Saturday, November 30, 2013

"as nearly free as possible"

Are you aware of Article 7, Section 16 of the Wyoming Constitution? It reads: “The university shall be equally open to students of both sexes, irrespective of race or color; and, in order that the instruction furnished may be as nearly free as possible, any amount in addition to the income from its grants of lands and other sources above mentioned, necessary to its support and maintenance in a condition of full efficiency shall be raised by taxation or otherwise, under provisions of the legislature.”

Wyoming’s Constitution actually says that instruction at the University must be QUOTE as nearly free as possible END QUOTE. It’s specific. Any cash shortfall toward reaching that goal from “its grants of land” must be made up by the legislature through “taxation or otherwise.”
But the University of Wyoming is at it again. UW believes “otherwise” means tuition, though relying on tuition increases renders the rest of Article 7, Section 16 meaningless.
At a recent UW Trustee’s meeting, the process started anew. The interim vice president for fiscal administration “briefed” the board on another fee and tuition raising proposal, saying, “There are no formal recommendations. This is just to get us talking.”
Yeah right. The track record at Laramie is that once they start talking about tuition hikes, students and parents need to get their wallets out. A continual series of tuition and fee increases have become as routine as singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”
Some argue the University is still one of the “most affordable” colleges in America. So what? College educations are being priced out of the reach of too many.
One duty Cindy Hill retained after the legislature stripped the others is being an ex officio member of the UW trustees. She’s the only one in the room citing the state constitution. Hill is right, “It’s so important,” she said, “that we go back and honor our Constitution and the values in it.”
Framers of the constitution believed higher education so fundamental that the state’s only university should provide it “as nearly free as possible” giving the legislature the duty of covering costs through general appropriations or means other than tuition.
According to 38.0% of UW’s undergraduate students utilize federal student loans for their college education, averaging $6,868 per year. Borrowing at the average amount, leaves a debt of nearly thirty-five thousand dollars for a five-year education.
In 2011, 14% of incoming freshmen received no grants or scholarships. They paid an average of $23,534 in tuition and fees. The other 86% divided $7,933,015 in grants or scholarships leaving each them to pay $17,198 through loans or otherwise.

Argue all day long that is a “good bargain.” The car my wife recently bought was a good bargain but the dealer who sold it had no Constitutional obligation to make it available to her “as nearly free as possible.”

UW trustees, administrators, legislators, and others may compare the cost of an education in Laramie to the costs at other schools in other states. That is a false comparison. The Wyoming constitution, not what CSU, USC or Harvard charges, is the standard by which the cost of attending the University of Wyoming must be judged.

This isn’t an academic argument. Wyoming’s failure to abide by its own Constitution has dramatic impact on middle and low-income families.  Everyone knows the benefits of higher education correlates to higher lifetime income. Education is the gateway to upward mobility for the middle class. However, many middle-class Wyomingites either miss out on a college education because of high prices, or leave college with massive, crippling amounts of debt.

The words “as nearly free as possible” were intended to avoid that outcome and assure all Wyoming students the opportunity to a higher education. Is there a lawyer in the house? ioll, the embattled Superintendent of ublic Instruction, whoSomeone should walk into a Wyoming courtroom and ask the judge to interpret Article 7, Section 16. Those words “as nearly free as possible” must mean something or they would never have been written into the constitution.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Voter ID-why it's a bad idea

There are election reform ideas that sound good but in practice are actually intended to skew the electoral system toward one party or the other. One example is the imposition of a one man-one vote rule requiring state legislators to be elected based on population of legislative districts.

What could be fairer than equal representation? In reality, most states empower the majority party to draw lines on maps to determine which voters get to vote in that district. The result is gerrymandering. In Wyoming, the lines are drawn politically not democratically.  The result is minority party candidates have an increasingly more difficult challenge on election-day.

Another one of those “it sure sounds good” reforms is voter ID. What could possibly be onerous about requiring a voter to show an id in order to vote? After all, proponents argue, if you have to have an ID to drive, requiring ID to vote is reasonable. Right? Wrong.
What you must have to drive is not so much an ID as it is a license. Driver’s licenses serve a couple of purposes. One, it proves you actually know how to drive a car and have learned the rules of the road. The other purpose is to raise money for state coffers through the fees generated by licensing.
Voter IDs are more like poll taxes. Their sole purpose is to deny the right to vote to someone lawmakers don’t want voting.
Ask yourself, “If voter ID is such a good idea, why is it that only those who have narrowly lost the last two presidential elections are feverously trying to get it passed?” It's no coincidence. Advocates of voter ID are Republicans. Demographics show they have the most to gain by limiting who can vote because those most affected detrimentally tend to vote Democratic.

Take Pennsylvania where the Republican majority passed voter ID after learning 758,000 registered voters didn't have the ID the GOP proposal required. The GOP leader of the legislature said the law guaranteed Mitt Romney would "win the election.”

There is little evidence of voter fraud but a lot of evidence of how voter ID supporters seek to impact elections. For many, government IDs are a part of life, but not for all. And Republicans know that the folks for whom these laws pose the highest barrier are the same folks for whom poll taxes imposed a burden in the 50s and 60s.

Wendy Weiser directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. She founded and directed the center's Voting Rights and Elections Project. Ms. Weiser found 11 percent of American citizens, about 21 million, do not possess the kind of government-issued photo identification many of these laws demand. African-American voters are the hardest hit. An estimated 25 percent of voting age African-American citizens, or 5.5 million voters, lack government-issued photo identification, as with 18 percent of elderly voters and 16% of Hispanics. Voters making less than $35,000 per year are twice as likely not to have those government-issued ID cards as those making more than $35,000. Fifteen percent of low earners and even more students lack such identification.

To compound the problem, many of the government-issued photo identification cards don’t have current or correct information. Accordingly, if voter rolls identify me as “Roger” McDaniel but my ID says I am “Rodger” McDaniel, I could be denied the right to vote. This is a particular problem among Americans who move their residences frequently or whose names change by marriage or divorce, adding 4.5 million more citizens to the list of disenfranchised voters.

Those who want to change election laws in a way that will potentially deny that many people their right to vote have the burden of proof. They should be required to prove more than they have the power to get it done. They should have to prove the threat of voter fraud is real and that laws disenfranchising minorities, the poor, senior citizens, students, and others, are necessary.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mr. President…you promised!

I’m angry with President Obama. He said, “If you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor.” I believed him. I took his promise literally. I like my doctor. I’ve been seeing Dr. Harmon Davis for twenty-some years. He knows me, and everything about me. He’s provided great medial care and advice. When Obama said that if I liked Dr. Davis, I could keep him, I was delighted.

But that darned Obama wasn’t being truthful. Dr. Davis retired. He’s gone. I no longer have my doctor despite Obama’s assurances.

I called the White House and said to the President, “You promised!” