John Locke Foundation
As a regular consumer and producer of opinion columns, it’s possible that this observer tends to inflate their importance in the world of N.C. politics.
But two op-eds clearly have played significant roles in the opening stages of the fight for Republicans’ 2020 U.S. Senate nomination. Whether those op-eds have any long-term impact remains to be seen.
Incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis faces his first re-election contest next year. Heading into that race, a Feb. 25 column in the Washington Post focused national attention on Tillis, and not necessarily for reasons he would have liked.
The senator devoted much of his op-ed to pledging support for President Trump’s agenda of securing the southern border. Tillis also took shots at congressional Democrats. He accused them of obstructing Trump’s plans for dealing with the border and immigration.
But it was the Republican senator’s bottom-line conclusion that attracted notice. “I would vote in favor of the resolution disapproving of the president’s national-emergency declaration, if and when it comes before the Senate,” he wrote.
How could Tillis support the president on border security, yet oppose the national-emergency declaration designed to help implement Trump’s policies? The senator pointed to the proper separation of powers between Congress and the federal government’s executive branch.
He cited his concerns “as a conservative” about a precedent “future left-wing presidents will exploit.” Those future presidents could follow Trump’s lead to “advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms,” Tillis wrote.
Nothing about the preceding paragraph would appear out of place in the writing, floor debates, or stump speeches of a standard-issue, right-of-center Republican lawmaker. But the practical impact of Tillis’ principled stand was direct opposition to Trump. The president’s supporters cared little about the senator’s purported principles or the proper balance between Capitol Hill and the White House.
By the time the Senate voted on the emergency declaration, 17 days after the op-ed’s publication, Tillis had changed his mind. From the Senate floor, he explained that conversations with Trump administration officials and fellow senators had addressed his concerns. He voted with the president.
But the damage was done. Trump supporters didn’t rally to his defense. They didn’t praise his decision to set his reservations aside and stick with the team.
Those who might have credited Tillis for standing by his principles no longer had a reason to do so. And most observers considered the episode to offer evidence of a “full flip-flop,” quoting a Raleigh News & Observer headline.
One person who clearly followed the proceedings with interest was retired Raleigh business executive Garland Tucker. Speaking May 8 with nationally syndicated radio host Sean Hannity, Tucker referred to Tillis and “the famous Washington Post op-ed.” “When he got a lot of pressure from conservatives back home, he flip-flopped on that issue,” Tucker said to Hannity’s audience. “I think on immigration he’s been very, very weak.”
Tucker featured that “famous” op-ed in his first television ad challenging Tillis’ re-election bid. Vying against the incumbent in a Republican primary, Tucker pledged to distinguish himself from the sitting senator both on immigration and government spending.
The challenger also promises support for Trump. He compares the president’s economic policies to those of conservative heroes Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “When I’m elected senator of North Carolina, I’m going to support him 100 percent on what he’s doing with the economy, for sure,” Tucker told Hannity.
Those words haven’t protected Tucker against a charge from Tillis’ camp that the challenger is actually an “anti-Trump activist” who is “assembling an anti-Trump team.”
What’s the basis for Tillis’ accusation? Tucker’s own words.
He wrote an op-ed for the News & Observer in September 2016, shortly before Trump’s presidential election victory. Tucker labeled Trump a “flawed candidate.” The op-ed critiqued Trump’s character and temperament. It questioned his consistency on policy issues. Tucker pledged with reluctance to support Trump over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Responding this month to criticism of that nearly three-year-old column, Tucker told the N&O that he “wouldn’t retract anything” in it. He labeled Trump’s performance in office “one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve ever seen.” Tucker says he’s now pleased that Trump was elected, and “I shudder to think there’s any chance he might not get re-elected.”
Regardless of Tucker’s explanation, Tillis supporters might continue to mine that 2016 op-ed for damaging material. They will hope to plant seeds of doubt about Tucker’s devotion to Trump and his policies.
Much will happen between now and the March 2020 Republican primary. Both Tillis and Tucker will have plenty of ways to share their opinions with GOP voters. One can only guess whether either of these two potentially damaging op-ed columns will sway voters as they head to the polls.
But it seems clear that Tillis’ and Tucker’s writing has helped set the stage for the campaign that lies ahead.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.
We all want North Carolina to be an attractive place to live, work, create jobs, rear families, and build communities. When we move from ends to means, the level of disagreement moves from low to high.
Generally speaking, progressives think that the best way to accomplish these goals is to expand government — to tax more, regulate more, and spend more on government services. Conservatives generally think the best way to make North Carolina a more attractive place to live and work is to restrain government so that it delivers basic services more cost-effectively, allowing households to keep more of their own money and freedom to use as they wish.
The dispute is often framed solely in the context of interstate mobility. Certainly we want people, businesses, and jobs to flow in rather than out. But let’s be more specific. Our growth over time depends heavily on our rate of entrepreneurship, the rate at which people — natives or newcomers — create and expand new businesses in our state.
There are many different ways to assess the rate of business formation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts jobs and business establishments across the country. Over the past three years, new enterprises represented about 3.11 percent of establishments in North Carolina. That’s modestly higher than the national average but lower than that of regional rivals such as Florida.
A set of entrepreneurship indicators compiled by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation helps fill in the picture a bit more. While a higher proportion of Floridians (.42 percent) than North Carolinians (.28 percent) started a business last year, for example, that doesn’t tell the whole story. A higher share of those Florida entrepreneurs started their businesses “by necessity,” in other words because they lost a previous job. Entrepreneurship by choice was higher in our state. North Carolina startups were also slightly more likely than Florida startups to survive into a second year.
However our state might fare in an elaborate apples-to-apples comparison, there’s little doubt that North Carolina be better off if more people were willing and able to take a chance on new business ventures in our state. You often hear the claim that small businesses are more important than large businesses when it comes to creating new jobs, or bringing to market new products and services that satisfy consumer demands. This isn’t quite right. A disproportionate amount of new economic value, including employment, comes from new businesses, regardless of size, although of course most new businesses start out small.
So, how can policymakers foster a stronger culture of entrepreneurship in our state? Both ideological coalitions offer predictable sets of answers. Progressives insist that government ought to spend more on public services even if it means higher taxes and that the new regulations they favor would confer more benefits than costs on North Carolinians, including those inclined to start and grow new businesses. Conservatives disagree.
It’s a complex matter, naturally, but on balance the empirical evidence supports the conservative side of the disagreement. Most studies find that startups are more frequent, and more likely to succeed, in states where taxes and regulations are low, all other things being held equal. Higher government spending doesn’t boost entrepreneurship in most studies.
A different way to test the proposition is to ask entrepreneurs themselves. That was the approach taken by three economists who published a recent study in the Journal of Regulatory Economics. They zeroed in on entrepreneurs in Kansas City, which straddles two states (Missouri and Kansas) that exhibit differences in fiscal and regulatory policy. The vast majority of respondents said they would be less likely to start a new enterprise in a place that increased occupational licensing, corporate taxes, or the time required to register a business.
A few, 16 percent, indicated otherwise. Some business folks don’t see bigger government as a barrier. Some reside in North Carolina. You may have heard from them, and their opinions are valid. But they are also atypical. Policymakers, take note.
In 2011, Thom Tillis, Phil Berger, and the Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly removed the 100-school school cap included in the 1996 law that authorized the creation of charter schools, which are tuition-free public schools that have more freedom than district-run public schools. Removing the cap, along with providing opportunities for enrollment expansion at existing charters, has led to unprecedented growth in the number of children attending the state’s charter schools.
At the end of the 2010-11 school year, the state had 99 charter schools that enrolled around 41,200 children, and thousands of children remained on waitlists, hoping to be among the lucky few selected in an enrollment lottery. The waitlists remain, unfortunately, even though more than 109,200 children currently attend one of North Carolina’s 184 public charter schools. As long as parental demand for charter schools seats remains strong, the state must remain committed to granting charters to high-quality and innovative applicants.
Not all agree.
For years, district schools and left-leaning advocacy groups have led the opposition to this expansion. Districts still serve around 80 percent of all North Carolina children, so rumors of their demise are exaggerated. Unlike charter enrollment, however, district enrollment is stagnating or declining, even in areas enjoying population growth. The loss of students to charter schools not only means a loss in revenue for the districts but a weakening of an institution that has been instrumental in reinforcing their expansive vision for government. Yet, in the face of unprecedented competition, districts appear unwilling to compete with public and private alternatives.
Presumably, district school advocates would rather bellyache about charters than offer a compelling reason why parents should select the district schools that they support. Wake County Commissioner Greg Ford recently tweeted that Wake County taxpayers “will fork over $42,312,228.60 to #charter schools, who cherrypick their students and have absolutely no local (and very little state) accountability.” While factors such as enrollment lotteries and the presence of multiple sources of accountability undermine much of his critique, I was struck by his failure to articulate why parents should opt for the Wake County Schools. After all, $42,312,228.60 is following children to charter schools for a reason. Perhaps better understanding those reasons and creating a strategy to address them would keep more children (and dollars) in the district.
