Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The "loyal opposition" or just the opposition?

Following the election there’s been much talk about the Republican Party soul-searching. They’re said to be looking for a way to become more “people-friendly.” But it’s as hard for an elephant to shed its trunk as it is for a zebra to change its stripes. Working from their old script, senate Republicans recently blocked ratification of a UN Treaty protecting disabled people. Mike Enzi, for whom I have great respect, broke ranks with John Barrasso joining 37 other GOP senators to tell disabled people they don’t matter.

Symbolic of how Republicans have moved from their roots was how they ignored former Kansas Senator and GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole. The disabled Dole urged support for the treaty but they walked by his wheel chair on their way to vote no.

Dole said the treaty is good for the world and protects millions of disabled persons worldwide. He said it represents American values embedded in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Dole’s presence spoke of a time when his party’s leaders understood the role of Congress, a time when the minority party was the “loyal opposition” and not simply the opposition.

President George H.W. Bush proposed the ADA in 1990. It was opposed by many of the same religious and “family values” groups that opposed this treaty. The Association of Christian Schools International and the National Association of Evangelicals lobbied against Bush. This time similar groups joined homeschoolers urging the treaty’s rejection. The difference between 1990 and 2012 is this time the Republicans couldn’t say no to those fringe groups.

Senator Enzi explained his vote. “The United States is already doing much more than most countries to help people with disabilities.” Senator Dole said much the same thing though his thinking led to a conclusion that America should demonstrate those values by supporting a treaty extending the same protections to people around the world.

There was also a revival of that old “Get US out of the UN” thinking. Enzi criticized the United Nations. “My experience with UN treaties, however, is that UN committees do reports on U.S. noncompliance regardless of the realities of U.S. law. Often these committees are made up of individuals who represent the worst offenders in terms of human rights violations who take every opportunity to attack the United States.  We get written up unfavorably with no comparison to other countries.” His vote may have had more to do with an anti-UN attitude than with the disabled.

But the Kansas City Star was appalled at how Dole was treated by former colleagues. The editor said, “One reason for his appearance was to emphasize how the Americans With Disabilities Act aids injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” adding that Senator Enzi and the other 37 Republicans “undercut America as a global leader of human rights. And they disrespected Dole as an American war hero.”
The insult was compounded when GOP senators listened instead to Rick Santorum and his typically bizarre arguments. Santorum, the 2012 presidential primary darling of the religionists, was upset about a section reading, “The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” How radical is that?
Dole urged former colleagues to support protections for the disabled. Santorum warned them, “This is a direct assault on us and our family!” Enzi and the rest listened to Santorum and ignored Dole.
The rejection of the treaty was an affront to disabled people and their advocates. One hundred twenty-six other nations ratified. Not the United States of America.
The real insult was to American governance. Bob Dole represents what made Congress work. Santorum represents what makes it dysfunctional. And Santorum won decisively. The GOP made it clear that politicians like Dole are dinosaurs, replaced by the Santorums. That’s a prescription for making sure the 47% Mitt Romney predicted will always vote against GOPers will soon be more than 50%. If they stay on this path, Republicans will soon be as lonely in Congress as Democrats are now in the Wyoming legislature.

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Eavesdropper's Guide to the Galaxy

