Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mel Watt a victim of broken Senate

The president nominates a congressman to lead a national housing finance agency. A majority of the Senate supports the nomination. The nomination dies.

Such is life in the United States Senate, once known as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte saw his nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency shot down today. Senators voted 56 to 42 to advance his nomination, but Senate rules require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Those rules have rendered presidential nominations meaningless, and must be changed. The Constitution gives the president the responsibility to nominate agency heads. The Senate has the duty to confirm or not confirm the president’s appointments.

These days, though, many nominees never get an up-or-down vote. It takes only 40 senators to sustain a filibuster. Civics courses across America need to be overhauled to do away with the notion that a majority vote wins.

Either that, or rein in the filibuster. Presidents – including future Republican presidents – cannot run an executive branch if a minority of obstructionists eliminate their ability to make appointments to key jobs.

Republicans argue they needed to block Watt’s nomination because he is unqualified. The truth is they are playing politics. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for example, has vowed to block all of Obama’s nominations regardless of qualifications until he gets a hearing he wants on Benghazi, Libya.

Watt, by the way, was a Yale Law graduate and business lawyer before becoming a housing policy leader in the House and a leading member of the House Financial Services Committee. That’s why Republican Sen. Richard Burr, former Bank of America chief Hugh McColl and housing industry leaders have supported his nomination.

And if he’s not qualified? Take a vote and defeat his nomination.

The filibuster rules are freezing the Senate and would do so whichever party is in power. Change them now.
-- Taylor Batten

Patrick Cannon's iffy memory

It has come to our attention, belatedly, that mayoral candidate Patrick Cannon provided inaccurate information in a column he wrote for last Sunday's Charlotte Observer.

The Observer editorial board invited both Cannon, a Democrat, and opponent Edwin Peacock, a Republican, to write for Sunday's Viewpoint page, making the case for why each is the stronger candidate. (You can find those pieces here and here.)

Cannon wrote: "As the top vote getter in the last four at-large City Council elections, I have also served as mayor pro tem, which provided me with a close look at the office of mayor and on many occasions the opportunity to assume some of the mayoral duties and obligations."

One big problem, as the Business Journal's Erik Spanberg first noted: Cannon was not the top vote getter in the last four at-large City Council elections. Not even close.

He was the leading vote getter in the most recent election, in 2011. He finished second to Susan Burgess in 2009, did not run in 2007 or 2005, finished first in 2003 and finished third in 2001. So whether Cannon was talking about the last four elections, as he said, or the last four elections that he participated in, either way he was not the top vote getter all four times. He was the top vote getter two times at best.

We should have caught the error and are sorry we didn't.

Spanberg quotes from a statement Cannon issued late Wednesday: "In my attempt to meet a tight deadline, it seems two thoughts were combined. I've been Mayor Pro Tem for four terms, 2001, 2003, 2009, 2011 (counting when I assumed the role after Susan Burgess' passing). And, I was the top vote getter in the last at-large election. My apologies for the confusion."

Neither Cannon nor his campaign brought the error to the Observer's attention either before it was published or after Spanberg questioned them about it. "It must be a slow news cycle if people are looking to nitpick stories like that," Cannon's campaign manager spokesperson, Colleen Brannan, said in a voice mail to us after we asked about it. Either that, or we and our readers value accuracy.

As for the tight deadline: We invited Cannon to write his piece on Oct. 16. It was published Oct. 27.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How badly is Edwin Peacock losing mayor's race?

Everyone has known Republican Edwin Peacock faces a tough climb to defy Charlotte's demographics and defeat Democrat Patrick Cannon for mayor. Now early voting statistics put some meat on that idea.

About 6,300 votes had been cast through Monday. About 60 percent of those have been cast by Democrats, about 22 percent by Republicans and about 18 percent by unaffiliated voters. About half the votes have been cast by black voters, though they make up only 37 percent of the electorate.

