Saturday, June 27, 2009

Making sausage and budgets: Budget Follies 2009

Hi everyone,

The budget remains in process, so who knows.

In the meantime, Saturday's column.

Tuning into the budget follies

Budgets, like sausage, are easier to swallow when you don’t have to watch them being made. Here are some reflections on the nutritional content of the state budget.

The remaining Republicans in Madison, apparently all children of Reagan’s Just Say No era anti-drug propaganda, are following through on their programming like good little soldiers. Rather than participate to balance out what they see as Democratic excesses – and even I’m mad about a couple of the proposed “taxes” – they’ve decided their best strategy is to mope along the sidelines and Just Say No. Like their compatriots in Washington, their political future now depends not on whether they have any good ideas – since their once sexy economic ideology has been dumped into the dustbin of history by the current economic chaos – but on the hope that life in Wisconsin will get worse. Their public contribution has taken the form of hand wringing over how those pesky Democrats are wrecking the state’s economy.

The hand-wringing has two main complaints: budget cuts and new taxes.

Cuts are scheduled for social services and state employee salaries. State employees (including yours truly) are being furloughed this year – a clever way to cut salaries without calling it a salary-cut. Our local legislators, whose salaries are exempt from the cuts, have promised to “donate” their raises to charity. It’s a noble gesture, but maybe it’d be fairer to let all state employees donate a specific percentage of their salaries to charity. That way the rest of us could get a tax-deduction for our pay cuts, too. Ahem.

Not surprisingly, new taxes are causing the most consternation among the anti-tax cult members in Madison, but most taxpayers will benefit since the newer taxes are fairer and restricted largely to those who can best afford them.

For instance: state income taxes will increase 1 percent for those earning above $300k/year and Wisconsin’s capital gains exemption, currently the highest in the nation at 60%, is being reduced to a still generous 40 percent.

We’re also hearing the wheezy old polka that Democratic tax increases are creating an anti-business climate, a claim that’s truthier, as Steve Colbert would say, than true. According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Wisconsin was the 12th most taxed state in 2006. It looks pretty high until you add the blizzard of fees charged by state and local governments. Factoring fees into the tax levy drops Wisconsin to 23rd. Doesn’t look so horrible now, does it. Moreover, nearly five years ago, the Economic Policy Institute published a study that found “the availability of qualified workers, proximity to customers, and the quality of public services” all came in ahead of corporate tax breaks as factors affecting business location decisions. Maybe taxes aren’t the problem.

Some pluses: the budget triples the amount of support for angel investors and attempts to minimize the effect of cuts on the real engine of economic growth – getting Wisconsin residents the education they need to succeed in the world economy. Despite pay cuts across the university, the budget plans to keep tuition low for families earning under $60k. The UW Colleges’ tuition rates will remain lowest of all.

I do have a bone to pick, however. I’m surprised to see the Wisconsin Way (an association that includes he Wisconsin Education Association Council, the Realtors Association, and the Wisconsin Counties Association) endorsing an increased reliance on “sales and consumption taxes” to weather the current economic down turn. Sales taxes and, especially, taxes on cigarettes and gasoline are regressive – they hurt those who can afford it least. That tax burden should be shared fairly; we should never balance the budget on the backs of those least able to afford it.

The solution to future budget follies?

1) We need Pay As You Go budgeting. President Obama is calling for a return to PAYGO in Washington, why can’t we do it here?

2) We need complete transparency in the budget process. Rep. Pat Strachota has suggested the great idea of making the budget accessible online. Even with sausage flying, transparency would make it more difficult for legislators to hide pork.

3) Finally, we need to replace property taxes with a fully progressive income tax that distributes the tax burden fairly across income levels.

Actually, all that sounds pretty much like asking old time progressive Wisconsin to act like old time progressive Wisconsin. We’re great at making beer and cheese – we should be as good at making sausage.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Unions: time for a comeback?

Hi everyone,

I've been hearing more extinction bursts from the right-wing hold outs. I've had a bunch of people complain lately that I'm "spinning" when I post -- tautologically true, of course, since subjectivity is always slippery and always present and, as tautological, their attempted critique is as trivial as it is contrived... probably by others.

Yeah, whatever. What's interesting is the burst of people using the phrase. They always come in bunches. Makes me suspect, maybe Glenn Beck must've trotted it out as their latest retreat-meme.

