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.http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/thousands-of-nc-teacher-assistants-in-limbo/
The Supreme Court has issued a ruling in favor of independent redistricting commissions in Arizona.
In a 5-4, ruling the United States Supreme Court ruled citizens in Arizona did not remove power from state lawmakers by voting to establish an independent redistricting commission, according to Jane Pinsky – Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
“The people of Arizona have the right to set up an independent redistricting commission,” she says. “The commission in Arizona was created by citizen initiative, and it was a clear sign that the people of Arizona wanted a fair and impartial process.
“And they didn’t think they were getting that through their legislature.”
Pinsky adds citizens organized a grassroots effort to gain signatures in favor of the referendum’s placement on the ballot. For any North Carolinians with that idea, Pinsky has some bad news.
“We don’t have the right to do a ballot initiative,” Pinksy says of the organizational structure in North Carolina.
Pinsky says since residents of the Tar Heel state do not have the option of placing a citizen-driven referendum on the ballot, the next step for North Carolinians is to lobby elected representatives.
Pinsky adds gerrymandering is an overt way of disenfranchising voters.
“One of the things that we see that has happened as all of this redistricting and all the gerrymandering is that citizens feel like their votes don’t count,” she says. “And, unfortunately, in [about] 40-some percent of the legislative races in this state, that’s absolutely true.
“There was only one person on the ballot.”
For decades Democrats controlled North Carolina politics and could draw the state and congressional districts as they pleased. Now Republicans are in charge and don’t seem apt to giving up the power that comes with their partisan pen.
Local Democratic House Representative Verla Insko says changing demographics may play a large role in the upcoming elections.
“The Republicans that gerrymandered your districts are not all as safe as they used to be,” she says. “House districts are more vulnerable to moving back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.
“The challengers in the House may have an easier path, but that’s also true for the Senate that the population shifts are going to put some pressure on the current Republicans to look seriously at a commission.”
A bill passed the state House in 2011 to create an independent redistricting commission before dying in the Senate. Earlier this year, a large number of bipartisan lawmakers again called for an independent commission. Democratic House Representative Graig Meyer says support in the House is overwhelming from both sides of the aisle.
“There’s broad bipartisan support for this in House,” he says. “There are more than 61 cosponsors of the House bill, so that indicates that it would pass the House easily. The Senate has blocked this type of effort for several years. And it’s pretty clear to me that the Senate is blocking it because the Republicans who lead the Senate are doing everything that they can to hold on to the power that they have.
“That would include blocking [an independent commission] as well as all of the voting restrictions that they have put into place.”
Pinsky says a particular note in the Supreme Court ruling drew her attention.
“There’s a line that says that ‘the Constitution has an animating principle that people themselves are the originating source of all powers of government,’” she says. “In other words, the power doesn’t come from the legislators. The power comes from us.
“Anything that, I think, impedes our ability to freely exercise that power is wrong and undermines our democracy.”
While the Supreme Court ruling does not have a direct impact on North Carolina, it does support the momentum behind independent redistricting commissions that have been established in states including Arizona, Iowa, and Ohio.
It seems the biggest impediment to an independent commission in North Carolina is Republican Senate President Phil Berger.
Senator Berger’s office has not responded to repeated request for comment.http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/gerrymandering-north-carolina/
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the tax breaks for those who purchased health insurance through the federally-run exchange. The ruling allows more than 400,000 North Carolina residents to keep subsidies that help pay for their health insurance premiums.
The question at hand in King v. Burwell was whether a small line of text in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibited the federal government from providing subsidies for health insurance to people in states without their own exchanges. North Carolina is among 34 such states. Duke University professor Don Taylor says more than half-a-million North Carolina residents purchased insurance through the ACA, and most of them are receiving the federal subsidies that were in question.
“Ninety-one percent of the North Carolinians have gotten a subsidy, and the average amount of that subsidy is about $315 a month,” Taylor said.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to allow the federal subsidies to flow to all states, whether their exchange is state-run or not. Chief Justice Roberts, who ruled with the majority, said the line in question had to be read within the greater context of the ACA, which was to “improve health insurance markets.”
North Carolina Congressman David Price says he is relieved by the Court’s ruling on what he calls a “drafting error” in the ACA.
“It’s a very fortunate decision; it’s a common sense decision,” Price said. “And from what I’ve seen, Chief Justice Roberts’ reasoning in ruling this way reflects that. This is a matter of discerning Congress’ intent, despite this drafting error, and making sure that the nation doesn’t suffer the consequences of an overly literal focus on this one omission in the law.”
