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Updated: 1 hour 12 min ago

Tragedy of errors damages politics

17 hours 35 min ago

It began with flubs. It ended in fury. And it made North Carolina politics even more rancorous and destructive. I’m referring, of course, to a 55-9 vote in the House last week to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget veto.

Ever since Cooper vetoed a budget enacted by the Republican-majority General Assembly, legislative leaders have promised to seek an override if they thought the votes were there. At the same time, lawmakers have been enacting, and Cooper usually signing, separate bills advancing consensus budget items.

On Tuesday, Sept. 10, the House added two of those “mini-budget” bills to its calendar for the next day. As the session ended, House Rules Committee chairman David Lewis, who was presiding, made no other announcement about whether votes would be taken at the session scheduled for Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the House minority leader, approached Lewis. Both men agree Jackson asked Lewis whether votes would be taken. But Lewis says he thought he was being asked about the mini-budget bills. Lewis assured Jackson that no vote would be taken on those bills at the morning session until the Democrats could caucus on them.

Jackson’s account is different. He says Lewis told him there would be “no votes” at the morning session, on anything. Lewis later responded to a WRAL-TV reporter’s question about the session with a text stating “no votes.” Lewis says he meant he didn’t expect any votes to be taken at the morning session, not that he had been so informed by the person authorized to make that decision, House Speaker Tim Moore.

Meanwhile, key members of both chambers had begun to redraw legislative districts in response to a court order in a partisan-gerrymandering case that Democrats had brought and Republicans had chosen not to appeal. It’s a tricky process governed by a tight timetable. Both sides had alternatively worked with and accused the other of violating the order.

A rumor swept through Republican ranks Tuesday that Democrats might try to use the Wednesday morning session to make some redistricting-related motion. At the same time, Jackson informed the Democratic caucus there would be no votes held at that session.

So, the stage for the override was set. In response to the redistricting rumor, GOP whips contacted some commuting lawmakers to make sure they’d be present. And in response to Jackson’s assurance, made in good faith, most House Democrats weren’t in the chamber that morning — although most were in and around the legislative complex, in their offices or prepping for committees (including a 9 a.m. meeting of some Democratic lawmakers to discuss redistricting).

Many Democrats now believe there was a conspiracy, that Republicans either found out about the Lewis-Jackson miscommunication ahead of time and schemed to capitalize on it or, more outlandishly, that Lewis had actively misled Jackson and the media.

The evidence doesn’t support this theory. The audio from the session clearly shows Speaker Moore and other Republicans surprised there were so few Democrats present. They are not such skilled thespians. Moreover, Moore had not pulled out all the stops to get his entire caucus there. Some were missing. Democrats could have blocked the override vote by exiting the chamber to deny a quorum.

Later on Wednesday, as the nature of the Lewis-Jackson miscommunication came to light, Democrats made a motion on the floor to recall the budget bill from the Senate in the interest of fairness. The Republicans refused.

I think reconsideration was a reasonable request. But consider this: Cooper and some Democrats had just spent hours propagating a false and deeply offensive accusation that Republicans had held the veto override while the Democrats were at a 9/11 ceremony. That’s why the story made national news. That’s why GOP legislators and staffers were inundated with hate-filled emails and threatening calls from around the country.

Civility and trust among North Carolina politicians were already being sorely tested. This episode has greatly damaged both. It was not a comedy of errors. It was a tragedy.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Trump administration spearheads health care reform  

Fri, 2019-09-13 04:00

As we near the end of President Trump’s third year in office, it’s worth looking back at some of the health care policies enacted by this administration so far. Given that next year is an election year, it’s a safe bet that leaders from both parties won’t try to bring any major health care legislation to Congress. Setting aside the failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, the Trump administration has produced a decent slate of health care policies that increase Americans’ choices for health coverage.  

The Trump administration’s most substantial piece of health care policy was done through the legislative process — the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate. The individual mandate was a provision in Obamacare, which required every person in America, unless an exemption applied, to buy and retain health insurance coverage, or else pay a tax penalty. The repeal of the individual mandate was a part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Starting at the beginning of 2019, no one would have to pay the tax penalty for not possessing health insurance and instead could decide for themselves whether to obtain health insurance.  

Ideally, Congress would use its constitutionally delegated authority to advance consumer-friendly health care reform bills. But partisan gridlock and disagreement about the future of the U.S. health care system have impeded efforts to do so, prompting the Trump administration to use executive authority to bring Americans some relief. The next three pieces of health care policy changes came via one executive order. In this order, the president directed specific federal agencies to issue new rules that would expand access to association health plans, short-term, limited-duration insurance, and health–reimbursement accounts. The Obama administration thwarted the use of all three of these arrangements.  

Association health plans are large group health plans sold through an association to employer-members. Under this arrangement, small businesses and self-employed owners can band together and buy health insurance as a large group plan. Purchasing plans as a large group offers those who would traditionally buy health insurance in the small or individual group market new opportunities to buy coverage as a large group. North Carolina recently changed its insurance laws to accommodate the sale of these plans.  

Short-term, limited-duration insurance has traditionally been used to supplement gaps in coverage, such as following a college graduation or the time between jobs. Historically, you could have short-term insurance for 12 months until the Obama administration limited it to a duration of three months. Short-term insurance isn’t subject to nearly as many insurance mandates as ACA-complaint plans, so these plans are generally a lot cheaper, but they don’t cover as many benefits. The Trump administration increased the duration back to 12 months and included the option to renew the plan for up to 36 months.  

Health reimbursement accounts are like health savings accounts. They are a tax-advantaged account that can be funded by an employer to be used for qualified medical expenses. Before the Obama administration, HRA contributions could be used to purchase non-group health insurance. This option was curtailed by the essential health benefits and annual and lifetime limits placed on insurance plans. The new Trump rule would allow HRAs to be used again to buy health insurance separate from the group plan on the individual, thereby giving employees an extra choice of where to get health insurance other than their employer group plan.   

Another executive order was signed in June. It focuses on many issues, but one on patient choice was the change to make a direct primary care membership fee a qualified health expense for a health savings account.  

Under current law, a patient could only use HSA dollars on certain “qualified health expenses.” DPC physicians, doctors who don’t accept insurance and charges a small monthly fee to see patients, weren’t previously a qualified health expense. But given that monthly fees for DPC doctors vary from $50-$200, paring this arrangement with an HSA makes sense. President Trump directed the Treasury secretary to change the rules and allow that a DPC membership be considered a qualified expense. This means those who have an HAS, or who would prefer to see a DPC doctor, can use the already operational HSA to pay for the monthly membership.  

Despite whether you support the president or agree with him politically; despite whether you support Obamacare; despite whether you support a single-payer system; the Trump administration has created meaningful new choices for American consumers and businesses to purchase health insurance that better fits their needs. One of the most significant flaws in Obamacare was treating each patient’s health care needs – a characteristic unique to each patient – with one-size-fits-all government plans. The Trump administration has increased the choices Americans have in buying health insurance. 

Jordan Roberts is health policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Special elections teach three lessons

Wed, 2019-09-11 01:01

When all was said and done, North Carolina’s special congressional elections this year proved not to be particularly special.

Republican state Rep. Greg Murphy easily defeated Democrat Allen Thomas, the former mayor of Greenville, in the contest to replace the late Walter Jones in the 3rd District. And in the closely watched 9th District, Republican state Sen. Dan Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 51 percent to 49 percent.

Neither seat changes hands. Donald Trump’s trip to North Carolina on Monday likely boosted GOP turnout for both victors. But his weak approval ratings helped make the Bishop-McCready race competitive in the first place.

Like I said, there wasn’t much special about these outcomes. They were fairly predictable. And I doubt they tell us very much about the presidential race of 2020, although national pundits will spend the next week or two claiming otherwise. Still, I do think North Carolinians can draw some lessons from our special-election cycle. You can think of them as the three “remains” of the day, so to speak.

One is that partisan polarization remains an immensely powerful force. President Trump has a loyal following within the GOP core but turns off quite a few “soft” Republicans and right-leaning swing voters. Most voted for him in 2016, anyway, because they viewed Hillary Clinton as an unacceptable alternative.

During the 2018 midterms, some of these voters were willing to vote for moderate-sounding Democrats. It cost Republicans dearly in dozens of seats where they had previously enjoyed an advantage.

McCready and Thomas tried to work the same magic this year. It didn’t materialize. Polarization reasserted its pull. Core Democratic and Republicans voters turned out for their respective teams. The dwindling number of true swing voters either didn’t turn out or didn’t break sharply enough to turn the tide.

In Thomas’ case, the electoral demographics were always heavily against him. Donald Trump won 59 percent of the vote in North Carolina’s 3rd District. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney won 58 percent. Gerrymandering doesn’t explain this. Polarization does. There were once many ticket-splitters in Eastern North Carolina. Now few see Democrats as plausible representatives of their views, at least for federal office.

Already facing a steep hill, Thomas ended up sliding rather than climbing. At 62 percent of the unofficial balloting, Greg Murphy did better than Trump and Romney here.

As for the 9th District, stretching from Charlotte along the South Carolina border to Fayetteville, Dan McCready stressed during his first campaign that he would be an independent voice in Washington, and that he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker. This message helped propel his 2018 candidacy to near-victory. He repeated the message this year, surely to positive effect once more. A narrow loss in what was until recently a Republican-friendly district is noteworthy.

It is, however, still a loss. I suspect somewhat-fewer voters this year than last found McCready’s pledge of independence compelling enough to jump ship. The absentee-ballot scandal that broke after the 2018 election didn’t do it, either. Power is already divided in Washington. Sending another Democrat wouldn’t have changed that. But it might have strengthened the hand of a Democratic Party many see as increasingly left-wing, despite McCready’s protestations to the contrary.