It's common for Democratic candidates to fare better in early voting and then see their support shrink a bit on Election Day:

  • In the 2009 mayoral race, Democrat Anthony Foxx won 55 percent of the early votes and 50 percent of Election Day votes.
  • In the 2011 mayoral race, Foxx won 76 percent of the early votes and 65 percent of Election Day votes.
  • In 2012, President Obama won 67 percent of the early votes in Mecklenburg County, but only 56 percent of Election Day votes.
We don't know whom this year's 6,300 voters supported. But if Peacock won every Republican vote and every unaffiliated vote (and no Democratic votes), he trails 60-40 right now. (More likely, he picked up some Democratic votes but also lost some unaffiliated votes.) If those trends continue for the five remaining days of early voting, history suggests that even if he does better on Election Day as expected, that's too big of a hole to dig out of.

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, October 24, 2013

96-year-old tees off on Congress

Ben Horack has lived in Charlotte most of his adult life. He was the senior member of Horack Talley, a prominent law firm. Now he's 96 and living in the Southminster Retirement Community. He is amused and frustrated by Congress's ineptitude. So much so that he has taken to verse to decry their inability to govern.

The rhyming and meter are unique, but he captures a sentiment that readers might appreciate. Without further ado, Mr. Horack's poem:

(Halloween, October 31, 2013)
By Benj. S. Horack
October 31 is the special day
That we know as Halloween — When rank and file Americans
Play pranks — sometimes harsh ‘n mean.
But there is a bunch in Washington
That trick and treat throughout the year,
Who act like Demons, Ghosts and Goblins
Each day of their careers.
I refer to our esteemed President
And all 525 members of the Congress
Who purport to represent our Nation,
But seldom show much progress.
These political Ghosts and Goblins
Trick not only their home front neighbors,
But also the various colleagues
With whom they are supposed to labor.
Our intrepid President Barak Obama
Will never go down in flames
As long as he can find someone
Upon whom to place the blame.

Not one of these politicos
Would really be worth his salt
If he weren’t good at pointing fingers
At others in the game of Finding Fault.
Some say that Government Entitlements
Are overdone and deeply flawed —
That they teach us to be dependent
And are also fraught with fraud.
The Dems condemn Republicans
For bringing the Government to a STOP
‘Cause they don’t like Obamacare
And, though lawful, think that it will flop.
Some of them view Nancy Pelosi
As flying around the House Chamber room
Dispensing her legislative wisdom
Comfortable astride her private broom.
Others say: “Bow to Tea Party extremists
‘N we will be knee-deep in clover
But, if we don’t, there’ll be Hell to pay
When the bubbling Tea Pot boils over.”
Our demonic public servants
Have taken our Nation to the brink
In a contest about Debt Ceiling
To see who will be the first to blink.
About these and a bunch of other issues
The 2 sides fuss and fight each day.
Each Party is happy to negotiate
As long as each completely gets its way.

These Ghosts ‘n Goblins are virtuosos
At getting opponents demonized
And Past Masters when it comes
To getting voters confused and tranquilized.
This infighting is characterized
By casting epithets and invectives
And by fabrications and untruths:
To demonize is their sole objective.
Much effort is devoted to things
That help win the next election—
To prevent their legislative careers
From being a sudden vague abstraction,
An area based on treats, not demonic tricks,
Is when all these legislative jerks
Eagerly join together and agree
To preserve all their self-interest perks.
A Spooky treat that is most impressive --
Solving problems on the threshold to explode:
Ghost ‘n Goblin Statesmen play Kick-the-Can
To push these pesky problem down the road.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

7th grade teacher: Mass exodus of teachers possible

Observer reporter Ann Doss Helms wrote in today's paper about a potential walkout by N.C. public school teachers to protest low pay and an array of other policies emanating from the legislature. "We want more respect for teachers," organizers write on their Facebook page.

But a walkout could backfire severely. Teachers have a good case to make, but leaving innocent students alone in their classrooms is not the best way to make it.

Katelyn Stukenberg is a 7th grade Language Arts teacher at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. She has helped organize a group of teachers called Policy Bridge, which advocates for an elevation of the teaching profession.

She sent the Observer her thoughts about the state of teaching in North Carolina today, and why a walkout would be a bad move. She warns that North Carolina could suffer "a mass exodus" of teachers in the next year if they aren't treated better by the legislature. She makes a good case that a walkout is not the best way to make that happen. Let us -- and her -- know what you think.