PTA parents have used similar appeals to object to the opening of new charter schools in Wake County. Leslie Fielding-Russell, PTA president of Jones Dairy Elementary in Wake Forest, told the News & Observer, “There is plenty of choice. We don’t need anymore. We want to keep the funds in our Wake County Public Schools.” Fielding-Russell is one of a number of parents who live in northern Wake County and protest the opening of two new charter schools in the area, North Raleigh Charter Academy and Wake Preparatory Academy. Again, there seems to be little regard for why parents are deciding to enroll their children in charter schools. And its parents, not Fielding-Russell, who should decide how much choice is enough.
Attempts to understand parental decision-making vary by district. Each year, the Wake County Schools conducts a districtwide family survey through Panorama Education LLC, a for-profit analytics company in Boston. The surveys provide insight into families’ perceptions of topics like family support, engagement, and school climate, which are used by districts to improve instructional and support services. But it’s unclear if these survey results or others are used to determine the factors may be driving parents to leave the district.
Even without surveys, there are some clear sources of dissatisfaction in Wake County. For example, some parents object to the use of the Mathematics Vision Project curriculum adopted in 2017. Moreover, families may soon face another round of disruptive student assignment changes. Perhaps unchecked teacher radicalism will emerge as a source of discontent. Aside from circumstances unique to Wake County, research tells us that parents choose charter schools for a variety of reasons: safety, proximity, specialized programs, and school size. These factors are communicated to parents through a variety of channels, including the internet, social media, and their social networks. Insight into parental decision-making is out there for those willing to look.
It is easy to complain about the proliferation of charters or the money that districts “lose” because of them. It’s much more difficult to try to understand the needs of families and make systematic changes to accommodate them. To understand the rise of charter schools in North Carolina simply requires one to be attentive to the voices of ordinary parents who have made the choice to send their extraordinary children to charter schools.
Terry Stoops in vice president of Research for the John Locke Foundation.
Every one of us could find some productive use of an extra $20. Those at the lower end of the income scale are most likely to notice whether that money ends up in their wallet or with the N.C. Department of Revenue.
The state House’s proposed increase in North Carolina’s standard income tax deduction would free up another twenty bucks ($19.68) for each single taxpayer and more than $39 for each married couple filing jointly in 2021.
Boosting the standard deduction — otherwise known as raising the zero tax bracket — also would ensure that higher-income earners end up paying an even larger share of their income in taxes than their lower-income neighbors.
To recap: the House budget bill would increase the state’s standard deduction from $10,000 to $10,375 for single filers starting with the 2021 tax year. For married couples filing jointly, double those numbers. Their $20,000 deduction increases to $20,750. Heads of household see the same 3.75% jump in their deduction, from $15,000 to $15,563.
At the current flat state income tax rate of 5.25%, the savings amount to $19.68 for single taxpayers, $39.37 for married couples, and $29.55 for heads of household. It’s interesting to look into how those savings impact taxpayers at different income levels.
Before employing an example involving three distinct households, now is a good time to mention two caveats.
First, the examples assume that each taxpayer involved employs the standard deduction rather than itemizing expenses. The higher the taxpayer’s income, the less likely this scenario is to be true in the real world. Targeted credits and deductions can skew tax advantages toward taxpayers with higher incomes. If so, critics may question the merits of those credits and deductions.
Meanwhile, combining a higher standard deduction with a flat tax rate clearly benefits those at the lower end of the income scale.
The second caveat involves children. Just as some credits and deductions might favor higher-income earners, North Carolina’s child deduction works in the opposite direction. A single parent making up to $20,000 and a married couple making up to $40,000 can deduct $2,500 for each qualified child. As income levels grow, that child deduction decreases. Single parents making more than $60,000 and married couples with incomes above $120,000 enjoy no child deduction. For a head of household, the equivalent thresholds are $30,000 and $90,000.
To simplify comparisons of the increased standard deduction at different income levels, let’s set aside all other credits and deductions. We’ll focus on three childless couples, making $25,000, $120,000, and $1 million. (The first two figures equate roughly to the average salary of a bank teller and bank president in North Carolina.)
At the current tax rate and current standard deduction, the $25,000 household owes $262 in state income taxes. That amounts to an effective tax rate of roughly 1% of household income. The $120,000 household owes $5,250 (4.4%). The $1 million household owes $51,450 (5.1%).
Under the House’s budget plan, the increased standard deduction would drop the tax bill to $223 (0.9%) for the $25,000 household, $5,210 (4.3%) for the $120,000 household, and $51,410 (5.1%) for the $1 million taxpaying couple.
Perhaps most interesting is the impact on the relative tax burdens of the three households. The $120,000 household earns 4.8 times as much income as the $25,000 household. With the current standard deduction, the $120,000 household pays 20 times as much income tax. With the House’s proposed change, the $120,000 household would pay 23 times as much.
Meanwhile, the $1 million household earns 40 times as much income as the $25,000 household. The higher-income household pays 196 times as much income tax under current rules. With the larger standard deduction, that $1 million household would pay 230 times as much.
Those are apples-to-apples comparisons based only on different income levels. An apples-to-oranges comparison might also prove useful. Let’s compare a head of household with three children and $25,000 of income to a childless couple with $120,000 and a single taxpayer making $1 million.
Under current rules, the head of household owes $131 (0.5%). The $120,000 couple owes $5,250 (4.4%). The $1 million single taxpayer owes $51,975 (5.2 percent). With the House’s proposed changes, the respective bills drop to $101 (0.4%), $5,210 (4.3%), and $51,955 (5.2 percent).
The House’s larger standard deduction would increase the higher earners’ relative income tax burden. The $120,000 couple now pays 40 times as much as the $25,000 head of household. With the change, the higher-earning couple would pay 51 times as much. As for the single $1 million earner, he now owes 397 times as much income tax as the lower-earning head of household. With the change, he would owe 514 times as much.
It’s unclear at this point whether the increased standard deduction will end up in the final state budget plan. As House and Senate budget negotiators work during the weeks ahead, one hopes they will keep tax burden impacts in mind.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.
Congressional elections in odd-numbered years? Odd is certainly one way to describe what many North Carolinians are experiencing right now. But in some ways, the special elections of 2019 are confirming rather than breaking the political rules.
Those elections are in the 3rd District, which spans 17 counties in eastern North Carolina, and the 9th District, which stretches across eight southern counties from Charlotte to Fayetteville. I have three observations to make about the results so far.
The first is that special elections need not produce extraordinarily low turnout. In the 3rd District primary, where top vote-getters Greg Murphy and Joan Perry qualified for the Republican runoff and former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas won the Democratic nomination, about 14.5 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. By comparison, the average turnout in North Carolina’s 2018 primaries was 14.4 percent. It was 7.7 percent in the 2016 congressional primaries (which were held in June, separate from other races) and 15.8 percent in 2014.
Yes, when N.C. Sen. Dan Bishop clinched Tuesday’s GOP primary for the 9th District, the turnout was less than 10 percent. But only Republicans had a primary. The total votes cast, 31,103, wasn’t much lower than the 35,643 cast in the district’s 2018 GOP primary, and exceeded the 26,606 cast in 2016.
The second observation is that sitting state legislators tend to be strong candidates for higher office. Sen. Dan Bishop, who previously served in the state house, won the 9th District GOP nomination outright. State Rep. Greg Murphy won 23 percent of the vote in the initial 3rd District primary, while his state house colleagues Phil Shepherd and Michael Speciale came in third and four place, respectively.
Naturally, Bishop did well in his own Mecklenburg senate district, while Murphy got 68 percent of his home county of Pitt, Shepherd won 51 percent in his home base of Onslow, and Speciale was the top vote-getter in his home of Craven. But legislators often fared well in neighboring counties — Murphy topped the ballot in Beaufort (next-door to Pitt), for example, and Speciale did so in Pamlico (next to Craven).
What explains these effects? A name on the ballot multiple times is a plus, as is news coverage of legislative service. But another clear advantage is that legislators are used to raising money. They have preexisting ties to donors, prospects, and potential institutional support.
Speaking of which, however, my third observation about the congressional primaries we’ve seen so far this year is that significant expenditure is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. The second-place finisher in the initial 3rd District contest, Dr. Joan Perry, isn’t a lawmaker or previous candidate. She did well — coming in first or second in eight of the district’s counties — because she was able to translate many years of civic and political engagement into a well-funded campaign as well as independent expenditures on her behalf by pro-life groups. Similarly, in the 9th District Dan Bishop also enjoyed both fundraising success and independent-expenditure support (from the Club for Growth, an economic-freedom organization).
But the effects of campaign spending are often exaggerated. Celeste Cairns in the 3rd and Leigh Brown in the 9th attracted major support from the Club for Growth and the National Association of Realtors, respectively. But they lacked a compelling message, a reason why voters should have preferred them to better-known candidates. If money were the overwhelming determinant of political success, as some claim, Cairns and Brown should have fared a lot better than they did.
