GOP grip on General Assembly will be hard to break
By Jim Morrill
North Carolina Republicans appear poised to keep their solid majorities in the General Assembly, while Democrats face an uphill battle to even chip away at them.
That’s the outlook after Friday’s close of candidate filing, which left nearly a third of the state’s 170 lawmakers unopposed, essentially guaranteeing their re-election.
In Mecklenburg County, eight of 15 state lawmakers are unopposed. Two more face no opposition after the May primary.
Friday saw election lineups set across the state in races from courthouses to Congress. Some contests, particularly for open seats, drew a crowd of candidates. In others, incumbents and even newcomers virtually won free tickets to office.
Early analysis of General Assembly races gives Republicans the upper hand, with both parties targeting their efforts and money at a relative handful of competitive districts.
Districts drawn by GOP lawmakers in 2011 are a big reason for Republican optimism. Those districts helped Republicans to their current 33-17 edge in the Senate and 77-43 margin in the House, both veto-proof majorities.
Democrats “kind of need a tsunami effect to get across some of these district lines,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “It would have to be a big wave to push some of these districts into Democratic hands. I just don’t see it happening.”
To erase those so-called supermajorities, Democrats need a net gain of four seats in the Senate and six in the House.
“I’m very encouraged,” said Casey Wilkinson, House caucus director for the state Democratic Party. “We recruited very strong candidates. The board is set up for us to be playing offense and them to be playing defense.”
Republicans don’t appear worried.
“We certainly won’t take anything for granted, but I think we’re poised to retain a supermajority and possibly make gains,” said Ray Martin, director of the party’s Senate caucus.
Most state legislative districts are safe for one party or another.
Nathan Babcock, political director at the N.C. Chamber, said 28 of the 50 Senate districts lean Republican; 16 lean Democratic. That leaves just a half-dozen that both parties will fight for.
In the worst-case scenario for Republicans, he said, the party would win 28 seats. In the best, they’d take 34 – one more than they have now.
In the House, Babcock counts 14-18 competitive districts. Democrats could virtually sweep those races and still find themselves in the minority, he said.
“It’s very clear that there’s no chance for Democrats to get the majority back,” he said. “The best they could hope for is to … maybe crack the supermajorities.”
One competitive race could be in House District 92 in western Mecklenburg County. In 2012, Republican Charles Jeter won the district with 51 percent of the vote, even though it was also carried by President Barack Obama.
With help from his party, he vastly outspent Democrat Robin Bradford, who Friday filed to challenge him again.
Matt Bales, research director for the pro-business N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, said the number of competitive races won’t really be known until candidates show how much money they can raise, how they campaign and to what extent outside groups get involved.
But Democrats say voters are motivated by the Republican-controlled legislature, which passed laws affecting everything from voting laws to abortion to unemployment compensation.
“This election will be a referendum on what the legislature has done,” said Ford Porter, director of the Senate Democratic caucus. “And I think we’ve got the right candidates to amplify that.”
Moral Mondays, the series of NAACP-led protests against Republican policies, have kept those policies in the news. Josh Thomas, who oversees Republican House campaigns, calls the protests “a two-edged sword.”
“The more (Democrats) drift to the left, the more they run conservative Democrats into our camp,” he said.
In addition to all the unopposed candidates, many face only a primary. That means the winner of the primary will move on with no opposition.
That’s true in crowded races such as Senate District 40 in east and northeast Mecklenburg, where five Democrats are vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. Malcolm Graham, who’s running for Congress.
Brent Laurenz, executive director of the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, said when candidates run unopposed, “voters don’t really have a choice when they go to the ballot box.”
Julie Boonstra, a cancer patient who was kicked of off her health plan due to Obamacare, lashed out at Rep. Gary Peters (D., Mich.) on Saturday after lawyers for his campaign demanded that Michigan broadcasters cease airing ads featuring her story.
Boonstra, a Michigan resident, was diagnosed with leukemia five years ago. She was recently kicked off of her healthcare plan due to regulations passed as part of President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which Peters voted in favor of.
After relating her story publicly in an ad produced by the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Peters dispatched lawyers to prevent the spot from running on local television stations.