Stukenberg's piece:  

This year after the dismissal bell rings, I know my work as a teacher is not over. After an eight hour day of pushing my 7th grade students to high expectations, pulling out every piece of their potential and engaging every moment of their attention, I know that it is still not enough. I know that after several recent education law changes having passed that I must now become an advocate, not only for my students but also for myself.

I inevitably find myself reflecting on a lesson I previously presented to my students during Language Arts class. The theme of the day was “Choices” and we analyzed the following quote:

“There are two primary choices in life: to accept the conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.” –Denis Waitley

            I believe that the majority of teachers will agree that we have reached a point at which we must act in order to safeguard not only our professions, but also the future and wellbeing of our students. We are at a unique and pivotal place in education, where within the next year we will either see a mass exodus of teachers from North Carolina, or a rising up of teachers to demand their voices are represented in education policies and the teaching profession elevated.

            However, as teachers we need to use this opportunity not only to address the symptoms of a flawed system, but more substantially to acknowledge that a change must occur in the methodology of policy creation. Following this summer’s controversial education policies one thing has become clear to me: there is a tremendous gap between teachers in the classroom and policy makers in Raleigh.

            Understandably, teachers have rallied together to express their disapproval of North Carolina’s low teacher salaries and have declared a walkout to improve the current conditions. Although I agree with the commitment to the cause of education policy revision, I argue that teachers should take a different route to accomplishing fair and respectful education policies. Teachers need to spearhead the composition of education policy by communicating and partnering with NC policymakers.

            A walkout will inevitably have the greatest negative consequences for our students. I do not believe they deserve to be walked out on. I have always believed the teaching profession to be noble: one of service, compassion and generosity. Despite my lackluster paycheck, I have held my head high with pride in the fact that we teachers have the most influential and important career in the world. I am disappointed that the nobility of my career is being threatened, yes by unjust policy, but also at the potential for a mass desertion of our students by the very people they have come to respect and trust. We must hold our heads high and continue acting with humility and tenacity and act not with a walk out, but with open communication with policymakers and, as a result, new and drastically improved policies.

            Let me be the first to say that I abhor these demeaning policies that strip the careers I had once dreamed of working in for decades. However, I am confident that our voices can and will be heard as we respectfully advocate for the teaching profession without exposing our students to additional negative impacts. I believe that our role as teachers extends outside of the classroom and into education policy. These policies are confirmation that we are being called to be the unified voice that bridges the gap between the implementation of policy in the classroom and the composition of policies in the capitol.

            I want my students to have access to teachers that are highly effective, valued and treated fairly. I know although these recent policies affect teachers, they will just as greatly affect our students as our state experiences a tremendous loss of our best, most effective teachers and teaching assistants as they move to states where they feel respected and valued. As research has shown, teachers are the most important school-based variable in student success and yet the state fails to see the value in investing in quality teachers as an essential commodity. Instead of creating an even greater divide between policymakers and teachers through a teacher walkout, let us use this opportunity to bring the two sides together to create optimal policies for the North Carolina public education system, its valuable educators, and its promising students.

            In order to construct this policy bridge, a group of teachers have already started to meet with the mission of becoming the Policy Bridge. This group of teachers seeks to discuss and help enact sensible policies through outreach to our legislators. Finally, I urge all teachers considering a walk out to reconsider. We are all passionate about changing many of the new education laws and I am confident that with a unified and informed approach to the current situation, we can both elevate our profession and benefit the students we seek to develop and protect every day.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Roy Cooper, Ruth Samuelson and Richard Burr

House GOP members are meeting behind closed doors at 3 p.m. to discuss accepting the Senate-prepared plan to end the unwise government shutdown and increase the debt ceiling before potential harm results. Here are a couple of closer to home events you might have missed as our faux adult national lawmakers played cat and mouse with each other and flirted with hobbling our financial security.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is firmly setting his sights on the governor's mansion with a column in the liberal Huffington Post on Tuesday. The item called, "North Carolina: Threatening Fifty Years of Progress in Ten Months" praises Democratic political leadership of the past, particularly that of former governors Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, and lambastes current Republican leadership, though Cooper doesn't mention first-term Republican Gov. Pat McCrory by name.

