Friday, September 16, 2011

A Jobs Crisis We Can Solve

By Sarah van Gelder

President Obama is proposing important steps toward doing what Americans have been asking for since the financial collapse of 2008—putting a focus on families and jobs.

To create real prosperity, though, Washington will have to deal with three main drivers of our economic malaise: massive inequality such that the super wealthy and big corporations are sitting on piles of cash while ordinary Americans’ can barely get by; enormous ongoing expenditures for wars; and assaults on our natural systems, including our climate, such that costs of everything from insurance to food is rising while our security is threatened.

Without families buying things, the economy can’t revive and create jobs. That’s why our solutions need to focus on ways to support small businesses, which create the bulk of the jobs and keep money flowing locally instead of flowing to distant corporate headquarters.

In Cleveland, a local foundation, inner-city residents, hospital and university collaborated to create locally rooted cooperatives that supply these and other institutions with solar energy, eco-friendly laundry services and locally grown vegetables. The workers from this rust-belt city are the owners, and they’re creating jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Despite the credit crunch afflicting businesses nationwide, there’s one place where credit continues to flow: North Dakota, which has the nation’s only state-owned bank. The Bank of North Dakota partners with community banks to get credit to the state’s farms and local businesses. The results are the lowest unemployment rate in the country and a state budget surplus, when most other states are facing fiscal crises.

When local businesses and family farms thrive, the benefits ripple out into the community. These local enterprises buy from other local business, driving demand that creates even more jobs. This sort of economic activity results in prosperity based on real goods and services, not speculative bubbles.

Many young people are focusing less on jobs than on DIY livelihoods made up partly of paid work and partly of doing more themselves -- growing food, making and fixing things, and starting micro-businesses. They’re finding creative ways to make do with less and to share and exchange with friends and neighbors.

The best of these diverse livelihoods tap into the rising demand for goods and services that are sustainable—grown or made close to home without toxins and without pollution, produced by workers who are fairly compensated, and made by companies with a long-term commitment to the well-being of the human and ecological community.

But how about President Obama and the U.S. Congress? What can we expect from our federal government?

In a country still the wealthiest in the world, we should insist that our government invest in education, restore failing infrastructure and lead the transition to a clean-energy economy. Single-payer health care could provide security to would-be entrepreneurs while ending excessive premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs that are creating a major drag on the economy. Trade policies should be re-crafted to reverse offshoring of jobs. We could share jobs more broadly, so there is enough work and free time to go around. And we should preserve intact a safety net that keeps millions of seniors, children, disabled and unemployed from complete destitution.

With a fair tax policy—like the tax rate for the wealthy in effect during the Eisenhower years—we could pay for these investments. And we could save money by diverting our tax dollars from corporate subsidies and the world’s largest military budget to investments in our future.

These are policies that large majorities of Americans support. Groups like the recently formed movement to Rebuild the Dream are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to counter the lopsided clout of large corporations and the very wealthy and get these sort of family-friendly policies enacted.

We don’t have to be satisfied with unemployment and a stagnant economy. By rebuilding our local economies, changing policies that only benefit the super-rich and investing in a transition to an environmentally friendly society, the United States can still achieve real prosperity.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor and co-founder of YES! Magazine. Her article on jobs and livelihoods appears in the Fall 2011 issue of YES!
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 9/11

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The So-Called Personhood Amendment

By Rims Barber

The law of unintended consequences should temper our resolve when tinkering with laws impacting people’s lives. The consequences of adopting Initiative 26 -- the proposed Personhood Amendment to the Mississippi Constitution -- are far-reaching and potentially devastating to women’s health.

In the 33 years since the first in vitro baby was born, hundreds of Mississippi couples were able to have the baby of their dreams through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Since more than one egg is harvested and fertilized to achieve a successful IVF pregnancy, making all the embryos “people” under Mississippi law will make it difficult if not impossible to continue offering IVF treatment in our state.

When embryos are created and frozen as a part of reproductive fertility treatments, these embryos will be legally persons if this initiative passes, and consequently will have all the rights due persons. The problems resulting from this change would be many.

If embryos are people, is the freezing of embryos considered child abuse? If so, what is the role of the Department of Human Services?

Will these embryos be given names (non-birth certificates)?

If one of these embryos “dies” in some part of the in vitro fertilization process, what kind of investigation will be conducted? Could the technician be tried for manslaughter? Are the county coroners equipped to do this task? What kind of death certificate will be issued?

Are the Chancery Courts ready to apply Termination of Parental Rights laws to these embryos? Adoption laws? Home visits as required by adoption law?

Does this Amendment apply only to embryos conceived in the state of Mississippi, or to any embryo entering the state (having been conceived elsewhere)? If they are transported to another state do they lose their personhood? Citizenship?

What are the property rights of these embryos? Inheritance rights? Under state law, there are many places where “person” is referenced.

If more than five unrelated embryos/persons are housed in a single building, will it have to be licensed as a child residential care home?

In Pearl, there is an ordinance limiting occupancy to two persons in a bedroom. If a pregnant woman is two people, can she be in the same bed as her husband?

Moreover, IVF is not the only medical treatment that could be prevented by passage of the Personhood Amendment. Effective treatment of tubal pregnancies, severe preeclampsia, and molar gestation could be prevented. New stem cell treatments for patients with Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and cancers like leukemia and choriocarcinoma would also be at risk.

If a physician is faced with the choice saving a woman’s life or refusing to harm an embryo/person, could he or she be sued for malpractice no matter what choice was made?

Do Mississippians really want more lawyers interfering in a family’s personal medical decisions?

I have long been convinced that anyone involved in politics should have a good sense of humor. This issue clearly requires one. Let’s not be so focused on our feelings about abortion that we do something ridiculous when voting in November.

Barber is director of the Mississippi Human Services Agenda.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Mississippi Forum 9/11

**This op-ed ran in the Jackson Clarion Ledger. You can read the response to it here.**

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Keystone XL Pipeline: A Bad Idea

By Billy Parish

Families across the middle swath of our country -- from North Dakota to Louisiana -- have a disturbing question to ask themselves: “Do we want a leaky pipeline pumping 800,000 barrels of oil a day running through our community?”

The proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would transport tar sands -- a mixture of sand, clay, water and a dense tar-like form of petroleum, from the Boreal forests of Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico region -- is a 1,700-mile time bomb that either will be activated or defused in the coming days.

The pipeline would travel directly across the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground aquifer in North America, which provides drinking water and irrigation for much of the Plains region. The thick raw “bitumen” tar sands are mixed with a volatile natural gas, making a highly corrosive, acidic and unstable combination -- not something you’d want flowing in enormous quantities anywhere near where you sit down for dinner with your family.

The fact that the predecessor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times this past year should be enough to make anyone question the intelligence of this scheme. Can farmers, families, cities and ecosystems really afford an on-land spill similar to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

But this is a problem that should worry us all. The threat to immediate public health is compounded by the threat the tar sands pose to our planet’s atmosphere. Bizarre weather patterns are playing out the climate change crisis -- Irene, record floods and droughts around the world, freak tornados and wildfires. The atmosphere is changing, and the accelerating use of fossil fuels is a major driver.

The tar sands represent the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, second only to the oil remaining under the desert of Saudi Arabia. If we actually go through with clear-cutting enormous tracts of Boreal forests, processing the thick tar with steam and water, mixing it with natural gas and transporting, refining and burning it, it would take the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere from nearly 400 parts per million to 600 parts per million, something leading scientists have been sounding the alarm about for years.

As James Hansen, NASA’s top climatologist, put it, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate, “unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, “If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”

The project developers want us to believe we need these tar sands -- that there is no alternative. They want us to forget that the solar industry employs more Americans than U.S. steel production, and that entrepreneurs nationwide, like myself and my team at Solar Mosaic, are finding creative ways to help communities prosper through clean energy.

Because of their belief in better alternatives to our energy needs, 1,200 people have been arrested these past few weeks while peacefully protesting in front of the White House. These are people of every generation -- religious leaders, union workers and business people. Actors Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah joined what has become the largest environmental civil disobedience in a generation.

