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Friday, July 31, 2009

Green Stimulus That Works: Cash for Clunkers

Here's stimulus that Pat Prostrollo, Dave Billion, and us hippies can love: the Cash for Clunkers program is such a doorbusting success that it's burned up its one-billion-dollar budget in barely a week and has buyers and dealers clamoring for more:

The federal program provided rebates of $3,500 or $4,500 to consumers who traded in vehicles with combined city/highway mileage of 18 miles per gallon or less and bought more fuel-efficient new cars or trucks.

The program was designed to run until Nov. 1 or until 250,000 cars had been sold, whichever came first. Many analysts had expected the money to last at least until Labor Day.

..."I hope they will extend the program because it was such a win on so many levels -- for the consumers, for the environment, for all the car manufacturers," said John Sackrison, executive director of the Orange County Automobile Dealers Assn. "It got a lot of people to go car shopping who wouldn't have otherwise."

...Dealers and automakers said the plan clearly sparked a level of interest that had been missing in new-car showrooms, which have looked like ghost towns for much of the last year [Martin Zimmerman, Tiffany Hsu, and Jim Puzzanghera, "'Cash for Clunkers' Program Runs out of Gas," Los Angeles Times, 2009.07.31].

Now it's possible we might have just gotten lucky: car sales had been so slow for so long, there was nowhere for them to go but up. The incentive program may just have coincided with an upturn that would have happened anyway. And I still hesitate to cheer about government programs that encourage people to buy more stuff.

But if we need people to buy stuff to get us out of the recession, we can at least aim at getting people to buy something useful, like cars that get better gas mileage. It looks like Cash for Clunkers is one government stimulus program that's hitting on all cylinders.

Herseth Sandlin: That's My Gal?

So Representative Stepahnie Herseth Sandlin votes against the American Clean Energy and Security Act (cap and trade and more). She does so not for the Kucinichian reason that it doesn't do enough, but the conservative reason that it does too much. I can maybe live with that, because I've heard some good arguments on how certain aspects of the bill are handouts for big power companies that would come out of Midwestern pockets.

But then she votes for the Food Safety Enhancement Act—twice! It passed on a repeat vote yesterday—even though lots of folks like me see the legislation burdening small farmers and not targeting the big-Ag perpetrators of food health problems.

And now Herseth Sandlin says she can't support the health care reform bill in its current form. She says H.R. 3200—which has the public option, the sine qua non of health care reform—is too liberal. She signals (see HogHouse and Wayne Ortman's AP story) that she is lining up behind the Baucus-Gang-of-6 Senate plan, which is cave-in to the insurance industry lobbyists who will give their left foot to keep us from getting more choice and competition via a public option.

Now I'm not trying to have us all "scream at each other from the extreme," but I have to ask: if Stephanie doesn't vote my way on the big timber, why do I vote for her?

Oh well—that's what I get for representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

Update: SHS, if you're concerned about your ability to sell a public option to your South Dakota constituency, read Paul Krugman. He reminds us that government is the only reason health care coverage works at all in America. A little more government—i.e., the public option—will make it work better.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

UK Study: Organic Food Offers No "Nutritional Superiority"

Bummed about the high price of fancy organic produce at the supermarket? Worried you're being a bad parent by feeding your kids regular apples instead of special earth-friendly organic apples?

Well, take heart—and fellow hippies, get ready for some science that tastes like lukewarm beet juice. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (the second part sounds like a good job!) have reviewed 50 years of scientific studies and determined there is no evidence that organic food has significantly higher nutritional content than regular food. The study was commissioned by the U.K.'s Food Standards Agency—British and non-corporate, so it appears that much more honest.

Nonetheless, the U.K. Soil Association makes some important points about what this new study does and does not say:
  1. The LSHTM study excludes a number of papers from its review.
  2. It ignores important health issues beyond vitamin and mineral content, such as health impacts of pesticides and herbicides on non-organic crops.
  3. It ignores environmental benefits of organic farming practices, such as improved biodiversity and less harmful waste (like the fertilizer run-off from non-organic farms that causes algae blooms).
The Soil Association can back those statements to the researchers' own acknowledgment of their review's limitations: "This review specifically does not address contaminant content (such as herbicide, pesticide and fungicide residues) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs or the environmental impacts of organic and conventional agricultural practices" [see this PDF, p. 6].

It's also important to remember that the British scientists are not telling you that you can live healthily on Cheetos and Pepsi (would that we could!). It only says that if you're looking just at Vitamin C and such, you can get your recommended daily allowance about as well from the conventionally raised fruits and veggies as you can from organic produce.

Read more: The U.K. Food Standards Agency has the study online: Alan Dangour, Sakhi Dodhia, Arabella Hayter, Andrea Aikenhead, Elizabeth Allen, Karen Lock, and Ricardo Uauy, "Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature," Report for the Food Standards Agency, Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, July 2009.

Senator Abdallah Stinks up Airwaves with Death Penalty Nonsense

I'm listening to State Senator Gene Abdallah tie himself in rhetorical knots on this noon's South Dakota Public Radio's Dakota Midday. In a discussion of the South Dakota Supreme Court's overturning of Briley Piper's death penalty, Senator Abdallah makes the following "arguments" (I use the term with extreme generosity) in favor of the death penalty:
  1. The death penalty is a deterrent: a dead criminal can't commit more crimes.
  2. Two legislators who advocated repealing the death penalty were also pro-choice on abortion.
  3. Lengthy appeals are a waste of resources; we should set a time limit and speed up these trials.
  4. Life in prison for convicted killers puts other inmates at risk; do we want to have to explain to the parents or spouse of a DUI convict serving his month how he was killed by a convicted killer we could have just executed?
  5. So many people read in the papers that so many killers have escaped. And they kill again!
I respect Mr. Abdallah's work in law enforcement and government. However, statements like the above make me want to get out the "What the heck are you thinking?!" blog-stick. Going down the flow:
  1. The debate about deterrence usually refers to persuading other potential criminals not to commit crimes. Incapacitation and deterrence are two different things.
  2. Rather than scream red herring, Bruce Gray, a death penalty opponent also appearing on the program, politely registers his displeasure at being lumped in with the pro-choice political camp. Gotta argue the issues before you, Gene, not the straw men you want to keep resurrecting when the argument gets tough.
  3. Funny: at the end of the show, I think I heard Abdallah say we should never question the amount of resources we dedicate toward law enforcement. Yet he thinks we spend too much on capital trials and appeals. Kangaroo courts, anyone?
  4. Funny: sounds like prison's a pretty awful place... bad enough to maybe deter folks from driving drunk and committing other lesser crimes that would get them locked up with those dangerous convicted murderers.
  5. Evidence? Evidence? Not one specific example. Not one name. Not one article. For Pete's sakes, you're a state senator going on the radio. Even if they called you just ten minutes ago, bring your notes! Google something! Here, I'll help: link link link!
I do appreciate Abdallah's willingness to join the public discussion on a controversial issue. Now if he could just make sense.

Food Safety Enhancement Act Takes Hit in House, Still a Threat to Small Farms

Update 09:55 CDT: Heads up! The House leadership has put HR 2749 on the House agenda for another vote today! The House Rules Committee says it is listening to rural opposition and exempting small direct-to-consumer producers from the fees and registration. Read those changes closely, SHS!

