Thursday, December 30, 2010

An unhelpful distraction from an important national discussion

Today the Naples Daily News ran a commentary on its Editorial Opinion page titled “Death panels? Palin’s warnings coming true,” and yesterday it ran one titled “Politically-motivated end runs ignore our Constitution.” As I predicted in a post on my health care blog on Sunday, the death panel discussions are back.

A reader suggested I forward Sunday’s post to the Naples Daily News for publication, and after reading these two pieces, I decided to do just that. I did some more research, tweaked and edited. Below is what I submitted earlier today. Hopefully it will be printed.
An unhelpful distraction from an important national discussion
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that starting January 1, “the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.”

Since then, much has been written about this, and today the Naples Daily News printed an opinion piece by Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist and FOX News regular, titled “Death panels? Palin’s warnings coming true.”

Needless to say, there’s another interpretation. But first, the facts.

One of the new Medicare benefits under the Affordable Care Act is coverage for an annual wellness visit beginning in 2011.

According to the regulation, “the annual wellness visit will include the establishment of, or update to, the individual’s medical/family history, measurement of his/her height, weight, body-mass index or waist circumference, and blood pressure, with the goal of health promotion and disease detection and encouraging patients to obtain the screening and preventive services that may already be covered and paid for under Medicare Part B.”

The annual wellness visit can – “upon agreement with the individual” - also include “voluntary advance care planning,” which is defined in the regulation as “verbal or written information regarding an individual’s ability to prepare an advance directive in the case where an injury or illness causes the individual to be unable to make health care decisions, and whether or not the physician is willing to follow the individual’s wishes as expressed in an advance directive.”

An advance directive is a general term that describes two kinds of legal documents, living wills and medical powers of attorney. These documents allow a person to give instructions about future medical care should he or she be unable to participate in medical decisions due to serious illness or incapacity. Each state regulates the use of advance directives differently; in Florida they are regulated by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.

This is the context within which the “death panel” fear-mongering is being revisited.

Unless we as a nation begin to tackle health care spending in the final weeks and months of life, we won’t really be able to control health care costs. Statistics abound, but here are just a few from a recent PBS Frontline special “Facing Death:” 

  • Nearly 70 percent of Americans die in a hospital, nursing home or long-term-care facility, yet 7 out of 10 Americans say they would prefer to die at home.
  • More than 80 percent of patients with chronic diseases say they want to avoid hospitalization and intensive care when they are dying.
  • Almost a third of Americans see 10 or more physicians in the last six months of their life.
  • Patients with chronic illness in their last two years of life account for about 32 percent of total Medicare spending.
  • Medicare pays for one-third of the cost of treating cancer in the final year, and 78 percent of that spending occurs in the last month.
  • One large-scale study of cancer patients found that costs were about a third less for patients who had end-of-life discussions than for those who didn't.
Personally, if I’m miserable and in pain, with no realistic chance of a cure, I can think of nothing worse than having my life prolonged by a lot of costly and ultimately useless procedures in a hospital or nursing home. It’s good to know that I can make plans before that happens so I’m cared for according to my wishes. That’s why I’m going to have a discussion about end-of-life care with my internist and prepare an advance directive, even though I’m not yet covered by Medicare.

And given the many competing needs for government funding, I think we as a nation need to begin the discussion of just how much end-of-life care should be paid for with our limited tax dollars. Allowing Medicare to pay doctors to advise patients – with their consent - about their options for end-of-life care is a reasonable, necessary, and important first step toward addressing this difficult issue.

Bandying about the phrase “death panels” is an unhelpful distraction from an important national discussion.

We have to get out ahead of this issue. Please consider sending a letter to the editor of your own local newspaper. Help offset the cries about death panels!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Obama and the tax deal – triangulating or governing?

A friend and I got into a heated discussion the other day about whether Obama had fought hard enough for the Democratic agenda in the tax deal he negotiated with the Republicans. My friend, really angry, said he hadn't. He also said he thought Obama should have fought harder for a single-payer health care plan.

Our discussion was a microcosm of the debate raging among Democrats throughout the country. The liberal-left side of the debate says Obama has no principles and isn’t willing (or tough enough) to fight for anything. I’m on the other side. Compromise – important even after winning the White House and Congress in 2008 because of the broad range of views among Democrats - became critical when Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate last January. And it will be even more so going forward, given Democrats’ weakened position in both houses since November.

I view Obama’s tax compromise as a good and pragmatic way to put what happens to the expiring tax cuts behind us in the hope of getting the New START treaty, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and maybe even the DREAM Act passed in the lame-duck session.

Matt Bai framed the debate in the context of triangulation vs. governing in his insightful piece in today’s New York Times titled “Is ‘Triangulation’ Just Another Word for the Politics of the Possible?” when he asked, “Is President Obama himself a triangulator? Has he become the kind of compromiser he once disdained? Perhaps the better question might be: So what if he has?”
“Again and again, we have Democratic presidents who say, ‘Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the better,’ and ‘This is the best I can do,’ ” says Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former labor secretary under Mr. Clinton. “And over and over we have Republican presidents who say, ‘I am going to hold out for my principles.’”

In this more expansive sense of the epithet, one can reasonably tag Mr. Obama as a triangulator. In striking his tax deal — which extended cuts for the highest income levels and reinstated the estate tax at a much lower rate than sought by liberals, while also extending unemployment benefits and establishing a new payroll tax holiday — Mr. Obama effectively said that the perfect could not be the enemy of the better, and that this was the best he could do.

The problem with this definition of triangulation, though, is that it comes awfully close to an indictment of governing, generally. Some political compromises, of course, are craven or even disastrous; there’s a reason that the words “appeasement” and “Yalta” remain part of the lexicon. But to disdain pragmatic compromise is to become unyielding and self-satisfied in the service of theory, rather than creative in the service of your agenda. ...

