- Voter Suppression & Campaign Finance
- Other New Bills
- Tax Fairness
- Public Education
- Voting Rights
- Death Penalty
Rush to the Right Continues
From the first days of this legislative session, we’ve seen challenges to many advances our state has made in recent decades. It’s frustrating to watch the Council’s work for prophetic social justice and the common good get reversed so quickly. Much of this issue of Raleigh Report is given to these legislative efforts to take us backward. We start with the most amazing of the lot, a bill that caught a lot of the state off guard.
HJR 494, Defense of Religion Act, would put the General Assembly on record as asserting that “the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion,” and that the General Assembly “does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”
As you probably know, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ” (emphasis added). These words are the basis for religious liberties that protect people of all faiths and of no faith. HJR 494 is, of course, an effort to resurrect the centuries-old debate between states’ rights and federal rights by ignoring our country’s constitutional democracy, 150 years of history including a Civil War, and almost 100 years of court cases.
After the Civil War, the US Constitution was amended to add (in the Fourteenth Amendment) a prohibition on states “depriv[ing] any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; [or] deny[ing] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Years of litigation and court decisions, going back to 1925 and including many cases in the US Supreme Court, have made clear that the Fourteenth Amendment, by “incorporation,” makes provisions of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. Determination that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment applies to states as well as to Congress goes back to a US Supreme Court decision in 1947. The supporters of H 494 are really calling for the overthrow of our system of jurisprudence and federalism in the United States, which includes the concept that decisions of the US Supreme Court are binding on the country and on its states. This doctrine of incorporation has been the law of the land for most of a century, and the idea that North Carolina can defy it is . . . . well, an indication of how far back into the “good ole days” some current legislators would like to go.
Primary sponsors are Reps. Ford and Warren, plus House Majority Leader Starnes and Appropriations Chair Burr. There are a total of 11 co-sponsors. The good news is that a spokesperson for Speaker Tillis said yesterday that this bill will not come up for a vote in the House. It was referred to House Rules where, presumably, it will die.
HB 451, Election Omnibus, would:
- Shorten the time for early voting by a week.
- Eliminate same-day registration.
- Eliminate Sunday voting during early voting. Many churches, particularly African-American congregations, take part in “Souls to the Polls,” going to vote as a group following Sunday services.
- Make judicial elections partisan (currently they are nonpartisan) and eliminate public funding for judicial campaigns.
- Eliminate straight-ticket voting.
- List candidates on ballots with those of the Governor’s party listed first, followed by others alphabetized by party. (Currently the listing is alphabetized by party.)
Introduced by Rep. Starnes and referred to House Elections.
SB 428, Voting Reform Act, would end one-stop voting and reduce early voting by one week. Introduced by Sen. Tillman and referred to Senate Rules.
SB 495, Election Reform Act, would eliminate public funding for judicial elections (currently funded through tax check-offs and fees on attorneys), Council of State positions (State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instructions, and Commissioner of Insurance) and political parties (also through a $3 check-off option on personal income tax returns). Introduced by Sen. Apodaca and referred to Senate Rules.
The Council has long supported public financing of campaigns, thinking that getting special interest money out of elections increases the influence of those who can’t make big contributions. In the last year without public financing for judicial elections, 73% of funding came from attorneys (who would then be arguing cases before the judges they had supported or whose opponents they had supported) and other special interests. Last year, every candidate for Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals received public financing.
HB 589, the Voter Information Verification Act (VIVA), was introduced by House leaders yesterday. Even the bill’s long title – “An act to restore confidence in government by establishing the Voter Information Verification Act to promote the electoral process through education and increased registration of voters and by requiring voters to provide photo identification before voting to protect the right of each registered voter to cast a secure vote with reasonably security measures that confirm voter identity as accurately as possible without restriction” – speaks to the convoluted nature of requiring a photo ID in order to vote.
The following forms of photo ID, all issued by a government entity, would be accepted:
- A North Carolina drivers license (wording of the bill suggests that another state’s drivers license might also be accepted).
