Thursday, April 28, 2011

Florida Legislature battles over whose back to balance the budget on

Today's ProgressFlorida Daily Clips email included these two summaries of articles in local papers:

New divide in Florida budget debate: the federal health care law
By Marc Caputo, St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau
A new wedge developed Wednesday between legislative Republicans as they hammered out a budget deal: President Barack Obama's health care law.

Lawmakers may let Scott hand out cash to companies offering jobs
By Aaron Deslatte, Orlando Sentinel
To help Gov. Rick Scott sell the state to corporations, budget writers assembling the governor's new jobs super-agency are preparing to give him broad authority to offer tax dollars to companies willing to create jobs.

Let's see.  Should we allocate $338 million to boost the Medicaid reimbursement rate to doctors, or should we give the governor $300 million to incent businesses to come to Florida?

This is just one of many, many examples of how the differing values of the Republicans and Democrats in Tallahassee are affecting the budget debate. 

The good news is, even the Republicans don't fully support the governor's request for corporate tax cuts.  According to the Sentinel article:
"This is my eleventh session now, and very few people in my career have come to me and said the reason we did not come to the state of Florida was because of the corporate tax rate," [Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island] said.
The Legislature isn't giving Scott close to the $300 million he wanted in cash to give out to companies, and it's unclear how much funding they have stashed away for tax cuts. The Senate's first offer Wednesday includes only about $50 million for economic-development programs. The final total for such tax-incentive programs could be about $130 million.

But the bad news is, Florida's Republican legislators are solidly behind the repeal of what they (including our own Rep. Matt Hudson) call "ObamaCare."

It all boils down to whose back to balance the budget on: the poor and medically-needy, or big business.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Two views of the proposed budgets

There's considerable wisdom to be found in two opinion pieces that recently appeared in the papers.

"Paul Ryan's Reverse Robin Hood Budget" by former Fed vice-chairman and now Princeton University professor Alan S. Blinder appeared in Thursday's (April 19) Wall Street Journal. Some excerpts:

Worst things first. The plan threatens to eviscerate Medicare by privatizing it—with vouchers that, absent some sort of cost-control miracle, would fall further and further behind the rising cost of health insurance. And to make that miracle even less likely, House Republicans want to repeal every cost-containment measure enacted in last year's health-reform legislation. ...

Then there's Medicaid, which is a lifeline for the poor. House Republicans want to turn it into a block grant, underfund it, and let the 50 states figure it out. ....

The sums involved are huge. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the House Republican budget would reduce federal health-care spending by more than two-thirds by 2050. (No, that's not a misprint.) Did someone say, "We have to destroy Medicare to save it?"

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about two-thirds of Mr. Ryan's so-called courageous budget cuts would come from programs serving low- and moderate-income Americans, while the rich would gain from copious tax cuts. That's courage? ...

How many Americans know that 72% of Mr. Ryan's claimed budget cuts would go to fund tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the rich? ...

Since Blinder was appointed to the Fed by Bill Clinton and served as an advisor to Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, the fact that he sees the plan as he does isn't surprising, but it's great copy and nice that the Republican-leaning Wall Street Journal gave it play.

"The Bipartisan March to Fiscal Madness," by Republican former Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman appeared in Sunday's New York Times.

Some excerpts:

It is obvious that the nation’s desperate fiscal condition requires higher taxes on the middle class, not just the richest 2 percent. Likewise, entitlement reform requires means-testing the giant Social Security and Medicare programs, not merely squeezing the far smaller safety net in areas like Medicaid and food stamps.

Unfortunately, in proposing tax increases only for the very rich, President Obama has denied the first of these fiscal truths, while Representative Paul D. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has contradicted the second by putting the entire burden of entitlement reform on the poor. The resulting squabble is not only deepening the fiscal stalemate, but also bringing us dangerously close to class war. [Read more...]
In attacking the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of taxpayers, the president is only incidentally addressing the deficit. The larger purpose is to assure the vast bulk of Americans left behind that they will be spared higher taxes — even though entitlements make a tax increase unavoidable. Mr. Obama is thus playing the class-war card more aggressively than any Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt — surpassing Harry S. Truman or John F. Kennedy when they attacked big business or Lyndon B. Johnson or Jimmy Carter when they posed as champions of the little guy.

On the other side, Representative Ryan fails to recognize that we are not in an era of old-time enterprise capitalism in which the gospel of low tax rates and incentives to create wealth might have had relevance. A quasi-bankrupt nation saddled with rampant casino capitalism on Wall Street and a disemboweled, offshored economy on Main Street requires practical and equitable ways to pay its bills.

