8 Big Challenges for 2021

North Carolina has big issues to face in the New Year. Will our leaders rise to the moment?

Hi everyone! It’s been a minute, huh?

As we close out this trash fire of a trip around the sun, it’s time to turn the page on this year’s campaigns and look towards the huge challenges that our state, like our nation, now faces. Make no mistake - this doesn’t mean politics ends. Politics never ends. And The Long Leaf Pine Slate is prepared. We’ll have some exciting developments to share in the new year, so stay tuned.

Before we get there, though, let’s have a look at what lies ahead for North Carolina.

Downstream of COVID

Our state had big challenges even before COVID-19 wrought havoc on our people, economy and the systems we all rely on. The global pandemic has reset priorities everywhere, and North Carolina is no exception.

North Carolina has weathered this storm better than many states, thanks in large part to Governor Cooper’s steady, informed and politically courageous response, as well as Dr. Mandy Cohen’s leadership at DHHS. North Carolina, the nation’s 9th most populous state (and the recipient of a huge influx of new residents during the pandemic), ranks only 37th in the nation for COVID deaths per 100,000 residents, and 42nd in the last 7 days! (Thank goodness you don’t live in Tennessee.)

We are not out of the woods yet, and despite what reactionary voices may be (still) saying, it is not time to party. Vaccines are coming. 2021 is going to be a lot better. But even as life as we know it starts coming back, COVID has unalterably set the agenda for 2021. We have a lot to do, and our leaders must use this unique moment in the state’s history to set us on a better track for recovery.


Here are what we see as North Carolina’s 8 biggest priorities for 2021.

1 - Keep people alive and healthy

Priorities don’t matter if you’re dead. Throwing caution to the wind because you’re tired, fed up or just bored with COVID just isn’t a responsible choice. Unfortunately, it’s what we heard (and saw) from many Republicans throughout 2020, including at NCGOP events and Phil Berger’s own Christmas party. (We sincerely hope everyone is okay.) This kind of behavior is wildly irresponsible. We all hate lockdowns, mask orders and restrictions, but these are the measures that literally keep people alive. Let’s not be Tennessee. We look forward to the Governor and legislature being able to lift restrictions, but in a reasoned and gradual process that matches the empirical reality of COVID community spread throughout our state - which is still quite high.

As Cicero once wrote, Salus populi est suprema lex - “the health of the people is the highest law.” As it was in the late Roman Republic, so it is today.

2 - Vaccination rollout

To defeat COVID and return things to “normal” again, we need vaccine going into arms.

It’s still extremely early in the vaccine rollout phase, but North Carolina has already administered more than 73,000 doses - about a quarter of those the state has received thus far, which is about in line with the national average. You’ve probably seen healthcare workers in your social feeds posting about getting “the shot.” We need this to not just continue, but to massively scale. Everything depends on protecting our people. (Listen to Cicero.) The economy, schools and everything else won’t be “normal” again until people are safe. State leaders must focus on massively distributing vaccine to as many willing people as possible.

If you don’t get them already, Senator Jeff Jackson’s statewide COVID updates have been one of the best, most reliable and utterly non-political sources of up-to-date information on this. We recommend signing up.

3 - Get people back to work.

The economic carnage resulting from COVID has been grave. Exiting 2020, NC has somewhere north of 300,000 people unemployed. That’s significantly better as a percentage than the national figure, and less than half of our unemployment peak in April/May. In most ways, North Carolina is doing better than most states. COVID infection rates will determine the pace at which we can open up safely, and as caseloads start to drop (hopefully), we’re going to see employment improve.

But we still have a lot of work to do. Recovering from this disaster will take time. We need to be sure that the recovery is broad-based and widely shared - not just vacuumed up by those already comfortable at the top. We all know that big corporate tax cuts aren’t going to do that, no matter what the Chamber of Commerce says. But we have measures available that will.

4 - Raise the wage.

It’s time to raise the minimum wage in North Carolina. It’s currently just $7.25 an hour, which means a full-time worker makes just $290 a week ($1,160/month) before taxes. Let’s be clear: no one can live on that. The minimum wage is a disgrace, particularly when we have hundreds of thousands of people forced into taking whatever jobs they can find just to stay afloat (and corporate profits are at all-time highs).

North Carolina is lagging behind on the minimum wage. Our neighbors in Virginia are raising theirs to $9.50/hour starting tomorrow (and to $11/hour in 2022). Two dozen other states raised their minimum wages in 2020. We know that reasonable raises to the minimum wage do not lead to greater unemployment, despite chicken-little claims to the contrary; and that increases in the minimum wage are a boon for the most vulnerable poor and working-class families.