A second lesson is that pocketbook issues remain salient. Bishop and the Republicans used the energy issue effectively against McCready, a precedent that other conservative candidates should take to heart. Although voters are certainly concerned about the environment, they do not favor regulatory responses that will make them pay significantly more for electricity and gasoline. Associating McCready with costly energy mandates hurt him.

Finally, the special elections show that state legislators remain a good pool of potential candidates for higher office. Murphy and Bishop were experienced campaigners with good name recognition in key swaths of the congressional districts they just won.

Not exactly earth-shattering lessons, I grant you. But that’s my point. Don’t read too much into these special elections. The 2020 cycle will have its own dynamics.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Indiana Medicaid model unsound, not a good model for N.C.

Tue, 2019-09-10 01:25

In 2007, the federal government granted Indiana and then-Gov. Mike Pence a waiver to administer Medicaid to an expanded population.Indiana launched the Healthy Indiana Plan in 2008 with a five-year federal waiver. 

HIP was to be the nation’s first consumer-directed health plan for low-income residents. The intent was to encourage personal responsibility and accountability. 

But it has not worked as planned. Other states, including North Carolina, should heed the warnings and not use Indiana as a model for Medicaid expansion.

There were two HIP versions. The first HIP actually was more generous because it extended eligibility to low income parents and childless adults with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty line. There was a cap on childless adults who could join the program.

The second version (HIP 2.0) adopted Medicaid expansion eligibility guidelines in Obamacare, covering people  from 0-138% of the FPL. Many low income parents and adults who were once on HIP 1.0 transitioned to marketplace coverage (people between 100-138% of the FPL). HIP 2.0 was adopted in 2015.

Under HIP 2.0, the first $2,500 of medical expenses for eligible services were covered by a special savings account called POWER, for Personal Wellness and Responsibility. Every HIP member has a POWER Account. The enrollee shares those costs, capped at 2% of their income or about $25 per month. The federal government allowed Indiana to lock out enrollees with incomes between 100-138% FPL for six months if they didn’t pay the premium.

Even with the “required” contribution, the state winds up paying most of the $2,500 for enrollees. There are a lot of opt-out waivers and the state often fails to check the income eligibility of enrollees.

Additional provisions have been added to the original HIP, including a work requirement, wellness incentives, and dental, vision, and chiropractic services. 

When Pence announced the plan, he anticipated about 350,000 uninsured residents would be covered. Instead, 650,000 Indiana residents are eligible for the current version, HIP 2.0.

As of 2015, taxpayers have ended up funding about 95% of the HSA-like accounts.

Only 10% of HIP 2.0 (including the Medicaid expansion population) had incomes above the poverty line and were required to make the 2% monthly premium payment. The other 90% of new enrollees haven’t had to pay anything.

Even among the 10% who are supposed to pay, so many exemptions are in place that a mere 0.2% of enrollees have been kicked off Medicaid for failure to pay.

As a result, taxpayers are paying more. State actuaries project that the HIP 2.0 will actually cost $366 million more in the first year than it would have if they’d just done a traditional Medicaid expansion.

Indiana increased costs again by increasing optional benefits beyond the standard Medicaid package. People living below 100% of the federal poverty level have the choice of paying $3 to $15 a month, depending on income, to obtain dental or vision coverage. North Carolina’s Medicaid already covers dental and vision.

Indiana is expected to spend $1.5 billion on the plan by 2020, paid with cigarette taxes and money from a hospital assessment fee program (which will be passed on to patients or through higher insurance premiums).

As we’ve seen in other expansion states, loosening eligibility requirements and lax oversight has expanded Medicaid so much that it’s no longer a safety net program for the most vulnerable. Instead, it’s a taxpayer-funded health insurance program for many who could pay their own way.

As Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said recently of Gov. Roy Cooper’s insistence on holding up the state budget in exchange for Medicaid expansion in North Carolina: “A full accounting of the facts leads to the inescapable conclusion that expanding Medicaid would be a mistake that not only will fail to solve the problems its proponents claim it solves, but will create new problems and rekindle problems that have just recently been put to rest — such as Medicaid cost overruns and yearly budget deficits.”

Public programs of this magnitude are hard to control. They increase costs and reduce access. They put the vulnerable populations Medicaid was designed to serve at greater risk. 

North Carolina has about 2.1 million Medicaid enrollees. Medicaid covers one of every two babies born in the state. Adding an anticipated 643,000 additional participants (and in every case, the actual enrollment is higher than anticipated) on an already overloaded, fragile program is irresponsible.

The better way to go is by lowering the costs of health care, and reducing mandates and other government regulations making health policies needlessly expensive, so people can afford the health insurance that best fits their needs, not what the government decides to hand them.

Becki Gray (@beckigray) is senior vice president of the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Reform should accompany new districts

Mon, 2019-09-09 01:01

I remember when the inherent boredom of redistricting was a laugh line.

During a Season Four episode of the animated series “The Simpsons,” for example, Homer turns on the TV one Sunday morning in search of entertainment. Instead, he finds “Municipal Roundtable,” a public-affairs show. “Let’s define our terms, gentlemen,” says the monotone-voiced moderator to a panel of experts. “Are we talking about redistricting or are we talking about reapportionment? “Oh, well,” groans Homer. “Can’t win ’em all.” Then an announcer breaks in: “We interrupt this public affairs program to bring you … a football game.”

Homer dances with joy.

Whatever else we might say about redistricting in North Carolina, it’s clearly the opposite of boring. Several weeks ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to strike down North Carolina’s congressional districts as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders, Republicans celebrated and Democrats fumed. Then, a few day ago, the emotional roles were reversed when a three-judge panel of state judges concluded that much of North Carolina’s legislative-district maps constituted an “extreme partisan gerrymander” in violation of the state constitution. It ordered the General Assembly to redraw them immediately.

Legislative leaders have chosen not to appeal the trial-court decision. They’ll redraw under a court order that mandates openness, fresh and compact districts, and no use of party registration or election results. Democrats are understandably delighted with the outcome. But neither they nor their Republican counterparts should conclude that North Carolina’s perpetual and costly problems with redistricting are over.

In the state court case, Common Cause v. Lewis, the three-judge panel ordered a remedy to a specific set of districts drawn in 2017. It did not and could not make a permanent change in the way North Carolina adopts its electoral maps. It didn’t set binding precedent. Moreover, the decision didn’t describe a clear standard for distinguishing “extreme” partisan gerrymandering, which the judges deemed to run afoul of the state constitution, from run-of-the-mill favoritism for incumbents or parties, which apparently does not.

Although the court-ordered remedy may well make legislative districts more competitive in 2020, we won’t really know until after the election. Staring into the real-view mirror is no way to drive a car forward. Policymakers must know the rules of the road ahead of time. They need clear standards for redistricting written directly into North Carolina’s constitution, standards that elevate the interests of voters above those of incumbents or parties.

That’s why the new districts required by the trial court should be accompanied by enactment of House Bill 140, known as the Fair Act (for Fairness And Integrity in Redistricting). Its provisions are entirely consistent with the ruling but go further to ensure that future districts are compact, respectful of local boundaries, and produced in the light of day.

HB 140 authorizes a statewide referendum to place redistricting criteria into the state constitution. Its accompanying statute has the nonpartisan legislative staff rather than lawmakers draw the maps. It entrusts the authority to answer questions from staffers drawing maps, and to hold public hearings on them, to a balanced advisory commission made up of two Democratic appointees, two Republican appointees, and a fifth member chosen by a majority of the other four.

When it comes to redistricting, each party has historical reasons to be skeptical of the other’s intentions. Now is the moment to come together for the good of North Carolina. Neither side can know who will control the legislature after the 2020 elections. What if you end up in the minority? Shouldn’t you take out an insurance policy against the catastrophic loss of adverse redistricting in 2021?

Lawsuits can produce specific remedies to specific harms. They are no substitute for reform enacted with bipartisan supermajorities in the General Assembly and approved by North Carolina voters in a referendum. Let’s end the costly cycle of litigation, oscillation, and recrimination. Let’s embrace the opportunity to reform our redistricting process, and to set a new and better example for how to resolve public disputes. Let’s lead.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Defenders of state ABC system inadvertantly show why it needs replacement

Fri, 2019-09-06 01:19

Walter Harris, chairman of the Chatham County Alcoholic Beverage Control board, told WUNC’s Frank Stasio he’s been told North Carolina is among the country’s best at selling hard liquor.

Taken without context, Harris may well be correct.

North Carolina controls every aspect of the statewide liquor market, including storage, distribution, and sales. The state, so far, has yet to open its own distillery, but it oversees all other aspects of the liquor trade in North Carolina.

Taken with context, that North Carolina sells liquor according to many rules enacted just after Prohibition and favors control over consumer choice and free market ideas, then what Harris told Stasio is complete nonsense.

Harris was among the panelists last week on Stasio’s “The State of Things” radio hour. The theme of the topical show was the state’s alcohol history and culture and the passage this year of legislation that will help the state’s craft distillers to survive and even thrive. Senate Bill 290, most of which became effective Sept. 1, aligns rules for N.C. craft distilleries more closely with those governing wine and craft beer. 

My colleagues at the John Locke Foundation, including people such as Becki Gray, Jon Guze, and Jon Sanders, have for years worked hard to fix the archaic way North Carolina governs alcohol. I’ve written about the subject myself, including a book specifically about the state’s craft distillers and its distilling history. I think it’s fair to say we’ve had more than a little influence in pushing the subject to the fore and in helping to shape legislation and reform liquor laws to the benefit of producers and consumers alike. 

