Wednesday, December 31

My Exclusive Interview with the Baby New Year

As a serious blogger, I look for the stories that no one else is covering. Occasionally I get lucky. Today I am sitting down with Baby New Year 2009 for an exclusive interview.

Gark: Welcome Baby New Year! Thanks for making the time in your busy schedule.

BNY2009: Glad to be talking to the two or three people out in the Blogosphere who are likely to read this. By the way, technically, I'm "Baby New Year-Elect"--there's only one Baby New Year at a time.

Gark: Good point. Speaking of Baby New Year 2008, as the incoming New Year's baby, have you sought advice from him?

BNY2009: Actually "he" is a "she". I wish you bloggers would check your facts.

Gark: You're right. My mistake.

BNY2009: Anyway, I spoke to her--Priscilla is her name. You know you could have bowled me over when she told me we almost had a Vice-President from Alaska. It's amazing how far we have come.

Gark: Because there was almost a Vice-President who was a woman?

BNY2009: No, I meant an elected official from Alaska that wasn't under indictment.

Gark: Funny stuff. Speaking of how far we've come, are you concerned about the state of world that you are inheriting tonight?

BNY2009: Well, to be the New Year's baby, you have to be ready on day one. My transition team has been working hard with "08"--as I call Priscilla--to move into the executive crib. We are watching the situations in the Gaza, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Peru, Georgia, Nepal, and New York.

Gark: I wasn't aware there was anything to worry about in New York.

BNY2009: Are you crazy? They will be going nuts at Times Square tonight when they drop the big lighted ball.

Gark: New Year's baby 2009, most of my readers are from Iowa. Do you have anything you want to tell them?

BNY2009: Iowa you say? I thought you were from Ohio or one of those other e-i-e-i-o states.

Gark: Now you're just being mean.

BNY2009: Well my diaper is full of--

Gark: This is a family blog.

BNY2009: Sorry, but my diaper is kind of smelling like a CAFO. Seriously, to the good people of Iowa I'd like to say Happy New Year and don't get too attached to your homes.

Gark: Why? Will there be flooding and tornadoes again in 2009?

BNY2009: No, I am talking about housing foreclosures.

Gark: Do you have anything encouraging to say?

BNY2009: Yes, with your former Governor Vilsack running the Agriculture department and your Senator Harkin heading the Senate agriculture committee, it should be a good year for your farmers--you do still have farmers don't you?

Gark: Of course we do.

BNY2009: I mean other than Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Monsanto, Pioneer, and so on.

Gark: You do have a point. I know you have things to do before you take the oath of New Year's baby; I mean besides changing your diaper. But before you go, can you give us an idea what your administration of the New Year will be like?

BNY2009: Well, as you know I am like to reach across the aisle and throw up my food at the babies on the other side.

Can I hit a baby thirty feet away with my mashed peas?-- Yes, I can.

Gark: That's just disgusting. I was hoping you could tell me what you plan to accomplish this next year.

BNY2009: I have a plan for world peace, a plan for cleaning up the environment, and a plan to end the economic mess that the world is in. There's only one problem.

Gark: What is it?

BNY2009: You people are going to have to go. I'm just kidding. I love people--for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. No, seriously, I wish everyone out there a Happy New Year.

Gark: Thank you, New Year's Baby 2009.

And thank you readers of Popular Progressive.

Tuesday, December 30

The Crystal Ball: State Legislator's Top 9 Issues for 2009

With 2009 just around the corner, who doesn't enjoy a little prognostication? The National Conference of State Legislatures has proposed its top 9 issues of 2009. My read on how they will play out in Iowa are below each issue.

Issue #1 - State Budgets Gaps
Money will be the No. 1 issue for states in 2009. It is the starting and stopping point for virtually every state program and service. That's why the current fiscal crisis is so alarming. Shrinking state revenues will squeeze every area of state government. More bad economic news is reported almost daily, so, short of a dramatic and unexpected turnaround, state fiscal conditions are expected to continue their downward slide. New programs in a majority of states are likely to be shelved as lawmakers focus on essential state services. Even high-priority programs could get pinched. In this dire fiscal climate, flat funding may be considered a victory. The bottom line: States are battening down the hatches and bracing for the worst fiscal storm in decades.

What this means in Iowa: As we have already heard, the Governor wants to make a 1.5% across-the-board cut to the state budget, as we have about a $450 million gap between the income we expect and the services the state provides. We have also heard that a committee is considering a move to allow municipalities more leeway to put a local income tax in place. This will be tough to resist for cities who are starving for cash, but will likely bring odd bedfellows together on the taxpayer's side. Couple this with the aftermath of last year's floods and it will be tough to pass big ticket legislation.

Issue #2 - Transportation and Infrastructure
The continuing gap between transportation needs and available funds is the key transportation issue for 2009. Revenues for transportation at all levels of government continue to flatten or diminish. Maintaining crumbling infrastructure, fighting congestion and meeting burgeoning demand for public transportation is straining transportation budgets. Gas tax receipts, the mainstay of transportation for the last 50 years, no longer meet the nation's growing needs due to inflation, less driving and more fuel-efficient vehicles. To keep pace, at least 15 states will consider raising the state gas tax and/or motor vehicle fees. Others are looking at tolls and public-private partnerships, though tight credit has slowed consideration of these approaches. With an eye to the future, a number of states including Oregon, Idaho and Minnesota are studying the per mile vehicle fee to eventually replace the gas tax and pay for infrastructure maintenance and new transportation facilities.

