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- Partisan Gerrymandering now up to the States
On Thursday, June 27, 2019, the nation’s highest court declared that it was too delicate a flower to deal with partisan gerrymandering. The issue, the court said, was beyond the scope of their authority. As this court routinely decides on issues that affect the lives of Americans – health care access, pollution regulations, women’s health issues, who can be armed how heavily and where, not to mention the death penalty – the decision smelled like a stretch. When you consider the court makes decisions that can in effect overturn the laws passed by those gerrymandered legislatures – and does routinely – the decision and its reasoning are even worse. So what does this have to do with North Carolina, and why is it bad? A lot, and a lot. North Carolina’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered for years, but gerrymandering on steroids is a relatively recent development. In the run-up to the 2010 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee created Project REDMAP. The plan was to seize control of state legislatures in 2010 races and implement gerrymanders in those states following the 2010 census. North Carolina was one of the top targets, and the GOP took control of both bodies of the state General Assembly for the first time since 1970. In the next step, gerrymandering guru Tom Hofeller was brought in to draw maps using sophisticated software to create new lines to drain every possible drop of partisan advantage out of North Carolina via new legislative lines. The new legislature approved the new lines, and it worked like a charm. Slim majorities in ensuing elections yielded supermajorities in the state House and Senate; newly drawn congressional lines turned a politically balanced state into a 10-3 GOP majority in the state’s congressional representation. GOP Rep. David Lewis, who famously said the 10-3 map was fine only because mapmakers couldn’t find a way to make it an 11-2 Republican edge, defended the redistricting thusly: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.” As of June 22 voter registration numbers in North Carolina showed 2.47 million Democrats; 2.13 million Unaffiliated; 2.003 million Republicans, and a smattering of Libertarian, Green and Constitution Party members. If the GOP is in third place in North Carolina, why is it such a dominating first place in the legislature? Gerrymandering is the obvious answer. In response to the obvious unfairness of the situation, the Supreme Court basically said, “Well, what ya gonna do?’’ You can bet this will be seen as a green light for even more radical gerrymandering and political hardball from the GOP. This decision, in fact, can be put down to political hardball. The dots between Merrick Garland and the 5-4 decision aren’t very hard to connect. Will Democrats respond with hardball on their own, say by packing the Supreme Court? It’s doubtful. On Twitter, New York Magazine contributor David Freedlander wrote, “If history is any guide, Republicans in red states will respond to this SCOTUS ruling by gerrymandering Democrats to a fare-thee-well, and Democrats in blue states will respond by setting up a nonpartisan redistricting commission.” Responding to Thursday’s decision, Lewis said, “Today’s ruling establishes precedent that it is not the judicial branch’s responsibility to determine the winners and the losers.” Unsaid: The winners and losers will continue to be determined by an already-gerrymandered legislature. The next round of battle will be whether state courts have a say in the matter, a round that will likely come quickly in North Carolina. In the meantime, it’s worth reading Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent. “In North Carolina, however the political winds blow, there are 10 dissenting Republicans and 3 Democrats. Is it conceivable that someday voters will be able to break out of that prefabricated box? Sure. But everything possible has been done to make that hard. To create a world in which power does not flow from the people because they do not choose their governors. Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections… “If there is a single idea that made our Nation (and that our Nation commended to the world), it is this one: The people are sovereign. The ‘power,’ James Madison wrote, ‘is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.’ Free and fair and periodic elections are the key to that vision,” Kagan wrote. “The people get to choose their representatives. And then they get to decide, at regular intervals, whether to keep them.” In North Carolina, it’s the legislators who decide whether to keep … well, themselves. The Supreme Court said it’s up to Congress and the state to decide gerrymandering issues.
