Saturday, February 05, 2005

Column 21 - Land Sale Ripoff

It’s never a pretty sight when chickens come home to roost. In the presidential election Nevadans had an opportunity to send a message to President Bush regarding his reneging on his promise not to support storing nucular waste at Yucca Mountain. However they may have felt about other issues in the campaign, you would think that the President’s callous disregard for the wishes of almost everyone in the state on this issue would have been enough to keep Nevada residents from voting for him, but no – Nevada went for Bush and now that we have let the President know that he can do as he wishes with Nevada, he has decided to divert millions of dollars from federal land sales in the state to offset the Federal deficit that he created when he spent the surplus he inherited in 2000.

I’ve said before that this president is the worst thing to happen to the environment since Chernobyl, but lest you think this is purely a tree-hugger’s issue, these funds were earmarked for schools and water infrastructure as well as for important environmental uses including environmental improvement projects here at the Lake. And lest you think this is purely an agenda of those crunchy granola Democrats, the bill that set up the land sales was written by Senator Ensign, and the provision that allotted $300 million of the funds generated by the land sales to environmental improvements in Lake Tahoe was co-generated by Senator Ensign and Senator Reid.

Nevada Republicans and right-wingers need to wake up to what they are bringing on themselves when they support this President, the author of such statements as:

“Nuclear power certainly answers a lot of our issues. It certainly answers the environmental issue.” January 12, 2005

“We need an energy bill that encourages consumption.” September 23, 2002

The environment is not a liberal issue or a conservative issue. When the Lake loses clarity it loses it for all of us, and when nuclear waste is stored in our state it does not affect one side and not the other. I’m not talking here about things like global warming which, even as an environmentalist I find to be arguable at best, or about saving the spotted owl, or any of the other issues that anti-environmentalists like to use to ridicule environmentalists’ concerns. I’m talking about nuclear waste, water conservation, air pollution, urban sprawl, and the preservation of our exurban way of life in the state and here at Tahoe. I guess there are people who are for nuclear contamination and air pollution – after all, if people can rationalize smoking they can probably rationalize anything – but I don’t think the majority of us here are for these things. Yet this president has shown a cavalier disregard for environmental concerns.

George Bush took office when this country had one of the biggest budget surpluses we had ever seen, and in short order he put us into one of the biggest deficits ever. Now he proposes to take money that was generated by selling federal lands for the purpose of making up for some of the negative effects of this deficit so that he can fulfill the promise he made in the State of the Union address to cut in half the deficit that he created in the first place.

Both Nevada senators have promised to block this attempt. Let them know you support them in this and in their commitment to Nevada’s environment.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Column 20 - Jim Gibbons

Last week Representative Jim Gibbons, who would like to be Nevada’s next governor, in an interview on NBC’s “Nightly News,” said that anyone who opposed the lavish corporate funding of the Bush Inauguration parties is a Communist. Maybe it was Inauguration euphoria, or maybe Mr. Gibbons slipped into a time warp and was actually in 1955 when he said it, but this strikes me as a very odd remark.

Let’s see: some 100 corporations and 40 individual donors gave about $40 million dollars to fund partying in Washington. One of these donors was the National Energy Institute, which is a leading advocate for the plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain (you remember - Yucca Mountain was where, in his first campaign, President Bush promised not to put nuclear waste, a promise he then reneged on during his first term) a plan Gibbons says he opposes.

This is 40 million dollars while our troops in Iraq are underequipped, and the death toll is climbing, and while a significant portion of the world is digging out from the Tsunami and desperate for aid. And what do you know, some Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, have the temerity to question the wisdom and appropriateness of spending this kind of money on champagne wishes and caviar dreams. Shocking.

At least it seems to be shocking to governor wannabe Gibbons, who reached back 50 years for an epithet strong enough to denounce these dissenters – he called them Communists, and when there was negative reaction to his comment, his spokeswoman Amy Spandauer said the remark was “badly taken out of context.” The context to which she was referring was Gibbons’ explanation that he “firmly believes that everyone in the United States, including corporate executives, have the freedom…to spend their money for political events and to lobby lawmakers.”

Okay, I won’t argue that point, but how does that so-called context change or mitigate the Congressman’s characterization of those who disagree with this particular donation? Actually, I’m hard put to think of a context that would mitigate it, except that it is so out of date as to be almost laughable. It does give us some insight into the real Jim Gibbons behind the affable fa├žade, the Jim Gibbons who is one of the farthest right members of Congress, and who has a reputation for arrogance, imperiousness, and a very nasty temper. Calling those with whom you disagree Communists is called, for those of you too young to remember, red-baiting, and it has a very disreputable history in this country. A lot of lives were ruined by this tactic in the 1950’s, almost all of them undeservedly so. You see, Congressman, that Constitution that you took an oath before God to serve, actually guarantees the right of every American to believe what they wish, including to be Communists if they so choose. More importantly, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but outside of Cuba and North Korea, there aren’t a lot of Communists left – we won that one.

