Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wyoming legislators: All hat and no cattle

Not a week goes by that some struggling Wyoming family doesn’t hold a bake sale or a spaghetti dinner in a futile attempt to raise money to pay medical bills. If Governor Matt Mead and the other governors who joined in the lawsuit seeking the demise of the Affordable care Act have their way, those bake sales and spaghetti dinners may be all that the thousands of uninsured Wyomingites will have left to meet their health care needs.

Wyoming legislators proved they have nothing to offer on healthcare when they defeated the only effort the state has made to address this problem where they claim it should be addressed, at the state level. Despite plaintive calls for the protection of state’s rights under the 10th Amendment, Wyoming legislators are all hat and no cattle when it comes to crafting legitimate alternatives to federal healthcare legislation.

They created a program called Healthy Frontiers. Its supporters touted it as an alternative to Medicaid. They enrolled 105 families who otherwise had no health insurance. Then they killed the program leaving the Governor scrambling to figure out what to do with those 105 families and what to do about his claim that the state can do it and the feds ought to mind their own business.

Senator Charles Scott, unlike many of his esteemed colleagues, has given it a yeoman’s try.  But the Governor and Senator Scott were forced to admit members of their own party believe the talking points have a priority over actually using state’s rights to do something. “One of the pushbacks on Healthy Frontiers was the notion that government should not be involved in health care,” Mead said.  One of the members of the Appropriations Committee where the program met its demise is Rep. Sue Wallis, who said, Some Representatives are just uncomfortable with creating a local version of the federal mess.”

As Senator Scott noted, what we are doing now is not free, either of costs or of federal involvement. “Well, we are involved. We have Medicaid and nationally we have Medicare.  You have to be realistic and they aren’t.”
Scott was talking pointedly about the leaders of his own party, a party controlling all but 14 of the 90 seats in the legislature.  Speaker of the House Ed Buchanan, an opponent of Healthy Frontiers, made clear he had his sights set on taking it down though he offered no alternative vision. “Leadership really sent the message that we were opposed to Healthy Frontiers,” said Rep. Rosie Berger, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, turning the term “legislative leadership” into an oxymoron.
If the legislature refuses to take responsibility and exercise the rights they claim under the 10th Amendment, that leaves only a couple of choices for people. Bake sales and spaghettis dinners or the Affordable Care Act, which those legislators who have no ideas of their own derisively call “Obamacare.” Even Governor Mead understands the last hope may well be the law his lawyers were in court this week trying to kill. “Whether Healthy Frontiers is the answer or not, we still have to look for answers,” Mead said. “We do need to try these things.” According to Mead the other options include a bill he signed into law authorizing state health care exchanges. That, by the way, is a significant element of what he calls “Obamacare.”
There have always been legitimate questions about whether Healthy Frontiers is a viable alternative to real healthcare reform. Yet it was something if nothing more than a legitimate effort at a state solution. The work of conservatives to kill it makes clear they are all hat no cattle on this issue but they don’t care much about those families holding bake sales and spaghetti dinners. Perhaps it is time for those struggling families to look at their own alternatives…at the ballot box this November.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

We have finally achieved the triumph of rights over responsibilities.

If you took note of the front page of last Sunday’s Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, you might have concluded the apocalypse is upon us. American democracy has taken on the characteristics of a Louisiana swamp. The serenity of the surface hides the threat lurking below.

We have finally achieved the triumph of rights over responsibilities. Side-by-side were two stories about guns. One told of gun owners stocking up with weapons and ammunition fearful of the coming reelection of President Obama and the end times. A second described a gun raid on a local home. Unknown gunmen fired at least nine bullets into a Cheyenne house.

In the first article a local gun seller said he’d seen shortages in “concealable guns and high-capacity combat guns.” Some are afraid of President Obama, others are of a doomsday scenario. One should ask whether people who are so delusional should be allowed to own concealable weapons much less “high-capacity combat guns.”

Barack Obama can’t get a break. "I'm not going to take away your guns," he said as a candidate and he hasn't as president. Last year the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence cited his "extraordinary silence and passivity,” grading him an “F” on gun control, ironically the same grade given him by the National Rifle Association. "He has a failing record when it comes to gun rights, and that's what our members and gun owners and hunters across the country know," says NRA public-affairs director Andrew Arulanandam. "I also think they don't trust him."

It appears that “not trusting him” is good for business. Claims about his intentions, even though inconsistent with the truth, stir people to stock up on guns and ammo. It’s an interesting twist of fate that the worse the Republicans do at the polls this November, the more guns these folks sell.

I wade into the swamp water around the gun issue only to make the case that when the time comes that the United States of America goes the way of the Greek and Roman Empires, historians will trace the cause back to the time when we decided that our “rights” mattered to us more than our responsibilities.

