Elon Commencement Speech Focuses on HB2

At Elon University’s Saturday graduation ceremony, CNN political analyst David Gergen began the commencement speech just like any other.

“You should just be so proud and take so much satisfaction at how far you’ve come. You’ll rightly cherish the years you’ve spent here.”

But his tone quickly changed.

“I’d like to depart from the tradition of showering you with personal advice,” he said. “Instead, at the risk of offending some of you, I want to talk to you about the deepening concerns that I, and many others, have about the future of North Carolina.”

Gergen proceeded to speak about HB2 and other political issues in North Carolina for the remainder of his 22-minute speech. He quickly issued a call to action.

“It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes – white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender – everyone – to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.”

He told the crowd of roughly 12,000 people that “mean spirited politics” are damaging North Carolina’s reputation. Most importantly, he said, the actions of North Carolina’s legislature are putting citizens at risk – primarily transgender citizens.

“We have to realize the stress, the anxiety these folks are going through and appreciate it, be compassionate about it.”

Gergen said he was proud to grow up in North Carolina and watch as civil rights leaders promoted racial equality and as business leaders developed the Research Triangle Park.

Gergen then called upon the leaders of today to end the “bathroom bill” dispute.

“There are things that can be done, and what all roads point to, where our ultimate destination should be, and that is to repeal HB2. Repeal HB2.”

Gergen urged the crowd to accept their differences and understand that while not everyone will agree, everyone should join the fight for a better state and a better country.

“I plead with you. Please don’t stay on the sidelines as America struggles to find a better path forward. Come off the bench. Get in the arena. You will find that many will disagree with you, just as here, I’m sure there are many who disagreed with me and find it offense that I’ve spoken this way on commencement day.”

Gergen ended by congratulating the new graduates and urging them to be active leaders in their communities.


Thousands of NC Teacher Assistants in Limbo

The General Assembly passed a stop-gap spending measure Tuesday. The bill keeps the government funded until mid-August while the chambers grapple over the final budget. But the measure does nothing to ease the concerns of  8,500 teacher assistants whose jobs are now in limbo.

North Carolina teacher assistant Melinda Zarate has spent the last several summers on edge.

“It’s just very nerve-wracking,” Zarate told reporters. “Imagine not knowing whether you were going to have a job in a couple months. And yeah, that happens in business too. But for teacher assistants, this happens every single year.”

The Legislature has made frequent cuts to teacher assistant positions since the 2008 recession. This year, despite a budget surplus, the Senate’s budget proposes axing another 8,500 teacher assistants. That would leave schools with less than a third of the teacher assistants they had before the recession. Those cuts don’t sit well with Lisa Caley, a parent of a child with special learning needs.

“Our public schools today are focused on educating every student, and TAs are working to provide the individualized instruction to make that happen,” Caley said. “That means they’re assisting with kids who need remediation, with students who are on grade level and students who are above grade level, to make sure that lessons are differentiated to meet all students’ needs.”

Teacher assistants and their advocates argue their instruction is needed in today’s classrooms.

“Things have become so individualized in our schools, that we don’t do a lot of whole-class instruction—teachers standing in front of a group of kids just delivering trying to fill their heads,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. “It’s more about breaking kids up into small collaborative groups.”

Senators who support the cuts say reducing the number of teacher assistants will allow the state to hire more teachers and raise teachers’ starting salaries. The House’s budget also proposes raising teacher salaries, but it does not cut assistants. Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, says his district is eagerly awaiting a final budget.

“We’re going to have to take a good look as we develop our budgets if teacher assistants are reduced at the state level again: What are our options? Do we have any options, because those are really big numbers that they’re talking about making in the Senate budget,” LoFrese said.

The two chambers have until August 14 before stop-gap funding expires. In the meantime, thousands of teacher assistants can only guess whether they’ll return to the classroom in the fall.


McCrory Threatens Senate Budget Veto

RALEIGH – Gov. Pat McCrory says he’d veto any North Carolina budget plan on his desk that raises teacher pay dramatically like the Senate wants because it would mean huge cuts elsewhere to pay for it.

McCrory told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday he’s not going to risk key government services and allow Medicaid reductions to accept the Senate’s average 11 percent pay offer. The original Senate proposal cut funding for thousands of teacher assistants to pay for it.

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) issued the following statement Thursday:

“I’m disappointed by the governor’s threat to veto the largest teacher pay raise in state history and surprised by his demand for a budget without cuts to teacher assistants and Medicaid – given that his own budget included almost $20 million in cuts to teacher assistants along with significant, though ultimately achievable, cuts to Medicaid.

