Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Can Common Ground Prevail?

By Cristina Page

When it comes to the abortion conflict in the U.S. a fascinating new consensus is emerging: the need for common ground. Americans, it seems, are weary of the acrimonious and seemingly endless fight. People want pro-choice and pro-life advocates to work together to reduce the need for abortion.

According to Faith in Public Life Poll, the vast majority (83 percent) of voters, including white evangelicals (86 percent) and Catholics (81 percent), believe elected leaders should work together to find ways to reduce the need for abortion.

For years, pro-choice groups have pushed measures designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy. They have promoted social programs that support poor pregnant women who are forced to make decisions based on economic need. They have pushed prevention over punishment. And now, after decades of resistance, some in the pro-life movement are stepping forward in support of at least some of these pro-choice goals, even if that means jeopardizing their standing in the established pro-life community.

Interestingly, the time may be ripe for a spirit of cooperation. Barrack Obama, with his promise of a new era of post-partisan politics, may be just the leader to promote this cause. When asked about abortion in one debate, Obama predicted, "We can find some common ground." Indeed, the abortion conflict may emerge as an early test case of Obama's belief that cooperation can prevail.

The key development, the one that may make common ground possible, is the emergence on the pro-life side of willing partners in this venture. Recently, several daring pro-life leaders have publicly announced a shift in their focus. Instead of seeking bans and restrictions on abortion, which have proven to have little effect on abortion rates, a new breed of pro-life activist appears motivated more by results than timeworn arguments.

Take Douglas Kmiec who has an impeccable pro-life, Catholic, and republican credentials. Kmiec served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and was the former dean of the law school at The Catholic University of America. He also started "Pro-Life, Pro-Obama." Kmiec, like the entire new breed, still opposes abortion on moral grounds. He still does not embrace an increase in availability of birth control as area worth common exploration. Still it is impossible to overlook his remarkable, and seemingly decisive, break from his pro-life comrades. Perhaps most striking is this admission from their website: "Legal status of abortion does not necessarily impact abortion rates." Instead, Kmiec's group has turned to prevention and, in particular, social programs that can affect decisions. "Studies show that economic support for women and families reduces abortion," announces one section of the website.

Catholics United is another new pro-life group calling for a common ground approach to the abortion conflict. The group's website lists as one of its top priorities "common ground abortion reduction initiatives," including moving, "beyond the angry rhetoric of the abortion ‘culture war’ and enact policies that achieve actual results by addressing the root causes of abortion: lack of jobs, health care, and other economic supports for women and families."

While what might be called a "common ground movement" has yet to formalize, there is at least one signal of its potency. These new common ground pro-life leaders have won the ire of the traditional anti-abortion hierarchy. Indeed the old-guard pro-life leader views this new approach as a form of treason. In fact, several openly seethe over the calls for cooperation. Doug Johnson, of National Right to Life, called Obama's common ground approach an "abortion reduction scam." Last month, Joseph Schiedler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, told the Washington Post, "It's a sellout, as far as we are concerned. You don't have to have a lot of social programs to cut down on abortions."

It is apparent that many people who are genuinely pro-life want real results, and equally as clear to them is that the current pro-life establishment and the Republican Party have failed to provide those. The facts show that the countries with the lowest abortion rates are those which promote prevention, and support for poor women who want and need help to continue their pregnancies -- traditional pro-choice policies.

We on the pro-choice side are eager to have a willing partner, people who like us, seek progress on what has been until now been an intractable and divisive issue. Let us hope that the "pro-life" establishment doesn't stand in the way of this nascent common ground movement.
Page is the author of "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex" and spokesperson for
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 12/08

Monday, December 22, 2008

A New Day for Medicaid Reform


By Timothy D. McBride

The increase in the uninsured to 729,000 in Missouri and 45.6 million nationwide can be traced in part to a sluggish economy. When people lose jobs they lose access to employer sponsored health insurance, and in Missouri almost 17,000 jobs have been lost in the last 12 months.

Spiraling health insurance costs have also made insurance unaffordable and led employers and employees to drop health insurance. Premiums have doubled in the last eight years, well above the 20 percent increase in inflation. This has led to an unprecedented drop in the percentage of firms offering health insurance from 69 percent to 60 percent nationwide.

