Thursday, January 30, 2014

N.C. tells some of us to lie on our taxes

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of Asheville is having a hard time doing her taxes. You see, the Brown University and Harvard Divinity School graduate is married. To another woman. So the federal government lets her file jointly. North Carolina frowns upon that. She wrote about it for the Observer:

As tax season approaches, I imagine that many North Carolinians can relate to the experience of searching for receipts you filed (or, like me, misplaced), punching numbers into tax software and, well, hoping for the best. For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families in North Carolina, however, filing taxes isn't just another daunting item on the to-do list. It is a crystal-clear example of what discrimination looks like in 2014.
Like my wife and me, every married same-sex couple I know in our state is wrestling with taxes. The federal government recognizes same-sex marriage and we can now file our federal taxes jointly. But because of Amendment One, the N.C. Department of Revenue has instructed married same-sex couples to file state taxes as single. When I called for clarification, I was told that North Carolina does not recognize our marriage as "valid." In other words, we are being told to lie on our state taxes.

For some married couples, filing state taxes as single means they face an additional tax burden; for other couples, it means they owe less in taxes. Regardless, LGBT people are ready to assume both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But, for now, North Carolina's laws and policies continue to treat LGBT people as second-class citizens.

It doesn't have to be this way. Institutions can adapt policies to respond to the changing realities of the communities they serve. For example, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon issued an executive order allowing married same-sex couples to file state taxes as married, despite a state law banning same-sex marriage.

Closer to home, Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC just implemented an admirable new policy that allows married same-sex couples to enroll as families in health care plans through the Affordable Care Act Marketplace. Previously, the insurer was cancelling the family policies of married same-sex couples because their marriages are not recognized in North Carolina. Announcing the change, Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Brad Wilson said, "We should have more thoughtfully considered this decision, with full appreciation of the impact it would have on same-sex married couples and domestic partners. We're sorry we failed to do so."

In contrast, the state of North Carolina continues to enforce and defend a discriminatory law, arguing that the state has a legitimate interest in banning same-sex marriage. The reality is that Amendment One is nothing more than an expression of bias against LGBT people. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that laws driven by animus are inherently unconstitutional. Ultimately, Amendment One will be struck down for this very reason.

That day cannot come soon enough. As long as Amendment One remains on the books, LGBT people in North Carolina will experience discrimination in many spheres of life -- including taxation, employment, housing, adoption and marriage. This cradle to grave discrimination is often invisible to those not affected by it. But increasingly, it is on public display for all to see. The question is how long fair-minded North Carolinians will allow this to continue.

Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of Asheville is a minister in the United Church of Christ and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which promotes LGBT equality across North Carolina and the South.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Did Charlotte just take a $12 million streetcar gamble?

It's not news that most of Charlotte's City Council badly wants a streetcar extension. How badly? As the Observer's Steve Harrison reports, the council voted 8-3 Monday night to spend $12 million on engineering work to improve its chances of landing a federal grant.

That grant, if approved, would match the city's $63 million of funding for the 2.5 mile extension that expands the streetcar's reach to the westside and Johnson C. Smith. Streetcar enthusiasts say that extension will kindle business development along the route, something that's desperately needed in west Charlotte neighborhoods.

Streetcar doubters, however, say that $12 million is a lot to spend without a guarantee that the feds will say yes to Charlotte's grant application. If the grant isn't approved, did we just burn a lot of money?

Not really. The $12 million is the kind of responsible streetcar investment the editorial board has been advocating, even if we haven't always advocated for the streetcar. Here's why:

In recent years, we've found ourselves somewhere between the streetcar enthusiasts and the streetcar critics. We're skeptical that streetcars will bring the kind of booming development its advocates have touted - trolleys, unlike light rail, have shown little of that kind success in other cities (at least without some additional public assistance). But over the long term, a streetcar is an important piece of Charlotte's long-term transportation plan.

So when Mayor Anthony Foxx and some council members championed a plan that called for the extension to be paid with property taxes, we cautioned against taking a risk that raised taxes in still-challenging economic times. Last year, City Manager Ron Carlee came up with a better proposal - apply for $63 million in federal grants, then pay the other half of the streetcar extension with unspent money from previous projects and reserve funds.

The feds, however, turned the city's grant down last year. Now Charlotte is trying again, but this time for a different grant from the Federal Transit Administration's Smart Starts program. Here's where the $12 million comes in.

Unlike the previous grant application, Smart Starts requires a lot more from the city. Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Carolyn Flowers told the editorial board this week that the application requires an engineering plan that's drawn to a 65 percent level of detail, instead of 30 percent. The city also must submit a more detailed vehicle and line design plan, plus a financial plan that looks ahead 30 to 50 years.

All that costs millions of dollars - as it did with previous light rail proposals - and yes, it comes with no guarantee of the grant being approved. The good news: If Charlotte's Smart Starts application is approved, the city is eligible to get half of the $12 million reimbursed.

And if the grant application is rejected? The $12 million worth of work will be used again in the future. Because you can be sure Charlotte officials will doggedly apply for streetcar grants until they get a yes. That's not a bad thing. It's sharing the risk on a potentially good investment, and it's the most responsible route the council can take.

Peter St. Onge


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Professors ask parents to sound off on education

Earlier this month, I wrote about the results of a survey conducted by Professors Scott Imig and Robert Smith of the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The focus of their work was reactions of N.C. teachers to a slew of education changes and actions N.C. lawmakers made last year.

Now, the two have started a new survey to be completed by NC parents that is designed to gauge reactions to the NC legislative changes. The survey has been open for 5 days and they have 970 respondents to this point. But they are interested in getting a large number of respondents from all parts of the state. Writes Smith and Imig: "We are researching public school parent perceptions of the recent education changes passed by the NC Legislature. We would greatly appreciate it if you would complete a survey about these legislative changes. The survey should take you less than 10 minutes to complete. One focus of this current study is to determine if parents of public school students hold views similar to our state's teachers."