What this means in Iowa: If gas prices stay down, it is possible that the state will remove the gas tax subsidy for blended-ethanol gas products, as taxpayers have been saving 2 cents per gallon over non-blended gasoline. The two cents per gallon could make a big difference for road projects and alternative energy which mean jobs to Iowans.

Issue #3 - Higher Education Affordability
In today's world, where a college degree is necessary for most jobs, should states ensure the opportunity for everyone to attend post-secondary education? If the answer is "yes," states will need to make sure in 2009 that funding for higher education is adequate enough so all students, not just the wealthy ones, can afford college. Higher education is often one of the first areas to be cut during tough fiscal times. In response, state universities and colleges typically tend to raise tuition to make up for these lost revenues, which is an additional financial burden on families. During 2007 and 2008 most states were able to increase their budget appropriations for higher education but this is not likely to be the case in 2009 with bleak economic conditions.

What this means in Iowa: With yet another increase in tuition in 2008, Iowa will likely not make any headway in making higher education more affordable. Iowa currently rates an F and won't likely change this year, particularly for Pell grant funding for lower-income students.

Issue #4 - Health Costs and Reform
Health costs keep rising at the same time that state budgets are in trouble. An immediate challenge for states in 2009 will be to maintain and retool current health programs, especially Medicaid and diverse programs aimed at covering the uninsured. As the numbers of unemployed increase, Medicaid rolls will grow. State legislatures will face competing demands such as helping those without health insurance coverage, investing in prevention and wellness, and adopting health information technology such as exchangeable electronic medical records and “e” prescribing. States already striving to provide near-universal health care coverage, Massachusetts and Vermont, worry that shrinking state revenues will become a real obstacle. At the same time others with future health reform proposals, including California, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, may have to defer action due to budget constraints. Meanwhile renewed federal funds for children’s health (SCHIP) and “stimulus” funds for Medicaid are important to states, while they also seek a strong voice in the national discussion of comprehensive reform.

What this means in Iowa: More poor kids and the elderly are likely to be affected by an across the board cut to state programs including healthcare that the Governor has proposed. Whether the the legislators will summon the will to challenge Culver is anybody's guess with his re-election bid around the corner.

Issue #5 - Clean Energy and Alternatives
Developing and using alternative energy will be a top issue for legislatures across the country. State legislatures will be looking for solutions to a host of energy challenges in the coming year, and integrating renewable energy (generated by wind, solar, geothermal and biomass) with existing energy resources will be at the top of their agenda. Roughly 30 states have now enacted some sort of standard for renewable electricity. Some state leaders see renewable energy as having many benefits, such as encouraging local job growth and economic development; reducing the volatility of energy prices; and meeting new growing energy needs without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2008, nine states passed new or strengthened existing standards. Continued activity is expected during 2009. Policymakers will also be exploring how new technologies can generate clean energy from America's vast coal resources and how they can assist the development of these technologies.

What this means in Iowa: As my environmentall-friendly friend Mike Carberry says, "Green is the new black" and the state is likely to legislate to invest in those companies that will develop renewable, greener energy and will create new jobs.

Issue #6 - Sentencing and Corrections
Without change to current corrections and sentencing policies, by 2011, state prison populations are projected to grow by nearly 200,000 inmates at a cost to states of $27.5 billion. Bipartisan efforts in a growing number of state legislatures seek to alter this destiny with actions aimed at safely supervising certain offenders in the community and reducing crime with mental health, substance abuse and other rehabilitative programs. Strained state budgets make cost-effective corrections options and policies an even greater priority in state legislatures in 2009. Ten states indicated they are considering cuts to corrections in NCSL's State Budget Update. Four states exempted corrections in their budgets. States such as Texas and Washington are expanding capacity for offender treatment and community supervision; and similarly Connecticut, Kansas, Pennsylvania and others are improving probation and parole supervision, including use of evidence-based practices.

What this means in Iowa: Don't count on the legislator's to be pushing for more places to incarcerate folks, but localities to put up bond issues to address their local needs. Could be a tough sell in 2009.

Issue #7 - Homeownership
More states are looking at ways to help residents afford to purchase a home during these tough financial times. States are also helping halt foreclosures by creating emergency assistance programs and changing foreclosure processes and procedures. California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Virginia and Washington have regulated foreclosure consultants so they cannot take advantage of desperate homeowners. With the high number of foreclosures across the country, several states have established protections for tenants who are renting homes facing foreclosure.

What this means in Iowa: With 1 out of every 2,256 homes in foreclosure (a national ranking of 39 out of 50), the state should be concerned about public policy in this area, but it is will likely be left to FEMA and local banks to sort out rather than any meaningful legislation.

Issue #8 - Working Families
One-third of families in this country has no net worth, or is in debt; and the looming recession is about to make things worse. In this climate, state legislatures have an opportunity to think long term and encourage families to build up their own financial foundations, which have become fragile. Today, 20 percent of Americans are asset poor, meaning they lack the resources to live above the federal poverty level for more than three months after losing their income. Already strapped, working families are increasingly worried about daily expenses and apprehensive about long-term goals, such as college tuition and retirement. Hamstrung by tight budgets, states have a chance to create incentives for families to invest in the key components of a strong financial future -- savings, education and, when the time is right, homeownership -- assets that pay dividends over time.

What this means in Iowa: Iowa has been somewhat resilient compared to the national trends. However, when services are not available, the working poor seek greener pastures. Human service agencies and Non-profits will likely be challenged in 2009, particularly as their budgets are trimmed.