The producers at “The State of Things” chose not to invite us to the show, but that’s their decision and one beyond our control. We can, however, speak to comments and some declarative statements from the broadcast, which, at the very least, are inaccurate and do little to move the issue forward. And, to avoid confusion, the issue is moving forward.

The real question is whether the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission wants to lend its expertise in the transition or, rather, choose to tighten its grip on a system that’s splintering in its blistered hands.

Another guest on Stasio’s show talked about the history of North Carolina’s complicated liquor history, including the “bootleggers and Baptists” scenario, which encompasses the ideas of eliminating the competition and prohibiting alcohol altogether.

Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, who was on the show, will pick up in the General Assembly where a linchpin of ABC reform in North Carolina, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, left off. McGrady will retire next year.

House Bill 971, which McGrady sponsored, had stalled in the legislature, but McGrady managed a hearing for a proposed committee substitute in the House’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee in July. The Modern Licensure Model for Alcohol Control, originally filed April 25, basically clears a path for private liquor stores in North Carolina. H.B. 971 would eliminate the state-run alcohol warehouses in Raleigh and phase out the local ABC boards and stores.

Of course, the state’s politically entrenched ABC boards want to hear nothing of the sort. Harris, not surprisingly, talked about all of the money localities get from alcohol revenue. It’s the ABC’s primary argument against reform, and it’s really the only one that matters. N.C. craft distillers have their concerns, as well, chief among them is a fear of getting pushed out by the so-called “big boys.” Their concerns are valid, and lawmakers won’t dismiss them out of hand.

Hardister, though, rightly points out that government can regulate the private sector better than it can regulate itself. Enforcement, and, yes, control, will remain under the purview of the state ABC, and lawmakers, he said, will work to ensure those entitlements to local governments with ABC don’t go away.

“We want to make sure the local government is held harmless, as much as possible,” Hardister told Stasio.

Harris, and ABC boards around the state, won’t budge or compromise. With full sarcasm, Harris told Stasio, if it’s not broken, then fix it until it is.

But, Mr. Harris, broken it is. 

North Carolina is one of 17 control states but the only state with independent, local control over liquor. That’s 170 boards with that many opinions, misconceptions, and grudges. North  Carolina, Harris told Stasio, is 44th in the nation in consumption of liquor, but seventh-best in revenue collected from alcohol sales. That’s a dichotomy, yet proponents of control use it as a singular point of praise.

It’s now a clichè, but the debate here has little if anything to do with alcohol.

“It’s about jobs, it’s about business,” Hardister said.

It’s also about consumers and a free market. Yeah, it’s mostly about that. 

North Carolina is among a handful of states that prohibits liquor sales on Sunday. So, with Monday being Labor Day, state ABC stores were closed for two consecutive days, one of which is especially lucrative for alcohol sales. 

Here’s the thing: If it’s Sunday and I want a chicken sandwich, I know Chick-fil-A isn’t an option, as those stores will be closed. But I do have options. Many private businesses — Popeyes, Wendy’s, Bojangles’ — will sell me a chicken sandwich on a Sunday. Just not Chick-fil-A, and I’m fine with that. 

But, if I’m entertaining friends on a Sunday or other holiday and someone wants a drink of, say tequila, we’re just plain out of luck, unless someone wants to drive across the border. 

Apparently we’re incapable, according to certain state laws, of choosing for ourselves.

“I don’t think we ought to be in the business of babysitting our citizens,” Hardister told Harris and Stasio.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. If, that is, “The State of Things” would have given me — or one of my colleagues — the chance. Maybe next time.

Categories: Public Policy

Time to make voter ID work

Wed, 2019-09-04 01:01

Most North Carolinians think it is reasonable for voters to show identification before casting a ballot. A solid, although not overwhelming, majority voted last fall to place a voter-ID requirement in the state constitution, although a vocal minority continues to see it as dangerous and discriminatory.

I’ve long argued that both sides of the voter-ID dispute tend the exaggerate the consequences. Most studies of actual elections held under voter-ID requirements find little effect on the number of votes cast. Some states have implemented the policy and seen big increases in voter turnout. Some states without voter-ID laws haven’t exactly been setting turnout records lately.

You can’t just eyeball election results and draw valid conclusions, of course. Perhaps turnout would have soared even higher if a given state hadn’t implemented an ID rule. Perhaps when critics widely and repeatedly made the argument that voter-ID laws were intended to discriminate against poor or non-white voters, that serve to motivate those very groups to vote in higher numbers.

Researchers have used a variety of means to try to tease out these potential cross-currents. Most of the time, such studies still find negligible effects.

One reason may be that the number of people who both intend to cast ballots and lack ID is minuscule. Consider a recent study by Mark Hoekstra of Texas A&M and Vijetha Koppa of Dubai’s Institute of Management Technology. It examined election results for more than 2,000 races in Florida and Michigan. Hoekstra and Koppa chose those states because they allow ballots to be cast without IDs and then track those ballots separately.

The researchers found that at most the share of votes cast without IDs were in the range of .10 percent to .33 percent. “Thus, even under the extreme assumption that all voters without IDs were either fraudulent or would be disenfranchised by a strict law,” they wrote, “the enactment of such a law would have only a very small effect on turnout.”

The effect was so small, in fact, that it would have been highly unlikely to flip races. “Even if the worst fears of proponents or critics were true,” Hoekstra and Koppa wrote, “strict identification laws are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on turnout or election outcomes.”

The empirical evidence undercuts claims made by both sides. If turnout isn’t much affected by an ID requirement, its usefulness as a “voter-suppression” device is rather unimpressive. On the other hand, if requiring ID doesn’t significantly reduce turnout, there must not be that much illegal voting going on — or at least not the kind that an ID requirement could block or deter.

To my way of thinking, there are three reasons why an apparently low-stakes ID requirement for voting remains a reasonable policy. The first is that it will at least modestly increase public confidence in elections, even if the public is mistaken about the prevalence of impersonation fraud, residency fraud, or other forms of illegal voting for which an ID requirement may be relevant.

The second is that “minuscule” is not “zero.” Occasionally we see races in North Carolina and elsewhere settled by dozens of votes or fewer. Could preventable voter fraud tip the balance in such races? It’s a low-probability scenario, to be sure. But as long as the net cost is also low, why not take out insurance against it? (A similar argument applies to absentee-ballot fraud, which North Carolina is now taking more seriously, as it should.)

The third argument is, indeed, that the net cost is low — because implementing the ID rule has some ancillary benefits. Those who lack photo IDs face other impediments in modern society. It may not be impossible for them to use financial services, public buildings, and certain forms of transportation — advocates sometimes misstate this — but it is certainly more cumbersome than it needs to be.

Voter ID is now the law of the land. Now it’s time to make it work, and to move on to more productive public-policy debates.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Progress needed on road safety

Tue, 2019-09-03 01:01

The latest ratings of highway systems are out — and for North Carolina, the news is mixed. In general cost-effectiveness, our state’s roads and bridges rank a bit better than average. We fare well on some measures. But when it comes to the safety of rural roads, North Carolina comes in next-to-last.

I got this information from the latest report on state roads and bridges published the California-based Reason Foundation. In various forms, this annual study has provided comparative data to legislators, state policymakers, and others interested in getting the best bang for every buck invested in our primary form of surface transportation.

For North Carolina, the top finding isn’t particularly exciting: we’re number 17! In overall cost-effectiveness, our state’s ranking declined from 14th in the previous study.

That’s still better than North Carolina used to rank in these reports. Bipartisan reforms enacted over the past decade or so have improved our system’s performance. The state spends a greater share of its revenue from gas and car taxes on roads and bridges today than it did before. And those spending decisions are now based more on objective criteria and less on political pull thanks to changes enacted during the administration of previous Gov. Pat McCrory.

Although it might not seem like it, North Carolina appears to have done a better job than the average state in coping with rising congestion in urban areas. Back in the 2000s, we routinely ranked near the bottom. In the most recent Reason report, North Carolina was close to the median (23rd) in urban congestion, although some of the apparent improvement may reflect a change in measurement tool. Our state has also shown improvement in the pavement condition of our interstates.

Unfortunately, North Carolina ranks 49th in fatality rates on our rural highways. This is the first time the report has separated out urban and rural rates, although it does provide three years of data for comparison. Alas, our rural fatality rate got worse over time.

The problem can’t be attributed to pavement conditions on rural highways. North Carolina is about average in that regard. So, what’s causing our high fatality rate and what can be done about it?

A Centers for Disease Control study published a couple of years ago suggested that lower rates of seat-belt use help to explain higher fatality rates for automobile crashes in rural areas. Other possible factors include higher rates of drunk and distracted driving, higher average speeds, and lower average incomes (less-affluent drivers may be operating older cars with fewer safety features or in poor repair).

But while these factors may explain disparities between urban and rural fatalities in general, it’s not clear to me that North Carolina presents an especially high-risk mix. Other states seem to have higher drunk-driving rates and lower household incomes in rural areas, for example.

I’m also not sure the causal relationships are all that well-established, yet. According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, alcohol is no more a factor in rural crashes than in urban ones. These same statistics do show, however, that lack of seatbelt use plays a larger role in rural fatalities than in urban ones, particularly for pickup trucks.

Although there may be no obvious course of remedial action yet, North Carolina clearly has a significant problem with highway fatalities in rural areas. I think the issue deserve more research, perhaps even a legislative study commission or some other means of focusing policy resources and public attention.

Automobility is the main way North Carolinians get around. That’s unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. As our state continues to grow and develop, we will need to have transportation revenue and expenditure systems that keep up with demand and produce high value for every dollar invested. As much as possible, they should follow the benefit principle: the more you use, and the more you use during periods of peak demand, the more you should pay. And safety should be a high priority.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

What can other universities learn from Purdue’s tuition freeze? 

