Thursday, February 25, 2010

Making the Case for Urban Agriculture

By K. Rashid Nuri

In his State of the Union address, President Obama enumerated ongoing problems requiring his attention: health care, the economy, job creation, environmental issues and lack of renewable fuels. In doing so, he suggested that increasing agricultural exports would help solve some of these problems.

While export agriculture might indeed help some corporations, it is unlikely to resolve issues directly affecting the public. One thing that would, however, is urban agriculture. While not a panacea, urban agriculture can allay many of the concerns mentioned by the president, and it can do so in several critical ways.

Our country is now undeniably urban. According to recent demographics, 81 percent of us now live in cities or suburbs. And with so few of us living on farms or in rural areas, our familiarity with the production and source of our food is limited. As an urban organic farmer, I find it amazing that so many chefs, produce managers, restaurateurs and Americans in general remain blithely unaware of the sources of their food. Many have no idea what food looks like coming out of the soil, let alone have an awareness of seasonal fluctuations in fruit and vegetable production.

Implications of this lack of knowledge and involvement in our own food production are immense, affecting all aspects of our life.

Since the dust bowl era of the 1930s and the end of World War II, there has been an effort by government and corporate America to industrialize American agriculture. There has been an emphasis on efficiency and quantity rather than on growing quality food and protecting natural resources. Agriculture is estimated to represent approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of the U.S. annual energy budget, and as much as 40 percent of that energy goes towards production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical-based growth stimulants produce large quantities of food at the expense of the minerals, vitamins and trace elements that create flavor and nutrition. Evidence of the poor quality of our food can be seen in rising rates of obesity, vitamin deficiencies and food-borne illnesses.

Sadly, the major victim of industrial agriculture is the American public. We are subjected to more chemicals in food, more additives in food products and massive advertising campaigns for these products, and until recently were offered few healthy alternatives.

We Americans are in the early stages of reclaiming our food sovereignty. This is evidenced by the fast-growing organic sector in agriculture, the advent of urban agriculture initiatives and the increased numbers of farmers markets found in urban areas everywhere.

All across the nation, urban farmers are growing crops on vacant lots, in abandoned fields, in greenhouses, on balconies, by schools, in prison yards, in nursing homes and in countless other creative and engaging places. These urban growing fields can be privately owned, formed as cooperatives, as neighborhood organizations, in collaboration with universities or as partners with city and county governments. Options are endless. Urban America is beginning to wake up and feed itself.

Urban agriculture can play a critical role in reversing many negative aspects of industrial agriculture. Urban farming enhances the health of metropolitan residents, creates “green” jobs, produces affordable locally grown organic fruits and vegetables; teaches people to grow their own foods; reconnects people to their food and the land; and strengthens the environment through reduced fossil fuel dependence and carbon sequestration.

The source of our food is an abstract concept for most of us (Some urban children actually think chocolate milk comes from brown cows.). But this is changing. More and more people are exploring the supply chain that connects the production of their food to its final consumption. People are returning to the earth as they learn that urban gardens provide benefits beyond good food. This includes economic savings, environmental improvement, lifestyle enhancement, increased exercise and family and community bonding.

President Obama mentioned increasing agricultural exports, but also said that First Lady Michelle Obama would continue her work on problems associated with child obesity. Ironically, the industrial agriculture the president supports is directly connected to child obesity. Industrial agriculture and the lack of personal involvement in food production are leading factors causing our people to become obese and less healthy.

The time has come for we Americans to reclaim our agricultural heritage. Participating in urban agriculture would be a major step in that direction.
Nuri is director of the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the American Forum. 2/10

By K.A. Owens

It would be easy to throw up our hands in frustration at the failure of the Kentucky legislature to settle our tax and budget issues. Easy, but wrong.

Change is so desperately needed around tax and budget issues that it is completely rational for us to put forth a mighty effort to create a revenue stream to make our state function properly. The benefits from all of us working together to make the needed changes are so great that we can’t take the easy route of giving in to frustration. We must keep the pressure on for positive change in Kentucky.

Here’s one reason why. Kentucky bridges are supposed to be inspected every two years. It should go without saying, but bridge inspections are necessary to prevent the kind of travesty that happened in Minnesota in 2007. A recent state auditor’s report, though, said of 40 bridge inspection reports, 19 bridges went longer than two years without the required inspection. Why? Because the Transportation Cabinet hasn’t been able to hire the staff it needs because of budget cuts.