“The governor has been unable to sustain any of his previous vetoes in the Senate. It would be more helpful for him to work with members of both chambers of the legislature, since his unwillingness to listen to those who have an honest disagreement with him on spending priorities in favor of staging media stunts and budget gimmicks is a major reason the budget has not been finalized.”

The governor is siding with the latest House offer to raises teacher pay on average by 6 percent, up from 5 percent. He says 6 percent is about as far as he can go and feel comfortable.

The two chambers are negotiating budget adjustment for the year that started July 1.


‘Take Back Our Budget’

Local elected officials say they’ll have to cut services, especially in the school systems, to make up for the budget cuts, which County Commissioner Penny Rich says were done to hurt the local governments.

“We know that the state is purposefully taking money away from school systems to make us suffer,” Rich says. “It’s not to make something better; it’s to make us suffer and to make us spend our money.”

Budget discussions between Orange County and the schools systems begin Tuesday.

Chapel-Carrboro school board member James Barrett says these cuts are moves by legislators that go against what the state constitution says is our foundation.

“Our state constitution is very clear that the responsibility of providing a sound education for all of our students lies in the general assembly, and they are passing on that,” Barrett says.

While raising taxes increases the amount of money going out of a household budget, former Mayor of Carrboro and Register of Deeds candidate Mark Chilton says cuts to the state budget have done more harm.

“There (are) a lot of households whose household budgets have been hit hard by the legislature as well,” Chilton says. “Up until a few months ago, I was working in the nonprofit sector, and every day seeing people come into our office who were single moms who were just barely scabbing it together with whatever resources they could find. We’re seeing the resources available declining rapidly. It puts people in some very tough situations.”

Federal cuts piled on the state cuts with things like reduced food stamp funding healthcare benefits. Rich adds that the cuts are sending more people below the poverty line.

“We turn more people in our county into working poor, instead of knowing that we can help them get above that,” Rich says. “We talked a little bit about public education, but it’s also (about) higher education. I have a son who’s at App State: the first semester, his food plan was not taxed; the second semester, his food plan was taxed. How are we helping our families in North Carolina let their kids get higher education?”

Chapel Hill Town Council member Ed Harrison says the General Assembly cut off the legs of the local governments when it not only cut the budget, but it also reduced the authority of the governing bodies.

“For a city or town, particularly, because we do not have home rule—nor do counties—that’s been the major impact, because we entered the session without having home rule and the General Assembly majority just piled on higher and deeper,” Harrison says. “They took away what little authority we thought we had, in some cases. For instance, in the City of Durham case, the ability to control who gets their water and sewer.”

What’s the solution? Council member Lee Storrow says the move that Raleigh is making now is just for show.

“In Orange County and across the state, local governments are having to find ways to increase revenue or increase taxes,” Storrow says. “ So it’s easy to say, at a superficial level, ‘look how great it is that we haven’t raised taxes’, but they’re just passing the buck onto local leaders and local governing bodies.”

He says with state and local elections right around the corner, there are places where Democrats can sneak in and take back part of the legislature.

“I appreciate the importance of finding creative solutions, and that’s incredibly valuable,” Storrow says. “But if we want to maintain the values that we care about in Orange County and in North Carolina, we are going to have to do work to support candidates who are in winnable districts, who can help move the legislature in a different direction.”

Rich says until that’s accomplished, the local governments have to show whatever support they can to those who are taking hits from the budget cuts.

“It’s really important that we get behind these people and they should know that we’re going to be there for them, even though monies are cut,” Rich says. “Can we set up some public-private partnerships? Can we get someone to donate paint? Can we support something like that? So, the money is the most important, but if we can’t give them money, we’ll be there for them to direct them to the right people that can help them with donated good.”

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NC Teachers Group Plans New Steps Against Changes

RALEIGH — An advocacy group representing North Carolina teachers is promising more action to resist a new state law that eliminates job protections and shifts toward performance pay.

The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina JusticeCenter say they’ll describe their latest efforts on Wednesday. The groups say school legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year will undermine public schools.

Republicans who this year took control of most of state government after Gov. Pat McCrory’s election say their changes attempt to hold teachers and schools more accountable for student learning.

State Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County says the Obama administration has pushed states to develop teacher evaluation systems with teeth and merit pay for teachers.


Republicans Disapprove Of State Legislature

RALEIGH – In its latest poll of North Carolinians, Public Policy Polling found that a majority of Republicans in the state disapprove of the job the GOP-controlled state legislature is doing. 40 percent of Republicans said they disapprove, as opposed to 36 percent who say they approve.

Overall, 56 percent of North Carolina voters disapprove of the job the General Assembly is doing. Tom Jensen, director of PPP, attributes this to the extreme legislation being pushed by the General Assembly.

“I think that Republican voters think that a lot of the proposals that Republican legislators have been passing in the General Assembly really are just too extreme,” Jensen said. “Too far to the right, even by Republican standards.”

