Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Egypt: A Warning for U.S. Democracy


By Frank Knapp Jr.

Make no mistake about it -- the peaceful Egyptian revolution was brought about by the workers and small business owners of that country protesting together. They want economic opportunity for all and a democratically elected government that puts its peoples’ interests above the interests of the financially powerful, well-connected oligarchy.

There is a lesson here for our country.

Our government structures are becoming ever more influenced by those with extremely deep pockets at the expense of our citizens and small businesses. And while we have a tradition of a democratic election process to address needed changes in our government, that process is becoming less and less democratic.

This important issue was the topic of many meetings on my recent trip to Washington -- reducing the extraordinary influence of big corporate money in our government. Last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that corporations are “people” that have a Constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections has moved our country rapidly down the road to a far less democratic nation -- a road we were already on.

Our government “of the people, by the people and for the people” is in jeopardy of becoming “of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.” Real “people” will only be pawns to be manipulated when corporate money totally dominates our elections. Already we’ve seen how corporate lobbyists dominate the legislative process.

Small businesses are and should be very concerned. We know that big U.S. and multi-national corporations are only interested in profits regardless of the consequence to small businesses.

The fact is that what is good for big business is often not good for small business.

That is exactly the reason The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce was founded over 10 years ago. Small businesses must fight for ourselves and not simply rely on paternalistic big businesses to allow scraps to fall off the bountiful table they have bought for themselves.

Right now in Washington big corporate campaign donors are pushing:

• for even more tax incentives for offshoring production and jobs -- lost opportunities for small businesses to supply goods and services to domestic manufacturing and fewer workers buying from our local small businesses.

• to eliminate regulations aimed at protecting us from another financial meltdown causing another great recession -- one that destroys the customers base, credit and loans small businesses need to survive.

• to cripple any chance for comprehensive national energy and climate legislation -- a significant opportunity for jumpstarting a green economy that will both create new small businesses and offer more opportunities for existing ones.

These and other goals of big corporations, many that now have no allegiance to our country or any country, are likely to be successful not on the merits of the ideas but on the size of the corporate campaign chests.

Fortunately, citizens and small businesses across this country are organizing to take back our democracy from these corporate “persons.” We understand that what the Egyptians are demonstrating to get, we are on the verge of losing.

So while our members of Congress publicly express their support for the Egyptian peoples’ desire for real democracy, they need to look at the direction our own country is heading and start listening to the concerns of our citizens and small businesses.

Egypt is a warning to the United States.
Knapp is president and CEO of The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 2/11


By Mahnaz Afkhami

A new day has dawned in Egypt. The dictator has been brought down. Euphoria is in the air. How will women fare as euphoria yields to reality?

During the past several days, I have kept in touch with our partners in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. They all agree that Egypt forecasts their destiny. They are enthusiastic and their exuberance is contagious.

Having lived through Iran’s 1979 revolution that dashed the hopes of millions, I was skeptical about Egypt’s prospects for a peaceful transition to participatory democracy. And I know revolutions are heady experiences, especially for the young, and especially for young women in repressive Middle Eastern countries. The Cairo air now shimmers with possibility, just as the air of Tehran once did.

Iran’s new regime proved far worse than the old regime, especially for women. What now in Egypt? Enas El Shafei, who leads our partner organization in Egypt, was optimistic, proud that the world hears voices of the Egyptian people for the first time in a generation. She was encouraged by people forming groups to clean and police their communities, to help each other and to provide services. Women, she said, are everywhere in the front ranks of protesters.

"This is about the Egyptian people -- not Christians, Muslims, men or women," she said. And she’s right. This is a popular revolution against autocracy and a desire for justice and dignity.

Other factors also suggest a better outcome. Egypt's opposition is not led by a charismatic and despotic personality with an unshakeable belief that he has a mandate from the Almighty. Second, Iran’s example is a caution to many Egyptians pressing for change. And finally, Egyptian women are fully engaged. “They are the police, they are the doctors -- they do everything,” Enas said. “Tahrir Square might be the media center, but transformation is occurring everywhere.”