The two individuals with exclusive power to stop construction of the pipeline are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Because the pipeline would cross the border, the secretary of state and, ultimately, the president must sign a certificate of “national interest” for the development to begin.

If jobs are the president’s big concern, let’s not set the planet on fire for what the State Department estimates would be only 5,000-6,000 jobs. With even a modest carbon fee, the president could raise enough money to support an Apollo-style program to rebuild America’s lagging infrastructure and really catalyze transition to a clean-energy economy.

Your phone call this week will actually make a difference. Even if we can’t protest in front of the White House, we can step up and speak out.

Our water, our health, our environment and the natural beauty of a 1,700-mile swath of America need you.
Parish is president of Solar Mosaic, a solar energy marketplace, and author of the forthcoming book, “Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World.”
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 9/11

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Veto of Billboard Bill Should Stand

By John Regenbogen

In the final hours of the regular legislative session this past spring, the Missouri General Assembly added highly controversial, pro-billboard language to an otherwise uncontroversial transportation bill. The bill passed on the last day of session but fortunately was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon because the bill substantially weakens the ability of local communities to restrict billboards.

The governor’s veto is not the last word, however, as the General Assembly begins a veto session September 14 and leaders appear intent to try to override the veto by garnering votes of two-thirds of the legislature. Ironically, while all indications are that the General Assembly appears poised to finally act on a matter of basic fairness and return control of the St. Louis police department from the state to the city, it may seek to take away the right of local citizens – through their locally elected officials -- to regulate billboards according to community standards.

As the governor wrote in his veto letter, it is important for Missouri’s cities and towns to be allowed to preserve their community character in a manner that reflects local standards. A growing number of communities across Missouri feel they have accumulated enough billboards and have enacted either explicit prohibitions on new billboards or restrictive spacing and location requirements that ensure billboard blight doesn’t get out of control. From our state’s largest city, Kansas City, to rapidly growing suburbs like O’Fallon and Chesterfield, to small towns like New Haven and Defiance that depend heavily upon tourism, dozens of Missouri communities have enacted prohibitions or restrictive ordinances to protect against excessive billboard blight. But because the new language added to the transportation bill would take away this authority of local communities, the governor had no choice but to veto the bill. In fact, the bill’s extremely industry-friendly “customary use” requirement would make Missouri’s billboard law among the weakest in the nation with respect to powers of local control.

The billboard industry argues that there aren’t enough billboards in our state, which is absurd. Many Missourians feel strongly that the state has too much billboard blight and that a reduction of clutter over time will improve our communities and increase tourism. In fact, just shy of 50 percent of Missouri’s voters supported a ballot initiative in 2000 that would have prohibited new billboards anywhere in Missouri. If more Missouri communities follow the Texas model where over 300 communities have prohibited new billboards, (the fierce Texas pride in their beauty is perhaps best represented by the well-known anti-litter slogan, “Don’t Mess With Texas”) the sky won’t fall and local communities will continue to thrive, if not improve.

But the veto isn’t about the number of billboards in the state, whether we have too many or too few. Rather, it is about keeping state law intact in order to allow local governments to continue making the decisions with respect to billboards in their communities. The Missouri billboard industry may not like this law, but we must retain the common-sense notion that local communities are best able to make these local decisions. Not all communities want to take a tough stance on billboards, of course, but polling has shown that the vast majority of citizens support the strong right of local control on this issue without interference from Jefferson City.

Billboards may have a place in Missouri. But that place should not be every place. At the very least, Missouri’s local governments must retain the right to determine what is appropriate in their communities. Gov. Nixon’s veto must be upheld and the General Assembly should end its effort to put the interests of a powerful industry ahead of local communities.
Regenbogen is executive director of Scenic Missouri.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Missouri Forum. 9/11

By Marianne Hill

Women’s Equality Day, August 26, is both a celebration of women’s progress and a reminder that equality remains a goal, not a reality.

On this day in 1920, women gained the right to vote under the 19th Amendment. Today, over 90 years later, the struggle to advance women’s rights is concentrated on the economic front -- with an end to discrimination against women in the labor force a critical, and hotly-debated, objective.

Two proposals now stalled in Congress would improve women’s odds of getting a fair shake at the workplace. They face an uphill battle, but it’s one worth fighting.

Many companies pay their male employees more than even better-qualified women in the same job. The best-known victim of pay discrimination today may be Lilly Ledbetter, but her case is far from unique. Consider the lawsuit against Wal-Mart, the one that the Supreme Court ruled could not proceed as a class action suit. The firm’s records, cited by the plaintiffs, showed that although more than two-thirds of the firm’s hourly employees were female, only 15 percent of store managers were women. “Women were paid less than men of equal seniority in every major job category, even though women on average had higher performance ratings and lower turnover rates than men,” states the Public Justice Center.

The Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act would close many of the loopholes and lax penalties that have made the Equal Pay Act of 1963 ineffective in ensuring pay equity in such cases. Studies show that bias against women begins at hiring and persists at promotion time. According to the American Association of University Women, one year after graduating from college, women earn only 80 percent as much as their male counterparts in the same field, and after 10 years of experience, women earn only 69 percent as much. In other words, the pay elevators for women start lower, are slower and don’t go as high as those for men. And the wage gaps are worse for black and Hispanic women.

A woman working full-time in 2009 earned at the median only 77 percent of what a man earned. Over the course of her lifetime, this translates into $400,000 of lost earnings. At the bottom of the wage scale, poor adults are largely women, and the poverty rate of 15 percent among working age women is 30 percent higher than that for men. The top of the income scale is dominated by men: approximately 80 percent of persons earning $100,000 or more per year are men.

The Fair Pay Act of 2011 would require employers to make public the job-related data that is basic to determining whether or not there has been discrimination. At present, women who believe they have been discriminated against cannot get the data on jobs and pay scales they need without filing a lawsuit. At some firms, they cannot even ask co-workers about their pay.

The other bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, clarifies that wage differences must be based on job characteristics, not on gender. And, if wage discrimination is proven in court, individuals would be able to receive full compensatory and punitive damages, as is already true in cases of discrimination based on race. It would prohibit retaliation by firms against employees who raise wage parity issues.

Eliminating the wage gap is particularly important in families where the woman is the only job-holder. And, among families with children under 18 years of age, 34 percent of working mothers are the sole earners in their family. Progress towards pay equity, then, is vital to the future of American families, and it depends on the passage of proposals like the Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Hill is an activist who holds a Ph.D. in economics.
Copyright © American Forum 8/11

Monday, August 22, 2011

Proud to Invest in America

By Paul Egerman

I love America, and have proudly invested in America. I have invested by building successful businesses employing thousands of American workers. And I have invested in our country by paying taxes.

But our nation loses $100 billion a year to tax dodging by some of our largest corporations and wealthiest people. That’s a trillion dollar hole in our national treasury over the next decade unless we act now to plug it.

Tax dodging companies are disinvesting in our country – not investing in it.

Many U.S. multinational companies use a gimmick called “transfer pricing” – shifting patents to their offshore subsidiaries, for example – in order to pretend they've earned their profits in a tax haven like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda or Luxembourg, even though their operations there may be little more than a mail box. What they’re really doing is transferring their U.S. profits offshore and transferring their tax responsibilities to the rest of us.

In this global version of a shell game, corporations move their profits to offshore shell company subsidiaries; the U.S. parent company reports to the IRS that they've made almost no profits, or even lost money on their U.S. operations. These companies are passing the buck to other taxpayers and robbing our national treasury of funds we need.

It sickens me that businesses like mine responsibly paid taxes at the rate of 35 percent on millions of dollars in profits while companies like GE would pay zero percent on billions of dollars in profits. Even worse, they had so many tax loopholes and tax subsidies that Uncle Sam actually owed them money. From 2008 to 2010, GE had $7.7 billion in pretax U.S. profits and $4.7 billion in tax refunds, giving it a negative 61.3% tax rate, reports the tax experts at Citizens for Tax Justice.