Anyway, another one of the extinction burst memes has been to turn up the anti-union noise machine -- must be nice to be happily middle class and never have had to take mountains of sh*t from a corporation to keep your family alive. For the rest of America, there's this nice reminder:

How Unions Gave My Redneck Family a Chance at the American Dream


Dave Westlake to run against Russ Feingold?

Hi everyone,

Um, sounds great to me! Mr. Westlake looks nearly as capable as Tim Michels.

From Blogging Blue:

In Brief: Dave Westlake edition


We need public health care... but watch your wallet.

Hi everyone,

Business as usual masquerading as progress?

Why You May Be Stuck Holding the Bill for the Largest Taxpayer Rip Off


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Think globally, eat locally.

Hi everyone,

Years ago I had friends over at Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Studies who radicalized me about... local vegetables.

Looks like summer is thinking about dropping in today, just in time for summer, and that set off the following panegyric.

Saturday's column.

Think globally, eat locally

“I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals.
I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”
– A. Whitney Brown

My wife and I have always loved to cook (and eat!) but last week we crossed a dangerous and embarrassing threshold which, for the first time, nearly shoved us into the bark-chewing vegan-curious Alice-Waters-groupie New-Yorker-cartoon foodie-elitist category. The shame is almost too much to bear, but confession is good for the soul so here it is: last week, for the first time, we made our own granola.

We kept the blinds down. We stashed the granola away in a big Tupperware tub on the floor of the pantry behind the potatoes. We didn’t tell our friends for days. It gets worse; we’ve been eating it with organic yogurt and fresh blueberries. I like to drizzle a little Wisconsin maple syrup on top.

Do you see what I mean about the barkchewing foodie elitist thing? I’m prepared to admit this in public because my wife’s granola (and I can still barely type the word with a straight face) possesses the two virtues most important to Wisconsin food: 1) it is stupefyingly delicious (better tasting than anything I’ve ever eaten out of a box) – and perhaps even more important to local values and custom – 2) it’s cheaper than buying cereal at the grocery store.

A lot cheaper.

And here we run into one of the great food mysteries I’ve never figured out: it almost always costs less to eat food that tastes better. Consider locally produced cheese, beef and vegetables.

When I first moved back to the Midwest I thought it would be a kind of funny gag gift at Christmas to send my family packages of Wisconsin cheese – you know, chunks of cheddar shaped like Holsteins along with an assortment pack of aged Swiss. It was only funny the first time. Now they demand it every year. Cheese from elsewhere in the U.S. isn’t nearly as good as ours – especially our local companies. We usually run up to Gibbsville, but I don’t want to start a war with those of you who love the cheese curds from Beechwood or brick from Bieri’s. You know what I’m talking about. There are a dozen small cheese factories within an easy drive of West Bend that make great stuff. Pick one you like. Again, it’s often less expensive than a lot of the industrially produced cheese you get in the grocery store and it tastes better.

The beef (and pigs and eggs) we eat also come from Washington County. For the last few years we’ve only eaten cows raised around Kewaskum or northern Ozaukee. One of our local organic farmers produces the best beef I’ve ever eaten. His cows eat what cows love to eat, they live happy lives and produce happy steaks and soup bones. And here’s that weird principle again: our local beef costs less and tastes better than anything I can get at the supermarket. Or anywhere else in the country.

Oh, and for the record: cows in California are not happier – they’re just medicated.

I don’t have enough room to talk about bacon, so let’s turn to vegetables for a final paragraph. We eat locally grown veggies, too. We shop the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings or, as we did this year, subscribe to the “community supported agriculture” from Wellspring over in Newburg. Again, it doesn’t cost a lot more than it would at the store and it tastes better since it’s picked fresh.

There are a couple of additional pluses that tie bioregional agriculture into “the bigger picture,” that get you more global bang for your local buck: 1) when you buy locally, you know where the food comes from (i.e. not from China), 2) it keeps money in the local economy, and 3) locally grown produce has a lower carbonfootprint than food grown 2,000 miles away. It’s probably better for you – and the planet – to eat something grown locally than that expensive, heavily packaged, supposedly organic stuff grown in California. Again: costs less, tastes better.

Try it out yourself: hit the farmer’s market where you live. Check around to find locally grown produce. Better yet, plant your own garden or check to see if your town has a community garden project (like we do in West Bend).

A wise old woman once told me “kid, the best revenge is living well.”

Living well starts on your dinner plate – especially when it costs less and tastes better.


Friday, June 19, 2009

UPDATE on the "Red Alert: Library Board Meets Legally"

Gosh, it's amazing what happens when you actually find out what's going on.

Not nearly as much fun though.