Now that the transition is underway, the challenge ahead is to keep women’s rights on the reformers’ agenda. We must keep reminding the negotiators that democracy requires it.

Our Egyptian partner organization, Forum for Women in Development, has been working for a decade to introduce a culture of democracy at the grass-roots level. Democracy is both process and mindset, so our partners have tried quietly to lay the foundation for a culture of tolerance and consensus-building. They press for legislative change because new laws in one Muslim country can bolster arguments for change in others. They show, for example, that laws limiting women’s role in
decisions that govern their lives are in conflict with constitutions that give lip service to equality, as they are with the provisions of the international treaty on women’s rights known as CEDAW, which all area governments except Sudan and Iran have ratified. They have pointed out discrepancies among schools of Islam on the role of women, showing that it is not God's will but society that dictates how women are treated.

They’ve made considerable headway. Tunisia was prodded into eliminating the “reservations” it had placed on its terms for CEDAW ratification. Moroccans have reformed land ownership and family laws that govern women's right to marriage, divorce, work, travel, and child custody. Jordan now requires that 20 percent of political candidates be women. Lebanese women just gained rights for women citizens married to non-Lebanese men, and most countries now have women in cabinets and parliaments, albeit in low percentages.

But today in Cairo, the danger is that reformers will repeat Iran’s mistake and postpone women’s rights issues until “things settle down.” Although women have often participated in demonstrations, faced danger and given full support to opposition movements, they’ve held back on voicing their own aspirations and needs, convinced by movement leaders that somehow their demands were impractical at the moment, or of secondary importance. They accepted assurances that once success was achieved, their rights would be honored.

In Iran and elsewhere, that didn’t happen. Unless women are involved at every step – not just in organizing demonstrations but in shaping opposition demands and strategies, and especially in negotiations that determine the politics of the future – the result will bear no resemblance to the moderate, democratic society that everyone wants. Egyptian women must insist on being part of the political process. They must insist that the issue of women’s rights be on the agenda of every transition discussion.

Like drops of water, if we are persistent, we can bore into rock, uniting into rivulets and then rivers of change on behalf of women and everyone else.

Afkhami is founding president of Women's Learning Partnership (WLP), a coalition of 20 organizations, mostly in Muslim-majority countries, that focuses on empowerment of women and democratic leadership. She was also the former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Iran.


By Susan Shaer

Are you clued in to the current slashing and burning going on in Washington, DC? The new Congress is trying to settle on a federal budget that should have been voted on last fall. President Obama unveiled his idea for the next budget on Monday. How do you think they are setting priorities? After all, our federal budget shows what we value, doesn’t it? What we care about as a country? So what does our president’s budget care about?

President Obama’s federal budget for our next fiscal year revealed that almost all of Secretary of Defense Gates’ recommended Pentagon “cuts” (really restructuring and a reduction in the rate of increase) will be consumed by increased war spending. The total Pentagon budget planned for 2012-2016 shows virtually no change between this year and last year's projections.

This year, President Obama does face an incredibly steep challenge –growing deficits and debt. The fall election made it clear that fiscal conservatives, Tea Party candidates, and backers demand deep spending cuts to address this. Despite promises from President Obama that everything would be considered for cuts – this is not true for the Pentagon.

Worse, the new Republican-run Congress proposes that this year’s spending be cut back by $100 billion. To do this, they are proposing draconian cuts to everything except military spending.

Yes, we need a strong defense but also a reasonable one. Horrified hoards responded when they learned we sent troops to Iraq without proper body and vehicle protection. Ironically enough, we are currently spending about one hundred billion a year in Afghanistan – the same amount that Congress is proposing we find by cutting needed domestic programs. Critics still remind Congress that we are not protecting our ports or transportation systems here at home. These are not examples of a reasonable approach to defense.

Recent polls show that most Americans would juggle the budget deficit/debt problem differently than what President Obama proposes. Congress, however, does not ordinarily hear this message. They ignore their constituents. On the subject of the military industrial complex, members of Congress heartily agree with the military contractors instead of those individuals who vote for them. Recent analyses acknowledge that military contractors recognized immediately that when the Cold War was over their gravy train had ended. They needed a new strategy for survival and growth. So they developed one by making parts of weapons systems in every congressional district in the country.

