NORTH CAROLINA EDITORIAL FORUM
By Roxane Kolar
General Assembly veterans can’t remember a more difficult session.
With revenue crimped to a trickle, legislators have a Solomon’s chore in trying to maintain our state’s core values. For most of us, that’s good jobs, quality schools, access to health care and a clean environment. But some lawmakers want to break in line with another priority: more guns.
The legislature is now considering proposals that would allow concealed weapons in family restaurants, bars and neighborhood parks. Another proposal circumvents business owners’ rights by forcing them to allow guns in their parking lots – as well as in hospital and church lots. Then there's the one that would allow legislators to carry concealed firearms anywhere in the state.
Why is there such a rush to get more guns in more public places?
To believe these lawmakers, it's because North Carolina is a dangerous place where you take your life in your hands just by going to work, vacationing at the lake or spending a weekend evening with friends. This doesn’t sound like North Carolina to me. And the data backs my claim. Since 2008, the rate of violent crime decreased 12.5 percent statewide; this includes the murder rate, which is down 19.1 percent.
The gun lobby’s Wild West vision is a wildly distorted image of reality and sets up the second essential myth: an armed community is a safe community. Again, research shows the opposite. The sad truth is that more guns just equal more guns. No valid statistical evidence exists to show that allowing concealed weapons in more locations reduces crime. To the contrary, evidence suggests that loosening restrictions on concealed guns may actually increase crime. A recent study found that states with higher gun ownership rates and weak gun laws have the highest rates of overall gun death.
Maybe these legislators are responding to a perceived pressure from constituents. If that’s the case, polling suggests that it’s bad politics.
Polls conducted by Elon University and Public Policy Polling showed the majority of North Carolinians support our state’s existing gun laws. This includes 67 percent support for our county handgun permit system, which keeps weapons out of the wrong hands. This support holds true across geographic and political divides.
Since concealed weapons were legalized in the mid-1990s, North Carolina has built a system for deciding where guns should be allowed and who should be permitted to carry one. We should focus on improving that structure instead of dismantling it at great public risk.
Conceal carry permit systems are not without their flaws. In a 2006 study in Florida, 1,400 individuals who had pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies were allowed to buy guns. That was in addition to 216 people with outstanding warrants and 129 who were the subject of active domestic violence injunctions.
In North Carolina, our conceal carry permit system has several large gaps. Permit holders are not required to obtain a county permit from their local Sheriff’s Department and they are not required to pass a background check for five years. Before weakening our gun laws we should shorten the duration time of permits, allow more law enforcement discretion in granting permits, and not allow holders to be exempt from background checks.
In a national study, 57 percent of voters reported feeling less safe knowing that people can carry loaded, concealed guns in public.
Our legislators face challenging decisions that will define our state for years to come. This is not the time for knee-jerk responses that put our families in danger. Instead, we need them to work together to build strong systems and structures that will move us forward to being a safer state.
Kolar is the executive director of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence (NCGV).
Copyright (C) 2011 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 3/11
NORTH CAROLINA EDITORIAL FORUM
By Scott Chase
As a small business owner, I am worried our Legislature is going to make unnecessary and deep cuts to public services that local businesses and all Texans need. Yes, our state has a revenue shortfall, but we also have choices about how deal with the shortfall. We can take a balanced approach that uses our Rainy Day Fund.
My fellow business owners in the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce are concerned about unnecessary cuts too. Our chamber includes over 600 small business owners in the Dallas area. We were the first local chamber in Texas to call for the State Legislature to use the Rainy Day Fund to help balance the budget instead of the irresponsible “cuts-only” approach that the Legislature is considering.
The cuts-only approach of the Legislature is wrong for many reasons. All businesses, but particularly small businesses, such as the members of the Oak Cliff Chamber, know that spending on education, health care, roads and bridges, job training and the environment is an investment in the economic future of Texas. This investment will result in a more educated, healthier workforce and a modernized infrastructure. The large cuts in these areas being presented by reckless legislators will lead to a less competitive business climate in Texas, lower wage jobs and economic stagnation.
The cuts will affect our economy, not just in the future, but also right away. According to official legislative estimates, the cuts-only approach will also lead to over 300,000 fewer jobs, pushing unemployment up over 10 percent in Texas by 2013. Deep cuts to health care at the state level will mean increased costs of indigent health care for local taxpayers and higher health insurance rates -- both costing businesses.