- Carolina Commentary Celebrates One Year
As we celebrate our first birthday, Carolina Commentary has developed faster than the startup platform we first envisioned. The venture, put together by a team of veteran newspaper people, was designed to provide insight, analysis and commentary on issues of import to North Carolina. One thing we found is that insight, analysis and commentary are in sore need these days. Another thing we found is what we’ll call the canary in the coal mine. Let’s start by talking about coal mines. More specifically, coal miners. Remember the fuss Donald Trump made over bringing back mining jobs during the 2016 election campaign? A casual observer would easily think hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of jobs were in play. In fact, there are only about 50,000 mining jobs in the country, according to official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Granted, those figures don’t lump in affiliated jobs such as driving a coal truck. Still, the lure of the return of lost jobs certainly motivated some voters to cast their ballot for the New York businessman. And its true jobs were lost, about half of all coal mining jobs in the U.S. over five years. Most of those jobs were claimed by technological changes in mining and the boom in natural gas. A century ago, there were nearly a million miners. Those jobs were lost as people moved from being transported in coal-powered trains to gas-powered cars on their way to places heated by electricity, not coal. But the campaign line was that there a “war on coal,’’ sinister forces such as overzealous regulators and scheming environmentalists. How did that line stand and the importance of mining jobs get so overinflated? There we turn to another jobs crisis, happening about the same time. Employment among newspaper publishers dropped from 412,000 to 174,000 from 2001 to September 2016. Half of the surviving reporters and correspondents are clustered in the five metro areas of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. Perhaps that’s why the true dimensions of what was happening in the coal industry, and claims regarding the coal industry, didn’t break through to the general public. There were a lot fewer people to tell the tale. The canary in democracy’s coal mine, a vibrant free press, well … she’s about done up an’ died. But we’ve still got a few kicks left in us. And back to us: We suspect the news desert that’s developing in the country, particularly in spots outside major metropolitan areas, has sparked a real hunger for reliable news and commentary. We’d hoped to fill a little spot in the void with our new venture. We underestimated the thirst out there. With no budget for marketing or advertising – zip, zero, nada – we posted our first column on July 7, 2017. As of June 19, 2018, we had grown to 5,859 subscribers. We hear you, Carolina Commentary readers. And we’re out to up our game. We’ll increase the frequency of our commentaries and guest columnists. We’ll put a focus on every article based on three core topics: Democracy, justice, and economy. Under the umbrella of these core topics we’ll continue to examine Carolina Commentary pillars such as education, the environment and how to best prepare for a more diverse (and grayer) North Carolina. If you’re reading this, you’re likely already well informed on issues of justice and democracy, and the current assaults on the two. And good for you. Today, though, we’d like to focus on the economy aspect. The impact to your wallet on decisions made at the local, state and national level are often covered on a very superficial, campaign bumper-sticker level. A tax cut, for example, may mean more money out of your pocket down the road in financing the national debt or seeing your local government have to pick up the tab for an unfunded mandate. A trim in, say, pre-school spending may mean 20 years from now you’ll be paying to house someone in a prison or rehab center as opposed to benefitting from the fruits of a solid, taxpaying citizen. Specific to this column, consider this: Notre Dame associate professor of finance Paul Gao crunched the numbers and discovered what we don’t know truly can hurt us. A working paper examined communities following a newspaper closure and discovered the costs for revenue bonds and municipal bonds in those places rose uniformly. That’s likely because no one was guarding the henhouse with basic local government reporting. As Gao said, “You can actually see the financial consequences that have to be borne by local citizens as a result of newspaper closures.” We’re hoping to help continue to slake the thirst for meaningful information, to fill the gaps of a collapsing industry. But we need your help. We’d like your feedback on our first year; what we did well, what we can do better, and what issues may have fallen through the cracks. Go to survey here and help shape the face of Carolina Commentary in the coming year. So, happy birthday to Carolina Commentary. We’ve grown a lot. We intend to grow a lot more.
- Happy Birthday Carolina Commentary
Carolina Commentary launched two years ago, the vision of former Asheville Citizen-Times Publisher Virgil Smith. This not-for-profit platform was inspired by Smith’s work as a member of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation board of trustees and by a friend who said she felt he was being called to bring facts and balanced analysis to the forefront regarding issues dividing North Carolina and the nation.He brought in three former Citizen-Times editorial page editors to help with the effort: Jim Buchanan, Joy Franklin and Julie Martin. We agreed from the beginning that we wanted to provide commentary promoting collaborative and realistic approaches to solving public policy issues. We also agreed that every commentary would follow these editorial standards: Integrity:We commit to the highest standards in professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. We will be balanced, accurate and fair in our commentary. Quality: We will provide content that is thorough, fresh and innovative. Diversity: Our content will reflect the communities we serve, responsive to a diverse public. Service:Our content will be free from outside influence, political pressure or economic interests. Commentary: We will comment on issues of public interest. Our first commentary spoke to the crisis of deportation of undocumented parents of American-born children.Since then, we have published 67 commentaries and built a following: 9,974 subscribers who receive a posting notification on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month via email. When news events merit, we provide additional commentaries. As journalism has continued its historic, tectonic shift with dwindling resources, we have pitched in to help those serving on the frontlines. Online and print news media statewide have picked up our commentaries (provided free of charge) and published them. We show our readers why they should care about specific threats to North Carolina’s system of democracy, its economy and justice for all. Our particular public policy topics of public policy interest include the environment, education, immigration and health care. Our writers are moderate progressives who hope to promote thoughtful debate that renounces ideology in favor of dialogue based on facts. Guest commentators have included academics and former/current newspaper columnists: DeWayne Wickham, founding dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication. For 30 years he was a columnist for USA TODAY and GANNETT Samuel P. Martin, publisher of The Birmingham Times Leslie Winner, former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and former N.C. senator Christopher Cooper, professor and department head of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University Antionette Kerr, syndicated columnist, news contributor & nonprofit consultant Jason Giersch, assistant professor, political science & public administration, UNC Charlotte W. Noah Reynolds, member of the Monument Study Committee on the North Carolina Historical Commission North Carolina news organizations are invited to pick up and publish Carolina Commentary editorials (guidelineshere). They also are invited to email their editorials to firstname.lastname@example.org for publication on the website. Readers who aren’t already subscribers are invited to sign up for our free commentarieshere. You will receive an email notification twice a month when commentaries are available on this site. We also want to hear from you. Join the discussion, using the comment function at the bottom of this page. We’ll keep writing and growing.
