Sunday News: From the Editorial pages


ILLEGAL LEGISLATORS CAN'T ENACT LEGAL LAWS: Should legislators, improperly elected from judicially ruled illegal racially gerrymandered districts, be able to enact laws that perpetuate racial discrimination? To most common-sense people -- even attorneys (such as state Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore) who learned the “fruit from the poisonous tree” concept in law school – the answer is an obvious “no.” And that is why Friday’s 4-3 State Supreme Court ruling says legislators likely lacked legal authority in 2018 to claim to be representing anyone and thus couldn’t enact legislation to amend the State Constitution. In the case at hand – it is Constitutional Amendments requiring presentation of a photo ID to vote and barring any increase in the state’s income tax rate above 7%. It is the job of the courts to review and determine if the legislature’s actions accord with the State Constitution. When those actions fall short, it is the courts’ job to negate those actions and apply appropriate remedies with which legislators must comply. That isn’t any infringement on anything. It is called the rule of law. That is what democracy is about in North Carolina and the United States. And their response is to attack that very authority that protects our Constitution, the state Supreme Court's oversight of the Legislature. That's what 3rd World dictators do, not responsible elected officials.

STOP IT WITH "I PAID MY STUDENT LOANS." HERE'S WHAT NC SCHOOLS COST BACK THEN: Appalachian State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and NC State University all had tuition and fees less than $500 in 1972. Now, each of them charge more than $7,000 annually; the latter two charge nearly $9,000 each. Since Biden announced student debt relief yesterday, there have been countless conservatives yelling about people receiving “handouts” and not paying for college the same way everyone else did. The reality is that funding cuts from the Reagan administration to the 2008 recession have resulted in rising college costs forced on students most everywhere. If costs of college rose with inflation from my parents’ time in college, my yearly tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill should have been a little over $1,000. Instead, it was more than $6,600. UNC-Chapel Hill’s tuition and fees add up to $8,751.46 for the 2022-23 school year. It means that, without factoring in taxes, you’d need to work 1,207 hours at the state’s minimum wage to cover the cost. That’s more than 30 weeks of work, and more than twice the length of the university’s summer break. Of course, none of this includes the rising costs of housing, food, transportation, and textbooks, nor does it take into account the way the state’s cities have grown at different rates. It does, however, tell us something that any recent college graduate will tell you: “paying your own way” is not what it used to be. Even by the mid-1980's, attending University was affordable. My tuition at Campbell (private University, no less) was $530 per 2 month term, 9 hours of credits. That's a little over $7,000 for a 120 hour Bachelor's degree. The cost of those 9 credit hours is now over $6,000, or $79,800 for that same 120 hours. That's tuition only, excluding room & board, meals, textbooks, etc. So yeah, Boomers and even some GenX need to STFU about what they were able to do, it's not relevant.

LEGISLATIVE LEADERS GET MORE SPECIFIC ON CHANGING NC ABORTION LAWS: It was a remarkably specific statement about how Senate Leader Phil Berger wants to change the state’s laws concerning abortion. Abortion after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy would be banned – with narrow exceptions. Until Berger’s comments earlier this week, legislative leaders had been vague about their plans. “I would say that after the first trimester, the state has an absolute interest in regulating the incidence of abortion,” Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said. House Speaker Tim Moore remained unspecific, repeating his generalities that he personally supports legislation banning abortions when an ultrasound detects fetal cardiac activity – starting at about five weeks after fertilization and often before a patient is aware of their pregnancy. While Berger and Moore hold tight reins over what happens in the legislature, they aren’t the only voices. Even they confess other members of the legislature, a wide range of interest groups and even their constituents might have something to say about it. That is why North Carolinians should demand legislative candidates who want their votes explain – in detail – what their position is on women’s access to abortion and related health and pregnancy regulations. Do candidates want to keep North Carolina’s abortion laws as they were prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade? One of the biggest challenges I see in getting answers to these questions is the sad state of local news. The Capitol Press Corps simply cannot chase down all 170 elected officials (not to mention all the candidates challenging incumbents), so it's up to the regional news outlets to try to get them on record. Some of those won't even try, even if they have enough staff to make the effort. I don't care if a district is +25 R, the women in that district deserve an answer.