Here's the link to their survey:

More than 600 teachers and administrators in N.C. schools were surveyed in their report last month called “Listening to Those on the Front Lines.” As I noted in a column, "to say that many of the actions the Republican-controlled legislature took last year, and that GOP Gov. Pat McCrory signed, have been unpopular with teachers is an understatement. And the displeasure has been nonpartisan, with educators all along the ideological spectrum expressing indignation." The survey noted a range of concerns from teachers and chief among them was lawmakers' failure to boost pay for teachers, leaving N.C. teacher pay at a shameful 46th among the 50 states."

It will be interesting to see if the views of parents and educators on these matters intersect.

The parent survey will be up for a few more days. Participate and have your voice included.

- Fannie Flono

Read more here:

Friday, January 24, 2014

Charlotte, we're No.6 in Bible-mindedness

Charlotte might be at the bottom in a study of upward mobility among the country's 50 largest metro areas but it got a top 10 ranking in another category. A study that was released Wednesday from the American Bible Society ranked Charlotte 6th among 100 areas in the U.S. in "Bible-mindedness."

The study defines “Bible-mindedness” as a combination of how often respondents read the Bible and how accurate they think the Bible is. “Respondents who report reading the bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as ‘Bible Minded,’” says the study’s methodology.

Topping the list for Bible-mindedness was Chattanooga, Tenn.

The least Bible-minded? No, it was not New York. It was the tandem of Providence, R.I., and New Bedford, Mass. (100th).

The Greenville, S.C./Spartanburg, S.C./Asheville, N.C. area came in right behind Charlotte in 7th place as most Bible-minded. Also on the list Greensboro/High Point/Winston Salem was 20th most Bible-minded. Raleigh/Durham/Fayetteville were 27th. Greenville/ New Bern/Washington were 33rd. Columbia, S.C. was 24h and Charleston, S.C. was 38th.

Those dens of sin to some, New York and Las Vegas, came in among the least Bible-minded at 89th and 90th respectively.

San Francisco and Boston were also among the least Bible-minded at 97th and 98th respectively.

Authors of the study said they found an inverse relationship between population size and Bible friendliness with the exception of three Bible-minded markets with a population of greater than 1 million households: Charlotte, N.C.; Nashville, Tenn. (13th); and Dallas (22nd).

Hagan's chances put at 50-50

Sen. Kay Hagan's race in North Carolina could determine the fate of the entire U.S. Senate, one group of well-known pundits say in their updated predictions.

Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley at the University of Virginia have moved Hagan's race from "leans Democratic" to "toss-up." That makes it one of only three Senate toss-ups in the nation in their minds. There are 48 seats that are safe or lean Democratic and 49 that are safe or lean Republican, they say. So if those hold, whichever party wins two of the three toss-ups -- including North Carolina -- controls the Senate.

Sabato et al cite Hagan's approval ratings in the low 40s and say they shifted her race to a toss-up primarily because of fallout from the botched Obamacare rollout.

They add: "Republicans should continue to be worried about their potential nominee here, though: (Thom) Tillis leads the unpopular state legislature, and there are several other lesser-known Republicans in the race who could potentially cause them general election headaches."

There are seven states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 that have Democratic senators up this year. North Carolina is the least Republican of those, but Hagan is clearly in for a fight. Her race will probably go down to the wire, and with it, control of the Senate.

For what it's worth, Sabato is the most pessimistic about Democrats holding on to the Senate. He puts the chances at 53 percent. Pundit Charlie Cook puts it at 69 percent and Stu Rothenberg puts it at 77 percent.

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, January 23, 2014

'I left the police station mad as hell'

Rev. Tiffany Thomas of Charlotte had a dear friend who was homeless. Despite his struggles, he had his faith. He was the one who could probably use some reassurance, yet he would leave notes on Thomas's car almost every day, always signed, "God loves you and so do I."

On Wednesday, Rev. Thomas heard bad news about her friend and rushed to the police department. An officer confirmed: Her homeless friend had died Monday night or early Tuesday morning, in the cold on a bench in uptown Charlotte. His death had not made the news.

"I left the police station stricken with grief," Thomas says. "I left the police station mad as hell."

And she left the police station committed to doing something to help the invisible homeless who live in this wealthy city and fight against the bitter cold and try to snag a bed in overcrowded shelters.

Thomas is now opening her church, South Tryon Community Church, and providing cots to the homeless. She challenges other houses of worship to do the same, in this open letter to the community:

My name is Tiffany Thomas. I am the pastor of South Tryon Community Church, a United Methodist church that sits on the corner of South Tryon and Remount road. In this community, I have watched in horror as homeless persons lay down to sleep on benches, stoops and sidewalks up and down Tryon street. I have looked into the desperate eyes of so many who have told me that same story, "The shelters are full, there is no place to go." I have heard reports of people dying in the night, out in the elements- tragic tales whispered and lamented among this community where most are constantly endanger of losing their own places of rest and finding themselves in the same predicament.

"Am I next? Will it be me? Or my child? Will death find us in the street, where heat eludes us," so many have asked.

Last night, I went to the police department to find out what happened to a homeless man who is a member of my community, and dear friend of mine. He is a gentle soul, a Christian, he leaves an encouraging note on my car almost everyday, a scripture or a quote- every note is signed "God loves you and so do I." When my groundskeeper reported to me that my friend died on a bench in Uptown, Charlotte, I frantically sought help from the police station to find out what had become of him. The police officer could offer little help, "Yes," he said, "a homeless person has recently died.Yes, it was in uptown, Charlotte." "Yes, he died in the night, on a bench. That is all I can say."

"Why hasn't it made the news", I asked, tears of grief streaming down my face for the man who I may or may not know.