Uninspected bridges are just one way that our elected leaders are failing us. Our schools have had the same textbooks for four years, and our class sizes continue to swell. Public mental health services haven’t had a funding increase in 14 years. Imagine trying to run a business with the same income you had in 1996. It doesn’t work. For the first time in its history, Bridgehaven Mental Health Services is forced to turn away patients who don’t have the ability to pay for treatment. And we wonder what to do about our growing population of homeless people -- making sure that our mentally ill have access to treatment would be a good place to start. And like the bridges, about 20 percent of the surface mines that were due for inspection last year were not inspected, again, because legislators decided not to fund this public safety program.

We now face a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall that promises to make matters even worse. Legislators made the conscious choice to get us into this mess. They were told in 2001—in a report that they commissioned for themselves—that Kentucky had a gaping structural deficit. They were told that at the end of the decade, they’d have a $1 billion shortfall. Throw the global recession into the mix, and the forecast was startlingly accurate.

We do have options to avoid disaster. Kentucky is considering a set of tax reforms that can move us forward by modernizing our tax structure to make it fairer so we can raise the public dollars that we need. Economists’ confidence in moderate tax increases on those currently not paying their share to stave off program cuts has been well documented. Middle class families would pay about the same taxes, but they’d start to see the results of more adequately funded state government such as reasonable tuition, class sizes that don’t swell every year, after-school programs that help little ones overcome their challenges and a local Meals on Wheels program with no waiting list.

Now is not the time to throw up our hands. Now is the time to keep the pressure on for positive change in Kentucky. It’s not always easy to reduce a vision for a better Kentucky to specific pieces of legislation, but we are now starting to see a set of solutions that takes steps in that direction—steps that might allow Kentuckians to realize, once again, the value of state government.
Owens is chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/10

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mississippi Needs Tougher ATV Safety Laws

By Dr. Shannon Smith

Mississippi’s pediatricians have long been sounding the alarm about the dangers associated with children riding ATVs.

There were 205 deaths in Mississippi from 1999 to 2008 as a result of ATV crashes, and 43 percent of those deaths were children and youths under age 22. Pediatricians, especially trauma specialists at UMMC Batson Children’s Hospital, see too many young lives cut short or forever handicapped by ATV crashes.

The state is currently considering proposals that would make helmet use mandatory for children under age 16, and would require a driver’s license or completion of a 4-H or similar ATV safety course to ride an ATV. It’s a simple first step, but more must be done.

To further reduce ATV injuries and deaths, the state should also consider a mandatory helmet law for all riders and increased public education on ATV safety. Mississippi also should ban ATV use on public roads and prohibit additional passengers on ATVs not designed for multiple passengers.

Protecting children should remain a top priority, which is why we also should look for ways to keep children off ATVs that are too big, too fast and too powerful.

ATV safety proposals have the support of many medical, safety and youth groups such as the state’s Trauma System, Child Death Review Panel, the state Brain Injury Association, the Department of Health and 4-H.

During a legislative hearing on ATV safety this fall, Dr. John Porter of the UMMC Trauma Center said UMMC sees two or three ATV crash victims every week. For every patient who dies, Porter said, three or four are injured critically and about 25 percent have debilitating head injuries. Many ATV crash victims die at the scene.

Of 64 ATV crash victims seen at the UMC Trauma Center in the first nine months of 2009, all were under age 16. There have been 380 ATV crash victims seen at UMC since January 2004, and only 9 percent were wearing helmets.

At the same hearing, Batson Hospital Pediatric Intensivist Dr. Rick Boyte reported that children are five times more likely than adults to be seriously injured in ATV crashes. A child under age 16 is twice as likely to be injured in an ATV crash as an adult. Boyte told legislators that 85 percent of the time, injured children have been riding adult-sized ATVs.

Department of Health data from 1999 to 2008 show that the number of ATV deaths is steadily increasing. Four of five victims were male, 79 percent white, and four of five were not wearing a helmet. Fifty-eight deaths were children, including an 8-year-old boy whose ATV rolled over and crushed him. Mississippi death rates from ATV crashes for children under 16 are increasing at twice the rate of all ATV deaths. To those who wonder whether bicycles are more dangerous than ATVs, the DOH reports about 10 deaths from bike accidents each year compared to 20 or more caused by ATV crashes.

ATVs are not toys and should not be treated as such. The time is now for Mississippi to toughen up its ATV safety laws for the protection of all riders.
Smith is a practicing pediatric rehabilitation physician and a member of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Mississippi Forum 2/10

By Paul Bellamy, J.D., Ph.D.

An effective response to the foreclosure disaster continues to elude the mortgage industry and public officials alike. Realistically, no one believes that all troubled homeowners can, or should, be saved from foreclosure. Lenders made far too many reckless loans and too many borrowers are in situations that are, sadly, beyond help.