Ingratiating himself with the neo-cons, Mr. Ryan has put the $700 billion defense and security budget off limits; and caving to pusillanimous Republican politicians, he also exempts $17 trillion of Social Security and Medicare spending over the next decade. What is left, then, is $7 trillion in baseline spending for Medicaid and the social safety net — to which Mr. Ryan applies a meat cleaver, reducing outlays by $1.5 trillion, or 20 percent.

Trapped between the religion of low taxes and the reality of huge deficits, the Ryan plan appears to be an attack on the poor in order to coddle the rich. To the Democrats’ invitation to class war, the Republicans have seemingly sent an R.S.V.P.  [Read more...]

Not only do I think Stockman is right-on, I am hugely tickled by the fact that he was the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Ronald Reagen from 1981 to 1985. Wikipedia says:

Stockman emerged as one of the most powerful and controversial OMB directors ever during a tenure that lasted until his resignation in August 1985. Committed to the doctrine of supply-side economics, he took the lead in directing passage of the "Reagan Budget" ..., which Stockman hoped to be a serious curtailment of the "welfare state" .... During this period, although only in his early 30s, Stockman played a central and highly visible role as the ultimate "budget guru" in the fierce debate and contentious political wrangling over the future direction of the role of the federal government in American society.

As the days and weeks go by, many are weighing in on the Ryan budget proposal.  I agree with Stockman - both parties are playing politics.  And we can't afford it.

As Stockman concludes:
[The] Ryan plan worsens our trillion-dollar structural deficit and the Obama plan amounts to small potatoes, at best. Worse, we are about to descend into class war because the Obama plan picks on the rich when it should be pushing tax increases for all, while the Ryan plan attacks the poor when it should be addressing middle-class entitlements and defense.

In the real world, however, the global bond market is already rumbling — and around the corner, a fiscal conflagration surely lies.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Florida Legislature - UGH! (updated Tuesday 4/26 @ 1:50 PM)

The Florida Legislature has some really bad things underway.

What the Florida League of Women Voters is calling a "terrible elections bill" would make major changes to Florida's elections laws.  From the League's Capitol Report of April 22nd:
House Bill 1355 would make major changes to Florida’s election laws and contains burdensome provisions that would impact the League’s ability to carryout one of our core missions; to register voters. The bills set an unrealistic deadline of 48 hours for League members or other voter registration groups to turn in a completed voter registration form. Missing the deadline means you may be fined.
Other bad provisions contained in the bill includes no longer allowing voters who have moved to a different county to change their address when they go to the polls, prohibiting giving voters legal advice when they are standing in line to vote and shortening the time period that citizen initiative petitions are valid from 4 to 2 years.
[Today]... the Senate Budget Committee [heard] a similar elections bill. In addition to the House provisions, Senate Bill 2086 would also reduce the time period for early voting from 15 day to 7 days before an election. The League believes Senate Bill 2086 represents an attempt at partisan voter suppression and is an attack on voter’s rights.

This just in (4/26 at 1:22 PM) from the LWV:
This is outrageous. Today, after only 2 minutes of public testimony, the Senate Budget Committee voted to pass the controversial elections bill, SB 2086. Although a number of organizations and individuals had traveled to Tallahassee to provide input on this important issue, Committee Chairman J.D. Alexander limited public input to 2 minutes via a procedural move. This is a travesty of democracy. 

Despite the fact that the League was unable to speak today in committee, we will not be silenced. It is likely that SB 2086 will go to the Senate floor this week.  

It is vital that you contact your State Senator today. When you call, please let the receptionist know that you are a constituent and feel free to use the below talking points.
  • Senate Bill 2086 represents an all-out attack on voters' rights. Provisions contained in this bill that are particularly troubling include:
  • Burdensome new regulations for third-party voter registration groups that will have a chilling effect on those groups' ability to register voters.
  • Reducing the ability of voters to change their address at the polling place. This will hurt college students, relocating professionals and other mobile voters who can currently change their address when they come to the polls to vote.
  • Forcing voters who've moved from one county to another to cast a provisional ballot. These ballots are expensive to process and are not always counted.  
  • Shortening the time period for early voting. Current law allows 15 days for early voting, and SB 2086 shortens that to 7 days, which will create longer lines at the polls during early voting and on election day.
In addition, a friend emailed me this list of bad stuff affecting a woman's right to choose:
HB97  abortion restrictions in insurance coverage;
HB501  fees from CHOOSE LIFE LICENSE PLATES to go directly to their organization;
HB1127 mandatory ultra sound;
HB1179 constitutional amendment barring any public funds for abortion;
HB1247 more difficult for minors to obtain judicial  bypass of Parental Notification requirements;
HB1397 targeted regulation of abortion providers.