"Deaths of this sort rarely make the news," he replied.

Deaths of this sort. Deaths of the homeless sort. Deaths of the impoverished sort. Deaths of the voiceless sort.  They die in secret in the middle of public squares. Their bodies hurriedly removed from Trade, from Tryon before the important sort, the wealthy sort, the high political clout sort are inconvenienced traveling from their warm homes to their warm corporate offices.

I left the police station stricken with grief.
I left the police station mad as hell.

The city of Charlotte is ill equipped to deal with the needs of our rising homeless population. It is time that we recognize and face what my constituents know all to well: The shelters are too small. Too many people are forced to brave the cold or to purposely get arrested as the jail house is the only emergency shelter in the entire city where one won't be turned away.

I am making a call to all communities of faith. It is time that we take seriously the needs of those with no place to sleep. It is time that we open our doors and exercise the gift of hospitality, an exercise that our God commands of us. At South Tryon Community Church we will be opening our doors and providing cots for people to stay over night when the weather drops below 20 degrees. I invite, I urge all communities of faith to likewise make the effort to provide emergency shelter to one, five, twenty-five homeless persons on the upcoming frigid winter nights.

For the Torah says " You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, and to the poor in your Land" (Deuteronomy 15:11)

For Jesus says, "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me... when you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:35-36,40)

For Mohammad, peace be upon him, says, "And worship God alone... and do good unto the needy, and the neighbor from among your own people, and the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side, and the wayfarer." (An-Nisa' 4:36)

At South Tryon  this is what we will do. Will you?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

AG right to seek charges again in police shooting

Should the N.C. Attorney General's Office have another go at charges against a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer who killed an unarmed man believed to have been seeking help after an accident? Yes.

Only more questions remain after a grand jury's decision Tuesday not to indict 28-year-old Officer Randall Kerrick for voluntary manslaughter in connection with the death of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell last September. The public needs answers about what happened that night as well as reassurances about police actions. For many, this episode has engendered fear, not trust, in those actions.

A second grand jury might very well come to the same conclusion as the one Tuesday. The grand jury Tuesday was clear that the members did not feel the evidence presented to them supported the charge of manslaughter. They asked in writing for the district attorney to “submit a bill of indictment for a lesser-included or related offense.” The inference is that they may have indicted for a lesser offense.

But not all of the grand jury members were present Tuesday. That surprised state prosecutors and the attorney general wants to bring charges again before the complete body. A case with such import deserves to be heard and assessed by a more complete panel. Only 14 members were present Tuesday. Normally a grand jury has 18 members, and 12 votes are needed for an indictment.

This is a horrific tragedy no matter what the outcome. Three officers responded to a frantic 911 call from a woman who thought a man who knocked on her door around 2 a.m. was a robber. They encountered Ferrell, shoeless, on a road near the house. Ferrell walked then ran toward the officers. One officer fired a Taser. Then Kerrick, the least experienced of the three, fired 12 shots, hitting Ferrell with 10, as he came toward him.

A dash cam video captured some of the events, and has been cited as pivotal in the decision of Police Chief Rodney Monroe and his top commanders in filing manslaughter charges against Kerrick. That dash cam video has not been made public. The Observer's editorial board said last October it should be. The board still thinks so.

The grand jury's proceedings, which are conducted in private, don't give the public any inkling of what that video showed or even if the members viewed it.

It is understandable that Officer Kerrick, confronted with a man approaching him in the dark and not stopping at commands to do so, would be in fear of harm. Did that fear justify deadly force? Was firing 12 shots excessive? Chief Monroe and his commanders said no to the first and yes to the second in filing charges. But the grand jury had the opposite view. The public needs to know why. The public needs to know what evidence was presented for the grand jurors to reach their conclusion.

The public also needs to know that the CMPD is using this tragedy to make changes in training and protocols to help young officers make better decisions. I've said this before. Being a police officer is a dangerous, stressful and scary job. No one envies them their work, or the hard choices they must make in a moment's time. But we as a community should not accept as inevitable that unarmed citizens will die during encounters with police.

- Fannie Flono

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Amazon just got more expensive. That's good's decision to collect N.C. sales taxes next month might not be the best news for your next big-screen TV purchase, but it’s the right decision for North Carolina and its businesses.

Amazon announced Saturday that it would begin collecting taxes Feb. 1 in North Carolina, as it does in 19 other states. Amazon also has agreed to start collecting sales taxes in South Carolina in 2016.

That means beginning in February, when you make a purchase on, you also will pay North Carolina’s 4.75 percent sales tax at checkout. That also means you might not have as much incentive to choose Amazon over brick-and-mortar retailers who’ve long been disadvantaged by having to collect those state sales taxes when customers come into their stores.

Keep in mind, the taxes that Amazon will be collecting are not new taxes. They are taxes that N.C. residents are supposed to declare on their state tax returns when they make online purchases. As you might imagine, that doesn’t happen nearly as much as it could, which results in the state, cities and counties losing about $200 million a year in revenue. Nationally, states lost an estimated $23.3 billion in 2012 from uncollected sales taxes from online and catalog sales.

That’s why North Carolina and other states have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get online retailers to collect taxes or at least turn over the names of customers who make online purchases. Last year, the U.S. Senate passed the Marketplace Fairness Act, which allowed states to collect taxes on online purchases from out-of-state retailers.

The Fairness Act would not have burdened small retailers - it exempted businesses with less than $1 million in annual sales. The bill also required states to streamline their tax collection process and provide software to make collection easier on retailers. But the bill never made it through the House.

Congress should try again. Online sales – despite some 2013 holiday delivery issues – will continue to surge. Amazon is doing the right thing by collecting taxes in more states, but there are other retailers out there who don’t. Customers might like the better deal they get because of it, but it’s a raw deal to local businesses.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Are Republicans turning on Aldona Wos?