Rising health insurance premiums are also cutting into the take home pay of workers. While health insurance premiums were doubling since 2000, wages increased only 24 percent. Thus, when employers set aside money for wages and benefits -- they had little left over for wage increases.

The biggest blow though came in 2005 when the legislature and Gov. Matt Blunt led an effort to reduce the Medicaid rolls by more than 10 percent. This cut eligibility for more than 100,000 persons and reducing services for another 300,000. This effort, advertised as an effort to balance the budget, was short-sighted.

Governor-elect Nixon campaigned to restore the Medicaid cuts if elected. To do so, the state would spend roughly $265 million in state dollars. However, this expenditure would bring in roughly $430 million in federal matching dollars. Once the total Medicaid spending is cycled through the economy, economic models show that it would lead to a total annual increase of about $890 million in economic activity, an increase of over 11,500 jobs, and an increase of over $400 million in wages.

This projected increase in economic activity demonstrates how closely linked the health care and economic issues are. Since the 2005 policy changes were enacted, the state has turned away over $1.6 billion in federal matching dollars. These are funds that could have gone to health providers, who in some cases have been used for treating the uninsured.

Evidence shows that spending on uncompensated care (health care delivered to individuals but not leading to payment) for hospitals alone in Missouri increased by 38 percent and at least $162 million in the first two years after the Medicaid cutbacks. This is an underestimate of the total economic burden of the Medicaid cutbacks because it is a measure of only the increase in uncompensated care to the hospitals, and does not fully measure lost revenues to clinics, physicians and other safety net providers. All of these providers likely have not only seen their incomes drop, but have had to lay off workers, contributing to unemployment in Missouri.

Our health care system is not likely to improve without intervention and a public-private effort to resolve this problem. Employers and health providers are now sufficiently concerned about these issues, and our inability to sustain these trends, that they are willing to consider working with state and federal policymakers to put together packages of reforms that can address the long run affordability and access problems we face.

We know what needs to be done. There is a list of viable private-public approaches that should be acceptable across the political spectrum, including: expansions of the children’s health insurance program and Medicaid, chronic care improvement programs, consumer choice and high deductible plans, and insurance reforms to reduce premiums.

With a new administration here in Missouri and in Washington, we have the way, and we will now need to find the political will. We all must understand that we have a common stake in the solution and realize how our economic woes are tied to our health care problems. The voters, in their infinite wisdom seemed to understand as much on Election Day.
McBride is a health economist and a Professor in the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 12/08


By Damon Circosta

As the election fades and the holiday season is upon us, our collective attention shifts away from campaigns and towards more festive matters. But before we put a bow around this past campaign season, let us take a look back at some of the issues surrounding money and politics in 2008.

I don’t know if Santa takes into account campaign finance reports when he makes his list of who has been naughty and who has been nice, but maybe he should. If he did, he might not be climbing down as many chimneys. Sure, the folks who got elected have the opportunity to bring good tidings of great joy when they take office, but the process by which money enters the political system is still more pernicious than stale fruitcake.

Political fundraising broke records this year. Some of this can be attributed to the influx of small donors and the rise of Internet-driven fundraising appeals. And while small donations from everyday citizens is generally a good sign of a healthy democracy, the specter of elected offices being bought and paid for by large contributors still blankets our democracy not unlike a winter blizzard.

Why does this matter? Historically, it is the large donors who are successful at lobbying government officials for special favors. Money buys access and wealthy donors are not giving money to campaigns in the holiday spirit of generosity.

Small donors, on the other hand, are less likely to lobby for a narrow policy interest. The CFI report also acknowledges that large donors are more likely than small donors to give campaign contributions in the interest of advancing their own narrow concerns, as distinct from a more general concern.

The strings that come attached to big campaign contributions isn’t just a Washington, D.C. problem. Right here in North Carolina, those who wish to curry favor with officeholders often contribute the lion’s share to political campaigns.

