Monday, February 28, 2011

On the eve of destruction?

All eyes back home, save perhaps the ones belonging to those who've given up or never knew enough to understand the way this benighted state works, a population that's rather large in Alabama I'd argue, turn to Goat Hill this week. What is different this time is there is total domination by the GOP down in Montgomery. Factionalism within their ranks, which George Talbot recently covered, plus the fact that plenty of alleged Democratic "leaders" of the past were rather right leaning, hardly unified, or even marginally competent, notwithstanding, the new team in charge merits watching very closely.

So we turn to the print media at least in part to do the watching. Coverage of the upcoming session and the personalities involved was truly bountiful in papers across Alabama yesterday and recently. So perhaps the time is right to jump back into blogging. Thoughts? No promises of regular content, or even to fix my outdated links to the left, yet my labors for Uncle Sam may come to end a little earlier than the term I signed up for. Therefore, I might have a little more freedom and a whole lot more time to do the hard work required to craft a tolerable post. Here, and I'm rather rusty please note, goes ...

In the Montgomery Advertiser, Sebastian Kitchen shared "A new look: State GOP leaders have new priorities" where the following appears:
"Priorities for the new Republican leadership in the Legislature are varied: balance budgets, fight illegal immigra­tion, push for charter schools, promote state's rights and help small business. "Any bill that doesn't create a job takes a step backwards in terms of im­portance," said Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn."
Creating jobs is the role of gov't? While that is just fine I suppose up to a point, I thought the Conservatives. hereinafter known as the Cons, thought only their magic market, what drives blessed free enterprise, could create anything of worth.
"(Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston Marsh) expects the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a measure that allows charter schools or vouchers, or offers some alternative to address shortcom­ings in education in the state, in­cluding the dropout rate."
Bring market forces and profit motives to public education! Shortcomings? Would this flow from all that we've been told about from a good three decades of messaging about what ails our schools?  Truly the right and increasingly centrist sorts (looking at you Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan) are front and center in the debate.  Millionaires like Bill Gates and the Walton (Wal-Mart) family have their foundations hiring "scholars" while generating "research" and positive press but they still require politicians like Del Marsh to make changes happen. 

The charter school legislation proposed last term was such that non-qualified teachers could be a significant part of a faculty and profiteers could get a piece of the action.  They hide the legislation until the last minute and put a whole bevy of operatives to work trying to make the plan law. That charter schools don't generate better results and have plenty of questions is largely irrelevant.

Vouchers?  Would that include for religious schools Mr. Marsh?  Constitutionally suspect, vouchers would also Balkanize all too many communities. 
"Hubbard said immigration leg­islation modeled after Arizona, which "has been tested in court," would likely be introduced this ses­sion. He said the legislation would "really give police the authority to do their jobs" and that Republicans do not want legislation that would be punitive toward employers."
I thought our law enforcement personnel were there to enforce our laws. Isn't than enough?  That they exempt employers from any responsibility reveals enough for me. That they'll absolve those drawing those lacking proper papers to our state says much about the motivation of the Alabama legislature. If they were serious about this issue they'd be willing to pop those hiring this cheap, docile labor.
"For states to have success pushing off federal government control, a large group of states has to stand up and say, 'Hey, this is not acceptable,'" Marsh said."
Doesn't Alabama reap much more from the federal government than we pay in? And we, like most states, have kept the ship of state afloat lately due to help from Uncle Sam.
"In their "Handshake," Republi­cans said they want to expand the small business health insurance credit from 150 percent to 200 per­cent of the amount that employers and employees pay for coverage premiums. (Sen. Brian Taylor, R-Pratville) hopes to sponsor a Sen­ate version of the bill that would in­crease the tax deduction for businesses. Passing the measure would free up money for small businesses to hire more employees, Taylor said.  He said a hardware store owner in his district told him that the de­duction kept her from being in a higher tax bracket. Taylor said that was thousands of dollars that could be reinvested in the business."
Hold on counselor! Aren't we talking about a marginal rate? If only her earning above a certain point were subject to a higher percentage of taxes, I suppose your hardware store owner was making some serious bank. And would she necessarily use her gains to reinvest in her business? Might she now blow it as easily as put it into hiring? Perhaps I'm reading more into what Senator Taylor is suggesting as if it is merely incentives he references then perhaps his example works. Then again, health care is surely also a national issue and one that could likely be best handled with I'd argue a single-payer system or at least a robust public option. What these incentives arguably do is let Blue Cross-Blue Shield and such bank more and more profits on the taxpayers' backs.