Issue #9 - Unemployment
Unemployment rates are on the rise and state unemployment compensation funds are experiencing shortfalls due to an increase in claims for unemployment benefits and a decrease in revenue from payroll taxes. Indiana, Michigan, California, New York and Ohio have less than three months of reserves on hand to pay unemployment benefits. Eight other states have reserves of less than six months and it's recommended that states have at least a year of reserves on hand to see themselves through a recessionary period. Close to 4 million unemployed workers are currently receiving unemployment benefits, a level not seen since 1983. State governments levy payroll taxes on employers to pay for unemployment insurance benefits. Many states are going to have to address shortfalls in their unemployment accounts.

What this means in Iowa: Iowa's unemployment rate in november rose .5% compared to the national average of 2%. To maintain the tax-base, keeping Iowans working will be a goal for the legislature. Building trades should be kept busy with the replacement or repair of homes and businesses that were destroyed by floods and tornadoes last year, but this will mean that insurance dollars and FEMA/SBA monies are getting to those home and business owners.

One issue that won't likely see much sunlight:
- VOICE: Voter Owned Iowa Clean Elections, the Democratic House and Senate leadership sees it as a dog that doesn't hunt.

Monday, December 29

Old Clean Coal?

After reading about the coal "fly ash" disaster in Tennessee where a billion gallons of coal slurry from a coal-fired power plant(along with its by-products arsenic and mercury) was washed into the Tennessee River after a retaining wall holding it back in a storage tank collapsed, I question whether there is anything clean about coal. Coal-burning plants currently produce about half the electricity in the United States.

This spill is affecting two tributaries of the Tennessee River. The Tennessee is a major river system and a drinking water source for millions of people downstream in Chattanooga, plus Alabama, west Tennessee and Kentucky. The EPA claims that the drinking water in the area is safe, but the arsenic levels in the river water itself are at dangerous levels for fish and aquatic life. Water from other sources that are not normally treated, such as private drinking water wells or springs, may be contaminated if impacted by the release of the fly ash. These sources of water should not be used for drinking, cooking or bathing until they have been evaluated. EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation continue to sample drinking water wells, municipal water, soils, river water and river sediment.

Two environmental activists were detained by TVA police Friday as the utility stepped up security around the site of the ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant.
"All we are doing was taking pictures," David Cooper, with the non-profit environmental group United Mountain Defense.

Cooper and another activist, Matt Landon, say that's when TVA officials confronted them. "There was a little pull-off on the road and we pulled over and we were immediately accosted and told they would be arrested," Cooper said. The two men say they were then detained by police on a portion of road is now blocked off by an increased presence from TVA police.

According to Coal is Dirty, fly ash is is collected in coal plant smokestacks, stored on site and often is recycled into construction material. Before pollution controls, the ash simply spewed into the air. Now it's placed in retention ponds or in dry storage. There is three times as much coal ash as municipal solid waste generated in America every year. ( "Big Coal," Jeff Goodell page 123). About 130 million tons of coal ash and power plant scrubber sludge are generated annually. "Coal ash contains heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, and lead. An article in Scientific American magazine dated Dec 13, 2007 states that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste."

We need green energy: geothermal, wind, wave, and solar. The transition is underway, but we need to invest in the infrastructure so that coal plants can be phased out as soon as possible. The best part is it will create new jobs as well as reduce green- house gases dramatically.

Sunday, December 28

Who's Going to Catch the Midnight Decider?

With George Bush's Administration getting ready to leave time, you'd think it would be hard to get anything done if you were a lobbyist. The video below by the American News Project says not so. It is truly Christmas time in the city.

Friday, December 26

Look What Obama Gets for Christmas

A CNN poll reports that 75% of those polled won't miss George W. Bush when he leaves office. However there is one man in the U.S. who will, Barack Obama. You see the problems that President Bush leaves behind will be a adeptly handed off to Obama with the skill of Minnesota Viking's QB Tarvaris Jackson last weekend (for the non-footballers, that's not good).

Stepping into the breach, President-Elect Obama will likely see Israel sending troops into the Gaza to take on radical Palestinian's who are launching Katuscha rockets from the territory. He will find Pakistan sending their troops to the border of India. All this and two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a crumbling economy here at home, and so on.

Fortunately, Obama brings hope and change and a pretty good cabinet to takeover for the miserable failures that will be left behind when George W. and Laura take their last Texas two-step out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. If you believe in the power of prayer, heads down, prayers up.

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Wednesday, December 24

Bad Seed Toussie?

Apparently the President, like me, learned that one of his pardons the other day might not have been warranted. CNN reports:

President George W. Bush on Wednesday ordered one of 19 presidential pardons granted earlier in the week to be re-examined before making a final decision.
President Bush ordered the pardon of Isaac R. Toussie to be re-examined.

President Bush ordered the pardon of Isaac R. Toussie to be re-examined.

The pardon was for Isaac R. Toussie, a 36-year-old New York developer who pleaded guilty in 2001 to making false statements in a Long Island mortgage fraud scheme.

Toussie and his father, also a developer, had previously been accused of conspiring with lenders and others to build and sell substandard homes -- a charge they denied.

According to a senior Bush administration official, the White House learned new information about Toussie's case Tuesday night -- only hours after announcing his pardon.

Specifically, the White House learned, according to the official, "additional information about the nature of fraud [Toussie] carried out."

The White House also learned Toussie's father made numerous contributions to leading Republican politicians.

In 2008, Toussie's father donated almost $40,000 to Arizona Sen. John McCain, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor.

"Based on information that has subsequently come to light, the president has directed the [Justice Department's] pardon attorney not to execute and deliver a grant of clemency to Mr. Toussie," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said in a written statement.

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Tuesday, December 23

Con-passionate Conservativism?

