Sunday, July 31, 2011

Curious isn’t it, how these wide open spaces generate a sort of confined thinking.

Nothing focuses the thoughts of an old retired guy on the future of Wyoming like holding your month old granddaughter in your arms. While watching little Eydie June sleep I thought about the controversy percolating over former Governor Freudenthal’s initiative to create a community-based dialogue about “Building the Wyoming we want.”
With the exception of living briefly elsewhere after high school and a year in Nicaragua, I’ve lived here nearly all my life. I suppose that’s evidence Wyoming is the Wyoming I wanted. Yet I have the sense it’s missing something I would hope would be a part of my granddaughter’s life. Wyoming lacks an open mind. Curious isn’t it, how these wide open spaces generate a sort of confined thinking.
Theologian Kathleen Norris captured the essence of the dilemma in her book Dakota, which could as well have been about Wyoming. She said the internal conflict natives feel is reflected in their attitude toward outsiders who attempt to bring new ideas to a community. “Local folks are clear they’re not interested in the way it was done somewhere else, saying, ‘we live in the best darned place in the country…but if you’re so damn smart, why do you live here?”
A case in point is the reaction of Goshen County resident Cheri Steinmetz to Freudenthal’s effort to talk about the state’s future. It’s a part of a United Nations conspiracy to take away property rights, contends Ms. Steinmetz, a loud opponent of any dialogue that might result in change. She believes, “The very name, Building the Wyoming We Want (BW3), implies we do not HAVE the Wyoming we want, and suggests we are unable to “build” it on our own. I disagree. We cherish our family, friends, freedom, and our independent rural way of life. BW3 was started by Governor Freudenthal under the guise of “protecting” the things we hold dear.  Last time I checked, we were perfectly able to do that on our own.”
In other words, if anyone has any new ideas, keep them to yourself. There you have it! “If you’re so dam smart, why do you live here?”
A second case in point is the letter written by a couple of legislators lodging a complaint with the President of the University of Wyoming about a piece of art work they found objectionable. The University has had its own struggles with accepting the free exchange of ideas. These legislators probably thought their complaint, coming from officials with control over the school’s budget, would result in the removal of the sculpture. To UW’s credit, the complaint fell on surprisingly deaf ears. But the fact that elected officials would use their position to complain about the expression of ideas through even the rather ambiguous medium of art is symptomatic of a troubling lack of openness.
It’s an invitation to openness I want for my granddaughter and yours. I’d love to have them grow up in a state where the opportunities for free expression and creativity are as many as the antelope and as big as the sky. But there’s a reason why Wyoming’s greatest export is its children even while it has the fastest aging population in the United States.
Look at small communities around the state and you’ll see bright, promising, well educated young people leaving the state. They’re finding futures in communities that are open, where new ideas are encouraged, where there’s an opportunity to use ones youthful enthusiasm, intellect and creativity to contribute to a growing sense of personal and community identity.
We will get the Wyoming we want but it may well not be the Wyoming our grandchildren want. A state with fewer new ideas than people doesn’t hold much of a future for young people. But it does cling tightly to the past and maybe that’s why Wyoming is fast becoming the grayest of all states.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

It's almost midnight. Do you know where your vote is?

