A Fire Department Only the Rio Grande Foundation Could Love

On September 29th, firefighters in Olbion County, Tennessee, stood by and watched Gene Cranick’s house burn to the ground because he hadn’t paid the annual $75 fire protection fee.  The Cranick’s lost their home, 3 dogs and a cat to the blaze.  As the fire began to rage, they repeatedly told 911 operators they would pay firefighters, whatever the cost, to stop the fire. But their pleas for help were to no avail. (Mr. Cranick was interviewed yesterday while sitting in front of the ruins by Countdown’s Keith Olbermann.)

Here is the local news report from WPSD-6, Paducah, Kentucky.

It’s a bracing vision, this smaller, less intrusive, government thing — or, in this particular case, non-intrusive firefighters.  There’s nothing like taking the “public” out of “public safety.”

(see also: “John Galt Joins the Fire Brigade”)

Is This Really What We Want, New Mexico?

trashAs the New Mexico State Legislature enters its third week, the battles rage on about how to resolve the state’s yawning budget gap.

Slash services even more, say the cut-only crowd. Raise revenues by closing tax loopholes for out of state corporations and make the wealthy pay their fair share, say those advocating a balanced approach.

Last week I caught a glimpse of what might happen in New Mexico if those who favor drastic cuts get their way.

This Feb. 5. Denver Post story, “Colorado Springs Cuts Into Services Considered Basic By Many,” details the catastrophic changes taking place there after voters rejected a tripling of property taxes that would have raised $27.6 million for the city’s $212 million general fund budget.

According to the Post story, many residents said they didn’t trust city government to wisely spend a general tax increase and didn’t believe the current cuts are the only way to balance a budget.

From the story, here’s a litany of what’s going to happen in Colorado Springs as a result, starting today:

More than a third of the streetlights in Colorado Springs will go dark Monday. The police helicopters are for sale on the Internet. The city is dumping firefighting jobs, a vice team, burglary investigators, beat cops — dozens of police and fire positions will go unfilled.

The parks department removed trash cans last week, replacing them with signs urging users to pack out their own litter.

Neighbors are encouraged to bring their own lawn mowers to local green spaces, because parks workers will mow them only once every two weeks. If that.

Water cutbacks mean most parks will be dead, brown turf by July; the flower and fertilizer budget is zero.

City recreation centers, indoor and outdoor pools, and a handful of museums will close for good March 31 unless they find private funding to stay open. Buses no longer run on evenings and weekends. The city won’t pay for any street paving, relying instead on a regional authority that can meet only about 10 percent of the need.

“I guess we’re going to find out what the tolerance level is for people,” said businessman Chuck Fowler, who is helping lead a private task force brainstorming for city budget fixes. “It’s a new day.”

Does that sound like a nightmare to you? It does to me. Public safety, roads and transportation, healthcare, recreation…all the things governments provide – things that Tea Partiers, I guess, fail to acknowledge – just gone out the window. Let the private sector take care of it, I guess.

State budget responsibilities are different than municipal ones, but the impact of such drastic cuts on state-provided public safety, education and healthcare would be equally catastrophic.

No one knows yet what’s going to happen at our state legislature, but the message so far isn’t pretty. On Friday, HB 270 (also called the PIT add-back bill) sponsored by Rep. Mimi Stewart died by one vote Friday on the House floor. The measure would have stopped New Mexicans taxpayers who itemize from being able to deduct their state and local taxes on both federal and state forms. The bill could have generated $65 million annually for the state.

A number of other tax bills that could generate millions of dollars for the state await a full hearing, including HB 62/SB 90, a combined reporting bill sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Ed Begaye that would require out-of-state corporations to pay taxes on income made in New Mexico, which is still making its way through House committees; and HB9, a measure sponsored by Rep. Ed Sandoval that would impose a surtax on New Mexico’s highest earners, which just passed on the House floor.

What happens to those bills in the ever-tightening debate at the session will dictate whether New Mexicans will keep vital services intact – or soon start suffering Colorado Springs-type cuts.

Do you take our public structures for granted?

Teabaggers say the darnedest things.

So when they weren’t protesting about  the evils of too much government at last week’s rally in DC, they were complaining to the Wall Street Journal that there wasn’t enough public mass transportation in DC.