President Bush, who is not known for his generosity in granting pardons or commutations issued a couple of surprising one's today. Bush has received 8,071 petitions to commute a sentence during his term and granted eight, according to the Pardon Attorney Web site of the Justice Department. The president has received 2,228 requests for pardons and granted 171, according to the site. During his eight years in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned 396 people out of 2,001 petitions.

The following are yet more examples of the bipolarity that George Bush has exhibited throughout his two terms as President. Meet the just pardoned Isaac Robert Toussie:

He and his father, Robert (According to Ben Smith at Politico, "did give $28,500 to the RNC this year") were developers that lured low income buyers into substandard housing in the late 1990s. 200 buyers filed a suit in federal court against the Toussies, but it was thrown out after failing to qualify as a class action. In May, 2001, Issac Toussie pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court on Long Island for illegally obtaining federal housing loans. On Sept. 25, Robert Toussie's lawyer, Richard C. Hamburger of Hamburger, Maxson & Yaffe LLP in Melville, N.Y., said his client was so confident of the quality of his houses that he offered to buy back three buyers and pay their moving expenses and $5,000.

Isaac Toussie pleaded guilty in two unrelated cases, one involving HUD mortgage frauds mainly in Gordon Heights and one involving the county's purchase in 2000 of the Chandler estate in Mount Sinai, allegedly for several million dollars more than it was worth.

Toussie could have faced 50 months in prison and millions of dollars in restitution and fines. But U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley sentenced him in July to five months in prison and five months of home detention, and yesterday, after several hearings on whether Toussie should pay the potentially large restitution, he imposed none. In the case of the mortgage fraud, prosecutors said the relevant records were lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

While the younger Toussie served semi-hard time, his father has bought up millions of dollars of properties in New York's Suffolk County at bargain basement prices. The elder Toussie is quoted as saying he "never had to pay a dollar in fines or restitution because I’m on the right side of the issues and I’m a good person." I guess the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.

Now meet Reed Raymond Prior:

In 1995, a University of Iowa graduate, Reed Prior was arrested with 869 grams of methamphetamine, a scale, other drug paraphernalia, and $17,690 in cash in Des Moines. As a three time convicted (though non-violent) felon, Prior would serve a mandatory life sentence on federal drug trafficking (Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute)charges if convicted. Prior appealed his conviction to the U.S. 8th circuit Appellate Court and lost his appeal.

Prior (now in his late fifties) while in prison, assisted over 100 inmates obtain their GED so as to better prepare them for when they are eventually released from prison. He has taught subjects such as history, English, math, and courses in the U.S. Constitution. Currently, he runs the prison library.

After almost thirteen years in a federal penitentiary in Illinois, the President commuted his sentence from life to being put on supervised parole in February of 2009for an additional ten years more years.

His story

PTSD: Iraq Veterans Deserve Better

Veterans from the Iraq war and Afghanistan are coming back to a country that is not well-prepared to deal with their many psychological needs and a military that wants them to do more. In this season of giving, we need to remember these brave men and women.

Here is a sad example from the AP story of Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Henderson who returned from Iraq and was turned into a military recruiter. His wife found him in a shed behind their house hanging from a dog chain due to the pressure he was under to recruit and the nightmares he carried with him from fighting in Iraq. He was treated by a local counselor who did not have a handle on the military jargon on his medical record and was ineffective in treating him.

The RAND Corporation estimates that 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. Only half have sought treatment. With deployment topping 1.5 million by the summer of 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has treated more than 52,000 persons,

The symptoms are PTSD are broken into three broad groups:
- Reexperiencing: This involves intrusive memories and flashbacks.
- Avoidance: Symptoms include isolation, withdrawal, emotional numbing, detachment, memory loss.
- Hyperarousal: Patients experience insomnia, irritability, outbursts and poor concentration.

According to Medscape, "estimates are for a minimum of 300,000 psychiatric casualties from service with an estimated lifetime cost of treatment of $660 billion. That is more than the actual cost of the war to date ($500 billion).

A study of the first 100,000 [Iraq and Afghanistan] veterans seen at VA facilities showed that 25% of them received mental health diagnoses. Of these, 56% had 2 or more mental health diagnoses. The most common were PTSD, substance abuse, and depression," Dr. Kanter said. "The younger the veterans are, the more likely they are to have mental health conditions."

Evaluation immediately on return from deployment suggested that 5% of active duty and 6% of reserve personnel had a significant mental health problem. When reassessed 3 to 6 months later, 27% of active duty and 42% of reserve personnel received that evaluation."

The Most Annoying Law Ever?

If things weren't bad enough in Michigan, the city council of Brighton has had it with people who "in a course of conduct or repeatedly commit acts that alarm or seriously annoy another person and that serve no legitimate purpose." As a result they approved a public conduct code Monday night, which includes fining someone up to $500 for being annoying.

The bill states it's unlawful for anyone to insult, accost, molest or otherwise annoy any person in public. The ordinance was modeled after one in Royal Oak, where Brighton police chief Tom Wightman previously worked.

Examples where this rule could apply are: ongoing neighbor disputes; an ex-boyfriend or ex-spouse harassing an individual; unwanted and repeated text messages; harassing phone calls or hang-up calls; and co-worker harassment. Wightman said the goal is to interrupt these behaviors and put a stop to it. "Our intent is to protect citizens and to protect free speech as well," Wightman said.

Two council members expressed concerns for the language of the ordinance, but voted for it anyway. Brighton officials said the ordinance would be subjective and the call will be made by police officers.