Cooper writes: "Today, the emphasis on economic growth, public education and innovative change that has distinguished North Carolina for fifty years has reached a sudden end. For the first time since Reconstruction, North Carolina has a General Assembly and governorship controlled by the extreme factions of the Republican Party, and their legislative super majority means their power is unchecked. In ten short months, they have set out to deliberately and systematically undo fifty years of progress. It's as if the Tea Party created its own playground of extremist fantasies.

Tax giveaways for the top 1 percent instead of real tax breaks for working North Carolina families. An end to childcare tax credits. Election law changes that make it harder for North Carolinians to register and vote. Overcrowded classrooms for public school teachers and layoffs for teacher assistants to fund private school voucher programs. University and community college funding slashed, leading to an exodus of talented faculty. A gutting of unemployment benefits when our economy is barely getting back on its feet. And a refusal to accept federal Medicaid dollars that would expand healthcare for working people, as well as for seniors in nursing homes and assisted living. This is not the North Carolina that any of us recognize. "
Sounds like his 2016 campaign platform for N.C. governor.

Lots of chatter is going on about why Charlotte's State Rep. Ruth Samuelson is looking to end her political career - at least for now. Samuelson, a key GOP lawmaker who had been a top contender for N.C. House Speaker, announced Tuesday she wouldn't be seeking reelection in 2014. She noted that "there have been several private sector opportunities develop for me since the session adjourned that tap into some lifelong passions of mine. Coupled with a growing family and exciting opportunities with my church community, now is the time to set the stage for a great second half of my life."

Samuelson will leave accomplishing many of her goals - sponsoring much of the controversial conservative agenda including the stringent voter ID bill, limiting access to abortion services, and creating a regional and still-being litigated Charlotte airport commission.

Samuelson seemed often stunned at the criticism she got from many of her home-town constituents on many of her stands. At a recent forum at Central Piedmont Community College, she and other lawmakers got booed more than cheered. Those kind of reactions might have had nothing to do with her seemingly sudden decision, but they possibly made it easier.

Back to Congress and the debt ceiling for a moment. I blogged last week about North Carolina U.S. Sen. Richard Burr who was quoted in the New York Times saying that failing to raise the debt limit wouldn't be so bad because the money saved by shutting down the government and furloughing federal workers can be applied to paying those obligations. Politico reports he also downplayed the consequences of the debt default with this astonishing statement: "I am not as concerned as the president is on the debt ceiling, because the only people buying our bonds right now is the Federal Reserve. So it’s like scaring ourselves.” Politico rightly notes that the "statement ignores that nearly $6 trillion - almost half of outstanding debt held by the public - is owned by foreign governments, including $2.4 trillion by China and Japan alone. Both of those nations [last week] warned the United States against doing anything that would put these massive investments at risk."

- Fannie Flono

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Shutdown prisoner: The family dog

Ellen Holloway knows the federal government's partial shutdown has created victims with bigger problems. Still, she, her husband and kids would sure like their family dog back.

Hope Holloway, with Eiffel

Ellen and her husband, Allen, moved their family from Charlotte to England last month as Allen pursues a master's degree at the University of Reading. It was a big move for their 8-year-old daughter, Hope, and 7-year-old son, Connor, and leaving the family dog behind was never an option. Eiffel, a 3-year-old English Springer Spaniel, is a member of the family, and like a sibling to Hope and Connor. She would be a great comfort for the children amid such tremendous change.

It turns out that shipping a dog to the United Kingdom requires following a very specific process over a 10-day period. The vet has to see her exactly nine days before the flight. Then a vet with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has to sign the paperwork and send it back to the family's vet. She has to arrive in England within 10 days of seeing the vet and after being given a de-wormer three days before.

The Holloways researched all that and followed the rules to a T. "Eiffel's paperwork was literally the next on the desk to be signed when the shutdown began," Ellen says by email from Reading. Eiffel's trip was cancelled the day before she was to fly.