But beyond the impact on our economy, the cuts-only strategy will have a detrimental impact on our society. Cuts in health care mean less healthy children; cuts in education mean fewer college graduates; cuts in transportation infrastructure mean longer commutes for workers and increased costs to move goods for businesses; and cuts in environmental monitoring mean dirtier air and water. That should not be the future of Texas either.
In the past, when Texas faced budget deficits, our state recognized that a balanced approach was necessary to keep the state moving forward. The Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker, and Legislators all worked together to find a solution that was in the best interest of all Texans. But, in the current Legislature, our future economic development and the health of all Texans is threatened by the imprudent cuts that do not have to be made.
Using our $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund is one way to minimize damaging cuts. Texans created the fund by constitutional amendment for the very situation our state is in now -- a revenue shortfall created by an economic downturn. In the first 18 of its 22 years, the fund never had a balance of more than $1 billion. In fact, the Legislature has spent the entire fund several times, including two times approved by Governor Perry. This is safe to do because the fund automatically replenishes from oil and gas severance taxes. Prices for oil and gas are likely to stay strong, rebuilding the fund quickly. Keeping billions in the Rainy Day Fund when we need to protect Texas from the damage of this recession is foolish.
The Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce has gone on record asking our state Legislature to use the Rainy Day Fund as part of the balanced approach to solving our revenue crisis. Has your chamber of commerce gone on record in support of a balanced approach?
Chase owns his own solo law practice in Dallas and has represented small business owners, as well as public companies, in Texas for over 30 years. He is chair of the Legislative Affairs Committee of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce and has served on the Legislative Affairs Committee of Texans for State Parks.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 4/11
By Susan Shaer
As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” It costs money to make this country hum. Anyone can see that it would be impossible to have roads crisscrossing the country, federal jails and courts, national parks and monuments, environmental protection that has no boundaries, and a whole raft of other essential services without a nationwide system in which we all have a stake.
Right now, our debt, the deficit and the spectacle of a narrowly averted government shutdown have focused attention on federal spending of tax dollars. To that, I say hooray. I hate looking at my own spending budget, but I know what my priorities are, and what money I have to use, save or borrow against. When we examine our personal finances, we recognize our personal values. Such a magnifying glass aimed at the federal budget will expose priorities of our “civilized” society.
So what are our federal values? We have two sides to the spending budget; one non-discretionary (required spending by law or interest on the debt), and the other discretionary. The discretionary side is where our priorities are displayed full frontal. The current budget allows for 56 percent on the Pentagon, wars and nuclear weapons.
Yes, that’s right. Not to confuse the issue, but that 56 percent does not include veterans’ benefits, or the interest we pay on the debt of past wars, or homeland security. We spend a lot on war, war planning, defense, offense, outdated weapons, overspending on weapons systems cost overruns and more.
It brings to mind the old adage: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If we have the “stuff” to make war, we use it. If we shifted priorities, we could spend more on international development to help countries survive and thrive so they might not be ripe for conflagration. If we had plentiful, well-trained and professional conflict resolution teams, we could rely on them more and boots on the ground less.
Our troops do a masterful job. The outpouring of support for what they have handled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Libya, is appropriate. However, many in Congress are saying it’s time to look at the military budget. The Pentagon does not pass audits. Weapons manufacturers routinely have cost overruns that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the budget. Weapons systems made in various congressional districts are reauthorized even if the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs don’t want them.
As you look at what you pay in federal income taxes, take a few minutes to think of our country’s values in spending your hard-earned dollars. Last year, in a nonpartisan town meeting effort sponsored by America Speaks in 60 cities across the country, 85 percent of all participants wanted defense spending cut by at least 10 percent, with a majority of participants, 51 percent, supporting a 15 percent cut.
We can have the defense we want and need, plus the security of jobs, health care, education and a clean environment by adjusting our spending priorities to meet our values. It’s time.
Shaer is executive director of the national women’s peace and security organization, WAND, Women’s Action for New Directions.
Copyright (C) 2011 by American Forum. 4/11
By Rick Weidman
When I served as an Army medic in Vietnam, I often saw a 19-year-old solider whose job was to spray an herbicide called Agent Orange on anything green inside my base. The same was true around the perimeter, to deny cover to any enemy intruders and to ensure a clear line of fire in case of enemy attack.
As I visited numerous American military bases in Vietnam during the war, they all looked like moonscapes. They were stripped of grass and foliage by the same chemical for the same reasons.