Existing harrassment laws may work just as effectively and be less subjective? The law's passing left one local business owner, Rick Stames, scratching his head, "It just makes the city look stupid. There's enough that happens that make you look bad to begin with; why go out of your way?"

Monday, December 22

Is Equal Fair?

Chet Culver, like Solomon, has said he will cut the state budget by 1.5% across the board. That's fair, right? No one gets special treatment, everyone has to tighten his or her belt-- that's the Iowa way, eh?

With respect to my fellow Iowans, equal is not fair. If we have state departments that are underperforming, should they receive equal budget consideration as those that are performing well? How about those agencies that have the ability to receive funding in ways other than the budget? Should entrepreneurship not be encouraged? And finally, what about those agencies whose primary purpose is to keep a safety net under those Iowans who are laid off, ill, hungry, or homeless? Usually during economic hardship, the need for aid to human service agencies increases, shouldn't this be considered?

I would argue that the governor and the legislators need to evaluate the best way to slice the budget pie such that human services are put on top of the needs list (with the caveat being that the agencies should be looking for opportunities to streamline their processes) to assure that Iowans in need are best served. The governor should then look for underperforming agencies and push those administrators to shape their departments up and to reward those workers who find ways to do more with less and show poor managers the door.

Iowa doesn't need a hatchet man to do a conditioning coach's work. The governor needs to work with the legislators to help the state to get in better all around shape, not just lose weight.

Irony: Atwood, Debt, and CNN

I am constantly amused by our universe, particularly that part where we human beings run the show. Case in point? Margaret Atwood has written a great new book called "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth" " and it is showing up in the most interesting places like CNN (see photo above). The book is a philosophical examination of the concept of debt and its interconnections with biology, theology, and sociology, as seen through the eyes of the hugely talented writer. Note the display of the story juxtaposed with a honking large advertisement for Ralph Lauren which encourages us to go into debt to buy something lovely and posh from the ersatz garment king.

The book is engaging and brings you into Atwood's inquiring mind. It was the book I began reading to my wife yesterday, as part of our Sunday tradition. As cold as it was yesterday, the intellectual exercise I got was quite a workout.

NPR had an interesting interview with Atwood where she discusses her book. Here's a snippet from the book read by Atwood.

The Bane of the Tax Base

Local economies thrive on property and sales tax dollars and economic development is part of the foundation for both. In Iowa City, economic development involves a love/hate relationship between the University of Iowa which takes property off the the tax rolls while bringing in sales tax and property tax dollars by the bucket full by virtue of the tens of thousands of students, parents, and visitors that the keepers of the Golden Dome bring and the contractual arrangements that the city and U of I enter into for services.

In a real sense you'd think that would be enough to to fund services for the rest of us. But, of course, you'd be wrong. The other side of a college town is the demands that are placed on its resources to serve the types of people who are needed to keep the pump primed, your medical school doctors, your business faculty, your law school faculty--and I suppose your Liberal Arts and Science profs, but its only because of the number of students that are in that college. Then there are your students from the western suburbs of Chicago, Des Moines, Davenport--really the west side of any thriving burgh. These are tough customers. They want stuff, they ask for stuff, and they get stuff: parking ramps, policing of downtown, and historic preservation (as long as it doesn't impact UIHC hospital), as well as a gagillion bars and apartments, and a smattering of restaurants, stores, and other needed things.

Then there are the rest of us who have kids in excellent local schools, parks for us and our dogs, and historic preservation (as long as it doesn't impact Mercy Hospital). We also demand curbside recycling and policing for the dangerous neighborhoods (not the ones frequented by students, the other ones).

Of course all of us want fire stations within three minutes of our homes and businesses (although the occasional "unknown cause" fire can be good for business too). We all want the arts (loosely defined from public art displays to ceramics classes at the Center [aka the Senior Center]).

Then there are those services that tend to be used by those in need and we don't like our money being wasted, but for God's sake, someones got to do something to help those people. Of course, if they would just grow a pair of bootstraps and pull themselves up, well that would be fine too.

Certainly we all believe the city government wastes our money or if not the city, certainly the county does; and if not the county, well, you know the state does or at the very least the federal government. It's this way, we like the stuff that taxes does that benefits us, but not the stuff that benefits other people.

Every so often those that govern (and the Chamber of Commerce) bring in consultants to educate the public about how we need to get behind the economic mower and help it cut a wider swath. This month's contestant: we need to make our community vibrant for the cool, trendy people who wear the rectangular glasses and favor pomegranate-flavored beverages who will flock to the frigid weather of Iowa to be with other cool, trendy people who presumably like their pomegranate stirred not shaken.

It is how we grow the tax base. But did anyone actually stop to think, how can we sustain the community we have with the resources we've got? Could we actually do more with plans that people are excited to be a partner in? Could we actually be happy with things the way they are, but with a sharper focus?

This is the bane of our tax base, the need for it to grow so that we don't really have to think so much about why we are spending what we spend and/or to what end. It takes money to make money--at the end of the day its our money that is taken to make the city some money.

Sunday, December 21

Braley Starts Populist Caucus

{{w|Bruce Braley}}, member of the United State...Image via Wikipedia

I don't think I'm the only one who believes that there is only one "populist, progressive" in Iowa and he is Bruce Braley. His first term was marked by a number of good votes and one of my favorite YouTube moments:

I hope that District 2's Dave Loebsack will begin to show the kind of leadership that the District 1 congressman showed in his first term.

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Friday, December 19

Fallon Right on the Money

Ed Fallon wrote this fine opinion piece that appeared in The Des Moines Register today in relatively similar form, entitled “Illinois seat not only thing that’s for sale.” This is why we continue to need VOICE to be brought forward for passage.