- The special nonoperators ID card which the state already issues, sometimes called a “walkers license”.
- A US passport.
- An employee ID (if the employer is a government entity).
- A US military ID card.
- A student ID card from a state university or community college (but not from a private school).
- An ID issued to a fireman, EMS, hospital employee or law enforcement officer.
- A tribal ID card.
- Those over the age of 70 can continue to use a drivers license that was valid when they turned 70, even if it has later expired.
- Photo ID will not be required of someone “with a sincerely held religious objection to being photographed.” The voter would have to sign a declaration to that effect when registering.
- Photo ID will not be required of a voter with a permanent physical or mental disability recognized by state or federal government.
- Someone who shows up to vote and can’t produce an acceptable photo ID could vote a provisional ballot and then go to the election board shortly after Election Day with photo ID.
- A voter could get the special ID card without paying the fee (currently $10) by signing an affidavit “under penalty of perjury” that paying the fee would be a financial hardship.
- A voter could avoid having to pay fees to get a certified copy of his/her birth certificate or marriage license in order to obtain a photo ID by signing a similar affidavit of financial hardship.
Introduced by Reps. Warren, Murry, T. Moore, and Samuelson, and not yet assigned to a committee.
HB 311, Repeal Literacy Test. You may be surprised to hear that the state Constitution still contains a section saying that any person who wants to register to vote “shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” This was, of course, one of several tactics used by white majorities to prevent African-American minorities from voting. Voters in this state had an opportunity to repeal this provision back in 1970 but, sadly, failed to do so. H 311 would give us another chance to rid our constitution of this offensive provision, something long prohibited by federal voting rights laws. Introduced by Reps. Alexander, Michaux, Jeter, and Warren, and referred to House Rules.
SB 342, Amend Gun Laws, is another bill allowing those with concealed handgun permits to carry their guns into restaurants, including those where alcohol is served, unless the establishment’s owner posts a notice to the contrary. In addition, current law prohibits convicted felons from having firearms; this bill would extend that prohibition to ammunition. Introduced by Sens. Newton, Soucek, Tarte, and referred to Senate Rules.
SB 337, NC Public Charter School Board. Charter schools are public schools, funded by public dollars. They are exempt from some regulations (e.g., not all teachers must be certified) and from some programs (e.g., they don’t have to provide breakfast, lunch, or transportation). The idea behind them was that they could be incubators for innovative education. But they have remained under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education and the (elected) Superintendent of Public Instruction. S 337 would put them under a new board which would deal only with charters. The Board of Education could veto actions taken by the Charter Board, but it would take a 3/4 vote. In addition, charter schools currently can have up to 50% of their teachers non-certified (up to 25% in grades K-5). S 337 would delete any requirements regarding certification. Each school would be able to decide whether or not to require criminal background checks on applicants for employment. Introduced by Sens. Tillman and Soucek. Now in Senate Finance. (These provisions are also found in H 443, introduced by Reps. Hager, Starnes, Hardister, and Johnson, and referred to House Education.)
SB 365, Affordable and Reliable Energy Act, would eliminate the state’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standards (REPS). This requires power companies to generate specified and increasing amounts of electricity from renewable sources (solar, biomass, wind, etc.) and through energy efficiency. S 365 would completely end this significant shift to renewable energy. Introduced by Sen. Brock and referred to Senate Rule
(Editor’s note: With this issue, we welcome Steve Ford to the work of Raleigh Report. Steve retired in December as the editorial page editor at the [Raleigh] News & Observer. He is well known to us in the Triangle through his weekly columns in the N&O. He is also a faithful member of Christ the King Lutheran Church, Cary. He will be covering several legislative issues for us, including tax reform, voting rights, public education, and the death penalty, and will be writing commentary and blogging. We’re honored to have Steve with us.)
North Carolina’s General Assembly is approaching the heart of its 2013 session. There has been time for the work of drafting legislation. Committees are busy screening bills. The full House and Senate have had their say on a number of big issues, with many more in the pipeline. For those of us who want to see major public policies in this state shaped in accord with Christian ideals of concern for the vulnerable and powerless, the signs are troubling.