Now, more than 40 years after the war, we know that Agent Orange contained dioxin, which is among the world’s most lethal toxins. American veterans of Vietnam fought a long, hard postwar struggle to get our Veterans Administration to compensate troops for a dozen diseases associated with Agent Orange/dioxin. But what about the Vietnamese who were also exposed? And what about the leftover “hot spots” of dioxin that still exist there and continue to harm people to this very day?
The U.S. military shipped, stored, and sprayed millions of gallons of Agent Orange/dioxin over a quarter of the former South Vietnam, both for crop destruction and to deny cover to the enemy. In this country we know from our own experiences with dioxin at Love Canal and Times Beach that these toxic hot spots can cause death and disease to those who come in contact with the chemical. The diseases range from spina bifida to Parkinson’s and certain forms of cancer.
However, the political battle still rages in Washington. VA Secretary Shinseki has classified three additional diseases as associated with Agent Orange/dioxin, thereby making veterans with those conditions eligible for compensation. In addition, women who served in Vietnam can receive compensation if their children are disabled with any of 14 birth anomalies. That’s because Agent Orange/dioxin can cause DNA damage for generations.
The struggle is far from over. We have reason to believe that many additional adverse medical conditions in Vietnam veterans of both sexes also are caused by these exposures, including possible genetic problems in grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Meanwhile, in Vietnam, Agent Orange/dioxin damage also lingers. While we have made some progress for Americans harmed by these exposures, our friends in Vietnam have a long way to go to match our modest gains. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that 3 million people, including more than 150,000 of today’s children, are disabled because of the chemical. Former airbases like Da Nang contain dangerous toxic hot spots where Agent Orange was stored and handled and spilled into the ground. Dioxin is hard to break up in the soil and it lasts in human body tissue for years.
Unlike the United States government, the Vietnamese recognized that Agent Orange/dioxin might cause chromosomal damage in the second and third generations of original victims. My own experience is that families of American veterans also suffer. But the VA recognizes no health consequences from Agent Orange/dioxin in disabled daughters and sons of male veterans who served in Vietnam.
It’s time to put this legacy of the war in Vietnam to rest once and for all. A blue-ribbon commission of prominent Americans and Vietnamese has called for a 10-year, $300 million cleanup of Agent Orange/dioxin in Vietnam. The resources would eliminate the hot spots, restore damaged ecosystems and provide humanitarian assistance to the Vietnamese disabled population, including those second- and third-generation children affected by the chemical.
It seems to me that $30 million a year for 10 years, from government, foundation and private sources, is a small price to pay to help remedy the damage caused.
This is a humanitarian concern we can do something about. Recent progress in methods of treating contaminated soils and helping Vietnam’s disabled population shows that America is at its best when it steps up to heal past wounds.
If we make progress on nothing else regarding the ravages of Agent Orange and other toxic substances used in Vietnam, we must properly care for our future generations -- on both sides of the Pacific.
Weidman served as an Army Medic with the AMERICAL Division in I-Corps Vietnam in 1969. He currently serves as Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs on the national staff of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).
Copyright (c) 2011 by the American Forum. 4/11
By Volkan Topalli
At each stage of the criminal justice system, the proposed Arizona-style legislative initiatives in Georgia represent a substantial and potentially devastating cost to its citizens, and significant unintended consequences for public safety. The new law would require peace officers to attempt to verify a suspect's immigration status when the suspect is unable to provide legal identification.
The proposed legislation stipulates that, “A peace officer shall not consider race, color or national origin in implementing the requirements of this [law].” But research demonstrates that it's nearly impossible for individuals to discount attitudes about race when engaging in such tasks. T
Hence, the legislation likely would lead to racial profiling. It would put police officers in a nearly untenable situation, one where they'd be expected to decide not who “looks like” a foreigner (bad enough), but who “looks illegal,” leading to a spate of unnecessary and costly court proceedings when they get it wrong.
Also, the proposed legislation mandates poor policing. Remember, every time a peace officer pulls over or arrests someone because the officer is mandated to determine whether they're illegal, that's time he could be spending looking for or dealing with more serious criminal activity. Despite scandalous anecdotes pitched on radio and TV, academic research reveals that the foreign-born are far less likely to break the law than are average nativeborn citizens -- After all, they fear being unjustly deported or otherwise caught up in the justice system. Also, having local law-enforcement implement this legislation would undoubtedly impair community policing strategies, which would harm law enforcement’s efforts to ensure public safety for all residents. Many law-enforcement officials around the nation strongly oppose this type of legislation. They and many of the citizens they protect prefer to focus scarce public resources on fighting crime and promoting public safety, not on tackling immigration enforcement.