It’s easy to muster contempt for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Politics in America is rife with corruption, but rarely is corruption as brazen and unrepentant as what we’ve been treated to recently by Illinois’ soon-to-be former CEO. To learn that someone apparently would openly try to sell a U.S. Senate seat shocks and disgusts us.

Blagojevich is a menace and needs to go to the gated community where several other Illinois governors before him have gone. But America’s campaign finance system is a far greater menace to democracy. If we can muster shock and disgust for Blagojevich, we should be utterly appalled at the pervasive role of money in politics.

Face it. What we call “elections” have become auctions. The auctioning of U.S. Senate seats occurs every six years – every two years for Congressional and state legislative seats. Big donors, corporations and special interests “bid” on the candidate of their choice. In close races, the smart money bids on both candidates, and the one backed by the highest bidders usually wins.

We don’t want to believe our elected officials can be bought. But as one who served for 14 years in the Iowa House, I say with confidence that what big money wants, big money usually gets. Rank-and-file lawmakers may be well-intentioned but often are strong-armed by legislative leaders beholden to corporate donors and special interests. As a result, the most pressing challenges of our time – climate change, budgetary reform, health care, farm policy, to name a few – see practically no progress year after year.

So, while I hope the good people of Illinois fire Blagojevich and fire him soon, I have a more pressing hope t hat Americans across the country get fired-up for campaign finance reform. In Iowa, Senator-elect Pam Jochum is leading the charge on VOICE (Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections). This bill would make it easier for rank-and-file lawmakers to stand up to party leaders, allow more citizens to run for office and give the public far greater access to the halls of power.

The federal equivalent of Pam’s bill is sponsored by Senators Durbin (D-Illinois) and Specter (R-Pennsylvania). Both would establish greater fairness, openness and accountability in the financing of elections. Both deserve our strong backing.

When lawmakers consider whether to support campaign finance reform, perhaps the question they should ask is this: What would Blagojevich do? Well, beyond the Illinois Governor’s attempt to sell a U.S. Senate seat, his veto in 2007 of a bill to prohibit contributions from donors with state contracts of more than $50,000 ma kes it clear he’s no friend of reform.

And I can’t think of a stronger endorsement than that for reducing the role of money in politics.

Thursday, December 18

California's Solis to Head Labor Department

Barack Obama announced U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis as his choice for Labor Secretary. Solis is a five term Congresswoman from California and has a strong labor record and is a proponent of green jobs. Solis has one of the strongest pro-worker voting records in Congress and is a sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Her legislative accomplishments include spearheading a bill to provide workforce training for “green-collar” employment. Such initiatives are a hallmark of Obama’s plan to address the country’s energy needs and create new jobs. Solis, in 1994, was the first Latina elected to the California Senate, where she led the battle to increase the state's minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour in 1996.

Maybe she'll help tackle a national living wage.

Wednesday, December 17

Tom Vilsack Not a Suitable Choice as Ag Secretary

Barack Obama nominated one of "our own" to his cabinet. But is Tom Vilsack qualified to be Secretary of Agriculture? If by agriculture you mean Big Ag, the folks who brought you GMOs, Cloned cattle, and CAFOs, you betcha. But if you mean agriculture that is sustainable and healthy, well let's just say Obama could have done a whole lot better than the Pittsburgh, PA raised Tom Vilsack.

According to the Organic Consumers Association, Vilsack’s positions have included the following:

• Vilsack has been a strong supporter of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn.
• The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He is also the founder and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.
• When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child for economic development was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning dairy cows.
• The undemocratic 2005 seed preemption bill was the Vilsack's brainchild. The law strips local government’s right to regulate genetically engineered seed.
• Vilsack is an ardent supporter of corn and soy based biofuels, which use as much or more energy to produce as they generate and drive up world food prices, literally starving the poor.
• During his time as governor "Vilsack oversaw the largest proliferation of hog confinements in the states history."

At a time when our food supply is "at risk," it makes little sense to promote a person who has been the head of a state with some of the environmentally unsound waterways in the country. If the President-Elect wants an Iowan to run the agency, I hear Denise O'Brien is available.

Monday, December 15

2008 In Quotes

It's perhaps a little early to wa poetic about the year that is (and soon will be was), but according to "Yale Book of Quotations" edited by Fred Shapiro the top political quotes for 2008 are:

1."I can see Russia from my house!"
Comedian Tina Fey, impersonating Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, broadcast Sept. 13

2. "All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years."
Palin, responding to a request by CBS anchor Katie Couric to name the newspapers or magazines she reads, broadcast Oct. 1

3. "We have sort of become a nation of whiners."
Former Sen. Phil Gramm, an economic adviser to Sen. John McCain, quoted in The Washington Times, July 10

4. "It's not based on any particular data point, we just wanted to choose a really large number."
Treasury Department spokeswoman explaining how the $700 billion number was chosen for the initial bailout, quoted on Sept. 23

5. "The fundamentals of America's economy are strong."
John McCain, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, April 17

6. "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency."
The Treasury Department's proposed Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, September 2008

7. "Maybe 100."
John McCain, discussing in a town hall meeting in Derry, N.H., how many years U.S. troops could remain in Iraq, Jan. 3

8. "I'll see you at the debates, bitches."
Paris Hilton in a video responding to a McCain television ad, August 2008

9. "Barack, he's talking down to black people. ... I want to cut his ... off."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, overheard over a live microphone before a Fox News interview, July 6

10. (tie) "Cash for trash."
Paul Krugman discussing the financial bailout, New York Times, Sept. 22.