The ruling means more than 400,000 North Carolinians will keep their subsidies. It also puts an end to a serious threat to the future of Obamacare. Taylor says ending the federal subsidies would have forced many people to drop coverage and destabilized the entire health insurance exchange.
“If the healthy people flow out because the premiums go up, and you only have sick people left, then that’s called ‘death-spiral,’ and that insurance market is unsustainable,” Taylor said.
Now that the ACA is no longer threatened, Price says it’s important to shift focus to expanding Medicaid in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on the ACA allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion.
“It’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court left that loophole,” Price said. “It’s even more unfortunate, I think, that North Carolina and other states are taking advantage of the loophole to detriment of – in the case of our state – almost half-a-million people.”
Governor Pat McCrory has given no indication that he will call for Medicaid expansion. In a statement his office released Thursday, the Governor said quote “we must build a North Carolina-based reform plan that focuses on healthier patients at a cost taxpayers can afford.”http://chapelboro.com/news/national/more-than-400000-in-nc-keep-obamacare-subsidies/
***UPDATE: The Supreme Court has issued a 6-3 ruling allowing subsidies to continue to be offered in states that did not establish their own marketplace. You can read the full opinion here.***
The U.S. Supreme Court will release a decision within the next few days that may affect more than half a million North Carolinians who purchased health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
The question before the Court in King v. Burwell is whether the federal government overreached when it allowed subsidies to flow to states, like North Carolina, that did not set up their own health insurance exchanges.
North Carolina is among 34 states that do not have state-run health insurance marketplaces. That means North Carolina residents who want to buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act have to do so through the federally-run exchange. About 550,000 North Carolinians did just that, and most of them, says Duke University public policy professor Don Taylor, received tax breaks to help pay for their premiums.
“Ninety-one percent of the North Carolinians have gotten a subsidy,” Taylor said, “and the average amount of that subsidy is about $315 a month.”
The plaintiffs in the case argue the Affordable Care Act does not allow the federal government to give those subsidies to people in states that don’t have a state-run exchange.
“So if the Supreme Court had a simple finding for the plaintiffs,” Taylor said, “then the tax credits that are coming to North Carolinians today, they would lose those tax credits, their insurance bills would then go up, and then presumably many of them would them drop their coverage.”
Taylor says not only would such a ruling affect those who dropped their coverage because they couldn’t afford the premium, it could topple the entire federally-run exchange:
“The problem is the people who wouldn’t drop coverage, the people who are desperate to keep their insurance, are probably people who are sick. And any type of insurance market—whether it’s car insurance, homeowner’s or health insurance—if the healthy people flow out because the premiums go up, and you only have sick people left, then that’s called ‘death-spiral,’ and that insurance market is unsustainable.”
If the Court does rule for the plaintiff, Taylor says depending on the details of the ruling, there could be some legislative fixes at the national and the state levels to keep the tax breaks coming.
“Maybe North Carolina could pass a simple law that says we desire for the subsidies to still flow in North Carolina. But then it’s back to a political question again.”
The Supreme Court is expected to release a decision by Monday, June 29.http://chapelboro.com/news/national/half-million-in-nc-await-scotus-obamacare-decision/
South Carolina lawmakers are debating removing the confederate battle flag from the state capitol; Governor Nikki Haley endorsed the change after the mass shooting last week at a historically black church in Charleston. Meanwhile, the town of Hillsborough voted to let stand a memorial to the Confederacy on the Orange County Historical Museum—at least for now.
Weeks before the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston ignited national debate about the Confederate flag, the town of Hillsborough began a conversation about three lines of black letters above the entrance of the County Museum: “Confederate Memorial, 1934.”
“Since I’ve seen that lettering up there, it—you know, it makes me uncomfortable,” Hillsborough Town Commissioner Jenn Weaver said.
Weaver has been a vocal advocate for taking the memorial down since the Orange County Historical Society, which runs the museum, asked the town to remove the letters at the end of May. The Historical Society says the memorial deters residents from taking advantage of the museum’s resources.
“If you don’t want to go in the building because of the fact that it has a Confederate memorial across the front that makes you feel unwelcome, then you’re not able to enjoy a museum that we have here for our community,” Weaver said.
