Monday, February 28, 2011

And the Oscar For Best Ideologue Goes to the Angry Fat Guy

Convinced that all government is in a state of complete and utter crisis? Is the heavy weight of debt crushing the life out of our future prosperity?
Maybe the real load doomed to sink us is related to the girth of some of the guys running things around here. Over seventy-two percent of American men are overweight or obese, and they hold the reigns of power in the United States.
Women, weighing in significantly less, make up only 17% of the Congress, less than 24% of state legislatures, and less than 22% of state executive positions.
The rallying cry today is about personal responsibility and cutting spending. We talk about women and their good looks, but don’t talk about men and their big guts. We should. Obesity costs the American economy $270 billion per year in medical costs, loss of productivity and higher rates of death.
Almost every article covering the $315 million Huffington Post/AOL deal mentioned Arianna Huffington’s beauty, glamour and elegance, with not a word about the dashing (or not so much) looks of the men party to the transaction. Was the sensation of hair going up on my neck caused by sexist comments of the media, or just the wind ruffling my little Maine beard?
Every woman in power presents an optical illusion subject to public debate. Is she a hag, or is she a beautiful young woman? These conversations are apparently very important to our collective psyche.
Conversations about personal responsibility are important, too, in governing and in politics. It’s time to talk openly about many of the men in charge today in the media, in politics and in office who want to drastically cut the size of government. They are under a different type of illusion. They say they want smaller government but they are fat, and getting fatter by the minute.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Whining and Dining With Special Interests

Thank God the Maine Heritage Policy Center, that bastion of constitutional law and government transparency, is now running things in Augusta. The Maine Legislature might finally get the respect it deserves. This week, for instance, lawmakers are cordially invited to attend a “a private Legislative Briefing and Dinner” at the Senator Hotel and Spa to hear DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. This will be the first time she addresses policy makers as a group about welfare reform, a huge and controversial issue, so its fitting that We the People and the press won’t be pestering legislators while they scarf down prime rib and garlic mashed potatoes.
It appears Commissioner Mayhew, on the job now for about two weeks, is a heck of a lot smarter than some thought. She cracked the welfare system puzzle, and will rescue the thousands of poor Mainers trapped in poverty. And a big shout out to the MHPC! In a stunning coincidence, Mayhew has apparently concluded what these “free market conservatives” have been telling people for years: 
Maine's welfare system undermines hard work and traps parents and children in poverty and we must fix the system to free families from dependency through accountability and hard work!
One in seven Maine children are living in poverty because they don’t work hard enough. Simple.
Former Governor Baldacci and the Democrats treated legislators like the proletariat when they were in charge. Attending a briefing by a Commissioner meant cramming in to the stuffy Appropriations Committee room with members of the public (!) and the press, or worse, suffering through an American Chop Suey dinner on paper plates at the Armory. The cost of this slop was actually deducted from their per diem. How humiliating.
Its mourning in Augusta, friends. Don’t you feel prouder, stronger and better?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kiss My Beard, Governor

Recent comments by Maine’s governor have been distorted by the media, and the reporting has largely ignored his most important remarks. Yes, Governor LePage said, “so the worst case is some women may have little beards,” in response to a question about the dangers of BPA, the additive to plastics believed by most scientists to interfere with human hormones and cause numerous health problems.

But that’s not the end of the story. Governor Lepage went on to say, “and we don’t want to do that.”

What does the governor have against a little female facial hair? Doesn’t he know there are hundreds of thousands of American women born and raised in the U.S. (with the papers to prove it) who proudly, albeit inadvertently, sport mini-beards already?

Maine’s governor appears to have many symptoms of the right-wing flu spreading throughout the United States. Women are particularly vulnerable to this highly infectious strain of the disease. We are being denied healthcare, representation, family planning, welfare benefits, constitutional protections, and educational opportunities for ourselves and our children. In return we are offered BPA-laden sippy cups, low wages, discrimination and war.

But even this epidemic of testosterone-induced legislation is not enough yet to bring women together and rise up, form a political party, and fix what’s so obviously broken with politics in the United States. It’s going to take something more – some unconscionable and enormous assault on our dignity. Something like facial hair.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Hospital and a Teacher Walk in to a Bar

"We need to be honest with the Maine people. This isn't about slamming anybody here; this is about paying your bills," said Paul LePage, speaking about the hospital debt that had been kicking around for over a decade. The Baldacci administration had of course paid down $3.7 billion on this decades-old “bill,” but the campaign rhetoric about the state “paying what it owes” resonated. Hopefully it still does.

The political theatre starring Maine’s unpaid hospital bills was choreographed by Communications Director, Dan Demeritt, who said, "and I’ll even make sure our members know the exact day the exact amount of State funding (is) their local hospitals so our members can show up with a big symbolic check to make it a press event. I like the visual of Garret Mason standing outside Central Maine Medical Center with a plywood-sized check in his hand signed by Paul LePage for $40 Million Dollars..."