What the Congressman’s remark does, I believe, is allow him to mask his and his party’s loyalty and fealty to big money corporate interests behind a bit of outdated flag-waving and red-baiting. To quote an earlier response to another red-baiting Congressman, have you no shame, sir?

Column 19 - Tax Cap

More often than you might think, Jim Clark and I agree on local issues. Given that, I suppose it should not surprise me when Jim’s stand on a local issue seems at odds with his usual Conservative Libertarian position, but I do find it curious when at the same time uses the opportunity to rail at supposed Liberal positions as he did in his column on the state tax cap proposals (Bonanza, January 14th). Given the Conservative anti-big government and anti-tax positions, I would expect Jim to favor tax caps and cuts, but that he is advocating a Prop 13 type of solution amazes me.

Contrary to Jim’s assertion, Prop 13 is not a mystery to any Liberals I've talked to. Many of us lived in California at the time it was passed, and more of us saw its effects in California and Oregon. Jim says “California and Oregon are surviving with annual property tax limitations of 2 percent,” but both states are struggling with massive deficits and services cutbacks, and the Governator will succeed or fail to the extent that he keeps his campaign promises to solve California’s economic woes. Call me a Liberal, but I actually think that, under our system, the government needs to do more than just survive. Conservatives have advocated that the government should be run like a business – if a business were just “surviving,” would you buy stock or sell?

Jim also trots out the Bush party line that “it's people who pay taxes who are entitled to tax relief.” It’s hard to argue with that until you remember that it’s an incomplete quote – what the President said was that the people who pay the most taxes are entitled to the most relief. I guess if you grew up rich, got your first real job from someone who was doing your Daddy a favor, and then were given your own personal baseball team to play with, this makes sense. To me as a business man it does not. If I had a business with a division that was highly profitable and another that was only marginal, I would take a larger share of the first division’s profits and use them to build up the second so that it could become profitable. Our biblically selective President seems to have missed Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

As to the Government “tightening its belt…when the rest of us are suffering,” I guess this is some of that Compassionate Conservatism we don’t hear so much about any more, but I’m not sure who’s suffering, and what exactly Jim wants the Government to do about it. I guess if you're a Conservative and believe the Government shouldn’t do anything (except export democracy to anyplace that doesn’t have it whether they want it or not) then somehow the Government having less money will mean that somehow magically things will get better for those sufferers, but I don’t get it.

Now before my legion of critics rush in to call me names, let me say I agree with Jim’s column last week that we should be hopping mad about the tax situation, and we should do something about it. I am for tax relief and a tax cap. I would even consider a Prop 13 solution if someone could show me how it could work without bankrupting the state and making things worse rather than better, and I think that the Incline Tax Revolt is doing a great job of getting these issues up in front to the Legislature and the Public. I just think that what Jim calls “economic drivel” is exactly the sort of balanced, rational thinking the Legislature needs to be doing. Knee-jerk Conservative solutions of regressive taxes will, in the long run, do more harm than good.

Columns 17 & 18 - TRPA

TRPA Part One: The Nature of Bureaucracy
by Ed Gurowitz

I moved to California in 1981, when the state was just coming out of one of its periodic water shortages. Shortly after I got there it began to rain, and it rained hard and long. Yet no matter how much it rained, I never saw any government official say that the drought was over. Their statements were more on the order of “things are better, but we still have a long way to go.” Even when trees and homes were being washed off hillsides, their story never changed. Then I noticed that all those officials had the word “drought” in their title – and I realized that if they were to declare the drought over, they would be declaring that their job was unnecessary,. This was an epiphany for me about bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies are formed as a means to ensure the continuity and smooth functioning of the government. Nominally, these bureaucracies are there to implement and execute the policies made by elected officials, but bureaucracies are not elected, and therefore not accountable directly to the public. They are only as accountable as the system is structured for them to be, and in a unionized or protected civil service system, that means not very accountable at all. Oftentimes they are viewed by the elected officials as indispensable, since they carry with them vast stores of knowledge and historical lore.