We need to ask what kind of country we want to have and who is going to pay for it.

I have been fortunate to live the American Dream. I know my success is due to many factors. I know, for example, as a software entrepreneur, that I would have had no business at all without the government assistance I received for my college education, or the government research that led to the Internet.

It’s obscene that computer and internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Cisco are part of a coalition clamoring for a tax holiday to “repatriate” profits they shifted to tax havens to avoid U.S. taxes.

It’s obscene that so many members of Congress are willing to legislate austerity for American workers, small businesses and retirees while leaving the door open for big corporations to dodge taxes through tax havens.

We all benefit from public services, infrastructure and research paid for by tax dollars – education and public transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and food safety inspections, roads, bridges and waterways, the Small Business Administration and economic development programs, police and courts, and the public safety nets, from unemployment insurance to food stamps, that so many depend on in these hard economic times.

Instead of reducing our debt by cutting vital services, we need to close two big tax deficits - the tax haven deficit and the deficit from the Bush tax cuts for the affluent. Each is worth a trillion dollars over the next decade.

The Stop Tax Havens Abuse Act introduced recently in Congress by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) would close the loopholes that reward those who disinvest in America and dodge taxes to unfairly boost their corporate treasuries. It should be a no-brainer solution in deficit reduction.

It is simply outrageous that we would ask unemployed and disabled Americans and Medicare and Social Security recipients to sacrifice more while continuing to shower tax savings on millionaires and billionaires who have a larger share of the nation’s income than any time since the 1920’s.

It’s time for Congress to plug the loopholes that allow our largest corporations to avoid billions of dollars in taxes, and it’s time for Congress to ask our wealthiest individuals, including people like me, to also pay our fair share of taxes. After all, American corporations and wealthy individuals should be proud to support our country and invest in its future.

Paul Egerman, a software entrepreneur, is co-founder and former CEO of the medical information technology company eScription.
Copyright © American Forum 8/11

Pam Solo
By Pam Solo and Grant Smith

The reactor disaster in Fukushima is so fresh in our memories that it may seem incomprehensible to think that the history of that tragic (and still unfolding) event in Japan could ever be rewritten and distorted. But history tells us that the nuclear power industry is very adept at revising the facts about every major reactor disaster.

Consider the Three Mile Island (TMI) reactor crisis in the United States. Thanks to years of industry propaganda, many Americans now assume that the panic that followed in the wake of this near-disaster situation derailed the nuclear power industry in the United States, halting its forward momentum in its prime. (Just watch: If the industry falters after Fukushima, it will once again pin the blame on “unreasoning panic” by the public.)

Panic was not the issue after the Three Mile Island. In reality, the U.S. nuclear power industry was already dead in the water by the time of the TMI accident. The culprit was not unreasoning panic on the part of the public. What killed nuclear power more than a quarter of a century ago was cold, hard economics: Nuclear power was just too expensive to build.

Remember the promises made about nuclear power?

First it was “atoms for peace.” But we now know that our nuclear arsenal was the priority. Then it was “too cheap to meter.” But the truth is that nuclear power has been a financial fiasco, declared by Forbes in 1980 as the worst financial disaster in business history.

Little has changed since then, including the nuclear power industry’s enormous lobbying influence and public relations clout. While Wall Street continues to take a pass on financing risky reactors, President Obama and bipartisan Congressional supporters continue to cheerlead the so-called “nuclear renaissance” even as the worst industrial disaster in history continues to play out in Japan. The possibility of an accident, we were told, was next to impossible. But we’ve had three major incidents in 30 years and numerous near misses.

Now “clean” is the mantra in support of nuclear power for politicians and environmentalists alike who think only of reducing CO2. Is nuclear power a clean energy source? Not so much. The evidence paints quite a different story: routine, low-level, radioactive emissions, tritium leaks into water supplies, thousands of tons of fish each year annihilated at water intakes, thermal pollution of lakes and streams, tens of thousands of tons of extremely toxic high-level nuclear waste generated with thousands more to come.

The industry began trumpeting the “nuclear renaissance” in 2003. Yet, not one nuclear unit has been built in the United States. The average price for one reactor increased from an estimated $3 billion in 2002 to $10 billion in 2010 – not including the inevitable cost overruns that have plagued nuclear power construction since the beginning.

In 2009 Citigroup Global Markets wrote: “Three of the risks faced by (nuclear plant) developers – construction, power price and operational – are so large and variable that individually they could bring even the largest utility to its knees.” This analysis is playing itself out now.

In Florida, Progress Energy announced in 2006 that a reactor would cost $6 billion in 2006. By 2010 it was estimated to be over $22 billion.

The price of the French nuclear power plant project in Olkiluoto, Finland has doubled and faces a costly four-year delay. Duke Energy has petitioned the North Carolina public utility commission for rate recovery of over $400 million just to design two nuclear plants. Duke, in North Carolina, and AEP, in Indiana, are pushing legislation to further shift design, construction and operational costs of nuclear plants to ratepayers.

In the meantime, the chronic and seemingly intractable problems for nuclear power continue. In December of 2009, Mark Cooper, a nuclear expert, said that 90 percent of the plants applied for at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been cancelled or faced delays.

We’ve been down this road before … and it is truly the road to financial ruin. Ratepayers were saddled with an estimated $200 to $300 billion in cost overruns from completed nuclear plants from the 1960s through the 1980s; nearly $50 billion for abandoned plants. Due to industry whining during the deregulation craze in the 1990s, claiming that nuclear power couldn’t compete in deregulated markets because of the high cost of nuclear power, ratepayers once again bailed out the nuclear industry to the tune of $40 billion.

So, how does nuclear power essentially defy the financial law of gravity and continue to be touted by indefatigable boosters?

According to the Institute for Southern Studies the industry has spent an estimated $640 million on lobbying. The goal has been and continues to be not to reduce financial risk but to shift it to taxpayers and ratepayers.

What have we learned after 60 years with nuclear power? The bottom line comes down to this: Nuclear power is an extraordinarily expensive and dangerous way to boil water. Don’t take our word for it, just ask the people in Fukushima.
Pam Solo is the president and founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute and facilitator of the Citizens Lead for Energy Action Now. Grant Smith is a senior energy policy analyst to the Civil Society Institute and former executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, where he worked for 29 years.
© American Forum 8/11

Mitchell Szczepanczyk
Steve Macek
By Steve Macek and Mitchell Szczepanczyk

The British tabloid, News of the World, owned by conservative media-mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., has been implicated since 2005 in intercepting voicemails of celebrities and politicians. But recently the newspaper has been swept up in explosive new allegations that its staff also intercepted voicemails of victims of the July 7, 2005, London bombing, of relatives of deceased British soldiers, and of a 13-year-old murdered girl.

Ramifications snowballed. Within a week of the new allegations, Murdoch closed News of the World after 168 years of operation, firing the paper's 200 employees. A class-action lawsuit filed in March against Murdoch about lax oversight was quickly amended to include the new allegations, and News Corp.’s stock lost $10 billion in value in the scandal’s first two weeks. The company's top U.K. executive, Rebekah Brooks, has tendered her resignation, and the scandal derailed an attempt by Murdoch to secure majority control of BSkyB, Britain's largest satellite broadcaster. The scandal has also impacted the head of Scotland Yard, who resigned once ties between News of the World and Scotland Yard became known.

But the Murdoch media empire extends across the world and the scandal may well have repercussions on this side of the Atlantic. News of the World is alleged to have paid a New York police officer to secure voicemails of victims of the 9/11 attacks, and the FBI has apparently opened an investigation. What's more, the editor of Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal who served as the editor at News of the World during the time of voicemail intercepts has also resigned in disgrace.

Clearly, Murdoch must face accountability for crimes committed under his watch, and one way the U.S. government could hold him accountable would be to repeal News Corp's TV broadcast licenses.

By law, American TV stations must be licensed by the FCC, and those licenses carry a requirement of having to serve the "public interest, convenience and necessity.” Theoretically, the FCC has power to take away the license of any broadcaster who fails to live up to this standard (though the FCC has historically never exercised this power without being ordered to do so by courts).

