Saturday, March 26, 2005

Column 22b - Education

Nevada ranks 48th out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia in education spending per pupil. Nevada’s funding for public schools grew the least of any state between 1999 and 2001 – less than an 1% increase over those two school years. The 2004 Quality Counts survey by Education Week, gave Nevada a grade of D+ for adequacy of resources.

As noted in an earlier column, the Bush administration wants to take funds from Federal land sales in Nevada that were earmarked for education and use them to offset the Federal deficit. Efforts to create a lottery in Nevada to benefit education have been consistently opposed by casino interests, and will probably be defeated again this year.

In the first term of the Bush administration, the vaunted No Child Left Behind program was under funded in Nevada by $187 million, leaving it to the state to make up the difference in a classic case of an unfunded Federal mandate. The original No Child Left Behind law promised $35 million more for the most disadvantaged students in reading and math than the Bush 2005 budget provides. According to America Coming Together, this shortfall means that 38,551 Nevada students that would have had smaller classes will not, 4,885 children that could have had pre-kindergarten will not, and 4,748 new teachers that could have been certified will not.

Because of under funding, only 40% of eligible children can participate in Head Start – the Federal government has provided only 29% of the funding needed to enroll all of the children who qualify into Head Start. The Children’s Defense Fund says that the Bush 2005 budget shortchanges the state’s youngest children by $115 million. At the other end of the educational spectrum, tuition at public universities in Nevada increased by 15% in the 2003-2005 time period. The President has made much of his promise to provide more Pell Grants for college education, but never mentions that, at the same time, he froze the maximum Pell Grant while tuition has been increasing, denying 9,434 Nevada $22.2 million in promised grants to students with financial need.

In 2003, Republicans in the State Senate, led by Bill Raggio, killed a plan to increase school funding to cover the No Child Left Behind shortfall over two years.

You would think that this would be one of those rare columns that writes itself – after all, who is against education? Who is not for children? In last November’s election, the first Ballot Question was: “Shall the Nevada Constitution be amended to require the Nevada Legislature to fund the operation of the public schools for kindergarten through grade 12 before funding any other part of the state budget for the next biennium?” The good news is that the Question passed. The bad news is that it passed by 56% to 44%, roughly 447,000 to 342,000, and in Washoe County it failed.

What are we to make of this? Are we in Nevada such faint supporters of our children and of education that 44% of us don’t think it’s a priority? And are we in Washoe County actually against it being a priority? I find that hard to believe, but if you look at the overall picture of Federal funding in the 2005 budget and State actions such as that of the Senate in 2003, you really have to wonder where our priorities are. Jefferson said “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.” Now our government’s position seems to be “Millions for offense, not one cent for children.” It’s time for all us “bleeding heart liberals” who care about children, education, and the future of this country to stand up and be heard, or the dumbing down of this country under to the intellectual level of the Republican leadership will continue and we will be lost, indeed.

Column 22a - (National) Social Security

Cui Bono?

The President has stated his clear determination to dismantle Social Security as we know it, and Ifind myself asking the ancient Roman’s question, cui bono? Who benefits?

This administration has a track record of manufacturing crises to justify doing what it wants, and is incredibly good at selling these crises to its followers,who seem to believe what the President says first, and then to ignore him when he recants. Now we have the supposed crisis in Social Security, which the administration has already backed off on, but which its supporters continue to cite as dire necessity to tear down the house that FDR built.

There is no crisis, unless you call a shift in the ratio of input to output that will begin some 37 years from now a crisis. My dictionary defines crisis as “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending,” and defines impending as “to hover threateningly; to be about to occur.” Almost four decades does not qualify as “about to occur”.

While there is no crisis, there is a problem coming in the above time frame. Social Security, as it is now constituted, will reach a point where it will begin to pay out more than it takes in. Obviously, something needs to be done about this. President Bush’s solution to this situation is (a) to cry “wolf” when the wolf is 40 years away, and (b) to dismantle the whole system. As the AARP has been saying, this is like tearing the house down because a faucet is leaking.

There are three main solutions to the problem: raise payroll taxes, cut benefits, or shift the system to include private accounts. No politician in his/her right mind is going to raise taxes or cut benefits for today’s retirees to pay benefits for future retirees, some of whom are not even of voting age yet, so the President has settled on private accounts as the answer, and now we can ask “who benefits?”