She says that "each of these has passed with a big majority in the respective committees and [all] are currently scheduled to be placed on the calendar.  You can get detailed info on each of these on the legislative website, of course.  I just thought it would be helpful for you to know some detail how despicable the agenda of the anti choice adherents in the Florida legislature is and provide you with some tag lines if you decide to contact our local delegation."  Great info; great help, friend

The Legislative session only lasts for 60 days.  As we well know, they can do a lot of damage in that short amount of time.  Contact your legislators here AS SOON AS POSSIBLE and let them know how you feel.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Dr. Kamela Patton: Recommended by a star

Dr. Patton
I'm thrilled with Collier County's choice of Kamela Patton of Miami to be the next superintendent of our public school district.  I agree with everyone involved that the choice between Patton and current Collier Schools Chief Operations Office Michele LaBute was a really difficult one.  Each candidate is incredibly talented and would serve us well.  I'm looking forward to Patton's arrival on July 1 and to watching how she engages the community.  I have no doubt she will be great.

Since Patton comes from the Miami-Dade School District, which is the country's fourth largest, I was especially interested in an article in today's Miami Herald titled "Two Superintendents: One's Star Rises; One Has Fallen."  The article compares Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Broward Superintendent Jim Notter - and Carvalho is the rising star.

Read these excerpts, and consider that Carvalho is currently Patton's boss:

Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent, balanced the district’s broken budget, rejuvenated troubled schools and united a School Board known for its squabbling. Poised, polished and politically savvy, Carvalho quickly became a power player in state and national education circles. When the economy imploded, he was the first educational leader to call on the federal government to provide funding for local school districts. Soon after, the White House unveiled a similar plan.
He is often invited to speak alongside the country’s top educators at national conferences, and has visited the White House and U.S. Department of Education to discuss policy. Even President Barack Obama has been lavish in his praise of Carvalho, calling the superintendent “impressive” in a visit to a Miami-Dade school last month. 
Running a big-city school district is a high-wire act, demanding equal parts administrative skill, business know-how and political acumen. It also requires luck, timing and thick skin. ... 
Carvalho became superintendent of Miami-Dade district in 2008 after the School Board drove out high-profile schools chief Rudy Crew. It was an ugly and politically charged breakup. ...
Elegantly attired in imported suits, sometimes accented with an Hermes tie, Carvalho quickly became a commanding presence at Miami-Dade School Board meetings. He speaks with confidence and authority from the dais. When board members have questions, Carvalho would rather answer himself than defer to a deputy. At least once each meeting, he works the room like the lobbyist he once was, shaking hands with audience members and greeting them by name.
Carvalho is equally at ease in front of the cameras. A onetime district spokesman, he often touts the accomplishments of his schools in the local media. He is a fixture at galas and charity events around town. ...
In 2009, as the economy tanked, ... Carvalho charted a different course. Putting his political know-how and smooth persona to work, Carvalho assumed the role of broker between the School Board and the administration. He put an end to the bickering at public meetings by dealing with individual board members and their grievances behind the scenes.
“Carvalho has shown himself to be masterful at keeping the board in order,” said Brian Peterson, a Florida International University professor and school district observer. “He’s kept the board marching in a straight line and avoiding trouble.”
Over the years, the power has shifted from board members to Carvalho. Some liken him to an invisible hand setting the agenda. But few will criticize him publicly, partly because of his popularity and partly because they believe Carvalho has put the system on the right track.
Among his accomplishments, Carvalho made sweeping changes at Central and Edison high schools, allowing the long-struggling schools to begin making gains. From Homestead to Aventura, student achievement soared, especially among Hispanic students.
In handling the economic crisis, rather than jettison teachers, Carvalho made cuts to the central administration and dumped the district’s longtime health insurance provider. The strategy saved millions and improved the district’s public image.
Though teachers’ union President Karen Aronowitz had been at war with the district, she said last year that Carvalho “might be the best superintendent in the nation.”

Now that's what I'd call a compliment. 

Carvalho's recommendation of Patton, included in her application packet, says:
... Over the years I have come to know Dr. Patton as a colleague who is committed to the best interest of students and the community as a whole.  She possesses outstanding organizational skills, an ability to collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders, and the capacity to achieve success. 

Dr. Kamela Patton is a student centered leader who recognizes that the most important mission of any school district is to maximize teaching and learning for all children.  In my opinion, she is ready for the next level of leadership, and it is a pleasure to recommend her for this opportunity.