Perhaps Mr. Obama could have won a more progressive resolution to the tax-cut debate had he and Congressional Democrats taken up the issue earlier this year, when the deadline wasn’t so close and when the president could have mounted a sustained public campaign. But as it stands, the deal Mr. Obama got, while no one’s idea of perfect, will pump hundreds of billions of dollars in consumer and business tax breaks into a languishing economy, while also aiding the unemployed and easing the tax burden on a strained middle class.

On the other hand, had Mr. Obama held the line on principle and allowed all the cuts to expire, as some Democrats would have preferred, the public debate in January would most likely have come down to which of the two parties was responsible for letting middle-class taxes rise during a recession. It’s an argument that Democrats, historically vulnerable on taxes and already fending off charges of expanding government, would probably have lost.

Such compromises, ideal or not, are the building blocks of responsible governance. If that makes Mr. Obama some kind of triangulator, then it could also make him a successful president.

My friend Greg Hudson also thinks the tax compromise was the right thing to do, noting the various stimulus measures Obama got in return. In his excellent post today titled “Obama-GOP Tax Deal Okay for Now--But Just for Now” Greg writes:
... now is not the time to advance a position on principle that runs the risk of stoking unnecessarily class antagonisms by unwisely setting up "taxing the rich" as a deal killer. Especially when the definition of rich does not resonate with a lot of professionals and small businessmen. Surely the Dems have got to be more practical than that--especially if they have any hope of bi-partisan work accomplishing anything for the country in the next congress.

No, too many Dems either failed to see the deal in the right light or, more likely, were too full of themselves, self-righteous or spiteful to deign to compromise with the Republicans. In the right light, this whole legislative package should be seen primarily as a kind of "stimulus" package--if not to add federal stimulus, at least not to take it away. That, I believe, was Obama's objective, and it appears he got the right deal done--despite many Democrats, including the abstaining lame-duck Speaker Pelosi. In the end, she just is who she is: a reliable, estimable social advocate and champion of the Democratic left wing, but not an effective leader in the difficult, often unsatisfying work of managing incremental legislative progress in a negotiated bi-partisan process.

Between now and 2012, Democrats are going to have to learn to appreciate the need for compromise and – as Greg says - the art of "managing incremental legislative progress in a negotiated bi-partisan process."

Call it triangulation if you will, but unless they do, Obama is sure to lose the next election.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pay attention, we must...

As you may have noticed, I’ve not done much blogging since the election on November 2nd. I am still depressed about the loss of Democratic seats in Congress and the election of Rick Scott as governor here in Florida. I’ve been trying to focus only on the positive – or at least not to dwell on the negative – but it’s been hard.

Nevertheless, it’s important that we continue to pay attention to what’s happening politically and that we not tune out. We’ve got an election to win in 2012!!

So in the interest of sharing with you some of the developments I have on my radar screen, here are some quick sound-bites courtesy of today’s ProgressFlorida Daily Clips, a fabulous daily email that aggregates news from around the state. To read more about any of the items, simply click the hyperlink.

At St. Petersburg rally, Gov.-elect Rick Scott hints at school vouchers for all
By Ron Matus, St. Petersburg Times
Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott told a cheering crowd of 900 voucher students today that he wants to continue expanding the program that allows them to attend private school at public expense and suggested the option should be available to all students.

Merit pay: 2 plans on state lawmakers' radar
By Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel
Florida is expected to adopt a merit-pay law next year that would tie teacher compensation to student performance on tests.

Lawmakers ready to cut public employee retirement, health care
By John Kennedy, News Service of Florida
With a $3 billion budget shortfall looming, Florida’s pension fund and employee health benefits are shaping up as piƱatas that state lawmakers will whack next spring – hoping they will yield millions of dollars in cost savings.

Florida State Senate Unleashes Dog Of War
By Daniel Tilson, The Examiner
Senator Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton) is a leading figure in the new self-proclaimed “hard right-wing conservative” Florida State Legislature.

State frets over pension debts of St. Petersburg and other cities
By Mary Ellen Klas, St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau
With a $1.1 billion deficit looming in the state's employee health and pension accounts, lawmakers are poised to blow up the benefit programs and impose tough new limits on local governments, the chairman of the Senate committee said on Thursday.

The other path to an exemption from health care reform
By Travis Pillow, Florida Independent
A proposed constitutional amendment seeking to exempt Floridians from federal health insurance mandates became the first measure to pass a Senate committee Wednesday, and will likely be among the first bills to pass during this spring’s session.

Texas anti-abortion group targets Planned Parenthood, African-Americans in North Florida ad campaign
By Virginia Chamlee, Florida Independent
Heroic Media, the Austin, Texas-based anti-abortion group that counts Sarah Palin among its endorsers, has been branching out from its Texas roots to create a presence in Florida.

Departure of Crist leaves uncertain future for clemency board
By Gary Fineout, Florida Tribune
Gov. Charlie Crist and members of the Florida Cabinet held their last-ever clemency board meeting on Thursday, holding a marathon session that lasted seven hours.

Redistricting timeline stretches final deadline to June 2012
By Mary Ellen Klas, St. Petersburg Times
The Senate's redistricting guru, John Guthrie, told the Senate Reapportionment Committee on Thursday that the timeline for finishing its work will be compressed and difficult, based on the tentative schedule before them.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Are your spending decisions helping Democrats or Republicans?

In the 2007-2008 election period, Netflix made $616,357 in political contributions. None went to Republican candidates. Barack Obama received the largest amount ($19,485).

Costco Wholesale gave $306,033, with 92 percent going to Democrats - $32,240 to Obama and $9,700 to Clinton.

Amazon.com contributed $279,269. Seventy-nine percent went to Democrats, with Barack Obama receiving the most ($104,382).

I’m happy to see that the companies I spend money with supported my party and my candidate with their political contributions in the 2008 election.

That is the kind of interesting information you can find with “Influence Explorer” (http://influenceexplorer.com) by The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit group focused on creating more government transparency online. It mines and compiles campaign contribution data from OpenSecrets.org and FollowTheMoney.org, and makes it easily searchable with this free online tool.