Lent is the season of searching. But searches don’t produce results unless the searcher knows what he or she is actually searching for. So the first couple weeks of Lent might be used fore that purpose…our searches are personal and so each of us might well be searching for something different while as a community we might have some commonality about our search.
That’s where the Bible can be helpful. Some folks consider it a guide to life, a roadmap. The problem with that is that unless you know where you’re going…any map will do. Right?
This morning’s sermon is titled “An eavesdropper’s guide to the galaxy. The title comes from one of my favorite books, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
A fellow named Douglas Adams wrote the book, which begins when a squad of intergalactic contractors arrive uninvited at Arthur Dent's house. They have orders to demolish the house to make way for a bypass. Dent’s friend, Ford Prefect, arrives. Arthur is lying in front of the bulldozers to keep them from demolishing his home. Ford explains to Arthur that the Earth is about to be demolished. The Vogons, an alien race, intend to destroy the entire Earth to make way for a hyperspace, interplanetary bypass.
The two escape by hitchhiking on one of the Vogon demolition ships. This is, however, against Vogon government regulations, and when the pair are discovered, they are tortured.
The torture is requiring them to listen to Vogon poetry, which is known as the third worst in the known Universe. Eventually they are saved from this horrible torture and pass through many other improbable adventures
Arthur becomes separated from the rest of the group and is taken into the interior of the planet by a native who explains to Arthur that the Earth was actually nothing more than a supercomputer commissioned and paid for by a race of hyper-intelligent beings. These creatures had built a supercomputer called Deep Thought to calculate the Answer to Life, the universe, and everything else. This computer, after seven and a half million years of calculation, had announced that the Answer to all of those question is in fact…42.
Being unsatisfied with the Answer, they then set about finding the Question to which that was the Answer some whereupon the Earth was created to calculate it.
However, ten million years later, and just five minutes before the earth could answer the question, the Earth is demolished by the Vogons. All of that is followed by a great deal of drama…all of which ends when everyone decides to go to a place called “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” to have lunch.
Now…you may ask…what does that have to do with anything…much less today’s sermon? Doesn’t that plot sound a little like the plot contained in the Bible? Doesn’t it all sound like us and our lives?
We may not be hitchhikers but we are eavesdroppers and the Bible is “the Eavesdropper’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Think about it. We are born and are set adrift with this book in our hand.  We are given an unknown amount of time on earth to answer one question. WHY are we here?
The race is on. The contest begins. Will we be able to answer that one question before our lives end?
Turns out there is no roadmap…no cheat sheet…no computer that can help us answer the question. The answers are not in this book but in our own brains and hearts where God put them. So then…what is this book for?
In recent months, I have begun to remember how difficult it is to parent a toddler. Rhyland is three years old now and spends a lot of time with grandpa. For those of you who haven’t been around a three year old for a while, let me refresh your memories.
It is times of great joy interrupted by frequent meltdowns, tantrums, picky eating, potty training lapses, and did I mention tantrums? So I do what I often do when I am confused about something in my life. I got a book. The book is entitled “The happiest Toddler on the Block.”
As I read it…a light went on…an “ah ha” moment. Now I get it…now I see what God has been trying to do with this book. You see, one of the most effective parenting or grand-parenting techniques is what this book calls “side-door messages.” The theory is that toddlers (and we never really outgrow that stage of life…we are all still toddlers at some level) toddlers believe what they OVERHEAR more than what is said directly to them.
So…the idea is that you allow the toddler to overhear you whispering about him or her, praising their good behaviors to someone else. Second, you use stories, fairytales and myths that have important messages embedded within them that are age appropriate, allowing the toddler to figure out what it means to him or her.
Hmmm…does any of that sound familiar? This morning we are allowed to eavesdrop on God and God’s Son. Jesus, the Bible says, took Peter and John and James up on the mountain to pray. The story is told that we might overhear it and go with them to that mountaintop. We are there as Jesus is transfigured. We watch the appearance of his face change, and his clothes become dazzling white.
Now we eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. They are having a conversation about what Jesus plans to accomplish in Jerusalem. What are those plans? The story doesn’t say. We are not allowed to overhear that part of the conversation. Why not?
Like with our toddlers, I think God wants us to use our imagination this morning to find the meaning. If we can understand Jesus’ purpose in going to Jerusalem…just maybe we can understand our purpose in living. If we can imagine the conversation between these three…Moses who led God’s people out of slavery into a new, promised life, Elijah who risked his life by speaking the truth to those who didn’t want to hear it and Jesus…if we can imagine the conversation between these three Jews…these three prophets of Islam…these three Christian icons…
…can’t you just imagine the stories they shared about their shared experiences, about God’s call in their lives. Use your imagination to hear them laugh and hear them cry. See the body language Moses uses when he tells the story of the burning bush…
…the look on Elijah’s face when he tells of hiding from the armies of Jezebel, despairing…asking God to take his life, watch his face as he tells of the Lord passing by, of the great and strong wind that rent the mountains, and broke in the rocks…imagine the smile on Elijah’s face as he tells of that moment when he realized the Lord was not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire but in a still small voice."
Now…imagine Jesus…listening intently as Moses and Elijah tells their stories…strengthened in his own resolve to do what he must do in Jerusalem.
God gave us this book so that we could eavesdrop on that and hundreds of other conversations. We are allowed to overhear these stories being told so that we can find the answer to the questions of our own lives…
…and then the story ends with much of the mystery in which it began…a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days they told no one any of the things they had seen.
BUT in our days…they have told all of us of the things that they had seen so that we can become the happiest toddlers on the block.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Who holds legislators accountable? Not the voters.

