Editorial Roundup: North Carolina

Charlotte Observer. Oct. 3, 2021.

Editorial: NC criminal justice task force called for 125 reforms. How have we fared?

In September, Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate derailed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The proposed law, which passed the House, would have made it easier for the federal government to track and prosecute police who use excessive force, and it would have limited qualified immunity, which shields police in most private civil lawsuits.

Blocking the bill represents a shameful lack of response to broad, nationwide protests calling for police reforms following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

In North Carolina, the response has been stronger, but far short of complete. The governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice – a panel created in response to the Floyd killing – delivered 125 recommendations to improve the criminal justice system, including ways to hold police more accountable. On Friday, the panel met virtually to assess how its recommendations and related reforms have fared.

Some reforms have occurred through policy adjustments at the state and local level, but the Republican-led legislature resisted sweeping changes in state law. However, progress was made with Gov. Roy Cooper’s signing of Senate Bill 300. Among its changes, the new law creates a database of officers disciplined for excessive force and other issues that law enforcement agencies can review when hiring, but it is not public. The law calls for the psychological screening of police recruits and requires officers to intervene in cases of excessive force and to report the offense.

State Attorney General Josh Stein, a co-chair of the task force, told the Editorial Board the new law was not all his panel wanted, but it takes key steps forward.

“There is a lot in the bill that is going to enhance (policing) and that, over time, will improve community trust in their police officers,” he said. But he said that there is more to do. “No one has any pretense that we solved all the problems with our criminal justice system,” he said.

That’s easy to see. Police body and dash cam videos are still not public record. The governor still cannot appoint a special prosecutor in police killing cases. Marijuana has not been decriminalized. Children as young as 8 can still be charged with felonies. Juveniles can still be sentenced to life without parole.

State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former district court judge who serves on the task force, said of the legislature’s actions, “We have half-measures. We addressed topics but we didn’t go far enough. A lot of these issues became political.”

One particularly poor response to the Floyd protests was the passage of House Bill 805. It blurred the line between protesters and rioters and would have exposed demonstrators to felony charges based on vague infractions. Gov. Cooper rightly vetoed the bill, saying it was “intended to intimidate and deter people from exercising their constitutional rights to peacefully protest.”

Improving policing and reducing incarceration are two areas where Republicans and Democrats still find agreement. What holds back progress on these issues in Washington is political gamesmanship and presidential politics. In Raleigh, the obstacle is often the influence of groups representing sheriffs and district attorneys whose members are invested in how the system works for them.

Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina, focused on the influence of those law enforcement groups when she addressed the task force members on Friday.

Stevens said, “There is solid support for significant reform from both Republicans and Democrats, but most of these (task force) recommendations will never be adopted unless elected officials are willing to challenge the influence wielded by powerful interest groups that routinely undermine and inhibit real progress.”

The death of George Floyd brought a ringing call for change. Some in North Carolina’s leadership have responded, but more needs to be done. The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has done fine work. It should press on. This year’s legislative half-measures need to become whole.

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Winston-Salem Journal. Oct. 4, 2021.

Editorial: Burr’s new student-athlete tax

North Carolina’s Sen. Richard Burr hasn’t always played it safe as a legislator.

He was one of the few Republicans in the Senate who had the courage to vote against former President Trump during his second impeachment trial earlier this year, though it certainly cost him good will with his colleagues. (And the N.C. GOP censured Burr for his vote.)

He’s currently taking another chance and inviting the ire of many — Democrats and Republicans — as well as both sports fan and those who couldn’t care less about sportsball — by introducing legislation last week that would require college student-athletes to pay taxes on their scholarships if they make more than $20,000 in outside endorsements — this, in response to the NCAA’s decision to allow student-athletes to earn money by licensing their name, image or likeness (NIL).

“The premise of this bill is simple,” Burr said. “If a student chooses to monetize their name, image and likeness based on their connection to their school — in some cases earning them $1 million or more a year — their scholarship should be subject to federal income taxation.”

Burr said that his bill is needed “to protect the integrity of amateur athletics at colleges and universities across the nation.”

We wonder why it is, though, that he thinks the scholarships should be subject to taxes when their actual NIL earnings already are taxed. The next questions are inevitable: Should other scholarships be subject to taxation? Should all?

We also struggle to see a natural connection between taxation and college athletic integrity, but perhaps it’s there. Burr, who played defensive back for Wake Forest football in the 1970s and lettered for the Demon Deacons in 1974 and 1975, definitely has more experience in the field.

But even for the few student athletes whose endorsements could lead to quite a haul — some have signed five- or six-figure contracts, and some fewer have reached as much as $1 million annually — taxing their scholarships strikes us as unnecessary and unfair for several reasons.