I learned about “Influence Explorer” in a recent article in the New York Times titled “The Political Impact of Your Consumer Spending” and couldn’t wait to try it.

You might find it fun to check it out, too.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mike Lee, a sign of the times?

“On the campaign trail, especially during his heated primary battle ..., Lee offered glimpses of a truly radical vision of the U.S. Constitution, one that sees the document as divinely inspired and views much of what the federal government currently does as unconstitutional.”

The Lee referred to is Mike Lee, a 39-year old Republican from Utah and one of the newly-elected Tea Party senators. The quote is from an article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by Jeffrey Rosen titled “The Tea Party’s Radical Constitutionalism.”

“As your U.S. senator,” Lee promised during the campaign, “I will not vote for a single bill that I can’t justify based on the text and the original understanding of the Constitution, no matter what the court says you can do.”

Some of the new Senator’s campaign promises, as summarized by Rosen:

  • Lee proposed to dismantle, on constitutional grounds, the federal Departments of Education, and Housing and Urban Development.
  • He insisted that “the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the power to redistribute our wealth” and vowed to phase out Social Security.
  • He proposed repealing the 16th Amendment, which authorizes the progressive federal income tax, and called the 17th Amendment, which allows senators to be elected by popular vote rather than by state legislatures, a “mistake.”
  • He pledged to end “the unauthorized federal occupation” of Utah land, insisting that Congress lacks the constitutional power to designate federally protected wilderness unless the relevant state legislature approves.
  • He embraced “nullification,” the idea that states have the right — and indeed the duty — to disregard federal laws, like the new health-care-reform bill, that they say are unconstitutional.

I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before, but dismissed the speakers as cable TV crazies who get a lot of attention, but don’t represent many Americans. But Rosen suggests I may be wrong:
Like the Tea Party movement itself, Lee’s constitutional vision may appear to be an incohesive mixture of libertarianism and social conservatism, of opposition to federal power and support for tearing down the wall of separation between church and state. In fact, however, it represents an exotic but, in its own way, coherent idea of the Constitution, one that is consistent with certain familiar strains of legal conservatism and constitutional scholarship but at the same time is genuinely eccentric and extreme. Much of the Tea Party movement’s more-strident rhetoric, seen in light of this constitutional vision, may be best understood not as scattershot right-wing hostility to government but as a comprehensive, if startling, worldview about the proper roles of government and faith in American life.

Rosen’s credentials suggest he knows whereof he speaks. He is a professor of law at George Washington University Law School and the Legal Affairs Editor for The New Republic. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, which lists constitutional law among his areas of expertise.

Much of Rosen’s article summarizes a 1981 book, “The 5,000-Year Leap,” by W. Cleon Skousen, who is considered the “constitutional guru” for the Tea Party movement and whose book, according to amazon.com, is “regularly featured by Glenn Beck to Fox TV viewers as a Must Read.” Media Matters for America, “a Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media, has some interesting background on Skousen here.

The description of “The 5,000-Year Leap” on amazon.com:
The nation the Founders built is now in the throes of a political, economic, social, and spiritual crisis that has driven many to an almost frantic search for modern solutions. The truth is that the solutions have been available for a long time -- in the writings of our Founding Fathers -- carefully set forth in this timely book.
In The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World, discover the 28 Principles of Freedom our Founding Fathers said must be understood and perpetuated by every people who desire peace, prosperity, and freedom. Learn how adherence to these beliefs during the past 200 years has brought about more progress than was made in the previous 5000 years. These 28 Principles include The Genius of Natural Law, Virtuous and Moral Leaders, Equal Rights--Not Equal Things, and Avoiding the Burden of Debt. Published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to restoring Constitutional principles in the tradition of America's Founding Fathers.
The National Center for Constitutional Studies...is doing a fine public service in educating Americans about the principles of the Constitution. -- Ronald Reagan, President of the United States
This is possibly the most comprehensive treatment of the genius of the American Founding Fathers which has ever been encompassed in a single volume. -- Kenneth C. Chatwin, District Judge, Phoenix, Arizona

It may be that Mike Lee is a sign of the times, and I guess we can’t dismiss him as another “crazy.”


Think it’s hard to get anything done in the Senate today? Just wait.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nothing better to do?

Even as the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act continue to make their way through the courts, states continue to try to pass laws that would exempt them from compliance. Florida, the lead state in one of the lawsuits, is also trying to pass such a law.

Actually, it’s trying to change the state constitution – and it’s trying for the second time, after failing in its attempt last year.

According to Health News Florida earlier this week:

Florida Republican lawmakers are reviving a proposed constitutional amendment that takes aim at a major part of the federal health overhaul --- with Senate President Mike Haridopolos planning the unusual step of sponsoring the proposal himself.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, made sure the proposed amendment was the first piece of legislation filed in the House for the 2011 legislative session. It was formally filed at 11:58 a.m. last Tuesday, less than two hours after lawmakers gathered in Tallahassee to swear in members and select leaders.

The proposal, if ultimately approved by voters during the 2012 elections, is aimed at allowing Floridians to opt out of a federal requirement that they buy health insurance or face financial penalties. Lawmakers passed a largely identical proposal during the 2010 session, but the Florida Supreme Court blocked it from going on the November ballot because of misleading wording.

I realize that the Republican Party opposes the Affordable Care Act and is committed to doing all it can to kill it. I respect that fact that our system of law is proceeding to consider the charges, which are not without merit. It’s clear that the case will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.

So that being the case, I can’t help but be annoyed that the president of my state’s Senate chose this to be the lead issue to introduce for consideration in the upcoming Legislative session. Health News Florida notes that sponsoring the proposal himself is an “unusual step.”  "A Senate president has wide-ranging power but typically leaves filing such legislation to other members."

With the state’s unemployment among the highest in the nation, wouldn’t you think there were more pressing matters to be addressed by our elected officials?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Challenging conventional wisdom

I’m often struck by the way conventional wisdom is accepted as fact. But conventional wisdom is not necessarily true.