Most Wyoming legislators call themselves  “fiscally conservative” yet they needlessly spent $80 million rejecting Medicaid expansion. Expansion could’ve saved hundreds of millions. Journalist Kerry Drake called that “legislative malpractice.”

So, who holds legislators accountable? Not the voters. Parliamentary contests in Cuba are more competitive than legislative races in Wyoming.

Legislators audit state agencies for accountability. The Legislative Service Office’s website says the goal of Program Evaluation “is to provide legislators with useful, objective, and timely information about the extent to which desired program results are being achieved.” Legislators evaluate “the effectiveness and efficiency of programs,” in order improve state government.

That raises the question, “Who audits the auditors?” If auditing agencies improves their operate, why not also audit the legislature? Voters should know more about whether the legislature functions effectively for the same reason legislators should know whether state agencies are effective.

The legislature was last “audited” in 1971. As a part of a national assessment Rutgers University graded the effectiveness of all 50 state legislatures on matters such as independence from lobbying groups and openness to public participation. Wyoming’s legislature ranked 49th best in the nation. As a result, the LSO was created and other important reforms initiated. That was four decades ago.

Where to start? Legislators fondly call themselves “a citizen legislature.” Is that really true? What does it even mean?

An audit of the legislature could begin by asking how it happens that so many members run unopposed in a “citizen’s legislature?” Incumbents have created an environment where few of their fellow citizens feel they can actually run for the job. Perhaps the audit would disclose that the desire of legislators to micromanage state government has resulted in the creation of so many committees and select committees that few people in the state have the time or the financial means to take part in the process.

Legislature have a dozen standing committees, 16 select committees and 20 other councils and commissions requiring legislative participation in addition to other obligations. Resulting demands on legislators’ time, beyond the days they spend in session, are extreme. That’s not a part-time “citizen’s legislature.” Neither is it the best way to conduct legislative business. But it is a good way to discourage citizen participation.

An audit should review the dependency of legislators on professional lobbyists. How many bills originate with special interests rather than citizens? How many out-of-state organizations write proposed bills for introduction in Wyoming? To what extent do legislators rely on the information provided by professional lobbyists? You’d be surprised by the answers.

Wouldn’t you like to know whether your legislators operate in an “evidence-based world?” If you follow them, you can identify instances where statements made on the floor or in a committee are verifiably untrue. An audit would make recommendations for holding legislators accountable when misleading information is used. It would also be enlightening to learn the sources of information that legislators drag to the floor for debates.

It would also be worth knowing how often legislators ignore the legal advice of well-paid LSO lawyers and introduce clearly unconstitutional bills. How much do those charades cost the taxpayers? Legislators demand that state agency decisions are data-driven and that they measure outcomes. The voters have a right to know the same about legislators and the work they do.

Our legislature is “transparency-challenged.” Auditors should look at procedures and infrastructure that deter public participation. Wyoming is one of the few states resisting electronic voting. Bills are scheduled for public hearings on short notice, often in small rooms, discouraging voters from participating. Small changes could be found to open the process and encourage citizen participation.