I can’t find anyone who thinks that the mid-21st Century retirees will benefit. The most optimistic analysis I’ve seen shows a hypothetical retiree breaking even with today’s system if they get very good returns on a private account. At best privatization will trade a system of certain returns for one in which returns are a gamble.

Wall Street may see some marginal benefit, but that seems unlikely given many retirees will be likely to be very conservative and likely to go toward, for example, buying and holding government and municipal bonds and mutual funds, rather than generating the kind of trading that makes Wall Street firms serious money.

So why is the President in such a lather about Social Security? Ideology. Neoconservatives consider Social Security the most vulnerable part of what they consider to be welfare state US – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, programs designed to avoid the insecurity of pre-depression America. The modern right wing wants to stop what they consider big government by a dual strategy of bleeding and starvation – cut taxes, then use the resulting deficits as justification for cutting spending on social programs.

On the starvation front, the federal revenue as a share of GDP is at a fifty-year low, largely because of a decline in revenues from personal income tax and corporate profits tax, i.e., as a direct consequence of the Bush administration’s cutting taxes for the top incomes, whose tax payments as a share of GDP are at the lowest level we’ve seen since 1942, while taxes on middle- and working-class Americans are at near-record highs, and the President’s new budget continues to give new upper-income tax breaks while proposing cuts in low-income benefits such as child care assistance and food stamps.

This President has already succeeded in dividing America more than it has been divided since the Civil War. Now he proposes to deepen the division by attempting to destroy the programs that have supported lower- and middle-income Americans since the depression. The President and his neocon followers must be stopped from destroying Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Column 25 - (National) Terri Schiavo

Jim and I originally decided to write this month’s National columns on health care, and what the role of the government ought to be. This seems important, given that about half of all bankruptcies in 2001 were the result of medical problems and, surprisingly, most of those (more than three-quarters) who went bankrupt were covered by our current system of private health insurance at the start of the illness. Often, the bankrupting illness led to job loss and therefore a loss of health insurance. Studies have found that illness and medical bills contributed to at least 46.2 percent, but perhaps as many as 54.5 percent, of all bankruptcy filings.
Then, as I was thinking about the question of the appropriate role for the government in health care, the case of Terry Schiavo flared up again, this time with Congress bringing itself back from recess and the President interrupting his vacation to make this poor woman’s case a matter for passage of what amounts to a Bill of Attainder to prolong her life, notwithstanding the fact that Constitution specifically forbids such bills.
The position of the Republican administration and conservatives in general has been “less government is the best government,” and health care has been no exception to this. So why, now, are Republicans in Congress and the President rushing to bring the full weight of the government to bear on this case?
I really don’t think this effort is out of an excess of compassion for Ms Schiavo, her husband, or her parents. Rather, the Right and its allies among religious fundamentalists see the opportunity to make common cause in behalf of their agendas against reproductive choice and in behalf of portraying those of either party who disagree with them as anti-life, atheistic, and worse. Meanwhile Ms Schiavo’s brain stem continues to work her heart and lungs, her husband continues to attempt to carry out the wishes she expressed to him, and her parents continue to cling to the forlorn hope that their daughter may someday be restored to them, and that hope makes them unwilling tools for political and quasi-religious interests that care not one whit about their or their daughter’s suffering.
That ethical paragon, House Majority Leader Tom De Lay said "… no little judge sitting in a state district court in Florida is going to usurp the authority of Congress.” But under our Federalist system, in which private domestic matters are litigated in state, not federal courts, the rule of law has long provided that such domestic decisions are generally made by spouses, and not parents, elected officials, popular referendum, or the demands of religious radicals. To assert that a case that has had 19 court reviews (not counting the 2 so far this week) is disingenuous in the extreme.
This President, who as governor of Texas presided over 152 executions, and under whose presidency thousands of US military personnel and more thousands of civilians have died, now finds the life of one arguably brain-dead individual so crucial that he dramatically flies back to Washington to be awakened at 1 am to sign the bill that will prolong the case. The only thing missing was the flight suit and the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
Maybe it has something to do with the memo distributed to Republican senators by party leaders last week that called the Schiavo legislation “a great political issue” that would appeal to the party’s “core supporters,” and that could support defeating one of Florida’s Democratic senators next year.
Overall, this sanctimonious spectacle is part of a larger attempt by the political and so-called religious Right to move this country from its founding principle as governed by laws not men to being governed by a few men and their self-righteous agendas and not laws. Nothing could be more dangerous than to allow this subversion of everything America stands for.