But we can do much better at coping with this mess by rethinking the problem’s origin and striving to achieve more realistic results in responding to it. Reaching even scaled back goals would leapfrog over the public/private train wreck that currently passes for a solution to the foreclosure epidemic.

For years this problem gathered steam, while the servicing industry sat on its hands pretending that the system in place from 10 years ago would serve to meet the burgeoning crisis. Predictably, it hasn’t even come close.

The industry’s stubborn resistance to scaling up continues to produce embarrassing results. Bitter and frustrated homeowners know this system does not work after spending long hours on the phone with a succession of ill-informed “specialists” located hundreds and thousands of miles away. Specialists who are themselves working under terrible conditions for lousy pay and foundering in a maze of “decision trees” and useless “default servicing algorithms.” The telephone is central to this industry effort, but ironically, phones are mostly used to prevent and divert, rather than enhance communication with homeowners.

But by looking at how we got into this foreclosure crisis we can see why we’re not succeeding in getting out.

It took hundreds of thousands of mortgage brokers half a decade to bring our housing finance system to the edge of collapse. It was this horde of brokers working in our communities that arranged millions of bad loans for confused, indifferent and reckless borrowers. The industry relied upon this army of local agents to round up loan prospects and then mediate between the lenders (also located hundreds and thousands of miles away) and the borrowers. Without brokers engaged in those face to face interactions and their aggressive follow-up with the lenders to process the loan applications, the plague of troubled mortgages now haunting us would never have been transacted in the first place. The lesson here is that it was the brokers who were the key to scaling up and driving the loan originating on front side of this catastrophe.

Now we find ourselves on the back side of the mortgage fiasco. What we need to fix this mess is more local “anti-brokers” who can help delinquent borrowers reach sustainable arrangements with the mortgage servicers (who are located hundreds and thousands of miles away). These ‘anti-brokers’ are housing counselors trained in foreclosure prevention. They bridge the same gaps the mortgage brokers filled on the front side of this lending debacle.

Unfortunately, we don’t have hundreds of thousands of housing counselors. But counselors have demonstrated that they can improve outcomes for delinquent borrowers up to 60 percent more often when compared to unassisted, phone-bound borrowers stuck working “toll free, direct” with mortgage servicers. This improved rate of successful outcomes applied across the millions of troubled borrowers nationwide holds a staggering potential benefit for every community touched by the foreclosure crisis.

Washington has ignored what works, and worse, has been cutting back on its support for housing counselors. Initial federal funding to local nonprofit counseling groups was cut to a third of its former levels. Yet the crisis grows deeper and more widespread than it has been at any time since the collapse of home prices started back in 2006. Counseling works; but it is not being supported by the industry, the federal government or the policy mavens who have reduced this tragedy to an endless, speculative talkfest.

We must support housing counseling with significantly greater funding. We desperately need to hire and train more counselors, not cut their ranks in favor of supporting the industry’s notorious and intractable incompetence. The servicers have just been “phoning it in” (literally) and it isn’t working.

It took droves of loan brokers to shepherd us into this mortgage meltdown. What we need now are more “anti-brokers” to work locally, unlending, case by case, with the millions of troubled borrowers in our communities. It may not be a sexy, silver bullet solution to this problem, but it is the only one that works.
Bellamy is Director of the Cuyahoga County Foreclosure Prevention Program for the Cuyahoga County Treasurer's Office in Cleveland, Ohio.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Ohio Forum. 2/10

By Nina Auerbach and Anthony Berkley

We need to do more to give children the best start possible. Young children learn more and do better in school and, ultimately, in the workplace when they move seamlessly from home to other early learning settings and to the early grades. Unfortunately, far too few children experience such seamlessness, thanks to a disconnected and deficient educational system that moves them from one place and grade to the next with no sense of continuity. These trends are changing though.

The federal government is promoting meaningful education reform and putting up meaningful money to help pay for it.

President Obama is asking states and communities with innovative ideas to help reshape American education. To propel this innovation, two new federal funds will provide a total of $5 billion to do nothing less than inspire communities to shake up the education landscape.

We’ve long known the best ideas for education bubble up from the community level. Now the stars seem aligned to give this type of bottom-up innovation serious consideration.

Communities large and small – urban and rural – are hard at work. Promising early learning initiatives through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation-sponsored project called Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK), are working with schools, families and community partners to smooth crucial transitions from home, child care and preschool to elementary school. The goal is to ensure children are ready for school and schools are ready for them.

In Washington, a partnership between the State Department of Early Learning, the nonprofit public-private partnership Thrive by Five Washington and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is working to make a difference. The three organizations have joined forces to lead the creation of a statewide 10-year Early Learning Plan that will help make sure children are ready to start school.