HR 2749, the scary Food Safety Enhancement Act, received a vote of 280–150 in the House yesterday. Fortunately for small farmers and food freedom, the House was trying to pass the measure without amendment or debate, a suspension of the rules (read your Robert's!) that requires a two-thirds vote, which should be 290 in a full House.

Why do I say whew! on this defeat? Please recall my and Flying Tomato's comments from the beginning of the month: HR 2749 sounds nice, but Washington would basically be piling on with Pierre's "bigger is better" philosophy and onerous regulations that have small farmers afraid to sell their wares.

The big problem with HR 2749: it takes a one-size-fits-all approach that puts the safer and healthier small operations at a further disadvantage against their dirtier corporate competitors. For instance, the bill imposes a complicated tracing system and registration fees would be no sweat for big operations but a heavy burden to the small operators already operating on baling-twine budgets and stretched-thin labor.

If we're talking food safety, the bill should focus much more on big corporate operations. Consider that on the CDC's list of recent E. coli outbreaks, the health threats came from big outfits like JBS Swift, Jeno's Pizza, and Taco Bell, not roadside berry stands or farmers' market breadsmiths.

As the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund argues, "HR 2749 does not address underlying causes of food safety problems such as industrial agriculture practices and the consolidation of our food supply." (See also FTCLDF's talking points on HR 2749's further ills, like warrantless searches by the FDA and crop regulation that ought to have anti-nanny-state hawks shouting from the rooftops). The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition thinks the bill is salvageable with amendments but said the current form still poses a greater threat to small farms, wildlife, and biodiversity while ignoring conservation.

Unfortunately, South Dakota's lone vote in the House, Rep. Stepahnie Herseth Sandlin, voted for big ag with a yea for HR 2749 yesterday. But that wasn't enough to pass it under the special rules. Again, whew! Small farmers and farmers market producers, take advantage of the August recess to get hold of SHS and our senators and tell them you're all for food safety but that HR 2749 needs to be retargeted to the actual problem (big corporations) before it gets any further consideration in Congress.

Middle Class: Herseth Sandlin Good, Johnson Middling, Thune Deficient

The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy sponsors a little website called TheMiddleClass.org, where they try to put major legislation in the context job and retirement security, home affordability, access to health care and good education, and other issues that make for a reasonably comfortable middle-class life.

TheMiddleClass.org also issues Middle Class Grades for each member of Congress. How does South Dakota's Congressional delegation score on middle-class issues?

Running score for 2009
Grade for 2008
Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin77%
Sen. Tim Johnson
Sen. John Thune

On middle-class issues, Sen. Thune is at the bottom of the class. But hey, at least he's improving: he got F's during his first three years in the Senate. Maybe by election time next year, he can bump that score up to a whopping C.

Senator Johnson, alas, has been slipping: he managed an A back in 2003, but it's been mostly Cs since. And SHS has been working her way up, slow and steady, from Cs at the start to Bs now.

End note: TheMiddleClass.org gives SHS's vote for the Food Safety Enhancement Act a thumbs up for middle class concerns, in contrast with my position. Interesting.

Repower America Opens South Dakota Office

Repower America, Al Gore's clean-energy advocacy organization, is setting up shop in South Dakota. The group is throwing an opening reception this evening at its new Sioux Falls digs (335 N. Main, Suite 200).

Some choice stats from Repower America about South Dakota:
  • South Dakota gets 46% of its electricity from coal.
  • South Dakota ranks 4th in the U.S. for wind power potential.
  • South Dakota is currently using just 0.16% of that wind power potential.
  • South Dakota could generate 180 gigawatts of wind power. The back of my envelope says that's over 40% of the United States' annual electricity consumption... or enough electricity to power the 177 least-power-using countries and territories on the planet, about a quarter of the world's population.
Or think of South Dakota's wind potential this way: our potential 180 gigawatts is 9% of the world's electricity demand. Saudi Arabia produces 10.5% of the world's oil. South Dakota really could be the Saudi Arabia of wind... if we could just build power lines to Tuvalu and the Gaza Strip....

Welcome to the show, Repower America! We South Dakotans look forward to adding your voice to our effort to build clean power and kick the fossil fuel habit before it kicks us!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Updating the Archives: Walker Bomb Threat Charges Go Nowhere

A while back (December 2007), I discussed the case of U.S. Marine Corps veteran Mark R. Walker, who was slapped with a rather tenuous charge of false reporting to authorities in connection with a flip comment he made to a bank teller about the contents of a package he was carrying. I don't recall anyone ever producing a good explanation of why it's a bank teller's business what a customer is taking to the post office. And I don't recall anyone following up with coverage of the trial or sentence.

That would be because there was no trial or sentence. I bumped into Mr. Walker in town the other day. (He was carrying a big backpack. I didn't even think to ask what was in it.) He says that when the whole fracas went down, he was at first inclined to go with the flow, plead, whatever. But when he realized the authorities wanted to make some sort of example on him, Walker took one simple action: he said he'd call his lawyer. That simple assertion of a basic right was all it took to make the authorities drip their flimsy homeland-hysteria case.

Walker was among the dozens laid off from Gehl last October. He plans to head up to Canada for university. And thanks to the GI Bill, you and I will fund his studies to become a planetary geologist. That's reasonable compensation for service to one's country. Now if we could just arrange compensation for treating a guy like a menace to society.

We're Sovereign! We Demand-- oh, $17.5 million? never mind....

State Representative Tim Rounds (R-24/Pierre) says he's found a loophole in federal law that would allow South Dakota to lower its drinking age. But come on: Rep. Rounds and his fellow legislators proudly reasserted South Dakota's sovereignty with HCR 1013 last March. What kind of brave patriots are we if we have to look for a loophole to do whatever the heck we want?

Of course, Rep. Rounds says he won't pursue drinking age legislation if it would lose us $17.5 million in highway funds (and it will). So much for that major victory for the big brave state sovereignty movement.

TransCanada Land Agents Break Nebraska Real Estate Law

As TransCanada churns an ugly brown stripe across the prairie for the Keystone pipeline and gears up to negotiate Keystone XL, it has run afoul of Nebraska real estate laws. According to a July 2 Lincoln Journal-Star article (which strangely, I can only access in the Google cache), TransCanada's land agents from Universal Field Services were scurrying about the state acquiring easements for the next big pipeline when someone pointed out Universal's "highly skilled, experienced... dedicated professionals" didn't have Nebraska real estate licenses.

Oops. That's a violation of Nebraska law. Now the land agents have submit to a background check, take a course in Nebraska real estate rules, take a state test, pay an application... all of which they should have done before starting work for TransCanada.

Gee, anyone care to speculate as to how many other rules TransCanada might choose not to follow unless someone files a complaint?

Now I don't know the ins and outs of real estate license requirements in South Dakota and elsewhere, but here's a juicy thought: If an agent who "negotiated" a pipeline easement didn't have a real estate license, that agreement may be invalid. If you're a landowner who is none too pleased with the deal TransCanada has offered (or forced down your throat through eminent domain) to permanently reduce your property value, you might want to review your documents.