TRPA was founded with all the best of intentions – to safeguard the water quality and clarity of the lake. It was set up as an interstate compact, under Federal oversight, with a board representing both states. This was in 1969. In 1980 TRPA’s charter was revised, and remains in effect. In both the conception of TRPA and in the revision of the charter, the governing bodies tried to specify the agency’s purview in the broadest possible terms rather than defining it so narrowly that it could not function on its own. This led to some language that has proved problematic:
• Maintenance of the social and economic health of the region depends on maintaining the significant scenic, recreational, educational, scientific, natural public health values provided by the Lake Tahoe Basin.
• In order to preserve the scenic beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities of the region, there is a need to insure an equilibrium between the region’s natural endowment and its manmade environment.
• The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency shall interpret and administer its plans, ordinances, rules and regulations in accordance with the provision of this compact.
Unobjectionable by themselves, these three phrases taken together become lethal, mainly because of the inclusion of scenic in the list of values – I would guess that anyone reading this column could take a pretty good stab at defining recreation, education, science, and public health, but scenic, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Combine that with the “need to insure an equilibrium between the region’s natural endowment and its manmade environment,” and the authorization in the third phrase for the Agency to make its own rules, and you have the makings of a free society’s nightmare – a bureaucracy with a license to run amok.

The counterbalance to this license should be the Board, but the TRPA Board is not elected, it is appointed by the Governors, the County Boards, etc. This places Board members at least one step removed from the people their decisions affect. Secondly, there is no qualification for Board members other than that they be appointed, and the Compact specifies that a majority of the seats to be held by citizens from outside the Tahoe Region, so that statewide and national viewpoints count more than the voice of those of us who live here. This has the added effect of the bureaucracy not seeing or interacting with the Board on a day to day basis, with a majority of the Board members located far from here.

Next week we will look at the results of this setup.

TRPA Part Two: Bureaucracy Run Amok

TRPA Board Members, speaking in private, often complain that the staff (a) fails to implement direct instructions from the Board if they do not agree with the Board’s decision and (b) usurp the Board’s authority by taking actions that should be reviewed by the Board without the Board’s direction, i.e., they make their own policies.

What we have here is a case of multiple non-accountability. The Board Members are barely accountable to those who appointed them, and the bureaucracy seems not to hold itself accountable to the Board. In the case of the Board Members, I have yet to hear of any Board member reporting to or being held to account by the Governors of Nevada and California, the County Commissioners, or anyone else, and I doubt very much that Mr. Yount, the President’s non-voting appointee, is in close communication with the White House, though in fairness, he has proven to be one of the more responsive Board Members, and he does live here at the Lake.

In theory at least, these people are all accountable to the taxpayers and fee payers whose remittances pay their salaries and cover the costs of running the TRPA. In the past year or so, and to its credit, TRPA has had a presence at the Tuesday morning forums held by the Bonanza. More often than not, it is represented by its public relations arm, Julie Regan and more recently her new assistant, who is an Incline native. This is well and good, but it does suggest that TRPA considers the low esteem in which it is held in this community and the degree of animosity toward it a PR problem, rather than a problem rooted in its policies and actions. Once in a while a Board Member (usually Mr. Yount) will attend, and the new Executive Director John Singlaub has been there on occasion, but I, at least, have seen little effect from the conversations we have had with them.

The recent dispute between TRPA and the Nevada and California Transportation Departments are a good example of the problem. TRPA decided that highway guard rails on 267 over Brockway Summit (a good 5 miles or more from the lake) and guard rails and rumble strips on 50 between Spooner Summit and Zephyr Cove are somehow within its purview. How? It can’t be scenic – the guard rails are not visible from the lake – and it cannot be environmental, so how? Only TRPA knows. My suggestion is that this is one more opportunity for scopecreep. If they are successful against the resistance of the DOT’s, then TRPA will have extended its authority that much farther and will be that much harder to get rid of.

You see, the true, never-stated purpose of any bureaucracy is to ensure its own growth and survival. The more TRPA can extend its scope, the harder it will be to kill. Just as no drought official can afford to have a drought be over, TRPA cannot afford to have anything within a mortar shot of the lake be outside its domination. Some have suggested that Nevada withdraw funding from TRPA as a way of bringing them to heel, but that won’t work – all they will do is use the decreased funding as an excuse to refuse permits on the Nevada side. In the long run, I believe that the only recourse we have is for Nevada to secede from TRPA and regulate ourselves, but politically that is problematic. Failing that, I suggest that everyone who cares about this issue keep up unrelenting pressure on our US Senators, State Legislators, Governor, County Commission and on TRPA itself, demanding that it be accountable and responsive to the people it was created to serve.