A recent Time magazine article called “The Uncertainty Principle” by Zackary Karabell reviews the conventional wisdom that businesses aren’t hiring because of uncertainty about government policy:

The best expression of this thesis came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which released the results of a poll of small-business owners in late September concluding that uncertainty over health care was holding back the recovery: "Nearly 8 in 10 small business leaders expect their costs to increase as a result of the new law, and a majority say they will be less likely to hire new employees ... Small business leaders who are being counted on to grow jobs are deeply unsettled about the present and concerned about the future, and a tremendous amount of that uncertainty is due to the new health care law."

Let's not forget uncertainty about taxes and whether Congress will extend some, all or none of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. When Congress adjourned to focus on the midterm elections rather than decide on tax rates for 2011, Republican House leader John Boehner jumped on the uncertainty bandwagon: "The question right now that the American people are asking is, Where are the jobs? And we don't have jobs ... because of uncertainty affecting families and small businesses. We can help clear out ... this uncertainty by extending all of the current tax rates and cutting spending."

Karabell’s assessment? “Well, poppycock!”

Large businesses aren't hiring for basic reasons. They are highly profitable even with fewer workers. They have spent billions on technologies that have made them more efficient and productive. And they are adding jobs abroad--where the growth is. They are certain that they can service a still highly affluent American market with fewer workers. In fact, the companies of the S&P 500--the epitome of corporate America--are poised to report very strong earnings for the third quarter, continuing a two-year run in which they've reaped hundreds of billions in profit even as employment rolls have shrunk.

Small businesses aren't hiring mostly because economic activity is muted, consumers are paying off debts while saving more and spending somewhat less, and loans for expansion are difficult to obtain.

And uncertainty isn't the reason the housing market is still a mess. Many of the jobs lost in the past two years were in construction, housing and financial firms connected to real estate. They aren't coming back until housing demand perks up. That won't be anytime soon.
Doesn’t all that sound right to you? And if so, then why is this the conventional wisdom??  Karabell:

The business community and its lobbyists and political allies--Republicans mostly, with a fair number of Democrats--don't want to acknowledge the real reasons for the lack of hiring because that would make them responsible for solutions. By raising the cry of uncertainty, they make it seem as if the only thing holding job growth back is bad policy emanating from Washington....

Karabell brings us back to the basic economics of supply and demand:
[Businesses] have no incentive to [create jobs] unless there is a robust domestic economy that will justify more bodies. Government can help or hinder such robustness, but it cannot create it.
I think Karabell is right.  It’s not about uncertainty about government policy. Extending the Bush tax cuts or repealing health care reform won’t do it. If we want to see an increase in the supply of jobs, someone needs to figure out how to stimulate demand.

Just because we hear the same thing over and over and over again on cable TV, doesn’t make it true.

During this highly-partisan time filled with political posturing, it’s important to remember to challenge conventional wisdom. As hard as it is to remember to do so – do so we must.

Monday, November 8, 2010

An interesting take on the election results

If you’ve been depressed about last week’s election results, and the punditry and promises that followed, you might enjoy this Slate.com piece as much as I did.  It’s titled “Pelosi’s Triumph: Democrats didn't lose the battle of 2010. They won it.” by William Saletan, Slate's national correspondent.  Here are some excerpts:
Democrats have lost the House, and health care is getting the blame...."Virtually every House Democrat from a swing district who took a gamble by voting for the health law made a bad political bet," says the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times laments that "the measure of a leader in Washington isn't how much gets done, it's who holds power in the end. On that scale, Pelosi failed."
I'm not buying the autopsy or the obituary. In the national exit poll, voters were split on health care. Unemployment is at nearly 10 percent. Democrats lost a lot of seats that were never really theirs, and those who voted against the bill lost at a higher rate than did those who voted for it. But if health care did cost the party its majority, so what? The bill was more important than the election. 
I realize that sounds crazy. We've become so obsessed with who wins or loses in politics that we've forgotten what the winning and losing are about. Partisans fixate on punishing their enemies in the next campaign. Reporters, in the name of objectivity, refuse to judge anything but the Election Day score card. Politicians rationalize their self-preservation by imagining themselves as dynasty builders. They think this is the big picture.
They're wrong. The big picture isn't about winning or keeping power. It's about using it. I've made this argument before, but David Frum, the former speechwriter to President Bush, has made it better. In March, when Democrats secured enough votes to pass the bill, he castigated fellow conservatives who looked forward to punishing Pelosi and President Obama "with a big win in the November 2010 elections." Frum observed:
Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now. … No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed. Even if Republicans scored a 1994 style landslide in November, how many votes could we muster to re-open the "doughnut hole" and charge seniors more for prescription drugs? How many votes to re-allow insurers to rescind policies when they discover a pre-existing condition? How many votes to banish 25 year olds from their parents' insurance coverage?
Exactly. A party that loses a House seat can win it back two years later, as Republicans just proved. But a party that loses a legislative fight against a middle-class health care entitlement never restores the old order....
Most bills aren't more important than elections. This one was. ...
Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren't going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.
And that's not counting financial regulation, economic stimulus, college lending reform, and all the other bills that became law under Pelosi. So spare me the tears and gloating about her so-called failure. If John Boehner is speaker of the House for the next 20 years, he'll be lucky to match her achievements.
Will Republicans revisit health care? Sure. Will they enact some changes to the program? Yes, and Democrats will help them. Every program needs revisions. Republicans will get other things, too: business tax breaks, education reform, more nuclear power, and a crackdown on earmarks. These are issues on which both parties can agree. Which is why, if you're a Democrat, you deal with them after you've lost your majority—not before.
It's funny, in a twisted way, to read all the post-election complaints that Democrats lost because they thought only of themselves. Even the chief operating officer of the party's leading think tank, the Center for American Progress, says Obama failed to convince Americans "that he knows their jobs are as important as his." That's too bad, because Obama, Pelosi, and their congressional allies proved just the opposite. They risked their jobs—and in many cases lost them—to pass the health care bill. The elections were a painful defeat, and you can argue that the bill was misguided. But Democrats didn't lose the most important battle of 2010. They won it.