Not that I'd ever want to stand in the way of greedy foreign petrocapitalists trying to take our land at under-market prices just to inject another line of black heroin into fossil-fuel-addicted America. I'm just saying that when TransCanada comes knocking for your land, it might not hurt to ask to see that real estate license.
In case the Google cache goes wonky, here's the full text of the original article:

Keystone XL hits license snag
[Lincoln Journal-Star, 2009.07.03]

The Nebraska Real Estate Commission has launched an enforcement action against an Oklahoma company hired to acquire easements for a proposed petroleum pipeline.

Terry Mayrose, deputy director of enforcement for the commission, has issued two cease and desist orders against representatives of Universal Field Services, including its president.

The orders were issued in late June after Mayrose learned that easement agents did not hold Nebraska real estate licenses.

"We get tips and information about people in violation of the Nebraska Real Estate License Act," he said. "I'm not saying it's routine, but every now and then, we do get calls, we do an investigation and we do have to issue cease and desist orders."

Mayrose declined comment on the validity of any easements that might have been signed prior to the order, but, he said of Universal: "I have received a call from their attorney and it's my understanding they're going to comply."

The enforcement action involves TransCanada and its proposed Keystone XL pipeline, expected to pass through the Lincoln area west of York on its way from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

TransCanada is already at work in Nebraska on the Keystone pipeline, which starts in the same part of Canada and comes through the Lincoln area just west of Seward.

TransCanada spokesman Jeff Rauh acknowledged the cease and desist orders and said the company was "absolutely committed to meeting all the state, local and federal requirements."

Mayrose said there are several steps to getting licensed.

"They would have to go through a criminal background check. They would have to make application for a license. They would have to get pre-license education. And they would have to pass a license application test and pay an appropriate fee before a license would be issued."

Dan Kramer, an Atkinson banker who also is a landowner along the proposed Keystone XL path and a leader of an organization called Landowners for Fairness, is monitoring the enforcement effort.

"We don't have any illusions that we’re going to stop it," Kramer said of the pipeline. "But we think everybody ought to play fair. And if they need a real estate license to do the kind of work they need to do in Nebraska, they ought to have it."

Kramer said the situation seems to raise a question about the validity of signed easements.

Greg Barton, legal counsel to the Real Estate Commission, said landowners are free to pursue the answer to that question on their own. "But the commission does not have the authority to review and invalidate contractual agreements." License Act," he said. "I'm not saying it's routine, but every now and then, we do get calls, we do an investigation and we do have to issue cease and desist orders."

Abraham Bucks Chamber, Dissents on Hwy 34 Funding

Madison City Commissioner Nick Abraham shows a welcome glimmer of willingness to stand up to Madison's big money interests: at Monday's commission meeting, he cast the lone dissenting vote on a proposal to spend $125K of city tax dollars on widening Highway 34 east of town. No, Abraham didn't rebel against the Highway 34 Four for the Future campaign—that would probably get him run out of town. No, James River Equipment, one of the current industry darlings of the Chamber/LAIC crowd, is building a turning lane outside its new lot in the industrial park southeast of Madison. As if $190K in federal earmarks for curb and gutter isn't enough pork, James River asked the city for $125K to pay for the turning lane.

Note that this turning lane is on the portion of 34 east of town that already is a divided four lane. But I guess folks are in such a rush to get out of town that we just can't expect them to slow down a touch near the JRE entrance or take a moment to swing over into the left lane. Once again, Madison's Republicans choose big government spending over personal responsibility.

But not Commissioner Abraham:

Commissioner Nick Abraham pointed out that the new turn lane is located outside the Madison city limits, and the city has no direct responsibility toward paying for the project. Abraham added that the city won't have the $125,000 used for the turn lane project available for street construction projects within Madison. He said the reduced availability of stimulus funding could delay city street improvements [Chuck Clement, "City to Fund SD-34 Turn Lane," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.07.28].

What? Did someone say stimulus money?

The commissioners asked Chad Comes, city engineer, if the money needed for building the new turn lane could come from federal stimulus funding that Madison received earlier this year. The stipulations for receiving the federal economic stimulus money included directives to use the funding for construction projects that were active and "shovel-ready," not just under consideration.

Comes told the commissioner that transportation officials will probably perform the necessary financial transfers that would direct the $125,000 needed for the turn lane construction from Madison's stimulus funds [emphasis mine; Clement, 2009.07.28].

Necessary financial transfers—a.k.a., bookeeping tricks that would essentially allow us to cheat the stimulus rules. Clever.

James River Equipment's move a mile up the road for more visibility is costing us a lot of tax dollars. Given that JRE sits outside city limits, the city won't even get to recoup its investment in increased sales tax revenue.* Commissioner Abraham is to be commended for saying that, on this issue, the good capitalists at JRE should get their hand out of the public pocket and pay their own way.

*Correction! Elisa Sand sends me looking for a map, where I find JRE does appear to lie within the city limits. Looks like that turning lane could pay itself off... if James River can sell 6.25 million dollars worth of additional John Deere tractors and lawn mowers!
Additional Reading:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Losing I Can Stand, But Quitting? Water Committee Proposes Dissolution

So suppose you've organized a local environmental action group. You've had some small successes, educated your neighbors, raised awareness, even gotten donations from residents and local governments. You lose one campaign to form a governing body to carry out similar functions, but you still have $14,000 in the bank to continue your work. Do you...
  • A. retool your government plan to create a better agency that voters will accept;
  • B. sustain your group's momentum by continuing to work on environmental issues; or
  • C. quit?
The Interlakes Water Quality Committee is choosing C. After losing its bid to create a water project district to fund water quality projects with tax dollars, the IWQC's executive board will recommend disbanding the volunteer organization entirely and refunding its donors.

I'm surprised. The IWQC has done good work, promoting the water monitoring project (of which I am still a wader-wearing member), funding coupons for zero-phosphorus fertilizer to reduce pollution, and helping build the Wolff Dam on Richland Slough to control run-off into Lake Madison. The IWQC's efforts earned enough respect to win funding from both the City of Madison and Lake County (and that's not easy—I've tried!). To end those efforts, especially when they still have $14K left in the kitty to pursue more projects, seems an unproductive overreaction to voters' rejection of creating a government entity to carry out such projects.

Some comments in MDL's coverage of the story (sorry, no link! print edition only, 2009.07.27, page 1) just don't sit right with me:

IWQC board chair Robert Todd tells MDL, "We currently feel we are not able to continue." Put $14,000 in my bank account, and I could continue for quite some time. The committee formed to do much more than just campaign for a water project district... didn't it? I know we had stars in our eyes about forming the district and getting $3M in stimulus money to do 30 projects all at once... but is it that hard to come back to reality and concentrate on doing one or two small projects, as the committee has done until now?

Refunds: The IWQC plans to hand its $14K bank balance over to the Lake Madison Development Association, which has been the main source of its money. However, city and county taxpayers get no cut, since, according to Todd, that money was spent specifically on water quality testing through DSU. I guess I didn't know the city and county had designated their donations for that specific purpose. Hmmm....

Dropping the Ball: IWQC board member Jan Nicolay expresses the hope that "Maybe somewhere down the road someone will pick up the idea [of a water project district] and move it forward." Yet the IWQC is in the best position to sustain the momentum toward that goal. If Nicolay and the rest of the board really want to see a water project district come to fruition someday, wouldn't it be more logical to maintain a functioning, solvent organization that has a demonstrated record of educating the public on water quality issues and serves as a forum for bringing like-minded residents together to organize successful projects? Even if the current IWQC board is tired of politics (and I understand completely if this summer's campaign and the bruising defeat on July 18 had that effect), the board could just keep its head down, stick with small but meaningful projects, and remain as a resource for future organizers who want to give another election a go.