In the B'ham News, Kim Chandler provides "Alabama Legislature: Pro-business agenda predicted by Senate pro tem Del Marsh" where some history seems relevant.
"I've always loved business, and that is truly what I prefer to do," said Marsh, R-Anniston.  The 54-year-old said that changed in the mid-1990s, when he became concerned by what perceived as an anti-business climate of lawsuits and government regulation.

When the Alabama Legislature convenes March 1, creating a pro-business climate will be front and center on the agenda of the new Republican majority. Marsh takes the helm of a Senate with a supermajority of Republicans that, if they stick together, have the ability to pass bills at will.

"In this climate that we have, and so many people unemployed, we want to do anything that we can to create a better atmosphere for business and create jobs," Marsh said. "It is going to be a very pro-business agenda. Anything we think that can help create a job, that is what we are going to concentrate on." 
While a "pro-business" agenda is hardly new for Alabama, as it has dominated for decades, I still can't fathom how these Cons think that government can create jobs.  It's a fundamental talking point that government 'aint worth a damn. I can, however, accept that they, as illustrated by Senator Marsh's experiences, believe that regulations from environmental protections to labor rights hinder profit taking.  As for his focus on lawsuits, I have to turn to today's opinion piece from the Montgomery Advertiser's Josh Moon shouldn't be overlooked. "Alabama Supreme Court serving as a safety net for big business" where he wrote:
"No matter the screwup, no matter the negligent, borderline criminal acts committed by big business, the state's highest court has acted as quite the magician's top hat the last few years -- making big problems and big verdicts simply vanish. And it's using some awfully flimsy excuses to pull off its tricks."
Truly the money the Business Council and others have poured into our incredibly partisan and expensive appellate court races has paid off.

The Anniston Star's Tim Lockette serves up "Del Marsh ready to turn business principles loose in political arena" as yet another look into who'll be largely in charge.
"Today, Marsh’s engineers toil in glass-walled offices, designing repairs, while workers on a brightly lit factory floor fix valves and fittings. The hallways of Aerospace Coatings International are lined with the flags of the dozens of countries where Marsh does business. 
It’s the kind of global, high-tech business people expect to find in Seattle or Silicon Valley, not in Alabama. To Marsh, it’s a success story that needs to be replicated across the state. 
"We’re in a world economy," he said. "I think the state is well aware of the opportunity to prosper in this economy. We’ve seen Thyssen-Krupp, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes choose Alabama. We understand that we need to think internationally."
Thinking internationally is I suppose part of the mix today and yet each and every one of the examples cited by Senator March involved massive tax breaks and subsidies to profitable multi-nationals.  And how his impressive effort can be easily replicated is a mystery to me. Then again, I can't afford a 3200 acre island and a hunting lodge on the Mississippi. Obviously Del Marsh is a superior soul to me.  As to his international work, would some of that be outsourcing jobs to places where wages are cheap and regulations scarce? 
"But while Marsh says he’d be fine with cutting all arts funding, that cut isn’t likely to amount to a lot of cash. He’s more hopeful about cutting waste with his plan to merge state agencies.
Asked whether that would cost jobs, he said it might indeed. Marsh hopes to make up for that loss with jobs in the private sector — small-business jobs he expects to generate by cutting back on bureaucratic red tape. He cites the example of a local locksmith who called him, upset that the state licensing board requires him to take continuing education courses and pay a fee.
"Special interests want to eliminate competition, so they create these boards to regulate their industries," Marsh said."
This bureaucratic red tape seems like a pipe dream to me. I understand it is Con gospel that regulation harms yet his example of a locksmith being required to stay on top of evolving technology seems hardly too much to expect. That the arts are not worthy of support is no surprise and yet I'd want to know what mergers Senator Marsh proposes. How already tapped out state agencies can consolidate services seems rather the stretch. I guess the Troopers could do health inspections as well.  And Mental Health is easy enough where pretty much anyone can handle that work.