- Punishment vs. Rehabilitation
America is the world leader for incarcerating its people. The Prison Policy Initiative estimated that in 2018, the United States had over 2.3 million people incarcerated in state prison, local jails, federal prisons, youth correctional facilities, immigration detention camps, territorial prisons, Indian Country and U.S. military prisons; out of a population of 324.2 million. The United States incarcerates more of its people than any nation in the world, according to The World Prison Brief. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that one in five prisoners in American jails and prisons have been convicted of drug-related crimes. Behind these disheartening numbers are more disheartening statistics: racial disparities, according to The Sentencing Project, are stunning when it comes to incarceration. Black Americans are more than five times more likely than whites to be imprisoned. Daryl Atkinson, an attorney and Co-Director of Forward Justice, is a black American who was incarcerated for a non-violent drug crime in 1996. Atkinson says, “America is a nation that is founded on values like liberty, equal opportunity, and redemption for all human beings’ rights and that all people have the right to inalienable rights.” He goes on to say “the way our criminal justice system is operating is contrary to liberty, opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.” He was incarcerated in Alabama where he was subject to a 10-year sentence of which 40 months were mandatory. Recently, USA TODAY reported Alabama was cited by the U.S. Department of Justice for deadly brutality in the men’s prison and put state officials on notice for flagrant “disregard” for inmate safety and the constitutional rights of people in prison. Atkinson was incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility, which was 170 percent over capacity; 60 percent of inmates were serving life without parole During Atkinson’s incarceration at St. Clair Correctional Facility, he met a jailhouse lawyer named James McConico. McConico challenged him and 40 others to learn the 10 Amendments, the Bill of Rights and Alabama rules of evidence and criminal and civil procedure. Atkinson did the research, was released and is now a practicing attorney. The question of punishment or rehabilitation hangs over prisoners across the nation. When prisoners are released from prison, they are stripped of basic rights as American citizens. Without family support most people end up back in prison and lose the sense of self-worth. They are denied student aid, a driver’s license, admittance to college or even a job. Because of his drug conviction, Atkinson was denied federal financial student aid, admittance to college and several law schools, as well as several jobs. Fortunately, Atkinson had the support of his wife and family and was able to earn associate, bachelors and law degrees. In 2014, as a result of his hard work and success, Atkinson was recognized and rewarded by working in the Obama administration as Champion of Change for removing barriers for people with criminal records and other issues facing incarnated people. When asked what public policy changes he would recommend to move from punishment to rehabilitation; Atkinson stated the following for inside and outside of prison. Internally End solitary confinement, which denies acerbates human dignity; he argues the “deprivation of liberty is the punishment”, and any additional measures like solitary confinement are overkill and do more harm than good. Robust identification of people’s mental health issues so they can be placed in therapeutic rehabilitation. Offer vocational and educational opportunities to rehabilitate and prepare inmates for their return to society as productive law-abiding citizens or residents. The NC Department of Public Safety calculates approximately 37,000 inmates will be released into society. Externally There is a need to shrink the prison population, modify and reclassify the bail system, which as currently constructed acts as ransom for poor people. Opening up opportunities for people who have done their time and paid their debt to society by removing barriers to employment, housing and education. Create a hiring initiative providing opportunities for inmates who completed their sentence. Advocating that money should be taken out of prison and re-invested into the communities that have been most harmed by criminal activity. Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy at New York University, said: “The notion that you need huge amounts of incarceration to control the crime rate doesn’t seem to be supported.’”North Carolina would do well to consider the recommendations submitted by an attorney of the state, a person who has suffered the demeaning aspects of prison and who has dedicated his life to make the prison system a rehabilitation process as opposed to demeaning and cruel punishment exemplified by the Alabama system. Passing of North Carolina Senate Bill 562 would give prisoners with non-violent felony convictions and 10 years of good behavior, a second chance. This bill would be a step towards rehabilitation for North Carolina inmates.