Wow.  Recommended by a star.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

State budget woes ... and what we can do about them

Florida's Legislature is just over half-way through its 2011 session.  The biggest challenge is plugging a $4 billion budget gap.   

Needless to say, it's looking grim.  Spending cuts are inevitable.  And if the Governor has his way, the cuts will be larger than what the Legislature is recommending, to pay for additional corporate tax cuts.

The League of Women Voters of Florida's lobbyist Ben Wilcox summarized key facts about the House and Senate proposals this way:
The House proposal would spend $66.5 billion and reduce the state workforce by 5,245 jobs compared to the more modest 1,578 jobs that would be eliminated by the Senate plan [which would spend $3.2 billion more]. ...

Both budgets make deep cuts in health and human services programs, but the Senate budget would eliminate funding for drug and hospital expenses in the state’s Medically Needy program. That program serves people who don’t qualify for Medicaid, but have debilitating medical conditions. The House budget would preserve the program. The Senate also makes deeper cuts than the House in hospital Medicaid rates, cutting them by 10% rather than the 7% cut proposed by the House.

Remember that Florida is the lead state in a major case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.  Health care for the needy isn't a high priority here.

A friend shared Estus Whitfield's op ed from today's St. Petersburg Times called "Florida at a crossroads."  Whitfield worked in state government from 1971 to 1999 and was the principal environmental adviser to Govs. Bob Graham (Democrat), Bob Martinez (Republican), Lawton Chiles (Democrat) and Jeb Bush (Republican).  Whitfield wrote:
Gov. Rick Scott's response [to the budget shortfall] is to cut education, cut environmental protection, cut transportation, cut aide to the needy, fire thousands of state employees and reduce take-home pay for the rest. He also proposes to cut corporate and property taxes by $2.4 billion (seriously). Scott speaks of his proposal as simple and necessary. Maybe it is, unless you have children or grandchildren whom you wish to succeed in life, or enjoy Florida's magnificent environment and quality of life, appreciate good transportation, or just need public services to struggle along. ...
[Consider] the perspective of the businesses that the governor wants to lure to Florida with his draconian reductions in education, environmental protection, transportation, safety, and so on.
It is a fact that businesses looking to relocate give close attention to the quality of education, environment, safety and general quality of life of the places they are considering. If you owned a business, would you move to a state that has poor schools, declining public safety and a gloomy environmental future - a state going backwards?

Whitfield - a government insider - expressed his frustration with the inequities in Florida's sale tax system:
Most of us pay sales taxes on almost everything our family needs, except, justifiably, food and drugs and other essentials. But, check a little closer and you may be surprised to find that if you can afford to buy a stadium skybox or a yacht, you pay no taxes. Look again and you will see hundreds of tax exemptions that were pushed through by an army of lobbyists who represent the wealthiest in the state and nation.
Most people don't complain about paying taxes for the benefits they receive. But if the Legislature or maybe the tea party would ask, "Is everyone paying their fair share?" the answer would be no. Unlike ordinary citizens who pay their sales taxes without complaint, many rich folks are doing far better than us; they pay no sales taxes on hundreds of big-ticket luxury and business items.
Should the Legislature ever get serious and eliminate or reduce a fraction of the hundreds of unjustifiable tax exemptions on goods and services, the $3.8 billion budget problem would be solved with no pain - there would be no need to cut education, transportation, public health and safety, environment, and punish public employees. Unless the sales and services tax exemptions are altered so that more people and businesses pay their fair share, this state will have a budget crisis every time the economy hits a bump in the road.

The unbelievable sales tax system with exemptions for things like skyboxes and yachts has been an issue the Florida LWV has been speaking out about for years, to no avail.  In an opinion piece in the Orlando Sentinel in April 2009, LWVF President Deirdre Macnab wrote:
Ranking 47th among the 50 states in lowest overall tax burden, according to the Tax Foundation, Florida depends on its sales tax for roughly 75 percent of its state revenue.
Yet because of the relentless work of high-paid lobbyists over the years, Florida now gives away more than it collects in sales tax -- thus increasing the burden on individuals and small businesses. From ostrich feed to lap dancing to bottled water from the depths of our springs, there are hundreds of exemptions, all of which have been protected in prior legislative sessions. This includes almost $400 million for large multistate corporations like Walmart.
Does Florida's economic crisis finally provide an opportunity for long-overdue tax reform?
The League of Women Voters of Florida strongly believes that sufficient taxes must be levied to meet the state's long-term needs for education and other services. The league has advocated for such reform for almost 20 years. There are many measures that can be taken to raise additional revenue within existing state constitutional constraints, which do not constitute raising taxes, but rather leveling the playing field.
Some of these measures include the following actions:
  • Review and remove sales-tax exemptions that do not fulfill a public purpose.
  • Compel Internet sellers with subsidiaries or representatives in the state to begin charging Florida sales tax.
  • Implement combined reporting to prevent corporations from artificially shifting profits earned in Florida to subsidiaries in other states (and raising the tax burden for local companies).
  • Remove the exemption of limited-liability companies and subchapter S corporations from the corporate income tax.
  • Reinstitute the intangible tax.
  • Close the loophole on the documentary stamp tax.

