- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

Feb. 23

Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal on new textbooks:

Students can’t learn from thin air. If we expect our students to lead us into the future, they need valuable resources such as good teachers and up-to-date textbooks. In the case of textbooks, they’ve been left to cobble together bits and pieces.

Over the past five years, funding for textbooks has fallen from nearly $60 per student to just $14 this year, the Journal’s Arika Herron reported recently. This, when most textbooks cost between $50 and $75 each. As a result, students have to share dilapidated textbooks or do without.

“This year is a struggle,” East Forsyth High School math teacher Julie Riggins told the Journal. “We do try to cover up the fact that we don’t have books. We know where the kids need to be and what the important topics are.”

It’s not just teachers who have noticed the problem. Students and parents see and feel it, too.

“I’d like to see the legislature acknowledge the fact that there’s not enough money in our budgets to equip our students for learning,” Jill Lindstrom, a parent of two Forsyth County students and member of the East Forsyth High School PTA, told the Journal.

While some generous souls may want to solicit donations to meet this need, Beverly Emory, superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, wisely pointed out to the Journal that this would provide the state with an excuse not to restore funding.

And eventually, donations would dry up.

Resources for education have been cut over the past several years by Republican and Democratic legislators alike. The Republican leadership, fresh to power, has an opportunity to create a legacy that will reward them - and, more importantly, the state - if they act now. Giving raises to starting teachers, as the governor did, is a good first step, but it’s only a first step.

Just throwing money at a problem is generally not an effective way to correct it - but in this case, money is exactly what is needed. Our legislature needs to take further steps to adequately fund our schools.

Online:

https://www.journalnow.com

___

Feb. 19

Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer on next crisis at health, human services:

The Great North Carolina Food Stamp Crisis has ended - or so it appears. Low-income residents are getting the help they need to buy food. And the state’s NC FAST computer system, which processes applications, may be working.

We’ll join food-stamp recipients, county social-service agencies and Gov. Pat McCrory in hoping that the mess is behind us for good.

But we can’t stop wondering why it happened at all. It was a needless crisis, one chapter of a thick book of emergencies at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The NC FAST system was troubled almost from the start. A software problem last summer caused computers to crash and applicants were forced to wait for weeks that stretched into months for food-stamp authorizations. They had to rely on nonprofit food banks, which were hard-pressed to keep up with demand.

Although state officials said in October that computer problems were solved, application backlogs grew once again as county social-services agencies struggled to keep up with new applications and eligibility guidelines. By the time backlogs stretched to 90 days or more, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to revoke $88 million in funding for the food-stamp program. State workers were sent to the counties to help bring the applications up to date. The funding cutoff was averted. But there’s no guarantee it won’t return.

NC FAST was one of two new computer systems brought online last year by the department. The other, NC Tracks, manages Medicaid payments. It’s an even-bigger disaster. Doctors and hospitals still aren’t getting routine reimbursements and a group of health care providers has filed a class-action suit against the state.

It’s clear - as it has been from the outset - that those computer systems went online before they were ready. It was a bad decision in a department that’s had a slew of them. Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos has presided over a chaotic series of events that include the computer crises, cronyism and an upper-management revolving door.

Yet Gov. McCrory continues to defend her, most recently blaming the counties for the food-stamp backup, saying “Secretary Wos has fallen on her sword for the 100 counties.”

In reality, the governor keeps falling on his sword for Secretary Wos. Maybe it’s time for him to change course and try accountability instead.

Online:

https://www.fayobserver.com

____

Feb. 22

News & Record, Greensboro, N.C., on judges and money:

State judicial candidates are raising money like it’s 2002.

The public finance system has been killed, so it’s back to hitting up lawyers and lobbyists for most of the money needed to fuel statewide campaigns - maybe more money than ever.

Public financing, which provided qualifying candidates for the N.C. Supreme Court with about $240,000, and less than $200,000 for Court of Appeals contenders, accomplished two things: It produced a more level playing field, and it held down total campaign spending.

The restraints are off. In repealing this program last year, the state legislature also lifted donation limits. Individuals can contribute up to $5,000 to a candidate for statewide judicial office during an election cycle. Previously, candidates qualified for public funding by collecting contributions of $500 or less from 350 individual donors.

Now that individuals can give 10 times as much, candidates may raise and spend more money, and the potential for undue influence is multiplied.

So far, the amounts raised aren’t astronomical. But totals have only been reported for 2013, before the election year opened. Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin, running for the chief’s seat, had collected nearly $188,000. If he draws an opponent, he’ll certainly raise much more. All the way back in 2000, then-Chief Justice Henry Frye of Greensboro spent more than $900,000. That total was a motivating force behind the adoption of a public finance system.

Following its inception in 2004, the program grew increasingly accepted. Only 12 of 21 total candidates participated in 2004 and 2006, but all candidates used public funds since then, while agreeing to abide by overall spending limits.

Last year, however, legislators resurrected the argument that taxpayers should not have to fund campaigns for candidates they would not otherwise support. While much of the funding came from a $50 annual fee paid by all licensed lawyers, taxpayers covered some costs, too.

Yet, they benefited by the election of judges on the state’s highest courts who would not owe their positions to wealthy contributors and special-interest groups. When cases come up dealing with violations of environmental regulations, for example, would the public trust in the impartiality of judges whose campaigns received contributions from the alleged polluters? That wasn’t possible under the public finance system.

Elections are a poor means of choosing judges, anyway. They should be appointed based on the recommendations of a nonpartisan commission made up of people able to weigh the legal qualifications of applicants. After a term on the bench, judges could be subject to a retention election that gave voters the chance to remove them. Some other states use that system, which reduces opportunities for political and financial influence.

An appointment system would not eliminate politics. But elections favor politicians, not necessarily people who would make the best judges. Throw in unlimited amounts of money and the risk of bad outcomes is too high.

Online:

https://www.news-record.com

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