Both of North Carolina’s special congressional elections will conclude on September 10. Bishop will face Democrat Dan McCready, Libertarian Jeff Scott, and the Green Party’s Allen Smith in the 9th District. In the 3rd, Democrat Allen Thomas will face the winner of the GOP runoff between Murphy and Perry, as well as Libertarian Tim Harris and the Constitution Party’s Greg Holt.
Those general elections to be largely about President Trump vs. the increasingly left-wing Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. Again, no big surprises.
Texas did it in 1985. California did it in 1987. Pennsylvania did it in 1996. New Hampshire did it in 2016. Florida did it in 2019.
I’m talking about states that repealed their Certificate of Need laws. CON laws were implemented by almost every state as a condition to receiving federal funding when Congress passed the Health Planning Resource Development Act of 1974. Congress sought to keep the supply of health-care services in check over concerns the high overhead costs of underused facilities would be passed on to patients.
But the federal government would not do the dirty work. Instead, it directed states to create planning boards that would control the approval process. If an entrepreneur wanted to open up a facility that would offer a service regulated under the CON law, they would only receive permission from the board if they survived an elaborate review process.
The outcome was predictable for anyone with basic knowledge of economics. When you keep the supply of a service artificially low, incumbent providers aren’t subject to competition and gain more market power than they otherwise would. The natural consequence is less access and higher prices. Regulating health-care facilities with CON laws makes the patient worse off by putting the choice of health care in the hands of the government rather than the private market.
Consider an example using an industry other than health care. Let’s say you’re interested in opening a sporting goods store. You do market research, and you find an area in which you believe you could set up a successful business. You raise capital, come up with a business plan, and are ready to start building a facility. Now you learn you must obtain permission from the state government to open your store. Through a lengthy and expensive application process, you notify the state planning board of your business plans and what you intend to sell. The planning board reviews your application to determine whether there’s enough “need” for a sporting goods in the area.
During the application process, existing sporting goods stores in the area — your potential competitors — have the opportunity to comment on your application and tell the planning board whether they would like to have a competitor in the area. After this process, which can take several months and cost thousands of dollars, the planning board could accept or deny your application based solely on their calculations for the need of additional sporting goods to be sold in the area.
Would this sort of government intrusion into private enterprise be considered reasonable for any other industry? For potential new providers of health care in North Carolina, this is the reality.
The supply of health-care facilities regulated by CON laws in North Carolina is in complete control of the State Health Coordinating Council. What’s worse is incumbent owners of health-care facilities, some of whom hold certificates of need, sit on this board, which decides if new private actors can enter a given market. Brian Floyd, for example, who represents hospitals on the SHCC, is the COO of Vidant Health, a hospital chain in eastern North Carolina. Floyd would presumably influence decisions of whether new hospitals could enter the market to serve eastern North Carolina. Also serving on the SHCC are members who represent home health agencies, hospices, and nursing homes — all of which are facilities regulated under CON laws.
Of the states that still have CON laws in place, North Carolina is the fifth most restrictive state in terms of the number of facilities that need government approval to build. Only New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Vermont have a higher number of facilities regulated under CON laws. Sixteen states have fully repealed these laws because of the demonstrated costs to patients and state-sanctioned benefits to incumbent facilities. By creating a system in which market incumbents can dictate competitors, monopolistic behavior follows.
It’s not just the John Locke Foundation who’s an advocate for the state repeal of CON laws. Earlier this year, a conglomerate of health policy scholars from left- and right-leaning organizations came up with a list of policy proposals they believe would lower health care costs. The report recommended states repeal their CON laws. The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice are also advocates for repeal due to the laws inherent anti-competitive nature.
This year, North Carolina lawmakers have an opportunity to repeal CON laws and put the interests of patients back in the hands of the private market. Let’s hope that 2019 is the year that North Carolina finally repeals its CON laws.
Jordan Roberts is health policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.
North Carolina appropriates less taxpayer money to state colleges and universities in real terms than it did before the onset of the Great Recession. Tuition has risen markedly and now accounts for a larger share of total revenue. But our state remains one of the most generous in the country when it comes to funding higher education.
How can all three statements be true? Because North Carolina’s starting position was so high.
According to the latest report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) Association, North Carolina appropriated $12,496 per full-time-equivalent student in 2008. Only Wyoming and Alaska reported higher funding levels that year — and because their enrollments are so small, they aren’t really comparable to North Carolina, anyway.
In 2018, North Carolina’s appropriation per student was $10,429. Although obviously lower than it was 10 years ago, that figure actually represents a modest increase from 2013. If you graphed the data, it would look like UNC appropriations fell off a cliff during the recession, then began a slow but steady climb.
Average tuition rose as appropriations dropped, but not dollar-for-dollar. In 2008, average tuition per student was $3,745, accounting for about 23 percent of North Carolina’s $16,241 per student in total educational revenue. In 2018, tuition averaged $5,515 per student, or about 35 percent of the $15,944 in revenue per student.
In other words, while things have changed somewhat, it would be a stretch to describe the change as radical. Having previously ranked third, North Carolina now ranks sixth in the nation in higher-education appropriations per student. In only seven other states is tuition lower as a share of total educational revenues.
Interstate comparisons are always challenging, and these statistics from SHEEO are no exception. They’ve been adjusted in three potentially debatable ways. First, they are adjusted for state differences in enrollment mix between two-year and four-year institutions. Second, they are adjusted for state differences in cost of living. Third, they are adjusted for inflation with a price index specific to higher education.
Still, these numbers do tell us something important not just about higher education in North Carolina but about policy reform in general: change tends to be incremental, not dramatic.
A traditional argument for taxpayer subsidy of education reflects the economic concept of “positive externalities.” When students obtain valuable knowledge, skills, and credentials, they and their families benefit in the form of higher pay, a better standard of living, and a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. But other people in society can benefit, too. They can get better employees or employers, benefit from new inventions and innovations, and live in safer, healthier, and better-led communities because those communities contain more, and better-educated, college graduates.
Whether these purported benefits actually materialize for any particular student, or collectively at a scale large enough to justify the cost, is a matter for another day. Assume that, on average, they happen as advertised. What is the likely share of those benefits that are external to the parties directly in on the transaction — students, their families, and those who work in higher education?
If you think three-quarters or more of the benefits are claimed by society as a whole rather than by students and families, then North Carolina’s previous level of subsidy probably made sense to you. But I doubt you’d have much of a leg to stand on.
Our state constitution requires that the benefits of our public colleges and universities be “as far as practicable … extended to the people of the state free of expense.” In recent years, North Carolina’s funding policies have become more practicable. Now let’s focus on the most-pressing issue: reducing the real cost of delivering educational services, rather than just shifting the cost from one set of pockets to another.
That may mean employing technology, redesigning programs, redistributing them among campuses, and scrutinizing non-teaching positions. And, yes, it probably means doing these things incrementally, not suddenly.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the folks on Jones Street. After a week of subcommittee meetings, full appropriation consideration, input from the finance side, two rare Friday sessions, and two full days of debate, on Friday, May 3, the House passed its $23.9 billion General Fund budget proposal.
On May 1, as the House was negotiating the budget, the N.C. Association of Educators teachers’ union marched on the state capital. Union organizers, a few thousand teachers, and Gov. Roy Cooper demanded $6 billion in additional spending for Medicaid expansion, a statewide $15 minimum wage, 5% pay increase for teachers, more health professionals in the schools, and expanded health benefits for retirees. You can check social media for photos of a few teachers meeting with legislators from their districts. You’ll also find photos of signs and shirts of the protesters. Warning: Some of them may be offensive and not suitable for children.
Crossover, that self-imposed deadline the General Assembly gives itself to pass legislation that must “cross over” to the other chamber to remain eligible for consideration during the two-year biennium, was set for May 9. Although the session started in January, legislators, like the rest of us, tend to be procrastinators and historically have left the majority of the work until the days leading up to the crossover deadline. All of us who spend most of our waking hours in the legislative complex had girded ourselves for the usual and expected late hours, frantic committee meetings, surprise last-minute substitute bill language and plenty of heated debate.
But something weird happened this year. There were no sessions late into the night. Committee meetings were noticed with adequate time to prepare and attend and with expanded audio access, observers weren’t left in the halls to only catch snippets of debate.
The system was more transparent and open and again with expanded online access, bill language was easy to find and follow along. Stakeholders met throughout the week to work out differences and the public got ample opportunity to speak whenever it wanted.
There was some spirited debate around a few issues; distracted driving restrictions; requiring sheriffs to comply with ICE; voucher eligibility and funding, and a Franklin County water grant restriction.
But most votes were nearly unanimous, debate was respectful — and even agreeable. Heard frequently before a vote was taken, “Let’s just get it over to the [House] or [Senate] and we’ll let them work out the differences.” Anyone familiar with the Hatfields and McCoys tradition at the General Assembly recognizes the irony in this plan. The House finished early afternoon on Tuesday, and the Senate completed its work by 1 p.m. Wednesday. Both sides not only met the deadline, for the first time in anyone’s memory, but also got done a day early.