The League of Women Voters of Florida urges citizens to tell their state legislators that our children deserve a state where the schools and universities have the funding needed to give them the future they deserve.

Let your representative know you support closing the loopholes and exemptions that riddle our state tax code, and that you support bills to prevent corporations from artificially shifting profits earned in Florida to subsidiaries in other states. The message must come from the citizens.

That advice from two years ago is still good advice today.  You can easily find your representative and send him/her an email from the LWV's website.  Just click here.

A waste of time, you wonder?  If the League of Women Voters has been at this for 20+ years, will a call or email from me make a difference?  Here's what Whitfield had to say:
Someone said to me, "Why are you writing this? Don't you know that you are spitting in the wind, facing a stacked deck?" Yes, but we have to keep trying. You see, I was born here, raised my family here, and spent my life and career caring about my state. Now we worry that our four young grandsons may not get a high-quality education, clean air to breathe and water to drink, and a safe and healthy environment. We can't quit yet.

No, we can't quit yet.  Please take a minute and send an email to Governor Scott, and your Florida House and Senate representatives.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The budget impass

In fast-paced, heavy-news days like we've had lately, reading editorials in respected newspapers helps me clarify my thinking.  Today's New York Times' editorial on the federal budget impasse, "It's Not Really About the Spending," really helped:
If the federal government shuts down at midnight on Friday — which seems likely unless negotiations take a sudden turn toward rationality — it will not be because of disagreements over spending. It will be because Republicans are refusing to budge on these ideological demands:
  • No federal financing for Planned Parenthood because it performs abortions. Instead, state administration of federal family planning funds, which means that Republican governors and legislatures will not spend them.
  • No local financing for abortion services in the District of Columbia.
  • No foreign aid to countries that might use the money for abortion or family planning. And no aid to the United Nations Population Fund, which supports family-planning services.
  • No regulation of greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • No funds for health care reform or the new consumer protection bureau established in the wake of the financial collapse.
Abortion. Environmental protection. Health care. Nothing to do with jobs or the economy; instead, all the hoary greatest hits of the Republican Party, only this time it has the power to wreak national havoc: furloughing 800,000 federal workers, suspending paychecks for soldiers and punishing millions of Americans who will have to wait for tax refunds, Social Security applications, small-business loans, and even most city services in Washington. The damage to a brittle economy will be substantial.

Today's Washington Post had a good article explaining how the federal funding of Planned Parenthood figures into all this ("GOP’s latest proposal for Planned Parenthood funding")  Here's an excerpt:
In their talks at the White House Thursday night, Republican negotiators indicated they would be willing to abandon a controversial proposal to defund Planned Parenthood that is at the heart of the budget impasse, according to senior congressional aides. But Democratic negotiators rejected the proposal, which would have shifted the money to the states, because they said it would be just as damaging to women’s health.
Currently, Title X funding is provided in the form of federal grants directly to women’s health organizations, including Planned Parenthood. Under the Republicans’ alternative proposal, federal funds would be sent to states in the form of block grants, and it would be up to state governments to distribute those funds to health groups.
Sources said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama objected to this proposal because they believed it would allow Republican governors to deprive not only Planned Parenthood but other women’s health groups public money. ...
Republicans say the gesture represented a good faith effort to come to an agreement over the 2011 spending plan and that Democrats are misrepresenting the debate that has centered on the nation’s largest abortion provider. ...
Planned Parenthood has long been a target of conservatives who say the government has no business funneling millions of taxpayer dollars to clinics that perform abortions.
The nonprofit receives about $80 million a year through Title X, which provided services for about five million people last year. Planned Parenthood served one-third of those people, according to the group, which has 84 affiliates and more than 800 health centers across the country.

This additional insight is helpful, but I can't help but ask two questions --
  1. If it's up to the state legislatures to decide what to do with the money that would have gone to Planned Parenthood, do you think that money would provide the same terrific services that Planned Parenthood does? (Of course not.)
  2. Is this hold-up of the budget, and threat to shut down the government, really over just $80 million????  (Unbelievable!!)