- No to SB 790, Off-Reservation Casino
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has introduced legislation, SB 790, that would give North Carolina land to South Carolina’s Catawba Indian Nation for an off-reservation casino. At first glance, as they’re not making land anymore, the idea of giving away part of our state doesn’t strike us as a very good idea. After further scrutiny, this idea looks even worse. Some background: The Catawba say they have ancestral homelands in South and North Carolina. The tribe gained federal recognition in 1941. They terminated their tribal status in 1959 and received individual landholdings in 1962. The tribe reconsidered the termination, was recognized by the state of South Carolina in 1973 and regained federal recognition in 1993 in exchange for dropping claims to land around the York County, S.C., area. The tribe received $50 million. The agreement included a “service area” in six North Carolina counties where Catawbas live that made them eligible for the same federal benefits as Catawba on the South Carolina reservation. Much of this seems like dry history, but it’s important viewed through the lens of SB 790. The 1993 settlement is the thin reed proponents are trying to hang a casino on. North Carolina already has two casinos, in Murphy and Cherokee, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). The operations have been good community partners, are large employers and have been an economic lifesaver for counties such as Swain. Eighty-seven percent of land in Swain is in federal ownership. (Forty percent of the Smoky Mountains National Park lies within its boundaries.) While the park draws healthy tourism business, the ownership issue means outside of tourism there’s little economic opportunity. Enter Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. In 1995, before Harrah’s opened, the Swain unemployment rate was 18 percent. Now it’s around 5 percent. Beyond the jobs, the Eastern Band has been a responsible steward of gaming profits, launching efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, revive spoken Cherokee – which was in danger of dying off – and myriad health and education initiatives. It’s been a good deal. Graham’s legislation would effectively turn back the clock on that good deal. There’s a finite amount of gamers, and Cherokee draws patrons from large population centers like Charlotte, Columbia and Greenville. With the proposed casino near King’s Mountain, they’d have a much shorter drive. The effect on the Eastern Band, Harrah’s and the oasis of jobs created in far Western North Carolina, historically and economically stressed region, would likely be akin to a series of plant closings. Self-inflicted closings created by Sen. Graham’s bill. Well, at least North Carolina’s U.S. Senators are rising to the fight. Right? Not exactly. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis , both Republicans, are cosponsors of Graham’s bill. Here’s a fun bit of history: In 2003 Tillis served as North Carolina House Speaker. That year he and more than 100 House legislators signed a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to block a proposal for a casino complex. It appears Mr. Tillis has evolved on the issue. Needless to say the EBCI isn’t happy with these developments. For one, Tillis was nominated to challenge D emocratic Sen. Kay Hagan for a Senate seat in 2014 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, whe re the state GOP was holding its convention, so this doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a “thank you.’’ Beyond that, the Cherokee seem to have history, precedent and the law firmly on their side. “The proposed casino off of I-85 in Cleveland County,’’ the tribe said in a statement, “would encroach upon Cherokee aboriginal territory – territory ceded by the Cherokee by treaty, and territory recognized as Cherokee territory by the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. The Catawba have no valid aboriginal or historical claim to Cleveland County.” How about the law and precedent? North Carolina has signed a compact with the Cherokee that allows casino gaming. South Carolina has no such agreement. Instead of working to change South Carolina law, the p lan now is, heck, just take part of North Carolina. SB 790 does that and OKs a casino by doing an end-run around a very great deal of law and precedent. How unprecedented? Well … How many times has land for a tribe been designated outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs process? Zero. How many times in U.S. history has legislation been passed that would take away the right of a state’s governor to concur with or oppose a Department of Interior recommendation regarding a new casino? Zero. For that matter, how many times has Congress enacted legislation to authorize an off-reservation casino? Zero. On May 1 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on SB 790, a news item completely lost in the noise of the Mueller/Barr affairs. EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed did notice and issued a statement that read in part, “Today’s hearing on Senate Bill 790 to give North Carolina land to the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina for an off-reservation casino reaffirms our concerns about this bill. Congress has never authorized an off-reservation casino by legislation, for good reason. “The bill circumvents the federal processes that give local stakeholders – the State Senate, the Governor, community members, and interested North and South Carolinians – a voice in whether to move forward with the casino,’’ Sneed continued. “Rather than hear from interested parties, this bill silences those voices and replaces the process with backroom political dealing.” We’re not sure why Burr and Tillis would be onboard with this. In the case of Graham, it’s interesting to recall that Wallace Cheves formed Sky Boat LLC in 2009 to help develop Catawba gaming. Cheves was a co-chair of Graham’s most recent presidential effort in South Carolina. Small world.
- New NAFTA Will Lock in High Drug Prices
North Carolina is known as a cradle of innovation, and for good reason. We have top-notch research facilities, a smart, dedicated workforce, and we take great pride when our cities are named to “Top Most Innovative Places in the U.S.” lists, as Raleigh was just last month. But Raleigh made another list this year, one with much less distinction: “Most Expensive U.S. Cities for Prescription Drugs.” It’s great that our best and brightest are pursuing the next generation of cures. But if no one can afford them, what’s the point? And if Congress approves the newly negotiated U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) in its current form, the problem could be made even worse. Ten percent of all healthcare spending is on prescription drugs, which amounts to a staggering $328.6 billion per year. This number has been increasing steadily since 1980. Seniors, who take more medications than younger people, bear the brunt of these rising costs, even though many of us live on fixed incomes and are unable to afford such dramatic increases. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone. Too many retirees are being forced to choose between filling their prescriptions and paying other bills. Provisions in the new NAFTA could drive up costs for American patients by reducing competition within the pharmaceutical industry. The Alliance for Retired Americans, representing 4.4 million retirees across the United States, recently sent a letter, along with AARP and others, to American trade negotiators, noting that the new agreement, if left as-is, “will keep drug prices high in the United States, to the detriment of our nation’s patients, job creators, workers, and taxpayers.” News reports have noted that drug makers are among the biggest winners of the whole agreement. The letter also expressed concern over restrictions on biosimilars, which are more affordable versions of expensive biologic drugs that are made available after their patents expire. Some of the most commonly prescribed and most expensive biologic drugs treat conditions that affect seniors more than any other group of Americans, including rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative vision loss. Competition between equally effective drugs is one of the only things that has proven to drive down costs and spending over time. Limiting it, especially through a trade agreement negotiated with foreign governments instead of elected U.S. officials, would hurt patients who rely on these medications. The new trade deal must still be approved by Congress. There is time to improve and keep medicines from becoming even more unaffordable for older Americans. Congressman David Price helped to negotiate a deal with the Bush Administration in 2007, which led to the eventual passage of trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, Peru and South Korea. A key part of the changes was language that expanded access to medicines. Members of our congressional delegation, many of whom have continuously worked to improve access to healthcare for North Carolinians, should be strong advocates for improving this new agreement, for the sake of their constituents of all ages. It’s not too late to fix this. We need fair, effective leadership to keep the Trump Administration from raising drug prices on Americans through the new USMCA, and it needs to happen quickly. Ann Young is a UFCW Retiree and board member of the North Carolina Alliance for Retired Americans.