There are prices to be paid at every level for this kind of thinking. Job training, science research, higher education, National Institutes of Health, heating aid for the poor, nutrition programs for children - the list goes on and on. These programs will help us to economic recovery. These programs are where we need to invest in order to have a hope of competing in the coming decades. The President’s plan would freeze many of these programs at last year’s spending levels, while the Pentagon is gobbling up way over half of the overall discretionary budget.

We need to stop mindless unchecked spending on bloated Pentagon programs that feed defense contractors while starving real economic and security needs. Let’s be winners with our American values. Do we choose weapons and war, or do we insist on real security, a growing economy and a healthy environment?

Shaer is executive director of Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), a national activist organization working to redirect excessive military spending to unmet human and environmental needs.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 2/11


By Rev. Garrett J. Andrew

I worked as waiter to support myself in seminary. It was one of the more difficult jobs I have had. The hours are always a bit strange. You are on your feet for long periods of time. There are the customers, ah yes, there are the customers. Some were demanding and some were laid back. But no matter, I worked as hard as I could to ensure I did the best job that I could. It was the customers after all that ensured that I could actually survive as a waiter. Without the tips I would never have been able to make it.

The worst nights were when I left with almost nothing. We had to tip others out and they had done their work well so they deserved all I could give them. But one night I remember I was going to leave with just $6 after working for 5 hours. Knowing that I was not going to be getting any more money for food the next day, I went into the kitchen and found some food that was going to be thrown away. I asked the manager if I could have it for dinner. Granted permission, I found myself eating other people’s leftovers and thanking God that I had even that.

I did this all while working in California, a state that requires all tipped employees to be paid minimum wage. Here in Georgia the minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. It’s with first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that tipped workers endure that I implore us all to support the federal Working for Adequate Gains in Employment Services (WAGES) Act, expected to be reintroduced soon in the new Congress.

Should this proposal be signed into law, it would require that tipped workers minimum salary be increased to no less than $5.50 an hour, over several yearly increments. Fifteen percent of all waiters and waitresses live below the federal poverty level. If this proposal becomes law, it would ensure that people who are able to find employment are treated more fairly by their employers, and not as virtual slaves who have to rely on the generosity of others to ensure their own success.

WAGES would strengthen our own economy by providing a better tax base and more disposable income for those who are in the most need. It would also combat poverty in a community where poverty is one of our fiercest enemies.

Practical reasons aside, I support this measure because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps you disagree and think that the economy will take a hit, or that unemployment will increase, or something else equally awful. I’m not sure about any of that, but I am sure that we are not treating people right.

We are keeping working people from receiving a fair wage and requiring them to live off the generosity of others. We are making working people beg to survive in a land where we say anyone who works hard enough can make it. Let’s live into the vision of our words and make sure hard-working people have a chance.
Rev. Andrew is the Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Albany.
Copyright (C) 2011 by Georgia Forum. 2/11


By Chris Coleman

When the newly-elected Republican congressman from Maryland, Andy Harris, was told that his government-subsidized health insurance would not go into effect until four weeks after his swearing in, he was furious. According to an article in Politico.com, he demanded to know why it would take so long and what he was supposed to do without 28 days of health care.

Ironically, Harris, like most of Tennessee’s congressional representatives, campaigned against “government health care,” and remains committed to repealing the new health care law, which would give his constituents and the American people the very same benefits and protections he is demanding for himself. The House of Representatives will soon vote on a proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and nearly all of Tennessee’s representatives intend to vote in favor of repeal. In other words, our representatives will attempt to take away from us what they intend to keep for themselves and their own families.

What are the benefits and protections that the opponents of the Affordable Care Act want to keep for themselves but deny to the American people? Here are a few examples:

• When the Affordable Care Act fully goes into effect in 2014, it will guarantee that Americans will have access to health coverage, even if they have a pre-existing condition. Members of Congress already have guaranteed access to government-subsidized health coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions, yet many will vote to take this protection away from American families.