Even so, the work of the General Assembly is hardly complete. The Senate received the House budget and expects to complete its proposal by the end of the month. Senators have been meeting jointly with their House counterparts for months reviewing numbers and discussing priorities, and they’ve proposed a tax package. They’re not starting from scratch, but will put their stamp on $24 billion in government priorities. In the past, the Senate budget has been more restrained.
Earlier this week, the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal staff discovered there may be $700 million surplus revenue, the largest since the Great Recession. Senate leader Phil Berger, when asked what lawmakers should do with the extra money, set out three priorities: 1) Fund reasonable government growth (3% in the House budget seems about right); 2) Sock money in the Rainy Day Fund to shore up savings reserves; and 3) Return some of it to the people who sent it to us, i.e. tax relief.
Sen. Mike Woodard of Durham, a key Democrat, set his priorities as 1) Replenish the Rainy Day Fund; 2) Invest in education; 3) Environmental cleanup; and 4) Medicaid expansion.
One of the key considerations is whether the surplus revenue is a one-time occurrence or is likely to repeat each year. It matters how recurring versus non-recurring funds are allocated. Recurring funds can pay for salaries (in other words, expenses that continue yearly), while non-recurring funds can pay for one-time expenses, such as capital improvements or worker bonuses.
When the Senate passes its budget, it’ll ask the House for concurrence, which is unlikely. If it disagrees, the General Assembly will negotiate in a conference committee, and that package will go for an up or down vote in each chamber. Then it will go to the governor.
Cooper has made it clear he will veto any budget that doesn’t include Medicaid expansion. It is unlikely the Republican majority in the General Assembly will include expansion. Expect fiscal restraint from Republicans, while Democrats will say they want more.
Without a veto-proof majority, can Republicans persuade enough Democrats to join them and override the governor’s veto? Unlikely. It’s going to be a long hot summer.
We thought crossover was going to be the big storm. Who knew it might be just the calm before the storm?
Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation.
Please, send this one back. It tastes bitter.
Opponents of measures that would relax North Carolina’s arcane — punitive, even — ABC laws are running out of new arguments, which are becoming more pervasive, more hard-edged.
The clock, they know, is ticking.
These alcohol opponents are quick to cite studies relating alcohol to traffic fatalities, to family break-ups. They refer us to studies focusing on the deleterious effects of alcohol on our health, and to studies predicting an impending cultural apocalypse.
It’s important that opponents of the wicked whiskey continue to have their say, and I support them in their efforts to speak out, regardless of whether I agree with their points.
But the problems start when those arguments are based primarily on a personal view of what’s right and what’s wrong, on a specific, narrow set of beliefs. On maintaining the status quo, even if that standard may be rusted and wrecked.
A new campaign focuses on stopping legislation that would set up a licensing model for liquor sales and rid the state of a system of onerous, locally controlled, and politically motivated alcohol control boards.
“Join us in the fight against dangerous legislation that threatens the safety and financial well-being of North Carolinians,” announces the group, NC Keep it Local. It lists among its supporters MADD, police groups, and the N.C. Association of ABC Boards, as well as groups addressing the problems of substance abuse.
Yet the arguments from the groups — and similar arguments against spirits — are counterintuitive. The Keep it Local group, on its website, argues North Carolina has an efficient liquor sales system and that the ABC boards provide a safe sales environment, which gives counties and municipalities money to invest in their communities.
That is only partly true. Efficient it is not.
The group also argues the state system “appropriately balances consumer access, control, and revenue. North Carolina has one of the lowest liquor consumption rates in the country. Privatizing liquor sales likely results in an excessive number of liquor outlets, making it more available for those who need it the least: minors and irresponsible drinkers.”
Of course, minors should have no access to liquor, and we should reach out to and help problem drinkers.
But a disconnect happens when we talk about revenue from liquor while at the same time promoting control and access.
Which is it?
You can’t continually tighten controls (aka limits) on sales while boosting revenue.
“This is a booming industry in the state,” Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, recently said of the state’s craft distillers, as well as its brewers and vintners.
“You take alcohol away from it …. any of us would jump on board. We want the jobs, we want the revenue.”
Bell is mostly correct.
If the argument was, say, about soda fountains, would these same prohibitionists come forward, even though studies have found excess consumption of sugar is harmful to our health, or that ingesting dairy products could result in serious digestive issues and leave us at higher risk for heart disease and some cancers?
Possibly. Some states, and countries, have singled out sugar as a target to tax, and the debate over dairy has raged for years. Beyond that, though, is the larger issue of government control and intrusion at the expense of a free and open marketplace.
Arguments and conclusions are tailored to the debate and the debater. We once heard and read that drinking moderate amounts of red wine can be good for the heart. That drinking whiskey can lower cholesterol. Recent studies now try to debunk those findings, saying any amount of alcohol is deleterious to our health.
Naysayers contend, wrongly, that hard liquor is more dangerous to drinkers than are beer and wine, and that it must be controlled differently.
Christopher Snowdon is an author, edits the Nanny State Index, and heads lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. In an interview with Forbes, Snowdon talked about studies focusing on alcohol and health, and what those studies mean as part of the overall debate on alcohol.
“The health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are seen by anti-alcohol campaigners as an obstacle to the kind of tobacco-style regulation they desire,” Snowdon told Forbes. “As the thirst for draconian action has increased so has the eagerness to cast doubt on the health benefits.
“The evidence showing that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers, mostly due to the benefits of alcohol on the heart, is very strong. It has been tested and retested over decades precisely because there are so many people who are inclined to disbelieve it.”
“… These days,” Snowdon says, “the naysayers — merchants of doubt, if you will — tend to rely on modeling studies that say whatever the researcher wants them to say, or on junk science, which misrepresents the study’s own findings for dramatic effect.”
In North Carolina, that’s become a consistent strategy to fight proposals that would make it easier for craft distillers to prosper, or to give consumers more choice.
The debate isn’t about alcohol, or shouldn’t be.
Nevertheless, the arguments against ABC reform will continue, pretty much unchanged in point and scope. For alcohol opponents, it’s about state control and maintaining a status quo benefiting those with a political stake in an outdated and broken system.
Expect them, like-minded lawmakers and lobbyists alike, to get louder and more persistent, because the time they have to sell these arguments, which are becoming all the more white noise, is running short.
North Carolina’s economy is doing well. With a headline unemployment rate of 4 percent and a healthy 2.8 percent jump in inflation-adjusted median household income last year, North Carolinians are better off economically than they have been in many years.
Our state does not have the top-performing economy in the country, however. Does that mean North Carolina’s rightward turn on economic policy was a mistake?
No. State economies prosper or falter primarily for reasons that have little to do with politics. They reflect changes in market conditions, technology, consumer preferences, trade patterns, and demographics. And although the Information Age has broadened our horizons, linking households and businesses alike to others around the world, we still live and work within metropolitan areas that exhibit distinct patterns, and are more closely tied to nearby metros and states than to faraway ones.
All of which is to say that, economically, North Carolina acts more like South Carolina than like South Dakota. Policy variables matter, especially in the long run. Market structure and proximity matter more.
Over the past five years, for example, the 10 states with the biggest gains in gross domestic product (GDP) were Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. What do these states have in common?
Not politics. Five voted for Hillary Clinton. Five voted for Donald Trump. During most of the period, most had either Republican governors or legislatures or both. But California, Washington, and Oregon are deep blue.
With regard to public policy, while seven of the 10 states rank relatively high in economic freedom according to ratings by the Frasier Institute and the Cato Institute, those same three blue states do not.
I’ll cut to the chase — the common denominator is geography. Broadly speaking, America’s population is shifting westward and southward. Investment and job creation are, too. From 2013 to 2018, the regions with the fastest GDP growth were the Far West (3.7 percent), Rocky Mountains (3.1 percent), Southwest (2.5 percent), and Southeast (2.1 percent). And in that latter case, there was a significant difference between the fast-growing states on the South Atlantic coast, including North Carolina, and slower-growing states on the Gulf or inland.
Across a range of statistics and time periods, the fastest-growing economies in the Southeast are Florida and Georgia. North Carolina is typically third or fourth, sometimes fifth — higher than the regional average, to be sure, but not as high as Florida and Georgia.
Since 2013, North Carolina lawmakers have enacted a series of major tax cuts and regulatory reforms. Understandably, progressives dislike these decisions. They think our state would be better off, economically and otherwise, if the legislature had kept taxes and regulations higher and spent more taxpayer dollars on education, health care, and other programs.
They can’t hold up Florida or Georgia as examples of their preferred policy mix, however, because these top-performing states don’t exhibit it. Florida has no personal income tax. Georgia’s overall tax burden is lower than North Carolina’s, although the structure of our tax system has become more pro-growth than theirs in recent years.
Where Georgia really shows us up is regulation. Although North Carolina had made significant progress in this area, it’s still easier to create and operate businesses in Georgia than in our state. Overall, Florida ranks 1st and Georgia ranks 7th in economic freedom, according to both the Frasier and Cato methodologies. North Carolina is in the teens or worse, depending on the measure.