10. (tie) "There are no atheists in foxholes and there are no libertarians in financial crises."
Krugman, in an interview with Bill Maher on HBO's Real Time, broadcast Sept. 19

10. (tie) "Anyone who says we're in a recession, or heading into one — especially the worst one since the Great Depression — is making up his own private definition of 'recession.'"
Commentator Donald Luskin, the day before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, The Washington Post, Sept. 14

I would add:

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." -- Barack Obama, in victory speech in US presidential election in home state of Chicago, November 4, 2008.

And these three bailout related quotes:

"If money isn't loosened up, this sucker could go down." -- US president George Bush as political wrangling threatens to sink $700 billion Wall Street bailout package.

"Our entire economy is in danger." -- US president George Bush in TV appeal for support for plan to avert financial meltdown.

"Don't blow it up." -- US treasury secretary Henry Paulson on bended knee, to Democratic Party House speaker Nancy Pelosi, pleading for her to back $700bn Wall Street bailout.

Electoral College Declares Obama President-Elected

Despite a twenty minute delay in Colorado so that an alternative elector could be seated, the Electoral College convened across the United States and declared Barack Obama the President of the United States.

The Des Moines Register reports Governor Chet Culver saying the Electoral College system worked as it should, "If we were ever going to change it we would have done it over the last eight years," said Culver. "You have to give small states an opportunity to be relevant."

All of Iowa's seven electors are Democratic activists who were involved in the campaign early on and signed a formal document declaring their official support for Obama. "They got involved very early in the presidential selection process," said Culver. "Since the Democrats won, these seven electors get to cast their votes."

The Iowa City Press Citizen reports that Iowa's 2008 electors are:

• 1st District: Elwood Thompson, Waterloo.

• 2nd District: Slayton Thompson, Cedar Rapids.

• 3rd District: Kathleen O'Leary, Des Moines.

• 4th District: Jon Heitland, Iowa Falls.

• 5th District: Dennis Ryan, Onawa.

• At large: Joe Judge, Albia.

• At large: Audrey Linville, Davenport.

A gentle round of applause for these women and men.

Tuesday, December 9

FCC Lacks Clear Channels?

Surprise, a political appointee of President Bush not capable of leading a commission. While this story will probably not make the front page like Rod Blagojevich's indiscretions--those of us that have been following the wild proceedings of the FCC are not surprised to learn that the Chair, Kevin Martin, does not play by the rules.

The AP reports:

In a scathing report released Tuesday, congressional investigators outlined a pattern of mismanagement, dysfunction and abuse of power at the Federal Communications Commission under the agency's Republican chairman, Kevin Martin.

The report — the result of a nearly yearlong, bipartisan investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee — accuses Martin of manipulating data and suppressing information to influence telecommunications policy debates at the agency and on Capitol Hill.

The report charges that the commission has become politicized and failed to carry out some important responsibilities under Martin's leadership. It also blames him for undermining an open and transparent regulatory process.

In addition, Martin is accused of micromanaging commission affairs, demoting agency staffers who did not agree with him and withholding information from his fellow commissioners. "Chairman Martin's heavy-handed, opaque, and non-collegial management style has created distrust, suspicion and turmoil among the five current commissioners," the report says.

Robert Kenny, a spokesman for Martin, said the committee "did not find or conclude that there were any violations of rules, laws or procedures." Martin is widely expected to leave the commission after the White House changes hands.

Martin's legacy at the FCC will be "a blueprint of what not to do," said Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who chairs the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Some of the findings of the report:

- Martin manipulated the findings of an FCC inquiry into the potential consumer benefits of requiring cable companies to sell channels on an individual — or "a la carte" — basis. The House investigation concludes that Martin undermined the integrity of the FCC staff and may have improperly influenced the Congressional debate on the matter by ordering agency employees to rewrite a report to conclude that a la carte mandates would benefit consumers.

- Martin tried to manipulate the findings of an annual FCC report on the state of competition in the market for cable and other video services to show that the industry had a big enough market share to permit additional government regulation. When the full commission voted to reject that conclusion, Martin suppressed the report by withholding its release.

- Under Martin's leadership, the FCC's oversight of the Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, which pays for special telecommunications services for people with hearing or speech disabilities, was overly lax. This resulted in overcompensation of the companies that provide these services by as much as $100 million a year — costs that were ultimately passed along to phone company customers.

Blogging a Blatently Badly Behaving Blagojevich

Illinois' Governor Rod Blagojevich was wisked away from his Ravenswood neighborhood home early this morning to be formally indcicted with federal corruption charges. It appears that the Governor and his Chief of Staff, John Harris, were looking to cash in on opportunities that being governor provides, including the ability to name the next senator from the great state of Ilinois, and wanted to make hay while the sun was shining.

U.S. Attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, who was fortunately not Obama's choice for Attorney General, will be quite busy making the government's case out of the assortment of crimes and misdemeanors in which Rod the Mod and company has allegedly involved thwemselves. The arrests are part of a three-year probe of "pay-to-play politics" in the governor's administration. The complaint by the FBI says each man was arrested on two charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and solicitation of bribery.

News sources say Blagojevich and Harris "allegedly conspired to sell U.S. Senate appointment, engaged in pay-to-play schemes and threatened to withhold state assistance to Tribune Company for Wrigley Field to induce (the) purge of newspaper editorial writers."

"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Fitzgerald's office said the 76-page FBI affidavit alleges that Blagojevich was taped conspiring to sell or trade Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for financial and other personal benefits for himself and his wife, including an annual salary of $250,000-$300,000 at a nonprofit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions.