Take for instance the races for Council of State, the statewide executive offices charged with regulating particular industries. There are plenty of able and capable candidates who run, but they often face the same predicament that the residents of Whoville encountered in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Much like the Whos who were constantly worried about the Grinch parting with their gifts, Council of State candidates find it almost impossible to run without the political gifts that come from regulated industries. It makes for a rotten system and one that needs changing.

This last year a select number of Council of State races were run under a public financing program. The program permitted candidates to run without having to constantly worry if the Grinches in the industries they regulate would take away their campaign funding. It’s a good idea and one that should be expanded to all Council of State races. This change wouldn’t suddenly make all of the challenges our government faces magically disappear, but it will make our elections more about the people and less about the big donors.

The campaign season is over and with it discussion about campaign reform tends to take a backseat. But this holiday season let us not just pack up reform ideas like old holiday decorations. As we move to the New Year, let’s continue to think about ways of improving our elections. Reform, like the best of holiday offerings, is the gift that keeps on giving.
Circosta is the director of policy with the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 12/08


By Mary Ellen Bradshaw and George Pauk

It’s time for the big insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment and supply companies, for-profit hospitals and for-profit providers’ groups to stop obstructing real health reform.

There are 140 Arizona members of Physicians for a National Health Plan and many thousands more nationwide. We submit there is only one way to effectively address our country’s crisis in health care: the enactment of single-payer national health insurance, an expanded and improved Medicare for all.

The electorate of Arizona has spoken by defeating Proposition 101: people want real change. They want comprehensive, high-quality, and affordable care. They want to go to the doctor or hospital of their choice.

Single payer is the “cure” that will achieve these goals. Anything short of single payer will not.

Private insurance companies make their profits by enrolling the healthy, screening out the sick, and denying claims. These policies are literally bankrupting and killing us.

We simply can’t afford to pay 31 cents of every health care dollar for wasteful insurance company administrative costs – their paperwork, utilization reviews, executive salaries and payouts to shareholders. We simply can’t afford the inefficiencies of a system that blocks our ability to negotiate drug prices.

Replacing the private insurers with a not-for-profit, publicly financed system patterned after Medicare would save about $350 billion in administrative costs, more than enough to cover all the uninsured and to eliminate all co-pays and deductibles for everyone else.

It’s the only morally, medically and fiscally responsible thing to do.

Recently the people of Arizona were right in their wisdom to reject an amendment to our State Constitution that would have stopped major reform of our health care system, particularly the single-payer approach. They defeated Proposition 101 in spite of the huge amount of money behind it (much of it from out-of-state) and the deceptive language about “choice” that its backers used.

Where do we go from here? The solution exists in the form of a federal proposal that would guarantee everyone all of the medically necessary care they need, including dental care, drugs and long-term care, and would require no co-pays or deductibles.

It would be financed by a system of progressive taxation, much like everyone currently pays into Medicare, and the overwhelming majority of people would end up spending much less than they currently do for insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program, noted on the day after President-elect Barack Obama’s election win: "In large measure Sen. Obama's victory and the victories of his allies in the House and Senate were propelled by mounting public worries about health care. Yet the prescription offered during the campaign by the president-elect and most Democratic policy makers -- a hybrid of private health insurance plans and government subsidies -- will not resolve the problems of our dangerously dysfunctional system.”

Young pointed out that such hybrids have repeatedly failed in state-based experiments over the past 20 years in Oregon, Minnesota, Washington and several other states, including Massachusetts, whose second go-round at incremental reform is already faltering.

Like Dr. Young, we believe the only effective cure for our health care woes is to establish a single, publicly financed system, one that removes the inefficient, wasteful, for-profit private health insurance industry from the picture.

An April 2008 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that showed 59 percent of U.S. physicians support national health insurance. Opinion polls show two-thirds of the public also supports such a remedy.

President-elect Obama and the new Congress have a mandate and the opportunity to improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans. Their first order of business should be to enact a single-payer national health insurance plan.
Dr. Bradshaw and Dr. Pauk are both members of Physicians for a National Health Program ( and co-chairs of the Arizona Coalition for State and National Health Plans.
Copyright © 2008 by the Arizona Editorial Forum. 12/08

Friday, December 19, 2008

Accessible Housing Still A Dream For Many


By Aviva Rothman-Shore and Sean Caron

Since the election of Barack Obama, there have been frequent discussions about the implications of this historic election on the state of inequality in the nation. Many have said that the landslide election of an African-American raised in a humble setting by a single parent demonstrates that while racism and socio-economic inequality are stains on America’s history, they are no longer a significant part of our societal fabric.

