Thursday, June 25, 2015

Deliberately Decreasing Our Means

Every biennium the legislature creates a new state budget. This budget is required to be balanced every year. This happens no matter what party currently holds the majority in the House, the Senate, or the Governor’s office. Right now the legislature is winding down. The Committee of Conference reports will have been voted on by the time you read this.

As always, the most interesting item to watch is the budget wrangling. The House got started a bit late this year; probably because the O’Brienistas created so many diversions that everything was late. On days when the House is session, bills that will be coming up for a vote fall into two categories in the calendar: Consent and Regular. The Consent Calendar is comprised of bills that come out of committee with a unanimous vote to either pass or kill. They’re generally non-controversial, and are easily dispatched with voice votes. O’Brienistas made it a “thing” this session to yank as many bills off the consent calendar as possible, just to gum up the works and create delay.

Rep. Neal Kurk chairs the House Finance Committee. Kurk has long been a fiscal conservative, but generally someone who could be sensible when the situation called for it. This biennium apparently Kurk was so giddy at GOP control of both houses that he’s thrown caution and good sense out the window in favor of ideology. He partnered up with Free Stater Dan McGuire to create a hastily written budget that was guaranteed to ensure that NH would continue lose ground economically and hurt a lot of people along the way.

The original version included $88 million in DOT cuts, which meant rest areas and some bridges would be closed. Half the workforce would be eliminated. Federal funds would be lost, the widening of I-93 would be jeopardized, and some 2500 miles of roads and 1000 bridges would have been turned over to cities and towns to pay for. Apparently Meals on Wheels was a socialist program that needed to be cut, and Service Link was completely de-funded. Dan McGuire proposed $2 million in cuts to the NH Veteran’s Home, which would have resulted in 25 veterans losing their place to live. Some changes (the proposed cuts to the Veteran’s Home were too much for even the most rabid members of the right) were made, and eventually the budget found its way to the Senate. The Senate made some cosmetic changes and added business tax cuts. Because when you claim that there isn’t enough money to adequately fund the needs of the state, the only thing to do is cut revenue! 

A recent op-ed in the Laconia Sun penned by Senators Jeb Bradley and Jeanne Forrester claimed that the Senate decided to reduce business taxes at the end of the budget process. On January 8, Senator Bradley introduced a bill to lower the business profits tax (BPT). On January 8, a bill Bradley co-sponsored was introduced to lower the business enterprise tax. (BET).  Those bills were both passed by the Senate and Bradley tabled both. The intent from the very beginning of the session was to lower business taxes. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best. They’re telling us on the one hand that we must live our means while the other hand is slashing the means we live on.

The lowering of the BET and the BPT are touted as the way to bring business to our state. The fact that businesses actually want good infrastructure, lower utility costs, and an educated work force is lost on our representative ideologues, who are firmly steeped in the kind of economic policies that have failed to work since the Reagan administration. NH is a wealthy state, yet we refuse to raise sufficient revenues to fix the things that need fixing and invest in the future. As a result, we have the 11th worth infrastructure in the United States. Award winning NH civil engineer Darren Benoit tells us that if we start right now, it will cost us $1.5 billion to fix everything. NH also ranks at about 100th place out of the 50 states for state funding of our university system. We want an educated workforce, but we do not want to pay for it. If a budget is a statement of our values, than it’s painfully clear that the budget writers don’t value our state or its people.

The budget for tourism, the second largest industry in our state was level funded in this budget. This will not hurt the southern part of the state. It is likely to impact the North Country. Be sure to thank your GOP representatives for voting against the best interests of our area. It’s also worth pointing out that this budget fails to invest in repairing our state parks, something that would also benefit the tourist economy.  

A variety of self-congratulatory legislators are boasting that the substance abuse treatment budget was increased. It was but the Senate added those increases. They were not in the original House budget. The increases came about because even the most rabid ideologues couldn’t pretend that there aren’t significant numbers of young people dying from heroin overdoses.

Another aspect of all of this that goes unmentioned by our budgeteers is the downshifting of costs. Items the state doesn’t adequately fund (like infrastructure) get passed on to the counties and municipalities, which will likely be passed on to you, in the form of an increase in your property taxes.  

As I write this, the Governor has stated her intent to veto the budget unless changes are made. The NH GOP is wailing about the need to compromise. Their definition of “compromise” appears to mean that the House Republicans get to write the budget; the Senate Republicans get to change it, and the Republicans of both bodies compromise with each other in the Committee of Conference. The CoC process included the compromise of closed door meetings with Greg Moore of the Koch funded Americans for Prosperity. After all that internal GOP compromise (with a dash of Koch-promise) the Governor is expected to meekly sign it, displaying her willingness to compromise.

This budget fails to address the needs of our state and blows a big hole in future budgets by cutting business taxes. It guarantees that nothing will ever get fixed properly, because we will have to live within our deliberately decreased means.

Published as an op-ed in the June 26 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Other Side Does It Too

Ethics: A social, religious, or civil code of behavior considered correct, especially that of a particular group, profession, or individual.