They also allege Blagojevich is heard on tape demanding a corporate board seat for his wife worth as much as $150,000 a year; promises of campaign funds, including cash up front; and the post of secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship for himself in the Obama administration.

The Chicago Tribune quoted him as saying on Monday, “whether you tape me privately or publicly, I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful and the things I’m interested in are always lawful.”

The AP reports that Blagojevich considered appointing himself. The affidavit said that as late as Nov. 3, he told his deputy governor that if "they're not going to offer me anything of value I might as well take it."

"I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain," Blagojevich allegedly said later that day, according to the affidavit, which also quoted him as saying in a remark punctuated by profanity that the seat was "a valuable thing — you just don't give it away for nothing."

Here's the US Attorney's Office and FBI's statement.

Sunday, December 7

All Hat and No Substance

Thomas Jefferson learned a valuable lesson from Benjamin Franklin when the Continental Congress was considering the Declaration of Independence. Said Jefferson, "When the Declaration of Independence was under the consideration of Congress, there were two or three unlucky expressions in it which gave offence to some members. The word "Scotch and other foreign auxiliaries" excited the ire of a gentleman or two of that country. Severe strictures on the conduct of the British King, in negotiating our repeated repeals of the law which permitted the importation of slaves, were disapproved by some Southern gentlemen, whose reflections were not yet matured to the full abhorrence of that traffic. Although the offensive expressions were immediately yielded, these gentlemen continued their depredations on other parts of the instrument.

I was sitting by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations. "I have made it a rule," said he, "whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with a figure of a hat subjoined; but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word 'Hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats,' which show he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats,' says his next friend! Why nobody will expect you to give them away, what then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed it, rather as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson' with the figure of a hat subjoined."

The point of the retelling of this tale is that often the meaning of our words is lost in the parsing of them. Can you imagine what the Declaration of Independence would look like if it were worked on by any committee of any party these days? I shudder to think what we would have been left with.

With the new year quickly approaching, it is my hope that we can look forward to legislation that comes before Congress to be vetted, but not ravaged by partisanship. Based on recent history, on both sides, we should not hope for too much.

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Thursday, December 4

Fallon Hired Hand for "Farmer-In-Chief"?

Not one to be shy about serving the public, Ed Fallon has "applied" for the job of White House farmer. In a press release from I'M Iowa sent out today for President-elect Barack Obama (see below), Ed Fallon asked to be considered for the job of “White House Farmer,” a term Fallon first came across in an article by Michael Pollan (“Farmer in Chief,” New York Times, October 12, 2008).

Pollan wrote: “This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.”

“America is hungry for a new direction in food production and consumption,” said Fallon. “World War II was a frightening time. The Victory Garden movement Eleanor Roosevelt helped kick-off on the lawn of the White House ignited a green revolution that led to 20 million gardens across the country, growing 40 percent of America’s produce. Similarly, these are scary times, and a new approach to food security is demanded.”

Fallon wrote to Obama, “I would be honored to serve in this capacity and believe I am well qualified. As I see it, the challenge involves both managing a
successful fruit and vegetable garden (and a small chicken coop for eggs!) and promoting greater food security across the country.” Fallon summarized his experience in politics, community organizing, gardening and farming:

• Served 14 years in the Iowa Legislature, and ran for Governor and Congress.
• Worked as a consultant with John Edwards’ campaign for president in 2007.
• Co-founded and directed two non-profit organizations.
• Traveled extensively across Iowa promoting farmland preservation initiatives.
• Co-founded the North Park Neighborhood Association.
• Co-founded a business which focuses in part on promoting locally grown foods.
• Raised much of his family’s produce over th e past twenty years.
• Helped establish and manage a community garden comprising five city lots.
• Coordinated the planting of 25,000 oak trees on his family’s farm in Ireland.
• Apprenticed on two farms in Nova Scotia in the early 1980s.
• As a Legislator, served on the House Agriculture Committee for six years.
• Developed a business plan for a grocery store featuring locally-grown food.

“To conclude,” wrote Fallon, “let me again quote Pollan: ‘{T}he president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population.’”

I would suggest that Backyard Abundance's Fred Meyer could split the chores with Ed and Kurt Friese could cook up some great locally grown meals for the Obamas.

Tuesday, December 2

Hope Takes a Turn to the Center?

With the appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and keeping on Robert Gates as the Secretary of Defense, a clear message is being sent by Team Obama to those that believed he would shift the country to the left. While Hillary Clinton is no Alexander Haig, she is likely to be less progressive in leading the State Department than some, including myself, would like. Couple her with Robert Gates and more moderate Democrats and Republicans are going to rest easier in the transition period.

Still, is this the change that Obama supporters expected? What these moves seem to indicate is that President-elect Obama is a pragmatist and is not willing to waste his political capital coming out of the gate. In this time of uncertainty he seems to be choosing to inspire calm by making safer, more calculated choices.

As he did in his campaign, Obama is building a core around himself that will allow him to lead from his strengths--calm resolve, well-turned phrases and themes, and executing legislation with calculation.

Does this apparent turn to easing the anxiety of the middle mean he won't accomplish his more progressive agenda? No, it means he is working on the middle to trust his judgment. If he is successful at doing this, it will be easier to accomplish the more difficult tasks that lie further ahead. Developing things like a new energy policy that is far greener than anything we've seen, investing in the infrastructure to create the new economy and transportation options we need, and moving us closer to a health care system that covers all of us--these are longer term battles to be waged. But to do this, the Obama team needs us to simmer down so that we can embrace the change he campaigned to bring.