Thursday, May 31, 2007

Nanny State Neocons

The NH Senate has been debating the passage of a law mandating seatbelt use in our state. NH is the last state in the union that does not require seatbelt use in passenger vehicles. The state of the first in the nation primary is familiar with being last – we were the last state to recognize the Martin Luther King Day holiday. We’re among the four remaining states that don’t mandate helmet use for motorcyclists.

The cries of “NANNY STATE” have resounded across our borders. Rabid Republitarians have been weeping copiously in the pages of the Union Leader. Lots of sobbing about how our personal freedoms are under attack. To listen to these folks, the right to ride without a seatbelt and smoke in restaurants are the very proof of truth, justice, and the American Way. Take those away from us and we may as well surrender to our fate – emulating those darned European socialists.

For the record, I should state that I don’t much care, one way or the other. A seatbelt saved my life when I hit a moose with my car in 2003. New Jersey Governor John Corzine disobeyed the laws of his state – by not wearing a seatbelt, and not adhering to the speed limit. He’s lucky he lived through his recent accident. I look at not having seatbelt or helmet laws as making a strong contribution to the law of natural selection, which may be the best argument for defeating the proposed legislation.

The freedom to wear or not wear a seatbelt does not come close to being at the top of personal freedoms I would fight to protect. The nanny state crowd will wail about their right to smoke in restaurants – but they are silent on the subject of my right to remain free of illegal government wiretapping. They don’t care about Jose Padilla’s rights as a US citizen, imprisoned for years without a trial. The wailing about personal freedoms goes right out the window when it comes to abortion, civil union, or marriage equality. They’re perfectly happy to let the government make those decisions for individuals. Some of the same nanny state neocons who decry the money the federal government would give NH (for instituting a seatbelt law) as a bribe were gnashing their teeth over the potential loss of the paltry $3 million NH would get for complying with REAL ID. Yep, the nanny state crowd didn’t have much of a problem with REAL ID –even though it would give us a national ID card, with all of our personal information in a national database. Apparently we need to surrender those freedoms “in the name of national security,” but they’ll fight to the death to smoke in a restaurant.

It’s worth noting that under the Bush administration, the non-military workforce has expanded by over 700,000 employees. Non-military federal spending has jumped by $222 billion – though to be fair, there were 9/11, Katrina, and other weather related disasters. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Bush admin has almost doubled the rate of federal spending we saw during the Clinton administration. The Patriot Act has removed many of our individual freedoms, but since it didn’t force us to wear seatbelts, our NH Republitarians were okay with it.

The same nanny state neocons who moan about the welfare state seem to have no objection to corporate welfare or pork projects. They don’t want a poor family getting food stamps – but taxpayer subsidies (aka corporate welfare) to Big Oil? Not a problem, folks – we HAVE to subsidize them or they won’t keep exploring for more oil. Right. Welfare payments to Big Pharma? Hell yeah!! We’ll keep slinging taxpayer money at them, so they can turn around and charge us more for prescription drugs than any other country in the world pays. That’s just common sense, according to the nanny state whinniers. They give similar arguments for subsidizing factory farms, and shoveling money at very wealthy faith based charities – but confront them with a potential seatbelt or a smoking law, and you’ll hear an outcry from sea to shining sea.

By the time you read this, Governor Lynch will have signed the NH Civil Union bill into law. A poll done by the NH Union Leader showed that 53% of their readers were against civil unions. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given the target audience. The same people who voted in this poll are undoubtedly wailing about the seatbelt law, completely oblivious to their own hypocrisy. The Civil Union bill gives our gay residents some legal protections, and a measure of equality. It is not enough, not by a long shot – but it’s better than nothing. The signing of this bill strikes a blow against government interference in our personal affairs, and lets adults make their own decisions. This is cause for celebration.

“My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” Adlai Stevenson

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Deal or No Deal

Rural northern New England is a dead end on the information super highway. The development of fiber optic systems has been begun in southern NH – while northern NH waits. If we’re lucky, we have DSL. In the northern reaches of our state, many are condemned to dial up internet access – where it might take an hour to download a big file or picture that some unthinking jerk sent you.

Access to the internet is an essential part of doing business for companies, for elected officials (some of them, anyhow), for students, newspapers, doctors, hospitals, libraries, artists, writers, news and political junkies, and for the rest of us. This isn’t a passing fad –the internet is increasingly the tool of choice for a great deal of our communication. Some area towns have bulletin boards or list serves that inform the townspeople of upcoming meetings or events. The web can be a time sucking morass – where one can spend hours looking at weird websites for people with all manner of interests – from Russian tortoises to collecting Barbie Dolls – but it’s also become the way many of us get our news and information. With the internet we can communicate with people from all over the world. For many of us, it is an essential component of doing business.

When the topic of jobs and the economy in the northern part of the state comes up, mention of the need for the infrastructure for high speed internet access will soon follow. All of us agree that northern NH should be allowed to join the 21st century. The problem seems to be determining exactly how that will happen. Verizon has promised us for years that they were going to make it happen. They haven’t. Not only have they failed to make good on their promises of development in the north country, they’re hoping to unload the unprofitable north all together, by selling their landline business in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to a small telecommunications provider from North Carolina, called FairPoint. It’s billed as a merger of Verizon and FairPoint, though essentially it allows Verizon to focus on developing FIOS systems to cities and affluent suburbs, while farming the low rent rural customers out to FairPoint.