More than 1,000 Washington residents helped shape the draft plan that is expected to be finalized early this summer. It calls for a coordinated approach to delivering optional early learning opportunities for children and families, based on what they need to enter school ready to succeed. This means expanding access to high-quality child care and preschool programs, to physical and mental health care, home-visiting programs, parenting support and information, and to training and education opportunities for early care and education professionals.

When finished, the plan will bring under one umbrella key efforts to maximize learning from birth through grade three.

In the meantime, efforts are already under way throughout the state to improve early learning. We are developing the state’s voluntary quality rating and improvement system designed to boost the quality of licensed child care and provide families with more information when they’re choosing child care. Local early learning coalitions throughout the state are helping their communities rally around children and families with programs and outreach. A growing statewide public awareness campaign helps convey the importance of early learning and what parents can do to help their children. Additionally, two Thrive by Five Washington Demonstration Communities—in White Center and East Yakima communities – have spent the past few years working in new and different ways to share information, leverage resources, and connect systems and supports, so that families can do the best job possible to get their children ready for school – and so that we can all benefit from what they’re learning.

Sharing lessons from these experiences in here in Washington and from other initiatives such as SPARK is critical. Public awareness campaigns, community and governors’ forums, and targeted efforts such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Partnership with IDEO, a renowned design and innovation firm that helps communities improve their learning systems, play an important role in expanding success.

Communities, school districts, and policymakers are creating new ways to teach and nurture children from birth through the third grade.

Now we have the chance to revolutionize learning and set our children on a path to long-term success. Such groundbreaking strategies can help shape federal and state policies. In turn, federal and state governments must allow communities the flexibility to implement policies that help their children learn best.
Auerbach is president and CEO of Thrive by Five Washington, the state’s nonprofit public-private partnership for early learning. Berkley is the deputy director for education and learning at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Washington Forum. 2/10

Friday, February 12, 2010

Higher Sales Tax Proposal is Bad Magic

By Amy Blouin

Wouldn’t it be nice if Missouri could magically find the money needed to pay for services people need and to make the sort of investments that help build a prosperous future?

That’s pretty much what some state lawmakers are proposing. Wave a magic wand and — poof! — the state income tax disappears. Wave it again and — poof! — corporate taxes disappear. How would reducing revenues get us the money we need? Watch carefully as supporters of this plan pull a rabbit out of their hat. But wait, that’s not a rabbit — it’s a sales tax like none ever before seen in Missouri or any other state.

Measures have been introduced in the state House and Senate that would essentially take this approach to paying for Missouri’s needs. And like all magic tricks, they involve sleights of hand that, when closely observed, reveal that things are not as they seem.

Eliminating individual and corporate income taxes and replacing them with a greatly expanded sales tax would in fact be a bad deal for the vast majority of Missouri families, while also threatening the state’s ability to meet future needs.

First, let’s consider how much money we’re talking about. The taxes that supporters of this plan would eliminate took in almost $9.4 billion in 2008. To make up all of that through only a sales tax would mean taxing far more purchases than is the case today; in fact, far more than any other state taxes. According to the language of the proposals, we could see a new sales tax on nursing-home care, doctor’s office visits, child day-care services, purchases of new homes, funerals, food and prescription drugs, legal counseling and financial services, private K-12 school tuition and much more.

Not only that, but the sales tax rate itself would have to go up dramatically in order to offset the money lost from ditching other taxes. That means what we pay in sales tax on items already taxed would have to be increased as well. Recent estimates show that to fully replace lost revenue, the

new sales tax rate would need to be approximately 11 percent -- not the 5.11 percent rate stated in the legislation.

It is clear who would bear the brunt of that increased tax rate. Because they don’t have as much money to stash away in savings, middle-income Missourians (including most seniors) spend a higher portion of their incomes on buying products and services than do the wealthiest people. Folks in the middle would get the biggest tax increases as a result of the income tax being eliminated.

And that’s just the impact today. As families know, needs and costs tend to rise. So how would this system pay for necessities like education, highway repair and job training in the future? The proposals rely on the Missouri Legislature to further raise the sales tax rate after the first year if the proposed rate proves insufficient. So there is no telling how high the sales tax rate would have to go, with the alternative being massive cuts in services people need.

No other state taxes services as broadly as would Missouri under these measures, which, among other things, raises the issue of how competitive Missouri would be with its neighbors. There are a few states with no income tax, but they collect significantly more revenue from tourism or oil severance fees than Missouri. None has in place a system like the one being proposed for Missouri. There simply is no comparison we can use to assess this proposal.

What is known, though, is that putting all of our eggs in the sales-tax basket would be a risky strategy, especially in tough economic times like these. No tax structure is perfect during a recession, but a diversified approach — sales and income taxes; taxes on businesses and individuals — has proved through the years to be the strongest.