However, this pivotal moment should not cloud the truth about social and racial inequality in the Commonwealth today. Greater Boston remains one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation. The bulk of the Commonwealth’s people of color, regardless of their incomes, reside in urban centers.

In fact, the Commonwealth’s seven largest cities (Boston, Springfield, Worcester, Lowell, Brockton, New Bedford, and Fall River) have only 20 percent of the total population, but are home to 41 percent of the Commonwealth’s people of color and 40 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line.

Multi-family housing that is accessible to low- and moderate-income households is nearly impossible to build under local land use regulations in a majority of the Commonwealth’s municipalities. In many areas the lack of affordable housing could be improved with a change in zoning that would increase the number of multi-family dwellings.

For those that continue to suffer from the significant affordability barrier, income is partially to blame, but it doesn’t completely explain the disparity. That is why Fair Housing Laws are also an important part of the solution. Governor Patrick has made enforcing fair housing laws a priority. His efforts to secure housing opportunities for low income families, people of color, and people with disabilities by properly enforcing the Fair Housing Act should be applauded.

A 2004 Harvard Civil Rights Project study found mere financial affordability fails to explain the segregation that currently exists. The study compared the actual number of owners/buyers in each municipality by race and found that in 80 percent of cities and towns, the number of black and Latino buyers is less than half what researchers anticipated if affordability was the sole barrier. African-American and Latinos face greater affordability constraints on average, but affordability alone does a poor job in explaining segregation.

Residents of both cities and suburbs must have housing choice for our Commonwealth to truly overcome inequalities of the past. We must also allow residents of all cities and towns the opportunity to choose from a variety of communities through expanded housing options for people of color and for a multitude of incomes.

However, there is a significant amount of state and local work left to be done to break down practices that perpetrate racial and social inequality.

The governor and the legislature should reform exclusionary land use laws that lead to unattainable housing for people of color and people of modest means in the coming legislative session. Municipal officials can also help solve this problem by welcoming families with children to their communities and supporting additional local initiatives to promote multi-family housing.

It will take a focused effort at the federal, state, and local level to bring about the equality that President-Elect Obama has called for so convincingly. Even a president that changed history can’t do it alone.
Caron is director of public policy at Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. Rothman-Shore is director of outreach and policy at the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

Copyright © 2008 by the Massachusetts Forum.

By Kemba Smith

The nomination of Eric Holder as the next U.S. attorney general has renewed concerns about the end-of-term clemencies granted by President Clinton.

High-profile names such as Marc Rich grabbed headlines at the time, but many other people with no political influence benefited from the president's mercy.

I am one of those people. If I had not received a commutation, my first-time conviction for a non-violent offense would have kept me in prison until 2016 (with good behavior) because of the harsh mandatory sentencing laws for crack cocaine. My 1994 prison sentence grew out of my boyfriend's trafficking in crack. After he was murdered, the government charged me with conspiracy to distribute the crack that his drug ring distributed. During my court hearings, prosecutors acknowledged that I never sold, handled or used any of the drugs involved in the conspiracy.

Today, I could be in federal prison still serving my 24-year sentence. Instead, I've been raising my now 13-year-old son, graduated from college in 2002 and completed a year of law school. I own a home and speak to youth about the importance of their choices and the consequences that can affect their lives forever. My own experience led me to create a non-profit foundation that focuses on providing children of incarcerated parents with a mentor, and collaborates with other organizations on justice-reform initiatives.

My story of redemption does not need to be an anomaly. Thousands of petitions for executive clemency are pending before President Bush with a month left in his term. The majority of those are unknown to him or the public. Many are people of color caught up in the war on drugs and serving long mandatory minimum sentences, often for low-level offenses. The president should expedite such applications and grant them clemency.

The guidelines for the Office of the Pardon Attorney state that the excessive nature of a sentence and associated sentencing disparity are appropriate considerations when granting a petition for commutation. The federal sentencing policy for crack cocaine offenses is a case in point.