Why would Verizon do this? Why would they sell rural northern New England customers out to a small company already deeply in debt, knowing that FairPoint can’t possibly make the kind of investment in northern telecommunications infrastructure that Verizon themselves didn’t make? The answer is money, of course. There is an obscure IRS loophole known as a Reverse Morris Trust. Using this loophole will result in $600 million in tax savings for Verizon, if approved by the PUC. According to union consultant Randy Barber, “a parent corporation can spin off a subsidiary into an unrelated company, tax free, if the shareholders of the parent end up controlling more than 50 percent of the voting rights and economic value of the merged company. The Verizon-FairPoint deal has been designed this way. The bad news for rural consumers is that this tax dodge is only possible if parts of the old copper wire network are sold to a “tiny partner” rather than a larger, more financially secure buyer. (See:

In September 2006, FairPoint had $890 million in assets and $610 million in long term debt. This merger will result in $1.7 billion in new debt for FairPoint. The company has promised to continue paying high dividends to shareholders. Given the already significant level of debt the company carries, one wonders how they’ll manage to invest the kind of capital required to improve existing service and expand DSL. One really shouldn’t wonder. One should be quite sure that they will increase rates, reduce expenditures, reduce labor, and cut service quality.

This deal means job insecurity for some 2,800 union employees. FairPoint has made no firm commitment to keep them beyond current contracts. Once those contracts expire, the debt level alone will surely cause management to outsource as much work as possible to non-union employees, while slashing benefits and pensions.

The Public Utilities Commission has to approve this deal. Hearings are currently being held around the state, and the next closest one will begin at 7 pm, at Littleton High School, on May 24. Everyone who is concerned about telecommunications in the north country should attend. I’ve spoken to people so unhappy with Verizon that they say, “anything is better.” I don’t believe that the sale of NH landlines to a small company who won’t be able to make the investments in infrastructure because of debt and shareholder dividends is going to make anything better. It is entirely possible that in just a few years, the failures of Verizon may look awfully good to us in comparison to exorbitant rate hikes and lousy service.

NH needs to create a solid plan for stimulating investment in high speed internet, and then develop state policy from this plan. We must also consider passing legislation that would protect us by establishing strict guidelines for sales and mergers of this type. The future economic development of the northern part of our state depends on telecommunications. We can’t afford to let this sale go forward.

“We are not going to let Verizon turn the information super highway into a dirt road in New England.” Glenn Brackett, IBEW Local 2320 business manager.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

NH State Employees

This past Tuesday, May 2, the NH State Employees Union (SEIU) had a demonstration in front of the NH State House. About 700 people came out to listen to the Makem Brothers sing union songs, and hear speeches, and messages of support. The sun was out, and it was a pleasant place to be – hanging out with the purple clad state workers in Concord. What’s the problem? Their contract negotiations have reached a standstill. Governor Lynch wants state workers to pay 7.5 percent of their health care premium costs, and double their co-pays. The wage increases they are being offered would not offset the costs of the health care concessions.

You may have heard that state workers have “the Cadillac” of health care plans. You may have even heard that said quite disparagingly. I, for one, believe that our state workers should have a great health care plan. I think everyone in the United States should have the “Cadillac plan.” Why wouldn’t we want the people who keep our state running to be healthy and well paid? Contrary to what many believe – rank and file state employees are not particularly well paid. Some are eligible for food stamps, which should be a source of embarrassment to us. The 2006 NH Basic Needs and Livable Wage Study found that for a family of four, both parents needed to be earning $11.69 per hour, to be able to cover the basic necessities: food, rent, utilities, basic telephone service, clothing, transportation, child care, health care, household expenses, and a small allowance for personal expenses. Note that there is no provision for saving, or for emergency needs. A number of our state employees are not making enough to meet the needs as defined in this study.

You may have heard that according to a report released last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures on state employee benefits, that NH has the costliest health care premiums in the nation. That’s where the story began and ended. What you didn’t hear is that the NH system is self insured. The state does not pay premiums, in the way an employer would. The state sets its own rates. The premium in NH has included an overcharge, to build up a reserve account. That reserve account is at nearly $48 million. The premium has also included charges for private consultants and administrators. The state employees have no control over determining the cost of the premiums they are being asked to pay. It seems possible; even likely, that the way the plan is being administered may be the cause for these high costs. A responsible course of action would be to look at how the plan is administered, and how the costs could be lowered. Asking people (some of whom make less than $10.00 an hour) to double their out of pocket expenses, should be the course of last resort.

State employees are all around us. We probably all interact with at least one every day. State employees give you change at tollbooths – and NH toll workers are friendly and polite, which is not necessarily the case in other states. State employees run the big plows on the highways in the winter. They answer the phones at the Department of Motor Vehicles – sometimes. They are nurses in our state hospitals; they are corrections officers in our state prisons. They are working at the Veteran’s home, Fish and Game, the Division of Employment Security, the Lottery, the DWI Multiple Offender program, and the Community Technical Colleges - just to name a few. These are the people who keep our state running smoothly and efficiently. Some state agencies are perpetually understaffed (like the DMV) in the name of keeping the budget under control. It’s easier to do without employees, than it is for the state to accept that it needs more revenue in the coffers.

I talked to a lot of folks at the SEIU rally. These were not wild eyed radicals. I didn’t see any limos parked around the perimeter of the State House. The “designer” clothes on view were purple SEIU tee shirts. These are folks who are proud to work for the state of NH. What they want – a decent wage and good health care benefits does not seem like too much to ask for. As it stands, the negotiations on wages and health care are at an impasse. Governor Lynch just signed the minimum wage bill, which will increase the minimum wage for some 26,500 NH residents. As he signed, he mentioned that the cost of rent, childcare, and groceries has increased significantly. Perhaps he can transfer that level of concern over to the issue of negotiating with the state employees.

New Hampshire state law prohibits state employees from going out on strike. Try to imagine what would happen if there were no state employees on the job for a day. If you’re having trouble with that image – try this one. Imagine if the state liquor store employees stayed home for a day. Serious chaos.

‘Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if Labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Abraham Lincoln