- Burr and GOP Next Steps: Protect Our Republic
The big takeaway from the long-anticipated release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller report might be that it contained very little in regard to breaking news. What it did contain is confirmation that the reporting surround President Trump and the Russia scandal was not “fake news’’ but was in fact on solid ground. Much of the news surrounding the report was in how it was released. Attorney General William Barr took it upon himself to render judgements regarding the report that don’t stand up to what the report actually contains. That shouldn’t be surprising, as Trump had lamented he needed his own Roy Cohn, a fixer. In Barr he has found it. Probably the best analogy to Barr’s spin on the report came from Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker in a satirical piece titled “William Barr Reads ‘Moby Dick,’ Finds No Evidence of Whales.’’ Chris Wallace of Fox News said, “The Attorney General seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, the counselor for the president, rather than the Attorney General, talking about his motives, his emotions. … Really, as I say, making a case for the president.” What Barr did was give the Trump spin machine a head start they put to good use, declaring the president cleared and spiking the football. That spin hasn’t held up in ensuing days. It’s true that Mueller did not file charges against the president. It’s also true that, to use a double negative, he did not find him not guilty. Mueller followed Justice Department guidelines that state a sitting president can’t be indicted. He spelled out quite clearly that if he hadn’t found evidence of crimes that would normally bring charges he would’ve said so. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice,” Mueller wrote, “we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.” History is not going to treat William Barr well. He gave the White House access to a report investigating the president but denied such access to Congress. He took it upon himself to make the call on criminal obstruction, something Mueller never requested. He said the White House had cooperated fully with an investigation the president has publicly attacked more than 1,100 times, according to the New York Times, and repeatedly tried to shut down. The president fired the FBI chief leading an investigation into him, James Comey, and tried to get Mueller fired. His team had contacts with Russians that they should’ve been running to the FBI to report but instead at the very least welcomed their help. Against all the background noise regarding the report, it’s important to Americans to remember we are in uncharted waters, that this administration is, to put it mildly, not normal. Many people took Comey’s firing over that “Rush-er’’ thing with a grain of salt. What many don’t realize is that it marked only the second time in American history that a U.S. president dismissed the bureau’s head; the first was when Bill Clinton tossed William Sessions in 1993 after the DOJ issued a 161-page report detailing Sessions’ numerous ethical lapses. Barr found that normal. It isn’t. Barr isn’t the only one who looks bad after the report’s release. Sadly, Richard Burr, North Carolina’s senior U.S. Senator, may well have been sliding information to the White House regarding the ongoing FBI investigation. Burr had seemed like a square dealer in the Russia probe, so it’s disheartening to think he might be more of a Mark Meadows, who has gone so far around the bend in defending Trump he can see himself coming from the other direction. Expect to hear a lot of questions about that in coming days. So where do we go from here? Our guess is a rocky road lies ahead, and that our institutions, including the Fourth Estate, will continue to be tested. Robert Mueller didn’t put the next step in the hands of William Barr. He put it in the hands of Congress, saying it is up to that body, indeed its constitutional responsibility, to pursue conclusions DOJ guidelines prevented him from pursuing. There’s a lot of talk about what Democrats, who hold the House majority, should do. Most of that talk is hot air about political strategy and potential impacts on the 2020 election. Some of that talk is important, some of it is simply designed to fill a 24-hour news cycle with noise. But in our view “What are the Democrats going to do’’ is the wrong question. What are congressional Republicans going to do? The Mueller report isn’t a get-out-of-jail free card for them. They’re supposed to be representatives of the all the American people, not just the one who happens to be president. They should at least be paying mild interest to the fact that our Republic was attacked and an election was manipulated. If a Richard Burr or a Patrick McHenry came out and said yes, I believe Donald Trump obstructed justice, or that we at least need to take the voluminous evidence of doing so seriously, that would change the conversation, don’t you think? The ball is in the GOP’s court. Will they play or will they pass? Stay tuned.