The mandatory five-year sentence for a defendant convicted with 5 grams of crack cocaine -- the weight of two sugar packets -- is the same as that for a defendant convicted with 100 times that amount of powder cocaine, even though these are two forms of the same drug. Defendants convicted with 50 grams of crack cocaine, about the weight of a candy bar, receive a minimum sentence of 10 years. A powder cocaine seller must have at least 5 kilograms to receive the same sentence.

For decades criminal justice experts, civil rights leaders and lawmakers have called these sentences unjust. More than 80 percent of people convicted of crack cocaine offenses are black, even though two-thirds of crack cocaine users are white or Hispanic.

Indeed, President Bush raised concerns about the issue before taking office, saying the crack-powder disparity "ought to be addressed by making sure the powder-cocaine and the crack-cocaine penalties are the same."

I agree, but despite significant changes made to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine in the past year, the harsh mandatory sentences remain. The president still has time to make good on his promise. His clemency power should be used with thoughtful deliberation. Even so, it should be utilized because clemency is sometimes the only possible response to unfair and excessive penalties.
Smith is founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 12/08

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Prescription for a Healthier Economy

By Steven Edelstein

As policymakers debate how to stabilize the sagging economy, it’s time to think about how to help more than 3 million low-wage workers who hold the answer in their busy and burdened hands.

The recession is hitting hardest in low-income communities, and, if we’re serious about stimulating the economy, we need to make sure that recovery efforts reach the people and places that need it the most. In today’s aging society and service economy, at least one in 10 low-wage-earners is a direct care worker.

These hard-working, hard-pressed Americans provide healthcare and assistance services to older adults and people with disabilities in private homes, nursing homes, and day programs that provide non-residential, non-medical services. Their jobs -- home health aide, personal and home care aide and nursing aide, orderly and attendant -- include two of the three fastest-growing occupations in the nation.

Already, these jobs pump $56 billion into the economy, especially in low-income communities where stable employment and consumer spending are in short supply even in good times and are severely imperiled during a downturn. In addition, the availability of direct care for aging and ailing Americans is essential for an estimated 15.9 million workers who balance full-time employment with caregiving for a family member over age 18. American companies lose $33.6 billion a year because of the lost productivity of workers who are also caring for family members. Without a stable, well-prepared workforce of direct care providers, millions of workers would be unable to balance the demands of their jobs and their loved ones -- and businesses would lose billions more in lost productivity.

So, as economic policymakers seek solutions for the recession, why not take action to solve social and economic problems together: Let’s invest in recruiting, training, employing, retaining, and raising the wages for direct-care workers. The idea is doable, workable, and will reap returns for years to come.

At a time when policymakers are seeking to prime the economic pump, the federal government already has a pipeline to the direct-care workforce. More than 70 cents of every dollar for eldercare/disability services comes from federal funds, mostly Medicare and Medicaid.

Moreover, these workers need raises and will pump the money back into the economy. Because of their low wages and meager benefits, 40 percent of direct-care workers live in households that rely on one or more public benefits, such as Food Stamps and Medicaid. Devoting federal funds to increase their pay to $12-an-hour will reward their hard work and recharge the economy. With well-deserved and long-overdue pay increases, these workers will spend the money on the necessities of life for themselves and their children while stimulating economic activity in their needy neighborhoods and throughout the nation.

With higher wages and opportunities for education and training, direct care workers will stay longer and do better at their jobs. Currently, there is a 40 to 60 percent turnover rate among home care workers and at least 75 percent turnover among nursing home workers. With more experienced workers, the quality of service will improve, and working Americans with family responsibilities will have more confidence that their loved ones are being well-cared for, further boosting productivity and the economy.

Unlike some other anti-recession proposals, investing in direct-care workers is a long-term investment in stimulating the economy and strengthening the social fabric. In an aging society, more Americans will need direct-care. As a result, these jobs are expected to increase by 1 million from 2006 to 2016.