The Confederate memorial debate is a complicated and emotional issue for many southerners. Some Hillsborough residents say the memorial should stay as a remembrance of the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. But University of North Carolina History Professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage says many Confederate memorials, especially those built after 1900, weren’t constructed just to honor fallen soldiers.
“More and more of the monuments were erected in public spaces, in front of courthouses, conspicuous thoroughfares, etc. And those monuments had a much broader goal, which was to impose a Confederate version of the past on the public as a whole. So they were intended to be didactic not just about loss and grief, but about the redemption of the Confederate cause.”
The building at the center of the Hillsborough debate wasn’t always a museum. The United Daughters of the Confederacy funded its construction as a whites-only library and a memorial to the Confederacy. Brundage says he can’t be certain how directly the Hillsborough memorial can be tied to a white supremacist agenda. But as a whites-only library and a Confederate memorial, he says it certainly was a product of a white supremacist mentality.
“Those women and the generation that they were part of were erecting a monument with little thought to being members of a diverse society in which all citizens, all residents for that matter, should be comfortable in public spaces,” Brundage said.
On Monday, the Board voted 3 to 2 against Weaver’s motion to take down the Confederate memorial lettering. Mayor Tom Stevens and other town commissioners said the Board needed more time to hear public comment on the issue. The Historical Society also says it needs more time to decide how it will incorporate the building’s history into its exhibits.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/hillsborough-confederate-memorial-stays-up-for-now/
Orange County children may be the healthiest in North Carolina, according to child-advocacy nonprofit NC Child. But a closer look at Orange County shows that the block you grow up on may matter more than your county.
Orange County is the wealthiest and most educated county in the state, and overall its children are the healthiest. Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger says that’s not a coincidence.
“The more highly educated you are, the more likely you are to have a professional job that provides you with health insurance, time off to go to the doctor, time off to take your kids to the doctor and a living wage,” Bridger said.
But Orange County’s wealth and college degrees aren’t divided equally among all its residents. Census estimates show wide socioeconomic gaps between adjacent blocks.
“Even though Orange County in the aggregate is doing well, there are pockets of poverty and places where people are struggling that rivals any other place in the state,” Bridger warned.
Bridger says the greatest health disparities within Orange County often come down to disparities in education. There are areas in the county where two-thirds of third-graders are reading below grade level. The county says it’s working to improve health outcomes by closing the education gap through a project called the Family Success Alliance. The program replicates an initiative out of Harlem in New York City.
“They’ve basically said ‘anything a child needs from before she or he is born to the time he or she has a job after they’ve graduated from college, we want to provide it.’ And so we want to replicate that here so that we are able to ensure that every child in Orange County can succeed, regardless of where they live,” Bridger said.http://chapelboro.com/news/health/large-disparities-exist-even-in-states-healthiest-county/
The Chapel Hill Town Council chose not to vote on the approval last night of the 120-acre Obey Creek development near Southern Village. Instead, the council used the meeting to hear further public comment and pushed the vote until next Monday.
The council’s decision not to vote seemed to come as a shock to Obey Creek’s developer Roger Perry.
“Damn! I got all dressed up,” Perry said.
Town staff had recommended the council approve the rezoning and development agreement, which would clear the way for construction to begin. But at the meeting, the council said it needed more time to review recent information from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The town spent last week in negotiations with the DOT over Obey Creek’s impact on traffic.
“There’s been a lot of questions from all of you, back and forth with the staff, getting and seeking clarity,” Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. “And so I think that having worked with these folks for a while, I think that they need to stew. And I think it’s reasonable because, much of what some of us have heard and learned, and the clarity we’ve sought on some issues, was hours ago.”
Despite successful negotiations with the DOT, some residents who spoke at the meeting expressed concern that the development agreement doesn’t ensure adequate traffic calming measures for south Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill resident Susan Lindsay said she wanted a stronger commitment to such measures for her area.
“You can’t get much more direct than the impact that Dogwood Acres Drive will feel from this development,” she said.
A few residents at the meeting also reiterated concerns about design, the amount of retail space, and a desire for an overall smaller footprint. Monte Brown was one proponent of a scaled-down development.
“To me it’s clear: You either value the life of the southern Chapel hill residents and your various boards, or you value the bunch of investors from Maryland,” Brown told the council.
Several council members signaled their support of the project at its largest scale: 1.5 million square feet. Councilwoman Maria Palmer said she supports a larger footprint because it means more housing for more people.