Boonstra, who says she is now struggling to pay out of pocket for her rising healthcare costs, told the Washington Free Beacon she is stunned by Peters’ efforts to censor her story.
“I’m appalled. I’m appalled as a mom, as a woman, and as a cancer patient, as someone living with cancer … who has stood before this nation to say, ‘I cannot afford that out of pocket expense,’” said Boonstra, who said she was given a 20 percent chance of surviving her disease. “As a Michigan resident, to silence my voice, I’m absolutely appalled.”
Peters, who is running for a seat in the Senate, instructed his legal council earlier this week to demand that stations stop running the AFP ad until additional evidence of the cancer victim’s claims could be produced.
“For the sake of both FCC licensing requirements and the public interest, your station should immediately require AFP to provide the factual documentation for its claims if you are going to continue airing this advertising,” read the letter from Peters’ lawyers.
The letter went on to question Boonstra’s motives and the facts presented in AFP’s ad.
Boonstra said she is “surprised” by what she described as the Peters campaign’s strong-arm tactics.
“I’m very surprised,” Boonstra said just hours after she attempted to confront Peter face-to-face at his Bloomfield Hills residence. “I have every right to tell my story and express my point of view and opinion on how Obamacare has affected me.”
Boonstra attempted to confront the congressman at his door, but he did not answer when she knocked.
“I just went up to his house and knocked on his door,” Boonstra recalled. “I would like to meet with him, but he did not answer. I know someone was home, so I left a letter there for him.”
Boonstra wrote in her letter, “I don’t understand why you’re trying to silence my voice. I have every right to speak out and don’t understand why you’re doing this.”
A spokesman for the Peters campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
“The fact that Representative Peters would sic his legal team on a Michigan mother battling cancer to muzzle her tells you everything you need to know about his record of putting politics over people,” AFP-Michigan State Director Scott Hagerstrom said in a statement.
“This attack on her credibility is disgusting, unwarranted, and inexcusable,” Hagerstrom said. “Congressman Peters and his indecent campaign team should be ashamed of themselves.”
RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican leaders will propose Monday a higher minimum salary for North Carolina’s least experienced public school teachers as part of a long-awaited proposal designed to improve morale and retention.
The plan, detailed in a document obtained by The Associated Press, would in part ensure all public school teachers make a base salary of at least $33,000 during the 2014-15 school year and at least $35,000 the following year.
McCrory, Senate leader Phil Berger, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest planned to make “a major education policy announcement” Monday morning at Ragsdale High School in Guilford County, where McCrory attended in the 1970s. McCrory’s office declined to provide additional details, but legislators have said a pay announcement would come this week.
Not counting local supplements, North Carolina’s public school teachers with zero to five years of experience currently make a base salary of $30,800. Teachers have had one experience-based salary increase since the 2008-09 school year, and that increase was 1.2 percent in 2012. Teachers with six and seven years of experience currently earn a base salary of less than $33,000. At least 24,000 teachers would benefit from the increase, according to the document explaining the pay proposal.
The new salary floors are estimated to cost roughly $200 million over the two years, the document said. The General Assembly would have to approve any plan before it goes to McCrory’s desk, but a scene of Republican unity Monday could signal an increase that will almost assuredly occur during this election year.
The salary proposal would equate to a 7.1 percent increase for the next school year for those with bachelor’s degrees currently at the bottom of the teacher pay schedule. Going from $33,000 to $35,000 would be another 6 percent increase.
RALEIGH — The N.C. Supreme Court has rejected a request to delay the 2014 primary elections.
Groups challenging the North Carolina legislative and congressional districts drawn three years ago had sought the delay. With no elaboration as to why, the state’s highest court issued its decision Friday.
Earlier this month, attorneys for Democratic voters and civil rights groups argued that it would be disruptive to proceed with the established election cycle while constitutional questions linger about the 2011 maps.
The filing period for candidates seeking seats in the state General Assembly and the U.S. House is set to open Feb. 10 and close on Feb. 28. Primary elections are set for May 6.
“Sufficient time may not now exist for this Court to properly resolve the significant federal and state constitutional questions presented in this appeal,” the request for relief stated.
The attorneys argued that a delay would let prospective candidates “know with certainty the configuration of the election districts” before they filed for office. Not doing so, the redistricting challengers contended, could lead to disruption for candidates, election officials and the public if the legal process led to districts with different shapes.