The idea of stripping News Corp of its TV licenses already has gained traction in the wake of the voicemail scandal. Murdoch reacts to license challenges about as well as werewolves do a full moon. When the FCC threatened a single Murdoch TV license in 1997, Murdoch's chief lobbyist threatened then-FCC-chair Reed Hundt, saying that Hundt wouldn't be able to "get a job as a dog catcher" if he pulled even a single Murdoch TV license.

But Murdoch is now in the hot seat and the window for broadcast license renewals (and rejections) begins next year. Moreover, the FCC is already considering pending license challenges affecting a number of stations in Chicago, Milwaukee, Wisc., and Portland, Ore. Some of those stations are Fox affiliates. (Full disclosure: One of the co-authors of this op-ed is a party to one of those challenges.) Given the speed with which News Corp's voicemail hacking scandal has developed, prompt action by the FCC will be required, and we encourage the FCC to use its power to withdraw licenses of broadcasters owned by criminals.
Macek is an associate professor of speech communication at North Central College and Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 8/11

By Timothy Murray

Every day in America, half a million people sit in local jails awaiting trial. They are there because they can’t afford to make bail. Two of every three of these people are charged with nonviolent offenses and are simply waiting to face their accusers.

Meanwhile, well-publicized and well-off defendants like former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn can make bail easily, no matter how high, and are released before court action. In effect, they have purchased their freedom until their trial begins.

The cost to local taxpayers to feed and house those who can’t make bail is $9 billion a year. We could save those dollars, ease prison overcrowding and bring more justice to the entire system with some relatively simple reforms.

Nearly 50 years ago, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy convened the country’s first national conference on this issue, describing the pretrial justice and bail system in America as “unsafe, unfair and ineffective.” Unfortunately, that description remains accurate today. This outdated and dangerous system only benefits the special-interest, for-profit bail bond industry. It favors those who have the money to obtain bail, regardless of how dangerous those people are.

Recently a group of prestigious criminal justice organizations, together with the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice, convened another national meeting on pretrial justice and bail reform. The 2011 conference examined the nation’s progress toward a fair, safe and accountable system and sought to outline proven solutions.

States like Illinois and Kentucky banned for-profit bail bonds decades ago. Instead, they substituted a system that relies on family and community supervision for those charged with nonviolent offenses. This includes frequent contact with a supervising officer, mandatory assessments for substance abuse, and mental health and drug testing. The reforms also included simple court reminder programs so that nearly everyone –- 92 percent of those awaiting trial in Kentucky -- shows up in court to face their charges.

We need to fix the unjust pretrial system in which dangerous criminals who happen to be wealthy can purchase their freedom while nonviolent offenders must remain behind bars. We must move to a system based on danger to the public, not dollars. Judges must be empowered with the best possible tools to determine who should be held and who can be released with appropriate supervision pending trial.

Our local jails are increasingly overcrowded, at tremendous cost to our already-strapped local governments. Sensible reforms of state and local pretrial justice procedures should focus on safety while containing costs to the taxpayer.465 words
Murray is executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute which is the nation's only nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring informed pretrial decision making for safe communities through technical assistance, training and advocacy.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 8/11

By Kathleen Rogers

In a close vote, the House recently passed a provision that undercuts one of the most successful environmental programs of the decade – one that requires all bulbs -- including the incandescent -- to achieve higher efficiency levels. The amendment, which was tacked on to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 2012, delays a ban on sales of incandescent bulbs for nine months - from Jan. 1 until the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, 2012 – turning off the lights on this successful program.

The legislation, if passed by the Senate, will repeal one of those “inside the beltway” success stories that seems near impossible these days--legislation that was drafted with the help of light-bulb manufacturing giants, Philips, General Electric and Sylvania, and with the support of a coalition of efficiency and environmental organizations, including my own, passed by a bipartisan majority of the House and Senate and signed into law in 2007 by Republican President George W. Bush. More unusual was the fact that California and Nevada, then under leadership of Republican governors, swallowed hard and gave up their own state lighting-efficiency legislation, which had faster timetables. They did so because they were persuaded by all of us that creating a single regulatory light-bulb standard for the whole country would support innovation; would help the United States maintain its market share of production; save American households money; create new jobs; and would give industry what it craves much more than the anti-regulatory crowd would have you believe. It seems fair to use the term “dim bulb” to describe those members of Congress who voted to turn back the clock.

It's up to the Senate to rectify this wrong.

Thomas Edison created the light bulb in 1879, one of the great U.S. inventions that helped solidify America’s reputation as a global innovator and a place where innovation would be rewarded. His incandescent bulb, though it revolutionized the world, spends most of its life making heat, not light, and it's remarkable for its inefficiency by today’s standards. After a slow start, and in the face of a global phase-out, manufacturers began the arduous, expensive and sometimes exciting process of reinventing lighting. Now, despite their detractors, the new generations of light bulbs, including the new highly efficient incandescent, is revolutionizing indoor, outdoor, and street lighting. And these new or improved bulbs will save American families $100 to $200 every year, for a total savings of $12 billion for American households every year. It also will save more than 2,000 American jobs, including those in high-rate unemployment areas such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The survival of the legislation also means we won't be putting 1 million tons of climate pollution in our atmosphere, which is the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road, saving our country money, energy and lives. Certainly, Thomas Edison would have embraced this technology for its energy and cost savings, as he often said, “Waste is worse than loss.”

This legislation is simply one of many dozens of efforts that Congress is seriously entertaining that would roll back progress and stifle innovation. From dissolution of EPA to stalling air-quality rules that would reduce mercury in the air, to blocking EPA from regulating climate pollutants, to even more subtle and damaging efforts -- congressional leadership is capitulating to Tea Partiers and others who myopically and tragically see regulation as an impediment to their version of a happy and prosperous life -- a life that seems to include wastefulness. Then to get us there, they have filtered out the long history of bipartisanship on energy solutions and environmental protection. Have they forgotten that Republican President Ronald Reagan pushed and pushed hard for energy efficiency standards and energy innovations?

There is one piece of ancient technology that American voters should insist on keeping-- a good old-fashioned broom. And we should use it to sweep out those members of Congress whose dedication against all regulations and support for unfettered individual freedom is undermining America’s global leadership in technology and innovation, maybe permanently.
Rogers is president of Earth Day Network.
© American Forum. 7/11

Monday, July 25, 2011

Making the Case that Medicaid Works

By Anna Liebenow

You never know what obstacles life is going to put in front of you. When I was 25, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Before I turned 30, I was using a wheelchair. When you have a disability, it takes a fair amount of creativity to make life work. Like millions of other Americans with disabilities, I found a way. I continued to work, volunteer and live my life.

After a few years, my MS progressed to the point where I could no longer get in and out of the wheelchair on my own. I was still the same person and still wanted to contribute something. But without help transferring from my bed to my wheelchair, I couldn’t even get out the door. The world beyond my bedroom would be lost to me, and all I have to offer the world would go to waste.

Fortunately, Medicaid gives me the missing piece I need to make my life work. An aide comes twice a day to help get me into and out of my wheelchair. This doesn’t just make a difference in my life: It makes the life I have possible. I work at an independent-living center and I volunteer with organizations that serve people with disabilities. The assistance I get means I can help others live meaningful and more independent lives.

For me, a meaningful life includes contributing to my community. Recently, I was appointed to serve on the board of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Many people with disabilities, seniors and others would be unable to get to work or to their doctors without public transit. Without Medicaid, I wouldn’t even be able to leave my home to get to a board meeting. I think that says it all.

Medicaid also helps me buy medications that control my MS. Without Medicaid, I could not afford my medications, treatments or specialized wheelchair. No amount of creativity or effort would be enough to make my life work if I lost that care. In fact, I might be forced to live in a nursing home—which would not only take away my quality of life, it would cost the taxpayers more than the help I now receive.