"Telling the kids, who had been counting down the days from 14 to 1, wasn't easy," Ellen says. "We can't even restart the count -- we don't know how long it will be. They cried and can't understand why this is happening ... or when she'll finally arrive."

So now the kids come home to their strange new house in a foreign country, and Eiffel is not there to greet them. All because Congress can't get its act together.

"The only silver lining?" Ellen says. "I now have a sure-fire method to end bickering among the Holloway siblings: remind them that they are doing exactly the same as 'the politicians' and the bickering quickly subsides. Even school children don't want to be caught acting like that!"

Hope and Connor made a video asking Congress and President Obama to please end the shutdown so they could have their beloved Eiffel back. Watch it below.

-- Taylor Batten (h/t to Peter St. Onge)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Remember when Burr said: 'Draw everything from ATMs'?

An Observer colleague reminded me that North Carolina's U.S. Sen. Richard Burr wasn't always so sanguine about the resilience of the U.S. economy as he expressed in a New York Times story today about a possible debt default. When the banking crisis hit in 2008, Burr was pretty frenetic in his response, telling his wife to take as much money out of the ATM as she could. It was an anecdote Burr repeated often in describing how spooked he was about the financial fallout.

He said in one speech quoted in the Hendersonville Times and reprinted in the Raleigh News and Observer that he told his wife Brooke this:  "Tonight, I want you to go to the ATM machine, and I want you to draw out everything it will let you take. And I want you to tomorrow, and I want you to go Sunday. I was convinced on Friday night that if you put a plastic card in an ATM machine the last thing you were going to get was cash."

His comments were lampooned by some and led to this explanation to Charlotte's WFAE radio station, quoted the Huffington Post: "Absolutely I'd do it [again]. The exact situation we were faced with was a freeze bank to bank. And as I stated, my attempt was to make sure my wife had enough cash at home to make it through the next week."

If only he could have a fraction of that kind of concern - without the knee jerk, dangerous and misguided notion of advocating a run on banks, of course - and apply it to Congress' crisis-inducing government shutdown and flirtation with not raising the debt ceiling and causing a U.S. default. A lot of people around the country are worried they won't have "enough cash to make it through the week." The irresponsible actions of Congress on the shutdown have already pushed some citizens into that position.

A non-profit stepped in Wednesday to help restore death benefits for military families that were cutoff by the ongoing government shutdown, according to USA Today. The nonprofit Fisher House Foundation said they'd fill in the gap and don't want to be paid back though the Pentagon said it will. The House did vote 425-0 Wednesday to restore a $100,000 death gratuity to family and other lost benefits to veterans' families, but the Senate has not taken action.

The debacle with veterans' death benefits highlights how crazy the actions of Congress have become. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy admiral, summed up the frustrations of many of us in his daily opening prayer in the Senate chamber Wednesday: "Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough."

- Fannie Flono

The debacle with veterans' death benefits highlights how crazy Congress is acting; Senate Chaplain Barry Black, a retired Navy admiral, summed up the frustration of all of us in his daily opening prayer in the Senate chamber: "Lord, when our federal shutdown delays payments of death benefits to the families of children dying on far away battlefields, it's time for our lawmakers to say enough is enough."

Read more here:

Rich and crazy in Congress

Any normal person would be aghast at Congress' shutdown of the federal government that is causing needless pain to many citizens already. The state stops giving vouchers to women for baby formula for their kids? Families of U.S. military veterans who've died in combat can't get death benefits? Hundreds of thousands of federal workers going without pay? What are our elected representatives thinking?

Well, North Carolina's own Richard Burr is apparently thinking things aren't going  that bad. Forget about those wrenching hardships on regular citizens that shuttered government is already causing. Burr was quoted in the New York Times this morning as being ready to test defaulting on the government's debt too. 

According to the Times, Sen. Burr isn't buying the warnings that a default on U.S. debt  from not raising the debt ceiling would do great harm to the U.S. economy or more expansively to global economic activity. Said Burr: "We always have enough money to pay our debt service... You've had the federal government out of work for close to two weeks; that's about $24 billion a month. Every month, you have enough saved in salaries alone that you're covering three-fifths, four-fifths of the total debt service, about $35 billion a month. That's manageable for some time."