“We actually need housing in Chapel Hill. We need places for people to live. We have thousands of people commuting to Chapel Hill because there is no adequate housing for them. We have a lack of certain types of apartments, of housing for older residents, of affordable housing, of everything that is going into this development,” Palmer said.
The council plans to resume discussion and come to a vote on Obey Creek at its meeting next Monday night.http://chapelboro.com/news/development/chapel-hill-town-council-delays-obey-creek-vote/
Both chambers of the North Carolina legislature have passed a bill with a number of measures related to the sale of alcohol. If the bill becomes law, one of those measures will allow North Carolina distilleries to sell their alcoholic products for consumption off premises.
Hear the story below:
Visitors to Top of the Hill distillery in Chapel Hill can watch the company’s production process from fermentation to finish. Giant stainless steel containers full of spirits in various stages of production tower over the clean concrete floor. Above, a maze of pipes wind across the ceiling.
At the end of the tour, visitors can get a taste of Top of the Hill’s vodka, whiskey or gin. But if they want to actually buy a bottle, owner Scott Maitland has to give them directions to the ABC store.
State law restricts the sale of alcoholic spirits for consumption off-site to ABC stores, which are run by the state or local Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Maitland says that law is holding back his businesses’ growth.
“It’s not like people leave the distillery so fired up that they’re going to drive right on over to the ABC system,” Maitland said. “Ninety-five percent of the people, when they are in the distillery, say they’re going to buy a bottle. But when we follow up, less than 30 percent actually buy.”
Maitland has been a vocal advocate of House Bill 909. The legislation would allow North Carolina distilleries to sell their spirits on-site for customers to drink elsewhere–albeit, not very much.
“We’re talking one bottle per person, per year,” Maitland said.
Even with these limitations on sales at the distillery, Maitland said he believes the bill creates an important marketing opportunity that will allow him to grow his consumer base and add employees.
“Although the sales are important for sure, we think the biggest impact of this is the repeat sales and the increased brand awareness,” he said.
Some legislators who opposed House Bill 909 worry the bill is the beginning of a slippery slope towards the privatization of alcohol retail in the state. Several house members also say they are frustrated with the addition of multiple provisions by the Senate. The bill would also completely restrict the production, consumption and sale of powdered alcohol in the state, as well as loosen restrictions on the sale of large containers of hard cider and wine known as growlers.
House Bill 909 is on its way to the governor’s desk.http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/bill-will-clear-way-for-bottle-sales-at-local-distillery/
A plan for redistricting in North Carolina is once again being put forward by state lawmakers.
A bipartisan group of legislators, from the House and Senate, held a press conference at noon on Tuesday. The purpose was to put forward a proposal to change how voting maps are drawn in the Tar Heel state.
The debate over redistricting in North Carolina has raged on for more than a century. For years Democrats controlled the state legislature, and they drew maps that were favorable to the election of more Democrats. And that was deemed legal by the court system.
During that time, Republicans, and some Democrats, repeatedly called for lawmakers to conceive of a more fair system for how the maps are drawn. Now that Republicans are in control of the state House and Senate, the roles have reversed.
But long-time Republican House Representative Skip Stam says he will introduce a bill that calls for an independent commission to draw the voting maps in the state.
“The idea is that, in constructing districts, the people with the most at stake,” he says, “are probably ones who shouldn’t be doing the details.”
Stam’s proposal would be enacted before the next maps are drawn in 2021.
Stam says an opportunity has presented itself that may be the best chance for the bill to actually pass into law, because there is no pending litigation regarding the current maps.
Republican Representative Charlie Jeter says he and Democratic Senator Jeff Jackson will also be introducing a bill concerning redistricting.
“Our bill won’t go into effect until after the 2030 election cycle, in large part because it grandfathers everyone out,” he says. “To some degree, I think this is about getting the bill passed.”
Democratic Representative Grier Martin says his district, because it is heavily Democratic, is a prime example of what is causing some voters to stay home from the polls.
Martin adds passing a bipartisan redistricting bill would be a big step toward restoring North Carolinians faith in the state government.
Republican Representative John Hardister echoes the sentiment of many conservative leaders at the press conference, saying gerrymandering districts is bad policy – regardless of which party benefits.
“Many Republicans, including myself, advocated for redistricting reform when Democrats were in the majority,” he says. “It was the right thing to do then, and it’s still the right thing to do today.”