In the end, there is no magic to building a prosperous state. We would do well to resist temptations of easy answers.
Amy Blouin is executive director of the Missouri Budget Project.
------------------------------------------------------------------Copyright (C) 2010 by the Missouri Forum. 2/10


By Andy McDonald

This past October more than 400 Kentuckians learned a powerful lesson: Solar energy works in Kentucky. The Kentucky Solar Tour featured more than three dozen homes and other sites that use solar energy to produce electricity, heat water or provide space heating/cooling. The Solar Tour crossed the state from Bowling Green to Berea, from Kenton County to Rockcastle County. Kentucky was one of 48 states on the solar tour that day, with 150,000 people nationwide participating. The message is simple: Solar energy has arrived. It works. It’s proven technology. It’s no longer the technology of the future; solar is the technology for today.

Wind energy presents another great opportunity for Kentucky. Conventional wisdom says Kentucky has poor wind resources. However, conventional wisdom is based on outdated wind resource maps that analyzed Kentucky’s wind resources at 50 meters above the ground. Modern wind turbines, the kinds we see in neighboring states like Indiana and Illinois, operate at 80 meters or more, where wind speeds are much higher. More recent studies measuring wind velocity at the height of modern wind turbines found enough wind to justify hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. Now, Indiana has an additional 500 megawatts of wind farms under construction.

Our in-state wind resources do not limit our ability to use wind power. With utility-scale wind farms in operation or development in every state bordering Kentucky, and with existing power lines crossing state borders, Kentucky has access to thousands of megawatts of wind potential in neighboring states. Meanwhile, we can research and develop appropriate sites within the state.

Low-impact hydro is another local renewable resource available today. Soft Energy Associates has identified 39 existing locks and dams on rivers within and bordering Kentucky that potentially could generate more than 800 megawatts. Lock 7 Hydro Partners LLC recently redeveloped a hydroelectric station near Shakertown, providing renewable energy credits for KU and LG&E’s Green Power program. This past summer, AMP Ohio broke ground on a new 84 MW hydro plant on the Ohio River and is expected to begin construction on another 72 megawatt project in 2010.

Large-scale development of renewable energy would bring many benefits. Diversifying our power supply (currently 93 percent dependent on coal) would provide protection against rising costs and risks of using coal-generated electricity. Cleaner air and water would improve public health.

Distributed generation (with thousands of micro-generators across the state) would make the grid more resilient, lower peak demand and reduce the risk of blackouts.

Economic development and job creation would be another benefit. To harness these renewable resources, someone has to manufacture the equipment and materials. Then these must be warehoused and shipped, marketed and sold. Professionals are needed for installation and service. Accountants, truckers, engineers, tradesmen, laborers and teachers are needed to bring renewable power into our homes. Students are needed to learn the skills to work in this new economic sector.

Germany leads the world in installed solar photovoltaics capacity, despite having solar resources similar to Alaska’s and weaker than Kentucky’s. A German government report found that an active solar market supports 30 jobs for every megawatt of solar photovoltaics installed. Other studies have found between 15 and 30 direct jobs created per megawatt, and another 3.5 indirect and induced jobs created for every direct job created. The result in Germany has been a renewable energy sector supporting 280,000 workers.

One thousand megawatts of solar photovoltaics could power 200,000 energy efficient homes, generating 1.2 percent of the total electrical power consumed in Kentucky. States such as North Carolina, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have directed their utilities to provide in the range of 0.2 percent to 2.1 percent of their power from solar within the next 10 to 12 years. New Jersey, with solar resources comparable to Kentucky’s, has the second-largest solar market in the U.S. as a result of such policies.

The bottom line is that solar and winds are being developed on a very large scale in other states. Those states are attracting billions of dollars in investment and creating thousands of new jobs, while furthering their goals of energy independence, public health and environmental protection. The barriers to doing this in Kentucky aren't technical, and they aren't for lack of wind, solar and hydro resources. There is no need to wait for technological breakthroughs. What we need is leadership in crafting policies – feed-in tariffs and a Renewable and Efficiency Portfolio Standard -- to open up the market and create an environment where renewables can flourish.
McDonald is director of the Kentucky Solar Partnership and a member of the Kentucky Solar Energy Society and the Kentucky Sustainable Energy Alliance.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Kentucky Forum. 2/10

By Maria Alvarez

I write first as a proud Tennessean, and second as a member of the Haitian community. I was born in Haiti and moved to Nashville at the age of 16. I've lived here for more than 15 years – long enough to see the Haitian community in Nashville grow from three families to more than 2,000 people. I remember when the first group of Haitians came to Nashville because of unrest in their homeland. And I'm privileged to have seen that generation of Haitian Americans -- and the next -- become productive Tennesseans.