From the Daily News
Schanning, who has stated open records requests should be complied with as broadly as possible, interpreted the use of the word “staff” to include the Library Board, Deters said.
“We turned (personal emails) over,” the Library Board chairman said.
However, opinions garnered from other attorneys, Deters said, in particular from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), and the “Trustee Essentials: A Handbook for Wisconsin Public Library Trustees” published by the DPI, the word “staff” is defined as paid employees, not volunteer members of the Library Board.

So... it
looks like the board wanted an outside lawyer because 1) the city attorney wanted board members to turn over all their private email as part of an open records request, as "staff" are required to by law, but 2) the State handbook for public board trustees defines "staff" as paid employees, and library board members aren't paid employees.

And rather than give the city attorney the chance to explain herself to the board, or let the board work out the legalities involved, Owen secures a leaked memo and makes hay out of it?

Let's put it this way: yadda yadda yadda.


Finally, library nonsense makes the national news.

Finally, we can be proud that the whole country knows about us.

Library Book Riles Small Wisconsin Town - ABC News

The American Library Association has a voluntary reporting system that records challenges to library books. So far, there have been 518 actual challenges to library books this year. That number is up from around 490 last year. The young adult section, in particular, is becoming a flashpoint in many local libraries, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, acting director for Intellectual Freedom at the ALA.

The vast majority of complaints come from parents raising concerns about things like witchcraft in the Harry Potter series or sexual issues in young adult fiction. Within those complaints, Caldwell-Stone sees what she calls a troubling trend.

Boots and Sabers calls for Red Alert! over Library Board.

Hi everyone,

Consider this a red alert… The West Bend Library Board has scheduled a meeting for tomorrow evening.

My Hare-Krishna-Hare-Milton-Friedman-devotee colleague on the Daily News editorial page, Owen Robinson, just issued a "red alert" over at Boots and Sabers -- because the Library Board called a meeting to discuss getting separate legal advice.

He's worried they might get sued, and that therefore the city would get sued. A reasonable worry, except that he's a few months late.

He should have been worrying about whether the Library Board would succumb to the pressure of those religious groups and move the books.

It's a good thing they didn't because that would have precipitated law suits a plenty -- I was even planning to file one -- which the city would have lost. I was thinking about using my winnings to pay Owen's property taxes for the next 10 years -- but it looks like he's out of luck for now.

Still, there's time: it looks like the county board has bent to the pressure from these religious groups and will be seating some Library Board members of its own.

If those new members decide to monkey around, as these religious groups intend, the lawsuit is on.

I'm thinking I'll buy everyone in town a brat, pay Owen's taxes, and pick out something in a 40 foot catamaran down around Antigua.

Maybe Owen has simply run out of other things to talk about now that reality has shredded the economic critique he's been living off of all these years. [Although I note that other loyalists from the previous regime are making out like bandits.]

Be careful Brother Robinson -- don't trade fiscal for social conservatism. That way lies Ginny and the CCLU.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

South Carolina Republican Activist Rusty DePass Compares First Lady [Michelle Obama] To A "Gorilla"

Hi everyone,

He don't mean nuthin' by it. He's jus' a good ol'boy.

Always easy to blame this on the South, but Randy Newman, alone, seems to have actually understood the truer meaning of this, and decades early.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Smoking ban: living longer, good for business.

Hi everyone,

btw: I didn't write the headline. My suggestion was the second part of it. ;^)

Saturday's column.

If you can’t tether a goat, why smoke?

Living longer good for business

The smoking ban, now set to begin July 2010, is causing a bit of grief among pundits and politicos. That’s appropriate. Giving up cigarettes is like the death of an old friend. Death requires grief – even when your old friend is toxic. Grief, as Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross explained, has five stages: denial, anger, negotiation, depression and, finally, acceptance. The smoking ban passed through each stage on its way to becoming law. Let’s see if we can pick them out.

Denial: “Second hand smoke is a minor problem … .it’s not that dangerous a thing. Besides, working in smoky bars isn’t nearly as bad as working in a coal mine in West Virginia in 1915,” a local state senator asserted.

Denial only lasts as long as you can ignore the facts, like the fact that the EPA, the US National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a branch of the World Health Organization) have classified secondhand smoke a “known human carcinogen.”