The Bill of Rights guarantees the right to bear arms. It also assures free speech and protections from “unreasonable” searches and cruel and unusual punishments. The 10th of those rights reserves to the states the rights not expressly delegated to the federal government.

But nowhere in the Bill of Rights can you find the word or even the concept of “responsibility.” Free speech is protected but it doesn’t have to be truthful and often as not in political campaigns it isn’t. Freedom of religion is assured but legislators have few qualms about blatantly writing their own religious views into law.

The gun stories on the front page of last Sunday’s paper are but a symptom of the problem. The status of gun laws in this country provides evidence of what has become “swamp water” democracy. Swamps are places where the surface of the water appears serene, much like the platitudes used to describe our freedoms. However, below the surface of the swamp, you’ll find all matter of bacteria, predators, and other threats.

Using unfounded claims to stir fear, organizations achieve a level of power in American politics far exceeding the ability of individual voters to bring order out of the chaos. Drive-by shootings exist side by side with contrived claims that the government will soon come to your door demanding your guns. Demands for free speech protections are employed to support the blatant use of falsehoods to achieve political ends. States claim rights under the 10th amendment they don’t have the political will to achieve.

And the best we can seem to do is quote Winston Churchill. “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012

When did the willingness of Americans to sacrifice end?

The recent Wyoming legislature took an action little noted but deserving of recognition in a country where so few are willing to share any of the pain of tough decisions.

If you stopped reading American history around 1972, you’d be left with the impression that ours is a nation where people have always been willing to sacrifice their own narrow interests for the common good. As an American trait, the willingness to share the sacrifice began with the Declaration of Independence, ending with, "For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." Those words established a connection far more binding than any political promise.

On through the Great Depression and World War II, Americans believed in that same mutual pledge. Given today’s political, social and economic environment, how many would be willing to pledge their mutual fortunes and sacred honor?

Seems it all started to change with Watergate, the end of the military draft, the backlash to Viet Nam and the civil rights movement. Then came Roe v. Wade, Bush v. Gore, and Citizens United. It all gave rise to the politics of division. Politicians accepted that they didn’t need most of the votes to win an election, only one vote more than 50%. That put a premium on dividing Americans using fringe issues. There was no longer much to be gained by pledging anything to one another.

Division became the winning strategy. Divided down the middle on most issues, we choose sides based not on what is best for America but what is best for the politicians and commentators we choose to believe. The decade old war is an example. Truthfully, not many of us have any skin in that game. There is no threat of a draft. For the most part, somebody else’s children do the fighting and the dying. Our generation isn’t even taxed to pay for it. We borrowed from our grandchildren who will be left not only with the tab but also wondering how we could have made another such mistake.

The great American debt is another. That’s where the Wyoming legislature deserves acknowledgement. They passed, nearly unanimously, a resolution urging adoption of the Erskine Bowles-Alan Simpson plan to reduce the national debt. Senators Enzi and Barrasso have endorsed portions of the plan asking Congress to enact only the spending cuts recommended by the plan. The Wyoming legislature asked them to pass the whole enchilada.

Unless Congress passes it as a whole, we’ll continue asking some but not all to join in the sacrifice and that, my friends, is the problem America needs badly to remedy. 

The plan was comprehensive for a purpose. It spelled out several “guiding principles.” Among them, “cut spending we cannot afford – no exceptions, protect the truly disadvantaged, reform and simplify the tax code, recognize the problem is real, and the solution will be painful. But, they said, the pain must be shared. They proposed not only the importance of spending cuts endorsed by Barrasso and Enzi but the implementation of a coordinated six-point plan. Al Simpson argues the plan will work if taken “as a whole.”

That’s why the passage of HJR12 by the near entirely Republican legislature is so noteworthy. Wyoming legislators have given the green light to our Congressional delegation, providing necessary political cover to move boldly away from a Party position to a pledge of mutual fortunes. They’ve freed members of Congress from the pledge they made to Grover Nordquist to oppose any tax increases.

Unless Congress gets behind a comprehensive approach, the pain will continue to fall on only a few. Among them, the 87 members of the Wyoming Air national Guard who are about to lose their jobs and the small communities who are about to lose their post offices.

Here’s hoping Congress is as willing to pledge our mutual fortunes, as were the members of the Wyoming legislature.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Do the words, “When you did this to the least my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” ring a bell?

The community owes a debt to Jack Pugh for his enlightening series of columns on the recent immigration raids in Cheyenne. It was a story that needed to be told because the irrationality of the national political debate over immigration reform has come to our doorsteps. Sheriff Danny Glick should also receive kudos for his open and honest response to Jack’s inquiry, contrasting with the unwillingness of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE) to answer tough questions.

 Regardless of our political positions on immigration, we in Cheyenne are left with two dead bodies, a frightened mother and her innocent daughter. Do the words, “When you did this to the least my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” ring a bell?