- Economic Justice for All: How to Stop Undercounting N.C.’s Latino Children
North Carolina’s estimated $16 billion in federal funding is at stake in the 2020 census, which will take place just one year from now. Counting everyone, from the state’s youngest to our oldest, will ensure we bring the most federal money back to our communities to fund vital programs. This also means that North Carolina will have the appropriate representation in Congress, since U.S. House seats are allocated according to decennial census data. However, an accurate census will depend on convincing parents of very young Latinos to complete a census form. According to a report from NC Child and NALEO Educational Fund, “The Statewide Implications of Undercounting Latino Children,” there is a higher percentage of young Latino children in hard-to-count populations: Children under 5 Racial and ethnic minorities Linguistic minorities Low-income families Migrant families Failure to accomplish a complete and accurate census in 2020 will hurt all North Carolinians, but especially children. According to the report, an undercount would hurt the estimated 300 federal programs that rely on data derived from the decennial census. About $9.2 billion of the state’s $16 billion in federal funds is determined through the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, which will be based in part on the 2020 census and will determine how much we receive to administer these major programs that support children and families: Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid) State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Title IV-E Foster Care Title IV-E Adoption Assistance Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) While Medicaid also supports adults, two-thirds of its enrollees in North Carolina are children. To demonstrate what’s at stake for the general population, the report’s authors calculated that after the 2010 census, for every 1% of residents undercounted, North Carolina lost $94 million. This means a loss of general funding to Medicare Part B payments, and highway planning and construction for example. While Latinos make up about 10% of the state’s population, they account for about 18% of the children under 5. Nationwide in the 2010 census, the “undercount” rate for young Latino children was nearly double that of young children overall. An estimated 25,000 young children in North Carolina were missed that year; a third were Latino. This time around, that number will be higher because the young Latino population has grown in North Carolina. In 1999, they made up 7.3% of children under 5; by 2017 that number was estimated at 17.8%, or 108,376. They accounted for 40% of North Carolina’s children in poverty under 5. Very young Latinos are most likely to live in hard-to-count census tracts with a high proportion of renter and multi-unit buildings. Units may include multiple families and multiple generations living in subdivided rental units and shared households, including garages, where the adults are most likely to be poor and have difficulty speaking or understanding English. While participants will be able to respond by mail, phone or enumerator, emphasis will be placed on completing the form online. This further complicates participation for people living in poverty with limited internet access and poor English skills. Consequently, residents may avoid filling out a census form due to the perceived complexity. Also, Census Bureau research indicates that Latinos are more likely than others to believe that the purpose of the census is to collect information about adults, but not children. Finally, while most Latinos in North Carolina are U.S.-born (59%), there remains many other Latinos who may not trust a U.S. government questionnaire with their personal information, particularly if the census contains a citizenship status question. While the courts have yet to determine whether or not citizenship data will be collected, the fear of deportation remains an issue in census participation. Decreased federal funding for the 2020 census resulted in reduction in the number of field offices and staffing for communication and partnership activities in the Latino community, plus cuts in field tests, particularly in Puerto Rico. This could contribute to an inaccurate count of young Latino children. NC Child and the NALEO Educational Fund recommend the federal government fully fund the 2020 census and North Carolina appropriate $1 million for an aggressive, multi-pronged outreach plan. This means promoting Census participation through Complete Count Committees that would increase awareness among parents of young Latinos through a variety of trusted community sources carrying the same message in a “surround sound” approach, whether it be from businesses, health care providers, schools, day care providers or other community organizations. Other states have taken this important step. It’s not too late for North Carolina to do the same.
- Time to address neglected public schools for the long term
The good news is that there’s broad agreement in Raleigh that the needs of North Carolina’s public schools have been neglected for too long, and it’s time to start addressing those needs. The bad news is there’s a political battle ahead regarding just how to achieve that goal. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, has pitched a $1.9 billion bond, tentatively to be presented to voters for their approval next year. It would provide local schools with about $1.3 billion and another $200 million each for the University of North Carolina system and state community colleges. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has offered his own plan that he says would give public schools $2 billion over nine years, with no borrowing needed. The dollars, Berger says, would come from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, which was created to provide around 4 percent of the state’s general revenue fund to UNC system and state government projects. The proposal to the state Senate would bump that to 4.5 percent and provide funds for community colleges and local schools. The third player on the stage is Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who’d like to put a bond of nearly $4 billion on the ballot. Cooper says K-12 schools in the state have a backlog of $8 billion in renovation and construction needs. More than half of the money from Cooper’s proposal would go to public schools, around $500 million each goes to community colleges and the UNC system, while the remainder would focus on local infrastructure projects. The Senate measure is attractive in that with pay-as-you-go, there’s no interest to be paid on bonds. It’s unattractive in that construction money would be distributed by the Department of Public Instruction and that there’s no guarantee the dollars would flow from year to year. A future legislature could change the law as it pleases, making education infrastructure needs susceptible to other needs – responding to a hurricane, for example. The House bill and Cooper’s push are unattractive in that debt would have to be financed. Those plans have a huge upside in that they would provide predictable revenue streams and allow local education leaders to reliably plan for the future. Planning for that future has been on the sidelines for too long. Cooper’s office points out that it’s been 23 years since a construction bond passed in North Carolina, and that half of the current K-12 school buildings in the state are at least 50 years old. It’s a state of affairs that needs addressing, and needs addressing with a long-term plan. Everyone in Raleigh says they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Politicians love to say they love education. They can prove it by making sure the coming debate goes beyond words and yields dollars and cents.