As I said, you never know what kind of obstacles life will throw into your path. Our country is facing the greatest economic challenges of my lifetime. Life has gotten much harder for millions of people. I know what that’s like. People are making sacrifices to make life work, and I know what that’s like, too.

Lawmakers in Washington are now negotiating a debt-reduction deal that will likely include massive cuts in federal spending. Medicaid as we know it is at risk, and some proposals would gut the program. To put it bluntly: Cutting Medicaid would end the life I know. Taking away my benefits amounts to telling me that our government does not value the contributions I make. That would be wrong, and I don’t believe it’s what Americans want our government to do.

I am not a policymaker but I do know that slashing the kinds of benefits I rely upon is bad policy. Medicaid makes sense because it helps people live up to their potential. Eliminating the opportunities it provides is bad policy.

Not every American has as much at stake in this discussion as I do, but we should all be concerned about the future of Medicaid. In America, we recognize each person’s potential to contribute. When a person is working hard to overcome a roadblock, we don’t throw another one up in her way.

Our elected leaders need to hear that cutting Medicaid is not what we need, and goes against everything that we are. I am the face of Medicaid: a woman who is not ready to give up on herself and is asking the government not to give up on her.
Liebenow is a member of The American Association of People with Disabilities and a disability rights leader in Rhode Island.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11

By former U.S. Reps. Constance Morella (R-Md.) and Bob Edgar (D-Pa.)

August marks the 50th anniversary of the first use of herbicides by United States military forces during the war in Vietnam. From 1961 until 1971, more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were stored, mixed, handled by U.S. troops and sprayed by U.S. airplanes over millions of acres of Vietnamese forest and farmland. The goal of this military operation was to deny cover to the enemy on the ground.

The U.S. government now compensates U.S. Vietnam-era vets for 15 serious health conditions and one birth defect related to exposure to the dioxin that was part of those herbicides.

But some 3 million Vietnamese also suffered health effects, including 150,000 of today’s children with birth defects. Their needs have long been neglected, caught in the geopolitical and scientific conflict that followed the war. The Vietnamese government, several U.S. foundations, and nongovernmental organizations have set up hospitals and small remediation programs, but so far these have redressed less than 10 percent of the need.

But the devastating legacy of Agent Orange, one remaining shadow of that war, is on the way to being resolved in Vietnam – if current trends continue. We may have disagreed on many things in the past, but on a recent trip to Vietnam we witnessed a new spirit of cooperation and partnership among former adversaries. All sides are now determined to alleviate the health and environmental damage from Agent Orange, damage that continues to this day.

At a church-run center near Ho Chi Minh City, we knelt on the floor to meet Nguyen Van Minh, 14, one of 60 severely disabled children receiving medical care and rehabilitation there. Like any child, he giggled and sang along with us to a silly song about “fishies,” as other children competed to hold our hands and give us hugs. Their simple joy in life transcends partisan differences, making it clear that the way to see the Agent Orange legacy now is as a humanitarian concern that we can do something about.

Our former colleagues in Congress agree, so $18.5 million for Agent Orange remediation in Vietnam survived the recent 2011 appropriations battle. At former U.S. military bases, starting with the Da Nang airport, the U.S. Agency for International Development is already at work cleaning up deadly “hot spots” of dioxin residues that are still making people sick where the herbicides spilled and soaked into the ground. The State Department is beginning a new $34 million cleanup project at Da Nang, and David Shear, awaiting Senate confirmation to serve as the new U.S. ambassador, pledged to continue assistance for Vietnam’s disabled citizens without regard to cause.

This is all very good news, reflecting the U.S. mission’s astute understanding that America’s commercial and security interests are well served by dealing with the Agent Orange issue. To follow through during this window of opportunity, the United States should adopt a long-term action plan like that drawn up by the U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue Group on Agent Orange/Dioxin, a nonpartisan group of prominent scientists, policymakers and citizens from both countries sponsored by the Aspen Institute.

For an investment of $30 million a year over 10 years, shared with Vietnam and other donors, the Dialogue Group plan would restore damaged ecosystems, clean up contaminated soils and expand humanitarian services to people with disabilities. Advances in technology and know-how have made this possible, and now is the time to do it.

America is at its best when it responds to humanitarian concerns, restores hope and dignity to a devastated people and closes wounds from the past. Helping innocent children like Minh, who are suffering from their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin, is a treatment that can heal us all.
The authors are former U.S. Reps. Constance Morella (R-Md.) and Bob Edgar (D-Pa.)
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11

By Christine Owens

Two years ago this week, 4.5 million of America’s workers enjoyed a modest pay increase, as the federal minimum wage rose from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour. The increase was the final of a three-step boost enacted in 2007. Of those getting a bump in pay, more than three-quarters were adults, nearly two-thirds were women, and nearly half a million were single parents with children under 18.

Yet during the past two years, these working families have seen the real value of their wages fall. Minimum-wage earners working full-time make roughly $15,000 a year. Had the minimum wage rate kept up with inflation, their paychecks would have increased by $800 this year. Instead, our nation’s lowest-paid workers have had an even harder time providing basic needs for their families. This is one more reason that Main Street is having a tough time recovering from the economic calamity brought on by financial collapse.

CEO compensation grew 23 percent in 2010, while pay for the average American worker grew only half a percent. Minimum wage workers have fared even worse: Since the 2009 increase, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen 5 percent.

The decline in value of the minimum wage during the past four decades has been even more dramatic, as prices for goods and services have risen much faster than the wage floor. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since the late 1960s, it would be $10.38 today. Yet, roughly a quarter of the nation’s work force is now earning less than that.

Instead of keeping the minimum wage current, Congress has acted just three times in the last three decades to increase it. The deterioration of the wage floor has helped fuel a level of economic inequality not seen in this nation since the early 1900s—the era of sweatshops and robber barons. With more and more income and wealth being transferred from working families to the super-rich, our economy, our democracy and the American way of life are under threat.

Some will say this is not the moment to be concerned with the minimum wage. But restoring the value of the minimum is in fact a key building block of sustainable economic recovery.

Businesses and economists agree that lack of demand is the primary driver of the stalled recovery and high unemployment. Without customers lining up for goods and services, employers will not expand their production or their payrolls. Raising the minimum wage would put more money in pockets of the lowest earners who have little choice but to spend their wages immediately. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that raising the minimum wage to $9.50, as President Obama proposed during the 2008 presidential campaign, would generate more than $60 billion in new consumer spending.

Wielding outdated economic theories, opponents claim that raising the minimum wage will cost jobs and slow rehiring. The tired canard that the minimum wage causes unemployment recently received national attention when reporters revisited 2005 testimony in which Congresswoman Michele Bachmann argued that eliminating the minimum wage would wipe out unemployment entirely. This extremist view was roundly criticized, yet many corporate interests still promote the dogma that raising the minimum wage reduces employment.

While simplistic supply and demand theory suggests that employment will fall as wages rise, this 18th century model fails to capture the complexities of how the labor market works. Two decades of rigorous empirical research has revealed that increases in the minimum wage have not cost jobs or slowed rehiring, even during times of high unemployment.

Since the end of the recession, corporate profits have recovered and CEO compensation has skyrocketed. Corporations are sitting pretty on nearly $2 trillion in assets that they refuse to use to expand production or rehire because the rest of America has little cash of their own to spend on goods and services. Raising the minimum wage will help Main Street share in—and power—a robust economic recovery. It’s the least we can do for those with the least means to stay afloat and get ahead in a brutal economy.
Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11


By Cindy Pearson and Lois Uttley

The Institute of Medicine, an independent panel of doctors and health experts, has just recommended that insurance companies be told to stop charging co-pays for contraception and several other types of women’s preventive health care in any new health plans. Ending those extra out-of-pocket insurance charges will be good for women’s health and good for women’s pocketbooks.

Medical experts also are urging that insurance companies end co-pays for breastfeeding supports, including rental of breast pumps, and for annual well woman exams, HIV infection screening and counseling for women experiencing domestic violence. Most of the public attention so far, though, has focused on the experts’ recommendations about contraception. No wonder, because the vast majority of women in our country have used birth control at some time in their lives.