Republicans who hold solid majorities in both legislative chambers, and who for the first time can look to a fellow Republican in the governor’s office, have made a priority of cutting income tax rates for individuals and companies. These moves would be popular with many taxpayers and, the thinking goes, help create jobs.
Whether that would be the long-term outcome can keep the economists busy with their debates. But subtracting income tax revenue from the state budget would likely have short-term consequences in terms of pinching the funds available to support state programs, including education and health care. Either state government would have to downsize some of those programs, where funding already is modest, or there would have to be other ways to make up for lost revenue.
Senate Bill 669 ‑ introduced this week with Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, the Senate president pro tem, as a primary sponsor ‑ would reduce personal income tax rates and initiate a study of getting rid of the tax altogether.
A lower personal income tax rate would make North Carolina more economically competitive with its Southeastern peers, proponents say. At the same time, a push is developing to shift the tax burden toward those who purchase services while lowering the state sales tax rate. Senate Bill 394, now before the Senate Finance Committee, would accomplish both goals while aiming to keep revenues steady. The bill would level the income tax at six percent for everyone with taxable income – not as progressive as a graduated tax, but a fairer approach than scrapping it altogether. Sponsors include several Democrats who perhaps are in damage-control mode.
A broader overall tax base with lower rates could have advantages in terms of more stable revenue streams and a fairer allocation of the burden. But a dramatic shift toward the taxation of services would be a hardship for many people who use and provide them.
It would be one thing to tax the services of accountants, corporate attorneys, architects, ad agencies and the like. The buyers of those professional services typically aren’t struggling to put food on the table. It would be quite another thing to make the ordinary resident who has to call in a repairman to fix the washing machine pay a tax on top of the bill, or to levy a tax on the work of mechanics who keep people’s vehicles running so they can get to their jobs. For that matter, the added responsibilities of collecting and reporting sales taxes would be hard for many small businesses to manage.
Many North Carolinians must scratch to get by in a state where poverty remains widespread. Wholesale tinkering with the tax code to lessen the burden on those atop the income ladder could end up hurting those who already have to endure more than their share of economic pain and for whom state programs are critically important.
Access to good-quality public schools is a bedrock requirement for North Carolina families to prosper and to lead fulfilling lives. Sadly, that access has been uneven. That makes the quality of the state’s public education system a top priority from the standpoint of social justice and the Christian mandate to care for those in need.
Education budgets must be capable of supporting schools that give young people ample opportunities to flourish. And education policies must not be allowed to undermine the public school mission. North Carolina’s school systems, wrestling with diminished resources and a host of societal challenges, have yet to reach that promised land where every child performs above average. But some skeptics would throw in the towel in favor of loosely regulated charter schools and taxpayer-supported private schools. The teaching profession also is targeted by those too quick to blame teachers for family and social failings.
Senate Bill 337, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale, has been given favorable treatment in one committee and continues its way through the legislative maze. The bill would scrap the system whereby charter schools are regulated by the State Board of Education – a system already weakened by legislators who lifted a statewide cap on the number of such schools – and create a new Public Charter School Board.
Some charters, which are taxpayer-funded but operate outside the regular public school framework, have been very successful, attracting top-flight students and heavily involved parents. Others have failed to do better than the regular schools from which their students are drawn. In any case, allowing charter schools to proliferate even more rapidly, which the new board would be expected to encourage, would draw even more resources, students and family loyalties from traditional schools. That is not a trend acceptable to those of us who want to see weak schools made better rather than abandoned by those who are able to abandon them.
Teachers in North Carolina public schools already must reckon with salaries that rank 46th in the nation. That amounts to a huge disincentive for bright young people to enter the profession, and the state’s school systems perennially struggle with high teacher turnover rates. Against that backdrop, some legislators want to do away with the measure of job protection that is granted to teachers after a four-year probationary period.