In politics, you win some, and you lose some. But losing a vote doesn't mean you have to accept that the majority is right. Folks who voted yes on the water project district (and a fair number of the folks who voted no) still believe there are projects we can do to improve the watershed in Lake County. The Interlakes Water Quality Committee had built up talent and funds to make such projects happen. And as a volunteer organization, they don't have to answer to the majority; they can just do what they know is right.

I wasn't convinced a water project district was the right thing to do. But I'm not convinced abandoning the cause completely is the right course, either. It will be interesting to see what course the IWQC chooses at its next (last?) meeting on Thursday, August 6, 7 p.m., at the Madison Public Library.

Newland Finds Gag Sentence "Tolerable"; Judge Delaney's Explanation Still Incomplete

I am pleased to see that Bob Newland isn't letting his year-long pot-silence sentence get him down. He says in a Decorum Forum post yesterday that he finds his sentence "tolerable."

I am also pleased to see Kevin Woster land an interview with Judge Jack Delaney to talk about that constitutionally questionable sentence. Alas, I remain less than satisfied with the judge's explanation of how this particular restriction of a guilty felon's rights passes constitutional muster.

His Honor makes a reasonable argument: Delaney tells Woster he wanted to impose a sentence that would "sting." And I'll agree, a punishment should feel like punishment. It should be sufficiently unpleasant to the convict to make him think thrice about engaging in the same criminal activity again.

But I can think of all sorts of "stinging" punishments—hang a guy upside for a month, cut off his left foot, force him to divorce his wife, deny him the right to attend church services—that might get the convict's attention but might not pass constitutional muster.

Judge Delaney is right that we deny criminals a wide array of rights as their punishment. But that doesn't logically establish that we can deny criminals any right we choose. Some rights are inalienable, even for the worst criminals. And denying a convict the right to protest the law under which the state has convicted him still feels like one of those rights.

Just curious: How does Newland's sentence for marijuana possession compare with the sentences we dish out for drunk driving, a crime that poses an immediate threat to public safety? Have we banned any drunk drivers from arguing publicly that our DUI laws are too strict?

Republicans Launch Immediate Personal Attacks on Heidepriem; Ugly Campaign Ahead

Words matter. So when Democrat Scott Heidepriem announces his candidacy for South Dakota governor, what are the first words out of the state GOP?

Heidepriem, a millionaire trial lawyer in Sioux Falls best known for suing South Dakota taxpayers to force a tax increase, has been busy implementing his plan to look like a man-of-the-people:
  • canceling his country club membership;
  • selling his BMW;
  • selling his mansion in Sioux Falls;
  • hiring man-of-the-people image guru Steve Jarding.
"Heidepriem's phony image-building scheme should not fool anyone," said South Dakota Republican Party Executive Director Lucas Lentsch. "After decades of being a Republican Party spokesman and running for Congress as a Republican, voters should ask if Heidepriem was being more phony then or more phony now. Voters should know that this fast-talking trial lawyer will do or say anything to get elected," Lentsch added.

The GOP is evidently taking its cues from the South Dakota Republican bloggissariat. Not a word about specific policies. Not even a link to substantiate any of their invective. Just more of the tired ad hominem anti-elitism and class warfare that Republicans waged and failed with against Barack Obama last year.

Oh well. When the GOP has no practical solutions and no new ideas for governing South Dakota in the 21st century, we can expect them to try distract us from looking at their actual record with phony peronsal attacks against Democrats.

Six Senators Plot Demise of Public Option and Real Health Reform

Baucus. Grassley. Conrad. Bingaman. Snowe. Enzi.

These six Senators are about to destroy the health care reform push. The bipartisan group has been holding secretive talks for months to craft passable health care legislation. But on the same day that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office releases findings that the public option—health insurance offered by Uncle Sam—would not drive private insurers out of business, these six senators decide that they will strip the public option from health care legislation.

Whom do these six senators serve: the majority of Americans who want a public option (as demonstrated by eight separate polls), or the wealthy corporate interests and their lobbyists buzzing in their ears in the Washington echo chamber seeking every scrap of pork and favors they can finagle?

The public option is essential to reforming health coverage. The public option will restore competition and lower costs (how about savings of $265 billion over 10 years?) The public option will be especially good for the rural communities all six of these Senators represent.

Bipartisanship is a nice sentiment, but it's not enough to justify do-nothing legislation. Baucus, Grassley, Conrad, Bingaman, Snowe, and Enzi need to hear from someone other than the lobbyists. They need to hear from us that the public option is what the public wants and what will work.

I suspect South Dakota's Senator Johnson and Representative Herseth Sandlin could use similar reminders. Pass the public option... or don't come asking me for my vote.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Help Rural America: Pass Public Option in Health Reform

Jon M. Bailey explains why the "public option"—a health insurance plan you can buy from the federal government—is essential for America's rural economy. His ten-page "Why Rural America Needs a Public Health Insurance Option" is great: chock full o' facts backed up with sources (31 footnotes!). Bailey's key points:

  1. The cost of health insurance is crushing the self-employed and microbusinesses that form the bulk of the rural economy.
  2. The availability of affordable and quality health insurance is the primary barrier to entrepreneurship—the most effective rural development strategy—reaching its potential for rural people and rural communities.
  3. Individual and business mandates with the current system as the only health insurance option are unlikely to address unique rural challenges.
  4. Workplace characteristics more common in rural areas are risk factors for higher rates of uninsurance, underinsurance and greater dependence on the individual insurance market, conditions all subject to issues of cost, choice and level of coverage that a public health insurance plan could address.
  5. Public health insurance plan available as an option helps address the rural risk factors leading to rural insurance instability and would act as a backup for all of the rural factors leading to greater insurance instability.
  6. A public health insurance plan could lead to significantly lower costs for businesses and households. Models show public health insurance plan premiums would be 16 to 30 percent lower than private plans, and premium savings would be up to 41 percent greater with a public health insurance plan [emphasis mine; Jon M. Bailey, director, Rural Research and Analysis Program, Center for Rural Affairs, "Why Rural America Needs a Public Health Insurance Plan Option," July 2009].

Bailey's colleague at CRA Elisha Greeley Smith has more on how the public option would boost the rural economy by alleviating the problem of "job lock," the phenomenon in which people stick with jobs in which they are less satisfied and less productive (economic impacts! invisible hand shackled!) just to keep employer-based health insurance policy.

Senator Thune is already bailing on his rural constituents by opposing the public option. Senator Johnson knows quite personally how good a public option is. Let's hope Rep. Herseth Sandlin's Blue Dog proclivities won't keep her from seeing how the public option is good for everyone in South Dakota.

Wind Turbines: Build 'Em Where You Use 'Em, in South Dakota!

South Dakota peeps up from the pages of the New York Times, as Clipper Windpower talks about the merits of not just putting up wind turbines in South Dakota, but building them here as well. Clipper VP Peter Stricker tells NYT that transporting turbines to the windy places eats into the margin. I imagine it is a lot easier to haul a few truckloads of parts and raw metal to a plant in South Dakota than it is to strap down a full-length turbine blade to a flatbed or two and try making that tight turn on Highway 34 in Madison.