I think that’s an interesting take on the election results, don’t you?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Can the Republicans really kill health care reform?

Since Tuesday’s elections, the leaders of the new House and Senate majorities have trumpeted their intention to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or at least cut off its funding (although they haven’t said how they’d make up the cost savings that would be lost).  I must admit, the saber-rattling was getting to me.

The country does appear to be split about the ACA.  An exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the AP reported that “about half – 48 percent – of voters want the health care law repealed. Another 31 percent said it should be expanded and 16 percent want it left in place as is.”

Among Florida voters, “a majority want it either expanded (30 percent) or left as it is (19 percent). About 44 percent of voters said [the health care law] should be repealed,” according to an exit poll by Edison Research for the National Election Pool.

But health care blogger Maggie Mahar looked at the issue and concluded:

[I]t is essential to realize that this [election result] was not a vote against health care reform.  As [the Edison/AP exit poll] revealed, nearly two-thirds of voters identified the economy as the most important issue weighing on their minds; less than one-fifth named health care as their top concern.

Given the economy, Democrats would undoubtedly have lost their majorities regardless of what they did or didn’t do with health care reform, simply because they were the party in power.  Writes Mahar:

Conservatives will continue to claim that the election was a referendum on reform. This is yet another Big Lie. If the administration had failed to pass reform legislation, the president’s party still would have been trounced at the polls, and the administration branded “impotent.”  If the Obama administration had managed to push a stronger health care bill through Congress -- let’s imagine that a handful of progressives defied all odds, and passed a single-payer bill -- the majority of Americans who now are wary of reform would be totally terrified.  (The fear-mongers would have made sure of that.) Progressives might have lost even more seats. 

How much could the Republicans actually do?  Given Obama's veto pen, any effort to repeal the entire law could not succeed.  And Mahar points out that for all their threats, the Republicans may not really be able to do much about the funding:

It is unclear just how much of the reform legislation’s financing turns on Congressional approval. Reportedly, only about $100 million of the funding needed for the $1 trillion bill is subject to the Congressional appropriations process....  Moreover, as John Gever points out on MedPage Today: “The items in the ACA that require significant appropriations are either popular -- like bringing insurance to the uninsured -- or don't matter much to the electorate, like electronic health records. Killing these won't score points with the voters Republicans will need in 2012 to defeat Obama, and could actually hurt them.”

I suspect that Gevar is right when he says:

Everything you have read and heard about what the new Congress will do is posturing for 2012. It's all about the rhetoric, not the legislation. That's why you will see little actual change -- on anything -- until then.

So while I’ll be keeping an eye on what happens, I’m going to try not to let the Republicans’ threats get to me. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Moving forward

Well, it’s over.   

Nationally, I’m incredibly worried about the next two (and six) years.  One of the first things Congress will tackle is the extension of the Bush tax cuts.  Will they be extended?  And if so, will that help the struggling recovery, or just add to the deficit?  And speaking of the recovery – many economists – and as we saw today, even the Federal Reserve – now believe more stimulus is necessary.  But that seems a non-starter with the new Congress.  What will happen to the economy now?

Another huge concern is the Republicans’ avowed intent to repeal the health care reform.  The Affordable Care Act (I will NEVER call it “Obamacare”!) was a carefully-constructed house of cards.  It won’t be possible to cherry-pick the popular pieces and kill the ones the special interests don’t like without adding to the deficit.  I’ll be following those efforts in my health care blog “So what do you think about that? 

I’m also very concerned about the implications of the elections for Florida.  As written today by Howard Troxler, columnist with the St. Petersburg Times:

Make no mistake — the Tallahassee Republicans were huge winners Tuesday.

Not only was the existing Legislature returned to power, but its ruling party grew into a veto-proof majority.

In other words, the Legislature got off scot-free for everything outrageous that has happened over the past two years.

Looking ahead, I’m concerned about off-shore drilling, how the 2012 redistricting will actually be done, funding for education, Medicaid, SCHIP and the Everglades, not to mention what it will be like to have Rick Scott as our Governor!

Locally, Barbara Berry’s win over Kathy Ryan for School Board District 3 is concerning, but I’m pleased that Pat Carroll and Roy Terry won in their districts.  Hopefully we can count on Kathy Curatolo, Julie Sprague and Terry to protect our interests.  In reality, only one member of the Board has changed, with one ultra-conservative (Steve Donovan) replaced by another (Berry). 

Of course I’m pleased that Amendments 5 and 6 passed.  But will the Republican Legislature, which fought so hard to keep them from taking effect, comply with their requirements?  That remains to be seen.

The failure of Amendment 8 (Class Size) to pass means that the School Board has not just one but two immediate pieces of business: finding a way - and the money - to comply with the smaller class sizes, and agreeing on the criteria/approach to hiring a new superintendent.  Before they can begin the search, they have to agree on the indicators of progress for the strategic plan.  That will hopefully happen tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon at a workshop open to the public.  I plan to attend.

But is there a silver lining?  Back at the state level, here’s how columnist Troxler sees it:

Was all of this just dandy by the voters of Florida?

Did they say, yes, indeed, we want more scandal in Tallahassee, more laundered money, more favors for corporations? Are we just dying to get our electric bills doubled?

Yeah, maybe.

Or maybe Tallahassee was the incidental beneficiary of the unstoppable national tide.

For clues, let's turn to the way Floridians voted on constitutional amendments — where it turns out they punched the Legislature right in the snoot.

Most importantly, Floridians passed Amendment 5 and Amendment 6, the "fair districts" proposals, deeply opposed by the Legislature. In the long run this might be the most important thing that happened Tuesday.

Floridians rejected Amendment 8, which would have weakened the class-size rules that voters first passed in 2002. The Legislature has resented these rules ever since — this year it refused to pay for all of them, and instead asked voters: You didn't really mean it, did you?

But they did.

Voters even rejected Amendment 1, which would have repealed Florida's system of public financing for political candidates, a favorite target of the Legislature.