As a community, we have watched Haiti go through many ups downs. The country was only recently beginning to recover from a decade of economic, environmental and political turmoil. But the recent earthquake changed everything. It was completely unprecedented. All members of the Haitian community in Tennessee suffer alongside Haiti’s survivors.

The quake, which has jolted the world, has not only damaged buildings, but stolen the lives of tens of thousands of Haitians. The days since have been some of the most difficult of my life – not knowing whether my family and friends are alive.

Perhaps the one bright spot in this tragedy is the outpouring of good will by peoples throughout the world. We have all been touched by the efforts of the international community to mobilize on behalf of the Haitian people. We thank Tennesseans specifically for their prayers and donations to support the relief efforts.

However, despite the tremendous outpouring of aid, there remains a great need. Many devastated areas in Haiti have gone unreported, areas such as the southwest region where aftershocks occurred. I recently spoke to a friend who sadly said, “Marie, we have not seen anyone [here to help].”

So please continue to support relief efforts throughout Haiti.

The supplies of food, water, medical and equipment sent to Haiti are great, but more help is needed. Many organizations have long-established development projects on the ground. Those organizations are best placed to assist with Haiti’s immediate needs.

In addition to direct charitable support, the Haitian community in Tennessee calls on the United States to continue its coordinated international relief assistance. We are grateful for the amount of resources already committed to Haiti, and believe that joint planning, coordination and full utilization of available resources within the region will ensure efficacy of relief efforts. We also are grateful for the Obama Administration’s decision to suspend deportation and to grant Temporary Protective Status to undocumented Haitians living in this country. This action is keeping with America's proud history of supporting immigrants that have been battered by political conflict and catastrophic natural disasters.

The generosity and humanity of Americans and America, especially during such trying times, makes me proud.
-------------------------------------------------------------------Alvarez, a staff member at The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and immigrated to the United States in 1990 after the exile of then-president Jean-Claude Duvalier.
-----------------------------------------------------------------Copyright (C) 2010 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 1/10

By Jennifer Hughes

As a long-time food service worker, I know how difficult it can be to survive on tips. I remember working at a place where the minimum wage was $5.15/hr and no one could get full-time hours because the employer did not want to offer health benefits.

On top of being a full-time student, I had to constantly make quality of life decisions. I cut as many corners as I could: living with roommates, buying generic food and hygiene items, walking to class and carpooling to work. I was a long way from my home and my family, and my dog was all I had.

The last straw came when I had to make a decision between whether my dog or I would eat that night. It was hard decision but not one that I had not made before. I realized then that I could not keep my dog if I could not afford to feed us both. It was a heart-wrenching decision but I found a loving family to take him. I thought I had done everything right. He was like my child. It was at that moment that I wondered about the families of other tipped workers. What did they do? I decided there had to be an end to this system of poverty that keeps hard-working people like me in poverty.

I’ve worked alongside single moms and career waitresses who struggle with a tipped worker minimum wage that has not been raised in 18 years. That’s right: The last time tipped workers in Georgia got a minimum wage raise, I was in kindergarten.

Some restaurants and food establishments pay more than the minimum wage. I’m happy to say that I now work for one of them. My pay now is at least $1.50 over the current minimum wage and we are eligible for up to a 50 cent/hour raise every six months. We split tips as a collective and receive them weekly. After the first six months one qualifies for health benefits, as long as you maintain 20 hours a week. This makes it easy for me to juggle school and work without fear of losing my health insurance. One is also eligible for tuition reimbursement and other various perks from the company after six months. I was only at the last job for about eight months. I have been at this job for nearly two years. The wages and benefits contributed to my commitment to them. I have no reason to leave!

In honor our efforts to raise the tipped worker minimum wage of $2.13/hour, Atlanta 9to5 and the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition are launching a “Show Your Server Some Heart” project on Feb. 13. Here’s how you can help:

 Support a statewide proposal to increase the tipped worker minimum wage in Georgia to 50 percent of the federal minimum wage (to $3.62/hr). Thirty two states have a tipped worker wages higher than the federal $2.13/hr, including 22 states with rates of 60 percent of the full minimum wage.

 Support the federal WAGES Act, which would increase the federal tipped worker credit, over several years to $5.50/hour.

 Tip well! The tip you leave for your server will very likely be shared with the bussers, food runners and maybe the bartender. Without generous tips, your server could go home at the end of an 8 hour shift with as little as $17 (before taxes).