Consequence: something that happens as the result of a particular action or set of conditions.

Ethics issues and politics go together. Money and power corrupt. This is nothing new. What’s newer is our growing willingness to accept it, cry that both sides do it, and continue on with our political cynicism.

Famous ethics violators who are Democrats: Rep. Charlie Rangel of NY is a one-man personal finance disaster. Rep. Max Baucus nominated his girlfriend for a job in the Justice Department.   Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich went to prison for a variety of colorful offenses. Ohio Congressman James Traficant (of the large and defiant toupee) went to prison for taking bribes, racketeering, and filing false tax returns. Sen. Robert Menendez of NY has been investigated for taking improper gifts and taking action to benefit donors.

Famous ethics violators who are Republicans: Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois complained that he was too broke to pay child support, while loaning money to his Congressional campaign. Rep. Darrell Issa of California broke federal disclosure laws when he inserted information from a sealed wiretap application into the Congressional Record. Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois resigned in March after we learned that he used taxpayer money to fund lavish trips. He’s the one who redecorated his Congressional office to look like Downton Abbey. Tennessee Rep. Marcia Blackburn has had problems with reporting campaign contributions and expenditures.

Other famous GOP ethics violators include: President Richard Nixon, President Ronald Reagan, and President George W. Bush.
There are seldom consequences for those who flout the law. None of the Republicans on my list spent time in prison. Only two resigned. Schock was in Congress long enough to get a pension. Nixon got his pension too.

On a local level, State Representative Gene Chandler had an ethics problem about 10 years ago, when it was discovered that he wasn’t reporting funds raised at his annual corn roast, when donors like RJ Reynolds were making contributions.  Chandler used this fund to pay for his living expenses, claiming he thought that was allowed. He also claimed he didn’t know he was supposed to report the fund, despite having been instructed to do so a couple of times by Speaker Donna Sytek. Former Carroll County Republican Chairman Maynard Thomson stepped down from his position just as the NH Attorney General’s office sent him a letter informing him that he’d violated the law with his improperly filed campaign expenditure reports. Thomson acknowledged that he’d done a sloppy job of reporting, but blamed the Democrats for reporting him. After all, someone with his (self-touted) superior intellect shouldn’t be expected to perform the same menial tasks that the peasants do. He’s busy! He’s important! Personal responsibility doesn’t apply to Republicans!

Our own NH Congressman Frank Guinta has a BIG ethics problem. The FEC released their report on Frank, wherein they found (in a rare 6-0 unanimous finding) that Frank lied about his magic bank account. The only support Frank has these days comes from the O’Brien wing of the NH GOP, where ethics are…how you say….fluid. Frank’s still digging himself in, claiming it was really his money, despite the fact that his name wasn’t on the account, the checks written by his mother had “LOAN” written on the memo line, and he has been able to produce no paperwork to prove he ever put anything into the account. Despite ongoing calls for his resignation, Frank has steadfastly refused. Given that he has to pay back his parents and pay the FEC fine, he can’t afford to resign. He’s also stated his intent to run again in 2016. Primary candidates are giving Frank a wide berth, not wanting his presence at their events, his endorsement, or anything to do with him.

Former State Rep. Fran Wendelboe came to Frank’s defense last week in the Concord Monitor. Her defense began with, “But Hillary.” She also went off into the land of how Republicans always take the high moral ground. We’ve certainly seen a lot of that recently, what with Josh Duggar and Dennis Hastert. When the best defense any politico has is “the other side does it, too” – you are not taking any kind of high ground. Taking the high ground is cleaning up your own side of the street, and holding your own folks accountable for their unethical and illegal behavior.

Former NH State Representative Maureen Mann recently modeled ethical behavior for us. She had a young man named Carl Gibson volunteering on her campaign during the special election in Rockingham Dist. 32. About a week into his work on her social media sites, he was fired. A month and a half later, he sent out a bogus press release claiming that the Republican candidate had dropped out of the race. When the NHGOP started their predictable cycle of wailing, Maureen joined them in calling for an investigation, saying that attempts to manipulate elections should not be tolerated. That didn’t stop the NHGOP for blaming her for his actions, even though she’d fired him over a month earlier. There is much to be suspicious in this act of deliberate sabotage, but I suspect we’ll never know if Mr. Gibson was paid to perform it or by whom.  

Our investigative bodies are either underfunded or inept. Investigations seldom involve consequences. Frank Guinta stood in front of television cameras last fall and called Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter a liar for saying there was an open FEC investigation into his campaign finances. We now know that it was Frank who was lying. He’s never apologized to our former Congresswoman. As is so often the case - there are no consequences for lying. We don’t seem to expect our politicians to behave ethically any more, and are far too willing to accept the mantra of “the other side does it too,” as some sort of justification.

The acceptance of ethical violations leads to cynicism, which leads to more voters failing to participate in our elections.

Will we have the courage to start cleaning up and expecting better?

The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home. – Confucious

This was published as an op-ed in the June 12, 2015 edition of the Conway Daily Sun newspaper.