In sum, given the chance to reject Tallahassee as well as Washington, voters did so.

Marco Rubio, our new U.S. senator-elect, said an interesting thing on election night:

"We make a great mistake," Rubio said, "if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party."

Likewise, the Legislature's leaders will make a mistake if they interpret Tuesday's election as voter approval of their offenses and scandals. They won't always have Barack Obama around to save them.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of years. 

I plan to continue writing this blog and sharing my thoughts on the elections, politics and national affairs.  I’ll be watching the School Board as it grapples with the superintendent challenge – both how they continue to work with Dr. Thompson through the remainder of this term, as well as what they decide to look for, how they decide to look for it, and if and how they bring the community into the decision-making.

I also will be watching the state Legislature, Congress, the White House and the run-up to Election 2012.

Hopefully you’ll be along for the ride. 


Monday, November 1, 2010

Tomorrow is Election Day

Well, tomorrow is Election Day.  It goes without saying that if you haven’t voted yet, please be sure to do so!
The latest polls still show Crist ahead of Meek, but one (Sunshine State News) does show that Meek may be pulling a bit of support from Crist.  Most polls continue to say that a Rubio win is likely, with the most recent showing him ahead of Crist by 17 to 20 points.  I hope they’re wrong. 
I recommend a vote for Crist because he has the better chance of beating Rubio than Meek does.  For my other voting recommendations as summarized in my October 28 blog post, click here. 
Here are some things you should know to be sure your vote is counted and your time is not wasted on Election Day:

You must vote at your specific precinct’s polling place.  Do not go to a library or other early voting site.

To find your precinct’s polling place:

  • Your polling location is printed on the inside page of your sample ballot.
  • You can also find your polling place by clicking here, or by calling the Collier County Supervisor of Elections Office at (239) 252-8450.

The polls will be open from 7 am until 7 pm.

If you have an absentee ballot but did not mail it in, you can either:

  • Complete the absentee ballot and hand-deliver it to the Supervisor of Elections’ Office at either 3301 Tamiami Trail East, Bldg. C-2, or at the North Collier Government Service Center, 2335 Orange Blossom Drive (next to County Library Headquarters) -- between 9 am and 6 pm.
  • Vote in person at your precinct.  Be sure to bring the absentee ballot with you to be cancelled if you plan to vote in person.  If you don’t have the absentee ballot but did not mail it in, you should be permitted to vote a “provisional ballot.”  Don’t leave the polling place without having voted!  Insist on casting a provisional ballot!

You can check the status of your absentee ballot by clicking here. 

To review a sample ballot before going to the polls, click here. 

The closest thing I’ve found to a guide for following the election returns is at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog: The Ultimate Hour-by-Hour, District-by-District Election Guide.  I plan to watch the returns and keep score.  If you’d like a printer-friendly copy (that has the charts as well as the text), email me and I’ll send you one.

Here’s hoping!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It’s not too late to make a difference for Florida

The pundits are predicting that Republicans will take 50 – 60 seats in the House, with Democrats having only a 16 percent chance of retaining the majority.  But interestingly, it seems that many races have been tightening in these last days before Election Day. 

The Florida Governor’s race is a toss-up.  The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight political blog shows Democrat Alex Sink beating Republican Rick Scott – but by only four-tenths of a percentage point – 48.8% to 48.4%.  They give her a 53.9% chance of winning the seat.

The Florida Senate race is “leaning Republican” – but not considered “solidly Republican.” 

So let’s not despair.  As summed up last night by FiveThirtyEight:

... the fact that there is a seeming consensus does not necessarily indicate that it will be right. However objective or subjective a forecasting method, all are pretty much looking at the same data, and 90 percent of that data amounts to polling. This is also the time of year when everyone tends to look at everyone else’s forecasts (our model does so explicitly, in fact, since the forecasts made by experts like Cook are an input in the model), which may reduce independence. If the polling is off — and it could be off in either direction — the consensus is liable to be too. 

As I wrote Thursday, it’s going to depend on what the Democrats who haven’t voted yet decide to do.  It’s all about turnout. 

Republicans have outnumbered Democrats in early voting by a wide margin.  Here in Collier County, as reported in today’s Naples Daily News, Republican turnout has been three times that of Democrats, and four times as high in absentee ballots.  The Supervisor of Elections’ office expects 30 percent of Collier voters to vote before Election Day, which means 70 percent are waiting until Tuesday.

That could be good news for Democrats and the anyone-but-Rubio voters, but we have our work cut out for us. 

First – we have to convince Democrats who haven’t voted yet that their vote does matter, and can still make a difference - especially in the Governor’s and Senate races.

And second – we have to convince those Democrats that a vote for Charlie Crist is our only chance of beating Rubio in the Senate race.

I’m off to the Collier County Democratic Headquarters this afternoon to make get-out-the-vote calls.  The Headquarters is at 13040 Livingston Road, Suite 6, on the southeast corner of Livingston and Pine Ridge Roads, in the Marquesa Plaza.  Click here to get directions.  The phone number is 239-434-7754. No appointment is necessary.  Walk-ins are welcome.

If each of us does something, we can make a difference for Florida in the coming four days.  Won’t you help?

Friday, October 29, 2010

A perfect example: vote NO on Amendment 4

Today’s Naples Daily News has a front-page story titled “Golden Gate Estates: Shopping center’s future up to vote.”  It’s a perfect example of what will happen if Amendment 4 is passed. 

Amendment 4, referred to as “Hometown Democracy,” would require voters to approve by referendum the adoption and amendment of local government comprehensive land use plans.  I wrote about Amendment 4 in my post The Amendments – Part 1, and recommended a vote against it.

Here’s the story.

A developer wants to build a 41-acre shopping center on the northwest corner of Golden Gate and Wilson boulevards, which would include a 27,000 square feet grocery store. It would require a change to the master land use plan.  The issue is so controversial that the County Commissioner put the question on the ballot for the six election precincts that would be affected.  Even though it’s a nonbinding straw vote, the Commissioners figure it will give them a sense of the community’s wishes.