• The Affordable Care Act will provide tax-credit subsidies for millions of Americans to help make insurance premiums affordable. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act hope to deny these subsidies to Americans, even though members of Congress receive subsidies of almost three-quarters of their total health insurance premiums.

• The Affordable Care Act will eliminate the prescription drug benefit gap, the so-called “donut hole,” for people on Medicare. Elimination of the donut hole started last year, when everyone on Medicare who reached the donut hole received a $250 check to help them pay for their medications.

• This year, seniors falling into the donut hole will get a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs and other discounts on generic drugs. These discounts will increase each year until the donut hole is completely eliminated in 2020. Repealing the Affordable Care Act would eliminate this important improvement in Medicare for seniors and people with disabilities, even though Congressional insurance plans include prescription drug benefits without a coverage gap.

There are many other examples of protections and benefits that members of Congress receive that Americans would lose if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, from limits on out-of-pocket costs when they or their family members get sick, to the right to appeal wrongful denials of insurance claims.

Responding to charges that it is hypocritical to accept government-subsidized health insurance while denying it to American families, several newly elected Congressmen—Bobby Schilling and Joe Walsh of Illinois, Bill Johnson of Ohio, and Mike Kelley of Pennsylvania—have honored their campaign rhetoric by refusing to accept congressional health care.

Other representatives reject the charges of hypocrisy. Freshman Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) told reporters, "What am I, not supposed to have health care? It's practicality. I'm not going to become a burden on the state because I don't have health care, and God forbid I get into an accident and I can't afford an operation. That can't happen to anyone."

Unfortunately, that happens to people all the time because most people, unlike Reps. Harris, Grimm, and the entire Tennessee congressional delegation, do not have access to government-subsidized health care. And it will continue to happen if opponents of the Affordable Care Act succeed in their efforts to repeal it.
Coleman is Staff Attorney of the Tennessee Justice Center.
Copyright (C) 2011 by Tennessee Editorial Forum. 2/11

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Individual Mandates as a Moral Imperative


By Raymond H. Feierabend, MD

It’s no secret that the individual mandate is one of the most unpopular and controversial aspects of the new health care reform law.

It’s being challenged legislatively in the Tennessee General Assembly, and legally through lawsuits such as the one recently ruled on in Virginia. Two thirds of Americans say they would like to see a repeal of that provision of the law. Yet, seven in 10 Americans favor restrictions on insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions and to rescind coverage when individuals become ill. Unfortunately, as long as our health care system is based largely on the private insurance industry, we can’t have one without the other.

Politically, passage of comprehensive health care reform would not have been possible with active opposition from the industry. Repeal of the individual mandate alone at this time would be vigorously opposed by health insurers and most health care providers, including hospitals and large health care systems.

Economically, without an individual mandate, the cost of insurance for those in individual and small group markets would continue to skyrocket. As the cost of premiums continues to increase, those who are young and healthy would be more likely to opt out, while those who are older and sicker would have a greater need to stay in the system.

As a form of risk management, health insurance limits each individual’s liability by spreading the cost amongst all those who are insured. The larger the pool of those contributing, the more predictable the costs incurred and the lower the premiums needed to adequately cover those costs. It works only if there is a large enough pool of healthy, lower risk individuals paying premiums into the system. If most of those who participate are ill or at high risk of becoming ill, then the cost of coverage for each individual will be much higher. If individuals wait to begin paying premiums until they become ill, they will reap the benefits of the insurance without having paid into it while healthy.

Most of those who refuse to pay for health insurance even when they are capable of doing so are simply gaming the system. They are willing to take the chance that they won’t get sick; if and when they do, it’s unlikely that they will be able to purchase insurance. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t be taken care of when necessary. If they become seriously ill or have a serious injury they will receive medical care, even if they are unable to pay for it themselves. Most hospitals and emergency departments have moral and legal obligations to provide emergency and lifesaving care to those in need, regardless of their ability to pay.

In 2009, community hospitals in this country provided over $39 billion in uncompensated care; more than half of all emergency room care in this country is uncompensated. Once an uninsured individual has exhausted their own resources, which doesn’t take long for most folks with a serious illness or injury, those who are insured and/or pay taxes end up paying for them. By not requiring everyone who is capable to pay into the system, we allow such folks to take advantage of our expensive health care system without paying for it.