Hold that thought.  Now take a look at this Albuquerque street scene.

CornellCentral3

A number of the public amenities are identified by arrows. (And there’s even more not IDed.  Under the street there are sewer and water lines. Oh, and the building on the left — that’s the University of New Mexico.)

With so much over the top rhetoric out there these days, it’s easy for us to overlook all of the publicly funded structures right there before our eyes, under our feet and over our heads — structures that are essential to our quality of life every minute of every day. They just blend into the background.

Ask yourself:  What would the situation be like at this busy intersection in Albuquerque if the publicly-funded structures in the picture disappeared? Poof gone.

(I almost forgot. That building on the right — it’s the good old Frontier, a hallowed university area institution.  By golly, I’m thankful for private enterprise too.  Thinking of a sweet roll right now! And onion rings. Glad there’s a road so I can get there. Which reminds me. Publicly funded restaurant inspections are a really good thing too.)

Conservatives, Are You Listening?

I know it’s a bit long, but please watch this clip of Tea Party movement leader Mark Williams on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” last night.

In it, Williams sticks to his standard Tea Party talking points quite well until Cooper brings up something Williams wrote recently on his blog.

Here’s the exchange:

COOPER: What you are saying makes sense to me here when I’m hearing what you say but then I read on your blog, you say, you call the President, an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, that’s the way he’s behaving.

Watch the clip to see Cooper’s reaction, and the reaction of presidential advisor (to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton) David Gergen.  And then, watch as Williams shovels himself in even deeper.

From the mouth of its leader, this is what the Tea Party movement stands for.

Conservatives, are you listening?

Food Safety: It’s about time

Salmonella_typhimuriumLost in the commotion over health care reform last week, the House passed a bill to give authority and resources to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to recall contaminated food products. All I have to say is IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Under our current system, the food producers who expose consumers to  contaminated products issue recalls on a voluntary basis. Their actual track record has been more than a little concerning as we constantly hear about new salmonella outbreaks in products like peanuts and tomatoes.

According to an Associated Press investigation of FDA records, between 2003 and 2006 the agency conducted 47 percent fewer safety inspections. FDA field offices had 12 percent fewer employees. Safety tests for food produced in the United States had gone down by three quarters in the previous year alone.

The bill that was passed also includes major preventative measures such as providing the FDA with authority to work with farmers to create systems for better tracking of food-borne illnesses, as well as authorizing the agency to impose penalties on those who violate the law.

Some agricultural interests, along with those on the political right who trot out the usual “bloated government” arguments, are opposed to the measure, claiming that it is “invasive.” I would argue that providing a proper system for accountability and oversight when it comes to the safety of our country’s food supply trumps their ideological concerns. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

Today, many of us take for granted that the food on our table is safe to eat. We expect that someone has done their job to ensure that food has met certain quality and safety standards.  The notion that each year 5,000 people in our country die needlessly from food born illnesses, while hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, is simply unacceptable.

The value of our nation’s food producers is beyond dispute. Nevertheless, establishing a set of proper safety rules for everyone who takes products to market is not unreasonable. While this thinking might offend some, I believe that issues like food safety, healthcare, or the environment, are just too important to leave to the honor system of the private sector’s “profit first” mentality.

Fettered Capitalism Reconsidered

We all know how the collapse of the Soviet Union consigned communism to the dustbin of history in the eyes of the world.  Now the global financial market crash has succeeded in doing much the same for the other great vision of false utopia — that of deregulated capitalism.  And more alarmingly, the recklessness and criminality of the wizards of Wall Street is giving American democracy a pretty big black eye as well. That’s the view of Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

As part of Clearly New Mexico’s ongoing examination of the proper role of government, we recommend his essay in July’s Vanity Fair – Wall Street’s Toxic Message.

Stiglitz on the state of market fundamentalism:

… the debate over “market fundamentalism,” the notion that unfettered markets, all by themselves, can ensure economic prosperity and growth. Today only the deluded would argue that markets are self-correcting or that we can rely on the self-interested behavior of market participants to guarantee that everything works honestly and properly.