Emile Durkheim was a 20th century psychiatrist, the first to understand the sociological implications of suicide. Durkheim called suicide “the ransom money of civilization.” He argued some must die for the sins of the society in which they lived.

When someone dies for the sins of another, the issue is no longer political. It becomes theological. Immigration was a theological matter centuries before American politicians set claim to it. More recently, it’s been the talking points of candidates for public office but hasn’t made their “to do” list since Al Simpson did the heavy lifting in the mid-1980’s to actually get a bill passed.

Why does this issue get more talk than action? Politicians have far more to gain by talking about it than they do in acting on it. To actually go through the process of writing a law exposes them to political dangers with which they don’t have to concern themselves by just talking.

On occasion, talk produces a law but not one anybody believes will actually work. They are not designed to work but to gain political points. Take Arizona’s law for example, the result not of political compromise, but of a dogmatic adherence to the talking points. Piece by piece the federal courts are dismantling the law. Rational people knew that about which the advocates did not care. It’s unconstitutional.

Erica Delgado and her daughter, Miriam Ortiz, died for these sins. Our failure to act with justice is a sin. Scripture says so.  Leviticus quotes God. “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born.” In the Book of the Exodus, “Do not mistreat the alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know what it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.”  God is perfectly clear in Deuteronomy. “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien.”
Most view immigration reform as a political issue, taking sides with the politicians. We stand on the sidelines or sit in the cheap seats and holler slogans. But now in our community, amongst us, there are two dead bodies. Now what?
For my fellow Christians this is our season of Lent, a time for reflection on what it means when someone dies for our sins. Justice will not likely be found in courts or legislative halls. What if we look beyond the political squabble about the lives of undocumented neighbors and took begin to view this matter from a faith perspective?
Use Matthew 25 for a Lenten meditation? “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me”.
We must choose between political beliefs and faith. As Robert Frost said, those two roads diverge in a yellow wood. Sorry, we cannot take both. Take the one less traveled by; it will make all the difference.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Few acts are so selfish as to run a red light.

If you spend any time at all driving in Cheyenne, it came as no surprise when a tragedy occurred last week in Cheyenne. It was both predictable and preventable. A Cheyenne woman was killed when another driver refused to stop for a red light and broadsided her car. Red lights should prevent this kind of tragedy. But the assumption we make that others will stop for them is one we make in Cheyenne at our own risk.

Each day we all experience drivers failing to stop for red lights at intersections throughout town. There is no more dangerous violation of traffic law than to run a red light. The report of last week’s death said the victim was taken to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center where doctors attempted to save her life. The time to save her life came when that traffic light turned yellow.

The Cheyenne Police Department should re-double their efforts to ticket any drivers who believe the red light doesn’t apply to them. Few acts are so selfish as to run a red light. Apparently the drivers believe their time is more important than the lives of anyone who might be driving from the other side of the intersection. Truthfully, many more times than not, the offender gets away with it. No accident. No ticket. But on too many occasions someone is seriously injured or dies.

In 24 other states and more than 660 communities, lawmakers have given the police the tools they need. There are not enough policemen to cover every intersection. Those who believe the right to be safe is worth protecting have allowed for the installation of red light cameras at key intersections. The cameras record the license plate number of any selfish motorist who can’t be bothered to stop for the red light. A few days later, the driver gets a letter with a picture of their violation and a ticket. Fines have a way of changing behaviors.

Of course, you can hear it now. “That’s Big Brother.” Some would prefer the cat and mouse game. Maybe they will get caught, likely they won’t. It’s awful when someone gets hurt and dies, “But hey,” they say, “”I don’t want a government camera taking my picture.” They shout it’s unconstitutional, that it invades privacy. Their complaints are as selfish as their driving habits. Bemoaning what they call the intrusion of “Big Brother” or falsely citing mechanical failures in the cameras sound a lot like those who tried to avoid stronger DUI laws.

How it can be “Big Brother” when a camera witnesses dangerous behavior but not when a policeman witnesses the offense? But, it was just those empty arguments that persuaded Wyoming legislators to protect the “rights” of drivers to run red lights over the rights of innocent victims to live.

Are the cameras effective? Do they save lives? Absolutely yes. The Federal Highway Administration has found cameras reduce red-light violations and T-bone crashes, the most common and dangerous collisions at intersections.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found the devices reduced the rate of fatal crashes due to red-light violations by 24 percent. "The research is conclusive that they make intersections safer," Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told National Public Radio. "If you run a red light and put somebody in danger, I think a ticket is a small price to pay."
Wyoming people seem comfortable with the idea that they should be able to live their lives as they want, unfettered by government. But they generally draw the line when someone’s behavior endangers others. Running red lights endangers you, your spouse, your children. Your legislators should draw the line and care more about that than they do about some phony political argument implicating buzz words like “Big Brother.”
My guess is the family and friends who buried their loved one last week would’ve liked her to have had a big brother.