Fri, 2019-08-30 04:00

Tuition freezes are gaining popularity across the country. Earlier this year, university systems in Virginia and Pennsylvania announced tuition would not rise in the next academic year, saving students and parents millions.

Purdue University started the tuition-freeze trend in 2013. Under the leadership of its president, Mitch Daniels, Purdue instituted a freeze on all tuition and fees at its flagship campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Tuition has stayed flat since — more than half a decade. Since then, enrollment has increased, students have a more affordable education, and Purdue continues to thrive. 

University administrators, governing boards, and state lawmakers can learn a lot from Purdue’s success. 

A closer look at the data reveals important lessons for policymakers who want to replicate Daniels’ success. 

Lesson 1: Revenue and expenses both play a role 

To hold the line on tuition, Daniels increased revenue from other sources while cutting wasteful spending. Many of Daniels’ cost-cutting measures have been well-publicized. In 2016, the Martin Center reported: 

The changes range from the mundane, such as selling off 10 of its automobiles, to the path-breaking, such as forgone merit increases by all personnel at high administrative levels. 

Daniels plus his deans, executive vice presidents, vice presidents, vice provosts, and other officers of equivalent level will not get merit increases this year. 

Purdue’s per-student costs reveal these small changes have added up. In his first two years at Purdue, Daniels cut the budget by $40 million. After accounting for inflation, Purdue’s per-student expenses fell in almost every category, including those that generally fall under “administration:” academic support, institutional support, and student service. 

At the same time, Daniels increased revenue from out-of-state tuition and fees, private fundraising, and other sources. 

Purdue’s tuition revenue per student increased modestly from 2012 to 2017, despite the freeze. That’s partially because the number of foreign and out-of-state students increased. 

And Purdue has pushed back against the criticism that it is neglecting Indiana students. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2018: 

The university maintains that a more accurate way to look at Purdue’s demographics … is to analyze the recent freshman class, which included 627 more Indiana students than in 2013, despite the fact Indiana’s high school graduating class has remained fairly flat. 

A much more significant contributor to Purdue’s increased revenue has been private fundraising. This year, Purdue’s Day of Giving raised $41.6 million. That amount set the fifth-straight record for a 24-hour higher education fundraising campaign. The value of the Purdue system’s endowment now stands at more than $2.5 billion — up from $2 billion in 2012. 

Lesson 2: Additional appropriations aren’t required 

In May, Virginia public colleges announced their own tuition freeze. And while it’s certain to help many students and parents who pay the bills, the costs will be borne by Virginia’s taxpayers. The freeze was a result of $57.5 million of “incentivized funding” in the state budget for colleges to freeze their tuition for in-state students. 

Purdue managed its tuition freeze without additional state funds. That’s despite the fact —as universities go — Purdue was lean even before Mitch Daniels arrived. Now, it spends significantly less than its peers. 

Nationally, public universities receive 28% of their core operating revenue from the legislature. For Purdue, it’s less than 20%. And during the freeze, Purdue’s revenue from state and local appropriations decreased: from $8,267 (inflation-adjusted) to $7,551 per student. 

A typical large, high-research land-grant university allocates its money differently. For example, N.C. State spent $42,982 per student in 2017 — almost $5,000 more than Purdue. Of that amount, just $16,772 went to instruction. It also spent more on student services, institutional support, public service, research, and academic support. 

Lesson 3: Cutting the budget doesn’t mean cutting quality 

Throughout the changes, Purdue has maintained its academic quality. Since the tuition freeze and budget cuts, student retention rates have held steady. Just 55.9% of students who began at Purdue in 2012 graduated within four years. For students who began in 2014, that figure rose to 60.3%. 

 “This place was not built to be efficient,” Daniels told The Wall Street Journal. But “you’re not going to find many places where you just take a cleaver and hack off a big piece of fat. Just like a cow, it’s marbled through the whole enterprise.” 

In Daniels’ first two years at Purdue, he gave faculty members raises and increased the school’s minimum wage to $10 per hour. Instruction expenses increased from $15,605 to $19,065. Daniels was careful to improve the school’s core instructional functions while cutting auxiliary and administrative expenses. 

These lessons can help university administrators, governing boards, and state lawmakers across the country to replicate Daniels’ success. Using Daniels’ methods, it’s possible to freeze tuition and cut costs, improving the value of public higher education to students and taxpayers. 

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Categories: Public Policy

Linking bullying to loneliness and belonging 

Thu, 2019-08-29 04:00

There’s a loneliness epidemic among youth today. That’s the growing consensus among researchers, with implications for school culture. One reason: Lonely, depressed kids are more likely to bully or be bullied. Given new evidence of widespread bullying nationwide, this is more relevant than ever. Fortunately, new research also illuminates a promising path forward, showing kids who feel a strong sense of belonging are less likely to bully others. That should fuel work to foster cultures of connection, helping kids internalize this message: You matter. You belong.   

Currently, millions of youth are hurt by bullying each year. Newly released federal data show one in five students ages 12 to 18 was bullied in 2017. Cyberbullying has risen rapidly. Among students experiencing bullying, 15% were bullied online or via text in 2017, compared to 11.5% in 2015. Girls were especially vulnerable to electronic slings and arrows, cyberbullied at triple the rate of boys.  

Middle school can feel like a particularly rough, tough place. Traditional verbal and physical bullying are highest then. But high school is ground zero for cyberbullying, which peaks in 10th and 11th grades. 

What deters bullying? A sense of belonging, defined by researchers as the “perception of consistent interaction and persistent caring from others.” It’s a particularly potent bully-buster, says a new study of more than 900 middle-schoolers led by University of Missouri researcher Chris Slaten. 

Slaten’s study, published in Educational & Child Psychology, found that both family and school belonging mattered. “The stronger connection an individual has with their family,” Slaten and his colleagues wrote, “the less likely he/she is to engage in bullying behavior.” Researchers also found a “significant, inverse relationship between school belonging and bullying behavior.”    

What can families do to build belonging? Shore up family time. Slaten suggests families plan activities aligned with each child’s interest. Other evidence shows one simple ritual deserves singular praise: family dinner. Frequent family dinners are linked with better parent-child relationships and mental health, especially lower rates of depression in girls; regular dinners are also associated with fewer behavioral problems in pre-teens. No need for culinary prowess — it’s about what that shared meal represents: Consistent interaction. Persistent caring. 

What can schools do? Slaten’s team advocates clubs or efforts to build community. Other new research showcases a peer-based “belonging intervention” that’s cost-effective and easily replicated. Led by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Geoffrey Borman, the study of more than 1,300 sixth-graders had students read and reflect on quotes compiled from seventh-graders about their start to middle school the year before. Study participants then wrote about peer quotes, twice, early in their own sixth-grade experiences. Quotes captured fears about fitting in, adjusting to middle school, and ways to get help.   

The intent of the intervention was to normalize common concerns, assure kids such worries were short-lived, and communicate that support was available. Bottom line: Kids, you’re normal. You’ll get through this. You’re not alone! 

That message sunk in. By the end of sixth-grade, participants were less anxious and felt a greater sense of social belonging compared to other students. They had fewer behavioral referrals and absences, and higher GPAs. Borman’s study didn’t specifically assess bullying, but its benefits for school culture are clear.   

Building belonging is only part of a broader strategy; tough, clear bullying policies and interventions for at-risk kids are also essential. But ensuring more kids feel a sense of belonging is worthy work. What have we got to lose? Loneliness? Isolation? Kids need to know they’re not alone — that at home or school, there’s a place at the table. 

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer. 


Categories: Public Policy

Transparency essential to health reform

Wed, 2019-08-28 01:01

When State Treasurer Dale Folwell took office in early 2017, he found North Carolina’s State Health Plan to be in even worse shape than he originally thought. Costs were soaring. The terms of the plan’s contracts with medical providers were unclear. And the unfunded liability for retiree health benefits is enormous, in the range of $35 billion.

One of the strategies Folwell and his team developed in response is the Clear Pricing Project (CPP). It requires providers wishing to serve teachers and state employees to accept fixed rates — the latest offer was about double the reimbursements that Medicare pays — as a means both of increasing transparency and reducing cost.

Nearly 30,000 physician practices and other providers signed on to the CPP. But North Carolina’s largest hospital chains refused. To avoid leaving public employees without in-network access to hospitals, Folwell has backed off for now. But he’ll keep working on the problem. He has no choice.

The conflict isn’t really a partisan or ideological one. The State Employees Association of North Carolina backs the CPP. Although some Democrats and activist groups have been wishing Folwell in the worst in his battle with hospitals, the better to weaken his re-election bid in 2020, plenty of others across the political spectrum recognize that without reform both taxpayers and public employees will pay much more to keep the health plan afloat in the coming years.

Hospitals argued that if the State Health Plan paid them no more than double the reimbursement rates for Medicare, they’d end up losing money on some lines of business — and that entire facilities, particularly in rural areas, would become unsustainable. They also argued, more persuasively, that Medicare’s rate structure is convoluted and inequitable, favoring some procedures and specialties over others.

If the dispute were only about reimbursements, however, the hospitals could have counterproposed a higher and more rational rate structure. They didn’t. That’s because hospitals fundamentally reject the model of selling their services based on published rates. They want to keep their prices, discounts, and contracts confidential. They don’t want some payers to see what others are paying. They don’t want their competitors to see, either.

This much is true: the way we pay for medical services, especially in hospital settings, is screwy and unsustainable. Private third-party payers — commercial insurance pools as well as self-insured employers for which insurers act as agents — are charged more than Medicare and much more than Medicaid. Large bulk-buyers often get better deals than small ones or individuals. Critics of the CPP suggested that if North Carolina’s State Health Plan went to fixed published rates, that could start to unravel the whole financing system.