"No taxation without representation" was the battle cry of the early American patriots who contributed the name of the Tea Party to American lore. Their 21st century imitators have reached the rather odd conclusion that having representation should exempt them from taxation.
The fiscal doomsday clock is about to strike midnight! Do you know where your vote is? Many of your elected officials gave it away to a special interest group that does not have your best interest at heart. There is no greater abdication of personal responsibility than the so-called “Pledge.” This document is the set of handcuffs, leaving us with neither representation nor the political wherewithal to avoid fiscal crisis.
Taxpayer Protection Pledge I, _____, pledge to the taxpayers of the (____ district of the) state of ______ and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.
To his credit Wyoming Senator John Barrasso refused to sign. However, Senator Mike Enzi and Representative Cynthia Lummis are among 235 House members and 41 Senators who have signed.
Senator Enzi and Representative Lummis and most of their colleagues have mortgaged their ability to represent us by signing away the vote with which we entrusted them. Those votes don’t belong to them, they belong to you. Those votes are a sacred trust and are not Enzi’s and Lummis’ to give away. We “entrusted” them with the right to vote in our best interests and instead they signed the right away to a special interest group.
To whom did they give our votes? To a group with a rather lofty name, “Americans for Tax Reform (ATR)” headed by Grover Norquist.  ATR not only opposes all tax increases but also opposes healthcare reform, efforts to halt climate change, and weakening of workers’ rights.  A June 2006 report from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on the Jack Abramoff scandal alleged ATR was a "conduit" for funds that flowed from Abramoff's clients to finance surreptitiously grass-roots lobbying campaigns.
ATR is so doctrinaire, its web site today includes a demand that Republican senators working as members of the “Gang of 6” halt efforts to avoid a default on the nation’s debt. “A failure to extend the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 by trading them for broader tax hikes proposed by the President and “Gang of Six” would violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge” according to a warning posted for “pledged” members of Congress to ponder.
In the interests of transparency, not to mention democracy, members of Congress should include on their self-serving web sites a list of all such pledges they have executed. Wouldn’t you be interested to know to whom they have committed the vote with which you entrusted them? Voters should be loathe to support candidates who have tied their own hands even before taking office. Elected representatives must be open to considering the facts before them at the time an issue is decided and not be bound by a pledge they gave to some special interest group in the heat of a campaign.
Those patriots who dumped tea in the Boston harbor in 1773, demanding “no taxation without representation” could never have imagined that the rights they sacrificed for would be signed away in pledges to special interest groups like Americans for Tax Reform. In a cruel irony, the net result all these years later is that we have “no taxation” (of the wealthy) and we got there with “no representation.”
Now that is worth another Tea Party!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Abortion politics comes to the rodeo!

The recent flap over Cheyenne Frontier Days support of the Komen Foundation reminded me of just how weary I am of abortion politics in Wyoming and elsewhere. Objections raised by WyWatch and Richard Wall are also a clue about the true nature of this 40 year war.
At the end of the day, what’s clear is the battle is central to the hopes of some that they can impose their religious beliefs on all of us. They use their Bibles to answer a question that was never posed to Jesus or any of the others whose stories the Book tells. The Right to Life argument finds no support under any responsible interpretation of the Bible. Anti- choice fanatics must take verses out of context and then torture the meaning they want from words never intended to be used to settle this dispute.
To be sure, their heartfelt beliefs are not shared by all righteous, devout, God loving people. Interestingly as many Catholics as non-Catholics no longer object to abortion on moral grounds. In a 2009 Gallup poll 40% of Catholic responders and 41% of non-Catholics said the procedure was “morally acceptable.” In the same poll 63% said stem cell research was “morally acceptable” to them as Catholics. Applying a “one size fits all” formula to other faiths is equally misleading.
I confess that as a Protestant minister, I do not support the use of abortion outside the need to protect the health of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. I understand the arguments about the sanctity of life though I wish Mr. Wall, et al, would spend as much heart applying them to the death penalty and war. But I also understand the notion of “free-will.” God was intentional in God’s design of human nature to assure each of us has the authority to make choices for ourselves. God’s plan did not include having Mr. Wall and WyWatch make deeply personal choices for us either directly nor indirectly.
It should be troubling to all free people to see a small group of religionists hire lobbyists, solicit campaign contributions, and create lists of legislators to support or defeat with no other motive than to impose their will on those to whom God gave free will. Even more offensive is the effort to burden our premier community celebration with their narrow agenda. The Cheyenne Frontier Days committee made the correct and compassionate choice to use a small amount of their revenue to support the important efforts of the Komen Foundation to find a cure for breast cancer. It is the unfortunate nature of abortion politics that this well intended contribution would be identified by a group of extremists as an opportunity to make the case for their religious views. We have seen this ploy in the health care debate, on issues of foreign policy, public education, and in the effort here in Wyoming to interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
These folks believe they can gain ground in a 40 year old controversy by driving a wedge wherever they see an opening. The community, to include clergy, should stand up to this kind of blackmail to make sure it stops now.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Who does Wyoming's Congressional delegation represent? Hint: If you're not wealthy, it ain't you!