Among the “extreme legislation” Jensen cited is a bill to allow guns on all educational properties, a bill to raise interest rates on consumer loans and a ban on purchasing cars over the phone or Internet, which would make it difficult to buy electric cars in North Carolina.

In addition, both the House and Senate’s proposed budgets had disapproval rates of 49 percent and 50 percent respectively, including a 33 percent disapproval of the House budget and 35 percent disapproval of the Senate budget by Republicans.

“Average voters probably don’t know a whole lot about what’s in the House budget or the Senate budget, but they know that they don’t trust the General Assembly, so they are inherently opposed to a lot of what they’re trying to do,” Jensen said.

While a majority of voters disapprove of the Republican-controlled legislature, the disapproval ratings for both parties in the General Assembly are almost equal, with Democrats and Republicans unfavorable at 47 and 49 percent respectively.

“A lot of times, voters don’t actually know who’s in charge of the General Assembly,” Jensen said. “Some people may not be aware that it’s Republicans that are totally in charge and pushing this kind of stuff. Especially because that is a change from the standard we’ve had in North Carolina, where Democrats have generally been in charge over the years.”

In addition to the General Assembly’s bad numbers, Governor Pat McCrory has reached his lowest approval ratings yet, with 45 percent of voters approving the job he’s been doing. While the governor has been able to fare better than the roundly disliked legislature, Jensen said McCrory’s lack of resistance to the General Assembly is seen as implied support.

“I think a lot of the Democrats and more moderate-leaning Independents who voted for him last year who generally vote Democratic maybe are feeling that he has not been quite as a difference as a Republican as they thought he would be,” Jensen said.

In April, PPP found that 31 percent of Democratic voters in the state approved of McCrory’s work, but now polling is finding his support among Democrats at 24 percent. 71 percent of Republicans approve of the work McCrory is doing.


NC Medicaid Shortfall Now $330 Million-Plus

RALEIGH – The North Carolina office that oversees Medicaid says the funding shortfall for the government health insurance program is more than $330 million.

Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos said Tuesday the shortfall has grown $85 million above the $248 million projected by Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration earlier this month.

Wos’ office again blamed the expanded shortfall on then-Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration – this time saying it overestimated Medicaid receipts. McCrory’s agencies attributed an earlier shortfall uptick to a forecasting model error last year.

A bill in the General Assembly would give McCrory access to $400 million in unspent funds, cost savings and surplus tax collections to cover the shortfall. But that money is also supposed to cover $118 million for an outstanding drug rebate to the federal government.


NC House Bill Keeps Free Lanes When Tolls Arrive

RALEIGH – The North Carolina House has passed a bill paving the way for tolls, but only if the state maintains free lanes.

The House approved a bill Tuesday that allows the state to add tolls only if it keeps the same number of non-toll lanes.

If highways were expanded, the state Department of Transportation could toll lanes to pay for the construction. The department could also offer limited access and higher speed limits to encourage motorists to take the toll lanes.

The measure targets potential tolling on Interstate 95 but would apply to all current interstates.

An amendment to restore a provision giving the legislature final say on tolls failed. Amendment sponsor Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern argued the elected officials should have that authority, not the transportation department.


NC Budget Deletes Education Earmarks For Lottery

RALEIGH – The North Carolina budget sought by Senate Republicans would eliminate the law that lays out how the state lottery’s net proceeds should be distributed for education.

The spending plan set for a floor vote Wednesday deletes what the General Assembly intended for profits when the North Carolina lottery law passed in 2005. Half is supposed to go toward class-size reduction and pre-kindergarten, with 40 percent for school construction and the rest for college scholarships for needy students.

Budget-writer Sen. Pete Brunstetter said Tuesday legislators have altered the distribution annually to meet their needs, so it makes sense to eliminate language no one follows.

The proposed budget would still distribute lottery profits to those programs. Brunstetter says he doesn’t believe Republican colleagues are inclined to spend the money on non-education needs.


NC House, Senate Plans Differ On Sales Tax

RALEIGH – A tax code overhaul plan unveiled by House Republicans puts them at odds with Senate counterparts on how many transactions should be subject to North Carolina’s sales tax.

The House plan released Thursday would expand the combined sales tax to cover a few more items such as car and lawn mower repairs and product warranties. The Senate would subject nearly every service to the sales tax and eliminate exemptions on groceries and prescription drugs. The House plan keeps both exemptions.

House plan author Rep. David Lewis says he’s optimistic a compromise with the Senate can be worked out. Senate leader Phil Berger says failing to broaden widely the sales tax base prevents lower tax rates that spur economic growth.

Gov. Pat McCrory says he’s “encouraged” by the House plan details.