News: CJ Exclusives

CJ politics week in review, Aug. 10-14

(CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
(CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed.

Education team-up: Three N.C. families are joining the Institute for Justice, intervening in a lawsuit threatening the state’s private school voucher program. The N.C. Association of Educators, a left-leaning teacher organization, is challenging the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program provides money to low-income families to send their children to the private school of their choice. “If this misguided lawsuit against the program succeeds, thousands of kids who left schools where they did not feel academically challenged or safe, will have to return,” IJ Attorney Ari Bargil said in a news release. “This lawsuit is not about the well-being of North Carolinian children.” IJ defended the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2015 when opponents tried to kill it in court. Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina, an organization supporting school choice initiatives, praised the three families and IJ for intervening in the case. “During this time of COVID-19, it is downright heartless for any organization to attempt to deny low-income, hard-working, taxpaying citizens the opportunity to educate their children as they see fit,” PEFNC President Mike Long said in a news release.

Jail time: U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn sentenced Greg Lindberg, a major N.C. political donor, to more than seven years in jail for his role in a massive bribery scandal. A jury found Lindberg and John Gray, a political consultant, guilty in March of trying to bribe N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. As part of the probe, former N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Cogburn sentenced Gray to 2 1/2 years in jail and Hayes to probation. 

Rocky start: Technical difficulties marred the first week of school. A statewide online learning portal crashed, leaving many N.C. students and teachers unable to access virtual classrooms. NCEdCloud crashed Monday, Aug. 17, and again Wednesday, Aug. 19. Identity Automation, the vendor for NCEdCloud, is investigating the cause of the outages. State Superintendent Mark Johnson and Gov. Roy Cooper called the malfunctions unacceptable. “Parents, educators, and students are all doing  the best that we can and deserve technology that works,” Johnson said in a news release. The Department of Public Instruction will have a “blunt discussion” with the vendor and the Department of Information Technology about the failures in the next few days, Johnson said. 

Ban the box: North Carolina is joining 35 other states in removing criminal history questions from state job applications. The governor signed Executive Order 158, which removes employment barriers for people with a criminal record. “People who have made mistakes often deserve a second chance, and having a job helps turn lives around,” Cooper said in a news release. The executive order prohibits state employers from considering expunged or pardoned convictions, charges unrelated to the job in question, arrests not resulting in a conviction, or a dismissal of charges, unless the applicant is legally ineligible for the position. Under the executive order, state employers won’t conduct background checks before the initial job interview and will give applicants a chance to explain their conviction if it’s relevant to the job. “Not only will this help reduce recidivism, it will give state government access to more qualified job applicants who now don’t even get the chance to show what good employees they would be,” Cooper said.

Virtual higher education: N.C. State University is moving all undergraduate classes online starting Monday, Aug. 24, after identifying several COVID-19 clusters among the student body. North Carolina defines a cluster as five or more infected people near each other. N.C. State joins UNC-Chapel Hill in moving all undergraduate courses online as COVID-19 cases on campus multiplied. While UNC Chapel Hill is trying to reduce the number of students living on campus, N.C. State said students can remain in on-campus housing. “Battling the spread of COVID-19 is a challenging endeavor even when everyone is practicing safety measures,” N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said in a news release. “Unfortunately, the actions of a few are jeopardizing the health and safety of the larger community.” The COVID-19 clusters at N.C. State were found in off-campus and Greek Village houses and can be traced to large parties, Woodson said. A small number of students are undermining the hard work of institutions to safely reopen, Peter Hans, the UNC System president, says in a news release. 

Clear Pricing Project: State Treasurer Dale Folwell is trying to expand price transparency in the State Health Plan. Folwell announced that the N.C. State Health Plan Network and the Clear Pricing Project will reopen provider enrollment from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Folwell built new incentives into the plan to push patients toward the providers who signed onto price transparency. Patients who see CPP primary care providers will save $45 on co-pays, and get up to $54 in savings on co-pays for specialists. But Folwell’s push to expand the Clear Pricing Project lacked the acrimony between Folwell and the state’s largest hospitals that dominated the project’s 2019 launch. Folwell compared hospitals to cartels, and described the state’s current system as a blank check. The State Health Plan is set to go broke in less than four years. Folwell planned to save it with price transparency based on Medicare rates. Some 25,000 providers enrolled in the Clear Pricing Project last year. “As Warren Buffett said, ‘medical costs are the tapeworm of American competitiveness,’” Folwell said in a press release. “Ultimately, getting rid of secret pricing and contracts will be the only medicine to reduce those costs.”

Julie Havlak provided reporting for this story.