According to the article, the developer has spent $10 million so far purchasing parcels of land for the project – and the zoning change hasn’t even been approved yet.

By election day, the developer will have spent about $175,000 on a marketing campaign that has included direct mailers, newspaper ads and yard signs, which now dot the community’s landscape. Campaign representatives have been on hand at community events, including yard sales, to pitch the project....

Peter Gaddy, president of the Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association, which hasn’t taken a position on the project, said he’s shocked by the amount of money the developer has spent on a marketing campaign, especially since the straw vote isn’t binding.

“To spend this amount of money on a political issue like this is more than what was spent on the sheriff’s race, and that was over the entire county,” he said.

“It just seems to be a little unfair that they are spending so much money and the people who are opposed to it are walking the streets with crayons and notebook paper, trying to get support,” Gaddy said. “There is a huge disparity obviously in money here.” ...

Mark Teaters, a founder and charter member of the Homeowners Association of Golden Gate Estates, said the question about changing the master plan never should have ended up on a straw ballot.

He said the right thing to do would be to reappoint a committee to take another look at the community’s master plan and to hold public hearings to debate any changes. “It’s overdue,” he said.

If a majority of voters support the project in the straw ballot, he said, it shouldn’t mean that county commissioners say, “We are going to do it.”

I agree with Teaters, and like Gaddy, I’m shocked at the spending.  Now just imagine what it will be like if Amendment 4 passes, and every land use plan change will require voter approval. 

It’s not fair that developers can come in and spend millions to market their cause, and local community members have only their “crayons and notebook paper” to make their case.

Vote NO on Amendment 4.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don’t vote yet!

Friends have been asking if it’s okay to vote yet. They’re getting antsy and anxious. They see the latest polls on Florida’s U.S. Senate seat, and they think it’s all over. Maybe. Maybe not. Anything can happen. The polls can be wrong.  Remember “Dewey Beats Truman”??
On the morning after the 1948 presidential election, the Chicago Daily Tribune's headline read "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." That's what the Republicans, the polls, the newspapers, the political writers, and even many Democrats had expected. But in the largest political upset in U.S. history, Harry S. Truman surprised everyone when he, and not Thomas E. Dewey, won the 1948 election for President of the United States.
In the two most recent polls reported by RealClearPolitics.com, Crist is pulling votes away from Meek, while Rubio is holding fairly steady. Rubio, at 42%, is about 10 points ahead of Crist. Meek is polling at 18%. That leaves 8% undecided.

If just over half of those who say they’re going to vote for Meek or are undecided actually vote for Crist, Crist would beat Rubio. It’s all going to be about turnout, and what people hear in the last couple of days to sway their decision.

So I say – sit tight. There’s still time.

Here’s a summary of my voting recommendations that you can print and take with you to the polls.

Congressional
U.S. Senator: Charlie Crist (NPA) or Kendrick Meek (DEM)
Representative in Congress: District 14: James Lloyd Roach (DEM)
Representative in Congress: District 25: Joe Garcia (DEM)

State
Governor and Lieutenant Governor: Alex Sink and Rod Smith (DEM)
Attorney General: Dan Gelber (DEM)
Chief Financial Officer: Loranne Ausley (DEM)
Commissioner of Agriculture: Scott Maddox (DEM)

Legislative
State Representative: District 101: Larry Wilcoxon (NPA)
State Representative: District 112: Sandra Ruiz (DEM)

Nonpartisan - Retention of Justices of the Supreme Court
Canady - NO
Labarga - YES
Perry – YES
Polston – NO

Nonpartisan - District Courts of Appeal
Crenshaw – YES
Kelly – YES
Khouzam – YES
Morris – YES
Northcutt – YES
Villanti – YES
Wallace – YES

Nonpartisan - School Board
District 1 – Pat Carroll
District 3 – Kathy Ryan
District 5 – Roy Terry

Nonpartisan - Independent Districts
Soil & Water Conservation Group 4: Laurie L. Mitchell
Mosquito Control District Seat 2: Robert D. Geroy

Proposed Constitutional Amendments
No. 1 – Repeal of Public Campaign Financing Requirement: NO
No. 2 – Homestead Ad Valorem Tax Credit for Deployed Military Personnel: NO
No. 4 – Referenda Required for Adoption and Amendment of Local Government Comprehensive Land Use Plans – NO
No. 5 – Standards for Legislature to Follow in Legislative Redistricting – YES
No. 6 – Standards for Legislature to Follow in Congressional Redistricting – YES
No. 8 – Revision of the Class Size Requirements for Public Schools – YES

Nonbinding Statewide Advisory Referendum
Balancing the Federal Budget a Nonbinding Referendum Calling for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – NO

Straw Ballot Questions
Straw Ballot Referendum Election on Consolidation of the Unincorporated Fire Districts - YES

To find early voting locations or your Election Day voting location, or to get answers to any voting-related questions, go to Vote411.org or the Collier County Supervisor of Elections website.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

School Board District 1 race – my decision

Yesterday I laid out the issues I am considering in deciding who to vote for for the District 1 School Board seat. This afternoon I watched the Naples Daily News 30-minute interviews with Pat Carroll and Rosanne Winter to be sure I was clear on their positions. Now, by evaluating each priority issue, I’ll make my decision.

Which candidate is most committed to providing the best possible education to all of our community’s children, despite the many challenges?

In the NDN interview, when asked about the progress of the District over the eight years she has been on the Board, Carroll said she felt that the sheltered program for non-English speaking students was one of the positive improvements during that period. In the sheltered instruction program, students who enter the District not knowing English are taught academic subjects in their native language, while separately learning English. The idea is that this way, they won’t fall behind academically by being placed right away in an English-only classroom. Carroll said, “...after a year, when they’re embedded into an English class, they have the gist of the English language, they understand our academic programming, and they have made a year’s gain [academically.] I like that.”