ON SCRAPPY JOE BIDEN AND STUDENT LOAN FORGIVENESS: Yesterday, I watched snippets of Joe Biden’s speech at a DNC fundraiser in Maryland. I want to see more of that guy. He was feisty and sharp, delivering jabs and promoting his record. Going into the midterms, Democrats need fighting Joe Biden. His performance conflicted sharply with GOP portrayals of Biden as senile and frail. He looked ready for a fight to me. They need to put him on the road. Now, for the student loan forgiveness program. First, I don’t have a problem with easing the burden of people with student debt. We’ve bailed out banks, car makers, big corporations, small business, you name it, so I don’t mind helping people who were trying to get ahead in life, too. That said, I don’t think we did right. The loan forgiveness program should have been part of a larger program to fix our higher education system. Without addressing the causes of the student debt crisis, we’re just waiting for the next loan forgiveness program. As one writer notes, “Young Americans of modest means can no longer afford to attend their state university by getting a part-time job and taking out a small loan. For millions of students, borrowing thousands of dollars has become the key to paying for an undergraduate degree.” We need to make college more affordable. Since the days of Reagan, investments in public higher education have been shrinking. That needs to change. We need to shift resources into public education, both in the university and community college systems. Community colleges should be free to anyone who wants to get the skills necessary to work in their local economy. That’s both an investment in people and a subtle subsidy to private companies by saving them the cost of training new employees. A well-trained workforce is a vital part of economic development. Overall, the news for Democrats keeps getting better and they appear to be going on the offensive. Biden looked fiery on the stump yesterday and is heading to Ohio next. The GOP got their wish and overturned Roe v. Wade and now they have to live with it. As Republicans come out against the student loan forgiveness program, the Biden administration is hitting back, pointing out how much GOP Members of Congress got from the PPP loan forgiveness program under COVID. Keep it up. I've seen a few folks saying we should not be pointing out the PPP loan forgiveness issue, because forgiveness was baked into the program in the first place. I don't care, it's still relevant, and exposes GOP hypocrisy in a stark manner. So yes, keep it up.

A $1.6 BILLION DONATION LAYS BARE A BROKEN CAMPAIGN FINANCE SYSTEM: One man has donated $1.6 billion to a nonprofit group controlled by a conservative activist who has crusaded, with startling success, to transform the country’s politics. The only reason the public knows about it? An insider tipoff to the New York Times. The Times reported this week that electronics mogul Barre Seid last year gave 100 percent of the shares of surge protector and data-center equipment manufacturer Tripp Lite to a group called Marble Freedom Trust. The group is led by Leonard Leo — who has helped bankroll right-wing advocacy on abortion rights, voting and climate change, among other things. His chief focus for a time was reshaping the judiciary as executive vice president of the Federalist Society, including by advising Republican presidents on Supreme Court nominees. The tale of how his group got such a lavish gift underscores the sad state of this country’s campaign finance system. The Marble Freedom Trust donation, possibly the largest ever to such an advocacy group in U.S. history, manages to encapsulate in a single case the problems with the status quo. The issue isn’t merely the distortion of democracy enabled by 2010′s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision allowed for unlimited political spending by corporations and outside groups — to which, in turn, the ultra-wealthy can funnel unlimited funds of their own. The issue is also that the distortion remains, in most cases, invisible. Nonprofits groups registered as 501(c)(4)s, like Marble Freedom Trust, don’t have to disclose their donors. Adding insult to injury, donors can also use these nonprofits to dodge taxes — in this instance, to the tune of somewhere around $400 million. To sell his company on his own, Mr. Seid would have had to pay capital gains taxes, leaving him with less to bequeath to Marble Freedom Trust. But as supposed “social welfare organization,” 501(c)(4)s are exempt from paying taxes. So instead he handed his shares over to the trust, which then itself sold Tripp Lite: for the $1.6 billion now in Mr. Leo’s coffers. As a result, dutiful everyday taxpayers essentially finance the extravagant expenditures of the privileged few, who use their know-how to avoid their obligations and twist the political landscape. The Amerigarchy is out of control, and have systematically eroded our ability to bring it back under control. And they will not rest on their laurels; they will continue to march us down the road to Fascism, under the guise of "Free Market" reform.


ARNETHIA ALEXANDER: WHY DID THIS MAN HAVE TO DIE? I am concerned about an article that appeared in the Sunday, June 26, Salisbury Post newspaper. The front page article is entitled: “Officer shoots, kills man with knife.” I have been waiting for a follow-up report on this case. I do not know the victim, Steven Ray Johnson, but this incident is very troubling to me. I am disturbed because (1) the man was in an accident, (2) was the man trying to get away from someone when his vehicle struck a tree? (3) did he sustain head injuries as a result of the accident? (4) was he traumatized and/or confused? and (5) why did those professionals who are supposed to protect and serve not try to talk him down, use a taser, and if the use of a gun was truly necessary, why not shoot him in the leg or some other non-life threatening part of his body? Did he have to be killed just because he hit a tree? Mr. Johnson was a human being. I could and still can be that person. I have family members, friends, students (former and current), neighbors, and just humans in general who could find themselves in a similar situation. This does not make sense. It sincerely hurts my heart. It is so frustrating to know that some people care more about guns and bullets than human beings. Where is the accountability for this tragedy? On Jake Alexander Boulevard, on the front lawn of the radio station was a sign that said, “Our Unborn Matter.” Even before the highest court in the land handed down its decision, my response to that sign was always the same, “Until They Are Born.” For Mr. Steven Ray Johnson, I ask: Where was his right to life? Why did his life not matter? We all know the answer to this one, and it's infuriating. If he had been white, police would have bent over backwards to take him alive, and he would probably have only received probation, if that much.