Most academic studies find that, everything else being equal, economic freedom is better for growth than the high-tax, high-expenditure, high-regulation model progressives advocate. California is an outlier, not an exemplar. Its location, resources, capital stock, and importance to the burgeoning trade of the Pacific Rim are so valuable than even foolish policy choices haven’t run its economy aground — yet.
North Carolina should aspire to top the Southeast in economic performance. We should also aspire to be first in freedom in the Southeast. The two goals aren’t just consistent. They’re related.
Amid the hoopla surrounding educational inputs in North Carolina, it’s nice to hear some state lawmakers focusing attention on educational outcomes.
A couple of outcome-focused bills caught this observer’s attention last week. Those bills attracted far less scrutiny from reporters and pundits than the May 1 teacher walkout and march through downtown Raleigh.
That walkout focused almost exclusively on inputs. Teachers demanded higher pay, more benefits, and more funding for support staff. (They also called for Medicaid expansion. Given that the expansion population consists primarily of working-age, able-bodied, childless adults, it’s not clear whether the Medicaid demand even counts as an education input.)
Lawmakers also devoted time and attention to inputs. N.C. House leaders unveiled their proposal to raise pay by an average of 4.6 percent for teachers and 10 percent for principals. Legislators highlighted education-related spending increases in their two-year budget. Some of those increases addressed teachers’ goals.
Left largely unstated by both the lawmakers and the rallying teachers? They operate under the theory that more spending on inputs inevitably leads to better outcomes for students and families. It’s possible. Years of academic research suggest the prospects are far from certain.
Of more interest for those interested in better outcomes were two bills discussed one day before the teacher walkout. The state House’s education committee spent less than 15 minutes on the bills. But if implemented, they could have significant long-term impacts on public education in the state.
House Bill 895 would create a new Opportunity Gap Task Force. The 14-member group would study the “significant disparity in the academic performance and postsecondary readiness” of students based on “races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, genders, English-language proficiencies, and urban, rural, or suburban” settings.
Among the dozen items the group would consider: teachers’ professional development, parental involvement, rigorous coursework, and disciplinary disparities. The group would start work no later than September. It would produce a report by December 2020. That report would include a plan for reducing opportunity gaps by 2030.
“Right now in our public schools, 40% of African-American students are on grade level or proficient,” said Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, a co-sponsor of H.B. 895.
Disparities extend beyond racial groups. “In total, of all our counties, 58% of students from grades three through eight are proficient,” Brockman said. “In our [poorest] Tier 1 counties, only 51 percent of our students are successful. That, I think, really speaks to why we really need this.”
For some, the answer lies in alleviating poverty, especially in rural eastern North Carolina. “Until we address that issue, and do it with urgency and due diligence, a committee like this will not produce the kind of results I think we’re looking for,” said Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson.
Others dispute the notion that poverty trumps other factors. Of 1,500 N.C. schools that qualify for federal Title I funds because of students’ socioeconomic status, more than 900 earn state grades of C or better, Brockman said.
“So I believe the stereotype that just because they’re a Title I school that they won’t be successful is wrong,” he said. “We do have issues of poverty. That doesn’t mean that our students cannot be successful.”
The bill’s chief sponsor echoed Brockman’s statement. “Research seems to support the idea that because a child comes out of poverty, that does not mean that they cannot be taught successfully,” said Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke.
Blackwell remembers debating the opportunity gap, or achievement gap, during his eight years as a local school board member. Those conversations have continued during his six N.C. House terms. “We’ve been talking about it … for many years,” he said. “This is one more effort. Maybe this time we’ll get it right.”
H.B. 895 cleared the House’s K-12 Education Committee on April 30. So did House Bill 714. That legislation could lead to an even larger shakeup of the state’s educational practices.
“Have any of you ever had children in the third grade?” Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, posed that question to fellow committee members. “If so, why are they in the third grade? Is it because they’re 8 years old, so that’s where 8-year-olds go? Or is it because every subject they’re taking in the third grade, they’re on a third-grade level?”
For those who choose the second option, “I’m going to challenge that notion and suggest to you that different kids learn different things at different rates,” Horn said. “We need to take a different look at how kids progress through school.”
Horn’s H.B. 714 would require the State Board of Education to determine how N.C. schools can transition to a “competency-based assessment and teaching model for all elementary and secondary students.” The board would deliver a report by May 2020.
Some districts and some states already pursue this goal, Horn said. “It’s time for us to look at kids themselves, at the delivery of education to a child in a way that works for each and every child.”
Both Horn’s bill and the proposed Opportunity Gap Task Force cleared the full House Thursday with little debate. It’s refreshing that lawmakers are willing to “look at kids themselves,” not just at educational inputs.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.
Although the North Carolina House has approved its version of a biennial budget, there’s a lot that North Carolinians can’t yet know about how much will be spent, and on what, over the next two years. But here’s something we can assume with near-certainty: Gov. Roy Cooper will veto it.
Every two years, the governor proposes a biennial budget. The legislature responds by fashioning its own version, which the governor can sign, veto, or let become law without a signature.
The two chambers take turns initiating the legislative phase. In 2019, the House goes first. Its budget increases General Fund spending by about $700 million in the coming fiscal year, or roughly 3.1 percent. Gov. Cooper’s proposal hikes spending by $1.3 billion, or 5.6 percent.
Some advocacy groups and observers fumbled these numbers at first, suggesting that the House budget didn’t increase expenditures at all. They were wrong, but it’s easy to see how they erred. The legislature has changed the way it accounts for capital funding. Expenditures for debt service — principal and interest payments on money the state borrowed to build or refurbish buildings and other infrastructure — used to be treated as part of the regular General Fund budget. Now they are part of a dedicated capital fund, along with money for repairs, renovations, and pay-as-you-go projects.
This change was probably a good idea. But unless one accounts for the money the same way across different proposals and fiscal years, the results can be misleading.
Similarly, the tax side of the House budget also generated some confusion. It includes an increase in the standard deduction for North Carolinians who pay income tax and a reduction in the franchise tax, which taxes the value of businesses. But the revenue impact of these tax cuts will be partially offset by new policies designed to collect more sales tax from consumers who make online purchases. The House’s net tax cut, then, is a comparatively modest $150 million over two years.
However, because North Carolina is in the process of moving large numbers of Medicaid patients into managed-care networks operated by private insurers, the state will start collecting premium taxes on health-plan enrollees whose claims were previously paid by Medicaid itself. This change will net about $200 million in tax revenue over the next two years, according to the legislature’s fiscal analysts.
Does that mean the House budget, approved by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, is a tax-increase budget? No, not really. North Carolina is contracting out a service that used to be state-run. The objective is to reduce government, not increase it. It would be perverse to treat the application of pre-existing premium taxes to these contractors as a legislated tax hike.
Speaking of Medicaid, this will be the primary nexus of conflict once the Senate produces its budget, the two chambers produce a compromise, and the focus then shifts back to Gov. Cooper. He is committed to a full implementation of the Affordable Care Act in North Carolina, which will require drawing down (borrowed) federal funds to expand Medicaid. Democrats propose doing so explicitly. Some Republicans have offered an alternative that would use Medicaid dollars to finance a program with some cost sharing and work requirements for recipients.
The GOP-led legislature isn’t going to include Medicaid expansion, explicitly or implicitly, in its budget. Cooper will likely veto. Then the two sides will battle it out, even past the start of the 2019-20 fiscal year on July 1. Because of a previously enacted law, state government won’t shut down without a new budget. Agencies will continue to operate at the spending levels authorized last year.
Taxpayers would be best served if the legislature ultimately prevails. Current fiscal conditions argue for caution. There won’t be much of a revenue surplus this year, if any, and Medicaid expansions in other states have proved costly. In fact, I think the House’s 3.1 percent spending hike is on the high side. But that’s just me, your friendly neighborhood conservative, talking.
About a year ago, Princeton philosopher Robert P. George came to Chapel Hill to speak about civil discourse and diversity of thought with the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors. He returned Feb. 8, but this time he came with Cornel West, a long-time friend and philosopher at Harvard University, as guest speakers for Duke University’s Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics.
Instead of directing their message to policymakers, George and West came to speak face-to-face with students, faculty, and residents. The two spoke about how they navigate their vastly different political views while maintaining a strong friendship, a skill seemingly rare on most college campuses. Their message and example aren’t just a much-needed antidote to an increasingly polarized culture, either. It contains an essential ingredient for what George and West call a “deep education:” the desire to be challenged in one’s most fundamental beliefs.
Indeed, George and West argue students can’t receive an authentically “deep” or “liberal” education unless they look for opportunities to be “challenged and unsettled.” So, even though their talk touched on the importance of courteously engaging with one’s intellectual opponents, the heart of their message went beyond mere platitudes to the importance of civil discourse. In their view, civil discourse is much more than politeness or putting up with others’ opinions. Far from simply tolerating those who challenge one’s beliefs, George and West insist they should be considered one’s “truest friends.”