Every time some Democrat calls on Gov. Pat McCrory to fire Aldona Wos, the governor probably gets a little more entrenched in support of his embattled Health and Human Services secretary. The last thing the governor is going to do is fire one of his leading appointees -- and one he has endlessly defended -- just because his political enemies urge him to.

But what if the governor's fellow Republicans turn on Wos? That would seem to change the equation. And according to a new poll out today, it's happening. The survey from Public Policy Polling found that Republicans think Wos needs to go, even more overwhelmingly than Democrats do. Republicans think Wos should be fired by a 41 percent to 12 percent margin (with the rest undecided). That's more animosity toward Wos than that shown by Democrats, who want her fired by a 37-17 split. Overall, close to half of respondents didn't have an opinion on the question, but 38 percent think she should be replaced to only 14 percent who think McCrory should keep her on.

Those numbers might indicate that Republicans are tired either of all the mistakes at DHHS under Wos or are tired of the political damage they're doing to the administration. The poll results follow comments from some Republican legislators -- including Mecklenburg's Sen. Jeff Tarte -- that indicate some exasperation with the drip-drip-drip of miscues at DHHS.

McCrory calls Wos brilliant and says she's fixing problems that began under Democratic administrations. But with every misstep, the volume of calls to replace her will increase -- and not just from Democrats.

-- Taylor Batten

Pittenger: Al-Qaida is stronger than ever

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Republican from Charlotte, says this morning that al-Qaida remains a serious threat to America and that President Obama and Congress should do nothing to hurt the NSA's ability to gather intelligence about terrorists.

Obama is expected to unveil his proposed reforms to the controversial agency on Friday. Pittenger, who chairs a congressional task force on terrorism, says the NSA's tactics have protected America from attacks and need to remain strong.

In an op-ed for The Charlotte Observer, Pittenger makes some bold statements, including: "Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups are more organized and assertive than ever before."

He goes on to defend the NSA: "There is substantial evidence from classified documents to show the NSA has prevented over fifty worldwide attacks, including a dozen on American soil."

Pittenger warns that restraining the NSA too much could backfire. "We must recognize the dire consequences of severely limiting or ending important NSA metadata collection, which can effectively be used to track known terrorists. ... Must we face another major national tragedy to understand the priority of preserving the important advantage afforded to us by the capabilities of our security apparatuses?"

Pittenger says some reforms may be needed, but they need to be careful about balancing civil liberties with national security. The tide of public opinion is rushing strongly against the NSA's aggressive tactics, but Pittenger, for one, warns against overlooking the value of the agency's intelligence.

Pittenger's full op-ed, written with British Parliament member Lord Alex Carlile, is below:

President Obama will lay out his proposed reforms of the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs on Friday.  Despite assertions to the contrary, the war on terror is not over and it would be irresponsible to curtail America’s ability to defend itself against a capable and extremely violent enemy.   The United States Congress, with its vital oversight of our Intelligence, should play a constructive and determining role in NSA authority and process.
Terrorist threats, planned attacks, and warfare within unstable countries have not diminished since 9-11. On the contrary, Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups are more organized and assertive than ever before. In the last decade we have continued to see the destruction caused by terrorists throughout the west, including the Madrid train bombings, 7/7 London bombings, multiple Benghazi attacks against British and U.S. interests and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
There is no basis to believe the "war on terror" is over simply because Osama bin Laden is dead. We need look no further than Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and throughout the Middle East and Africa, to see the growing and aggressive efforts of Islamic extremist terrorists. Our Arab allies and Israel join with other states in facing a common threat, which requires our vigilance and coordinated efforts to defeat those who seek to destroy us.
We are not fighting a street gang. Our foes are extremely capable, with sophisticated expertise and strategic planning and execution. We have succeeded in thwarting their planned attacks not least because we have had the technological advantage to intercept and trace their operations and contacts.
There is substantial evidence from classified documents to show the NSA has prevented over fifty worldwide attacks, including a dozen on American soil. The NSA is constrained and governed by the Constitution of the United States, which is enforced and upheld by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court). While there are significant accountability structures already in place to protect privacy, with other reforms being considered, we must recognize the dire consequences of severely limiting or ending important NSA metadata collection, which can effectively be used to track known terrorists.
Today, there is a great need for leadership in support of critical security procedures.  We must maintain the ability to track Al Qaeda and their sleeper cells to avoid future national catastrophes. Continuing the false narrative of a diminished threat only increases the risk to the United States, the United Kingdom and our allies.  Must we face another major national tragedy to understand the priority of preserving the important advantage afforded to us by the capabilities of our security apparatuses? We can make modifications to provide added oversight and protection, but we cannot lose sight of the prevailing threat and our responsibility to defend our countries. Reforms must be thoughtful, and rightfully balance civil liberties versus security, but made in a way which does not endanger America, the United Kingdom and our allies.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hagan's no-show for Obama's N.C. trip

Sen. Kay Hagan's no-show at President Obama's trip to Raleigh Wednesday continued to attract attention from observers who saw her absence as evidence she was trying to distance herself from Obama's poor approval ratings in this state and dissatisfaction with his health care initiative.

Hagan has said she stayed in Washington because the Senate was in session and she was doing her job by staying there and working. Critics weren't buying it.

For his part, Obama didn't avoid the matter. He took note of Hagan's absence at the start of his speech at N.C. State University as he was acknowledging various dignitaries in the audience, including Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. He said that Hagan couldn't be there but "I want to thank her personally for the great work she's doing."

Still, local and national media pointed out the disadvantages Hagan might have seen in standing by Obama right now.