There’s an old saying defining an optimist as “the only person in the room who doesn’t have all the facts.” That definition that would fit many of my Republican friends who continue supporting our Congressional delegation in the debate over the nation’s debt ceiling. You’ve been duped into believing the ideological refusal to ask the wealthy to share the pain of deficit reduction serves your interests. It doesn’t. If Senators Enzi and Barrasso and Representative Lummis and their colleagues get their way, cuts deep enough to make a dent will seriously damage your future and that of your children.
If you’re on Medicare or if your parents are, the cuts proposed will mean an additional tax on the middle class in the form of much higher medical costs out of your pocket. Your children who are already in over their heads (or yours) with student loans will have to go far deeper into debt to get a basic education. The infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, jobs will be lost in the public sector and your take home pay will decline. The interest rates you pay for necessities like mortages and car loans will be increased. If you have one of hundreds of state jobs dependent on federal grants, you may find yourself on the unemployment line.
Is it a matter of disliking Obama and anything he proposes that persuades you to support GOP proposals that work against your own interests? What rational evidence is there to cause you to think these three are representing your interests? They are not. Their insistence on no new taxes on the richest people in America helps a very small number of Wyoming families and damages the vast majority.
According to the US Census Bureau, Wyoming has fewer millionaire households than any other state in the union. Dead last! Even Mississippi has 5 times as many as the Cowboy State. That’s an especially intriguing number in the context of the current debate on whether the United States will default on its debt.
Of the 200,000 households in Wyoming only 8,708 (about 4%) have an income in excess of a million dollars a year. For the other 96%, the median income is around 50,000 dollars. Because census statistics don’t tell us how many of those 8,708 are simply millionaires and how many are multi-millionaires or even billionaires, we have no way of knowing just how many of them our Congressional delegation is defending in their Party-line insistence that the uber-wealthy should not share in the sacrifice. But what is clear is the other 200,000 families in Wyoming have no representation in this debate.
The numbers defy the notion that we live in a representative democracy. Assume arguendo all 8,708 might be asked to pay a little more toward reducing the deficit under the President’s proposal to end some of the Bush tax cuts in 2013 although most mere millionaires would not.
Our political system is set up to assure one person-one vote in the US House of Representatives. But if you are among the wealthiest Wyoming millionaires, you have one vote per 8,708 households. By contrast California’s wealthy families get only one Congressman for every 12,517 wealthy household. For neighboring Colorado, the ratio is 1:12,842.
The Senate is even more unrepresentative. Wyoming’s two US Senators represent the 8,708 richest families unswervingly. So the uber-Wyoming wealthy have one senator in their pocket per 4,354 households. By that standard, the wealthy are vastly underrepresented in California where they have only one Senator per 331,697 households. For Coloradoans, it is one senator per 44,948.
Perhaps the Wyoming Business Council could use these numbers to attract more wealthy families to the state. I can see the ads now. “Come to Wyoming where there is no state income tax, labor laws protect business and the middle income is quite willing to elect Congressmen who only speak for the rich.”
Why would the wealthy live anywhere but Wyoming? Why would the rest of you acquiesce?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