Also in the Star is editor-at-large John Flemming with "Republican Speaker Hubbard is all business" with 
"For Hubbard, the budget challenges ahead are about shrinking state government and making what is left of it more like private business.  Business as government naturally is where Hubbard drifts to, because he knows how to run one, and he’s good at it. The mantra, “the private sector does not tolerate waste, therefore, why should the state?” is not vacuous to him. Efficiency and maximizing profits are what he thinks about when he runs his multi-million-dollar Auburn-based media companies."
As private business is about returns on investment measured in relatively immediate returns, I am not so certain it ought to be the model for government.  Like millionaire Marsh, Mike Hubbard has hit the jackpot. However, Mike Hubbard has done this via his connections with public education.  His folks were both government employees. Yet he's an ideologue.  He promised he'd be a short term citizen legislator when he ran for office and yet he's now prepared to run for governor?  The stable of right wing talkers he transmits via his WANI-AM 1400 is also worthy of noting. 
"And for Hubbard’s approach to that reality, he takes issue with the suggestion that the opportunity for change he sees ahead is somehow ideologically driven."
However, the Charles J. Dean piece in the B'ham News titled "Mike Hubbard plans reign as Alabama House speaker without apologies" as well. In this piece we find:
"Rep. Arthur Payne, R-Trussville, does not hide it that he thinks Hubbard is largely responsible for making the Legislature a far more partisan place. "Mike sees everything through partisan glasses and I hope he can put that aside as he moves into the speaker's job, because as speaker you need to be someone who brings sides together," Payne said."
Dana Beyerle, an experienced regional New York Times reporter, appears in the Tuscaloosa News twice. His "Leftover issues await new GOP majority" is where we'll start.
"Along with that support for small businesses, union issues will be addressed. “We will fight to ensure that Alabama remains a right-to-work state in order to keep employment costs low and demand legislation that protects the right to a secret ballot in union elections so that no worker may be harassed or intimidated for voting his or her heart and conscience,” the ‘Handshake’ paper said."
That any of these masters of the universe would want the working class to be able to get ahead by having employment costs that weren't "low" should be no surprise. I also trust their concerns about worker intimidation do not extend to what the bosses might do to the serfs when a union vote is pending.  Workers being fired or disciplined by management for union organizing is something that never happens in Mike's mind.
"Other issues will include ... thwarting unpopular federal mandates like cap and trade and ... The ‘Handshake’ also includes prohibiting the federal government from requiring mandatory health insurance."
Lord have mercy! Cap and trade is of course a market-oriented solution forwarded by those on the right to address concerns over climate change that most on the right wrongly reject.  And the idea of avoiding "free riders" who don't exercise personal responsibility in having health insurance was straight out of the conservative think tanks.

Beyerle's "Legislators to try to slash state budgets" contains:
"On Wednesday, the House Education Appropriations Committee has scheduled a public hearing on a bill to establish benefit liability funds and create an Education Trust Fund rolling reserve. The new system would take the average of 15 years of education tax receipts and base future funding on the averages."
That this insurance will cost almost $10 million in tough times I suppose didn't make the cut. Using money we don't have to damage AEA seems like it ought to outrage folks but I suppose we'll have to wait and see. I did like that the following did appear:
"Proposed cuts are the result of reductions in state revenues caused by the economy and loss of billions of dollars of federal stimulus money spent over the past three years."
Yup. The economy was wrecked from unfettered capitalism and we've now the reality that Uncle Sam is not going to save our hides. But let's put the team which loves the first and loathes the latter in charge.