Why? Because actively engaging with an ideological opponent refines one’s own understanding of an issue and can lead one closer to the central goal of all education: the pursuit of truth. In a 2014 essay, George elaborates on this point:
“[Our interlocutors] are friends precisely because they challenge our beliefs and question their presuppositions. If we are in error, they can help lead us in the direction of truth. If we are on solid ground, engaging people who disagree will deepen and enrich our understanding, even if they are the ones in error.”
West emphasizes that he and George don’t have a “Disneyland kind of friendship.” Instead, they have what he describes as a “deeper kind of friendship, in the Aristotelian sense.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as “reciprocated goodwill,” where true friends will the good of the other for the sake of the other. Aristotle also says that “concord” — like-mindedness or agreement — is a “feature of friendship.”
Importantly, Aristotle doesn’t mean friends must agree on all matters. Rather, they share a general unity of purpose toward a common goal. Sharing a common goal, however, doesn’t mean that George and West— or any friends — must always agree on how to reach that goal. In terms of their friendship as thinkers and scholars, George and West share the common goal of truth-seeking. They are of “one mind” in the sense that they, according to Aristotle, “wish for what is just and advantageous, and seek it in common.”
Even though West says true friendship “cuts much deeper than any agreement on policy,” the professors’ differences in political views should not be downplayed.
Arguably, the two professors became friends because of their fundamental differences of opinion.
Over the years, they have taught a Great Books seminar together designed to teach students to look at issues from multiple points of view. Each professor chooses six primary texts for the students, including Sophocles, St. Augustine, John Dewey, and John Stuart Mill.
Students in North Carolina have ample opportunities to emulate George and West’s Aristotelian friendship. Take Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service. The center created an initiative called the North Carolina Leadership Forum to facilitate conversations on contentious issues.
Another promising project out of POLIS is the “Devil’s Discourse” podcast, which records Duke students participating in civil discussions on contentious issues such as abortion, taxes, and immigration.
While coordinated events may facilitate a culture of friendly dialogue across ideological lines, the majority of students don’t need officially organized programs to find their “Robby George” or “Cornel West.” There are countless opportunities every day to talk with an ideological opponent — whether it be a classmate or someone handing out fliers on campus. However one finds these encounters, the importance of cultivating friendships with those of different convictions is vital for true learning to take place.
As academics in a field dedicated to debating ideas, George and West are an ideal example of the traits all discourse — and friendships — on college campuses should have: rooted in a love of truth over opinion and a respect for the other’s common humanity.
Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.
At a recent North Carolina Department of Transportation committee meeting, my John Locke Foundation colleague Joe Coletti offered this blunt assessment to state policymakers: our system of road financing isn’t sustainable.
“There simply isn’t enough money to do it all,” Coletti told the committee. He observed that the amount of gas taxes collected per mile traveled is lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was a generation ago. Our cars get more miles to the gallon, for one thing, so a per-gallon tax can’t keep up. And a growing, albeit still small, share of our cars are electric or hybrid vehicles for which the gas tax is obviously inadequate as a means of charging drivers to use government roads.
There’s really no doubt that we will have to move eventually to a system that charges drivers according to mileage and vehicle weight. Such a system should also vary the price according to time and congestion, just as utilities charge more for electricity during peak hours.
Getting from here to there will be tricky, however. Tolling new roads or lanes can be unpopular, at least at first, as policymakers in North Carolina and elsewhere have discovered. For the entire road-and-street system as a whole, a GPS-based mileage charge could get the job done. But it would invite even more public scrutiny.
Of course, no system for funding transportation is free from major challenges. Raising gas and car taxes angers the public, as well. Dipping into general revenues, from sources such as sales and property taxes, may be more salable politically but has the obvious defect of severing the relationship between the cost individuals impose on the road system and the price they pay to use it. It is inequitable and inefficient.
Coletti’s point is not simply that we have a mismatch between tools and tasks. More broadly, we have a mismatch between means and ends. Because North Carolina and other states rely so much on transfers from the federal government, for example, and those federal dollars come with lots of strings, we end up using scarce dollars to build new roads rather than maintaining our existing ones, even though the latter ought to be the higher priority.
And the truth is that while transportation investment can be productive, it isn’t infinitely valuable. No matter how we pay for new roads, some of the ones currently on North Carolina’s wish list are unlikely ever to be built — and we should be okay with that. The extent to which their long-term benefits, expressed as greater mobility or safety or economic development, will exceed their long-term cost is unclear.
Just as most other valuable things do, roads have diminishing marginal utility. When North Carolina built its first true statewide road network in the early decades of the 20th century, the payoff was gigantic. During successive waves of road-building — during the interstate boom, for example, and the belt-and-connector program enacted during the administration of Gov. Jim Martin — the benefits also exceeded the costs, although not by as much.
There are still valuable roads and lanes to build, to be sure, and I’m happy to report that state policymakers have done their part to move such projects forward. North Carolina is spending hundreds of millions more a year on road construction and maintenance than we used to, because state legislators and governors of both parties cooperated to reduce dramatically the transfer of gas and car taxes to non-highway purposes.
But no reform of our financing system, no matter how carefully designed and skillfully marketed, can generate enough revenue to fund all desired roads at a cost that won’t provoke intense opposition from taxpayers. As Colleti put it, “because there is never enough money to do everything that everyone thinks should be done, the state needs to identify the core needs for transportation funding.”
Thus, policymakers must set firm priorities and stick to them. In many cases, the right answer will consist not of “how to” but, simply, “no.”
While the media will be focusing on union activists at today’s teacher march, I’ll be thinking about a young man named Junior.
In 2016, a sobering documentary titled “Raising Bertie” highlighted the educational and economic challenges of young people growing up in Bertie County. The film followed the lives of three young African-American boys over six years, including 20-year-old Junior, who was repeating 11th grade. Junior’s father was in prison, so his mother and his school were the primary sources of stability in a life full of uncertainty.
His exasperated mother tells the filmmakers that sometimes he won’t go to school, he’ll be sleeping. Or, if he goes to school he’ll go to sleep in class.
I’m trying 100 percent, she says. I’ve taught him manners, taught him how to be responsible, taught him that this is what life is all about, but it seem like to me I have failed as a mother.
Junior’s story suggests that if there is any district that can least afford to close for today’s teacher walkout, it’s Bertie County Schools. Bertie County is a rural county in the northeastern part of the state, where around a quarter of the population lives in poverty and most children in the 2,000-student system qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Bertie County Schools is a struggling school district in a struggling community. And the county’s public school children and their parents will be home today.
How many children like Junior will have limited employment opportunities due to an education that won’t prepare them for work, postsecondary training, or higher education? Does the cancellation of classes help these children or hurt them, and what message does it send to the community about the value of classroom education?
I believe the cancellation of classes, just days after Bertie County students returned from a week-long spring break, does more harm than good for the children in this struggling community. Children need school. They need every day of school. And they need every day of school to be better than the last. The same is true for every child in every district that was shuttered due to teacher participation in today’s walkout.
In terms of student achievement, Junior is part of a demographic that lags almost every other student subgroup and category. Just more than 38% of African-American males enrolled in Bertie public schools last year met proficiency standards on state standardizes tests, and far fewer met the more rigorous college and career readiness standards. Overall, only 47 percent of Bertie students met state standards for proficiency across all North Carolina standardized tests administered in 2018, which is well below the state average.
Unions and public school advocacy groups dismiss the persistent failure of our public schools to raise academic achievement for all students. Instead, they complain that lack of money is the problem and more money is the solution. So, they pass the blame to elected officials that do not share their viewpoint (or political affiliation) and organize walkouts to demand that lawmakers approve billions in new spending.
According to data published by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the Bertie County Schools spends an average of $11,809 per student last year, which is the 16th highest per student expenditure in the state and is considerably more than the state average of $9,478. Yet despite this financial advantage, deficient governance and persistent mismanagement led to a budget scandal that required state intervention and oversight of district finances for the past two years. The district’s inability to raise student achievement and retain teachers is likely an outgrowth of this poor leadership, not the lack of money for public schools. And state legislators can’t fix problems rooted in poor leadership or mismanagement.
The mission of Bertie County Schools is to “provide high quality, rigorous, student-centered learning opportunities that will prepare our students for life in our ever-changing world,” except when district employees want to take the day off to participate in a union-organized walkout in Raleigh. That’s when the learning opportunities for students stop, and the priorities of adults and special interest groups take over. And while they are in Raleigh sporting red shirts, carrying placards, and reciting mindless chants, will any of them be thinking about Junior?
Much of the commentary surrounding the recent born-alive abortion-survivors bill assumes the issue is dead.
But details of the N.C. General Assembly’s veto rules suggest there might be another outcome. Pursuit of that alternate outcome could affect legislative activity for much of the next two years.
Before addressing that alternate course, let’s remind ourselves of the conventional wisdom.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 359. That’s the measure designed to ensure protection of babies who survive a failed abortion. Republicans no longer hold veto-proof supermajorities in the N.C. General Assembly. Therefore, they won’t be able to override Cooper’s decision. Case closed.