The truth is, however, that the system is already unraveling. What comes next? Whatever you think that answer is, it will require a higher level of transparency than we currently get from hospital providers, in particular. As the American Enterprise Institute’s James Capretta put it recently in Health Affairs: “Given the strain high costs are placing on employers, workers, and taxpayers, some disruption is called for to facilitate new strategies and perhaps new policy initiatives to help bring costs under better control.”

Capretta and other advocates of transparency don’t have unrealistic expectations about how many individual patients will access, comprehend, and employ the prices to shop around. Rather, they think transparency will lead to large-scale entrepreneurial responses. “The real aim is to enable more outside scrutiny of pricing across competing facilities and thus facilitate strategies in the private sector to lower overall costs of care,” he wrote.

Contrary to progressive mythology, other countries don’t deliver higher-quality care than we do at a lower cost. Properly adjusted for factors such as homicide and accident rates that don’t speak to quality of care, America’s health outcomes are among the best in the world. But the cost of our system is exorbitant. As the old song goes, “you can bet just as sure as you live — something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give.”

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Two justices most likely to break from N.C. Supreme Court majority

Tue, 2019-08-27 04:02

You might expect a state Supreme Court with six Democrats and one Republican to end up with a lot of 6-1 decisions with the Republican on the losing end. That’s not been the typical scenario this year.

A review of high court decisions reveals a more interesting pattern. It involves two justices with contrasting judicial philosophies who are more likely than the rest of their colleagues to split from the majority in case to case.

Through mid-August, two-thirds of this year’s cases have yielded unanimous rulings. And each justice — including the lone Republican — has sided with the majority at least 80% of the time. But those numbers come with a caveat: Data from the entire calendar year tend to overinflate the degree to which the court offers a unified front.

The high court issued its first two batches of mostly unanimous opinions this year as it was dealing with personnel changes. The surprise resignation of Republican Chief Justice Mark Martin led to a shuffle that ended up placing a sixth Democrat on the bench.

Analysis of 2019 decisions could start at the beginning of the calendar year, after Martin’s Feb. 28 resignation, or perhaps as late as May 10. That was the first time the court released any opinions dealing with cases heard by the current slate of seven justices.

I’ll use the entire year’s data, even with its imperfections.

The Supreme Court has decided 41 cases through Aug. 16. Twenty-six of those cases have yielded unanimous rulings, including 10 cases with “per curiam” opinions credited to no individual author. A twenty-seventh case also produced a unanimous result, though Justice Anita Earls wrote a concurring opinion to address legal issues not covered in Justice Sam Ervin IV’s majority opinion.

Seven cases (17%) have produced a single dissenting vote. One might expect Republican Justice Paul Newby to be the most likely lone dissenter. He’s not. Newby has produced the single no vote in just two cases. In the other five cases with a single dissenter, Earls has stood alone against her colleagues.

Six cases have produced a 4-2 or 5-2 split. Only one case this year ended in a 4-3 division.

Both Earls and Newby have written six dissents. Only once has Earls had a colleague sign on to her dissenting opinion. Newby has convinced a colleague to join his dissent three times.

As these numbers suggest, Newby and Earls are the justices least likely to join the majority. Earls has voted with the majority in 30 of 36 cases (83%), while Newby has sided with the majority in 33 of 41 cases (80%). Subtract the unanimous opinions from Martin’s final days as chief justice, and Newby’s percentage drops below 78%.

In contrast, Justice Robin Hudson has sided with the majority in all 41 cases. New Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has voted with the majority 40 of 41 times (98%). The newest member, Justice Mark Davis, has voted with the majority in 17 of 18 cases (94%). Ervin and Justice Michael Morgan have voted with the “winning” side in 38 of 41 cases (93%).

Other than Earls and Newby, written dissents have been rare. Hudson, Beasley, and Davis have written none this year. Morgan has written two; Ervin, one.

Earls and Newby have written most often overall as well. With five majority opinions, six dissents, and a concurrence, Earls has been the high court’s most prolific writer. Newby ranks second with nine opinions: three for the majority and six in dissent.

Beasley and Hudson have been most likely to agree in their rulings. On the same side in 40 of 41 cases, their agreement rate is 98%. In contrast, Earls and Newby agree least often, 23 of 36 times, or 64%. Earls has no better than an 89% agreement rate with any colleague, and her agreement rates with Ervin and Morgan stand at 75%.

Newby’s agreement rates top out at 88% with Ervin and Morgan. Among his other Democratic colleagues, Newby has agreed with Mark Davis 83% of the time; Robin Hudson, 80%; and Beasley, 78%.

The ideological divide separating Earls and Newby comes across particularly clearly in State v. Grady, a high-profile case involving the future of lifetime satellite-based monitoring for sex offenders. Over the course of 108 pages — 68 from Earls, 40 from Newby — the two justices set out different ideas about the Fourth Amendment implications of lifetime monitoring.

Writing for the 4-2 majority, Earls concludes, “The SBM program constitutes a substantial intrusion into … privacy interests without any showing by the State that the program furthers its interest in solving crimes that have been committed, preventing the commission of sex crimes, or protecting the public.” Thus Earls and colleagues strike down satellite-based monitoring for offender Torrey Grady and all others in similar circumstances.

Newby responds in dissent: “Using the [case] as an opportunity to make a broad policy statement, the majority … applies an unbridled analysis which understates the crimes, overstates repeat sex offenders’ legitimate expectations of privacy, and minimizes the need to protect society from this limited class of dangerous sex offenders. The majority’s sweeping opinion could be used to strike down every category of lifetime monitoring under the SBM statute.”

This case and others suggest that Earls and Newby will continue to spell out their competing views of the law. At least until voters have their next chance to vote on Supreme Court justices in 2020.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Piecemeal budget can resolve impasse

Mon, 2019-08-26 01:01

Gov. Roy Cooper insists that Medicaid expansion be part of North Carolina’s budget deal for 2019-20. Republican leaders of the legislature disagree. That’s the main reason why state government has been operating at last year’s spending levels since July 1. It’s the main reason the General Assembly is still in session as we approach the month of September.

There are other budgetary disputes, to be sure. Cooper wanted higher pay raises for teachers. Legislators wanted higher pay raises for state employees. They differ on how to pay for school construction and what other capital projects deserve state funding.

Meeting somewhere in the middle on these financial matters is doable. But whether to expand Medicaid is a yes-or-no question of momentous importance. Cooper surely knew insisting on it would shut down any budget negotiations.

And he’s made the situation even worse by being obnoxious about it. Speaking to Raleigh’s WRAL-TV, Cooper denied the Republicans’ characterization that he has issued an “ultimatum” on Medicaid. He said he could be satisfied with “something that [Senate leader Phil Berger] doesn’t believe is Medicaid expansion that gets more health insurance to people.”

Cooper is talking about a Medicaid-expansion bill some Republican lawmakers filed in the House. It unambiguously draws down federal Medicaid dollars to provide Medicaid coverage to able-bodied North Carolinians under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. While it has some work requirements and cost-sharing provisions that Democrats strongly dislike, and some GOP supporters have tried for political reasons to reject the label, Berger calls it Medicaid expansion because that’s what it is.

On the budget dispute and other issues, Roy Cooper has been getting some very bad advice lately from highly partisan and left-wing aides. To his discredit, he’s been taking it.

What they should have been telling the governor is that he started out in a weak position and has only seen it erode since July. Unlike budget disputes in Washington, there is no prospect in North Carolina of a shutdown. State government is operating normally, with spending levels maintained from 2018-19. There is no groundswell of public pressure for the General Assembly to cave. And there are popular things in the state budget Cooper vetoed.

GOP leaders are now pursuing a strategy of enacting some of those provisions piecemeal, including pay raises for public employees and a partial refund of North Carolina’s healthy revenue surplus. If Cooper vetoes them, he is essentially writing Republican ad copy for the 2020 election. If he doesn’t, much of the disputed budget will have been implemented without Medicaid expansion.

Because I have long disliked the bipartisan practice of rolling most consequential issues into a single budget bill each year, I welcome the legislature’s piecemeal approach in 2019 as more than just a temporary solution to a vexing political conflict. Generally speaking, I’d like to see the General Assembly run more policy changes as separate bills. There may also be good reasons to vote separately on operating budgets, capital budgets, pay raises, and bills to draw down federal funds for state projects. Let’s at least talk about it, and see how it works out in 2019-20.

I understand the case Cooper and his supporters make for Medicaid expansion, although I don’t agree with it. Do they understand the case against it? Based on what they say, and how ineffectually they’ve responded to it, I suspect not. Conservatives in the General Assembly think our welfare state is large enough already. They don’t want to expand dependency, they (properly) don’t think federal money is some free gift from afar, and they worry that any work rules or premiums instituted today over progressive objections will be nerfed or dismantled tomorrow. Everything the governor has said during the budget dispute has reinforced their opposition rather than softening it.

The legislative branch retains the primary authority over fiscal policy in North Carolina and clearly plans to use it to bypass a recalcitrant governor. Unless he offers a peace meal, they’ll do it piecemeal.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

We deserve representation over blind political allegiance 

Fri, 2019-08-23 04:00

What’s at stake without a budget

Try as they might, the General Assembly has had a hard time garnering the needed votes from the Democratic caucus to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. Try as he might, the governor has had a hard time persuading the General Assembly to give in to his Medicaid–expansion–or–nothing demands.  

It’s been a long hot summer on Jones Street. Without a full budget, stand-alone bills to fund time–sensitive and broadly agreed upon spending is a piecemeal approach to funding the state’s priorities, and still subject to the veto stamp. 