So it looks like Burr is counting on a continuing shutdown of the federal government to alleviate the need to raise the debt ceiling - an increase needed to pay for debts he and his cronies have already incurred for services and programs they approved in the past. That's right. While politicos try to pin this budget battle on future spending - particularly any spending associated with the Affordable Care Act - the debt ceiling needs to be raised to cover debts already on the books. Congress is essentially saying they either want to shaft a lot of Americans - hardworking Americans, some of whose family members paid the ultimate price for our security - or want the government to be a deadbeat - a scoundrel who walks away from financial obligations they've already incurred. This is a position of integrity? This is the reputation Americans want? Really?

But back to members of Congress thinking it's OK to flirt with financial disaster of epic proportions. It sounds crazy to us regular folks. Congress members already know things wouldn't be hunky dory. When members came close to not raising the ceiling in another fit of pique a couple of years ago, the financial markets felt it. People lost money. We're only now getting back to where we once were financially.

That doesn't seem to matter so much to the people representing us. And here might be one reason why:  A lot of them are rich. In fact, a lot of them are very rich. The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics earlier this year unveiled a database showing the median estimated net worth of Congress is $966,000. By contrast, the median net worth of the typical American household is slightly more than $66,000. Ten members had a net worth greater than $100 million.

Losses in the last needless game of chicken over the debt ceiling was negligible to the rich in Congress. Just as the effects of the continuing government shut down is. They're not feeling the pain like other Americans are. Even their jumping on the bandwagon to accept no pay during the shutdown is having negligible impact. According to the Washington Post, at least 232 members of the House and Senate had vowed they plan to donate, refuse or hold in escrow compensation earned over the course of the impasse. (The count includes a few members who already donate their salary to charity.)

At least seven members of the North Carolina delegation have agreed not to take pay. All but one - Sen. Kay Hagan - were Republicans including Mecklenburg's U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger listed by the Post as the 20th richest in Congress with $17.1 million in wealth. (Tops on the list of Congress' rich members is California's GOP Rep. Darrell Issa at $355.4 million, who already donates his salary to charity.) Burr's wealth was listed as $1.58 million in 2011, putting him among the top 50 in wealth in Congress.

With so much wealth in Congress, most won't miss the money - and those who will aren't likely giving it up entirely. They'll get it back when members reach some accommodation with each other. They've put their money in escrow during the shutdown. For the rest of us, we'll be left to pick up the pieces of whatever financial fallout we incur. Lawmakers should be ashamed to put their fellow Americans needlessly in this position. Normal people would be. But then again, this is Congress.  

-- Fannie Flono


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shutdown hits home: N.C. suspending WIC

For those who might be applauding the slimming effects of the federal government shutdown, some harsh reality:  The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is temporarily halting benefits for a program that helps low-income pregnant women and new moms buy healthy food if  their families are facing "nutrition risk."  

From DHHS this afternoon: 

Due to the federal shutdown, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as the WIC program, will discontinue issuing benefits at close of business on Tuesday, October 8, 2013.   Approximately 80 percent of eligible clients already have been issued food benefits for the month of October.  DHHS has determined that federal WIC funds available to the state will be sufficient to cover WIC vouchers already issued for the month of October, but not sufficient to issue additional vouchers.

WIC clients should keep their nutrition appointments and continue redeeming October vouchers and WIC vendors should continue normal operations to accept existing vouchers.  The Department will continue to monitor the daily availability of federal funds and will announce changes if they become necessary. 

"Some of our most vulnerable citizens, pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children, will be affected by the interruption of WIC services due to the federal shutdown," said DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos. 
DHHS, in a letter today, also is telling some providers that it is issuing a Stop Work order on their contracts - meaning there are no funds to pay them, due to the shutdown.   

Meanwhile, moments ago, U.S. House Speaker called President Barack Obama's proposal of a short-term "clean resolution" to get the government funded again "unconditional surrender" for Republicans. 