There are only a couple of ways to prevent individuals from abusing the system in this way. First, we can require that everyone participate in the system, either by having insurance or by paying a tax or penalty. This can be accomplished via a single payer system supported by taxes, or by including an individual mandate in the current system. Second, we can require those who are able to obtain insurance but choose not to, to sign a waiver foregoing all medical care that is not paid for up front. Hospitals, emergency departments, physicians and other providers of health care services would then be free to deny any care that isn’t paid for, regardless of the seriousness of the condition.

But is that really the kind of health care system we want in this country?
Dr. Feierabend is a professor with the Department of Family Medicine at James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 2/11


By C. David Hill, MD, F.A.A.P.

Everybody deserves smoke-free air. Pediatricians have first-hand experience about what happens when children and babies breathe second-hand smoke.

Smoking is a known cause of preterm birth, low birth-weight and very low birth-weight infants. Exposure to tobacco smoke in the womb causes increased miscarriages and neonatal deaths. And smoking-related health problems result in increased health care costs for all of us.

Mississippi has the nation’s highest prematurity rate and the highest infant mortality rate. Women who work or must do business in buildings where smoking is prevalent suffer an increased risk to their pregnancy even if they do not smoke.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that second-hand smoke also contributes to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Approximately 430 U.S. newborns die each year from smoking related SIDS. In 2009, 38 Mississippi babies died from SIDS. The Mississippi infant death rate is about 130 percent of the national rate. SIDS is the third most common reason for infant deaths in Mississippi and account for 12 percent of all infant deaths in our state.

Second-hand smoke also exacerbates upper and lower respiratory infections, asthma and ear problems. Children who accompany their parents into buildings where smoking is prevalent are affected by this elevated risk to their health.

Because children breathe faster, they are twice as likely to be affected by exposure to second-hand smoke. Because the chemicals in tobacco smoke linger in clothing, carpet, cars and furniture, children ingest these chemicals even when no one is actively smoking.

This is why the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics supports smoke-free air proposals this session. We have joined with other health advocates around the state including the State Department of Health, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the State Medical Association and the Mississippi Nurses Association to tell our legislators that it is time to join 26 other states and ban smoking in the workplace and in public places.

We know that smoking bans decrease the likelihood that teens will start smoking. Cigarette companies target teens as potential smokers because people who start smoking as adolescents are most likely to become addicted to nicotine and continue to smoke into adulthood. Cigarettes are designed for addiction via nicotine and 7,000 other added chemicals and compounds. Adolescents’ physiology is more sensitive to nicotine, which is why about 1,000 teens start smoking every day.

The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke. Even low levels of smoke exposure, including second-hand and residual smoke, lead to an immediate dysfunction and inflammation of the lining of blood vessels, which is implicated in heart attacks and strokes. Cities that have adopted smoke-free laws -- including Starkville and Hattiesburg -- have seen a significant decline in the number of heart attack patients admitted to their hospital emergency rooms.

Every year, approximately 550 Mississippians who do not smoke -- including babies and children -- die from exposure to secondhand smoke. According to Communities for a Clean Bill of Health, smoking-related illnesses cost Mississippi Medicaid alone approximately $264 million a year.

Our legislators are reluctant to pass a smoking ban, believing that large and small businesses should be able to decide for themselves whether to keep their facilities smoke-free. If secondhand smoke at any level was not a proven health risk, that might be a good reason to oppose a smoke-free air law. However, our own experience with smoking bans around the state is proving again that there is no safe level of secondhand smoke. It’s time to support smoke-free public places.
Dr. Hill is Chapter Tobacco Control Champion for the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Mississippi Forum 2/11


By Amy Hanauer

Dear Governor Kasich,

As you begin your term, it is a perfect moment to rethink priorities and map new paths. With high unemployment, big budget shortfalls, and continued erosion of our industrial base, our problems might feel overwhelming.

But during and after our toughest economic time – the Great Depression – Americans created Social Security, wove our safety net, established unemployment insurance and encouraged other innovations that generated the world’s first real middle class, with four decades of improvements to prosperity, equity, living standards, education levels, and life spans. Later we passed the Clean Water Act in response to the burning Cuyahoga, enacted civil rights, and committed resources to public schools and colleges.