If someone is going to show leadership now, why not one of Wyoming's Congressmen? asks this online poll question
Who has the most to lose if a debt deal isn't reached?
·         Democrats
·         Republicans
·         President Obama
·         All of the above.
·         I'm not sure.”
It’s actually “none of the above.” It is you and me!
It’s a curious yet and apropos sign of the times that the possible responses didn’t include “Americans.” The fact that we find our country on the precipice of this disaster speaks loudly to the fact that those in charge see this as a matter affecting only them as Democrats or republicans rather than all of us as Americans.
Those of us who live (and vote) in Wyoming might be tempted to focus our ire on one or all of those in the center of the media storm. The national media quote President Obama and Congressional leaders like Boehner and Reid, Pelosi and McConnell daily.
These are serious times making one wish we had serious leaders and it’s not too much for us who live in Wyoming to ask why our members of Congress can’t be counted on to be those serious leaders as this crisis grows more ominous by the day?
We all know and accept the Republican Party takes Wyoming and our Congressional delegation for granted. They need not bargain with Wyoming because the voters can be counted on to vote a straight ticket and our Congressional delegation can be counted on to vote the Party line…apparently even when the moment begs for Profiles in Courage.
News releases from their office continually claim Senators Enzi and Barrasso and Representative Lummis have gained increasing clout in the halls of Congress. Cynthia Lummis was recently named the new Vice-Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus. Several months ago, the Casper Star-Tribune reported, “U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was elected Wednesday as fifth-highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, giving the junior senator from Wyoming greater political clout and a say in setting GOP policy and political strategy.” Mike Enzi is the Ranking Member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, a committee he chaired when the GOP had the Senate majority. Bottom of Form
You can’t argue the three have growing prominence in Washington power circles. Each is held in high regard at home as well. None of the three is in any danger of losing their jobs at the hands of Wyoming voters. Enzi’s last campaign ended with him receiving 76% of the vote. In her last campaign Lummis took more than 70% of the vote. After having been appointed to the Senate, Barrasso won his next contested election with 73%.
There is no threat hanging over their heads either here or in Washington. So, why are they not rising above it all and speaking out against the threat hanging over ours? It’s disheartening to hear only them recite Party talking points when so much is at stake.  With partisan politicians all over Washington playing Russian Roulette with the economy, our IRA’s and life savings and the future of our children, would it be too much for just one of those three to rise above it all?  If not Enzi, Barrasso or Lummis, who? If not now, when?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How the Wyoming legislature became a valley floor filled with dry bones!

The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out and set me in the middle of a valley;
it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel 37 1-3
I see legislative leaders are trying to make certain reapportionment doesn’t cost any of them a lifetime job in the legislature. Instead, they should ask how the legislature became a valley floor filled with dry bones. Reapportionment could be a needed tool for rejuvenation, if they’d allow for that.
I was first elected to the Wyoming legislature in 1970. There was no Legislative Service Office, no interim committees, and the legislature met for only 40 days and nights every two years. Plain old citizens could take the time to serve. That was the early 1970’s. In the intervening years, much has changed, some for the better and some not.
In those days, there was an understanding that once a member became speaker of the house or president of the senate, she or he would step aside so that others could step up. That custom has been tossed and some members have virtual lifetime appointments. Back then we were proud to be called “a citizen legislature” meaning the structure allowed anyone to serve. Today the Wyoming legislature has become more exclusive. Only a few can participate. First, the legislature now has more so-called “select committees” than standing committees. Apparently distrustful of the committee system, they create select committees so that only select members are allowed to make select decisions. As a result, serving in the legislature occupies considerable time commitments rendering it more than a part time job.
The people of Wyoming once attempted to make those bones live again by enacting term limits but legislators went to the courts for relief from the vote of the people.
The most damaging “reform” of all is one that was intended to give citizens better representation. In 1991, a well intentioned group of Wyoming advocates went to the US Supreme Court returning with an order requiring the legislature to reapportion itself into single member districts. The idea that people living in south Cheyenne could not be represented by someone living in north Cheyenne never made sense to me but a 1963 Supreme Court decision had dictated “one person-one vote” should be applied to Wyoming.
Twenty years later, the time has come to ask whether this change made our system better or worse. There is evidence it made the system less open, less accessible and increasingly irrelevant. The Supreme Court gave us a system that institutionalized a one party majority under which most citizens (1) don’t have any idea who their legislator is; and (2) don’t care enough to run themselves.
The huge one-Party majority in the legislature is not so much about political ideology as it is about the structure incumbents created to protect themselves from competition. The proof is in the extraordinarily high numbers of those incumbents who are never opposed at the ballot box.
Nationwide, the last election saw 28% of all state senate winners unopposed. In Wyoming it was 60%. On the house side, a third of all members nationwide won without an opponent. In Wyoming it was almost 70%.
It’s not by accident that those statistics define the legislature. It’s by design, the design created by incumbents who like it that way. That’s not the sign of a healthy democracy and reapportionment is a once in a decade opportunity to think about how to open the system to fresh voices and a healthy turnover of members and ideas. Those dry bones could live again but only if the old dry bones choose.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There is more at stake in the coming few days than talking points can address

