- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

March 2

Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer, on lawsuit over ID law:

Plaintiffs wanted Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan to strike down the state’s voter ID law as unconstitutional last week. That didn’t happen. The state wanted him to toss out the lawsuit. That didn’t happen either.

But Morgan dismissed two of three grounds for the suit. One asserted that requiring a photo ID to vote is the same as requiring property ownership. Another said it violated the guarantee of free elections. Both of these were a stretch.

What Morgan left intact to be argued at trial this summer was a claim that even providing free IDs creates an undue burden for those who cannot afford the time or expense to obtain them. If true, it would mean the state’s election law violates the principle of equal protection.

The case and a parallel federal suit will get their days in court, but on more limited grounds than plaintiffs hoped. Those limits suggest that even if plaintiffs prove their case, the legal remedy would not be to remove the voter ID law. The judge could instead delay enforcement until the state does more to distribute ID’s to potential voters.

Disenfranchisement concerns must be taken seriously. But voter ID promises to help deter fraud, such as occurred in the 2013 Pembroke elections. If done fairly, it will be a good tool.

Online:

https://www.newsobserver.com

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March 3

Herald-Sun, Durham, North Carolina, on not punishing successful cities:

An increase sought by Gov. Pat McCrory in a state economic-development incentive is likely to incite yet more urban-envy among legislators from the state’s smaller towns and urban areas.

The divide is nothing new in the Tar Heel state, and echoes generations-long friction between eastern and western blocs seeking the upper hand in state affairs. But the gap between the fortunes of the state’s major urban centers and the rest of the state has been widening in recent years, and the two sectors have seen sharply different success in rebounding from the Great Recession.

The immediate debate, as early as this week, is likely to be over proposed changes in the state’s Job Development Investment Grant awards, which for a dozen years have helped state economic development recruiters in competing with other states for new businesses.

McCrory wants a higher cap on any incentive package. That’s likely to rankle some conservative legislators who think the incentives are poor policy generally, but the proposal is also likely to be a forum for others to explore the way those incentives have played out.

Nearly nine out of every $10 in incentives have gone to companies locating in Mecklenburg, Wake or Durham counties. That statistic was contained in a new report last week from the North Carolina Justice Center, which also noted that only 9 percent of JDIG dollars went to rural counties.

Legislators intent on stemming the flow of incentives to the major cities or diverting more dollars to rural and small-town development should be wary of wreaking havoc on the state’s overall economic health of our state.

This may be easy to say here in the Triangle, with the Charlotte area the most economically robust in the state, but many forces are pushing in that direction that should be celebrated, not curtailed. Cities generally are enjoying a boom period, with young professionals, entrepreneurs and creative-class types drawn to urban amenities and denser development.

To be sure, Rep. George Graham, a Lenoir Democrat, is right when he says “we can’t have two North Carolinas.” But propping up communities which grew up to support the state’s agricultural base when far more people were engaged in farming, or around industries whose heyday has passed, can be difficult.

Those communities can find new life, and deserve help from other areas of the state. But those communities, especially those surrounding the booming urban areas, will suffer if the development that is providing jobs and a broader tax base for the entire state is hampered.

Let’s hope the legislature avoids winging if not destroying our golden-egg-laying urban geese.

Online:

https://www.heraldsun.com

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March 2

Charlotte Observer on unequal branch of government:

North Carolina’s legislators are likely to be reminded on Wednesday why they haven’t invited the chief justice to deliver State of the Judiciary remarks for the past 14 years: He always seems so grumpy.

Biennially for a decade, the General Assembly would ask the chief justice to present to the House and Senate an update on the judicial branch. Chief Justice Burley Mitchell warned legislators throughout the 1990s that the state’s court system was financially neglected. His successor, I. Beverly Lake Jr., brought an even more adamant message in 2001. In 2003 and every year since then, no invitation came.

Wednesday, new Chief Justice Mark Martin will revive the tradition. And if he’s honest, he will revive the message: North Carolina’s judicial branch operates on a shoestring, and justice is at stake.

The judicial branch may be one of three equal branches of government in civics class. In North Carolina’s reality, there’s nothing equal about the funding. The court system receives $464 million from the state - just 2.2 percent of the general fund budget. More than half of that comes from revenue the courts themselves collect in fees and give to the state.

For years, North Carolina has been at or near the bottom nationwide for per capita spending on the judicial system, and the gap is large. North Carolina has 1.2 judges per 100,000 residents; the median for our type of court system is 6.8 per 100,000.

The numbers are moving in the wrong direction. The judicial branch’s overall budget is actually less than it was in the grip of the downturn five years ago, and court officials say the operating portion of the budget has dropped 41 percent since 2008. Nearly 600 positions have been cut since the recession.

Meanwhile, the population and the caseloads grow. In district court, 270 judges dispose of 2.6 million cases a year; 112 superior court judges dispose of more than 300,000 cases a year. Over the past five years, the average time to resolve cases has grown significantly (30 to 60 percent in most kinds of cases).

Martin campaigned on strengthening the court system, so he’ll surely lay all this out for legislators. Besides more funding, one of his highest priorities is replacing paper filing with electronic filing of court documents. Technology funding was cut by 40 percent from 2011 to 2014, stalling e-filing pilot programs. Martin would install e-filing throughout civil superior court and business court as an initial phase.

All of this is more than just internal scrambling for a bigger piece of the budget pie. Skeletal funding delays the resolution of real people’s real cases, including things like child support.

We doubt that the courts are in for any kind of financial windfall. But the fact that the legislature invited the chief justice for the first time in 14 years is, perhaps, a welcome sign that lawmakers are open to at least slowly turning things around.

Online:

https://www.charlotteobserver.com

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