Throughout the 20th century, we moved forward. At times far less prosperous than today, we still invested in education, the environment, infrastructure, workers, and families. The result was a state with greater equity, more entryways to the middle class, and cleaner, safer communities.

Good public policy has the power to increase education, productivity, safety, and security. But bad policy can do the opposite. In the past generation, we allowed economic inequality to reach Depression-level heights. We ignored manufacturing and let job quality deteriorate. We deregulated, allowing toxic mortgages, loans, and food to be marketed and sold to Ohio families.

We watched suburbs gobble green space, resulting in an ever-greater need for polluting and imported fossil fuels. We let cities, counties, and states engage in mutually self-destructive competition to slash taxes, starving public budgets everywhere.

Governor Kasich, you can recommit to what made Ohio and America great. At times far less prosperous than today, we nonetheless invested in education, the environment, infrastructure, workers and families. The result was a state with greater equity, more entryways to the middle-class, and cleaner, safer communities. The 20th century moved us forward. Despite new challenges, we must build on past accomplishments, not let them erode. Here are a half dozen ways you can lead us.

1. Restore revenues: Together with other changes, the 2005 remake of the tax system is costing Ohio $2.1 billion in annual net revenue, straining our ability to provide security, education, and basic needs. With the legislature, you can restore the highest income tax bracket, get rid of exemptions and abatements, and ensure that the new corporate tax system generates the revenue that the old one did.
2. Shrink some spending: Most of what the public sector does is needed, and the fiction that we can have a better state while delivering less is just that. Roads, transit, schools, universities, and a safety net cost money and enrich our lives. But some policies cost more and deliver less: sentencing non-violent, low-level offenders to costly prisons, giving new tax abatements despite now-low corporate tax rates, and shifting elderly residents from more economical at-home care to nursing homes. You’ve voiced interest in fixing some of these – we can help.
3. Invest in energy: You are right to support the advanced energy standard, which is creating new markets for Ohio products while reducing emissions. You can also commit to commuter transit. Workers and employers rely on these systems, which vitalize cities and reduce energy use. Ohio could have a great supply chain in transit manufacturing. Also, most buildings remain inefficient so you could put Ohioans back to work on building retrofits. We’d be happy to provide a toolkit for how to renovate communities.
4. Advance assets: Through legislation and referendum Ohioans tried to eradicate exploitative payday loans but these lenders still prey on poor families. Get rid of payday lending once and for all, put in place a state Earned Income Credit to help working families, and establish some structures to help families build savings.
5. Target training, work on work: Too many Ohioans are out of work, as you have rightly lamented. Work with your friend Speaker John Boehner to ensure more federal aid for re-employing Ohio. Retain public workers -- they fill important needs while stabilizing our economy. Strategize with employers and unions about how best to retrain workers for future jobs and guarantee job quality. One first step – bolstering labor law enforcement would improve workers’ lives and ensure that Ohio gets all tax revenue owed by employers.
6. Educate: As you know, about 90 percent of Ohio children attend public schools. Provide solid funding, support innovation and teacher training, and strengthen the public system so that it works for all Ohio students. “Ohio has tremendous parks, neighborhoods, lakes, libraries, and people,” Hanauer concludes. “Governor Kasich, what you do will determine whether these assets thrive or wither.”

Ohio has tremendous parks, neighborhoods, lakes, libraries, and people. What you do will determine whether these assets thrive or wither. Good luck!
Hanauer is executive director of Policy Matters Ohio.
Copyright (C) 2011 by Ohio Forum. 1/11


By Elizabeth Crowell

There was some good news at the state Capitol in January.

The Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee met to announce their plans for passage of a redistricting plan this legislative session. It’s good to see that they are listening to Mississippians and are committed to adopting a timely and fair plan.

Once every 10 years, following the release of the U.S. Census Report, every state must draw new lines for the election of local, state and federal officials. A large part of the ability or inability of those elected officials to get anything done rests with the way district lines are drawn.