Grab any teacher, firefighter or nurse, and ask them how they like the “visual” of a plywood-sized bill for $4.3 billion. That’s the amount these state workers will be taxed in order to pick up the state’s tab on its retirement plan, according to the Governor’s proposed biennium budget. Because in addition to the hospital “bill” that went unpaid over the past several decades, there are other bills as well, including a pesky debt called the Unfunded Actuarial Liability, or “UAL.” This debt reflects past normal costs of the state retirement plan that were not paid by the State of Maine.

UAL costs are past unpaid debts that are required to be paid by 2028 pursuant to an amendment passed in 1995 to the Maine Constitution. In 2007 we were 74% on our way to paying it off, but then the market crashed and billions of dollars in the plan were lost.

The LePage budget for the next biennium proposes a 2% payroll tax on state employees to pay this bill, plus an increase in the retirement age, and a freeze on any cost of living adjustments, while businesses and private sector employees will get a tax cut.

What’s ironic is all the GOP rhetoric about Social Security and how its bad and how it should be privatized and how its expensive and how employees should pay more and how businesses should pay less and how private companies have defined contribution plans and only bloated state governments have defined benefit plans.

It’s all a bunch of garbage that distorts the facts, but the anti-government mantra has convinced lots of people that it wasn’t the fat cats on Wall Street who screwed us, or rampant corporate greed and malfeasance, it was those lazy state workers!

The real facts are that state workers provide a valuable service, work for the public good, pay their fair share of a retirement plan that costs less than Social Security, and would be self-sufficient but for the state not properly funding its share between the 1940s and the 1990s.

Maine is one of 14 states that does not participate in Social Security. Instead, state employees are members of the Maine Public Employee Retirement System (MainePERS).

In the private sector, employees contribute 6.2% of their pay check, and employers pay 6.2% in to Social Security, a federal program under which the federal government bears 100% of the risk and pays a retirement benefit. Many private employers also offer, in addition to Social Security, a defined contribution plan such as a 401K, to supplement Social Security.

Currently under MainePERS, state employees contribute 7.65% of their paycheck, and the State of Maine contributes 5.5% in to the plan. This amount FULLY COVERS the cost of the current plan. (In other words, if the UAL didn’t exist, MainePERS would be fully funded for current state workers in the plan.) State employees who retire at the age of 60 or 62 get a defined benefit from MainePERS only. They do not get Social Security benefits.

The UAL is like the hospital debt, an unpaid bill that the state owes, except only state workers are being asked to pick up the tab.

And this isn’t about slamming anybody?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Maine's Weapon of Mass Destruction

Maine has the lowest violent crime rate in the country, is blessed with a landscape and culture that are exquisite, and is ranked as the 17th best run state in the country. Jobless claims are the lowest since 2008, and the stock market is predicted to rise 11% next year. Spring is around the corner. So why is our Governor trying to scare the bejeezus out of us?

Because fear makes people think, act and vote irrationally. The massive U.S.A. Patriot Act was passed by Congress six weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, just hours after it was printed and before it was read by lawmakers because the country and the country’s leaders were afraid. Blatant violations of constitutional rights and civil liberties were offered up in the name of security.

Governor LePage gave his budget address on Thursday, and his message to the people of Maine is that we should be afraid. He said Maine’s economic security is very fragile, our debt is crushing, and that past management of the state’s finances has led us to the brink of disaster.

If it were true, a near-bankrupt state would be a very scary proposition. But it's not.

The Governor gets his facts about Maine’s fiscal health from the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative ideological think tank that regularly sounds the alarm to drum up contributions. Every conclusion of every report is the same: government is failing and we are in crisis. And please send a check.

Recently for instance the MHPC read a report prepared by the State’s watchdog organization (OPEGA), put its ideological spin on the facts, and proclaimed to have “discovered” that salaries paid at the Turnpike Authority are excessive. This MHPC “report” (a power point presentation with misleading graphs) was described as a “distorted view” that “confuses and clouds the issue” by policy expert Sam Pizigatti from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

Those familiar with the MHPC clarion call are conditioned to take every so-called “report” with a grain of salt. Theirs is but one perspective that reflects the extreme right-wing philosophy now called the Tea Party. What’s new and troubling is that the Maine Heritage Policy Center serves as the chief advisor to Governor LePage, and obviously wrote his speech about the budget.

“If we were a private sector company, we would be in bankruptcy,” the Governor said, adding ”we owe twice as much in debt as we expect to collect in General Fund Revenues over the next two years and our debt as a percentage of state GDP is twice the national average.”

This is but another distorted view that confuses and clouds the issue so people will become afraid.

Maine simply does not have inordinate or excessive debt. If it did, we wouldn’t have bond ratings of AA2, AA+, and AA2 from the three leading bond-rating agencies Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor.

Maine’s debt is low, and by all accounts our fiscal house is in order. CNN ranks Maine low among states in its debt ranking, and Maine is graded as the 17th best-managed state in a recent study. The pension “crisis” that the MHPC wants to use to scare people in to rolling back sound regulatory polices is a problem that was created decades ago and was on the path to being resolved until the market crashed. Now that the market is predicted to rise 11% over the next year, we can exhale and continue to march forward towards the new economy employing responsible fiscal policies that will invest in our future and create quality jobs.

In addition to falsely misleading Maine people to believe we are steps away from the brink, the Maine Heritage Policy Center has convinced Governor LePage that borrowing to invest in infrastructure is akin to running up credit card debt. This simplistic analysis is an easy sell to vulnerable people facing their own mounting debt, but it isn’t good policy and it won’t help us. Spending on infrastructure, R. & D., and education has the potential to create more value than it costs and while it’s hard to make a case for investing more when everyone believes we should be spending less, there’s never been a better time. Interest rates are historically low, and borrowing is cheap. Corporations have already realized this and have borrowed half a trillion dollars last year, according to James Surowiecki of The New Yorker.

In other words, if we were a private-sector company, we would be investing in the future.

Ten years after the U.S. Patriot Act was passed we are still paying the price for succumbing to fear-mongering by Dick Cheney and George Bush. Our neighbors are being stopped, searched and held without warrants, and we all face the humiliation of the TSA at airports. Today’s weapon of mass destruction in Maine is fear of financial collapse. We the Real People of Maine must not be tricked in to believing the sky is falling. We must not let ideological think tanks sell our state to outside corporate interests, or pander to an extreme right-wing social agenda. We must not be afraid to move forward.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

We Are All Arianna in LePage Land

Why do brash liberal pansies blog for nothing? Of course there is sheer delight in having a personal voice and medium in the world of corporate mass media. But what started as festering liberal rage toward the Bush administration in need of a steam valve has evolved over time. Now bewilderment has pivoted to right-wing sirens Palin and Bachman, and talk-show blowhards Beck and Limbaugh. In fact the blogging topics are endless thanks to the Tea Party and DC spectacle. With a little bit of Yankee ingenuity a new American business is born.

Arianna Huffington is being paid $315 million for her business, and is now the boss at the company that wrote the check. Not bad for a Republican-turned-Democrat. Her blog, the Huffington Post, enlists 9000 people to write content for free, and boasts over 30 million hits per month.

Behind this brilliant, powerful woman with her “A-list” Rolodex was Kenneth Lerer, a guy with “sophisticated technology and careful brand management.” These two people came together and grew an idea in to an industry that has ordinary people dreaming about the American Dream.

W is back in Texas, but we have our own unique opportunities for expression right here in the Whoopie Pie State. While looking for Mr. Lerer here in LePage Land, let’s dust off that Rolodex and get started.

Friday, February 4, 2011

LePage and Company Can’t Afford to Govern in Maine

Maine, Inc. under the new LePage administration is hiring, but the pool of “qualified” candidates (i.e. men who think like Paul LePage) can’t afford the meager government pay of $103,000 plus benefits. “Why would you want to take that pay cut?” asks Joe Bruno, the former Republican Leader, who thinks the Governor and his cabinet deserve a raise. After all, it’s going to be hard work cutting all those welfare benefits, rolling back environmental laws, and gutting education programs.

There’s no shortage of people willing to cry wolf at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, however, because there doom and gloom grease the cogs of one big lucrative machine. Red tape is not a problem for the business that fear-mongers for dollars.

Broken-record Tarren Bragdon, CEO of MHPC and a co-chairman on LePage's transition team told us again yesterday, "Maine's unfunded government employee pension system is bankrupting our future!”

No kidding. Really? Isn’t that the same problem we’ve been talking about since 1913?

Bragdon won’t be working for the State of Maine either because telling people the sky is falling is easier and more profitable than actually having to solve the problems that arise from a limited budget and competing needs.

Instead, “Business Bragdon” will stay put in his svelte office collecting tax-deductible contributions from well-heeled special interests in order to keep pumping out white papers that tell us what we’ve known for decades. In fact he’s ecstatic to be out from under the dome. People actually work there! Yuck.

“It's great to be back to work at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. I am honored to have been a part of Governor Paul LePage's Transition Team, but my place is right here, working with policymakers, supporters and staff of MHPC to accomplish great things on behalf of Maine people,” he told us, presumably from his luxury, non-profit corner office where the riff-raff can’t bother him with petty concerns of poverty, illiteracy and the administration of justice.