Column 24 - The Walker Report

Some time ago the County engaged a consulting firm, Walker and Associates, to analyze “fiscal equity among the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the County for Fiscal Year 2002-03.” That is, to see if the County’s distribution of funding for services matched its collection of funds. The study is very extensive – the Executive Summary is 8 pages long – and also very well done, in this consultant’s opinion. From Incline’s point of view, the key findings are put forth in the Executive Summary as follows:

1) The taxpayers of the City of Reno receive more services from Washoe Comity than the amount of taxes they pay to the County to the tune of $3,918,179.

2) The taxpayers of the City of Sparks receive more services from Washoe County than the amount of taxes they pay to me County by $2,637,959.

3) The taxpayers of the unincorporated areas of Washoe County, excluding Incline Village, pay more taxes to the County than they receive in services from the County. The surplus is $1,835,871.

4) The taxpayers of Incline Village pay more taxes to the County than they receive in services from the County. The surplus in Incline Village tax revenue to the County is $11,713,263.

Yep, you read it right. Reno receives $4 million more in services than they pay for and Incline pays for $11.7 million more than we receive. This confirms figures first put forward in 2003 by IVGID Executive Director Bill Horn that formed the basis for what began as an IVGID committee to look into how best to remedy this situation, and then for a community committee independent of IVGID, the Independent Incline Committee.

As a member of both committees from their inception, I’ve had people in our community express everything from apathy to outrage about this state of affairs, and propose solutions ranging from doing nothing to seceding from the State, if not from the country.

It is past time for everyone in Incline Village and Crystal Bay to give some serious thought to this situation. While Reno is not posing any current threat to attempt to annex Incline, that possibility is not at all far-fetched given Reno’s aggressive expansion. Even without Reno’s eyeing us, the imbalance in how much tax money we give Washoe County vs. what the County provides in services is unconscionable – given we are represented by one out of five County Commissioners, (who also represents other parts of the County), it amounts to taxation without (or at best with inadequate) representation. If we are going to subsidize Reno and Sparks, we should at least have a choice about it.

It is clear that hiding our communal head in the sand will not work – the subsidy we provide to the County is a strong disincentive for the County to do anything about the inequity, and no one has yet shown me that incorporating as a city, which would protect us from Reno’s depredations, would affect the inequity. My own view is that we must move aggressively on all fronts to become a county separate from Washoe by the 2007 legislative session. You may or may not agree, but whatever your view it is essential that every IV/CB taxpayer address the issue and make their opinions known to the committee that is investigating our options.

Column 23 - The Bear Facts

Thinking about this column, I hesitated because it seems to me that the bear question has been over-discussed. At the same time, I started hearing about a variety of proposed “solutions” to the “problem,” and was struck by what seems to me to be a particular way of thinking about it.

Lots of folks seem to subscribe to the view that we just need more bear-proofing, and the problem will somehow go away. The logic in this seems flawed to me on a couple of fronts. First, the more “bear-proof” something is, say trash cans, the more difficult they will be to use. Experience has shown that when things become difficult to use, people find ways to make them easier to use, usually by defeating the purpose for which they were designed. Secondly, our very fine trash service, Waste Management, brings the truck up, pulls the lids off the cans, empties the cans into the truck and puts them back. If they have to start unscrewing or unlatching lids, the whole process will slow down and become more expensive. Finally, a hungry bear will find a way. Unless you want to invest in very expensive and very heavy trash containers, the bears will roll, drop, maul, mangle, and otherwise mess with the “bear-proof” cans until they break into them.

I’d like to propose an approach that may not be popular It’s called personal responsibility. Personal responsibility starts with a clear appreciation of the facts: Fact: This is the bears’ home. They were here before we got here and, barring our killing them all, they will be here after we’re gone. Fact: bears get hungry and need a lot of food, particularly when they are hibernating. Fact: bears are smart, particularly where food is concerned, and they are lazy – given an easy food source and one that is harder to get to, they’ll take easy every time. Fact: if the animals can’t get food easily from humans, they will forage and eat as they always have.