John Hood, with the conservative Pope Foundation, says the policy should move forward because it benefits the residents of North Carolina.
“It’s important for all of us in North Carolina to get the policy right,” he says. “I’m sure that redistricting reformers would welcome additional alternatives; as long as they were consistent with the principal that neutral rules should be our tactic, and competitive elections should be our end.”
Voters were the topic of conversation as well for Chris Fitzsimon of the progressive organization NC Policy Watch.
“This is not all the complicated,” he says. “The idea is to create a system where voters choose their politicians, instead of the other way around.”
Even with the bipartisan backing of this bill, it is not set in stone that it will move forward. Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has previously said he would not consider the legislation while litigation was ongoing.
Mitch Kokai is the Director of Communication for the conservative John Locke Foundation, and he says – even though the litigation has reached a conclusion – there is no guarantee Senator Berger will bring the legislation before the Senate, regardless of what the House does.
“[Berger] hasn’t come out and said ‘heck no, we’re never going to do it,’” Kokai says. “But he also hasn’t come out and said ‘oh yes, we’re going to go along with this now.’”
Ellie Kinnaird represented Orange and Chatham Counties in the North Carolina Senate, as a Democrat, from 1997 – 2013, and she recalls trying to pass a redistricting campaign when her fellow Democrats were in control of the House and Senate.
“I introduced a bill, under the Democrats, for an independent redistricting campaign,” she says. “They thought they were going to be in power forever, why would they do it? I introduced it under the Republicans, and the same thing happened.
“So, I’m very encouraged that the House, last term, actually did pass an independent redistricting bill. But I’m afraid that Mr. Berger will never relent in the Senate. He will not let that go through.”
Kinnaird adds, as long as large donors are allowed to bring about campaigns similar to what North Carolinians saw with the US Senate race between Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan, she is not expecting anything to change.
“The money is going to be crucial,” she says. “As the money pours in, it just solidifies the system.
“I don’t see any hope for the near future for North Carolina. I think that, frankly, it’s going to take 49 states enacting it before we enact it.”
The next North Carolina voting maps will be drawn in 2021, following the 2020 census. Whether they will be drawn with a partisan pen or through the eyes of an independent committee remains to be seen.
WCHL has requested a statement from Senator Phil Berger following the press conference but have not received a response at this time.http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/lawmakers-set-introduce-bipartisan-redistricting-reform/
According to the NC Prevention report card, North Carolina residents are struggling to meet public health goals for tobacco use, nutrition, obesity and physical activity.
Rachel Zuker is the research and evaluation coordinator for the Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Prevention Partners. She says the state’s grades are not looking good.
“Right now, we’re not doing great,” says Zuker. “We have a C in tobacco, a D in physical activity and Fs in both nutrition and obesity, so there’s definitely work to be done.”
The report measures state progress on national public health goals set for 2020.
Tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the US, and here in North Carolina, residents are smoking at a higher rate than elsewhere.
Zuker says this year North Carolina earned a C for tobacco use, down from a B grade last year.
“In tobacco policies, other states have continued to make progress, whereas we’ve kind of stayed the same, so I think we’re seeing ourselves slide a little bit in tobacco, which is too bad, because previously we’d been at a B and we were seeing that as a great area,” says Zucker.
The report points to policy changes at the state and local levels that could lower tobacco use, including designating more smoke-free places and increasing funding for cessation support services.
When it comes to nutrition and obesity, the report suggests economic challenges are hitting families hard. Seventeen percent of North Carolina households face hunger. At the same time, two out of every three adults and slightly more than a quarter of high school students are overweight or obese, and the problem is more significant for those with lower levels of education and income.
Zuker says obesity and poor diet go hand in hand, as it costs more to eat well.
“You can be malnourished and obese. There’s a difference between malnourishment and obesity.”
Compounding the problem, the majority of North Carolina’s adults are not getting the recommended weekly minimum amount of physical activity.
Zuker says when it comes to changing the state’s health grade, workplace programs can have a big impact.
“People spend so much of their daily lives at work, and so if we see workplaces passing policies to promote cheaper, healthy foods, time for physical activities or access to those facilities, helping employees to quit [smoking], we really see that as key.”
Prevention Partners is launching an initiative with some of North Carolina’s largest employers to try to change the workplace culture to support healthy lifestyles. Zuker says the plan, called Healthy Together North Carolina, could reach up to 20 percent of the state’s workforce.