By making these occupations stable and rewarding jobs with promising futures, the nation will reap rewards in improved healthcare, enhanced productivity, increased incomes, and expanded opportunities in communities where the recession started earliest and will last longest. At a time when many economic remedies are little more than placebos, investing in direct-care workers is a prescription for a healthier economy -- and a healthier society.
Edelstein is the national policy director of PHI, a national nonprofit that works to improve the quality of eldercare/disability services by supporting quality jobs for the nursing assistants, home health aides, and personal care workers who provide that care.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 12/08


By Phil Schoggen

It’s about time we introduce some commonsense into the discussion about how to stimulate the economy. Whether we’re talking about the state or national economy, the worn-out mantra seems to be the same -- to stimulate the economy, we need to cut taxes. But such short-sighted action is likely to do more harm than good to both the economy and the common good.

The argument that taxes are simply bad for the economy is based on the false assumption that, somehow, after these taxes are collected, the money just magically vaporizes into thin air. But it’s not that simple, because there’s another side of the coin that gets ignored in this anti-tax narrative.

The money that is collected through our tax system gets invested in things like healthy kids and seniors, new schools, retaining good teachers, stocking libraries, improving roads, expanding mass transit, building parks, and paying our hard-working police officers just to name a few. These are things that we as a community have decided are important investments for us to make in order to strengthen the common good and the communities we live in.

At the same time these public investments help to stimulate the economy. That’s right. When we build a school, there are construction jobs created and building materials purchased, which helps to stimulate the economy. When the teachers and support staff are hired to work in that school, jobs are created in the community, and these jobholders do what? They buy things that further stimulate the economy.

Now here’s the real payoff. In the end, we get more than a short-term economic shot in the arm. We get the added benefit of a generation of young people who are better able to face the rigorous demands of the 21st century economy. That stimulates the economy over the long-term.

That’s very different than just trying to stimulate the economy with tax cuts. In many cases, money from tax cuts ends up going to overseas factories to supply our consumer demands, whether that’s clothing from Pakistan or plastic toys from China. That may help stimulate the economy, just not ours.

It’s not just schools either. Strengthening the health care safety net creates jobs while also reducing expensive emergency room costs. When we invest in mass transit, someone has to drive the bus. When police and fire departments are paid a competitive salary, the economy is stronger. The rising concern over global warming and energy independence offers new opportunities to advance the common good and make our nation stronger, while creating jobs and stimulating the economy, all at the same time.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle are beginning to recognize this. President-elect Obama is proposing a nationwide initiative to put people back to work with major investments in infrastructure for an energy independent and greener economy.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, Mayor Bloomberg, and Gov. Rendell (a Republican, an Independent, and a Democrat) are leading a coalition calling for billions to be invested in rebuilding our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure network, from bridges to mass transit, as a way to stimulate the economy. In fact, according to Building America’s Future, for every $1 billion invested in public infrastructure, 47,500 jobs are created. Gov. Easley of neighboring North Carolina is joining the call by fast tracking $700 million in public investments to help jump start the economy.

Here in Tennessee though, we’re talking instead about cutting public investments by hundreds of millions, and possibly $1 billion. Such an action will cause severe job losses and worsen an already bad economic situation. Meanwhile, Tennessee will slip even further behind in education, health care, and environmental protection.

Ironically, as we slash these vital public investments here at home, we’re allowing corporate tax loopholes to be used to send profits out of Tennessee and into Delaware and Nevada…and ultimately to Wall Street. Tennessee doesn’t need to do provide an “economic stimulus” package for Wall Street bankers by allowing these loopholes to stay on the books. They already got theirs. Tennessee’s priority should be to stimulate the economy right here at home.

Let’s stop, or at least reduce, the budget cuts being proposed in Nashville, by closing senseless tax loopholes. We need a stimulus package for Tennessee, not Wall Street.


Schoggen is a Tennesseans for Fair Taxation board member.


Copyright (C) 2008 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 12/08


By Dave Wells

Facing an enormous revenue shortfall, the current secretary of state and soon to be governor, Jan Brewer, has expressed her potential openness to raising taxes. Meanwhile the outgoing Speaker of the House Jim Weiers is convening a blue-ribbon committee to study the Arizona tax code. These represent steps in the right direction.