We don't have a court or corrections system capable of handling more prisoners. Given the downturn in the economy, there've been massive cuts to the criminal justice system in our state.
While the underfunded and overworked court system processes its way through new arrestees that law enforcement would bring them under this legislation, many of these individuals could spend significant time in already overcrowded jails until the courts decide whether they'll be incarcerated. Exacerbating the problem, overcrowded detention centers and jails charge the state an added premium of anywhere from $22 to $45 per day per inmate when they hold an inmate because a designated prison is full. It follows that accumulated costs to taxpayers of housing a sudden influx of inmates could be massive.
There's even more.
When jails exceed maximum capacities, safety becomes an issue. The next time you wonder whether corrections officers have a dangerous job, keep in mind that most prisons maintain an average ratio of 35 inmates to one corrections officer (who cannot carry a firearm). Now, increase that ratio to 50 or 60 inmates per officer ? "Hazard pay” takes on new meaning. The number of state-sentenced prisoners being housed in county jails rose 61 percent between 2008 and 2009. How high will that number jump with implementation of this legislation? And how much will it burden an already-strained and costly (at roughly $12,000-$18,000 per inmate) correctional system?
These are but a few of potential costs and pitfalls of voting in such legislation. In the absence of real research on the implications of the proposed legislation, we're rushing headlong into implementing a system that may cost much while not making us safer. Processing and serving people through the criminal justice system is expensive, something Gov. Nathan Deal wisely alluded to when acknowledging that imprisoning nonviolent offenders would place a massive financial burden on state corrections.
How much more a fiscal burden and public safety hazard could this legislation become?
Topalli is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director at The Crime & Violence Prevention Policy Initiative at Georgia State University.
Copyright (C) 2011 by Georgia Forum. 4/11
By Chandelle Summer
The evening of Jan. 18 began ordinarily enough, my husband and I engaging in our usual, bedroom channel-surfing along with the attendant full-scale, courtroom-worthy debate over which program was to be selected. With 1,150 channels, it's a long and arduous process. Then it happened.
"Two-four-six-eight, we don't want to integrate." Grainy, black-and-white images of throngs of fresh-faced angry teen-agers dressed in crisp white shirts standing at the Arch of the University of Georgia repeatedly screaming in unison, "Two-four-six-eight, we don't want to integrate." We were watching "Eyes on the Prize," a PBS series about 1960s civil-rights struggles.
Five decades ago, young African Americans endured the wrath of the white establishment and subjected themselves to close-range, fire-hosing at water pressures so strong they could rip the bark right off a tree. They endured rock-throwing, face-smashing and arm-twisting arrests. A young woman walked proudly onto the campus of the University of Georgia to the jeers and taunts of an angry mob. Fifty years later, here we go again.
Bills pending in this session of the Georgia General Assembly propose that all institutions of higher education and technical schools in Georgia deny entrance to children of undocumented immigrants. Presently, those without documentation who graduated from a Georgia high school can attend college in Georgia provided they pay out-of-state tuition. But the Georgia Legislature now is considering barring these students altogether. Mind you, these are the same children who have been educated by the state and who have been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance since they were toddlers.
American students are taught the evils of "caste systems" in other countries that allow only a small pool of candidates to receive higher education. Ostensibly, in America the best and the brightest are selected from a well-honed system of competition and opportunity. Merit-based achievement is encouraged, character education is mandated, and students in Georgia are taught that if they study hard, participate and achieve, a bright future is all but guaranteed. Of course, if you are an honor student who happened to have been cradled in your mother's arms when you crossed the southern border, even if you haven't laid eyes on the motherland since, forget it. Your land of opportunity may extend only to the tomato patch in South Georgia, where you will be welcomed with open arms because our agricultural industry depends upon you.
The most common refrain for those who would deny admittance to qualified students regardless of heritage is that those who pay no taxes don't support our institutions of higher learning. That argument must fail since undocumented workers pay sales taxes, property taxes and often pay payroll taxes. And no one is suggesting barring children whose parents don't or can't pay their taxes. If contribution is the standard by which we judge qualification, then clearly all those who fail to buy lottery tickets should be stopped from sending their children to school on the Hope scholarship.