N.C. Republican Party chair Claude Pope was quoted by several news outlets saying Hagan's absence was not surprising. "Obama and the liberal Democrats cannot afford to lose Kay Hagan," Pope said Wednesday during a morning press conference. "She is their rubberstamp in Washington... It's not surprising then that Kay Hagan is the one person who did not want President Obama to be here today.... The last thing Kay Hagan and her campaign consultants need right now are more photos of her standing next to the president."

A Los Angeles Times story Wednesday, "Obama's visit to North Carolina may be awkward for Democratic senator," took an indepth look at the issue. Writes Kathleen Hennessy, "The notable absence at Obama's first trip outside the Beltway in this election year highlights a perennial quandary for embattled candidates and less-than-popular presidents. With a battle for control of the Senate looming and the president's approval rating deflated, Democrats and the White House will spend much of this year grappling with whether their most vulnerable candidates will be helped or harmed by a visit from Obama and how to keep those candidates some distance — but not too far — from the president."

The piece though ends by saying Hagan will likely embrace campaigning with the president.

Hennessey writes: "Like other Democrats under pressure for supporting the [health care] law, Hagan has proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act. Her campaign has shot back at Republican [opponents], foremost [N.C. House Speaker Thom] Tillis (who is seeking Hagan's seat), criticizing his support for state-level budget cuts and a "fringe" agenda. Hagan may very well end up asking for a visit from Obama closer to election day. Victory for Democrats here will depend on high turnout in urban areas, such as Raleigh, with large numbers of young voters and African Americans — among the groups most loyal to the president."

Longtime N.C. political operative Gary Pearce told Hennessey that ultimately, Hagan will campaign with the president: "For one thing, everybody's going to want to know why you're avoiding Obama. I think you've got to. I think because if you don't there's only tension there."

- Fannie Flono

Obama, McCrory and the N.C. economy

[Updated, 2:08 p.m., with Chuck Todd interview and other editing.]

The president is in the state today talking about the economy and announcing that N.C. State University will be home to a $140 million consortium of companies and universities that will develop the next generation of energy-efficient electronic chips and devices.

The feds will be joined by the state and businesses in covering the cost. This is part of President Obama's push to help the manufacturing sector.

That's good news for North Carolina which has felt the pain of manufaturing job losses. It gives Obama, a Democrat, and Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, something that they agree on.

Of course, the gov and the prez are worlds apart on most issues. Two big ones separating them are the Affordable Care Act including Medicaid expansion, and unemployment benefits.

On the former, McCrory and the Republican-controlled legislature rejected expanding Medicaid to more eligible low-income people, a move economists say could have boosted jobs in the state, and would not set up a state exchange.

But refusing to set up a state exchange didn't stop North Carolinians from signing up. The state has the 5th highest number of sign-ups in the nation at almost 108,000. Only California, Florida, New York and Texas have higher. More than half in N.C. went to Americans 45 and older, and 90 percent of the N.C. policy buyers qualified for government subsidies. With only Blue Cross and Blue Shield and a subsidiary of Aetna selling policies in North Carolina, the options are more limited here than in many other states.

On unemployment, McCrory and Obama part company on the need for continuing to help those who have been long-term unemployed. Obama has urged Congress to reinstate long-term benefits though the Senate on Tuesday failed to get enough votes to pass an extension. Federal benefits to North Carolina were cut off last year when the state changed its state jobless benefits policy. McCrory has been touting the end as a key reason the state unemployment rate declined by two percentage points. He defended the cut in an interview with Chuck Todd of MSNBC today (while also calling the Observer's editorial board, which endorsed McCrory in both his gubernatorial campaigns, "very liberal").

That theory is getting national rebuttals. Paul Krugman in the New York Times weighed in recently with "The Raleigh Experiment" noting that:

"The unemployment rate did fall — but this was due to a large drop in the labor force, as the number of people looking for work fell. Why? Well, a likely explanation is that some of the unemployed continued to search for work, and were therefore counted in the labor force, despite low prospects of finding a job in a depressed economy, because such search is a requirement for those collecting benefits. Take away the benefits, and they drop out."

Brad Plumer of the Washington Post added in a column Wednesday:

"There's scant evidence that the long-term unemployed will find it easier to get jobs if their benefits are cut off. For starters, there still aren't enough jobs to go around: There are currently about 2.9 unemployed workers for every job opening. That's worse than the ratio at any point during the 2001 recession.

Recently, JP Morgan's Michael Feroli surveyed the evidence and found that the long-term unemployed don't typically find jobs en masse when their benefits expire. Some workers who get cut off may take lower-paying jobs than they otherwise would. But many seem to give up looking and drop out of the labor force entirely. Indeed, there are some signs that this is happening in North Carolina, which recently slashed its state unemployment program.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute argues that this makes intuitive sense. "If you look at the long-term unemployed, a good chunk of them have children. A good chunk are married. A good chunk are college-educated or have had some college and in their prime earning years," he told Plumer. "It strikes me as implausible that this person is engaged in a half-hearted job search."

During Obama's brief visit to North Carolina maybe some of those issues will get further attention.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Why is Sen. Burr blocking his own nominee?

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is blocking his own nominee to the federal bench.

In 2009, Burr sent a letter to President Obama recommending Jennifer May-Parker to be a U.S. District judge for the eastern North Carolina district, which runs from Raleigh to the coast. May-Parker, along with other nominees Burr recommended for other spots, had "the requisite qualifications to serve with distinction," Burr wrote in a letter to Obama obtained by the Huffington Post.

Obama nominated May-Parker for the spot in June, but no action has been taken by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Obama re-submitted her nomination on Monday.

But Burr has not turned in his blue slip, which would allow the Judiciary Committee to move her nomination forward. Senators essentially have veto power over nominees in their home state; Burr is vetoing his own nominee by withholding the blue slip.

Burr has not explained his approach. His spokeswoman, Rachel Hicks, told McClatchy's Washington bureau, "It has always been his policy not to release or publicly discuss judicial recommendations made to the White House."