On markets and the role of government:

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Health Care Reform 2.0

In an emotional town hall in suburban Annandale, VA today, President Obama spoke with Americans who shared their nightmarish experiences with the existing health insurance industry.

In pledging his commitment to health care reform, Obama spoke favorably of the so-called public option, a government-sponsored health care plan that would operate in competition with private insurance.  Recent polls show an overwhelming number of Americans favor the public option when considering health care reform.

Public forums like the one the president held today have given Americans a high-profile way to air their troubles – and have distinguished Obama as a great “Listener In Chief.”
But at the risk of overplaying the dreaded empathy card, Obama is doing even more to highlight Americans’ agonizingly real problems with the cost, availability and quality of their health care.

The folks at Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots political organizing arm,  have compiled an archive of personal stories from regular Americans who share their health care horrors.  Organized by city (there are a number of Albuquerque ones),  the archive chronicles real problems from real people, in their own voices. It’s a great outlet for people who want to talk about why our health care system is screaming for reform –  and a handy resource for those who still need convincing.

Check it out.

California’s Nightmare State

If the so-called teabaggers need an example of what life would look like without government, they need only to look at what’s happening in California right now.

Government there is under siege after voters rejected tax measures that would have funded vital state services and resources.

Now California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he’s forced to shut down large sections of state government for lack of funds.

Stunned Californians are standing by as the state closes summer schools, shuts down programs for seniors and makes plans to close hundreds of state parks.

Those kind of cuts affect everyone.

But as usual, the poorest and the neediest will bear the brunt of the shutdown of resources and services.

Gov. Schwarzenegger is proposing a complete elimination of the state’s welfare program for families, medical insurance for low-income children and Cal Grants cash assistance to college and university students.

It’s sad that millions will have to suffer.

But maybe California in its misery will serve as a living, agonizing example of what happens when people don’t make the connection between government, paying taxes and maintaining the standard of living Americans have come to expect and deserve.

Teabag protest is not about responsible tax policy

As we face another April 15, the great American debate over taxes and the proper role of government has taken a turn toward the grotesque.

Those screaming the loudest this Tax Day are the self-named “teabaggers,” who are angrily carrying signs and delivering tea bags to elected officials in actions they say are based on the 1773 Boston Tea Party.

In that historic event, American colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor to protest taxes levied by the government of England. At the time, the more than 1.5 2.2 million colonists (roughly a quarter of the size of population of England) were not allowed to elect members to Parliament – they were taxed without any representation.

That’s a far cry indeed from the massive turnout – and resulting mandate – produced by the U.S. electorate in November 2008.

Many have noted that it’s a rather disingenuous for the teabaggers to scream about Obama’s tax policies, inasmuch as Bush’s policies transformed a budget surplus into a massive deficit with tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest members of our society.  The Obama  tax cuts benefit 95% of Americans — those whose incomes have been stagnating.

Sadly, the teabaggers are open to ridicule for so much more than their unfortunate name.

In the face of a relentless publicity push by Fox News and right-wing talk radio, questions  have arisen over who is really organizing the protests and whether they truly sprang from grassroots protestors or in fact are backed by corporate lobbyists or multi-billionaire media companies. It’s suggestive of a word coined a few years ago – astroturfing.  Astroturfing is basically fake grassroots organizing.

Consider it all together and it’s almost funny.

But taxes – who pays them, how much different people and companies are required to pay and what is done with the money that’s collected – is too important an issue to laugh off.

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Session-omics and the Rail Runner

The RailRunner couldn’t have come at a better time, for me at least. With the legislative session starting up in six weeks, the RailRunner has already posted schedules for the Albuquerque to Santa Fe roundtrip, with a stop just south of the Roundhouse. The times work great, the pick-up and drop-off locations work great and the price is just $8, roundtrip.

That means less gas and a cheaper trip for me, less wear and tear on my car, more time to work rather than just sit behind the wheel of car and never having to spend 20 minutes finding a parking spot again up in Santa Fe.

I don’t know how many new jobs the Rail Runner construction created, but those jobs couldn’t have come at a better time either. I also bet that the Rail Runner project spurred additional private investment – supply companies, new construction technology and equipment and service enterprises.

That’s a formula that works. When government can initiate a project that unleashes long term private investment, everyone wins.

Rail Runner website