North Carolina editorial roundup
Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:
The Charlotte Observer on cities funding schools:
This is the story of how North Carolina’s legislators took a bad bill that affected only one county and turned it into a fundamental and damaging policy change that will affect the whole state.
Lawmakers were considering House Bill 514, which would allow Matthews and other suburban Charlotte towns to open and operate their own charter schools. They were told that it might conflict with state law that prevents municipalities from taking on debt to pay for public schools. Schools in North Carolina have long been funded by the state and counties, not cities.
So they inserted a workaround in the budget that allows municipalities to avoid such debt by using property taxes to fund schools. They passed the budget days later, with almost zero vetting of this colossal change. That clears the way for them to undermine Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with HB 514, but, separate from that bill, it also opens the door to worsening resegregation and creating a dual system of rich and poor school systems from the mountains to the coast.
The idea of allowing cities to fund schools at first seems tantalizing. North Carolinians have long been frustrated when politicians tell them they have separate pots of money, and that this money can only be used for this and can’t be used for that. Think of Charlotte’s hotel-motel tax, which has been used for the Panthers and the Hornets and the NASCAR Hall of Fame because by law it can’t be used for police or garbage pickup or schools.
So the change ... would seem to create a giant new source of revenue for schools, who surely need it. But there are at least three problems:
? Cities don’t have money lying around for schools. Cities like Charlotte are raising taxes as it is just to cover current expenses. So where are they going to find money for substantial investments in schools?
? This change is the camel’s nose in the tent, the likely beginning of the state reducing its commitment to schools and putting the burden on cities and counties. The N.C. Constitution requires the state to provide a uniform system of schools with “equal opportunities ... for all students.” But the new law could give the state incentive to do that with a smaller investment and a bigger burden on local taxpayers.
? The change is likely to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and to widen the urban/rural gap. Small rural municipalities don’t have the money to pour into schools and so depend on state funding. Neither do big cities, so shifting that burden will harm all school systems, but it will hit those those in rural and poorer municipalities hardest. It is also sure to widen gaps within school systems along lines of class and race.
Such an enormous change deserves deep study before being made policy. But deep study and thoughtful debate is not how this legislature operates.
Asheville Citizen-Times on enacting laws and adopting changes without debate:
Ramming legislation through with no debate may be convenient for those in power but it does a disservice to voters, be it in North Carolina in general or Asheville in particular.
The 2018 adjustments to the state budget are racing toward adoption under special rules that do not allow any amendments on the floor of either the House or the Senate. Democrats can either vote for the bill as is or vote against it; they cannot propose changes.
The Republicans who dominate both chambers like it this way. Democrats must either vote for a Republican budget or vote against a budget that contains a lot of good things. Thanks to an extra $600 million in revenue, the budget does a lot for state employees.
Teachers would get raises averaging 6.5 percent and thousands of low-income state employees would see their incomes rise to $31,200 a year, the equivalent of a $15 per hour “living wage.”
Other good provisions are $35 million for school safety, $15 million for prison safety, $12 million to address unregulated chemicals in rivers. One could quibble about the amounts, but not the intent. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to quibble, at least not as part of the legislative process.
The same rules apply to the budget’s questionable aspects. Republicans do not have to defend spending more than $1 million on anti-abortion clinics, $250,000 for an outdoors group that includes Bible studies, $100,000 to build a YMCA and $35,000 for a prison ministry group. They won’t have to say why they cut off money for the Suicide Prevention Hot Line.
Hard-ball politics can lead to frayed tempers, and this situation was no exception. “Today we have seen a rape of this budget,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Democrat from Durham. “And I’m having problems right now trying to reconcile whether I’m in North Carolina or North Korea.” His choice of words came under sharp attack online, as it should have.
We are under no illusion that Democrats would behave similarly if they were in power. They used to do so in Raleigh, and they did so last week in Asheville, when the City Council rammed through new restrictions on police searches, using a parliamentary maneuver to forestall discussion.
The council instructed Interim City Manager Cathy Ball to make police stop considering criminal history or suspicious behavior when deciding to initiate a consensual or “consent” search, meaning a search where a person must be asked and grant permission first.