Valentine’s Day is a big day for hearts, flowers and romantic dinners. For people who will be treating their sweetheart to a restaurant meal, it’s also an opportunity to show some heart to the people serving their food.
Hughes is a student at Georgia State University and a member of 9to5, Atlanta Working Women.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Georgia Forum. 2/10

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fixing Tennessee’s Tax System

By Shelby Tabeling

For Tennessee to be a first-class place to live and do business, we must ensure our current and future workforce is educated, our bridges and roads are safe, our rivers and parks are clean, our communities are protected, and our fellow Tennesseans have access to affordable housing and health care.

We collect revenue for valuable public structures we all enjoy and that provide quality of life for each Tennessean — structures like higher education, toll-free roads, fire and police protection, thousands of acres of state parks, and affordable care and assistance when our families face unexpected circumstances.

But times are tough for Tennessee. As the General Assembly enters the 2010 legislative session, Governor Phil Bredesen has warned that in the 2010-11 fiscal year, the state could face a gap of more than $1 billion between the money that’s available from taxes and what’s needed to meet the state’s essential obligations.

In the wake of this crisis, our teachers, students and employees are left scrambling for bits of an ever-dwindling pie. Our legislators and elected officials must look to revenue to solve our state’s budget problems and ensure our public structures are fully funded and our state’s future is secure.

The budget gap exists because of basic flaws in our state’s tax system – our state faced funding problems long before the current national economic crisis. Most states raise money from an equal mix of sales tax, property tax and income tax. Tennessee relies too heavily on just one source of income: sales taxes.

Two-thirds of Tennesseans would receive a tax cut if our elected officials would support the Tax Modernization and Economic Stimulus Act. Furthermore, under this proposal, an additional $1 billion in revenue would be raised by eliminating the sales tax on food, reducing the general sales tax, and implementing a personal income tax.

Tennessee’s tax structure is currently upside-down: With our sales tax on food, we ask those who make the least to pay the most and we ask those who make the most to pay the least. We don’t follow sound economic principles like diversifying our revenue sources and ensuring those revenue options that are available (like closing corporate loopholes) are fully explored. No wonder we face a billion-dollar budget deficit! Fortunately, Tennessee has options that could raise much-needed revenue and still provide a tax cut for the vast majority of its citizens.

The future of our state and communities is directly connected to how we deal with Tennessee’s ongoing budget shortfalls. Well-educated students, well-trained workers, a healthy environment and functioning infra-structures are the foundations of a strong economy. Now more than ever, the state must ensure those systems are able to respond; to provide encouragement and protection to those hardest hit in these times, and to pave the way for a robust recovery.

This is not the time to dismantle the structures and services we need to move our state forward. Any responsible approach to addressing the state’s funding issues requires a hard and balanced look at both how we spend money and how we bring it in. Fixing our flawed tax system and raising much-needed revenue needs to be part of that equation.
Tabeling is a board member of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation and executive director of Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 1/10


By Yifat Susskind

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe earthquake in Haiti, the first question everyone asked was: How can I help? Many people believe that donating to a large relief agency is the best way to help Haiti. In fact, those agencies do have a critical role to play, though, the problem is that most big relief operations are designed to swoop into a crisis, deliver services and leave.

After the big agencies leave, local people are no more knowledgeable, self-reliant or resilient than they were before. Therefore, it is crucial to help people respond to the next disaster and move toward real development.

One of ways that you can help is to support organizations that reinforce the activities of existing community groups. Too often, big international agencies temporarily set up shop and inadvertently undermine local organizations by attracting their best staff, driving up rents and ultimately weakening the very organizations that communities need for long-term recovery.

It is important to help organizations that understand the role that women play in disasters. Usually, women are described as passive victims. In reality, they are the primary caregivers of those who are most at-risk in a disaster. Women supply the basic needs of children, the sick, the disabled and others in their care.

Also, support relief efforts that involve people who are impacted by the crisis. The “victims” may not have the resources to address the disaster, but they know first-hand what they need to recover and rebuild. Relief operations that allow local people to play leadership roles, set priorities and make decisions are the ones that leave skills and resources in the hands of the communities.

It is crucial to help organizations that talk about root causes of vulnerability in a crisis. Haiti’s earthquake was a natural disaster but there is nothing natural about families living in shacks without disaster plans or government services. Understanding what makes people vulnerable is the first step to recovery and building resiliency.

Finding organizations with a history of work in the country is a smart choice. Having local roots, speaking the language and being culturally sensitive go a long way towards getting things done in a crisis.

People should also support organizations that will stay in the country after the news teams and big agencies leave. Long-term projects will keep people planning for the future, helping to ensure that aid is delivered in a way that builds lasting solutions.