Ending the session without a budget agreement has consequences. For fiscal conservatives like me, reverting to 2018-19 spending and saving $2.5 billion isn’t a bad fallback plan. 

But without the new spending plan in place, teachers won’t get their sixth and seventh consecutive pay raises, state employees won’t get their largest salary increase in a decade, $4 billion in capital projects won’t be funded, the Department of Health and Human Services offices won’t move to Granville County, Brody School of Medicine won’t get its new building, teachers won’t get $150 to spend on classroom supplies, and there won’t be money placed back into the rainy–day fund. Some $24 billion won’t be spent on key state priorities.  

Despite efforts to get teachers and state employees their raises, Medicaid transformation funds in place and other stopgap measures, lack of funding is creating, among other things, real threats to public safety.  

There’s $91 million in the budget for school–safety measures, most of which would go toward hiring new student resource officers and mental health professionals to ensure our schools are safe places to learn and to work. 

According to Attorney General Josh Stein, as of May, North Carolina has a backlog of 15,000 untested rape kits, the highest in the country. Some are decades old. There’s $6 million in the budget to test rape kits, which Stein believes would eliminate the backlog. There are victims waiting for justice, survivors looking for closure, and rapists on the streets. Stein says 30–year–old sexual assault cases have been solved with recent rape kit testing. But the money to test the rest of the kits is held up in the budget. 

The budget plan allocates $18.5 million in additional hurricane recovery money to help families get their lives back together, get their homes repaired, get businesses back on their feet, and get water and sewer systems, as well as roads, dependable again. There’s $21 million to re-nourish the coastline and prepare for the next storm, which is coming. 

The State Bureau of Investigation recently found 284,289 criminal convictions involving 145,000 people, some going back to the 1980s, were never reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, the federal clearinghouse used by firearm licensees to determine whether a prospective buyer is eligible to purchase a gun. More than 230 million NICS background checks have been made, leading to more than 1.3 million denials. The SBI has connected those missing convictions with the NICS database, but no one knows who or how many convicted criminals may have mistakenly gained clearance to buy a gun. Cooper, in an Aug. 8 order, directs the SBI to identify and fix gaps in reporting criminal convictions from now on. But the money to do that is held up in the budget he vetoed.  

The budget plan also provides 2.5% increase in pay for state employees working in prisons and bonuses for state employees working in high–need correctional facilities.  

Who would put the public safety of the state at risk? Cooper vetoed the budget and has refused to negotiate any deal failing to include Medicaid expansion. The General Assembly has offered to hold a special session to discuss the problem of climbing health–care costs, which is leaving many North Carolinians uncovered. The governor has, as of press time, refused to budge and stands by his veto. 

What about an override? To reach a required 60% majority of members voting and present, some Democrats would have to join Republicans. Cooper has dug in his heels and insists legislative members of his party do the same, despite their promises when elected to represent the people of their districts. 

Pursuant to our state constitution, the General Assembly is composed of 120 House districts and 50 Senate districts, each representing about the same number of people. Every district has Democrats, Republicans, unaffiliated voters, and even citizens who have chosen not to register to vote. The distribution may vary by district, but all four of those groups are represented in each. Yet some members have chosen to uphold the demands of their political party over the concerns and needs of the people of their district.  

It’s puzzling. Will the new pledge from candidates for elected office be, “I promise to kowtow to my political party’s bosses over what’s best for my constituents”? “Party first: Your interests when I’m allowed”?  

We deserve representation from our legislators over blind political allegiance. We entrust them with our money and expect them to spend it well and wisely. There’s too much at stake to expect less.

Categories: Public Policy

Back-to-school fake news 

Thu, 2019-08-22 04:00

During the first few weeks of every new school year, the mainstream media and public–school advocacy organizations proclaim North Carolina has a severe teacher shortage. Throughout August, they raise alarms about the thousands of administrative, teaching, and staff vacancies listed on the N. C. Schools Job Board and human resources pages for Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford, and other school districts. 

A good example of the typical teacher shortage story recently aired on Fox 8 in the Triad. Reporter Michelle Wolf cautions that “school year starts in three weeks, and districts across the Triad still have a few hundred teaching vacancies to fill.”   

The Guilford County Schools alone had 117 teaching vacancies at the time of the report. Rather than follow-up with school district officials or examine state teacher vacancy trends, Wolf consults the vice president of the union-led Guilford County Association of Educators, who warns, “I believe eventually the shortage is going to catch up and we’re going to have do some major recovery in the state.” Wolf declares, “North Carolina sits in the bottom half for starting teacher salaries, forcing new teachers to find jobs elsewhere.” What a catastrophe! 

Even a cursory assessment of the differences between listed and actual vacancies or historical trends would show there’s little cause for concern. According to data collected by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Guilford County Schools had a teacher vacancy rate of 0.6 percent in 2018, that is, 31 vacancies out of 4,840 teaching positions in the 71,000- student district. There’s no reason to believe this year’s vacancy rate will be significantly higher. Around a week before school began, the number of teacher vacancies was consistent with previous years. 

Alarmists often declare that low pay and low regard for the teaching profession have triggered a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in North Carolina. Presumably, the number of vacancies is proportionate to the number of elected officials who refuse to force those miserly taxpayers to pay up. In recent years, they have directed their indignation toward the Republican-led General Assembly, which has made public education in North Carolina public schools so undesirable that, according to the 2018 Teaching Working Conditions survey, only 87 percent of teachers agreed their school is a good place to work and learn. 

It’s true some schools don’t start the year with a full complement of teachers and staff. Teacher attrition, mobility, budget adjustments, student assignment changes, and administrator turnover may impede the interview and hiring process during the summer and lead to delays in hiring permanent employees. The state budget standoff makes school district budgeting tricky this year. Yet, even if vacancies remain long after the start of the new school year, district leaders can hire personnel throughout the school year, as well as make minor adjustments to class sizes and schedules to ensure the instructional needs of all children are met. 

According to the 2017-18 State of the Teaching Profession in North Carolina report, North Carolina has a statewide teacher vacancy rate of around 1.5 percent. In 2018, North Carolina public schools employed a total of nearly 95,000 full-time teachers and had 1,555 teacher position vacancies on the 40th instructional day. (A few districts submitted data with inconsistencies, so they were omitted.) If distributed evenly across the over 2,600 public schools in the state, that’s an average of 0.6 vacant instructional positions per school. 

That said, vacancies aren’t distributed evenly across grades, subjects, schools, or districts. In 2018, regular and special education elementary school positions had the highest number of vacancies.  Middle and high school social studies positions had the fewest. In terms of district rates, Anson, Northampton, Warren, Mitchell, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank, and Edenton-Chowan had the highest vacancy rates. Ashe, Clay, Graham, Macon, Newton-Conover City, Pamlico, Perquimans, Swain, and Washington reported they had no vacancies on the 40th instructional day of the 2018 school year. 

So, do North Carolina public schools have a teacher recruitment and retention crisis? The statewide figures and trends suggest they don’t, but the answer depends on local and regional circumstances. Some districts struggle to recruit and retain outstanding educators, while others have nominal turnover and vacancy rates. The mainstream media and public school advocacy organizations should celebrate the successes of North Carolina’s school districts and accurately portray their challenges. 

Categories: Public Policy

North Carolina is a middle state

Wed, 2019-08-21 01:01

In the context of American politics, North Carolina is a middle state — which is not the same thing as saying North Carolinians are especially moderate. It simply means that our Democratic and Republican coalitions are roughly the same size, making our elections highly competitive and difficult to predict.

Consider stated party preference (a better predictor than party registration). According to Gallup polling, about 41 percent of North Carolinians identify as Democrats or say they lean Democratic. About 42 percent identity with or lean towards the GOP. The remaining indicate no preference.

Only six other states have partisan spreads of zero to one point in either direction. Massachusetts is the most Democratic state, with a net blue advantage of 29 points. Wyoming is the most Republican one, at +34 points.

Governing magazine approached the question from a different direction. Its analysts first estimated the partisan leanings of demographic groups in the electorate based on race or ethnicity, education, and location. Then it ranked the states according to their proportions of such electoral groups.

The states most primed to support Democrats by this estimate included New Jersey, California, and Hawaii. The most Republican were West Virginia, Kentucky, and Maine. North Carolina was smack dab in the middle at number 25.

As for ideology, there are many different ways to classify people based not on their votes but on their viewpoints. Some analysts ask a battery of questions on a wide range of issues and then look for clusters of respondents whose responses are similar. I’m a big fan of these kinds of voter typologies, but alas they are not available for every state.

Alternatively, we can look at how people classify themselves. In Gallup polling, 39 percent of North Carolinians say they are conservative, 33 percent label themselves moderate, 21 percent say liberal, and the rest don’t have a preference.

Because we all hear and interpret these terms a bit differently, these self-classifications aren’t always useful for explaining and predicting political behavior. Still, they allow for cross-state comparisons. North Carolina ranks 21st in the share saying they are conservatives and 28th in the share saying they are liberal.

Across most of these measures, our state occupies the middle position alongside a few other closely matched states such as Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona. These are the places that tend to produce the most competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor. They are in play during presidential campaigns. They often feature spirited contests for down-ballot races and split control of localities among Democratic-leaning major cities and Republican-leaning suburbs, small cities, and rural communities.

As I observed at the beginning of this piece, however, don’t assume that these “middle” states have the least-partisan electorates. That’s not necessarily true. The share of true swing voters, those without strong ideological leanings or party preferences, is sometimes rather small in these places — and has dropped dramatically from the glory days of the “ticket splitters” who decades ago would vote in large numbers for, say, a Republican for president and a Democrat for governor.