While student-athletes come from a variety of backgrounds, athletic scholarships are often the lifeline that allow lower-income students to acquire a higher education. These scholarships don’t turn them into moguls; money can still be tight and an NIL contract can make life more pleasant for them — and their families.

Taxing them for lifting themselves by their own Nikes doesn’t seem … sporting.

There also seem to be quite a few members of society who have been freed from the burden of taxation while regularly earning quite a bit more than the most photogenic college football star — some of whom are quite talented at hiding their earnings, as we’re beginning to learn through the release of the Pandora Papers.

Perhaps Burr should join his Democratic colleagues in asking them to pay their fair share.

There’s also something about the way Burr phrases this — “If a student chooses to monetize their name, image and likeness based on their connection to their school” — that sounds almost punitive, as if he thinks they should be content to play their sport and go to class.

Before the changes in NIL compensation, student-athletes were doubtlessly shortchanged, and most still are. Yes, their scholarships are valuable, and successful college athletic careers can be parlayed into professional careers.

But college athletics generates billions in revenue. Even with compensation for NILs, the lion’s share of the financial benefits will go to their schools.

Winning the right to be compensated for their NIL, if not their work, was an accomplishment — but is still somewhat chintzy. Most of their deals aren’t likely to be that lucrative. Do they really need to be taxed?

“Given the political makeup in both his chamber and the U.S. House, it’s unlikely this measure will go anywhere without substantial support from Democrats across the aisle,” Todd McFall, a sports economist at Wake Forest University, told the Journal. But Burr’s isn’t the only proposal for dealing with NILs. Other proposals will attempt to codify and limit student-athletes’ earnings even more.

If this is the closing act of Burr’s congressional career — he’s not running for reelection — he could do better.

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Greensboro News & Record. Sept. 30, 2021.

Editorial: Is Sen. Tillis ready for his close-up?

North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis is used to being in the public eye — and, no doubt, used to criticism, warranted or otherwise. But he may have been surprised to find himself in the crosshairs earlier this week of the Twitter account known as Room Rater, which didn’t like what it saw in his remote-screen presentation.

Amidst the serious, sometimes overly important users whose accounts populate Twitter, Room Rater, with just over 400,000 followers, isn’t the most popular. That, reportedly, would be singer Katy Perry, with 108.7 million followers.

Nor is Tillis the most popular political figure on Twitter — that would be former President Barack Obama, with 130 million followers (which, yes, outnumbers former President Trump even in his Twitter prime of almost 88 million, before his account was suspended in January).

But Room Rater, run by 56-year-old Claude Taylor of Washington, D.C., and his 51-year-old girlfriend Jessie Bahrey of Vancouver, is not nearly that consequential. It rates, on a scale of 0 to 10, on the basis of highly subjective criteria — that often contain huge helpings of snark — the aesthetics that users put into play as they appear on Skype and Zoom.

The account gained prominence last year as celebrities, politicians, business people and laypeople sequestered themselves because of COVID, replacing personal appearances with laptop cameras focused on home and kitchen offices.

“It occurred to us that it would be fun to make a Twitter account and start tweeting these observations,” Taylor told the New York Post last year. “We were just really looking for some lighthearted content to share with the people to help them get through this period.”

A good example of a typical Room Rater critique might be the one given recently to Wall Street Journal reporter James Grimaldi: “Good screen use. Frame wall. Rare candle sconce. Raise camera a foot or so/reframe. 6/10.”

They were less generous, though, with Tillis, whose setting they judged from a picture that appeared on his own Twitter account: “Hmm. @ThomTillis has the carcass of a dead bear pinned to his wall. In 2021. What a throwback. 0/10.”

Sportsmen may disagree; some animal lovers, in reply to the rating, suggested that negative numbers would be more appropriate.

We won’t argue either way.

But, again, Room Rater is highly subjective and should be taken with a grain of salt. As The (Raleigh) News & Observer noted: “Other office features (in Tillis’ frame) that went unmentioned in the tweet include two paintings, office chairs and what appears to be a football.”

Surely those accoutrements are worth a point or two.

We say, between legislative meetings, constituent services and passing bills, one’s Skype background isn’t the most urgent matter.

But style never goes out of style, and carefully arranged décor and lighting can make an online meeting or presentation less arduous and more pleasant. A nice plant or painting doesn’t hurt. It’s certainly preferable to what Taylor and Bahrey refer to as the “hostage video”: a bare wall.

For all their notoriety, Taylor and Bahrey — who reportedly have a book deal brewing — seem approachable and often converse with people in their Twitter feed, some of whom have asked for and received a second chance. They often, generously, reward effort over taste. It’s all in good fun.

So, Sen. Tillis, we hope there are no hard feelings. Sometimes it’s an honor just to be noticed.

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