Only a small percentage of undocumented students now attend college in Georgia. Chancellor Erroll Davis said, "Our capacity is not being stressed by thousands of illegal students. Out of 311,000 students in our 35 colleges and universities last fall semester, we found 501 undocumented students, or less than two-tenths of 1 percent. These 501 students all pay out-of-state tuition, which more than fully covers the cost of their education." The students Davis is referring to live in fear. They were powerless over the choices that brought them here and they are powerless over their destiny. Those of us blessed with reason, conscience and heart cannot sit back and watch another generation of children disenfranchised by laws born of prejudice and hate. The wide-eyed stares of those children who have been devalued and dehumanized as though they are somehow responsible for their own predicament will haunt our collective consciousness. We must not repeat the same social injustice that tarnished Georgia two score and 10 years ago.
Summer is an attorney and mother of five. She appears as "loyal opposition" on talk-radio simulcast on WDUN-550 AM and 102.9 FM, live stream on AccessNorthGa.com, and founder of Dream On (www.supportdreamon.com).
Copyright (C) 2011 by Georgia Forum. 3/11
By Doug Pibel
So far, agriculture has kept up with population -- there's enough food in the world to feed everyone. But not everyone's getting fed -- at least a billion people live with hunger, according to the U.N. World Food Program. And the world is in the midst of yet another spike in food prices. As long as we keep diverting grain from human mouths to animal ones, people will go hungry. It's simple market economics: It's more profitable to produce meat -- even though the meat that results from feeding grain to animals has less food value than the grain itself.
Which is why there's hunger even when there are no grain shortages: The wealthy of the world are willing to pay more to feed animals than poor people can pay to feed themselves.
So must we all become vegetarians in order to avert world hunger? Not necessarily. The spring issue of YES! Magazine suggests another route to food sufficiency.
Recent food price spikes mean those on the margins are more likely to go hungry, and political instability is among the outcomes. In February, the World Bank reported price levels only 3 percent below the 2008 peak that produced widespread food riots. At the beginning of March, The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported a 70 percent increase in export grain prices during the last year. The FAO Food Price Index was at its highest level since the FAO began monitoring prices in 1990.
The World Bank discusses two factors driving up food prices: weather and ethanol, and quotes a USDA estimate that 40 percent of the U.S. corn output will go to making ethanol this year.
But in the United States in 2009, the last full year for which numbers are available, 137 million metric tons of corn, sorghum, barley, and oats became animal feed. That's 46 percent of total U.S. consumption of those grains. It's also two and a half times the amount of grain the United States exported in that year.
The solution to world hunger, then, is simple: Stop eating meat.
No realistic person expects that, or anything close to it, to happen. There is a slew of valid reasons for being vegetarian: raising meat produces greenhouse gases, degrades water ways, and displaces forests and wild habitats, and many people feel that the way animals are raised and slaughtered is immoral. Nonetheless, it seems that meat eating will be with us always.
It turns out, though, that eating meat doesn't have to take food away from hungry people, and it doesn't have to involve a lifetime in a cage. As Joel Salatin says, in a YES! Magazine interview, "Don't blame the cow for the negatives of the industrial food system."
At Salatin's Polyface Farms, the pastures are five times as productive as the local average, and, he says, "We've never bought a bag of chemical fertilizer and we've never planted a seed." Salatin raises cattle, pigs, and chickens, and does it all without using anything that could become human food. He says his farmland has gotten richer and more fertile as a result of decades of grazing.
This is the model that most humans followed for most of history: Animals ate what humans couldn't, and turned that into meat that humans could eat. Ron Fairlie, in his new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, calls this "default livestock." He calculates that a universal return to that model would return food grains to human mouths, and still produce enough meat for everyone to have some.
Not a great deal, mind you -- about three quarters of a pound of meat and 1.33 pints of milk per week. But the roughly 1.5 billion people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh eat less than that already.
For the sacrifice of cutting our meat consumption, we'd eliminate the cruelty of confinement animal-feeding operations. We'd do away with the bulk of the greenhouse gases associated with industrial livestock -- Salatin says his operation actually sequesters carbon. Best of all, we'd know that no one in the world had to go to bed hungry.
Pibel is managing editor of YES! Magazine.
Copyright (C) 2011 by the American Forum. 3/11