Officers would also have to get written consent, instead of just verbal consent. Finally, vehicular stops for low-level regulatory violations should be deprioritized.
We have no quarrel with the substances of these rules. In fact, had the process been different, you’d likely be reading an editorial packed with praise.
Police must stop the practice of searching vehicles driven by African-Americans at a far higher rate than those driven by whites, even though contraband is found more often in the latter cases.
But we do have a quarrel with enacting laws without debate. The matter should be brought back before the council to be discussed, with the opportunity of offering amendments.
“We talk about transparency and due process, but council violated every tenet of that,” said Vijay Kapoor, one of two members of the all-Democratic council to vote against the rules. He says he isn’t sure how he feels about the rules and wants to restart the process.
We would like to be able to shame politicians into better behavior, but that seems a hopeless task. Our best hope lies with the voters. They need to start challenging those who represent them and demanding that the process be opened up to proper debate.
The Fayetteville Observer on recent legislation regarding GenX and chemical contamination:
In a week when many of us observe the 1-year anniversary of the arrival of “GenX” in our vocabulary, the General Assembly chose the most cynical possible response. Instead of passing legislation that will protect Cape Fear River Basin residents from the chemical threat, lawmakers gutted some already anemic responses — at the request of the chemical industry.
The action was a dramatic betrayal of the health and safety of lawmakers’ constituents and it sends a clear message to the voters: If you expect better than this, you’ve got to elect better than this. That opportunity will arrive in five months.
For those of us who live around the source of GenX and dozens of related chemicals, and for those who live farther downstream and have been drinking tainted municipal water for decades, this will be one of the top political issues of 2018. The General Assembly’s blatantly irresponsible decisions just insured that.
Last week, the North Carolina Manufacturers Alliance — a lobbying group that includes GenX producer Chemours — sought several changes in legislation that addresses the chemical contamination. Lawmakers did exactly as they were asked.
Perhaps worst among the changes was an agreement that North Carolina wouldn’t test drinking water for pharmaceuticals and a broad group of chemicals known as emerging contaminants. Instead, the state will concentrate only on GenX and directly related compounds. The lawmakers also agreed to further handicap the state Department of Environmental Quality by not funding the kind of chemical-testing instrumentation it requested. State regulators wanted a mass spectrometer that can identify a wide array of compounds, but lawmakers instead voted to fund one that only can identify the chemicals it’s programmed to look for.
Ironically, the broader search is how GenX was identified in the Cape Fear in the first place. The N.C. State researchers who found it were originally seeking the reasons for high bromine levels in the river.
According to a WRAL report, the president of the manufacturers alliance, Preston Howard, wrote lawmakers last week, warning them not to “open a Pandora’s Box” with GenX legislation. The broader tests, he said, “will almost assuredly reveal that there are many, many chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer products in this water supplies.” He said he believes that “Most will be detected at very low levels, But just as was the case with GenX, there will be very little information about the toxicity of those substances, resulting in the same or similar controversy over whether the concentrations pose any significant risk to public health or the environment.”
So that’s what a year of concern about river and well contamination has yielded: The General Assembly has decided that keeping North Carolinians in the dark about their public water supply is in everyone’s best interest. Even though the head of a manufacturing group assures lawmakers that testing will indeed show a witch’s brew of chemicals in our water, we won’t test for them and we certainly won’t actually regulate what factories are putting into our water. After all, there may not be much of it, and it may not hurt us. “Most” will be at low levels. Reassuring, isn’t it?
Our legislators have again chosen to abandon their most fundamental obligation to protect the health and safety of their constituents, and instead have chosen to embrace the lobbyists and big business interests that support them and their re-election campaigns. They have voted to keep environmental and health regulators’ hands tied, continuing to hobble their efforts — valiant efforts, as we’ve seen in the past year — and make it difficult or impossible for state residents to know what’s in the water that comes out of their kitchen faucets.
Sadly, that’s not surprising, given the way politics is played in Raleigh. But it’s especially ironic that it happens almost precisely one year after our sister paper, the StarNews of Wilmington, first disclosed the GenX problem. It’s quite an anniversary gift.