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North Carolina editorial roundup

March 7, 2019

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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March 6

The News & Observer of Raleigh on Republican lawmakers and North Carolina’s economy:

After eight years, Republican dominance of the General Assembly is getting a little long in the tooth. One sign of that is the fraying of the Republicans’ central conceit — that the economy soared after they cut taxes and held down state spending.

Senate leader Phil Berger repeated that claim in his response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent state of the state address. He said, “The facts show what you and your neighbors already know to be true: The financial and economic state of our state is the strongest it has ever been. North Carolina is booming under responsible Republican leadership.”

Actually, what you and your neighbors know is that claim isn’t true. Since the Republicans passed a regressive 2013 tax cut package that disproportionally benefited the wealthy and large corporations, household incomes haven’t so much risen as they have recovered from the severe recession that hit from late 2007 to mid-2009.

It’s true that jobs have been added and new businesses have come in, but mostly the new jobs have kept pace with the state’s growth in the population, and many of the jobs are low-paying service jobs. The unemployment rate has dropped sharply here and around the nation since the height of the recession, but that hasn’t translated into higher wages.

John Quinterno studies the state labor market at South by North Strategies, a Chapel Hill research consultancy specializing in economic and social policy. He said, “The economic recovery continues to deliver few meaningful improvements in the living standards of the typical household in North Carolina.”

Quinterno’s review of Census data on household income from 2007 to 2017, the latest numbers available, found “no statistical difference” between the inflation-adjusted median income of a North Carolina household in 2007 and the median income ten years later. In 2007, it was $52,430. In 2017, it was $52,750.

That is the reality of what former Gov. Pat McCrory touted as the “Carolina Comeback.” We’ve come back to where we were before the recession. That’s good, but it happened everywhere, even in high tax states. And the North Carolina economy is hardly what Berger called “the strongest it has ever been.” It’s just back to where it was when those big-spending, high-taxing Democrats were in charge, except now state government has lost $3.6 billion a year in revenue because of tax cuts.

The loss of that money has kept state funding at an austerity level reflective of a recession rather than a recovery. And that austerity — imposed by choice rather than necessity — is undermining North Carolina. ...

Online: https://www.newsobserver.com/

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March 5

Winston-Salem Journal on children’s health:

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children in North Carolina from ages 10 to 17. That’s probably the most shocking conclusion of the recently released report on child health in the state by the nonprofit groups N.C. Child and N.C. Institute of Medicine. But it’s not the only troubling conclusion.

North Carolina continues to perform below average when it comes to overall child health conditions, the Journal’s Richard Craver reported earlier this week. For the second consecutive year — the report has been released for 23 consecutive years now — there were more “D″ grades among the subsets of medical and socioeconomic factors it measures than in years before. The report is organized on four broader categories that include access to care, healthy births, secure homes and neighborhoods and health risk factors.

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The 2019 report focused on behavioral health issues, particularly the increase in suicide, which has almost doubled over past 10 years. Nearly 16 percent of high school students in 2017 reported seriously considering suicide, according to the report. Risk factors included persistent stress, family violence or disruption, trauma, social isolation and bullying.

The figure included 12 percent of heterosexual students as well as a staggering 43 percent of students who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

“Suicide is a multi-factorial problem, complicated by the lack of appropriate mental-health services available to many children in our state,” Dr. Adam Zolotor, president and chief executive of N.C. Institute of Medicine, said in the report.

The ratio of school counselors to students, as well as school nurses to students, received a “D″ grade, as did the categories of healthy eating and active living; tobacco, alcohol and substance use; birth outcomes (the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births for 2016 was 7.4 percent); and child abuse and neglect.

Housing and economic security received an “F″ with 31 percent of white children in the state living in high-poverty neighborhoods, as well as 64 percent of black children and 71 percent of Hispanic children.

There was some good news this year: The state received an “A″ for households in which children were covered by health insurance — 96 percent, whether by private insurance, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. North Carolina also rated a “B″ in environmental health, immunization and teen births.

But the stress leading to suicide — as well as anxiety and depression — is especially troubling. It should prompt all of us to demand immediate changes.

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There’s definitely a role for legislative action, and we’re pleased to see several bills that have been put forward in this session to increase access to mental-health and general health care. But more is needed, so that someday we can rate our state “A″ across the board.

Online: https://www.journalnow.com/

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March 4

The Fayetteville Observer on state prison safety:

It was one of the deadliest years in the history of North Carolina’s prison system. Five prison employees were killed in two incidents at state prisons in 2017. Given the way our prisons were staffed and the guards were trained and equipped, we should have seen it coming.

Our prisons, it turned out, were dreadfully understaffed. Years of budget cuts had made a shambles of prison safety. None of our state corrections institutions had enough guards to keep the peace. The prisons started with a guard deficit and things went downhill from there, because turnover was exceptionally high and vacancies could run to 40 percent or more. To make up for it, the remaining guards worked vast amounts of overtime and were chronically exhausted as they tried to do one of the most stressful jobs in our society. Every one of them knew every day as they punched in that there was a high likelihood that they would be injured — perhaps severely or even fatally — on the job. And the pay was lousy. Working immense quantities of overtime was really the only way to make a decent living. Many of the state’s prisons are located in impoverished rural areas where good-paying work is scarce, which is about the only thing that keeps guard turnover from being even worse than it is.

Nearly two years ago, Sgt. Meggan Callahan was beaten to death at the Bertie Correctional Institution. She had, according to several reports, only half the number of guards on duty that she should have. Six months later, as only one guard watched more than 30 prisoners in a Pasquotank Correctional Institution sewing plant, four inmates wielding scissors and hammers tried to break out. Four prison staffers were killed.

The two incidents spurred immediate calls for reform and it appeared that lawmakers and state prison officials were going to make rapid progress in raising pay, improving working conditions and upgrading prison workers’ training and equipment. Indeed, the system has made some progress in all those areas.

But a report last week in The Charlotte Observer indicates that the progress has been, at best, incremental. The prison system paid more than $45 million in overtime last year, which is 10 times more than it paid in 2011. Vacancy rates for officers has doubled since 2016, rising from 9 percent to 18 percent. At least two maximum-security prisons had guard vacancy rates exceeding 35 percent at times last year. David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told the Observer that, “This is an emergency situation.”

The state has about 9,000 officers supervising more than 36,000 inmates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At every major prison, overtime was up last year. The average officer worked 172 hours of overtime last year — the equivalent of working more than an extra month. Eighty of those officers made more than $30,000 in overtime. At that pace, it’s almost impossible for them to also be as alert and well-rested as a prison guard needs to be.

The state’s director of prisons, Kenneth Lassiter, told the Observer that the solution is to hire and retain more officers. That was the solution last year, too. Lassiter insists that “Corrections now is getting the attention that it should have a decade ago.” Indeed, the new Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety was established last month with a vow by its chairman, Sen. Bob Steinburg, to fix the problems. “The only way we can fix it is recruitment and retention,” Steinburg says. He’s right.

We hope they get the job done soon. Until they do, our prisons remain a ticking time bomb.

Online: https://www.fayobserver.com/