Justice Center discusses schools, taxes, energy
By Jon Hawley
Monday, May 21, 2018
Progressive policy analysts visited in Elizabeth City over the weekend to host workshops on pressing state issues — and to encourage local action to solve them.
During a Community Public Policy Forum held at The Mount church on Saturday, staffers with the Raleigh-based NC Justice Center delved into policy issues with local citizens on everything from education and taxes to health care and energy. The Pasquotank County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized the forum.
Pasquotank NAACP President Keith Rivers said he had long sought to organize the forum, and intended it to be the first of several meetings to inform and mobilize citizens to seek policy changes to improve their community. The forum's attendees rotated through four workshops that advocated progressive approaches to state issues, often in opposition to how Republican lawmakers have handled them since taking control of the Legislature in 2010.
Matt Ellinwood, the Justice Center’s education and law project director, and Sarah Montgomery, a center policy advocate, told attendees more funding is needed for public education. Also needed, they said, are efforts to close racial disparities between white and black students, including in Pasquotank.
Ellinwood said tax cuts have cost the state $2.5 billion in revenue that could have gone to education and other services. Lawmakers have still increased funding for education, he acknowledged, but he argued those increases haven't restored schools to pre-recession funding levels.
“They've sort of slowly brought us back, but we still haven't reached where we were in terms of per-pupil expenditures,” he said, also claiming the state has fewer teachers now and is spending far less on textbooks.
On teacher pay — a burning issue in recent years — Ellinwood similarly said North Carolina remains well below the national average on teacher salaries.
He said state funding has been so limited it's pressured counties to increase school funding. That's heightened disparities in school performance between rich and poor communities, and between white and black students, he said.
He also highlighted those disparities for Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, citing statistics from the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. It found that, for the 2016-17 school year, only about a fifth of black students in grades 3-12 scored as “college and career ready” on end-of-grade/end-of-course exams, compared to more than 40 percent of white students who scored as ready.
Ellinwood also noted that more than twice as many black students in 2015-16 were suspended from school as were white students. He noted research has shown black students often are suspended for infractions white students aren't.
The Youth Justice Project's report also states that “out-of-school suspension is ineffective at correcting misbehavior,” and in-school suspensions or transfers to alternative schools only work with individualized student support.
One way to improve schools is through a community schools model, such as is being tried in Durham, Montgomery said.
“The idea is that we're bringing the community into the school; we're not separate,” she said. Community school models can bring workforce development, food assistance, counseling and other services into the school, increasing support for parents as well as children, she explained.
Alexandra Sirota, director of the Budget and Tax Center, also argued that Republican-driven tax cuts have cost the state major revenues for services, and that those cuts haven't helped the economy.
She said that, historically, state spending is around 6 percent of the state economy, and that percentage typically increases after recessions as the state reinvests in services.
“The recovery began in 2009, and rather than reinvest, we've continued to cut,” she said, referring to spending falling as a share of the economy. “By fiscal year 2019-2020, our Fiscal Research Division estimates revenues will come in below the cost of maintaining just current services.”
Sirota also said the state's recession recovery hasn't been faster than prior recoveries, and faulted lawmakers for passing tax cuts she argued have benefited primarily the wealthy. Though Republicans have cut income taxes across incomes, she said that, counting all local and state taxes, low-income North Carolinians spend a higher proportion of their income on taxes than wealthy ones do.
Sirota called for the state to focus on growing middle-class incomes, and for communities to explore programs such as Historically Underutilized Business Certification, which would give minority-owned businesses more access to government contracts, and “first-source hiring,” which has schools and community colleges work directly with employers to ensure those employers will hire their graduates.
Brendan Riley, of the Health Advocacy Project, argued for the benefits of expanding Medicaid, an option North Carolina has had under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but Republican lawmakers have refused to do. They've cited concerns that expanding Medicaid would explode the state's costs for the program, particularly if the federal government reneged on a promise to fund most of the expansion's costs.
Riley reported 33 states have expanded Medicaid and they've seen significant benefits, not only in additional federal investment, but in improved health outcomes and economic security for workers. Riley said there's a misperception that Medicaid beneficiaries are gaming the system or choosing not to work.
“We know that six in 10 folks on Medicaid currently are in working families,” he said, adding others are often on Medicaid due to disability. He also said that, after Ohio expanded Medicaid, “they found that the vast majority of folks who enrolled reported it was easier for them to keep working because they had Medicaid.”
Riley also explained that, if North Carolina expanded Medicaid, it would provide coverage to more than 600,000 people, including adults without children who work but can't afford private coverage or don't have access to it. The ACA was enacted in part as response to the many Americans who lacked employer-provided coverage, he noted.
While many GOP lawmakers remain opposed to the expansion, Riley noted that some Republican lawmakers last year proposed expanding Medicaid, but with work requirements for beneficiaries. The NC Justice Center is not supporting that bill, he said, arguing the state should encourage people to work in ways other than denying them basic health care.
Jacquie Ayala, energy campaign and outreach coordinator, talked about energy costs and ways to hold them down.
Ayala explained North Carolinians rely on one of three basic types of power providers: investor-owned utilities, such as Duke Energy and Dominion Power; electrical cooperatives, such as Albemarle Electric Membership Corp.; and municipal utility systems, such as Elizabeth City's. Investor-owned utilities and municipal utilities are regulated by the NC Utilities Commission while cooperatives are not, she noted.
She noted that utility bills generally include three charges: one based on a customer's usage, sales tax based on that usage, and a flat monthly service charge. Ayala said those service charges are a concern, since customers are forced to pay them no matter how little energy they use. In AEMC's case, she said, that service charge adds another $22.50 to a customer's monthly bill.
She also said that energy efficiency is a consumer's best route for lowering their bill. She encouraged people to seek out weatherization programs, such as through the Economic Improvement Council, which can help people of qualifying incomes with major home improvements to reduce energy use. Notably, Elizabeth City residents are also eligible for city-funded weatherization program.
Ayala also encouraged Albemarle Electric customers to ask if the cooperative would offer “on-bill financing.” Under that program, cooperatives can use federal loans to finance energy efficiency improvements to their homes. The customer then repays those loans through their utility bills, with those additional payments offset by lower utility use, she said.
In other advice, Ayala also discouraged utility customers from choosing prepayment plans or levelized billing. Customers on prepayment plans often make many, small payments toward their utility usage, potentially spending a lot of per-payment fees. As for levelized billing, which allows customers to pay a flat amount each month to avoid seasonal spikes, she said customers typically underestimate their usage, leaving them to pay a large true-up amount each year.