Peter St. Onge

Report: McCrory administration suppressed critical Medicaid info

It's common political practice for incoming administrations to tout how good of a job they will do by first explaining how bad of a job their predecessors did. But the incoming administration of N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory might have taken the practice too far in trying to paint the state's Medicaid program as broken, according to an investigation published today by North Carolina Health News.

Documents show that Department of Health and Human Services officials deleted key information in the department's response to State Auditor Beth Wood's audit of the Medicaid program under previous governor Bev Perdue. That audit from Wood had alleged high adminstrative costs and budget overruns in the state Medicaid program. The initial response refuting those allegations was written by outgoing Perdue officials.

The edits, done by DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos and Medicaid head Carol Steckel, include removing whole paragraphs and evidence that North Carolina's administrative costs are lower than most states, rather than 30 percent higher, as McCrory administration officials have contended publicly, Health News reports.

Another example: Steckel removed paragraphs explaining that CommunityCare of North Carolina - a much-lauded network of physicians, pharmacists and health departments - had been studied by two national groups that found cost savings. Instead, Steckel inserted language casting doubt on the program.

The DHHS documents, including the edits, are available online at North Carolina Health News, a not-for-profit news organization founded by Rose Hoban, who reported on health care for six years for North Carolina Public Radio. 

 In a January news conference, with McCrory standing behind her, Wood said North Carolina was spending significantly more on administrative costs than most states. That criticism helped McCrory and Wos characterize the Medicaid program as "broken," which they used as justification to turn down a federal expansion of Medicaid that could have helped a half million North Carolinians.

Of course, if the state's Medicaid program isn't "broken," McCrory might have a more difficult time  justifying the Medicaid privatization he's proposing.

DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz told North Carolina Health News that DHHS officials "stand by our final responses to the audit." That's not good enough. Wos needs to justify the specific deletions  made to the audit response and explain why they removed critical information that might have painted our state's Medicaid program in a far different light.

Peter St. Onge

Monday, October 7, 2013

Did we mention we're searching your car?

Beginning this week, Charlotte Douglas International Airport officials will offer you the courtesy of letting you know your car is being searched.

The only reason they're fessing up, of course, is because they got caught.

According to a WCNC/Observer report over the weekend, airport employees have been searching valet-parked cars for the past year and a half without the consent or knowledge of car owners. The reason we know now? When one traveler was paying her valet bill inside at the airport last week, she noticed through the window an employee with a flashlight looking through her trunk.

Update, 4:45 p.m.: Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle told the editorial board Monday that the airport will suspend curbside valet parking – along with what he called the “visual inspections” –for 5-10 days until officials can determine the best way to notify travelers about the practice. Cagle, who became interim aviation director in July and was hired by Charlotte Douglas last year, was not involved in enacting the policy. But, he said Monday: “We understand now that we should have done a better job.”

The searches were part of the airport's security plan. Each U.S. airport is responsible for submitting such plans to the Transportation Safety Administration, according to the TSA's Bob Burns, who addressed the issue on an agency blog in July. The TSA approves the plans, but no TSA agents participate in car searches, Burns said.

Not all airports handle the searches the same way, according to Mother Jones magazine, which wrote on the issue in July. At the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston and Nashville airports, the searches are done with the car's owner present and consenting. But the search issue first popped up earlier this year because of one airport in Rochester, N.Y., where a woman returning from a trip found a placard on her car windshield saying her car had been searched.  

The searches thus far would seem to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which says the government can't search without suspicion. But Indiana University law professor Fred H. Cate says maybe not. "The Supreme Court has made an exception to searching items that you've voluntarily given to someone else - like a car," he told Mother Jones.  

The key may be notification. If a sign is present at the valet check-in letting you know your car may be searched, you are likely offering consent by choosing to park there, anyway. But you have to know first, and Charlotte Douglas officials waited a year and a half too long to give travelers that information.

Make no mistake - the searches themselves can be a legitimate security tool involving cars that are parked close to airport terminals. But there doesn't seem to be a valid security reason for keeping customers in the dark. Rather, it seems more like an arrogance we're seeing too often in government lately - that as long as you're doing something in the interest of public safety, the public doesn't necessarily need to know about it. 

Peter St. Onge