Or is it?
The veto override is scheduled for a vote today in the Senate. Its fate is uncertain.
Republican legislative leaders could allow the born-alive bill to die. Political calculations could play into that decision. Pro-life activists preparing for the 2020 election cycle certainly would rally their troops by pointing to Democratic “no” votes and Cooper’s veto. It’s hard to imagine that the issue would carry as much electoral force next year if a veto override enacts S.B. 359 into law this year.
Pundits have suggested that circumstances have played out exactly as Republicans had planned. Pass a partisan Republican bill. Wait for the Democratic governor to strike it down. Then take social conservative furor over that action all the way to the electoral bank.
But that’s not necessarily the way the story will unfold.
Article II, Section 22(1) of the N.C. Constitution explains how lawmakers respond to a gubernatorial veto. Once the bill returns to the General Assembly, lawmakers can override the veto if “three-fifths of the members … present and voting” agree to a veto override in both chambers.
The “present and voting” language rarely came into play during Cooper’s first two years in office. Holding more than three-fifths (60 percent) of seats in both the N.C. House and Senate, Republicans could override Cooper with ease if they all stuck together.
They did so 23 times in addressing Cooper’s record-breaking 28 vetoes during the 2017-18 legislative session. To put Cooper’s veto track record in context, governors vetoed a total of 35 bills in the 15 years from 2002 to 2016. Lawmakers voted to override just 16 of those first 35 vetoes.
Now, the “present and voting” requirement could play a more important role. It means that legislators need not secure 30 votes in the Senate and 72 votes in the House — 60 percent of the members of the respective chambers — to defeat Cooper’s veto. Instead, supporters of the born-alive measure need 60 percent support among the lawmakers who show up to vote on a particular day.
Because the measure started in the Senate, it would need to clear that chamber first. Senators initially approved S.B. 359 with a 28-19 vote on April 15. That’s just shy of the 60-percent standard. But all three senators who missed the vote were Republicans. If any one of the three cast a ballot with fellow Republicans for a veto override, and no other votes change, the measure would head to the House for its own veto override vote.
Even if one of the two Democratic senators who initially voted “yes” changed his mind and sided with Cooper, Republicans would need to pick up just two of the three missing GOP votes to override the governor. Only if both Democratic “yes” votes flipped to “no” would the GOP caucus find itself unable to advance the measure solely with its own membership.
Even a united Democratic front wouldn’t necessarily end the story. Article II, Section 22(1) requires only that the Senate “proceed to reconsider” the vetoed bill. The constitution sets no timeline. Neither does state law. Legislative rules remain silent on the matter.
That means Senate leaders could take up the veto override at any time during the rest of the legislative session. Not just this year’s session, but in 2020 as well. If Republicans remain united in support of the born-alive bill, they could wait for a moment when two Democratic senators are absent to bring the veto override measure to the floor.
One might argue that this type of political gamesmanship would fly in the face of legislative transparency and fair play. That’s true.
But one suspects that three members of the Senate GOP caucus retain vivid memories of Aug. 30, 2005. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, sat in the Senate chamber that day. Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, was notably absent.
That was the day when then-Democratic Senate leaders surprised GOP members by reconvening in Raleigh after having advised their colleagues that substantive legislative work was finished for the year. With Brown and another GOP colleague absent, Democrats had enough votes to enact the state lottery.
To recap: Democratic Senate leaders chose to enact one of the most substantial pieces of legislation in recent state history when two Republican colleagues were absent.
No one knows whether Berger, Brown, and colleagues would adopt the same tactics for the born-alive bill. The legislative calendar suggests Senate leaders want to address the issue quickly instead.
But the option for a delay is available. Democrats thinking about skipping a legislative session would need to keep that scenario in mind.
Supporters of S.B. 359 face even tougher prospects in the House. The measure passed, 65-46, in that chamber’s April 16 vote. That’s less than 59 percent. With all 120 members present, legislative leaders would need all four Democratic “yes” votes to stick with them — and pick up three of the five missing Democratic votes — to have a chance of overriding Cooper.
But the House has its own history of keeping vetoed bills in a special “garage.” When the numbers look favorable for an override vote, the garage opens and the bill rolls out for a vote.
Legislative leaders might want quick action on reversing Cooper. If that’s not possible, lawmakers in both parties might need to keep their calendars as clear as possible through the end of 2020. A vetoed bill could crop back up at any time.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.
If you are convicted of a crime, the government can punish you. If you are arrested but never convicted, the government can’t punish you.
That’s the principle, simply put. Alas, another apt description might be “simplistically put.” Governments sometimes seize and sell the assets of suspects, even before they are never convicted. And defendants are sometimes charged such high bail that they can’t afford to get out of jail prior to their trials. Even if subsequently found not guilty, they have, in effect, been punished. Moreover, some who can’t make bail will plead guilty to offenses just to get out of jail, potentially subverting the pursuit of justice.
Paying bail for pretrial release isn’t like paying a fine for violating the law. Its primary purpose is to lower the risk that defendants won’t show up for their trials. Both the federal Constitution (the 8th Amendment) and North Carolina’s constitution (Article 1, Section 27), prohibit “excessive bail.” If our judicial system requires bail from garden-variety defendants who would have shown up for trial, anyway, then arguably any bail amount for them is “excessive.”
Defenders of how North Carolina and other states currently use bail would argue that assessing such risks is a complex and challenging task — and they’d be right! There are certainly many defendants in our jails right now who deserve to be there. We should want them there. They have contempt for the rule of law. They’d skip out if released. And they are dangerous. It is both just and cost-effective to make it extremely costly if not impossible for those individuals to obtain pretrial release.
But when it comes to distinguishing them from others who don’t present such risks, bail lacks precision. It imposes costs on some of the wrong people and fails adequately to deter some of the right people.
Consider what happened when Mecklenburg County modified its approach in 2014 and adopted a pretrial risk-assessment tool to improve judicial decisions. As a result, some offenders who would otherwise have been jailed at taxpayer expense because they couldn’t make bail were instead released to await trial or sent into less-costly pretrial programs.
Over the next three years, the number of people in Mecklenburg jails dropped by 11 percent, even as the population of the county continued to rise. That’s no surprise, but here’s the key point: the decline in the jail population didn’t result in a higher share of no-shows at trial or rearrests for other crimes. That suggests that before Mecklenburg began using its risk-assessment tool, it was resorting to bail and jail more than necessary.
“The preliminary results of Mecklenburg’s experiment demonstrate that bail reform can decrease the pretrial jail population while avoiding significant increases in crime or skipped court dates,” observed Emily Mooney and Arthur Rizer, who analyze criminal-justice issues for the R Street Institute in Washington.
North Carolina should seek to replicate Mecklenburg’s experience in other counties and experiment with other pretrial reforms. That was one of the recommendations of the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice, of which I was a member. It is also the subject of a recent series of thought-provoking articles by Jessica Smith, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government.
I’m far from an expert on this topic, but I think state and local policymakers need a clear focus on pretrial justice. The cost of excessive bail isn’t confined to those accused of crimes. It is socialized. Taxpayers pay for overcrowded jails and overworked officers. And some defendants stuck in jail lose jobs, lose connections with family, and end up more likely to commit subsequent crimes than if their cases had been handled differently.
Again, I’m not making a blanket statement. High bail amounts and time in jail before trial are clearly appropriate in some cases. When defendants don’t show up for trial, or victimize others after being released from jail, that imposes social costs, too. But the balance seems off. Time to get it right.
One in three internet users worldwide is a child under 18, estimates show. Expect that figure to rise as smart toys and all sorts of smart devices fuel constant connection. How will personal data, collected today, be used tomorrow? Answers are evolving. In a marketplace where information is money, privacy should be protected at every turn.
Invasive or unlawful practices by tech companies heighten privacy concerns. According to a recent investigation by TechCrunch, Facebook recruited teens for a so-called “research” study. Along with adults, teens as young as 13 were paid to install a Virtual Private Network app and give Facebook extensive visibility into personal and behavioral data.
Facebook’s practices were dubious (research, really?). Others clearly violate law. In 2018 the Federal Trade Commission announced fines against smart toy manufacturer VTech for collecting personal information from “hundreds of thousands of children” without parental consent and failing to secure data.
In February the FTC announced a $5.7 million civil penalty against video-sharing app Musical.ly (now TikTok). According to a statement from two FTC commissioners, Musical.ly collected and exposed sensitive data, including location, of young children. “In our view,” commissioners wrote, “these practices reflected the company’s willingness to pursue growth even at the expense of endangering children.”
VTech and Musical.ly violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, federal law requiring operators of commercial websites or services to obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting personal information from kids under 13. COPPA covers platforms targeting children and those with “actual knowledge” of child users.
COPPA provides important protections but should be updated and strengthened. Consider that COPPA was enacted two decades ago. In 2012 the FTC updated the COPPA Rule, broadening personal information to include “persistent identifiers,” such as cookies tracking online activities, along with location data, videos, and more. Good — but COPPA still treats teens like adults. Bad idea.