Now if we could just find a way to build turbines from corncobs and switchgrass....

No GIS for Lake County; Assessors Stick with Map, Compass, and Mainframe

Lake County government continues to resist computerizing its records. Not that our commissioners are entirely to blame: they're dealing with hard budget realities and state rules that tie their hands in raising revenues to cover new projects. But in cutting $213K from the budget requests last week, the Lake County Commission axed a string of tech innovations:
  • no Geographical Information System (GIS) for the Equalization Office (savings: $80,200)
  • no new mainframe computer for Equalization ($3,000)
  • no scanning of new plats filed recently with the Register of Deeds ($900)
Now I can understand the viewpoint that sees computerization of records as unnecessary redundancy. We've got paper records; if we really want to find out who's got what, we can still trundle down to the courthouse and riffle through the folders manually.

But a mainframe? We're still running tax rolls on a dot-matrix printer with spindle-fed green-and-white stripey paper. That system has done its bit for king and county. For $3000, we could put in a nice new system of four HP thin clients (that might be one more than we need) and an HP server that owuld probably be more flexible than a typical mainframe solution. Or heck, just buy the staff four laptops and network as necessary.

Update and correction [09:45 CDT]! The local press sends me some clarification: the county apparently took the scanning and mainframe requests off next year's budget because they were able to find some money left in this year's budget to take care of those items now. Whew!
Speaking of GIS, I get excited to read that South Dakota Game Fish & Parks is keeping up with the tech curve by offering maps you can download onto your GPS unit... because we all know how fun it is to hike the wilderness with your head down over a computer screen. This appears to be connected to GF&P's Wildlife Inventory and Land Management Application (yup: WILMA!)... which I try out on my computer this morning and, alas, get only error messages from. Oh well—hand me my compass!

Lake County Unemployment Jumps to 7.7%

June numbers from the South Dakota Department of Labor paint a bleak picture for the Lake County economy: our unemployment rate here jumped to 7.7%, up from May's 6.9%. 7.7% is the highest unemployment Lake County has seen since January 1992. We have 525 workers running around without jobs, the highest number I can find in the online stats (which go back only to 1990).

How's that compare with the rest of the state?
  • The statewide rate stayed flat at 4.9%
  • None of the 11 major (micro-)metro areas in the state had unemployment rates above 6%.
  • Watertown, which "led" the SD metros in May with 6.9% unemployment, gained 235 workers and 475 jobs to drop its June jobless rate to 5.6%.
  • Brookings, that blessed neighboring Shangri-La where our economic development exec sleeps at night, rose to its own 20-year high of 3.8%... but that's still half the Lake County rate.
  • Yankton, where Gehl suspended production in April, is still at 5.9%, but that's down a tick from May.
  • Moody County had an even worse jump, from 5.2% to 7.4%. Moody actually added 55 jobs last month, but another 105 people beyond that joined their available labor pool. (Uh oh—I can hear the temptation to implement the old California Okie policy: don't let anyone in unless they have jobs lined up!)
Maybe we could use some ag stimulus to put those 7.7% to work. Let's quit using Roundup and go back to hiring folks to walk the beans. And given this damnable cool weather we're having, maybe the extension service should hire a Garden Corps to go around to folks' gardens and help them cut out the foliage with blight!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

South Dakota Blogosphere Open House: Thanks for Coming!

I had a wonderful time hosting yesterday's South Dakota Blogosphere Open House—thanks to everybody for coming! As a special treat, Matthew Trask of Hubba's House provided some splendid spontaneous videography. Among the highlights:
  • We maintained tradition, with yet another blogger bailing from a kayak for baptism in the rich waters of Lake Herman.
  • Two kinds of potato salad: rich and creamy from Howard, sweet and natural from Vermillion!
  • We discovered you can effectively reheat enchiladas in the fire pit.
  • David Montgomery is really good with kids (thanks for taking on the role of youth entertainment coordinator, David!)
  • State legislator Gerry Lange brought homemade spicy vegetable juice. We plan to market it for his next campaign: "G-8: Good for you, and good for District 8!"
  • Among the blog readers who attended, one fan graced us with his telepresence from Iraq (Joe! Duck!).
Among the many fine linkable folks who attended (in order of when they got here!):
Count my wife and me, and you've got ten South Dakotans doing interesting (well, we think so!) things with the Web. Check out their sites—I hope you'll enjoy their Web content as much as I enjoyed their in-the-flesh company yesterday.

Palin Worsens Recession...

...by increasing Alaska's unemployment numbers... by one.

Sarah Palin further demonstrates her irrationality today by quitting a good job in the middle of a recession. But as Citizen Palin throws her "I'm quitting—aren't I wonderful?" picnics, her consummated abdication and unemployment put me in a top-tenny mood. So...

Top Ten Relevant Observations on Sarah Palin's Unemployment

It's possible she's going John Galt on us (that would be as good of a self-aggrandizing rationalization as any of the other hogwash we've heard from the outgoing governor). While I'm not convinced Ayn Rand would welcome Sarah Palin to her society, perhaps we all would benefit if Palin retreated to some secret mountain valley hidden by a Romulan cloaking device... or maybe just a deserted bus in the woods.

For a woman trained in snappy dressing, the best outfit she can come up with for one of her last big public events as an elected official is a New England Patriots sweatshirt?No Alaska gear available? Nothing to celebrate Alaska's own celebrated sporting history? Come on! Fly the Alaska colors!

"Palin plans to continue speaking her mind on the social networking site Twitter." Twitter... the perfect medium for a celebrity who can't enunciate any coherent statement longer than 140 characters.

...and even on Twitter, she can't come up with anything more original than a quote from cliché country music.

Of course, she'll need more than 140 characters to explain her full flip-flop on limiting carbon emissions. Oh, but let's try: I'm going to make my living now making speeches, and cap-and-trade would unfairly limit my personal carbon emissions.... 117 characters!

Propaganda from Palin camp I actually believe: "I cannot express enough there is no plan after July 26. There is absolutely no plan." Perfectly consistent: she's been winging it from the start, counting on emotion and image rather than serious policy or responsible governance.

To know her is to love her? Not in the blog world: a majority of the Alaska blogosphere was "antagonistic" toward Palin. The draft Palin movement started with an out-of-state blogger; one of her current major online defense efforts, Conservatives4Palin.com, is led by, among others, a Hollywood screenwriter.

The header image at Conservatives4Palin.com is quite appropriate:
Sarah Palin—Turning Her Back on You!

In her waning weeks, Palin vetoed $28.56 million in federal stimulus dollars for energy efficiency and weatherization, and justified her veto on false grounds. Now that she's gone, Alaska legislators plan to reconvene to overturn that veto and get some money for weatherstripping in a state that can use it more than any other.


But maybe Palin's unemployment will actually help the economy. She's out of a job... but she'll surely keep a whole team of ghostwriters in business trying to turn her patterings into something publishable.

[21:15 CDT]...and now she's just another voice on Web 2.0, no more important or newsworthy than a blogger who can see Madison, South Dakota, across the lake from his house.