Scrapping tenure would put even senior teachers on contracts that had to be renewed every four years or so. There’s no reason to believe this approach would be useful in motivating teachers to work harder or better. Most already are going all-out in an incredibly demanding field. The effect, instead, would be to further demoralize employees who now would be at-risk of being replaced by junior newcomers whom school systems could pay even less.
A change that further erodes the professional standing of public school teachers cannot pass this critical test: Would it help improve the quality of North Carolina’s public school systems? The answer is no, and people who see the provision of high-quality schools as an ethical imperative have no reason to go along.
Turnout in North Carolina’s elections has been boosted by laws taking effect in recent years that allow for early voting, same-day registration and voting on Sunday. Any party or candidate has been free to take advantage of these more flexible rules to get friendly voters to the polls. In practice, Democrats have benefited more than Republicans. Hence current efforts to make the laws more restrictive. A chief example is House Bill 451, whose main sponsor is House Majority Leader Edgar Starnes, from Hickory.
Why should voting procedures be an ethical concern for the N.C. Council of Churches? Because when it becomes less convenient to vote, many of those who are likely to decide that they can’t take the time to cast a ballot are people against whom society’s deck is already stacked. In other words, the poor and powerless are shoved even further to the margins.
Starnes’ bill, now in committee, would make several changes likely to boost Republican prospects. For example, the bill would lop a week off the current three-week early voting period and bar early voting on Sundays. This would alter a system that has proven to be popular with many voters and an efficient way to conduct elections. Why alter it? Just because, from a partisan perspective, too many of the wrong kind of voters have been showing up.
There are sound arguments for not letting people cast their votes months in advance, no matter how much more convenient that might be. But the issue isn’t whether the voting period should be substantially lengthened. It’s whether the current period should be shortened, putting an extra burden on working people who don’t have much flexibility in their schedules. And the shorter the early voting period, the greater the risk that polls on Election Day will be overcrowded, perhaps with some people not able to endure the wait. This is legislation without any principled rationale. Certainly a retreat from the principle that voting should be sensibly convenient, as well as orderly and honest, is one that people in the progressive Christian faith tradition should oppose.
North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. As a sign of how public support for the death penalty has waned in the meantime, last year not a single person received a death sentence in the state’s courts. Life sentences without the possibility of parole – an option that didn’t use to be available – have proven to be an acceptable punishment even for people guilty of vicious murders. There also is a greater public sensitivity to the ways in which the justice system can go askew. People convicted of murder have been exonerated by the disclosure of new evidence. In some instances prosecutors turned out to have railroaded defendants with unfair tactics. It’s no wonder that the zeal to execute has cooled.
But that zeal hasn’t disappeared. Senate Bill 306 represents a move by death penalty supporters to restart the execution machine, as if the hard lessons of the past seven years about the judicial system’s fallibility and juries’ changes of heart could simply be brushed aside.
The bill, whose primary sponsor is Sen. Thom Goolsby of Wilmington, would nullify the authority of state licensing boards to prevent health care professionals from participating in executions. Denial of permission for doctors to help put people to death was initially one of the reasons why executions were put on hold. Now Goolsby invites doctors to join in, contrary to what their own professional arbiters view as proper.
The bill also would repeal all traces of the embattled Racial Justice Act, first approved in 2009 as a way to let condemned prisoners show through the use of statistics that their sentences might have been influenced by racial discrimination.
There is an argument that people on Death Row have only themselves to blame and are getting what they deserve. When someone has killed in cold blood, as most if not all of them have, the punishment must be severe.
But Christians attuned to issues of justice at the deepest levels understand that the code of personal responsibility only goes so far. When the majority of inmates facing death sentences are black, the possibility of racial bias in sentencing cannot be lightly dismissed. And when most of those inmates have had upbringings that are far from ideal, the question arises for the rest of us: Did their crimes signal a larger failing on our part as well? Sadly, we know that the answer in many cases is yes. So any move in the legislature to restart executions is one that people who honor Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness and of care for the downtrodden can and should resist.
‑ Steve Ford