When Gov. Janet Napolitano took office in 2003, she faced a $1 billion deficit. Relative to the economy, state general fund spending fell 20 percent below its norm for the past three decades. In response, she formed a Citizens Finance Review Commission, but refused to risk her political future by calling for significant revenue reform that would run into Republican opposition.

This year's state budget situation is far worse; $1.2 billion this fiscal year and double that next year. While both parties share blame, revenue reform must become part of the solution.

Democrats ramped up state expenditures as the economy grew with the housing bubble, but they failed to put aside sufficient amounts in the rainy day fund. Meanwhile, Republicans demanded a 10 percent permanent cut in income taxes from a temporary revenue surplus.

In November, Democrats lost seats in the legislature; moderate Republican allies were defeated in the September Republican primary, and Republican Brewer will be governor when Janet Napolitano is confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security.

Despite Brewer's potential openness to raising revenues, the Republican legislature will likely propose massively reducing the budget while demanding that the temporary reduction in the state equalization property tax be permanent, even though it makes a horrible fiscal situation worse.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) doesn't forecast state budget revenues approaching fiscal year 2007 levels again until at least 2013.

Moderate Republicans and state Democrats need to boldly step forward with a clear alternative to dramatic cuts that would undermine everything they stand for.

Though K-12 funding is fairly protected, some schools have already cut nurses, librarians, and arts programs. The JLBC has potential new cuts of up to $1,000 per student.
Universities could lose one fifth of their state funding, causing financial aid cuts, forcing programs to shut down, creating larger classes while curtailing enrollment. This will further pressure the Board of Regents to pass another huge tuition increase.

Those in greatest economic distress will likely face greater hurdles in accessing fewer benefits or completely losing safety nets like children's health insurance, childcare, health care for working disabled people, and long-term care for elders.

What's the alternative? Raise revenues to limit painful cuts.

First, the 19 cent state gas tax hasn't changed since 1990. With gas prices plummeting below $2 a gallon, now is an ideal time to increase the tax by a dime per gallon with an annual inflation adjustment so it remains a more stable revenue source. This would bring in an additional $300 million annually.

Second, we have $1.6 billion less in revenues this year because since 1994 the Republican led legislature has cut individual income tax rates by one-third. An astonishing 37 percent of that lost revenue goes to the richest 1 percent of Arizonans. Democrats should propose increasing individual income tax revenues by $400 million for the richest quarter of households and earmarking half that increase for the rainy day fund in years where revenue growth exceeds population growth plus inflation.

If Republicans refuse such fiscal pragmatism, it will stake out a contrasting position for voters to consider in 2010.
Not everything needs to be partisan, as unemployment rates hasten toward 7 percent, Republicans and Democrats should find common ground. Despite an unemployment insurance trust fund with a healthy billion dollar surplus, Arizona's average unemployment benefits are the fourth lowest in the nation and $300 a month less than our neighboring Mountain West states’ benefits. For struggling families that's a huge difference, and deserves attention immediately.
Wells holds a doctorate in Political Economy and Public Policy and teaches at Arizona State University.
Copyright © 2008 by the Arizona Editorial Forum. The Forum is an educational organization that provides the media with the views of state experts on major public issues. 12/08

This article can also be found on Rep. Daniel Patterson’s blog, Patterson is an Arizona state Representative (D-Tucson) and writes about politics in his home state.


By Harriet O’Neill

The holiday season is here. It’s a time for giving and also a good time to pause and reflect on the many blessings for which we are thankful.

As a parent, my children top the list. Every day I am grateful for the joy, and the challenges, they bring. Their safety and well-being are my first and last thoughts of the day. I am counting the hours until they return home for the holidays, eager to hear their voices, listen to their stories, and share their dreams. All across the nation, families are making preparations to connect with loved ones.

Think for a moment of what it would be like to have no one expecting you home; No one looking out the window awaiting your arrival; No one to lament if distance or circumstance prevent you from being there; No one to give thanks that you are part of their life.

Thousands of Texas children know that feeling all too well.

On any given day in Texas, there are more than 17,000 children in foster care. Many of these children have been abused or neglected and removed from their homes, perhaps forever, through no fault of their own. These children have either lost, or never experienced, the sense of permanence and belonging that comes with being part of a family.