Enter new bipartisan “COPPA 2.0” legislation, introduced by U.S. Senators Markey and Hawley. If passed, COPPA 2.0 would expand protections, requiring companies to obtain consent from teens under 16 before collecting personal information.
That’s a major improvement, says Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for Policy and Privacy at Common Sense Media, which supports COPPA 2.0. “We don’t have consumer privacy protections at a federal level for adults. There’s COPPA and then there’s nothing. You fall off a cliff in terms of protection when you hit 13.”
COPPA 2.0 strengthens corporate accountability, setting a more stringent “constructive knowledge” standard for companies regarding young users. That makes it harder to feign ignorance. “Right now, you have companies sticking their head in the sand,” says Johnson.
What else? The legislation requires manufacturers of kids’ connected devices to disclose data practices on packaging. It bans behaviorally targeted marketing to children.
What about school impacts? Currently, schools consent on behalf of parents if children’s personal information is used exclusively within the educational context. How teen consent would work under COPPA 2.0 would need to be determined.
More broadly, other federal laws address student privacy. Most states, including North Carolina, have laws safeguarding student privacy; these increasingly cover education technology companies and not just schools, says Johnson, but the burden often rests on schools to monitor providers or have contracts with providers. Gaps remain. “It’s really important to ensure that protection puts the liability on the people who are actually handling student information and in a position to protect it. In many cases, that’s the ed tech provider,” says Johnson.
What’s the coin of the digital realm? Data. When it’s personal — and especially when it belongs to kids or teens — it should be protected.
Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.
We got lucky.
By we I mean my family, which includes my wife and twin boys, who are now 16.
They have never attended a traditional public school. They haven’t attended a private school, either.
But that’s the great thing about freedom of choice. It gives North Carolina parents options, in this case the ability to choose where they send their children to learn.
The boys attended a charter-magnet school for kindergarten through part of fifth grade, which was interrupted when openings became available at a new charter middle school about 15 miles away. We drove them to school in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon, a process which, all told, took a couple of hours.
Was this inconvenient for my wife and me? Sure it was.
Did we have to make sacrifices because we believed such an educational environment was best for our children? You bet.
We didn’t choose to take advantage of North Carolina charter schools because of a prejudice or an intangible distaste for traditional public schools. Rather, we chose these types of schools simply because we believed they would best suit our children.
Many educators throughout North Carolina do great work, in and out of the classroom.
Yet parents know their children best. Or, at least, they darned well should. Parents know their children’s idiosyncrasies and peccadillos. Parents can identify burgeoning strengths and potential weaknesses. Parents, and their children, rush in to fill those gaps.
So, when it came time for the boys to enter high school, we considered our options.
One of the boys, we thought, would most likely be fine in a traditional public school, maybe even thrive there. The other, we believed, was an imperfect fit for the one-size-fits-all method of traditional public education.
We took advantage of our power to choose, appreciating our choice to live in a state that allows parents such remarkable flexibility.
We applied to charter schools throughout the Triad. Then, I got a job in Raleigh, so we started applying in the Triangle, too. We entered the lottery for Raleigh Charter High School, arguably the best high school in North Carolina and among the top several dozen in the country.
It was not unlike entering an actual lottery, in which money is the prize. Uh, good luck with that.
Raleigh Charter got 1,423 applications for admission for the 2020-21 school year, including 1,152 for ninth grade. An admissions lottery was held March 22, and 150 rising freshmen were accepted, the school’s website says.
“Due to the high number of applications,” the school’s website says, “non-sibling ninth-graders had a 7% chance of being accepted to RCHS in this year’s lottery.”
After we applied a couple of years ago we got a letter telling us we were fifth on an obviously lengthy wait list. (Twins, by the way, don’t get a double shot at the lottery. Instead they both get in on the same number.)
“We’re in,” I told my wife. Still dubious, she scoffed.
“There’s no way anyone will turn down the chance to attend Raleigh Charter,” she said.
We got in. People are incredulous when we tell them where our kids attend school. Dumb luck, we say, even considering Raleigh Charter is in an older, smaller building. There is no cafeteria, no auditorium, and no athletic fields.
None of that matters, really.
No doubt, we appreciate the gravity of this auspicious selection and, I think, as the boys prepare to enter their junior years at RCHS, they’re starting to realize their good fortune, as well.
But critics, mostly Democrats, would rather charter schools just go away. That won’t happen, but they will move to inhibit growth nonetheless.
Critics of charter schools argue school-choice programs, like charter schools, siphon money and resources from traditional public schools. These critics are pursuing caps on growth, and even a moratorium on new charters, pending further study — misguided ideas aimed at eliminating competition and propping up failing public schools.
Any studying should be left to students, of course, and those parents willing to accept a daily inconvenience. Those parents who will make the necessary sacrifices to give their children the best chances of success.
Raleigh Charter is successful for myriad reasons, though communication is high on that list. Teachers, parents, and students listen to one another. They talk to one another, and they are honest with one another.
“Our faculty is focused on really building relationships with kids and taking those relationships and focusing on the curriculum and helping kids grow individually,” Raleigh Charter Principal Lisa Huddleston recently told Carolina Journal.
Much talk in the General Assembly over the next several months will focus around bonds and other funding methods to build new, multimillion-dollar schools. They’ll be rallies and intensive lobbying, all toward that goal.
Educators and schools will ask for — even demand — more money and better benefits. They’ll want smaller classes and more money for supplies.
It will be interesting to learn how much these same people talk about helping students, individually. How much they talk about building relationships, with parents and students, even if those relationships require certain levels of sacrifice and inconvenience, for either side.
I guess we’ll see.
A few weeks ago, a Palestinian hip-hop artist named Tamer Nafir performed what he himself labeled an “anti-Semitic” rap during a conference held at UNC Chapel Hill. “You look beautifully anti-Semitic,” he told the audience as it sang and clapped along.
The interim chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill, Kevin Guskiewicz, said he was “heartbroken and deeply offended that this performance happened.” Other critics reacted similarly after viewing a video by filmmaker Ami Horowitz that depicted not only Nafir’s song but also offensive statements made by others participating in the “Conflict Over Gaza” conference, which was held March 22-24 by, among others, the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and co-sponsored by a wide range of university departments.
The three-minute Horowitz video, inevitably, went viral. Local television stations and, eventually, other media outlets covered the controversy, which came on the heels of other troubling incidents on campus such as racist graffiti scrawled on the Unsung Founders Memorial and anti-Semitic posters discovered in the graduate library.
As distressing as these events are, they have created a teachable moment about freedom of speech on public property.
Perhaps I missed it, but I’ve seen no UNC official or outside critics, including Horowitz, say Nafir or others espousing anti-Semitic or anti-Israel views should be banned from speaking at a public university. Nafir didn’t exhort the audience to commit violence. He didn’t threaten anyone. Regardless of whether you think his words were facially and appallingly anti-Semitic, or clumsily worded satire, or just ill-informed and awkward expressions of Palestinian rage, they constituted protected speech.
On public property, in particular, freedom of speech isn’t constrained by intentions or offensiveness. If you want to grunt out an anti-Semitic rap on my property, I can boot you off of it. But if you are otherwise complying with the rules and expressing yourself on public property, no such response is permissible.
With what rules must you comply? As I mentioned, you can’t exhort people to violence or criminality. In addition, you may have to accept time, place, and manner restrictions that serve to facilitate and protect free expression on campus.
For example, not everyone can speak, hold an event, or march in precisely the same place at the same time. A scheduling system is not only permissible but necessary as long as it applies strictly to scarce public spaces and is administered fairly. Related to that, freedom of speech does not extend to a “heckler’s veto.” If my student group schedules a speaker on campus and you show up to shout down or obstruct the speaker, you aren’t exercising free speech. You’re trying to shut it down. Removing you is, again, not just permissible but necessary to protect freedom of speech.
As for the other recent incidents, obviously freedom of expression does not extend to defacing monuments or artwork. Posting announcements of upcoming events on a bulletin board may be permissible, but simply throwing anti-Semitic flyers around tables in the library isn’t freedom of speech. It’s littering.
To their credit, UNC administrators reacted to the “Conflict Over Gaza” incident swiftly and responsibly. Sponsoring organizations demanded that they be removed as listed co-sponsors of the conference and that any money they spent promoting or staging it be refunded. Martin Brinkley, dean of the law school, accused the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies of a “breach of trust” with its campus colleagues. So it was.
The organizers of the conference joined Guskiewicz in condemning anti-Semitism. But they also contended that the video Horowitz produced had been “heavily edited” and “misconstrues the breadth of discourse that took place during the panels.” When my Carolina Journal colleague Kari Travis asked for proof of this assertion, she was told that the conference had not been recorded.
Horowitz didn’t record the entire event, either — because the organizers booted him from the public event, even though he was not exercising a heckler’s veto or otherwise disrupting it. A teachable moment, indeed.