An audit of the legislature would “provide voters useful, objective, and timely information about the extent to which those we elect achieve desired results.”

No other state agency staff and budget has grown as much as the legislature’s over the last 20 years. That growth occurred without an audit. Good government principals require that at least occasionally somebody should audit the auditors.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Will Wyoming be left alone...again?

State Senator Eli Bebout says Wyoming can wait another year to expand Medicaid. He speaks like someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to be uninsured. Governor Mead says Wyoming needs “more answers.” They remind me of the old adage, “Either lead, follow or get out the hell out of the way. If he doesn’t do one or the other, Mead may well become the only governor in America refusing to expand Medicaid coverage to the uninsured.

Nearly every other Republican governor is aboard. Recently Rick Snyder of Michigan embraced Medicaid expansion, the latest conservative Republican governor to figure out what’s best for his state. Snyder joins several anti-Obamacare Republican governors signing on, including Arizona’s Jan Brewer and Ohio's John Kasich. Republican governors in North Dakota, Nevada and New Mexico have done the right thing for their people.

The National Journal reports even Florida Governor Rick Scott is wavering. Although Texas Governor and Tea Party darling Rick Perry promises resistance, some GOP legislators are planning to join. Of course.  The Urban Institute calculates each would receive $7 in federal aid for every $1 contributed to expanding coverage.

But not Governor Mead. Not Wyoming’s GOP legislators. They are standing firm, if alone, willing to needlessly spend millions of your tax dollars while leaving constituents uninsured to score meaningless political points. Wyoming has 30,000 uninsured people and spends multi-millions providing a patchwork of medical care programs for them. Our hospitals lose 200 million dollars annually caring for uninsured patients. But Wyoming Republicans prefer to represent those who hate Obamacare more than they care about the health of their neighbors.

Last year, the Governor used your tax dollars on a quixotic joust to convince the Supreme Court that Obamacare was unconstitutional. He’s a lawyer who should have known better. The Supreme Court said Mead was wrong, that Obama was right.

However, the high court ruled that under Obamacare the expansion of Medicaid was optional. Governors could decide. The Tea Partiers pressed governors to resist Medicaid expansion as a way of fighting Obamacare despite clear evidence it will reduce the numbers of uninsured, save millions in tax dollars, improve the healthcare system and provide needed medical care to those who now suffer and die early from a lack of that care.

That mattered little to Matt Mead and most GOP legislators. The most indecisive governor in Wyoming history shrugged his shoulders even after the director of his own health department said expansion of Medicaid was the best fiscal decision the state could make. Told that Medicaid expansion could save the lives of uninsured people while saving state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, Mead said in effect, “This decision is to tough for me. I am only the governor. I will let the legislature decide.” Perhaps he thought they’d have the courage and empathy he lacked. They didn’t.

Meanwhile nearly every other Republican governor has decided that politics be damned, Medicaid expansion is a good deal. Wyoming’s governor and legislators have operated on myths while other Republicans have decided the facts and their people matter more. For GOPers outside of Wyoming it makes sense. The federal government will initially cover 100 percent of the costs, declining to 90 percent in a few years.

Senator Charlie Scott, the self-appointed healthcare guru in Wyoming told colleagues, with absolutely no evidence, the feds won’t pay. The lemmings lined up and Wyoming’s people will pay the price. You will continue to pay millions of dollars to provide health care for the uninsured and you’ll continue paying for uncompensated care at local hospitals.

Other states with genuinely fiscally conservative governors and legislatures will be able to end the programs they have funded to fill the gap. The taxpayers in their states will save millions, their uninsured will have insurance and preventive care, and their hospitals will no longer shift the costs of the uninsured to those with insurance.

But not here. Not Wyoming. We settled for a governor who believes he was elected to serve only some of the people and legislators who were elected to serve even fewer.