May-Parker, chief of the appellate division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the eastern district, would become the first African-American judge in the district. The seat has been vacant since 2006 -- the longest federal district court vacancy in the nation.

Burr's action is puzzling. If May-Parker has done something to lose his support, he should make that clear. If it's mere politics, he should submit his blue slip and let the Senate committee debate May-Parker's qualifiations.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

War on Poverty, 50 years later

On this 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's announcement of his administration's War on Poverty, a lot of critics look at the situation for America's poor and have declared that war a failure. But Peter Dreier, a professor and department chair at Occidental College, offers compelling statistical evidence in a piece for the Huffington Post that rightly refutes that wrongheaded notion.

Writes Dreier, because of policies instituted in the War on Poverty, "the nation's poverty rate was cut in half, from 22.2 percent in 1960 to an all time low of 11.1 percent by 1973. Most dramatic was the decline of poverty among the elderly, from 35.2 percent in 1959 to 14.6 percent in 1974, thanks to enactment of Medicare in 1965 and cost-of-living increases for Social Security. The poverty rate among African Americans fell from 55.1 percent in 1959 (when most blacks still lived in the rural South) to 41.8 percent in 1966 (when blacks were an increasingly urban group) to 30.3 percent by 1974."

Just above 15 percent live below the poverty line today - some percentage points below that 1960s rate. It's still too high but as Drier notes, " without anti-poverty programs, the nation's poverty rate would be twice as large. But to make greater headway in reducing poverty, we need to combine targeted anti-poverty programs with broader policies to revitalize the economy, create more good-paying jobs, and reduce the nation's disastrous gap between the super-rich and everyone else. We need a policy agenda to share prosperity."

That idea of shared prosperity was also the crux of a book that Dreier rightly points to as an inspiration for Johnson, and for John F. Kennedy, Johnson's predecessor who got the ball rolling on addressing the issue of poverty in America. That book, Michael Harrington's "The Other America", was seminal in opening many eyes to the poor living in dire conditions in this country, often obscured and left invisible as people celebrated the rise of the nation's middle class after World War II.

That book was one of the first books I read as a teenager concerned about social justice issues. I still have my frayed, brown copy and have gone back to its powerful portrayals time and time again as a reminder and prod that such conditions must not remain invisible. We as Americans can and should do something about them.

As I wrote in June, Johnson's War on Poverty was also inspired by North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford's similar effort in this state with the N.C. Fund in 1963. I reiterate that a similar focus on poverty is needed in North Carolina today.

Policies and strategies from that time brought better education, job training, child tutoring, daycare and other economic development strategies to communities statewide and helped boost the prospects of millions of residents.

Of course, the common stereotype these days is that the poor are lazy and are poor because they want to live on the public dole. That does not fit the description of most poor people I know. Many are hardworking, working two jobs during the week, and a third on the weekend. Most do it without complaint and are just trying to give their children a leg up so they won't have to struggle so hard for so little.

Johnson had the right idea with the War on Poverty - to give people a hand up with a focus on jobs, education, housing and food aid to enable the next generation to stand on their own. Things didn't work out as planned, as Dreier notes with jobs and education programs getting short-changed because they were too expensive.

But I agree with Dreier. He writes that "within a decade after President Johnson declare a War on Poverty, we cut the nation's poverty rate in half. We should commit ourselves to cutting it in half once again by 2025.

"We know how to reduce poverty. We need to invest public dollars in a jobs program to create full employment, enact a federal minimum wage above the poverty line, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, increase funding for college financial aid, reduce the pay gap between women and men, make affordable health care available to all Americans, strengthen the social safety net (nutrition assistance, food stamps, housing subsidies), and update our lopsided labor laws so that workers who want to unionize have a level playing field to do so."

We can and must recommit to fighting poverty. In a country as rich as ours, it would be shameful not too.

- Fannie Flono

Gov. McCrory, keep cork on champagne

The "Great Carolina Comeback" has a nice ring but facts are already getting in the way of Gov. Pat MccCrory's glowing assessment on Monday of policies he and the GOP controlled state legislature approved last year.

McCrory used that slogan in a speech at the 12th annual Economic Forecast Forum, sponsored by the N.C. Bankers Association and the N.C. Chamber at a luncheon.

McCrory cited the 2 percentage point drop in the state's unemployment rate since he took office last January as evidence of the success of his administration's agenda.

He also touted his decisions last year to eliminate financial assistance to the long-term unemployed and the refusal to expand Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income workers under the federal Affordable Care Act. He said: "In our first several months in office we knew we had to take some urgent action to help turn around the North Carolina economy.... We had to make some very, very difficult decisions, some very controversial decisions. But we knew had to move quickly if we were going to keep up not only with the rest of the nation, but our neighboring states."

But many economic and health policy experts see things differently. They say the loss of billions in federal spending in the state has slowed, not aided, North Carolina's economic recovery.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg News used North Carolina's results from cutting off jobless benefits as an example of what not to do:

In discussing the U.S. Senate vote to restore long-term jobless benefits that Congress dropped last year, Bloomberg's Joshua Green noted:

"We have an example of what might happen if benefits aren’t renewed: North Carolina. Last July, Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill cutting state benefits, which disqualified North Carolina from the federal program. A couple things happened after that. First, North Carolina’s unemployment rate fell pretty dramatically (from 9.4 percent a year ago to 7.4 percent).

"Great news, right? Actually, no. The number of employed people barely budged. How could the unemployment rate fall so fast if people weren’t getting jobs? Because most of them appear to have quit looking for work altogether and fallen out of the labor force. People who aren’t actively looking for work aren’t counted as “unemployed.” ... North Carolina’s labor-force participation rate... hit a 37-year-low (!) in October.