Both political parties and sitting legislators want district lines drawn to make theirs a “safe seat.” Too often, a “safe seat” means like-minded, more extreme voters who elect the more extreme members of their party.

In this “echo chamber” environment, there is no room for compromise or even listening to what the other side has to say. Working with constituents to solve problems becomes secondary to political grandstanding. The risk is that these elected officials become overly complacent and lose their sense of accountability to the voters. Governing then becomes the fractured, uncivil process that Americans repeatedly say they do not want. Sadly, community problems go unaddressed.

In a worst-case scenario, seen right here in Mississippi, state legislators cannot even agree on a redistricting plan. The process is thrown into court, and elections have to be “re-done,” which ultimately becomes a waste of time and tax dollars.

After hearings around the state, Joint Redistricting Chairman Sen. Terry Burton reported they had heard citizens’ concerns about “One Man One Vote,” the need for citizen input, and the importance of protecting the geographical integrity of precincts.

On a motion from House Redistricting Chair Rep. Tommy Reynolds, the committee unanimously adopted the following guidelines for their process:

1. That each new voting district population number within 5 percent of the mean voting population for all state districts;

2. That each new voting district’s territory be contiguous [hopefully this means compact]; and

3. That the redistricting plan follows all applicable federal and state laws [this would include the federal “One Man, One Vote” provision of the Civil Rights Act, as well as the precinct and county integrity guidelines in current state law].

Both Burton and Reynolds repeated that they plan to see each chamber’s plan adopted by the other without the political posturing and obduracy promised by a few well-placed candidates for higher office.

The Joint Legislative Redistricting Committee plans to hold four public hearings throughout the state the weekend following the Census’s release of the precincts’ population count on February 12. Common Cause Mississippi, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU and other good government groups are urging Mississippians to participate in these forums to provide the community voice necessary to out-weigh partisan pressure to control the process.

Thirteen states around the nation have established nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions whose charge is to redraw their state’s political map to reflect both our racial and ethnic diversity, and to honestly redistribute power based on shifts in in-state population from region to region, and from city to suburb.

If history is any lesson, the political party holding the governor’s office or the balance of power in the legislature will attempt to draw district lines to assure their ascendance and stifle any opposition from the other party. If that happens, the result is bound to be more gridlock.

Mississippians deserve better. We deserve a system where voters choose their elected representatives -- and not one where politicians choose the voters they want to elect them.
Crowell represents Common Cause Mississippi at the state Capitol.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Mississippi Forum 1/11


By: Maureen Costello

Sometimes the most important lessons learned at school don’t come from a classroom.

They come from how a school reacts to ugly incidents of bias and prejudice. When a principal learns that nasty slurs are being used in the school or that students are being bullied because of their race or ethnicity, it can be tempting to deny it.

It can be tempting to resort to the old refrain, “That doesn’t happen at our school.”

But it does. And when it happens, it must be addressed.

Recently, a principal in the metro Atlanta area had to address bias on campus. Where other school leaders might have denied or minimized the incidents, this one set a positive example by confronting the situation head-on.

And it wasn’t a pretty situation: A teacher was accused of referring to Latino students as “beaners.” At the same school, which will not be named here due to the nature of these allegations, a student was being bullied because she is Latina.

It’s enough to upset any parent. Not surprisingly, a parent met with the principal about it. She was accompanied by Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

The principal and teacher profusely apologized. The teacher said she didn’t realize the term she used was derogatory, noting that she picked it up from the students. It was a remarkable example of how an intolerant atmosphere can grow within a school, even among adults when they don’t recognize a term as hurtful and offensive.

The teacher pledged to stop using the term and the principal agreed to add it to the list of curse words students can’t use at the school. These actions send a clear message to students that such language is not acceptable. The principal also pledged to investigate the behavior of some students to get to the bottom of the bullying issue.

He even indicated that he’s willing to taking additional steps to curb future incidents. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program has offered free diversity training to the staff as a result.

The school’s quick, no-nonsense response is commendable. The principal recognized a key responsibility for educators -- ensuring all students feel safe and welcome at school.

