately, as one looks back on the tenure of Johnson, it’s worth noting his tenure got off to an inauspicious beginning when Republicans passed House Bill 17, which gave the inexperienced superintendent more authority and control over public education issues than the State Board of Education itself. In retrospect, this move crystallizes the ups and downs of Johnson’s educational agenda, as no man is an island and the trendy superintendent would be wise to listen to the wisdom of members of the State Board of Education. His forward-thinking goals can be reached if he works as a team player and not a czar as the Observer charges.

  • Trump’s cavalier grasp on the rule of law

    Take a bill from your wallet or purse. If it’s a $1, you can probably buy a convenience store coffee. A $5 might get you lunch, a sawbuck can purchase half a tank of gas, and so on. But take a moment to consider what you’re holding in your hand. You might say it’s a piece of paper. (Technically it’s a mix of cotton and linen, but whatever). But it’s not a piece of paper. It’s an act of faith. That’s the reason that bill is worth something. In reality it is just a piece of paper, but it’s a piece of paper backed up by the United States government. That means you can expect to work and be paid in a currency that will be universally accepted for goods and services. The reason that works is that we’re all in on it. We have faith the government represents us all, and that, despite a sometimes patchy record, it will enforce the rules (laws) that we, collectively, have agreed upon through those we elected to represent us. That’s the way the founding fathers set things up. We’d just disentangled ourselves from King George III and the rule of a man. A nation of laws, not men, was the formula to ensure we wouldn’t find ourselves ruled by the whims of a single individual. Today that formula, and our faith in it, is being tested. The founding fathers established a system of checks and balances, one that specifically delegated to Congress the power to impeach a president whose actions could be construed to constitute “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The transcript, released by the White House, of President Trump’s telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the face of it, implies just such “high crimes and misdemeanors.” President Trump personally ordered his staff to freeze more than $391 million in aid to Ukraine in the days before his phone call with Zelensky, administration officials have said. Then, according to the transcript, Trump asks Zelensky to do him a favor by investigating Hunter Biden, the son of his potential rival in the 2020 election. Yet, despite the appearance of a quid pro quo, we have a President who has essentially declared that Congress has no authority to investigate whether he has committed an impeachable crime. University of North Carolina Law professor Michael Gerhardt, who wrote a book on impeachment, told an L.A. Times reporter, “For a president to urge a foreign leader to investigate a political rival is a clear instance of impeachable misconduct. The framers believed such self-dealing was the essence of corruption and invented impeachment to get rid of it.” Congress not only has a right, it has an obligation to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to justify articles of impeachment. But Trump has called that Congress, composed of the elected representatives of the American people, a “kangaroo court” and refused to cooperate in any way with the impeachment inquiry. Being President doesn’t place Trump above the law or allow him to defy the branch of government the Constitution charged with the responsibility of holding him accountable. This same President, snatching a term Joseph Stalin used to describe political rivals, calls the media the “enemy of the people” and all news except that favorable to him “fake news.” He does this in an attempt to undermine the free press, which the framers of our system of laws considered so essential to a functioning democracy that they protected it in the First Amendment to the Constitution. He undercuts the bureaucracy that supports our system of government by calling it the “deep state,” implying some sort of dark conspiracy with no evidence to justify such reckless and disrespectful condemnation. Trump’s self-serving, heedless and increasingly rash behavior undermines faith in our nation at home and abroad. It is the kind of behavior the rule of law is intended to protect us from. It’s a breach of faith. As we said at the outset, without faith, money is only a piece of paper. The same can be said of our Constitution.