Children like Benjamin (not his real name), who at 5 years old was placed in foster care because his mother was a drug addict who supported her habit with prostitution. For 12 years Ben moved from foster home to foster home, from treatment center to treatment center, clinging to the belief that any day his mother would reappear and make everything right. She never did, and Ben never experienced the love or security of a real family. Two days before his 18th birthday, Ben was arrested for stealing. He turned 18 in jail. When Ben walked out as an adult, he had aged out of the foster care system and disappeared into the homeless population. No one noticed. No one was waiting for him to come home.

More than 6,000 children in Texas are waiting for a family to adopt them, to love them, and to cherish them forever. These kids long every day for a family, for a place to belong, and the holidays are particularly painful.

You can make a difference. During this holiday season, consider whether you could be that person who waits at the window for a child without a home. If you can, you will give the gift of a lifetime. If you can’t, there are so many other ways to help. It is said that you don’t have to raise a child to raise them up -- you just have to raise your hand. Every minute you devote to helping a child in foster care has an impact.
O’Neill is a Supreme Court of Texas Justice and chair of the Commission on Children, Youth, and Families. Visit to explore adoption opportunities and the many ways that you can volunteer your time.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 12/08

Monday, December 1, 2008

We Must Maintain Immunization Laws


By Dr. Joe Donaldson

Just 100 years ago when childhood diseases like measles, mumps, and whopping cough were more prevalent, too many children lost their sight, their hearing, their mental aptitude, or worse, their life.

That is why Mississippi, just like every other state, requires that before children enter school they receive vaccinations to prevent what used to be common but serious childhood diseases.

Unfortunately, some parents in Mississippi are pushing to broaden exemptions from vaccination requirements from the current medical necessity exemption in the state law. Many of these parents simply do not believe in the efficacy of vaccinations. Some believe strongly that vaccinations contribute to childhood developmental problems, including autism, despite all science and evidence to the contrary.

Allowing parents to opt out of vaccination requirements for their children has two direct consequences.

First, it leaves the unvaccinated child susceptible to childhood diseases such as measles that can kill or handicap a child for life. A child who is exempted from childhood vaccinations is 35 times more likely to get measles and 22 times more likely to get whooping cough as a vaccinated child.

Second, allowing a significant number of children to go unvaccinated reduces what is called “herd immunity,” and increases the chance that an epidemic of the disease will break out in the general population. Since no vaccine is 100 percent effective, disease prevention requires that most if not all people have immunity due to vaccinations so that the disease does not have the opportunity to find someone to infect. Even children and adults who were fully vaccinated have a small chance of contracting the disease if herd immunity is compromised. So parents who made sure that their child received all necessary vaccinations could see that child sicken and perhaps suffer long term disabilities because another parent chose not to vaccinate their child.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that measles outbreaks have increased in the U.S. to 131 cases in the first eight months of 2008. Over 90 percent of the children who got measles were not vaccinated, and two-thirds of those cases were children who were not vaccinated because of philosophical or religious beliefs. Louisiana has seen a resurgence of whooping cough in 2008, with 45 cases reported in the first nine months of this year. In its worst form, whopping cough kills by making it impossible to breathe.

In 2003, the Arkansas State Legislature passed a law that allowed philosophical exemptions to childhood immunizations. Since that time, exemptions to vaccinations have increased by 369 percent, and state health officials are seeing outbreaks of virulent diseases in pockets around the state.

These outbreaks can be prevented in Mississippi. That is why the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics is joining with the Department of Health and other statewide medical associations to promote the benefits of childhood immunizations.

All parents should know that vaccines are effective, vaccines are safe, and state immunization requirements for school attendance are necessary to protect children from the terrible consequences of once common childhood diseases. Vaccines are constantly studied and tested to make sure they are safe. All doctors must report any possible serious reactions to vaccinations to the CDC.

We must maintain our state’s current vaccine medical exemption and oppose any efforts to weaken Mississippi’s childhood immunization laws -- for the sake of each Mississippi child and for the health of the entire state.
Donaldson is president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Mississippi Forum. 12/08