For young women and their families who are struggling in these tough economic times, a $20 or $30 co-pay can make it difficult to afford to fill a birth control prescription each month. Some contraceptive methods like IUDs, which work better for certain women, require co-pays or deductibles that can run into hundreds of dollars. It’s understandable that women facing financial stress report they use contraception inconsistently and put off family planning office visits to save money.

Without affordable and reliable contraception, however, women face the risk of unintended pregnancy. In fact, half of all pregnancies in this country are now unintended. Medical experts point out that there can be serious health consequences for both women and babies from these “surprise” pregnancies. When a woman isn’t able to space pregnancies, allowing enough time between them, her risk of experiencing maternal health problems increases. This is especially true for women who have health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease that may exacerbated by pregnancy, problems that disproportionately affect women of color.

Women whose pregnancies not planned are less likely to receive timely prenatal care, quit smoking and begin taking adequate folic acid to promote a healthy pregnancy.

When there is an interval of less than a year between births – which can happen when a woman has no family planning -- the chances increase for a pre-term birth and a low birth-weight baby who will be at risk of serious complications and even death in the first year of life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited family planning as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century precisely because it improved the health of women and their babies.

But affordable contraception does more than protect women’s health. It also protects a family’s economic security, by enabling women to have children when they are able to support them. That’s why the American public strongly supports family planning services -- with 84 percent of those polled in June by Lake Research Associates citing contraception as an importance preventive health service.

We urge the Department of Health and Human Services to adopt the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine in full and require that new insurance plans remove co-pays and out extra charges for family planning and contraceptives. It will be a historic step for women’s health and the economic well-being of families across America.
Pearson and Uttley are co-founders of Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need. Pearson is Executive Director of the National Women’s Health Network. Uttley is President-elect of the Public Health Association of NYC.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Putting a Face on Medicaid

By Sue Hetrick

Open the newspaper any morning and one story is at the top: Leaders in Washington are negotiating a deal to reduce our nation’s debt and balance the budget. Trillions of dollars and thousands of laws and programs are at stake. While the public looks on, some of the most influential people in our country go back and forth with proposals: President Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; House Speaker John Boehner; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid …. .
And Sue, Micah and Nick Hetrick.

No, we aren’t members of Congress. Nor are we cabinet secretaries or big-time lobbyists. We’re an Ohio family -- I’m the proud mother of Micah, 22, and Nick, 27. Along with representatives of the American Association of People with Disabilities and United Cerebral Palsy, we traveled to Washington this week to show the human face of the policies now under consideration. Our mission was to share our family’s story with officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill in order to protect Medicaid. This program, which has enabled our family to lead a fulfilling, healthy life, is on the chopping block. My family has something to say about that.

Micah was born with Down syndrome. Throughout his life, he’s faced challenges that many young people can’t imagine, including heart surgery when he was 5 months old. He’s a fine young man who has always worked hard to reach his potential. He’s a high school graduate who works two volunteer jobs and is looking for paid work. An enthusiastic reader, he’s making his way through C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” series.

I work full-time. At the end of a workday, I return home to find him preparing dinner with the aide provided to us through Medicaid. Micah cannot be home alone for a long stretch, and he needs help with transportation, his health care and skills like preparing dinner. If he didn’t have an aide, he wouldn’t be contributing as a volunteer and he couldn’t be searching for a job.
Without someone to be with Micah during the day, I could not work. I’d have to be there to support Micah. I would be on public assistance myself—not supporting our family and paying taxes. I have a master’s degree and a strong commitment to support my family and serve my community. Eliminating the benefit my family uses would mean my potential—and Micah’s – would go entirely to waste.

As the debt negotiations in Washington progress, potential cuts to Medicaid have come into play. Implementing them would harm people with disabilities and their families—who are already under-served. Our family is fortunate to have an Individual “Option Waiver” through Medicaid, which provides the services we use to keep our household running smoothly (and keep me at work). As I write this, there are more than 27,000 people on the wait list for this program in Ohio. They were not in the room during our meetings, but their stories need to be heard too.

I’m proud of both of my sons, Micah and Nick. Both have worked hard throughout their lives. Nick, who is 27, just received his PhD; Micah recently received his high school diploma. I love them both, and think I’ve given them the start in life they need to become the best people they can be. Like any mother, I love them equally. But without Medicaid, one of them could not live the productive, fulfilling life he deserves. Without Medicaid, neither could I.

Nick is married and expecting his first child. We have the highest hopes for his baby. Everyone should enter this world with the same chance in life. I fear that Washington could take this country in the wrong direction, chipping away at a resource that helps thousands of families like mine—one that keeps people at work and promotes self-sufficiency.

That’s the message I brought to Washington this week. Our elected leaders need to hear all of our voices. There are steps that can be taken without cutting off this lifeline to people who really need it. I hope my fellow Ohioans will stand up for those with disabilities, parents and hard-working families all of whom are the face of Medicaid.
Hetrick is Public Policy Director for the Ability Center of Greater Toledo.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11

By F. Scott McCown

When the legislative session began in January, Texas faced a crisis. The state was short roughly one-fourth of the money needed simply to do what it was already doing. The Center for Public Policy Priorities was part of a broad coalition that pushed for a balanced approach to the problem -- one that used the Rainy Day Fund in combination with targeted cuts and new revenue.

Others pushed for a cuts-only approach that slashed things like the number of teachers and payments to nursing homes. Initially, the House proposed a devastating cuts-only budget. In the end, with a slightly improved revenue projection and various one-time measures, the Legislature largely funded the Senate’s modestly better, but still damaging budget.

Texas is growing twice as fast as the nation. In the most recent decade, Texas’ child population growth accounted for over half of the child population growth in the entire country, making our state’s education system critical to our country’s future.

Contrary to any spin you’ve heard, the Legislature actually cut spending on public education. And the money the state is spending won’t go as far because of enrollment growth and higher costs.

How does Texas turn this around? We’ll need more than a stronger economy to solve our revenue problems. While the Great Recession created a larger revenue crisis than usual, Texas has spiraled downward yearly with one round of cuts in important services after another because our revenue system doesn’t produce the money we require to meet our needs.

Honest budgeting won’t be enough. The right and the left have criticized the Legislature for using accounting gimmicks, diverting dedicated money, and relying on one-time measures. In reality, though, if our elected officials stopped these budgeting practices immediately, it would mean less money, not more, for Texas priorities. That conservative elected officials feel compelled to resort to these practices even in the face of withering criticism is strong evidence of our state’s desperate need for revenue.

Pitting our priorities against each other is not the solution either. Texas is already one of the lowest spending states in the country, with over three-fourths of everything we spend going to education and health and human services. Saying we could easily pay to educate our kids if we didn’t have to provide grandma health care is as helpful as saying we could easily provide grandma health care if we didn’t have to educate our kids.

Of course, the “shrink-the-government folks” are clever enough not to attack grandma directly. Instead they attack Medicaid. But Medicaid is very efficient, beating the cost of private health insurance.

So when people say we wouldn’t have a problem if we just spent less on Medicaid, what they really mean is we wouldn’t have a problem if we just denied more people health care. Certainly our nation must figure out how to keep people healthier for less money, but providing fewer people health care is not the answer.

If a stronger economy, honest budgeting, and pitting priorities against each other aren’t the answer, what is? Texas must modestly increase taxes. No one is suggesting that Texas become a high tax state, but Texas must raise the money needed to invest in education and other building blocks of a strong economy. As a group, Texans pay low taxes, and as a percentage of our economy our contribution has been falling.

This is not a question of living within our means. Texans have the resources in our trillion-dollar economy to meet today’s needs and build a prosperous future. But until we fix our tax system, we can’t make important investments for the common good.

The issue isn’t whether to increase taxes, but how. Our state’s major tax is a sales tax on goods -- a tax designed for yesterday’s economy when we sold more goods and fewer services. The business tax is also flawed -- redesigned in 2006 to help pay for a property tax cut, it instead leaves us $10 billion per biennium short. And our state has tax giveaways and loopholes galore.

