- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

March 31

Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer, on VA transparency:

This recent call came as a surprise. The Observer had requested records on the use of painkillers by Department of Veterans Affairs patients. The VA was now ready to begin gathering that information, though this would take some time. But the request was made nearly two years ago and the newspaper project on painkillers was completed long ago.

While this request was complex and would have taken time to redact private information, there’s a pattern. Previous requests for such simple details as the date on which a known event had taken place were never answered either.

The newspaper isn’t alone in such frustrations with the VA, which has infuriated some members of Congress. Earlier this month Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, accused the agency of failing to respond to more than 100 requests from the House Veterans Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

The government of the United States belongs to its people. This isn’t a new concept. It goes back to a Constitution that begins with “We the People.” And the people have an interest in how their government is being run.

There may be special exceptions, such as issues of national security, but in most cases there’s a clear right and need for U.S. citizens to have quick and easy access to government records. It’s how a democratic society holds those elected to run its government accountable. No special exception applies to the records that the Department of Veterans Affairs has had great trouble producing.

The VA has come under fire for more than a year now over delays in seeing patients at its hospitals. Some vets who needed help died first. The systematic disregard for human life should always draw greater concern than mere delays in providing information. But it’s precisely because of the broader problems with the VA that transparency carries such urgency.

Congress has even developed the “VA Honesty Project,” to track online the agency’s failures to respond to media requests.

“Our veterans deserve a VA that sets the standard for openness, honesty and transparency,” Miller said of the project, designed to encourage greater cooperation. It’s a good idea, but not enough.

Congress should consider putting greater teeth into the laws that require the release of federal records. If federal employees face criminal charges and loss of job for stonewalling the people, their press, and Congress, we might see some results.




March 31

Charlotte Observer on equality in the state:

As Indiana, North Carolina and the nation roil over religious freedom laws, a lesser-known but further-reaching aspect of N.C. law goes largely overlooked:

With or without a religious freedom law, businesses and government in North Carolina currently are free to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Sexual orientation is not a protected class under state law the way race, gender, ethnicity, age and other categories are. So while you generally cannot fire someone for being 55 or being in a wheelchair, you can fire them for being gay.

Two bills filed last week in the N.C. legislature would allow people to cite their sincerely held religious beliefs in their treatment of other people. But governments and businesses can fire and refuse to hire without even citing religious beliefs. (Last year, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte said firing gays because they are gay is “a freedom we enjoy” as Americans.)

On Monday, the N.C. Senate heard a simple bill that would change some of that. Senate Bill 612, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County and Erica Smith-Ingram of Northampton County, would include sexual orientation and gender identity among the classifications covered by the state’s equal employment opportunity law.

The bill was promptly sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will gather dust.

It’s not even a particularly controversial notion. A 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling found that 73 percent of North Carolinians (including 59 percent of Republicans) think employers should not be able to discriminate against LGBT workers.

The business community agrees. Asked about the religious freedom bills, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan told the Observer editorial board that “We are caught off guard that anybody would consider this a priority at a time that North Carolina is struggling to reach consensus about our economic-development future.” Tom Murray, president of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, told us, “We would not support any legislation that makes an individual feel unwelcome.”

In Indiana, the backlash to its religious freedom bill has been so pronounced that Gov. Mike Pence says the state will fix it to make clear that discrimination is not allowed. The Indianapolis Star ran a front-page editorial Tuesday saying the best way to do so is to pass a law prohibiting discrimination of LGBT residents in employment, housing, education and public accommodations.

North Carolina is too proud and great a state to officially sanction discrimination against any of its citizens. We could start by not letting state government fire people solely because of whom they love.




March 31

News & Record, Greensboro, North Carolina, on state taxpayers:

State senators introduced their latest tax-cut extravaganza last week by promising “everybody’s going to benefit.”

“I’m tired of hearing that we only do this for the rich,” Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) said.

North Carolina taxpayers have heard the promise before. Some of them spoke to a House committee earlier in the week, complaining that their state tax bills have gone way up because deductions for medical expenses were eliminated by the 2013 “tax reform.”

The Committee on Aging unanimously approved a bill that would restore the deduction for senior citizens. It would cost an estimated $38 million in revenue next year, which is the amount of extra taxes older residents are paying now. Many other people whose incomes are modest have been unimpressed by their “tax cuts,” which were heavily weighted in favor of the wealthy.

Maybe the further cuts proposed last week, although with greater personal exemptions, would add up to real breaks - but there’s going to be a catch.

The $1 billion cost to the state could be offset by broadening the sales-tax base, senators said.

If income-tax cuts leave more money in people’s pockets, Tillman explained, they’ll go out and spend it. “That will create economic movement, and that in itself will recoup, over a short term, the $1 billion that everyone thinks we’re losing.”

If people pay less in income taxes but an equal amount more in sales taxes, are they better off? It depends on how the tax burden is redistributed.

Even the conservative John Locke Foundation thinks the plan is flawed. It worried about depleting state revenues when its “rainy day fund” is already too low.

Senators also proposed further cutting the corporate income-tax rate, an idea that Gov. Pat McCrory said would “break the bank.”

The governor appears to be an onlooker when it comes to the Senate’s tax initiatives. These sharp cuts weren’t included in his proposed budget.

He also criticized the Senate’s plan to shift local sales-tax revenues from so-called wealthy counties to poor ones. That seems to be the Senate’s only plan for meeting needs in small towns and rural areas - take money from the cities as the state cuts its own tax revenues.

Tillman said the goal of the Senate plan, which it calls the “Job Creation and Tax Relief Plan of 2015,” is to drive tax rates lower than South Carolina’s. If that happens, senators believe, economic develop will flow to North Carolina instead of to the Palmetto State.

Yet, South Carolina is aggressive in using incentives to recruit businesses, which the Senate resists. It also isn’t conducting a war against its own cities. Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham lead North Carolina in job creation, but not because they starve public services through tax cuts. A reasonable level of taxation is needed to provide infrastructure that attracts and supports business growth. If lack of revenue itself were the magic formula, North Carolina’s rural counties would be thriving instead of losing population and hope.



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