FRANCIS KOSTER: ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS IMPACT LEARNING: To be clear: I am in favor of paying people more if they do their jobs well. That said, there are several badly designed proposals now before the N.C. Legislature aimed at changing how public school K-12 teachers and administrators are evaluated and compensated. The proposed new law would have educators’ pay raised only if the students’ learning improved year-after-year on state-wide tests. This is profoundly unfair to those who teach in older school buildings. Learning is impacted by many things besides the teachers, the most powerful of which is the quality of air the students breathe. If the classroom air is not rich in oxygen, and contains too much pollution, learning drops one or two letter grades every year. According to the EPA half of all classrooms in America have poor indoor air quality. Surveys we have done in several school districts confirm this. If you are a educator working in an old school building, there is no way your students can improve at the rate the students in a recently built school building down the street will. These soon-to-be-voted-on state rules are like the people in charge of the Atlantic Coast Conference football schedule requiring UNC players wear 10 pound ankle weights when playing Duke, and win, before getting their championship award. In fact, it is worse than that, because the football players may lose a game. The kids lose their future. The quality of school facilities is directly affected by the economic prosperity (or lack of) in the county, and that needs to change. But don't expect the NC GOP to do anything about it; public schools are not even on their radar, except as a target for destruction.

MARSHA SCHMIDT: RADICAL VS LIBERAL FEMINISM: Whether any woman changes her name or shaves under her arms is really no one’s business. But Kate Cohen tried to make it our business by saying that if women don’t model what she considers to be true feminist behavior, other women won’t be empowered to take a similar stance. If a woman is so swayed by what other women do, if a woman does not have the courage or strength or confidence to do what she wants without reference to what other women are doing, then that woman has a lot of work to do. It has nothing to do with feminism. If a woman wants to be treated equally, she must first figure out how to be her own person and to not be influenced by what other women think or by standards set by others. As an example, some women like to wear three-inch heels. I don’t. I could argue they are a vestige of men’s views on what women should look like and akin to foot binding. Whether I believe that or not, I don’t wear those shoes because they are uncomfortable. If others want to mangle their feet and suffer back problems, that is their business. Let’s get to that point for all women. Have confidence in your choices. Do what you want — not because you are role modeling but because you are doing what is best for you. Then we can talk about what to do about being treated equally to men. At the risk of edging into mansplaining territory, I will say this: any group that seeks to impose "purity tests" in their own ranks is flirting with disaster, and potentially stifling the very thing they (claim to) want most, freedom and equality.



Affordable housing redux

Do you ever get the feeling you're speaking a different language than everybody else around you? You make an observation that's glaringly obvious, but those around you can't seem to grasp it? Well, that's how I'm beginning to feel about the affordable housing conundrum.

First, let me state bluntly that affordability is not "relative," at least as far as the most important aspects of it. It is (or should be) based on the lower (if not the lowest) income brackets, those who are trying to survive on minimum wage, or whatever your local entry-level, non-skilled worker can earn. That person is doing better now than five years ago, but that may be a transitory benefit of a tight labor market. It is not to be relied upon for future projections.

Affordability in housing should definitely not be based on median incomes, especially if you're going to designate a high percent of that as your target goal. Here's an example:

Kane Realty is now offering what it calls affordable “micro-units” in its efforts to convince city leaders to allow up to 40 stories for its North Hills rezoning. The new zoning conditions will be submitted by Friday, the latest update in a rezoning request for seeking additional height in the heart of North Hills. The new conditions were discussed during a Raleigh City Council committee meeting Thursday afternoon. Developers were already offering space for a new transit center and a fire station expansion, but said the new micro-units, with a capped square footage of 600 feet, could be a way to address the housing affordability aspect.

Plans approved by the Raleigh City Council in December 2020 say that rezoning requests with more than seven stories should include affordable housing at 80% of the area median income (AMI) for at least 10 years. The developers used a formula looking at the area median income for a one-person household, $59,950, and the rent per square foot in the North Hills area ($2.22 per square foot) to determine a 600-square-foot maximum unit, or micro-unit, as affordable.

"That's $1,332 rent for a 600 square foot apartment. Not even close to affordable." That was my comment on a Facebook post by a Raleigh housing affordability group. After a few comments, I was forced to add:

"Even at $15 per hour, that rent is 70 percent of take home pay. At $12 per hour it's 93 percent of take home pay. That rent doesn't need to go up to be unaffordable, it's already there."

Hopefully you're beginning to see what I'm driving at. Municipal governments have allowed developers to interject the (flawed) metric of median income in defining affordability. And by doing so, they have made that word pointless. And even self-serving, to a certain degree, because those officials can falsely claim they are actually working on the problem, when they are not. Does that ruffle your feathers, that I should characterize them so? Sorry, but that's how it appears to me.

Here's the thing: tiny apartment, tiny house, none of that matters as long as the market determines the cost. Using that approach, In order for those apartments to be truly affordable for somebody earning $12 per hour, they would need to be 300 square feet. Yes, that's ludicrous. But that's what you get when you allow the market to set your definitions for you.

The affordability range for an apartment is $650-$900 per month. Period. And that $900 is pushing it, frankly, but I'm willing to give a slight nod to the regional market. Whatever magical formula you use that brings it higher than that is flawed, and needs to go into the shredder.