Between now and the 2013 legislative session, Texans must square our shoulders and do two things. First, we must solve some technical problems -- how do we modernize the sales tax, reform the business tax, and address tax giveaways and loopholes so we have a smart and fair tax system that produces adequate revenue. Second, we must work together to build the public will for a tax increase. There’s no other answer. Texans can handle both the truth and the task.
McCown is executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 7/11

By Daniella Levine

Save lives or save money for the rich? Feed hungry children or subsidize the oil and gas industry? Stop buying ineffective military equipment or stop paying for job training? These questions are at the heart of the debate over reducing the federal deficit and raising the debt ceiling.

Negotiations are underway between Congressional leaders and President Obama and it’s clear that all parties want to significantly reduce the deficit.

But, there’s deep disagreement over how to achieve that goal. It’s time for Florida’s Congressional delegation to speak up on behalf of a balanced approach that makes prudent spending cuts and generates new revenue by asking a little more from those with the most.

Right now, many in Congress are rejecting any increase in federal revenues. They have embraced only spending cuts, including many that will harm vulnerable people and the economy as a whole.

Due to the secrecy of discussions, it’s not always easy to tell what cuts are on the table, but we know that some of the proposed cuts would:
  • Reduce healthcare for millions and eliminate at least 250,000 jobs in the health care industry;
  • Leave hundreds of thousands of infants and young children hungry, putting their development and education at risk; and
  • Eliminate scholarships for 1.4 million college students.
Proposals to cut Medicaid range between $100 billion and $1.4 trillion over the next decade. Even a cut of $100 billion would represent a 5 percent reduction in federal funding for state Medicaid programs. A cut of that magnitude would force states to reduce reimbursements to doctors and hospitals which would drive more physicians out of the Medicaid program. And, states will end coverage or increase costs to individuals who have no other options for health insurance. Here in Florida, we have already cut over $1 billion in Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes and nearly 4 million people are uninsured. A recent study in Oregon confirmed what common sense tells us: when people don’t have Medicaid they go without needed healthcare.

Medicaid cuts will also hurt our economy. According to a study by Families USA, a 5 percent Medicaid cut in 2011 will cost more than 250,000 jobs nationwide. Here in Florida such a cut would mean $1.2 billion in lost business activity and 11,320 fewer jobs. That’s not what our economy needs.

Even worse, imagine if the cuts were more than 10 times that amount as some propose. Estimates suggest that 19 million people would lose health care coverage, and another 17 million people would lose the right to receive health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

Arbitrary caps on annual spending, which are also on the table, would force additional cuts to programs that serve the vulnerable. The House has already adopted a budget plan that would end nutrition benefits for 300,000 and 450,000 low-income infants, young children and moms through the Women, Infants and Children program next year alone.

That would be a terrible mistake. Children that don’t reliably get enough food are more likely to be sick, hospitalized and fall behind in school, which weakens their development and reduces their ability to contribute to our economy. The same House plan would also eliminate Pell grants for 1.4 million low-income students, including nearly 83,000 Floridians, all but ending their ability to go to college. This short-sighted proposal comes at a time when our economy needs 3 million more college graduates than we are currently expected to have by 2018. How can we compete if we don’t give people the tools to work tomorrow’s jobs?

We don’t have to hurt people now and shortchange our future. We don’t have to leave our tax revenues at their lowest share of the economy since 1950. David Stockman, former budget chief for Ronald Reagan, points out that taxing capital gains at the same level as earned income would raise billions and strengthen our economy. Closing tax loopholes for corporations sheltering profits overseas, eliminating subsidies for oil, gas and coal industries, and taxing hedge fund managers’ income as income instead of capital gains are three other proposals out of many that could increase federal revenues without burdening middle class Americans. Hundreds of billions in savings are possible by reducing wasteful military spending too.

Florida’s Congressional delegation should insist on protecting low-income people from bearing the burden of cuts and support raising revenues from those who have been enjoying trillions in tax breaks for years. It’s the right thing to do, for today and our future.
Levine is president/CEO of Catalyst Miami (formerly Human Services Coalition), a nonprofit human services organization.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Florida Forum. 7/11

By Monique Perry Danziger

Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was an anti-corruption game-changer tucked into a historic, comprehensive piece of legislation aimed primarily at overhauling the nation’s financial regulatory structure. Since becoming law, anti-corruption and financial transparency proponents are still waiting for the law to be implemented.

Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act would require oil, gas, and mining companies that must report to the SEC—approximately 90 percent of the major internationally operating oil and gas companies in the world—to disclose payments made to governments for the oil, gas, and minerals they extract. This would be a boon to anti-corruption workers trying to get the records straight when investigating bribery and corruption in developing countries. It also would serve investors looking to make informed decisions about their portfolios.

Of course, 1504 attracted industrial vitriol from the usual suspects—companies used to doing business behind a cloak of secrecy were not thrilled at the prospect of having to open their ledgers. Industry concerns aside, the provision enjoyed strong bipartisan support from legislators, including Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN); Ben Cardin (D-MD); Patrick Leahy (D-VT); and Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA).

Earlier in the season, ending tax breaks for oil companies was proposed as a means of raising revenue against looming budget deficits. The proposal was expected to raise $12 billion by eliminating a domestic manufacturing tax deduction for big oil companies such as BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, and $6 billion by ending deductions for taxes paid to foreign governments. Proponents of the plan argued that oil companies are able to disguise foreign royalty payments as taxes, in order to reduce their tax liability.

Such disguises and obfuscations of operating payments, sales, profits and taxes owed and paid to foreign governments are a major part of the United States government’s tax collection problem.

This week, Sen. Carl Levin introduced his signature Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which seeks to take a bite out of the nation’s estimated $100 billion annual loss in uncollected tax revenue through offshore tax haven abuse. The bill includes new language that would require SEC-registered corporations to report on their employees, sales, purchases and financing arrangements on a country-by-country basis. The logic behind such measures being that greater transparency will enable both U.S. and foreign tax collection authorities to spot profit shifting shenanigans that companies engage in to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

In addition to 1504 and the Levin Bill measures, momentum on the financial transparency issue is growing: Hong Kong put its own version of 1504 into effect roughly this time last year, requiring any petroleum and mineral companies listing with the Hong Kong stock exchange for the first time to report significantly more details about operations including taxes, royalties and other payments made to governments on a country-by-country basis. The EU is working on its own version of a 1504-type bill.

It is increasingly obvious that letting multinational companies operate on an honor system is bad business. Instituting Section1504 and passing the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act would strengthen U.S. and foreign government tax collection, inform global investment strategies, and foster good governance in the developing world—a key component in a stable global economic recovery.

No more waiting. The SEC should issue a formal rule for implementation of 1504, as it is required to do under the Dodd Frank bill, and get the ball rolling.
Danziger is the Communications Director for Global Financial Integrity.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11

Lilly Ledbetter
By Lilly Ledbetter and Linda Hallman

Yesterday a sharply divided Supreme Court ignored more than 40 years of established jurisprudence in its Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision, which severely restricts the ability of employees to fight discrimination as a class-action group. In a deeply misguided opinion, the majority ruled that the women of Wal-Mart cannot band together nationwide and stand up as one against the biggest retailer in the world. It's hard to manage the court costs and find the courage to keep going. We only wish the women of Wal-Mart would not have to do that. Yet the high court decided they did not have enough in common to pursue a nationwide class-action suit, a sadly ironic twist for former employees of the great homogenizer of American retail.

The court’s decision was not related to the merits of the case, however, and the women of Wal-Mart are already planning how to proceed next, either individually or in smaller, reformulated class-action cases. In fact, Wal-Mart may rue the day it fought against allowing a single class-action case. The company’s gamble—that if it could throw up enough barriers, the women would quit—is not going to pay off, and the Goliath retailer may soon end up with more Davids than it ever wanted to fight.