Here in North Carolina, we are certainly a middle state along the spectrum of American politics. But we rank 46th in the number of residents who describe themselves as moderate. And we aren’t appreciably different from the nation in the share of poll respondents who identify with neither major party.

After Republicans won control of the General Assembly in 2010 and a host of statewide offices in 2012, some GOP leaders and activists thought they had witnessed a lasting realignment. It proved ephemeral. After the Democratic Party won the governor’s race and key supreme court races in 2016 and 2018, some of its leaders and activists jumped to the conclusion than the GOP had flamed out and the state was reverting to its Democratic past.

There are no inexorable trends here. The two coalitions remained closely matched in North Carolina. Either can win big races in 2020. And both will play hard to win them.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

Fighting cronyism could boost N.C. freedom ranking

Tue, 2019-08-20 04:02

North Carolina scores better than the average state when it comes to policies that promote freedom. Taking aim at cronyism might produce even better marks.

A scholar who helps compile “Freedom in the 50 States” rankings for the libertarian Cato Institute recently delivered that anti-crony message.

“Entry and price regulations are kind of a problem in North Carolina,” said Jason Sorens on Aug. 10 in Winston-Salem. In addition to overseeing state freedom rankings, Sorens directs the Center for Ethics in Business and Governance at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

“We create a separate index of cronyism — based on price and entry regulations — because we think these are generally for the interest of incumbent providers,” Sorens explained. “Both Carolinas do fairly poorly on that index of cronyism, which seems to correlate with state corruption levels and seems to correlate as well with lobbyist-to-legislator ratios.”

Sorens offered those comments during the annual meeting of the group Classical Liberals in the Carolinas. In addition to anti-crony reforms, Sorens suggested other changes that could help North Carolina boost its No. 18 freedom ranking among the states.

Structuring his remarks around “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of N.C. government policies, Sorens praised repeated trimming of state tax rates in recent years. He predicted North Carolina would see even more improvement on that front in the next set of freedom rankings. The current ranking hasn’t captured North Carolina’s most recent tax rate cuts.

Among North Carolina’s other relative strengths: The government’s debt load is not as high as other states. The state places fewer restrictions than the average state on housing supply. The “labor-market regime is also fairly pro-employment,” Sorens said, with no state-mandated minimum wage and right-to-work status regarding labor unions.

Expanded school choice has boosted North Carolina’s freedom ranking, and Sorens expects that trend to continue in the next edition of his report.

The “bad” list reminds us that N.C. lawmakers never have taken steps since the infamous Kelo v. City of New London case to place new curbs on eminent domain abuse. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Kelo ruling allowed a local government to take property from one private owner and turn it over to another for dubious economic development purposes. Other states moved quickly to counteract the Kelo decision. This state has made no changes, despite several attempts to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Sorens’ “bad” list also emphasized highly restrictive rules for N.C. nurse practitioners and dental hygienists. “We tend to see in a lot of Southern states, they tend to be very attentive to the physicians’ lobby and their desire to keep nurse practitioners from practicing independently,” he said.

While North Carolina gets high marks for the absence of civil-asset forfeiture laws, Sorens laments the state’s participation in federal programs that get around state protection of private property rights. “Local law enforcement agencies in North Carolina are very willing to turn cases over to the Department of Justice to get a share of the spoils from forfeiting properties under the relaxed federal rules.”

State gun laws are “mediocre,” Sorens said, while the state’s alcohol regulations lead to high markups of liquor prices.

Sorens labels “ugly” the “things North Carolina should really, really be improving.” Included in that group of poor policies are certificate-of-need restrictions, managed-care regulations, and strict price controls for auto and homeowners insurance.

The state also sets price limits involving fuel. “There’s actually a minimum markup law for gasoline, so gas stations are not allowed to charge you too little,” Sorens said. “But there’s also an anti-price-gouging law. So if there’s a disaster, they’re not allowed to charge you too much, either.”

As for “freedom from cronyism,” the Tar Heel State ranks No. 37. That’s just behind Virginia and just ahead of South Carolina. Sorens and his colleagues rank Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Minnesota as the states hurt least by policies favoring cronies. Ohio, Louisiana, Maryland, Illinois, and California rank among the worst.

The cronyism index “takes into account blatantly anti-competitive regulations,” according to the freedom rankings report. They include minimum markup laws for gasoline or other products, CON requirements, certificates of convenience and necessity for home movers, bans on direct auto sales, occupational licensing rules, lax eminent domain laws, bans on direct shipment of wine, and “blue laws” for alcohol sales.

Comparing those types of laws across the 50 states, North Carolina falls within the bottom third.

Sorens does not blame cronyism for state government corruption. The data actually might imply “a causal path from corruption to cronyism rather than vice versa,” according to his report. But regardless of cause and effect, the research reveals a statistically significant link between two negative aspects of state government. Poor marks on cronyism also tend to go hand in hand with a higher number of lobbyists roaming legislative hallways.

More freedom. Less corruption. Fewer lobbyists seeking deals for special interests. Those are three excellent goals.

If a concerted campaign against cronyism can promote all three, it sounds like a worthy effort.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

Categories: Public Policy

Regulatory closet gets summer cleaning

Mon, 2019-08-19 01:01

Because Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly have remained deadlocked for weeks over passage of a new state budget, you might think nothing much of consequence is happening in Raleigh.

You’d be mistaken. The legislature has passed several bills that make consequential changes to the conduct and reach of government in North Carolina. Gov. Cooper has signed them into law. As their aim is to modify or eliminate outdated laws, think of them as the governmental equivalent of spring cleaning (although it took until summer to begin this latest excavation of the state’s regulatory closet).

One of the measures, House Bill 590, amends a policy the state initiated back in 2013. That policy requires all regulations on the books to be reviewed periodically by the relevant agencies or departments. If the rule isn’t reviewed as required by law, or deemed no longer to meet a demonstrable need at a reasonable cost, it disappears — an outcome known as regulatory sunset.

From 2013 to 2018, hundreds of outmoded or counterproductive regulations went away under this law. But there was a bit of a loophole. The original process created three buckets into which administrators could toss regulations: 1) unnecessary (the rule goes “poof’), 2) necessary without substantive public interest (no one has complained lately, so it is automatically renewed) and 3) necessary with substantial public interest (because there are complaints, it must go back through a re-adoption process).

Regulators were tossing most state rules into that second bucket, so that they weren’t getting significant scrutiny. House Bill 590 removes that bucket from the deck. The legislation received overwhelmingly bipartisan support and Cooper’s signature. Now all regulations must either survive re-adoption or go away.

Another “weeding out” process, this time within our criminal code, is about to accelerate thanks to the passage of Senate Bill 584. It also got overwhelmingly bipartisan support and a nod from the governor. It targets North Carolina’s “overcriminalization” problem.

Over the decades, state agencies and local governments have adopted a range of criminal penalties for offenses that, whatever their adverse social effects may be, don’t necessarily merit criminal prosecution. For example, it is a crime in some North Carolina communities to feed stray animals. It is a crime to sell Silly String in Mount Airy.

A prior law had required agencies and localities to report all the ordinances or rules on their books that criminalized behavior — a necessary first step to tackling the problem. But compliance was spotty. Under Senate Bill 584, noncompliant municipalities will have their ability to pass criminal ordinances frozen for two years. For state agencies proposing rules with criminal penalties, the new law automatically refers them to the General Assembly for review.

Finally, Gov. Cooper signed Senate Bill 290 into law last month. Another bipartisan measure, it contains several changes to North Carolina’s alcohol laws. It allows craft distilleries to sell mixed drinks and removes limits on the number of bottles a visitor can buy on their premises. The law also advances important reforms of the state’s archaic Alcoholic Beverage Control system, such as allowing liquor tastings at ABC stores and combatting the proliferation of patronage-heavy ABC boards.

State agencies and localities are certainly empowered to use their regulatory powers to protect public health and safety. They should ensure a true “meeting of the minds” in private contracts by requiring disclosures and policing fraud. They should protect the persons and property of residents against pollution, communicable disease, and other threats for which effective collective action requires government action.

But these powers should be used with caution, focused on clearly identifiable harms, imposed only when the expected benefits exceed the likely costs, and scaled so that any penalties involved are proportional to the offense. Over the decades, North Carolina has somewhat-haphazardly acquired an odd assortment of intrusive regulations and criminal penalties that don’t meet such common-sense tests.

Now, Republican and Democratic policymakers are working together to clean up the mess. That’s most welcome.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

Categories: Public Policy

N.C. sells liquor through 170 independent, political boards: What could go wrong?

Fri, 2019-08-16 04:00

It has begun. Or, probably more accurately, a local and statewide crusade to prevent privatization of North Carolina’s liquor business is intensifying. 

Even though legislative efforts to move toward a system of private licensure are relatively nascent, and a leader in such labors is retiring after his term ends next year, local governments are settling into their war rooms, hunching over ripped and tattered battle plans. Their strategy, built over the better part of 80 years, hasn’t much changed. 

Line up in rows and fire. 

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, serving his fifth and final term in the General Assembly, is the unofficial House leader in efforts to reform the archaic N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

House Bill 971, which McGrady sponsored, languished in the legislature, yet he still got a hearing in July for a proposed committee substitute in the House’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee. 

The Modern Licensure Model for Alcohol Control, originally filed in April, basically clears a path for private liquor stores in North Carolina. S.B. 971 would eliminate the state-run alcohol warehouses in Raleigh and phase out the local ABC boards and stores. McGrady was also an architect of Senate Bill 290, which brings laws for craft distillers closer to those governing the state’s thriving craft beer and wine industries.

McGrady says he wants to reform government management of the wholesale and retail sale of distilled spirits while also increasing revenue to the state and to local governments. He has support from both sides, as well as detractors — also from both sides.