"That’s bad for a number of reasons. While the families of these people are going to suffer mightily, it’s bad for everybody else, too. Able-bodied people who want to work but can’t find jobs are wasted resources. They represent lost U.S. economic potential. Cutting them off doesn’t necessarily save taxpayers money, either, since many wind up on disability, food stamps, or collecting Social Security earlier than they would like to. Historically, disability claims move in tandem with the unemployment rate, and once workers go on disability they almost never return to the workforce. Sure enough, disability claims have skyrocketed since the start of the recession."

Chimed in economist John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies, Ltd., a research firm specializing in economic and social policy, though "many communities now are seeing some of the lowest unemployment rates recorded since the onset of the ‘Great Recession’ in late 2007, local unemployment rates nevertheless remain elevated, with 99 counties and 14 metro areas posting unemployment rates greater than those logged at the end of 2007.”

Non-metro areas are particularly hurting, he said. “In November, 7.8 percent of the non-metro labor force was unemployed, compared to 6.6 percent of the metro labor force. Compared to December 2007, the non-metro labor force now has 5 percent fewer employed persons, while the number of unemployed individuals is 37.2 percent larger...  Labor market conditions remain weak across much of North Carolina... The declines in local unemployment rates actually are obscuring a number of alarming developments - developments that are consistent with an under-performing economy.”

Dr. Patrick Conway, professor of economics at UNC Chapel Hill, in a piece in N.C. Policy Watch expressed similar concerns. Said Conway: "This sounds quite like an impressive victory for North Carolina economic policy, but is in fact just a warning that the state is postponing its unemployment problems. Consider the following figures drawn from the US Department of Labor database. During 2010, North Carolina created 80,000 jobs on net and reduced its unemployment by 0.6 percentage points. During 2011, North Carolina created 70,000 jobs on net and reduced its unemployment rate by 0.7 percentage points and in 2012, North Carolina created 100,000 jobs on net and the unemployment rate fell by 0.4 percentage points. In 2013, there were 6,000 jobs LOST on net and the unemployment rate fell by two percentage points...

"Six thousand fewer people employed, and yet the unemployment rate fell by two percentage points? How can this be? The answer is found in the definition of unemployment... If a survey respondent indicates that (a) she does not have a job and (b) she is actively searching for work, then she is classified as unemployed. If she responds that she does not have a job and is not actively searching for work, then she is not considered 'unemployed'; she is treated as outside the labor force. The precipitous fall in those unemployed in 2013 even though fewer residents were employed indicates that these residents are no longer actively seeking work. This shows up in the reported size of the measured labor force in North Carolina: it declined by 2.5 percent in the first 11 months of 2013, after many years of growth at an average of 1 percent per year...

"We can’t simply sit back and take credit for a recovery; we need to recognize that the current fall in unemployment rate simply means that many more of our residents have left the labor force at least temporarily. Once our recovery begins, many of these will once again actively search for jobs."

In other words, governor, hold the champagne.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The word you're looking for, governor, is 'Sorry'

It's hard to admit you're wrong. Even harder when doing so means admitting your critics may be right. It's a challenge for any of us, but especially politicians, as evidenced again Monday night by Gov. Pat McCrory's response to the revelation that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services mailed 49,000 children's Medicaid cards to the wrong households.

Instead of emphasizing how sorry he was about an inadvertent disclosure of personal information,  McCrory blamed the error on "10 years of operational neglect" at the department under previous governors Bev Perdue and Mike Easley, both Democrats. "You can't fix that in one year," McCrory said defiantly.

It's no great revelation that public officials tend to see issues as potential political wins and losses - and mistakes as therefore something to be minimized, not acknowledged. That's true from the president on down, and it's acutely true with McCrory. He's long been seen in Charlotte circles as oversensitive about criticism, and in a revealing interview last month with Editorial Page Editor Taylor Batten, he repeatedly turned discussion of state issues into grievances (often incorrect) about how the media was treating him. That's what you do when you're obsessed with the scoreboard.

So instead of a simple, unqualified "sorry" Monday, we got a rather audacious attempt at blame-shifting. And not a very good one, either. The supposed "10 years of operational neglect" at DHHS under Democratic administrations had nothing to do with the human error that the agency cited this week. (McCrory laughably tried to suggest that Obamacare was somehow to blame, too.) As for those "10 years" - they yielded a fraction of the scandal and mismanagement that we've seen in one year at DHHS with Secretary Aldona Wos in charge.

Two additional problems with McCrory's defensive posture: First, it creates a culture of deception in his administration. It's troubling enough that DHHS hid the Medicaid card mistake from the public until a newspaper found out, but when it was revealed, DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz wrongly said the mistake was something the agency had just learned about. It's a troubling pattern with McCrory and his administration.

Also, the governor's defiance can be enabling. When the reflex is to explain away mistakes and deflect criticism, you invite an erosion of accountability. That's become abundantly clear at DHHS.

So the "win" that McCrory went for Monday isn't really a win at all. His finger-pointing appeals to the people who are on his side, right or wrong, and it's unconvincing to those who won't ever give him the benefit of the doubt. The people willing to judge his administration objectively, however, see that one of his agencies has had an astounding run of questionable decisions and operational mistakes. It might be easy to understand why McCrory doesn't want to admit that. But his stubbornness isn't doing him, or his state, any good.

Peter St. Onge 

Monday, January 6, 2014

Moyers' documentary slaps at Art Pope, N.C.

Let's get ready to rummmbbbllleeeee!

A Jan. 3 broadcast documentary by Bill Moyers on North Carolina's political landscape is sparking a lot of conversation, as well as heated consternation from one prominent focus of the piece.

Moyers' "North Carolina: Battleground State" is a smackdown of the influence of big money on political changes in the state as it moved "hard right" politically.