According to a NDN profile of Carroll last July, “When you ask her about the successes she’s seen in her past two terms, Carroll immediately speaks about career education and the Collier County School District’s support of the Lorenzo Walker Technical Institute and Career and Technical High School, and the Immokalee Technical Center.... Carroll said she believes that career education will need a champion now more than ever.”

During her 30-minute NDN interview, Winter only mentioned the challenges of the District’s ethnic, language and socio-economic diversity in the context of how teachers should be resourced or evaluated when they have non-English-speaking or special education students in their classroom. Her focus was how to make it easier for the teachers to teach, rather than on how to raise the performance of the students.

After careful consideration, and based on what I’ve seen and heard, I believe Carroll is more focused on the interests of Collier’s children than Winter.

Which candidate is most likely to buy in to the draft strategic plan’s vision and goals, quickly come up to speed and contribute in a meaningful way to the process?

Connect Now was an 18-month process in which citizens all across Collier County participated in conversations about what they wanted for the community and schools. The culmination of this process was a Community Statement, published in April 2009. That Community Statement was the basis of a School Board workshop on April 14, 2009, in which the Board accepted the statement as a starting point for its formal strategic planning process that would set the vision and goals to guide the district’s work for the next three years.

In response to a question at the end of the NDN interview, Rosanne Winter said, “I think [Connect Now is] a fantastic program.... The strategic plan that has grown out of that is fantastic... We are now at the point that we need to take that strategic plan and turn it into operations. How we will measure.... The standards, the alignment, the evaluation, that’s the work that has to be done now.”  Based on that comment, I assume Winter has bought in to the vision and goals, and would contribute positively to the process.

However Pat Carroll was involved in and, from what I’ve seen and heard, supported the  Connect Now process since its inception. Knowing what was involved (since I was a participant in parts of it myself), I give Carroll an edge over Winter on this question.

Which candidate shares my values on social issues?

In yesterday’s post I shared some of Carroll’s and Winter’s responses to the League of Women Voters / AAUW candidate surveys, and reported that Carroll was unwilling to provide yes/no answers. Today, when visiting Winter’s website, I discovered that she had in fact posted lengthy responses to all of those questions there. I’m sorry I didn’t know that sooner, as I am impressed with her answers and find they are aligned with my own values.

Since Winter didn’t want her responses truncated, I urge you to read them in full, but for purposes of my analysis, I would summarize them as follows:
  • Do you support policies that prohibit school prayer and the distribution of non-academic religious materials during the school day and at school-sponsored athletic activities (excluding student clubs)? Yes
  • Do you support the teaching of Intelligent Design in science classes? No
  • Do you support the teaching of man-made climate change as fact in science classes? Yes
  • Do you support the practice of religious invocations at the start of School Board meetings? No
  • Do you agree with the new School Board policy that mandates the teaching of comprehensive sex education from the 6th grade and up, and which includes information about contraception, condoms and abstinence? Yes
  • Do you support mandatory diversity training for all school personnel and School Board members? Yes
Clearly Winter's values are much closer to mine than Carroll’s. If this were the only basis for my decision, Winter would get my vote.

Which candidate adds more to the diversity of the Board?

This issue specifically concerns the possibility of a Board made up of a majority of educators. Please read yesterday’s post for the backgrounds of the candidates.

After watching her NDN interview, I’m a bit puzzled about Winter's background, which she described more broadly than what I reported yesterday. Neither her own website nor the NDN summary from which I drew my report mention having been a classroom teacher, yet in the interview she said she had taught at the elementary, middle and high school levels, both special education and general education, as well as at the university graduate level. I’m not sure what might explain the omission, but it leaves me a bit troubled.

Regardless, I believe Carroll’s business experience would provide much-needed diversity to the Board, while Winter’s professional experience would not.

In addition, Carroll brings an important experience with and awareness of the political realities of our state, whereas Winter is more knowledgeable about Virginia, as she said in the NDN interview. In her interview, Carroll brought up Senate Bill 4, passed by the legislature earlier this year. According to the NDN, this “so-called graduation bill will usher in new requirements for high school students to take harder math and science classes and pass end-of-course exams to earn high school diplomas.” Carroll said that in order to meet those requirements, the District would have to take away opportunities for electives, and said “we need to lobby to get flexibility in graduation requirements.”

Asked about tenure, Carroll said it’s not as big a problem as in other states “because Florida is a right-to-work state,” but “there are some in the state legislature that want to get rid of any existence of tenure whatsoever,” as would have happened had Governor Crist not vetoed Senate Bill 6. When asked, Carroll said, “I don’t support tenure.... I believe that they should negotiate a three-to-five year contract on a rolling basis based on their accomplishments and performance.”

Asked whether merit pay is really possible in the schools, Carroll said, “I don’t know. But the education community in the state of Florida must meet the state legislators half-way. Because the state legislators absolutely are convinced that it’s do-able and it will improve education.” According to the NDN, “Carroll, who has been asked to serve on an state ad hoc committee to develop a plan on teacher tenure and performance pay, said Collier County needs to stop being told what to do and to become part of the solution. ‘With something like performance pay _ I want to put it out to teachers and have the teachers come up with the program. No program is not an option. So what do you want?’ she said.”

When asked about teacher evaluation in the NDN interview, Winter spoke at length about evaluation of teachers' teaching methods and the value of videotaping teachers at work and reviewing the tapes with them. She said that in Fairfax, VA, “we did have a performance pay system.... Did it improve the quality of teaching? Yes, but I don’t think it was worth what we paid.”

There’s no doubt that Carroll’s views on these subjects are more aligned with mine than Winter’s.

My decision

This process has been fascinating for me. Other than the process I went through (and blogged about in So what do you think about that?) in deciding who to support in the 2008 Democratic Primary, this is the most time and effort I’ve ever spent on a voting decision. I was forced to identify my priorities and recognize that neither candidate gave me 100 percent of what I wanted. I found that whatever information I wanted to help me differentiate between the candidates was available, thanks to Google and the online Naples Daily News. As a result, I have made my decision.

I’m going to vote for Pat Carroll for School Board for District 1.