The argument, at its base, is about one thing — money generated by liquor. The N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and its 170 or so boards run 433 stores, which, in fiscal 2016-17, sold, the 2018 ABC annual report says, 79 million bottles of liquor.

That’s a lot.

“At $36.79 per wine gallon, North Carolina collected four times as much revenue per gallon as Louisiana, which collected the lowest revenue per gallon among southeastern states,” the Program Evaluation Division says in a recent study of the N.C. ABC. State liquor stores generate more than $1 billion in revenue annually, resulting, the ABC says, in more than $430 million in handouts. The bulk of that, about $323 million, went to the state’s General Fund.

Why fix a perfectly good Prohibition-era system, ABC proponents say? Well, for one thing, the state implemented that system to appease those upset over the re-legalization of liquor. The idea back then wasn’t so much about money as it was about controlling consumption. Of course, it’s OK as long we share in the profits, so the thinking goes.

The bipartisan bill, a news release by McGrady’s office says, replaces the state’s monopoly on the sale of liquor with a system of permitting and taxation modeled on wine and beer sales. A fiscal report on the bill shows revenue for state and local use would remain static, about $384 million, in fiscal 2019-20. By 2023-24, however, that revenue, under the plan, would increase to $714.5 million, in addition to doubling the amount that goes toward substance abuse research and education — from $14.5 million to almost $30 million.

Under the bill, liquor would be taxed per gallon, as opposed to applying the tax as a percentage of the cost. The bill would impose an excise tax of $28 per gallon on the sale of spirituous liquor. Under current law, that excise tax is 30%. In effect, pricier liquor, because of the tax structure, would become less expensive. Cheaper spirits would, conversely, cost more. 

Signal the troops.

In March, Mount Airy commissioners voted 4-0 in support of a resolution keeping the current system, which provided $131,470 from local store profits to the city government for fiscal 2017-18, the Mount Airy News wrote.  

Last week, Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted 7 -2 to oppose efforts like McGrady’s. Commissioner Mark Jerrell, who drafted the resolution, said doing away with ABC boards and privatizing alcohol sales would be a disaster, WFAE radio reported. “And frankly, what we know would happen — it would really disproportionately impact people of color, poor communities and things of that nature,” Jerrell said. Government-run ABC stores generated $24 million for Mecklenburg County in 2018, he said.

Make no mistake, this money is an entitlement for the local governments, and they sure as heck don’t want to give that up. Those entitlements go to law enforcement, schools, and recreation departments, officials say. The money, for all we know, also goes to things such as community flower beds, 4K TVs, steak dinners, and, well, expensive booze.

North Carolina is one of 17 control states, but the only one using a control system that employs 170 politically entrenched and autonomous local boards.

Who’s watching the liquor cabinet? 

For its part, N.C. ABC has auditors who complete performance audits on all 170 boards about every five years, N.C. ABC spokeswoman Kat Haney says.

In addition to the performance audits, Haney says, the local ABC boards submit annual financial audits, performed by CPA firms.

“Their budgets, of course, are in the public domain, and oftentimes their appointing authority (the municipality or county) carefully monitors their distributions,” Haney said in an email. “Additionally, local ABC board staff receive free training (from the N.C. ABC Commission) on subjects like ethics, budgeting, general managing, etc. to help improve their skills and increase efficiencies.”

The local ABC boards, Haney says, currently have 1,500 full-time and 1,700 part-time employees, who don’t work the state. Stores are managed at the local ABC level. 

If an employee or a board member commits an infraction that violates ABC law, she says, local ABC law enforcement or state Alcohol Law Enforcement might open an investigation and potentially issue a citation or make an arrest. “If a board matter is a potential violation of ABC law, it will be referred to the ABC Commission,” Haney said.

And who serves on these boards? State law says: “The appointing authority [city or county] shall appoint members of a local board on the basis of the appointees’ interest in public affairs, good judgment, knowledge, ability, and good moral character.”

They determine their own membership. Winning a spot on a board is a political plum. Some members are actual politicians. Rep. Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe, not only is a member of the General Assembly. He’s also chairman of the Edgecombe County ABC Board.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the state ABC Commission. It’s working under decades-old laws enacted by the General Assembly and a list of governors. But the proverbial liquor cabinet is always stocked, and it tends to draw a crowd. Despite the state ABC’s best efforts, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to monitor all the reaching and grabbing. It’s too much to ask of any state agency, especially when — unlike schools — these boards have little incentive to police themselves.

Myriad ways exist to replace that so called “lost” money, and McGrady says he’s committed to ensuring the flow of revenue from alcohol sales remains steady and would get even stronger, albeit with elements of control, transparency, and accountability not now present.

Annual audits of all 170 boards — not all are profitable — are needed, so let’s start there. By the way, legislation has ended the proliferation of these boards. And not all N.C. counties and municipalities have boards, so, when ABC is passing out checks, these communities are left out entirely. 

The consumers suffer most, as typically hard-to-find spirits in neighboring states are impossible to find in North Carolina. We either don’t get them or get such a limited supply that trying to find them becomes an exercise in futility and frustration. Sure, the state controls prices, but that eliminates the free market, so we come back around to the lack of availability and an absence of any incentive to cater to the customer. 

In Wake County, the ABC board proudly displays on paper bags money generated by liquor sales. Money going to the state is easier to track, because there’s a single point of collection. But, with 170 ABC boards in communities throughout the state, the chance for residents to learn about exactly where and how that money is used — aside from a vague categorial description — is close to nil. 

What’s key here is accountability and transparency. How and where boards distribute revenue is defined in statute, but the local boards still have a pretty wide berth.

“Within those parameters,” Haney said, “they do have discretion to execute the allocations in the way that best fits their individual community.”

What could go wrong?

Categories: Public Policy

SCOTUS showing subtleties of jurisprudence  

Thu, 2019-08-15 04:00

We tend to think of U.S. Supreme Court justices as ideological, their views and actions mapping neatly onto the conventional liberal-to-conservative continuum of American politics. Their decisions are thought to conform to the party of the president who nominated them. The current conservative bloc is Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. They supposedly stand strong and united against their liberal opponents, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, who were appointed by either Clinton or Obama.   

The term that finished in June generated several decisions consistent with this view. In a big case from North Carolina — Rucho v. Common Cause  — the justices voted 5-4 strictly along ideological lines and ruled drawing legislative district lines for the purposes of helping a political party doesn’t violate the U.S. Constitution. Decisions regarding a public television station’s handling of free speech, states’ sovereign immunity from private suits filed against them in a court of another state, and individuals’ right to sue expeditiously in federal courts when state government has taken their property came out the same way. 

But the application of law and interpretation of the Constitution are different from policymaking. And, despite liberal condemnation of the current court’s majority as brazenly and irredeemably conservative, the term that closed in June provided some interesting illustrations of the subtleties of jurisprudence. It was hardly the calcified institution observers claim it to be. 

Criminal justice was particularly revelatory of the high court’s unpredictability. The conservatives split on an appeal of a murder conviction based upon a discriminatory disqualification of a black prospective juror. Only the strange couple of Ginsburg and Gorsuch opposed the majority and believed a defendant tried by both his home state of Alabama and the federal government for illegal firearms possession had been a victim of double jeopardy. Gorsuch and Breyer “switched sides,” permitting a majority to uphold a blood test of an unconscious driver suspected of intoxication. Gorsuch defied expectations again when he joined his liberal colleagues in ruling a federal law that increases penalties when a gun is used in a crime is unconstitutionally vague.   

Although the conservatives held together on one death penalty case, in another Roberts was peeled off by the liberals.  The majority ruled the Eighth Amendment prevented the execution of prisoners who cannot rationally understand the reasons for their punishment. 

It wasn’t just criminal justice. The court was unanimous in its refusal to overrule a doctrine that permitted federal agencies significant freedom in interpreting vague language governing their operations. This ruling — Kisor v. Wilkie — annoyed many conservative scholars. In another 9-0 decision the court incorporated the “excessive fines” provision of the Bill of Rights and made it applicable to the states. Here it struck a blow against civil asset forfeiture by local and state governments, pleasing libertarians across the country. 

In a case involving tech giant Apple, Kavanaugh joined the liberal bloc to permit purchasers of iPhones to sue under antitrust legislation. Breyer and Kagan were part of the majority that found a 40-foot cross honoring veterans in a public Maryland park didn’t violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. They also joined the conservatives in a ruling regarding a law that regulated the disposal of fetal remains. All nine found a federal statute prohibiting immoral trademarks infringed upon free speech. And, you might remember, the justices voted unanimously to put a hold on the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the U.S. Census.     

Interestingly, the number of 5-4 decisions was as high as ever. But of the 20, the justice who was in the majority the most, Gorsuch, was only on the winning side for 13 of them. Kagan and Sotomayor were in the majority the least, but at 10 cases each, they were victorious half of the time. Kagan wrote as many majority opinions in 5-4 cases as Alito and Kavanaugh. Everyone authored at least one. 

What does this all mean? As I noted, it reveals political ideology and judicial philosophy are different — no matter what your Twitter feed and the political hacks say. It also suggests whereas presidents and congressional leaders are capable of punishing dissent or appeasing contrarians so that speech and action in the political realms remain partisan and orthodox, the Supreme Court is often gloriously volatile and its members independent.   

It shows smart reasonable people can disagree on something on matters of principle one day, but be on the same side the next. The justices apparently get along, perhaps because they don’t need to face voters and raise money. But it’s also because working in close quarters and directly with one another permits opportunities to display intellect and personal warmth and create relationships of respect that facilitate coalition building and civil disagreement.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University.

Categories: Public Policy