Back in January, the Journal Sentinel reported that an anti-smoking group in Milwaukee had taken air samples from 32 establishments between Nov. 7 and Dec. 6. They applied the DNR’s air quality standards and found that about 69 percent of the establishments scored “hazardous” for air quality – roughly the same levels you’d find downwind from a forest fire. That’s a pretty negative outcome. New York, one year after implementing its smoking ban, had a spectacularly positive outcome. The New York State Department of Health reported “an 8 percent reduction in hospital admissions for heart attacks resulting in a $56 million savings in health care costs.”

So, less smoking is good for you and saves money. Denial only gets you so far. Next step, get mad.

Anger: “You’ll kill the profits! Nobody will go out to the bars if they can’t smoke!”

First, the idea that dying from emphysema and lung cancer is OK so long as someone makes money is … bad. Second, the economic effects of eliminating smoking are minimal. Forbes magazine reports that “a March 2009 report by Indiana University’s Center for Health Policy found that 47 of 49 studies concluded smoke-free regulations hadn’t hurt the hospitality industry.” Two more happy factoids: after Minnesota implemented its smoking ban in 2007, liquor tax revenue actually increased from $221.8 million to $231.2 million in a year. Closer to home, the city of Madison has added 23 liquor licenses since its ban went into effect in 2005. Turns out you can drink without smoking.

Anger works for a little while but, when being angry plays out, negotiate to distract yourself.

Negotiation: “But then why can people still smoke in the casinos? Why do we have to ban smoking but they don’t?”

The casinos are excluded from the ban, of course, because tribal lands are not subject to Wisconsin statutes.

Still following along? You can’t deny the facts, money isn’t an excuse to stay mad, and you can’t negotiate your way around the grief so, what’s next? Get depressed.

Depression is anger turned inward. The last, sighing, gasp in the death rattle of the pro-smoking lobby went something like this: “But I pay the mortgage so it should be my rules.”

Here’s the problem: even though I pay my mortgage, there are all sorts of things I’m not allowed to do on my property. For instance, under the city of West Bend’s Municipal Code I can’t build a garage within 35 feet of the street (17.15, 3.c.1), I can’t keep goats or operate a lead smelter (17.37, 2.m) and I can’t even build a nuclear reactor (17.37, 2.n). None of these are allowed, even though I pay the mortgage.

Almost ready to stop grieving? Me too.

Acceptance: giving up smoking is not giving up something you actually want.

Some of the Ban-the-Ban pundits and politicos are still stuck in denial but Wisconsin’s Tavern League – the folks most affected by the ban – showed real backbone and got to acceptance ahead of everyone else. The Tavern League understood it was facing down a legislative tsunami and managed to insert some practical good sense into the bill: a year-long phase-in, pre-emption of local smoking ordinances – to make sure its members get consistent treatment across the state – and lower fines. Going cold turkey is tough. These ideas will make the transition easier on everyone.

And, of course, the local state senator in question was our own Glenn Grothman.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Obama Writes Note For Fourth Grader Playing Hooky To Attend Town Hall

The President in Green Bay.

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Ten-year-old Kennedy Corpus has a rock-solid excuse for missing the last day of school: a personal note to her teacher from President Barack Obama.

Her father, John Corpus of Green Bay, stood to ask Obama about health care during the president's town hall-style meeting at Southwest High School on Thursday. He told Obama that his daughter was missing school to attend the event and that he hoped she didn't get in trouble.

"Do you need me to write a note?" Obama asked. The crowd laughed, but the president was serious.

On a piece of paper, he wrote: "To Kennedy's teacher: Please excuse Kennedy's absence. She's with me. Barack Obama." He stepped off the stage to hand-deliver the note _ to Kennedy's surprise.

"I thought he was joking until he started walking down," Kennedy said after the event, showing off the note in front of a bank of television cameras. "It was like the best thing ever."

Saturday, June 06, 2009

West Bend library kerfuffle makes TPM.

Hi everyone,

More exposure to West Bend's encounter with the work of Ray Bradbury. As Oscar Wilde (and Ovid) who said "life imitates art." Our thanks Mr. Haas.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Library board rejects restrictions - JSOnline

Hi everyone,

Um, duh.

Library board rejects restrictions

What I'm left trying to understand is this: every issue in the complaint has been dealt with by Supreme Court rulings stretching back decades -- and rejected.

Why doesn't that seem to matter?

Would pointing at the last 8 years be too easy?


The ethics complaint against Ald. Vrana.

Hi everyone,

One of our neighbors was sufficiently annoyed with Mr. Vrana's comments during the council meeting at which he's quoted as saying that he didn't care about library policies, he just wanted the books removed, that she's filed an ethics complaint. Here it is:

The complaint to ethics committee