Said Moyers in the lead in to the piece on his public TV show, Bill Moyers and Company, "On this first weekend of the year, we’re looking at one state that embodies the conflicts roiling the whole country. On one side: a government controlled by the most right-wing conservatives of the Republican Party, who are remaking their state in their image, fueled by the wealth and power of one very rich man. On the other side: a very vocal mix of citizens whose resistance turned the first day of every week into a 'Moral Monday.'”

That very rich man Moyers refers to is Art Pope, N.C. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory's deputy budget director. Notes a column on Moyers' website explaining the broadcast:

“State of Conflict: North Carolina” offers a documentary report from a state that votes both blue and red and sometimes purple (Romney carried it by a whisker in 2012, Obama by an eyelash in 2008). Now, however, Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature and they are steering North Carolina far to the right: slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, providing vouchers to private schools, cutting unemployment benefits, refusing to expand Medicaid and rolling back electoral reforms, including voting rights.

At the heart of this conservative onslaught sits a businessman who is so wealthy and powerful that he is frequently described as the state’s own “Koch brother.” Art Pope, whose family fortune was made via a chain of discount stores, has poured tens of millions of dollars into a network of foundations and think tanks that advocate a wide range of conservative causes. Pope is also a major funder of conservative political candidates in the state."

The column goes on to describe the leader of that "very vocal mix of citizens" opposed to the changes by Pope, McCrory and the Republican-dominated legislature.

"Pope’s most ardent opponent is the Reverend William Barber, head of the state chapter of the NAACP, who says the right-wing state government has produced “an avalanche of extremist policies that threaten health care, that threaten education [and] that threaten the poor.” Barber’s opposition to the legislature as well as the Pope alliance became a catalyst for the protest movement that became known around the country as 'Moral Mondays.'”

The Pope Foundation that Art Pope chairs punched back in a response that is on its website. The response written by David W. Riggs, the Pope Foundation's executive vice president, reads in part: 
"The one-hour program falsely portrayed the charitable work of the John William Pope Foundation and of our Chairman and President, Art Pope.
"'State of Conflict: North Carolina' repeated the false claim that Art Pope and the Pope Foundation 'bought' the state of North Carolina, mostly through giving to public policy nonprofits that advocate for common sense free-market reforms...  Many left-wing operatives have hurled similar accusations for years. The claims have never stuck because they are entirely false.
"But Mr. Moyers doesn’t merely repeat a falsehood. Worse, he conceals the fact that the Pope Foundation is not the largest grantor to public policy groups in North Carolina. While the Pope Foundation gives around $5 million to conservative, free-market organizations in North Carolina each year, that number pales in comparison to the $10 million to $11 million given annually by left-wing foundations to progressive groups in the Tar Heel State.
"In 2011 alone, three progressive foundations gave generously to left-of-center, liberal groups in North Carolina: The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation ($9.2 million in grants), the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation ($614,000 in grants), and the A.J. Fletcher Foundation ($588,000 in grants)."
Whether Moral Mondays will affect any of the legislative changes made in North Carolina last year isn't known. Barber, the NAACP and other groups and individuals have filed lawsuits to stop some of the changes. But Moral Mondays have caught fire elsewhere with groups in other states planning their own.
Moyers though contends that the N.C. story about money and influence on political changes is more than a local story. "It offers a case study of what may be the direction of American politics for years, perhaps decades, to come," he says.
We'll see.

Gov. Hunt: Here's how to raise teacher pay

Former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt has some good words of advice for current Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. legislature:

"Raise the pay of our public school teachers to the national average. Not talk about it, or vaguely promise it, but do it."

In a piece that ran in the (Raleigh) News & Observer on Saturday he outlined how to do it, using his own experience in raising teacher pay as governor nearly two decades ago.

Hunt wrote about the Excellent Schools Act he proposed in 1997 and how it got bipartisan support in the legislature and had the widespread backing of the public. "The CEOs of 15 top North Carolina businesses went to the Legislative Building and strongly endorsed it. They knew it would boost economic growth and create jobs. The bill passed overwhelmingly. We made the commitment. Then we put up the money."

N.C. business leaders have similarly touted the value of education and raising teacher pay this go around. Two months ago, leaders of a who’s who of North Carolina’s corporate establishment announced the formation of a new group which aims to make their voices heard on public education in the state. Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina, or BEST NC, includes such influential executives as David Darnell, co-chief operating officer of Bank of America;
C.D. Spangler Jr., former UNC president and Charlotte businessman; Ann Goodnight of SAS; Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting; Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina; Robert Niblock, CEO of Lowe’s; and Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.counts 54 business executives as its members, and that number is expected to grow to 75. Board members include Ann Goodnight of SAS; Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting; Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina; Robert Niblock, CEO of Lowe’s; Walter McDowell, retired CEO of Wachovia in Virginia and the Carolinas; and Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

Goodnight, a Republican, has already been pretty vocal. She aptly blasted Republican legislative actions in a July letter to the editor to The News & Observer.

“We are knowingly under-investing in our pre-K-12, community college and university students; in our teachers; and in innovative new approaches to learning,” she wrote. “This budget is an embarrassment in its lack of investment in the skills and competitiveness of its people. This is a grievous mistake.”

She's right. Not giving educators a pay boost was chief among them. McCrory and some lawmakers are talking about addressing that in this year's short session. They should do more than talk, as Hunt noted. They should fix this mistake.

They might also want to study findings of a survey by two UNC Wilmington professors published last month that show teachers feel legislative changes made last year have negatively affected public education in the state. Scott Imig and Robert Smith surveyed more than 600 teachers and administrators.

The study showed that 96 percent of the educators who participated in the survey think public education is headed in the wrong direction. Two-thirds of teachers and administrators said recent changes have negatively impacted the quality of teaching and learning in their own school. Nearly all said the failure to give teachers a raise in pay will have a negative impact on the quality of public education.

Read more here: