Still Short on Postal News — Especially What’s Most Important to New Mexicans

August 14th, 2014 · No Comments · Congress, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Nearly 150 post offices in rural communities across New Mexico have or will have their hours trimmed over the next year as the U.S. Post Office seeks to cut its budget.

That’s the opening line of a story that ran Sunday in the Las Cruces Sun-News. But that news has yet to be reported by the Albuquerque Journal.

The Journal did report, on Monday, that some Americans have a problem with the U.S. Postal Service selling stamps that depict musicians (like Elvis and Janis Joplin) and fictional characters (like Harry Potter and Bugs Bunny). Those critics say stamps should be staid and stick to history and heritage themes instead.

Interesting stamp story, but it doesn’t affect New Mexicans as much as post office hours reductions will.

Also on the Post Office front, the Journal Wednesday (Aug. 13) ran two paragraphs of a wire service story saying USPS is $2 billion in the red.

Information on the effect of that deficit – and how it affects New Mexicans – has not been forthcoming so far from the state’s leading daily. But according to the Sun-News:

. . .“the 149 (New Mexico) offices are part of the more than 9,400 sites across the country that will face shortened hours, with another 3,000 locations under consideration, according to a USPS spokeswoman. The changes are expected to save the federal agency $500 million annually.

USPS initially suggested closing 3,700 post offices around the country, but reconsidered after members of the public and elected officials expressed concern.

New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are among the concerned elected officials, according to the Sun-News, because earlier this month the two senators wrote the Postmaster General on behalf of “many constituents who are anxious about reduced service areas in their communities. Reductions in hours or consolidation into another nearby office can be especially hard hitting in rural areas, where customers often have to drive for miles to reach their closest post office.”

Despite yesterday’s less-than-informative two-paragraph story, the Journal has continued to neglect the U.S. Postal Service crisis – a crisis artificially created by Congress.

It has yet to weigh in with editorial support, despite the fact that many New Mexicans rely on post offices, not only for mailing services, but for lock boxes, passports and money orders.

As the Sun-News story reveals, the Journal is also neglecting to run news stories.

And in the news category, there is another glaring omission: stories about proposals that might help the Postal Service, such as postal banking.

Because the Journal has chosen to run reams of stories about Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s investigations into Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service, it becomes even more curious that it has not run any of the stories coming out of Washington about postal banking, a proposal that could benefit both the USPS and rural New Mexicans who don’t have a branch bank within less than a day’s drive.

Perhaps it hasn’t run the stories because Issa, whose House Oversight Committee oversees the Postal Service, has publicly called postal banking “a massive expansion of government power.”

If Issa had attended a recent subcommittee hearing on confirmation of four members of the Postal Service Board of Governors, however, he would have learned that a more apt description of postal banking might be “power to the people.”

Postal Governor nominee Vicki Kennedy (Ted Kennedy’s widow) was among those who testified at the hearing, saying the post office needed the “regulatory flexibility to take advantage of opportunity and innovate when it is in the public interest.”

According to Salon, which reported on the hearings (and reported that only one senator showed up):

Postal banking serves that capacity perfectly – the one in four American households with little or no access to financial services need a convenient, cheap banking option, so they don’t continue to get gouged by alternatives like payday lenders and check-cashing stores.

Salon also reported results of a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which recently held a conference on the topic (also not mentioned in the Journal). That study found that:

. . . 3.5 million Americans live more than 10 miles from the nearest bank branch, and another 3 million live in densely populated areas that are nonetheless still over a mile from the nearest bank. . . .in particular rural communities like central Mississippi, west Texas and Montana, post offices simply have more reach. . . .

Even in some urban locations, particularly in high-poverty areas, the closest postal branch location offers more convenience than the bank. . . . Check-cashing stores and payday lenders, of course, are ubiquitous in poor communities (there are more than twice as many payday loan storefronts as Starbucks locations).

Postal banking isn’t even a new idea. According to a recent article on CommonDreams,” a successful U.S. Postal Saving System already existed from 1911-1967, and similar schemes operate overseas today, including in Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and the UK.”

The idea of postal banking, the article continued, “would create a public option for credit and help insulate Main Street in the likely event of another financial crisis:”

For example, a borrower without access to a commercial bank might typically accept a small loan at an unreasonably high interest rate from a payday lender. If a postal banking system were in place, that customer could instead walk into the local USPS branch and take out a simple loan as a government-provided public service. Due to the restricted nature of postal banking, customers’ access to funds would be comparatively safe from vultures and the whirlwinds of the broader, deeper financial system.

The article also said “there are surprisingly few legal and political hurdles to implementation.” Among postal banking’s advocates is Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose recent opinion piece in U.S. News advocated postal banking as a way to help both the U.S. Postal Service and millions of Americans who have no access to banks at all. According to Warren:

A recent report from the USPS inspector general found the Postal Service already has the statutory authority it needs to partner with banks and credit unions to provide basic, affordable financial services like check cashing and small-dollar savings accounts at post office branches. The services could be offered to customers at much lower prices than expensive private alternatives. The Postal Service could partner with community banks and credit unions to help train workers and provide back-office management.

With nearly 60 percent of post office branches in ZIP codes where there are either one or no bank branches, postal banking could fill the void banks have left by closing branches nationwide. The Postal Service already has a presence in low-income and rural communities, and it could leverage that infrastructure to provide access to lower-cost basic banking services. This idea is a win-win: The Postal Service could offer affordable financial services for underserved families and, at the same time, shore up its own financial footing. The inspector general estimates the USPS can generate billions of dollars in new revenues by offering these services for modest fees.

Meanwhile, the Journal did post an Associated Press story about the U.S. Postal Service’s reported $1.9 billion loss on its online Business section, but the May 9 story did not appear in print. If it had run the article, print readers would have learned that:

Postal officials have said repeatedly that they need comprehensive legislation that includes more control over its personnel and benefit costs and more flexibility in pricing and products. Though various legislative proposals have been advanced, Congress has not passed a bill with the requested changes.

“The Postal Service is working diligently to improve its finances by streamlining our network to improve efficiency, reduce operating costs and increase revenue, which was up $379 million over the same period last year — the third straight quarter of revenue increase,” Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe said in a statement.

So, the Postal Service’s income was up $379 million, which is similar to previous reports. The report also said that while total mail volume was down slightly – to 38.1 billion pieces from 38.8 billion pieces last year – volume in shipping and packages rose 7.3 percent. (So much for claims that USPS can’t compete with FedEx and United Parcel Service.)

The story also pointed out these important facts, upon which the Journal could have based an editorial – if it had run the story in the print version:

The Postal Service is an independent agency that receives no tax dollars for its day-to-day operations but is subject to congressional control. It has asked to end most Saturday deliveries, a move it says could save about $2 billion annually.

And it’s seeking to reduce its congressionally mandated $5.6 billion annual payment for future retiree health benefits.

The main reason for the Postal Service’s troubles is in that last line – funding future retiree health benefits. As we’ve pointed out on JournalWatch numerous times, Congress is requiring the Postal Service to set aside $5.6 billion every year to fund health benefits for future “retirees” who not only don’t work for the Postal Service – they haven’t even been born yet.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars are being stockpiled for these “retirees” of 75 years into the future – billions of dollars that are sucking dry the operations of the Postal Service itself. As we’ve said before, perhaps that’s the point.

 

 

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