Referendum or Not: About Those Petitions...

South Dakota's ban on smoking in most public places and work places (with exceptions for lodging and cigar bars) may go into effect tomorrow with a stroke of Secretary Chris Nelson's pen. Or maybe not. Smoking supporters are writing up a lawsuit to challenge the challenge that invalidated thousands of the signatures they gathered to forestall the implementation of the ban until a public vote 16 months from now.

I have no problem with either challenge. All parties involved are executing their rights under the law, and that's fine. And, as an added bonus, by spending their money on legal action, the smoke lobby and the health lobby are burning up money from their campaign coffers. I'd like to think that means that if we do get a public vote on this issue, we won't see as many ads or as much junk mail cluttering up our mindspace.

Speaking of money, all those invalid signatures could be a moneymaker for the state. Many of the 8845 bad signatures came from folks who either weren't registered to vote or signed more than once (anyone do both?). SDCL 2-1-6 makes such improper signing a Class 1 misdemeanor, one step shy of a felony. We could fine the bogus signatories the $2000 allowed by law for attempting to subvert the democratic process. If we fined even a thousand of these scribbling ne'er-do-wells, we'd have two million dollars—and that could fill a lot of potholes.

Now I've had some fun making fun of petition circulators who concentrated their efforts around bars, where it only stands to reason you're going to encounter a higher percentage of people who aren't in any condition to be operating complicated machinery like cars and pens. But about 2500 signers had their inky efforts rejected due not to their own misdemeanory but to mistakes by the notaries public, who did silly things like putting the wrong expiration dates by their seals.

One can argue (perhaps statutorily—see SDCL 2-1-11) that we should give petitions wide berth and not let technicalities nullify petitioners' honest intentions. I can sympathize strongly with that position: we rely on notaries to know their responsibilities and carry out their duties properly. To allow one misstroke of the pen by one official to negate the will of the people seems a dangerous allocation of accidental power. But the strict rules governing the authority of notaries public ensure that our documents and oaths are kosher, and they are part of the rule of law.

What should happen to petitions that are spoiled solely by an error of the notary public? That's a hard question, well worth the opinion of a judge... or maybe five.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

South Dakota Blogosphere Open House Saturday!

The weather gods appear to be smiling on tomorrow's today's South Dakota Blogosphere Open House—79°F, sunshine, no gale-force winds. I hope you will smile upon it as well... in person! Again, if you're reading this, you're invited. The open house is a chance for anyone who writes, comments on, or reads (that's you!) South Dakota blogs to get together and enjoy some neighborly conversation in person.

Here are some quick notes on the festivities:
  • Getting here: I have directions to our house on Google Maps. Note, though, that the county has chipsealed 233rd Street on the south side of the golf course, so, coming from Madison, you might want to stay on Highway 34, go around the golf course on the north, then turn south on 451st Avenue.
  • Chairs: we have some, but you might want to bring a lawn chair... unless you plan to spend the entire afternoon throwing the frisbee, playing croquet, or canoeing lovely Lake Herman, any of which would be perfectly fine ways to spend the day!
  • Chow: hot dogs, pop, and whatever snacks I find on sale at Pamida! Potluck contributions are always welcome.
  • Bugs: I think I donated a full pint to the mosquitoes while mowing yesterday. Tomorrow's breeze should help provide some natural repellent, but it never hurts to bring some bug goop.
  • Other activities: It's Crazy Days in Madison, so feel free to drop some money in the Madison sales tax kitty on your way out to the lake. And don't forget, if you're in a roadtrip mood, some open house attendees are planning an adventure to Milbank to see Food Inc.

Big Networks Squash Innovation?

I may have the best-read readers in the state. In this morning's mailbag, an eager reader forwards me an article on open source, innovation, Facebook, and social network theory. Cool!

Short form: an Austrian guy running a research center in Singapore writes in this week's Science that having too many connections "can reduce diversity, foster groupthink, and keep radical ideas from taking hold." Want good ideas? Shut off the Blackberry and head for the Hills!

Of course, note that it's all these connections with eager readers that bring me all these interesting ideas. Hmmm....

If you're interested, you can read more of my commentary—and some disagreement!—on my DSU blog. And eager readers, keep those articles coming!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Madison Erects Zoning Barriers to Strippers and Smut

I read in Wednesday's print MDL that, among the changes coming in Madison's comprehensive update of its zoning laws, the city seeks to make things harder on "adult businesses"—an inaccurate euphemism for the smut shops and strip clubs that cater to horndogs too immature to manage their sexual urges in healthier, more reasonable ways with their loved ones in the privacy of their own homes (or at least in the back seats of their cars on a quiet, starry night... but I digress!). The city would insulate its existing regulations from legal challenges with formal zoning rules that would ban porn peddlers from setting up their destructive shops within 1000 feet of parks, schools, churches, or each other.

According to MDL's Chuck Clement, that would limit such businesses to four lots in Madison: three on the south side, one out by the airport. I suppose a strip club out by the airport could attract some high rollers in their private jets... if we had enough runway to land them. But quick, let's declare the bike trail a park, before someone decides we could promote economic development by adding an Olivia's between the new Heartland and James River facilities!

Smoking Ban Prevails, School Funding Lawsuit Reborn...

...and Epp returns to journalism?

Boy, I go spend a day mowing and watching a play (Godspell! Boom chick! Good work, kids!) instead of blogging, and the blogosphere has a banner day of big news:
So many wonders... and now I'll be out today manning the Lake County Democrats bake sale table at Madison's Crazy Days festivities. Who knows what awesome news will break next? Hope springs eternal!

*unanimously overturns: Dang: I guess that means Senator Thune won't be supporting Judge Wilbur for any nominations.

Nymity Policy on Comments; Friendly Friday Reminder

I've had a small surge in anonymous, pseudonymous, or seminymous comments lately, so it appears a reminder on the comment policy is in order. Remember that every comment should be traceable to a real, recognizable person, just as if you were standing up in a public meeting to speak your mind. If other participants aren't able to tell who you are, either by name or quick Google search or asking me, I will delete the comment. It's neither personal nor political—I have deleted a number of comments that express complete agreement with the leftisit propaganda found here. It's simply an effort toward more reasonable, responsible communication... which has been working quite well, thank you readers!

Of course, if you'd like to establish your identity to comment, you don't have to go through the rigamarole of creating an online account. You can come to tomorrow's South Dakota Blogosphere Open House and introduce yourself! Macgregor, redhatterb, Nonnie, even Searaven—come visit!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Graham Endorses Sotomayor, Shows Flimsiness of Thune's Opposition

Our Republican Senator John Thune says he will vote against the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. His conservative colleague Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, having seen no meltdown, says he will vote to confirm Sotomayor. While Thune natters on about the Second Amendment (he must have read that nunchuks case), Graham plays the realist:
  • "...elections have consequences...."
  • "It is not as though we hid from the American people during the campaign that the Supreme Court selections were at stake. Both sides openly campaigned on the idea that the next President would be able to pick some justices for the Supreme Court. That was known to the American people and the American people spoke."
  • "In that regard, having been one of the chief supporters of Senator McCain and one of the chief opponents of then-Senator Obama, I feel he deserves some deference on my part when it comes to his first selection to the Supreme Court."
  • "We are talking about one of the most qualified nominees to be selected for the Supreme Court in decades."
  • "I have looked at her record closely. I believe she follows precedent; that she has not been an activist judge in the sense that would make her disqualified, in my view. She has demonstrated left-of-center reasoning but within the mainstream."
  • "She received the highest rating by the ABA... as 'well qualified.' The reason I mention that is not because I feel bound by their rating, but during the Alito and Roberts confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court under President Bush, I used that as a positive for both those nominees. I feel, as a Republican, I can't use it one time and ignore it the other."
Can't use it one time and ignore it the other—but Senator Thune sure can!