Unfortunately, many other employee class-action cases are now destined to be stuck at a red light, while employers are getting the go-ahead to continue to rely on highly subjective gender discrimination practices, hurting women and their families. And this disturbing ruling extends beyond class-action certification, echoing other recent stories of institutions that were “too big” to be held accountable. First, the banks were too big to fail, and American taxpayers bailed them out even as they were losing their homes and jobs. Now, Wal-Mart is too big for justice, even though American women still face a persistent pay gap that not only undermines their families’ economic security but undercuts the nation’s recovery as well.

But American women will press on as we always do, emboldened again by a Supreme Court majority that just doesn’t get the realities of the modern workplace. This past weekend, Wal-Mart plaintiff Edith Arana’s moving story of her fight against discrimination drew big applause at AAUW’s national convention—an indication of our continuing support for the women of Wal-Mart.

We’ll also be looking into other options to deal with this wrongheaded decision. The court has been wrong before— as we know all too well —but our government is structured so that we can right those wrongs through other channels. Perhaps this decision will give Betty Dukes her own bill or motivate Congress to finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to stop unfair pay before it starts and came within a hair of passing last year. We’re sure the Obama administration and its multi-agency Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force will also be brainstorming to address this latest misstep from the court. This kind of injustice demands action.

Setbacks in achieving women’s equality aren’t new. Ever since women started claiming our rights and fighting for equal opportunity, the powers that be have tried to thwart our plans. Although we wish the Supreme Court had understood the need for women to band together and fight, this decision is just one more battle in the ground war women have been fighting for years. It’s just a chapter, not the end.
Ledbetter, the namesake of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, lives in Alabama. Hallman is executive director of AAUW.

By Patricia Brown, RN

It’s summer in Missouri, the peak time for canoeing on clear Ozark rivers.

Starting Memorial Day, I spent a week camping on the Jack's Fork River. Instead of the beautiful peace and quiet I was looking for, I saw inappropriate overuse of the river.

Because my father was born in Larkin "Holler" of Shannon County (I also have other relatives there) I have visited this area almost every year for the last 50 years. About 30 years ago I stopped canoeing there during the summer because the noisy crowds made it like a Worlds of Fun ride.

More recently, I've witnessed continued deterioration, with even more noise, and scenic disruption, from development of buildings, motorboats that zip by within yards of me snorkeling so that I almost inhale part of their waves, and bulldozers taking scoops of rock gravel beach.

My father had a chance to "get rich" gravel mining, but he valued the rejuvenation powers of those rivers and instead taught me to love them as they were -- which now stirs me to action. When I see things like this, or that red Allley Springs Mill in so many magazine photos, I get a sinking feeling that the memory of something precious to me has been made obscene.

The National Park Service is in the middle of drafting a General Management Plan that will guide management of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR) -- the Current and Jack’s Fork Rivers -- for the next 20 years. Missourians should know that now is their chance to speak up about the problems confronting this gem of a river system, home to more first-magnitude size springs in one area than anywhere else on Earth.

The updated management plan should address: (1) overdevelopment that has produced a proliferation of illegal access roads used by noisy ATVs and trucks (2) overuse by horses repeatedly crossing the rivers causing E.Coli contamination that harms swimmers and (3) stopping gravel mining. All of these things cause erosion of soil, which smothers the insects that live on the rocks and that the fish eat, destroying river life

As a little girl I sat in one spot on a rock beach, taking in the serene beauty, and gathered many empty snail shells to sew a necklace. In those days all the rocks in the rivers were speckled with black snails. Because of the unlimited numbers of people who visit these rivers now, many little creatures have been trampled to death. This cherished experience won't happen for any little girl now, not in this park.

Some would argue that my opinion should not matter, because I do not live near the rivers. Since my family is from there, I understand why local people would feel protective of the place. Shannon County has many low income residents and they need to maintain all the tourist related business far into the future. They also care about preserving the cultural practices of Ozark river life and its natural beauty. We must all do all we can to assist them.

My 91-year-old cousin from the town of Eminence, which is centrally located in that Ozark Rivers region, once said that she traveled away from them once and was shocked to find that other rivers weren't so crystal clear. She had no need to travel so far away after that. In addition, as a Kansas City area resident, like others who travel to the ONSR, I recognize it as a National Park, and know that all citizens have the standing, and indeed the responsibility to make sure it is well managed.

Now is the time to speak up. The plan being formulated now will guide management of ONSR for the next 20 years. Let’s use this opportunity to fix the problems and restore the rivers to the tranquil and restorative place that I remember from my childhood. We can do it.
Brown is an RN and a member of the Sierra Club and lives in Independence.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Missouri Forum. 7/11

By Pat Byington

Dr. James McClintock, a renowned University of Alabama-Birmingham marine biologist who has conducted research in Antarctica for more than 25 years, told me the following story.

“You work in a scientific lab in the quietest place on Earth -- Antarctica.

"There’s a Crack! Boom!

"You rush to the window of your remote lab with a number of your fellow scientists, and you witness a glacier 'calving' a chunk of ice the size of a house into the water. Adrenaline permeates the room.

"Ten years ago, that exciting and incredible sight would happen about once a week. It was an event. Something rare.

"Today, at that same lab in Antarctica, the calving glacial ice, the explosive sounds, are a daily occurrence.

"The scientists are almost 'ho-hum' about it, barely lifting their heads to recognize the melting ice."

Such is life in a warming world.

McClintock has spent most of his life searching the ends of the earth for a cure for cancer and other human diseases. In fact, his research team has discovered marine species in the Antarctic that produce compounds active against skin cancer and influenza.

McClintock is not an alarmist. He does not have a political agenda. But he knows firsthand the earth is warming and he understands some of the consequences. Mid-winter temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula where he works are 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were 60 years ago. That may not seem like a big difference to us non-scientists, but it’s devastating to a delicate polar ecosystem (and other ecosystems).

In fact, this spring, McClintock and his research associates documented an invasion of king crabs that are likely to endanger fragile Antarctic clams, snails, and brittlestars, or perhaps even the sea squirts that he and his colleagues study that could unlock a cure for skin cancer. This new predator, with its crushing claws, is moving in because of the rapidly warming seas. Once they make their way up onto the Antarctic shelf, an archaic marine ecosystem that has been without crushing predators for millennia will find itself largely defenseless. King crabs could very well destroy McClintock’s living lab. For McClintock, it’s like discovering someone is about to burn down your home and your life’s work and possessions.

I have always believed the National Academies of Science and the National Research Council motto “Where the nation turns for independent and expert advice” accurately portrays that most venerable institution. As a nation, we have been seeking their advice since President Lincoln established this scientific body in 1863. Last month, without much fanfare, and little to no attention from the national media, the National Academies released their latest congressionally requested report on climate change.

The report, “America’s Choices,” does not pull any punches. It reaffirms that climate change is occurring now and that the most effective strategy to combat it would be to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

What makes this report more shocking is the fact that it is not new. As far back as 2005, the National Academies of the U.S., France, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Italy, Japan, Germany, Brazil and China have jointly called upon policy makers throughout the world to address climate change. The message from the National Academies six years ago was virtually identical to the one in 2011. Climate change is real. We need to drastically reduce greenhouse emissions. We need to aggressively seek technological and scientific solutions. Delaying will only make matters worse.

And now, more than ever, the signs of climate change are becoming starker. The extreme weather and floods in the Midwest and South this spring, historical droughts and fires in Texas and Arizona, permafrost disappearing in Russia/Siberia, floods in Pakistan, massive drought followed by flooding in Australia and whole villages in Alaska disappearing because of sea level rise are just a few recent examples.

The climate is changing so rapidly the Arbor Day Foundation has changed its recommendations for when and where you should plant your trees.

Are we going to follow the National Academy of Sciences and countless scientists’ advice on climate change? Are we going to listen to Dr. James McClintock and try to save a place that can lead to cures for cancer? Or are we going to barely lift our heads and refuse to recognize the climate changing around us?
Byington is publisher of Bama Environmental News. He is a longtime environmental advocate from Birmingham, Alabama who has served on numerous state and national environmental boards.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 7/11