- Even in Correcting the Story on School Grades, News Media still get it Wrong
This week several media outlets goofed when they reported the North Carolina legislature’s plan to report school performance using letter grades based on a 15-point scale. First, they presented the policy as a change, even though the policy has been in practice for years. Second, they failed to emphasize that the scale applied to grades given to schools, not individual students. Fretting that the state is lowering academic standards, people took to social media and the story spread, giving fresh (but inaccurate) material for anyone with an interest in mocking schools in North Carolina, including talk show host Seth Meyers. Media outlets are trying to rectify the problem, but they are missing the real story. Take, for example, WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR station. This morning it clarified that the policy “involves the grading scale used to assess how schools, not students, are performing” and “it doesn’t apply to students.” But those statements are not entirely true. The grading scale in question actually does assess how students are performing and it does apply to students. In fact, one could argue that it applies to students more than it applies to schools. The distinction comes down to the formula used to generate those school letter grades. Using the End-of-Grade tests from third through eighth grades and End-of-Course tests in high school, the NC Department of Public Instruction assigns letter grades based partly on how many students in a school pass the exams and partly on how much better students did in the current year than in previous years. The first component is often called “achievement” and the second “growth”. Because students are different and some schools serve populations with disproportionately more obstacles such as poverty or learning disabilities, raising the achievement measure can be more difficult in some schools than others. A high-poverty school could make remarkable academic progress that does not move the dial on achievement because so many of their students have so far to go. Growth scores are supposed to address that issue with an assessment of the value added by a school. Using the same tests, by determining whether students are doing better, the same, or worse than in previous years, the state can assess whether the school is helping students make progress. In other words, while achievement describes student performance, growth describes school performance. To see how these different measures might favor some schools more than others, consider Title I schools, which are schools identified as having high proportions of students in poverty. According to data from NCDPI, Title I schools in North Carolina earned an average growth score of 77.6 last year, similar to the average growth score of 76.6 earned by non-Title I schools. But on the achievement measure, Title I schools averaged only 54.2 while non-Title I averaged 70.9. In other words, while Title I schools are making as much progress as other schools, their achievement scores do not reflect it. Here’s the kicker: when combining school achievement and school growth scores to produce the school performance score that will determine the letter grade the school gets (using that 15-point scale), school achievement counts four times as much as school growth. Because achievement counts so much more, 34% of Title I schools received a D or F compared to only 5% of non-Title I schools, despite the fact that both groups performed similarly in terms of how much their students grew. When news media explain that these grades are for schools, not students, they are correct in that the grade applies to the entire school and does not appear on students’ report cards. But they are ignoring the fact that because achievement counts for so much more than growth, the letter grade granted to the schools is more a reflection of the students who attend the school than it is the progress the school is helping those students to make. It doesn’t really matter whether schools are judged on a 15- or 10-point scale. Such benchmarks are arbitrary. What is more important is the question of whether these letter grades truly reflect the progress made by a school’s students, teachers, and staff. Do we want to judge a school based on the challenges faced by the population it serves, or how much the school does to help them overcome those obstacles? And who benefits from the current formula? It certainly isn’t the Title I schools. Dr. Giersch is an assistant professor who teaches courses on American politics, research methods, state and local politics, and education policy. His research focuses on education policy, specifically the areas of school choice, high-stakes testing, segregation, and teacher quality.
- Demand redistricting reform
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, along with other bipartisan sponsors, recently introduced a bill that would place on the ballot in March 2020 an amendment to the state constitution establishing a nonpartisan redistricting process. If the bill, called the Fairness and Integrity in Redistricting or FAIR Act, passes and voters approve the amendment, it will surely be the most important legislation McGrady or any of its co-sponsors ever introduce. Getting the amendment on the ballot will be an uphill battle, given that the Republican leaders of both the House and Senate say they don’t see a need to change the way things are done now, but the impressive and bipartisan group of North Carolina leaders behind McGrady’s bill suggests a consensus is forming that will be hard to buck. The proposed amendment resulted from the work of a group called North Carolinians for Redistricting Reform (NC4RR), co-chaired by McGrady and former UNC System President Tom Ross. NC4RR is supported by all of North Carolina’s living governors and former chief justices along with an impressive list of other business and political leaders that includes Art Pope, an influential Republican who co-founded the John Locke Foundation. More importantly, polling indicates that reform has the backing of a majority of North Carolinians. A 2018 poll by Public Policy Polling found that 59 percent of respondents supported changing North Carolina law so that districts are drawn in a non-partisan fashion. Only 15 percent were opposed, with another 27 percent unsure. The proposed amendment would establish redistricting standards that would have to be followed whether lawmakers, staff or an independent commission redrew district maps after each decennial census. Any partisan political consideration would be prohibited. No use could be made of data that could identify the “voting tendencies of any group of people.” The amendment would require that districts be drawn to be compact and contiguous, keeping whole counties together in the same district to the extent possible. It would require that the process be transparent and that the methods and data used be made public. And it would require a public hearing before the new districts were approved by the General Assembly. As it stands now, whichever party holds the majority in the year after the census is completed is free to manipulate districts to protect their party’s power, depriving voters of choice. The practice results in endless court challenges and court orders that maps be redrawn, costing voters millions of dollars. Since 1980, courts have had to intervene as a result of more than 40 challenges to NC redistricting maps, according to the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. That leaves voters dismayed and sometimes unsure even which district they’re in. It creates a huge disincentive to vote when you know that your district is drawn in such a way that only one candidate has any chance of winning. It promotes polarization and it cheats voters of government that is truly representative. Gerrymandering is a blatant and unrepentant power grab by the majority party. Whether it’s legal or not (something the U.S. Supreme Court has been reluctant to decide), it’s a cynical and increasingly outrageous corruption of the democratic process. 