Raising the minimum wage is extremely popular among Democrats, Republicans and independent voters. The main opposition comes from big, corporate special interests like the Chamber of Commerce. It is imperative that we help North Carolina’s hourly workers reap the full share of this economic recovery already underway. Legislative leaders must follow through.

5 - Get kids back in school.

Those of us who have kids know that this year has been a total shambles, educationally. Not only has remote instruction been a mess, but with kids at home, a lot of parents cannot fully get back into the workforce, either. (The COVID recession has hit women particularly hard for this very reason.) 17% of North Carolina’s childcare providers have closed their doors forever this year. When your family has no childcare, that means someone in your household just lost their job.

The real solution, of course, is the obvious one: we have to defeat COVID. There’s no way to safely throw open all the schools in the midst of a raging, deadly pandemic that we’re still struggling to understand. No, #Reopen, there’s no Big Conspiracy at play here - people just don’t want to get sick.

Complicating the problem, of course, is that North Carolina’s teachers were overburdened even before they were asked to go teach in-person during a pandemic. Under Republican leadership, the General Assembly has steadily slashed teacher pay and incentives for years. Ironically, 2021 is the year when new state employees will no longer be eligible for retiree health benefits. Not exactly a red-hot recruiting message.

Safely reopening public schools - and rescuing our childcare providers - means throwing our public education system a lifeline. Why not give teachers the raises, and retirement benefits, they’ve earned and deserve? Let’s reverse the trend of divesting from our public education system and get kids the schools they need.

6 - Rural broadband

The pandemic has brought into sharp contrast the atrocious state of internet access across much of rural North Carolina. It’s also made clear what lots of folks have known for a long time: internet access is a basic utility now, like power or water. It is an essential service not just for folks doing their jobs, but for kids and families accessing an education.

Rural broadband is an enormously popular, bipartisan issue that both sides love to talk about - but which never seems to happen. Why? Well, the big reason is entrenched special interests who oppose it. Specifically, the telecom giants like Spectrum who control the industry - the very ones unwilling to make the investments necessary to expand broadband access - don’t want the competition. A Republican bill from 2011 prohibited municipal broadband offerings entirely.

Last year, the FIBER Act, which would again permit local governments to offer municipal broadband services where private companies won’t, garnered broad, bipartisan support in the legislature. Unfortunately, it died (more accurately, was killed) in committee and never left the House. The situation has now changed. Let’s pass the FIBER Act in 2021.

7 - Expand Medicaid

Look, you knew it was going to be on this list, right?

20% of North Carolina adults have no health insurance coverage. Due to COVID, North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation for lost health coverage. Losing your health insurance due to a deadly pandemic is the kind of perversely ironic phenomenon we might expect from 2020.

The enormous benefits of Medicaid expansion are essentially undisputed at this point. The fiscal arguments against it are belied by the demonstrably positive and utterly sustainable experience of all 39 states that have already adopted it. We’ve reached the point where opponents have few material arguments left. They just… don’t want to do it.

Let 2021 be our break with the past. Republican leaders even have the opportunity to make fools of Democrats, who ran on “healthcare is on the ballot” this year. So let’s do it. Let’s let North Carolinians get the care they deserve.

8 - Redistricting

It almost seems like Groundhog Day. Lawmakers return once again to the business of map-drawing this spring, hopefully chastened by the never-ending litigation over unconstitutional Republican maps.

North Carolinians want an end to this decade-long saga over gerrymandering. Lawmakers do too - up to a point, of course. Redistricting reform is popular in both parties, particularly among rank-and-file voters, but a lot less so among Republican party leaders. The temptations of entrenched power are so strong there that many would gladly prefer another endless series of costly, acrimonious, bare-knuckled court fights over simply drawing fair maps.

But most of us don’t want that. And, really, we just don’t have time for it.

The challenges North Carolina is facing at this moment are just too great for us to get sucked into another war over rigged maps. Redistricting this time around will be performed under the watchful gaze of the North Carolina Supreme Court, which looks askance at naked power-grabs (for now). So let’s not have any. Let’s draw some maps that are fair and get on with the business of governing. That’s what voters want, and for the most part, that’s what most legislators themselves want, too.


Like we said, the Long Leaf Pine Slate isn’t finished. Far from it, in fact. We’ve been busy behind the scenes this last few weeks, and we have a lot more to share with you all in the new year.

Until then, stay tuned. And most of all, happy new year. Be safe, be healthy, and here’s to a brighter and happier 2021. We’re all in this together. Always were. Always will be.

Sincerely,

Blair


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