The following also appeared:
"Athens State University government professor Jess Brown said hot budget items will be reducing paid state holidays, which Bentley already said there are too many of, eliminating DROP, a restructuring of the entire retirement system to possibly move from fixed benefits to 401Ks, and increasing the number of years required for state retirement from 25 to 30."
Darn the defined compensation pension plan says the ideologues. Those 401Ks are working out so well. I assume that bumping the retirement age up and handing profiteers public employee retirement funds will apply only to new hires. Any savings would be way, way down the road.

A few days ago Beyerle reported "BOE seeks easier way to fire poor teachers."
"The state school board approved a 2011 legislative agenda Thursday that includes amending the Fair Dismissal Act for public education employees, an action that will be opposed by the powerful Alabama Education Association. The board resolution calls for shortening and simplifying the process for firing poorly performing teachers, but it does not say specifically how to amend the law to accomplish that. State board vice president Randy McKinney said dismissing ineffective teachers is too hard and expensive under current law. The average arbitrated Fair Dismissal case takes 221 days to complete, according to the Alabama Association of School Boards. The cost is directly related to the time it takes to handle a case, primarily because of the legal expenses."
I'd surely love to see the legislation.  While I can accept that slight reforms could be acceptable, I also can perceive risks in changing tenure protections. The rationale for tenure is of course to make it difficult for scheming political appointees and their minions to hire and fire.  Also, educators need the freedom to speak plainly as they confront the increasingly business oriented views consuming the practice of teaching.  Making it all the easier to silence those voices scares me and I expect thrills the Cons.

Last Friday, Bob Lowery of the Huntsville Times "Republican, Democratic senators offer different plans to alter Alabama's 1901 constitution" where the whole "raise your taxes" fears and such are covered.

Alabama's most Conservative of the Newhouse Triad offers up an editorial titled "Discipline vs. denial in the legislative session" with
"The good news is that Alabama, a “right-to-work” state, isn’t likely to experience the same fierce battles seen in Midwest states like Wisconsin, where Democratic senators literally headed for the border in protest rather than vote on measures that would affect state workers’ unions."
The whole "right to work" angle is celebrated.  However, we surely enjoy rights the unions delivered.  Weekends, child labor restrictions, workplace safety, the forty hour work week, ... are all part of what unions have accomplished.  They remain a way to balance out the power relationship where the bosses aren't always eager to give a fair day's wage for a fair day's work.  They also provide ways to increase the professionalism of a workforce.  To laud the ability of some folks to have a free ride in a union shop seems a stretch for me.

The Anniston Star's Editorial Board gives us "Goat Hill's many missions" which
"First-year Gov. Robert Bentley is new to his office, a political longshot now sitting in former Gov. Bob Riley’s chair, but already he has set the stage for what’s to come. “Cut,” he says, emphatically. The Legislature, friendly to a fellow GOPer, is sure to follow that directive with zeal. That’s the gloomy part. But on a grander scale, our wish is for the 2011 session to be more than a byproduct of the obvious. Our wish is for this historic, Republican-controlled Legislature to become a chef of healthy, good-tasting laws that give Alabama the nutrients it needs: jobs, industries, educational advancements and a heightened concern for the impoverished and the young."
Hope springs eternal as well for me.  But I'm nervous too.  However, the following idea they have certainly ought to be considered:
DO REQUIRE LEGISLATORS TO PASS THE HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION EXAM IN HISTORY, GOVERNMENT AND ECONOMICS.No, this isn’t a joke. We’ve often wondered if legislators truly understand the basic tenets of civics, finance and state history. Now that they’re elected, it would be good to know the truth. Teachers are held accountable. Students are held accountable. Why not legislators?
We'd likely cull out several of the Goat Hill gang with this one.  It would cut across parties and regions I suspect. More to follow as I'm able.  There will likely be several updates and corrections as I'm posting this before darting off to work.  John Gunn


Jay Croft said...

Glad you're back! Thank you for this posting.

Captain Plaid said...

Thanks Jay. Back up to a point. Perhaps? I'll admit to being a twitter fan as we can be short and pithy rather than slogging through a long post. John

Jay Croft said...

There can be a happy medium between long posts and the utter brevity of Twitter.