This includes recognizing hurtful language that singles out students because of their race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. If adults don’t stop intolerant behavior, students will assume it’s acceptable and engage in it. All too often, bullying begins with name-calling and the casual use of slurs.

That’s not to say addressing this issue isn’t difficult. Race and ethnicity are sensitive subjects for people. No one wants to bring negative attention to their school. But children learn -- and learn to use wisely -- vocabulary through instruction. Without direction, these incidents can occur in any school. That’s why it is so important for educators to be prepared to address them.

The greater offense is for a school to deny that there’s a problem and allow an atmosphere of intolerance to take root. That’s something that shouldn’t happen in any school.
Costello is Teaching Tolerance Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Copyright (C) 2011 by Georgia Forum. 1/11


By Nicole C. Lee, Esq.

When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010 the world community came to its aid. Millions of private citizens in this country and around the world reached into their household budgets and gave generously to the Haitian people who were grappling with the devastation.

We sat in front of our televisions and watched men digging for their families. We gave more. We heard doctors lament the lack of supplies. We gave more. In March, the United Nations member states and international partners met in New York and passionately pledged more than $5 billion over the next 18 months to help Haiti recover.

Despite the billions of dollars pledged from private citizens and world governments, a serious health scare has arisen. With poor sanitation, malnutrition, little safe drinking water and no sewage systems, the over-crowded temporary housing tent communities provide an ideal breeding ground for cholera.

One independent report has conservatively estimated that there is one toilet for every 273 people in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. Throughout Haiti, a year after we opened our hearts and wallets, the latrines are not cleaned on a regular basis and human waste spreads into the streams by the frequent rains. Now, a year later, limited water distribution continues, with little development of sustainable, municipal water-filtration systems.

In the face of these conditions, Haiti remains the non-governmental organization (NGO) capital of the world. Before the earthquake, there were more than 5,000 organizations on the ground in Haiti. From the International Red Cross to Save The Children to any number of church and civic organizations, Haiti is replete with people of good will who are there to make it a better place to live. Each of these organizations conducted their own fundraising campaigns after the earthquake and collected millions of dollars.

With millions of dollars at our disposal do we really lack the ability to support basic sanitation and clean water? Do we lack the ability to stop a preventable, deadly water-borne disease right off our coast? What happened to all of the money?

Many of the charities on the ground have reported they are setting aside a portion of their donations (sometimes up to 70 percent) for the “reconstruction” period. It’s clear from the outpouring of support many of those who donated from their own scarce family budgets believed they were giving to save lives immediately. In the face of a preventable public health emergency, like cholera, many will be surprised that more than half of their donations continue to sit in U.S. banks.

My organization has attempted for nearly a year to get the Red Cross to account for the money they collected for Haiti. In a recent meeting, I was told that 70 percent of their donations remain in “reserve” to be used for longer-term reconstruction.

Long-term development to secure transitional and permanent housing, build infrastructure outside of Port-au-Prince and promote public health campaigns are all extremely important issues. But if the Red Cross, whose mandate and expertise lie in emergency and crises management, is not responding to continued immediate emergencies on the ground, then who is? Who is responsible for the deteriorating quality of life and preventable suffering faced by those most affected by the earthquake?

We have asked the House oversight Committee, to hold a hearing on large private NGOs and USAID partner organizations to ask one simple question: “What happened to all of the money?” Though significant promises of donations have been made, many communities of earthquake survivors continue to face challenges in accessing even the most basic of services. Our repeated requests to determine where the money went have fallen on deaf ears.

We need to know who is responsible for coordinating the money donated to Haiti? Who is holding the thousands of NGO’s on the ground accountable for the money they collected from U.S. families and families around the world? Moreover, who is pressuring the international donor nations to make good on their promises to help to Haiti?

Indeed, there is very little coordination of the aid to Haiti. The Interim Commission tasked to coordinate and assure transparency of donations has been nearly silent. There is no central NGO leadership to create a coordinated effort that will assure that there is at least clean water, decent sanitation and proper housing. We all have hope for Haiti’s future. And yet, Haiti’s present is still at risk.
Lee is the President of TransAfrica Forum and a human rights attorney who lived and worked in Haiti.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 1/11