Attorneys who sought the delay had pointed to a court order issued in 2002, when there was a similar challenge of legislative and congressional maps drawn by the General Assembly. The 2002 order halted the election process after it began, shifting the May primary elections to mid-September of that year.
The justices heard arguments on Jan. 6 about the legislative and congressional districts adopted by the Republican legislature three years ago. The districts are intended to be used through the 2020 elections.
In July, a three-member panel of N.C. Superior Court judges validated the districts, rejecting an argument by Democratic voters and civil rights organizations that some of the districts were racially gerrymandered to weaken the influence of black voters
When was the last time you used a set of encyclopedias to look up a critical piece of information? Seems like the transition to the digital age has seamlessly happened as we look up facts via Google, manage our bills and banking online or send co-workers e-mails to arrange meetings. North Carolina’s schools are embarking on the same shift as the state transitions into the digital environment in public education.
Most of the texts that the schools use can be part of a digital bookshelf kept on an Internet cloud, a more efficient way to store information and increasingly the way that students learn. The online content is much richer. “You’ve got assessments, you’ve got virtual labs and you’ve got blogging,” explains one teacher.
Online history books, for example, include videos on subjects ranging from Winston Churchill to Malcolm X, science books show scientific processes in motion and online English books grade an essay and offer students a worksheet on the proper use of various grammatical applications. School technology directors say that textbooks can be updated as often as needed whereas printed textbooks are outdated the moment that they are handed to a student.
The economic advantage is clear as well. For example, the average cost of a middle school math textbook is well over $50 – compared to a grade-level digital textbook that can be made available for a few dollars. Even better, the digital textbook prices are rapidly falling.
The North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) has correctly identified the way forward for students in this digital world. This past session, the NCGA set aside nearly $30 million in the 2013-15 budget for digital learning and technology, $11.9 million in lottery funds and $18 million in civil fines and forfeiture funds. The NCGA also made good on the promise to expand local control by giving Local Education Areas (LEA’s) the ability to use other sources of funds for textbook purchases. Many of the state’s districts have already moved decisively to develop and implement digital learning resources to fill their unique needs.
But the transition to digital textbook technology is only part of the ongoing discussion that has been taking place regarding textbook funding. The current Republican Majority took on this issue after the previous Democrat-controlled legislature slashed textbook funding in the 2009-10 school year by more than $100 million. Since then, the Republican Majority has been working to restore textbook funding which is now 10-fold greater than when Republicans took over the majority in 2011 – as well as promoting the modernization of text books through digital options.
Just as you wouldn’t revert back to looking up information via encyclopedias, the future of education is not in handing out expensive printed textbooks for students to lug back and forth from school to home. And while digital textbooks are no panacea for education outcomes –there is much work ahead including the challenges of connectivity, bandwidth and access to devices – it’s clear that the digital approach is the future to make our students among the most competitive and best in the nation.
North Carolina’s schools will not meet the challenges of the future by focusing on the past. We – each parent, teacher, legislator and taxpayer – must be involved in making North Carolina a leader in the digital world – and digital textbooks are an essential way to start.
D. Craig Horn
Representative, District 68
By Becki Gray
Jan. 16th, 2014
RALEIGH — If 2013 was the year of reform, 2014 promises to be the year of recovery.
Tax reform goes into effect in 2014, lowering tax rates for every individual and corporation in the state. Regular review and routine repeal of burdensome regulations will begin to loosen government’s grip on businesses, signaling that North Carolina is again open for business and welcomes entrepreneurs and investors.
Infrastructure investments and long-term responsible fiscal planning send a strong signal that we are back in the game. Education reforms will ensure those earning high school diplomas have market-ready skills; this will encourage job creators to choose North Carolina.
It’s early, of course, but we are seeing signs that North Carolina is coming out of the recession and may even rebound faster than any state in the country as our counterparts and competitors struggle to retain fiscal stability after five years of an oppressive downturn.
For the first time in five years, North Carolina is expecting an economic recovery in 2014. Consumer confidence is the highest in six years. Housing prices are increasing at a steady rate for the first time in five years. After many dark days, things are looking brighter.