So here’s the deal. Let’s eliminate the temptation for bears and other animals to look to us for food. How? By not giving them access. Garbage is never picked up at night, when it’s quiet and there are few people around, so that’s when the animals approach. So don’t put your garbage out at night! Put it out in the morning, or if your trash pickup doesn’t happen until later in the day, put it out later. Make it a rule that you don’t leave full garbage cans out longer than an hour or two. If you do that, you can go right on using your trusty Rubbermaid container, and you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on containers that are probably only an annoyance to the bears at best.

Now here’s the second part of personal responsibility: take responsibility for your neighborhood. If you know that some of the houses in your neighborhood are rented out, contact the owners and ask them to post instructions not to leave garbage out overnight and to provide an alternative if need be.

And use common sense about your home – the mother bear and two cubs that were killed on the West Shore got into the house because the homeowner left a door open. Close your ground floor windows and doors when you are out and when you are cooking or preparing food.

People have lived alongside the animals in the Tahoe Basin for hundreds of years, and we can continue to do so, but only if we rely on ourselves rather than expecting to find an easy solution through technology so that we don’t have to be responsible. Let’s handle this one ourselves rather than through some labor-saving (and responsibility-saving) solution.

Column 22 - US Postal Service

The US Postal Service seems prepared to decide what is best for Incline, despite some very cogent concerns that have been expressed over the past several years by Incline residents, elected officials, and business owners.

Apparently in 1999 the USPS decided that the current Post Office “had become too small to serve the community adequately.” If memory serves, this was just before they decided to eliminate Saturday window service completely, so that now the only way you can mail anything that is not ready (and the right size) to drop in the slot on Saturday is to go to Truckee, Reno, or Carson City.

Let’s see if we have this straight: The current PO is too small to serve the community adequately, so we’ll eliminate service to the community on the one day a week that working people can comfortably get there, given that the during the week hours coincide with most people’s working hours, and at lunch hour the lines are often out the door. I guess if you’re a USPS bureaucrat, that makes sense.

Also, let’s move the PO out of Village Center, where there is almost unlimited parking, and put it on the corner of Tanager and Village, where traffic is heavy and often backs up on Tanager trying to turn left onto Village now. And let’s take it out of Village Center, where it actually supports the businesses there, and where a trip to get the mail can be combined with a stop at Village Market, picking up the dry cleaning, having a coffee and a chat at Sweet Decadence (a locally owned, non-chain coffee shop), etc., and put it on a corner where the only business in close proximity is Village Pharmacy. That way, Incline residents can make several trips in their cars where one might have done, thereby increasing fuel consumption, air pollution, lake pollution, you name it.

Oh, and let’s create heavy traffic on Tanager and Village, right by the main Fire Station, so that if fire trucks or ambulances need to get out, it can create a real mess and maybe endanger some lives and property.

When he was Chair of the IVGID Board of Trustees, Syd Brosten wrote to the USPS, TRPA, and the County on behalf of the Board and the residents of Incline asking that another site be found. The USPS did not deign to answer – that should let us know in what regard they hold the village that they propose to build in – and neither did the other two agencies, though in a recent Bonanza article, it was indicated that TRPA has received a permit application from the USPS.

Here is an opportunity for TRPA and the County to mend some fences with Incline Village by doing the right thing. TRPA should deny the permit on environmental grounds – the added traffic will have a direct impact on the clarity of the lake, given that runoff of road dirt is one of the biggest danger to that clarity. Washoe County can and should block the proposal on any number of grounds, not the least of which are safety and traffic. Has an environmental impact study been done? If so, it should be made public.

This is an issue that does not divide along political or philosophical lines – this is a quality of life issue for all of us who live in the village and for businesses that are locally owned and contributing to our lives here – imagine if we lose Village Market and are stuck with only Raley’s on those holiday weekends in the winter and all summer when it is jammed with bewildered flatlanders – and we should all get behind blocking this ill-advised move. Contact TRPA, Jim Galloway, the Postal Service, and the IVGID Board to let them know how you feel.