The Council of Churches’ Legislative Seminar – its top-profile public event of the year – is meant to inform, and it’s meant to inspire. We’re not too bashful to say that this year’s version, held on April 14 at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, succeeded on both counts.
With the General Assembly moving into the heart of its biennial “long session” – and with conservative legislators seemingly bent on deepening many of the ill-advised holes they’ve been digging for themselves and the state – the seminar focused on a wide range of North Carolina’s biggest policy challenges.
Presenters at a day-long series of workshops drilled into the folly of tax cuts that hinder important state programs while shifting the tax burden unfairly towards the poor. They highlighted the risks to public education of loosely regulated charter schools and of tuition vouchers for private schools. They discussed the civic perils of gerrymandered election districts and of underfunded, overly politicized courts – to name just a few of the topics on the agenda.
The idea was to help bring progressive advocates into the loop and up to speed so they can more effectively work to boost good ideas in the legislature and counter ones that would make life more difficult for ordinary North Carolinians. That’s in keeping with the Council’s commitment to advancing the cause of social justice in its many forms.
The seminar was bookended with two services in the Greenwood Forest sanctuary that put the progressive policy agenda in a faith-based context.
The Rev. David Forbes, longtime civil rights activist, progressive Raleigh pastor and current dean of the divinity school at Shaw University, preached in the morning. Taking his listeners back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, Forbes invoked the fig leaves that Adam and Eve are said to have worn to try to hide their shame after they sinned in defiance of God.
Legislators’ excuses for their harmful policies – such as voting restrictions, failing to extend Medicaid benefits to thousands of the poor, spending cuts that squeeze the public schools – amount to their own fig leaves, Forbes suggested, and are equally useless in shielding them from the truth.
After a morning round of workshops, the luncheon program was highlighted by presentation of the Council’s Faith Active in Public Life Award and its Distinguished Service Award. Indeed, another of the seminar’s purposes is to recognize and honor North Carolinians who, putting their faith into practice, have made singular contributions to the social justice cause.
The Faith Active Award was presented to WRAL-TV news anchor David Crabtree, saluting his role as a vocational deacon in the Episcopal Church and his efforts to console hospice patients and inmates on death row. Several past honorees were on hand, including the previous award recipient, UNC-Chapel Hill law professor and anti-poverty advocate Gene Nichol. Sèkinah Hamlin received the Distinguished Service Award. An ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she is a Charlotte native and former Council president who now heads the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative based in Washington, D.C.
Now hear this
Over their box lunches, attendees also received brief updates – news flashes, if you will – about some bills of special interest now percolating at the Legislative Building. Some of them deserve hearty support from the Council’s allies, and one ought to be stopped in its tracks. Here’s a rundown:
- House Bill 250 and its twin, Senate Bill 296, aimed at promoting healthier eating by people who find themselves living in so-called food deserts, where access to fresh, nutritious food is lacking. This is typically a problem in lower-income urban neighborhoods and in remote rural areas where the only food outlets tend to be small corner markets and convenience stores, primarily stocked with canned goods, soft drinks, beer and snacks. The bills would channel $1 million during the upcoming fiscal year through county health departments to help the owners of such stores install refrigeration, shelving and other means of marketing healthy, “nutrient-dense” products. The goal would be to reduce obesity, diabetes and other conditions associated with poor diet. Sponsors of this well-aimed effort include Democrat Yvonne Lewis Holley of Raleigh and Republicans Chris Whitmire of Rosman, Brian Brown of Salisbury and Donny Lambeth of Winston-Salem in the House; Democrat Don Davis of Snow Hill and Republican Louis Pate of Mount Olive in the Senate. Jill Staton Bullard, CEO and co-founder of the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, championed the bill at the seminar.
- H.B. 450 and its twin, S.B. 662, establishing 10 regional teen tobacco use prevention programs covering the state’s 100 counties. The bills also would support efforts to deter the use of “emerging” nicotine-delivery products such as e-cigarettes, which critics say can be a smoking gateway. The bills would include programs to help college campuses become smoke-free and to protect children from second-hand smoke. They would invest $7 million in each of the next two fiscal years – a modest price in view of the health consequences and costs to taxpayers of tobacco use. House Sponsors are Republicans Donny Lambeth of Winston-Salem and Gary Pendleton of Raleigh, Democrats Gale Adcock of Cary and Graig Meyer of Hillsborough; in the Senate, Democrat Mike Woodard of Durham, Republicans Fletcher Hartsell Jr. of Concord and Stan Bingham of Denton. Pam Seamans, executive director of NC Alliance for Health, encouraged seminar attendees to get behind the bills.
- S.B. 681, entitled the “Consumer Access to Credit Act” but perhaps more fittingly called the “Predatory Lenders’ Aiding and Abetting Act.” North Carolina’s consumer advocates have fought for years to tighten regulation on the kinds of small-loan shops to which many people turn when they’re desperate for money. That desperation can of course make them easy marks for lenders who’d be perfectly happy to entangle them in unbreakable chains of debt owing to high interest rates and other charges. This bill, covering loans between $300 and $1,500, would clear the way for more such abuse, as borrowing charges could exceed the amount of the loan itself. For loans up to $500, lenders could charge a monthly “handling fee” of $5 for each $100 borrowed. The loan could stretch up to 24 months. So a $500 borrower who took 24 months to repay would end up paying $600 in fees. The handling fee for loans greater than $500 would be $4 monthly per $100 borrowed. So a $1,500 borrower who repaid after 24 months would have to come up with fees totaling $1,440. How is someone who had to resort to this kind of loan – perhaps for a doctor’s bill, or to get a car fixed – supposed to absorb these kinds of fees in addition to repaying the principal? Oh, and lenders also could charge an “investigation fee” amounting to 10 percent of the borrowed amount. Welcome to the debt trap, which Republican Sen. Rick Gunn of Burlington, S.B. 681’s sponsor, would not-so-helpfully lay. At the seminar, it fell to Susan Lupton, senior policy associate with the Durham-based Center for Responsible Lending, to point out the bill’s dangers.
Bringing info to bear
A premise of the seminar, and of the Council’s overall program, is that effective advocacy flows from plentiful information, both about the issues at stake and about the processes by which the state’s legislative sausage gets made.
The General Assembly’s own website is full of the kinds of information advocates can use: how to contact legislators, how to figure out who represents whom, committee assignments, schedules and calendars, bill texts and histories, records of votes. The Council, by harnessing the efforts of church members across a range of denominations, hopes to raise a strong voice on behalf of people who often have trouble being heard in the corridors of power.
The seminar’s final round of workshops offered, among other topics, a look at Gov. Pat McCrory’s role in the legislative arena – will he try to mitigate the damage being done by his fellow Republicans? — and at the troubling status of North Carolina’s underpaid, under-respected public school teachers.
Then it was back to the sanctuary for a brief closing service led by Greenwood Forest’s pastor, the Rev. Ben Boswell – brief but inspirational, as Boswell echoed David Forbes’ call for social justice and highlighted church-goers’ duty to address the needs of the “the least of these.”
Many social ministries to which Christians devote their contributions and countless hours of their time help make life more tolerable for those who struggle with low income, inadequate housing, lack of access to health care, lack of opportunity in the workforce.
The Council hopes to make a difference as well where the public policies are forged that can either make this a fairer, healthier and more prosperous state for all, or that can – out of misguided priorities and simple disregard for the welfare of others – make matters worse. The Legislative Seminar was an assertive step in that direction.