Helping organizations that are funded largely by people like you is also critical. Government-supported agencies are often beholden to government policy, not accountable to their members or, more importantly, to the communities where they work. Haiti needs relief efforts that are going to strengthen Haiti itself, not efforts that pride themselves on funneling most of their money back to U.S. corporations.

It’s also essential to support small organizations. A large-scale crisis seems to require a large-scale response. However, many big aid operations are bureaucratic, slow and inefficient. Often, the best response to tremendous, urgent need is to replicate successful small-scale models of aid delivery rather than try to get a giant operation moving quickly.

Choosing organizations with a human rights perspective is crucial. Organizations that view Haitians as rights-holders, not victims, will be more effective at supporting Haitians as they strive to rebuild a society based on human rights for all.

Finally, support organizations that you want to see strengthened. Donating to an organization means boosting the capacity of the organization.

Whenever you have the opportunity to help someone, remember, aid is power. So the next time you give, ask yourself: who do you want to empower?
----------------------------------------------------------------------Susskind is the Policy and Communications Director of MADRE: Rights, Resources and Results for Women Worldwide.
Copyright © 2010 by the American Forum. 1/10

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stopping Maricopa County’s Abuses of Power

By Dave Wells

In countries like Iran we regularly see dissent brutally crushed and political enemies jailed. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas are behaving in similar fashion. That’s why a federal grand jury is investigating Arpaio.
Arpaio and Thomas use their popularity and the cover of law to embark on a reign of legal intimidation. Except that, unlike Iran, they ultimately may be restrained by the very oath they are breaking -- that of upholding the U.S. Constitution and “to impartially discharge the duties of the office.”

The list of political opponents and retribution keeps growing. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, an outspoken Arpaio critic, was visited by sheriff’s deputies. County supervisors Don Stapley and Mary Rose Wilcox are under questionable indictments. When Wilcox’s attorney, Colin Campbell, publicly rebuked the charges, he too was visited by sheriff’s deputies. Attorney General Terry Goddard, who might logically step in, is also a target of investigation by the sheriff and county attorney.

An earlier indictment against Stapley already has been thrown out.

Meanwhile, Thomas and Arpaio have filed a lawsuit against Superior Court justices, suggesting a conspiracy against them and their prosecutions. The lawsuit named all five members of the board of supervisors, along with County Manager David Smith; Deputy County Manager Sandi Wilson; four Maricopa County Superior Court judges; director of the county's civil-litigation division; two attorneys and a law firm. Days later, Thomas went further, filing criminal charges against Gary Donahoe, presiding criminal judge of Superior Court, accusing him of hindering prosecution, obstructing a criminal investigation and bribery.

At about the same time, after a sheriff’s deputy had clearly violated an attorney-client privilege and refused to acknowledge his mistake to the judge, rather than reprimanding him for improper conduct, the sheriff applauded him, while encouraging his deputies in a protest and sick-out, even though it undermined court functioning and safety.

All of which led to public censure from Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, a conservative Republican that Thomas had handpicked to prosecute earlier charges against Stapley. In a Dec. 21st opinion in the Arizona Republic, Polk said, “I can no longer sit by quietly and watch from a distance the abuses of power by Sheriff Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas.” Arpaio’s chief deputy, David Hendershot, shot back, suggesting the FBI investigate Polk.

Citizen activists who earlier criticized the Sheriff’s Office at Maricopa County supervisor meetings have been arrested while peacefully standing outside the premises, and, in a separate case, for applauding during public comments. In the first case, Randy Parraz, of Maricopa County Citizens for Safety and Accountability, was shackled as if he’d committed a violent crime. The county attorney’s office treated both cases as major crimes, appointing a top prosecutor and pursuing charges fully. Eight months later at trial, in acquitting the defendants, Justice Armando Gandarilla said, “The prosecution was malicious and without probable cause,” and ordered the cash-strapped county to pay the defendants' legal fees.

As federal civil-rights case Ortega Melendres vs. Arpaio moves forward, we’ll find out whether U.S. citizens improperly arrested during immigration-violations sweeps by the Sheriff’s Office had their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures violated, and whether the Sheriff’s Office has systematically engaged in racial profiling. The sheriff, in a recently released deposition in the case, indicated a limited understanding of the Fourth Amendment and said he had not pursued staff training to avoid racial profiling.

Ultimately, the courts and federal government can help check these abuses of power. But the most important check lies at the ballot box. After being handily re-elected in 2008, we have to wonder whether, next time around, voters will give Arpaio and Thomas their pink slips.


Wells holds a doctorate in Political Economy and Public Policy and teaches at Arizona State University. He can be reached at The views expressed are his own.
Copyright © 2010 by the Arizona Editorial Forum. 1/10