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. It is under authoritarian governments, not democratic ones, where voters have only one choice – the one dictated by the regime in charge. Partisan gerrymandering is not new, but new technology allows map-drawers to target voters with pinpoint accuracy and to design districts to virtually guarantee that a given party will prevail. Even though Democrats got 48.35 percent of the 2018 Congressional vote, they elected only 3 representatives. With 50.39 percent, barely more than half, Republicans elected 10. House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger are among Republicans who co-sponsored redistricting reform legislation during the 2000s when they were in the minority, but now say they don’t see a need for it. Even if they lack the statesmanship to do the right thing, if they fail to support the FAIR Act, in a state that’s almost evenly divided politically and where the demographics are changing, they may come to regret a missed opportunity to protect their own long-term interests. But it’s the voters’ interest they should be concerned about protecting. This bill is about wresting the power to choose their representatives away from manipulative and power-hoarding lawmakers and returning it to the voters. Whether they are registered independent, Republican or Democratic, voters should demand that the process be a fair one where one-person, one-vote means something. If serving the state’s rather than their own interests is lawmakers’ first priority, they will put this proposed amendment on the ballot. We should flood their offices with mail, email and phone calls demanding that they do so. Click here for a list of their names and contact information.
- A fight for the future
Five months ago, coastal North Carolina residents sat in the crosshairs of a monster storm. Some 43 people died during and immediately after Hurricane Florence, which left $17 billion in damage. Hurricane Michael followed one month later. Three people died and millions more in damage resulted. Wilmington and many other affected communities have not fully recovered. Water damage remediation equipment churns 24-hours a day outside the 100-year-old Alton Lennon Federal Courthouse, closed indefinitely. Blue tarps dot the rooftops of a partment buildings, businesses and churches awaiting roofing crews. Power saws drone in neighborhoods where gutted homes undergo repairs. Hurricane season returns June 1, and with it the threat of new storms. Gov. Roy Cooper testified on Feb. 6before the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, to the increasingly powerful and erratic storms that have hit North Carolina in recent years. He cited the two, 500-year floods experienced in two years, and three in fewer than 20 years. Cooper described mudslides in the mountains that have damaged apple orchards and ski areas, record heat in the Piedmont that has killed poultry and damaged crops, and wildfire and flooding risks to Fort Bragg and the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point. The worst of the damage, however, has occurred in Eastern North Carolina, which faces the prospect of more storms and floods, he said. Two years after Hurricane Michael hit, Hurricane Florence “decimated coastal communities and crushed coastal tourism and fisheries.” As Florence pounded the coast for days with punishing winds, it dropped trillions of gallons of rain. Communities went under water under historic flood levels, livestock and crops drowned. Cooper told the committee, conducting month-long climate hearings, about steps taken in North Carolina to respond, with a new North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency to administer federal block grants to fund disaster recovery and plans to develop and implement strategies to protect the state from future storms. He discussed the North Carolina Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network that will identify areas facing the most risk during disasters and the safest places to rebuild. “But when storms are becoming more destructive, it’s not enough to pick up the pieces,” he said. “We must take action to prevent this kind of devastation in the future. I urge this Congress and all our federal partners to match the same level of determination brought to disaster recovery in our fight to reduce the effects of climate change.” Cooper got the ball rolling at the state level last year, with an executive order to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina by 2025. This includes increased state building efficiency and 80,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road. But states and researchers rely on federal funds to pay for scientific research and drive innovation “that can help solve our climate crisis,” he said. Federal legislation and regulation will further protect the state, plus government leadership to work on a global level to effect international solutions. TheGreen New Dealresolution proposed Feb. 7 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.), is a beginning. It offers a framework for the kind of bold environmental change needed to combat the devastating effects of global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationrecently reported that 247 people died in 14 weather and climate disasters last year, with greater than $1 billion in losses from each event. Since 1980, there have been 241 weather and climate disasters in the United States, each with at least $1 billion in overall damages and costs. Total costs came to $1.6 trillion. In North Carolina so far, the storms exacted a price to be paid: more than $1 billion in state and federal funds for recovery efforts, and counting. How do we move forward? Government legislation and policy can either curtail or fuel climate change on a major scale, from the greenhouse emissions permitted by industry to the decision on whether there is a bus route serving your neighborhood. Call and write local, state and federal representatives to advocate for action. Attend town halls and other public meetings so the urgency of climate change remains top of mind for those who represent you. Consider a run for public office yourself. Perform an inventory of your home and an honest assessment of your life choices. From reducing the amount of red meat you consume to installing solar panels on your house, there are things you can do. Here is ahandy calculatorfrom the Nature Conservancy that can guide you on steps to take to reduce your carbon footprint. While the state continues post-disaster recovery, we must remember that the next big hurricane, fire or flood will cost more lives and destroy property. This is a fight for the future.