Judge Alito is also well qualified. He unanimously received the highest rating from the American Bar Association, the benchmark that used to be considered the gold standard for evaluating nominees to the Federal Courts. Judge Alito is clearly a man of high integrity and intellect. No one disputes that. He deserves a large vote in the U.S. Senate, just as Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg received. I call upon my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to summon their better angels, put aside their desire to score political points, and instead work to ensure a dignified confirmation process [Senator John Thune, speech from the Senate floor, 2006.01.26].

Is consistency really too much to ask of our Senators? Senator Graham was able to swallow his partisanship and vote with integrity on this issue. Senator Thune, you can still do the same. Graham has laid out a perfectly respecetable Republican case for voting for Judge Sotomayor. Admit your gamesmanship, change your mind, and vote yes on the confirmation in August.

New Madison School Policy on Cyber-Bullying Picks on Blogs?

The Madison Central School Board approved some new anti-bullying policies at its Monday night meeting. I lost a job once trying to stop a bully's behavior, and I hear bullying is as problematic as ever in our school district, so I'm glad to see some action to better protect the kids.

The new policies—JFCD, JFCE, and JFCE-R in the district policy manual—bring specific language on cyber-bullying into the rules. Cyber-bullying is still not the most prevalent form of bullying—this Pew Internet presentation says that kids still experience far more bullying offline at school than they do online. Still, it's good that we update our policies to recognize that kids can use new tools for ill as well as good.

Interestingly, the anti-bullying policies appear to apply equally to students and staff, on or off school grounds, at any time. JCFD calls on students and staff to "refrain from using communication devices... to harass or stalk another." The policy then offers this definition of cyber-bullying:

Hate mail, harassment, discriminatory remarks, or other anti social behaviors are expressly prohibited. Cyber bullying includes, but is not limited to the following misuses of technology: harassing, teasing, intimidating, threatening, or terrorizing another person by sending or posting inappropriate and hurtful e-mail messages, instant messages, text messages, digital pictures or images, or web site postings, including blogs [Madison Central School District Policy Manual, File JCFD, Adopted 2009.07.20].

Including blogs... how'd that get in there? I may not have my finger perfectly on the pulse of our Web-hip youth, but my impression is that most of the online action our kids enjoy takes place on Facebook, MySpace, and gaming sites. Another Pew Internet presentation backs my supposition: 65% of teens use online social networking sites, while only 27% keep a blog or online journal. (Teens also have the lowest adoption rate for Twitter.)

Blogs are not the prevalent medium of communication for the cyber-bullying crowd. So how on Earth could blogs have earned this specific policy shout-out from the school district? Could there be some reason that blogs are prominently on the radar of high school principal Sharon Knowlton superintendent Vince Schaefer, and other school policy crafters?

Surely not.

Jesus and the American Dream Don't Mix?

Worth noting, especially for those of you sporting "God Bless America" stickers on your gas-guzzling SUV's: Pastor Shel features an interview with Pastor Jared Wilson, author of Your Jesus Is Too Safe.

Our Jesus is too safe when it turns out he likes and dislikes the same people and things we do. For our church culture, it’s things like success at work, prospering in our finances, achieving our dreams, etc. But every time I read the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, I am immediately comforted and challenged at the same time. It totally freaks me out. If Jesus in the Gospels doesn’t challenge your idols, your worship of them is more entrenched than you realize.

My friend Ray Ortlund says making Jesus the chaplain of the American dream is blasphemous. I think he’s touched on the prevailing sin of Western evangelical culture [Jared Wilson, quoted by Shel Boese, "Your Jesus is Too Safe 2nd Interview Ed Stetzer – He is NOT the chaplain of the American Dream," News, Thoughts, Theology, Teaching..., 2009.07.22].

I'll leave it to you believers to hash that one out. Now if Pastor Jared would just tuck that shirt in....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Reform: Subsidies for Families Below 400% Federal Poverty Level

Between midterm, dissertation, and rounding up hot dogs for the SD Blogosphere Open House (Saturday! do come!), I'm still cruising through H.R. 3200, the House health care reform bill (now watch: knowing my luck, they'll pass the Senate version instead!) looking for goodies.

Today's note: the affordability credits. Section 242 lays out who's eligible for financial assistance to pay for health insurance. The three main standards:
  1. you're buying your own insurance through an eligible provider, not getting it through an employer;
  2. you're not eligible for Medicaid (we've already got you covered if you are); and,
  3. you're making less then 400% of the federal poverty level.
The 2009 federal poverty guidelines look like this:

The 2009 Poverty Guidelines for the
48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia
Persons in family Poverty guideline400%
1 $10,830$43,320
2 14,570$58,280
3 18,310$73,240
(it'll be a while before
the Heidelbergers make
that much)

4 22,050$88,200
5 25,790$103,160
6 29,530$118,120
7 33,270$133,080
8 37,010$148,010
For families with more than 8 persons, add $3,740 for each additional person.

Section 242 also stipulates that, starting in Year 2 of the program, individuals whose employers offer qualifying plans can get affordability credits if the employee premium exceeds 11% of family income. (Historical note: when I taught at Montrose, the employee premium for family coverage was just about 50% of our family income.)

So just how big will that assistance be? Turn to the table in Section 243, which establishes how much the government would expect folks to be able to pay for health insurance. It's a sliding scale, as you'd expect, limiting the amount you should have pay out of pocket for health insurance to a certain percentage of your family income, from 1.5% for folks closest to the poverty line to 11% for folks at the top of the eligibility range.

As I read it, the table says my family, making somewhere in the mid-$30K range (depending in part on how often you folks hit the Madville Times tip jar—see the left sidebar!), shouldn't have to pay more than 5% of our income for health insurance premiums. Our current premium for really bad high-deductible family coverage on the individual market is currently about 10% of our family income. H.R. 3200 would thus pay for half of our insurance premium, a subsidy of about $1800 a year.

And notice: if you qualify, you get that subsidy whether you buy into the public option, stick with your current private insurance, or switch to a better deal from another qualifying private provider.

I'm still reading the bill, looking for the loophole or trick that makes me change my mind. But the more I read, the more reason I see to tell Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to get off her Blue Dog horse and vote yes.

MDL's Hunter Agrees: Sanford MeritCare Merger Means We'll Pay More

Health care providers Sanford and MeritCare promise their merger will bring more jobs and health services for everyone on both sides of the Dakota border. Madison Daily Leader publisher Jon Hunter brings to bear his business acumen to point out something the merger is more likely intended to bring: higher costs.

But another reason is negotiating power with private insurance companies, managed care companies and state and federal governments, all of whom are working to reduce the high cost of health care. Some people may be critical of these groups, but we're glad someone is working to reduce health care costs. We shouldn't be excited about a transaction that is intended to negotiate higher prices [Jon Hunter, "Large-Scale Merger of Hospitals May Result in Higher Prices," Madison Daily Leader, 2009.07.21].