In what we anachronistically call a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” no longer has much to do with “the people.” I don’t know about you but I am beginning to believe the government of the United States (which, by the way, includes Wyoming’s congressional delegation) is partisan to such a dysfunctional level they are actually willing to watch you and I lose significant portions of our life savings in order to play out their game of chicken over the national debt limit.
The President says the national debt must be addressed with a shared sacrifice, i.e huge spending cuts along with revenue increases in the form of repealing certain tax advantages secured by the wealthiest Americans when George W. Bush was president. The Republican Speaker of the House said, “Not a chance!” The ship will go down before Republicans agree to a shared sacrifice.
Of course, the World Bank doesn’t have to cajole the Tea Party but it is interesting that it understands the mathematics of debt reduction enough to have insisted Greece use budget cuts and tax increases to reign in its debt before there would be any international assistance.
I understand partisanship. I get it that any number of Republicans have pledged “no new taxes.” What I don’t understand is how they can’t seem to understand the nation’s debt crisis is little more than a math problem.
The current national debt is more than 14 trillion dollars.
Partisan politicians on both sides are fond of blaming but there is more than enough blame to go around. There are non-partisan economists who make the case that we have today’s problem largely because of the revenue losses resulting from the Bush tax cuts.  According to Fareed Zakaria, “If Congress were to do nothing, the Bush tax cuts would expire next year. That by itself would yield $3.9 trillion to the federal government over the next 10 years. We would go to the bottom of the pack in terms of deficit as a percentage of GDP among the rich countries in the world — we would basically solve our fiscal problems for the short term."
During a recent GOP Senators press conference they lined up to say there would be no revenue increases, only spending cuts. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) said the federal government should solve the problem like any American family, live within your means. From which planet does she come?
Even the most financially responsible American families address their needs through a combination of both revenue generation and debt. Responsible families understand debt and borrowing as a tool to obtain certain necessities, e.g. home ownership, automobiles, health care and education. They also understand that there are times when they cannot either borrow more nor can they reduce their expenses below a certain level. That’s when they address the need for additional revenue. Maybe they ask for a raise or one takes on an additional job.
Americans understand math better than those they elect. Americans can see through the partisanship fog enough to know you can’t get there from here by limiting the solution to spending cuts alone.
The US can’t put a sufficient dent in a 14 trillion dollar debt without a balanced package of spending cuts AND tax increases. This chart at the bottom shows the point at which the budget balances with spending cuts alone. Tax avoiding Congress members would have to entirely eliminate all discretionary spending (which includes defense) in order to balance the budget without new taxes.
Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian or a Tea Partier, there is more at stake in the coming few days than talking points can address. Your future is going to be decided by whether or not there are a few leaders in Congress willing to take the risk of doing the right thing. The saddest part of America today is that we can no longer be confident there are.