According to a September 2013 UNC-Charlotte economic forecast, North Carolina’s Gross State Product is expected to grow by 3.3 percent over the 2013 level, which was 2.1 percentage points higher than 2012. All major economic sectors are expected to grow, with agriculture surging by 16.5 percent. For the first time, total GSP is expected to exceed $500 billion.
After months with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, North Carolina’s unemployment rate is now 7.4 percent — the lowest since December 2008. We added 56,800 jobs from November 2012 through November 2013. From June 2011 — during the first fiscal year of Republican control of the General Assembly — to November 2013, North Carolina has added 171,000 jobs, a growth rate of 4.4 percent, and faster than the national rate of 4.0 percent. North Carolina’s underemployment rate is dropping, too, down to 14.7 percent from a previous-year high of 17 percent.
The General Assembly’s October 2013 fiscal research quarterly revenue report found total General Fund revenue was up by 5.7 percent, with total tax revenue up 5.5 percent. General Fund revenue is about $80 million higher than expected. And we’re hearing rumors that the “surplus” may grow as the year progresses, alleviating the budget crunch of the last few years.
N.C. State University economist Mike Walden predicts even higher job growth in North Carolina in 2014 — more than 100,000 new jobs and a drop in the unemployment rate to 6.8 percent. He credits four factors for North Carolina’s recovery — an increase in construction, more college graduates, a growing number of retirees, and a renewed strength in manufacturing.
As the national economy improves, demand for products and output increases. As demand rises, North Carolina is poised to take advantage of new opportunities. North Carolina is the fourth-largest manufacturing state in the country and is the Southeastern leader in manufacturing employment.
North Carolina’s manufacturing sector is transitioning from reliance on tobacco and furniture production to becoming a top competitor in aerospace, aviation, automotive, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, information technology, and software. Manufacturing comprises about 20 percent of North Carolina’s GSP and is the largest source of exports from the state. Efficiencies, automation, and cost-competitiveness have transformed the manufacturing industry, bringing new jobs and opportunities.
Public policy decisions are critical to the success and nurturing of any industry. Policies enacted in 2013 put North Carolina in the position to be a national leader in 2014.
North Carolina’s economy already is showing improvement. Large economies are complicated and sensitive to all kinds of influences. Decisions made at the federal level (sequestration, Obamacare) and international events (Middle East unrest, financial concerns in Europe) have an impact in North Carolina. But sound policy decisions by the General Assembly and the McCrory administration are helping to turn the state in the right direction.
During the 2012 election cycle, we were promised changes that would get people back to work and make them less dependent on government. We saw reforms enacted in 2013 that laid the groundwork to make good on those promises.
It’s been tough. It’s taken bold thinking, commitment, and a strong backbone to implement changes — making our tax system fair, loosening the grip of government regulations, ending decades of political patronage in transportation projects, and revamping a failing education system.
We’re on the right track, and in 2014 North Carolina should begin to enjoy the positive results of keeping those promises.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, charged President Obama with a pattern of “lawlessness on a breathtaking scale” that he said even liberal Democrats will come to regret when a future president seeks to exercise similar unbridled power.
Cruz said Friday morning at the last day of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Orientation for the Texas Legislature that, from giving relief from departation to some young unauthorized immigrants to enforcement of drug laws to waiving rules for Obamacare, the president has acted by executive fiat in defiance of the rule of law.
“We are a nation of laws and not men,” said Cruz. “If we had a system where a president can pick and choose what laws to follow at utter whim … that is seriously dangerous.”
Cruz said the liberal media refuses to accurately report the threat to liberty of the Obama presidency, and makes excuses for the president’s overreaches.
But, he said, “If you’re a liberal, if you’re a Democrat, if you’re a reporter for the New York Times, maybe you’re saying, ‘he’s my guy. I root for my guy. I don’t like some of the things he’s doing but he’s basically my guy so he’s OK.’”
But Cruz warned those with that mindset that they ought to contemplate that their “guy ain’t gonna be there forever. If this president has that power so does the next one and the next one and the next one, and my message to all the Democrats and all the liberals is, what do you think about the next president, maybe a Republican, having the power Barack Obama has as a president who is not bound by the law?”
“If you love liberty, that should concern you greatly,” said Cruz.