This may be the smartest business observation I've heard our man Hunter make. Sanford and MeritCare aren't just looking for political clout; they want financial clout to dicker for more money from insurers... and us.

Hunter's analysis is right in line with the analysis from USD health law prof and former hospital CEO Michael Myers. Might be time to shop around to Avera....

Vermillion Visionary Featured in Nationwide Young Farmers Profile

The South Dakota Blogosphere's Flying Tomato gets some good national press: Mother Nature Network features Rebecca Terk as one of its "40 Farmers Under 40" (Terk is #39!). The article spotlights young farmers who shatter the stereotype—actually the statistically accurate representation—of agriculture as an old man's field.

Even the USDA recognizes that fewer young people going into farming reinforces the pattern of concentration of ownership, which is bad from pretty much any perspective you choose:
  • free market—less competition;
  • public health—owners have less immediate contact with the land, less attention to the environment and sustainable land management, not to mention more crowded feedlots;
  • biodiversity—more huge monoculture fields and proprietary GM seed;
  • small-town economic sustainability—fewer farm families, fewer kids in school, fewer folks coming to town to buy groceries and hardware.
Rebecca Terk and the other young farmers MNN features are exactly the demographic South Dakota should be recruiting. These young people want to farm. They want to take care of the earth. Bring them to town, and they may not buy a hundred-thousand-dollar combine, but they'll buy a tiller and lumber, groceries and clothes. They'll have kids to fill our classrooms.

And young farmers will be invested in the land and the community in a way that a lot of other workers we might recruit can't be. A typical factory or office job can disappear with the snap of your fingers... or more likely, the snap of someone else's fingers, in a corporate office thousands of miles away. The farm economy can hit hard times, too, but a young farm family has much more autonomy to make its own decision whether to keep making a go of it on land they themselves have bought and tilled and worked themselves to exhaustion on.

Terk has previously gotten me thinking wild thoughts about rebuilding a community of small farmers here in Lake County. Imagine if we could recruit just those forty farmers to come to Lake County and homestead a section divided into small plots for small-scale, sustainable agriculture. What would Lake County get from an infusion of people like this:

...they sometimes work as educators, eco-entrepreneurs, yogis, journalists, filmmakers, activists and doting parents on the side. They're passionate and adventurous. And most notably, they're focused on sustainability and community building [Matt Hickman, "40 Farmers Under 40," Mother Nature Network, 2009.07.21].

I know passion and adventure scare some of my neighbors. I also know some of my neighbors think big is the only way to go in agriculture. Sure, big machines can do a lot more farming than a woman and a man picking peas by hand. But big machines don't put kids in your schools or life on Main Street. Big machines won't keep small-town South Dakota alive.

Congrats, Rebecca, on making the news... and making the future.

Learn more about Rebecca Terk and Flying Tomato Farms in Erin Heidelberger's wonderful three-part feature from 2008 on Prairie Roots.

Clinton County, Ohio, Shows Vision for Sustainable Economic Development

Today's local development note comes from Clinton County, Ohio, population 43,200, where a few letters to the editor snowballed into Energize Clinton County, a grassroots local economic development organization. Two local twenty-somethings formed the organization in response to the loss of over 7,000 jobs at the DHL hub in Wilmington, the county seat. When the going gets tough, the tough get... green!

Yup, green figures prominently in Energize CC's vision statement:

We believethat the future of our community is in sustainable development which promotes economic, environmental and community well-being.

We believe that local growth begins with local businesses.

We believe that sustainable development is a collaborative process which actively includes leaders of all community sectors and people from all walks of life.

We believe
that policies that promote the green economy and energy efficiency will create innovative, sustainable, high paying jobs for our community, save people money during difficult economic times, and improve our community’s health and environment.

Sustainable development... local business... now there's a document I'd be happy to see Madison's LAIC plagiarize!

Among Energize CC's achievements so far: promoting the nation's first Green Enterprise Zone, which the Wilmington City Council just passed last Thursday. The GEZ will provide financing for local businesses investing in energy-efficient technology, reduce permit fees for green projects, and focus on recruiting green businesses.

Now Madison is getting an LEED-certified building in the new Heartland HQ east of the white buffalo. But since that April announcement, what are the LAIC's big economic development headlines?
"Outlaw" country music, artificial waterfall, flower baskets.

Well, I guess those flower baskets have some green.

Louisiana City Builds Municipal Fiber Network, 10-100 Times Faster Than Private Providers

Once again, who says government can't do anything right? The city of Lafayette, Louisiana, has built a citywide fiber network: $28.95 a month gets you a 10 megabit per second connection—that's eleven bucks cheaper and about ten times faster than my Sioux Valley Wireless connection. Within the city, residents can communicate at 100 megabits per second, basically making the whole city an Intranet.

I have more details on my DSU blog; I just wanted to note here that, once again, we see proof that government, operating on a non-profit basis, can actually do some things better than the private market. And when it comes to services like Internet and health care, which are fundamental to solid, growing economies, it makes sense that government act as at least one of the providers, to make sure everyone can get good access.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thune Concealed-Carry Amendment Shows More GOP Hypocrisy

Hat tip to the Hog House Blog!

If you love the smell of Republican hypocrisy in the morning, breathe deeply: Senator John Thune is sponsoring an amendment (A. Amdt. 1618) to the defense authorization bill (S. 1390) to require states to recognize each others' concealed weapons premits.

The hypocrisy:
  1. The GOP will invoke states' rights up and down when they want to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage licenses from those commie states like Massachusetts and Iowa, but when yahoo states want to impose their concealed-carry rules on the rest of the country, that's fine. Mr. Woodring at Constant Conservative suggests this is a fair protection of the Second Amendment; so when will the GOP advocate similar federal protections of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights on questions of marriage licenses and abortion?
  2. The GOP hates it when Democrats tack unrelated riders, like the federal assistance for hate crimes prosecutions that Thune voted against, onto the defense authorization bill. But when Republicans use the same tactic to promote their agenda, they're being good patriots. Right.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jay Bookman focuses on the states' rights sham, but his words apply equally well to the defense rider tactic: Thune's Amendment 1618 typifies the "philosophical frauds that conservatives wave around to oppose things they dislike, but conveniently ignore when pursuing goals they desire."

Update 2009.07.22 10:05 CDT: Former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, a Republican conceal and carry supporter, calls Thune's amendment pro-criminal policy:

Usurping states’ rights to set the lowest common denominator for standards for concealed carry permits is literally granting a license to kill. The Thune amendment would empower these criminals and endanger the rest of us [Tom Davis, "John Thune's Pro-Criminal Gun Amendment," Politico.com, 2009.07.22].

Update 14:10 CDT: And the amendment is toast. It pulled a 58-39 vote, but needed 60 to pass. Whew! Note that Senator Tim Johnson sided with his South Dakota colleague on this one, but all for naught. And now back to your regularly scheduled states' rights.

Update 2009.07.29 08:25 CDT: Reviewing the blogs, I find State Senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate Dave Knudson praising the failed Thune Amendment and engaging in some servile NRA butt-kissing. Blech!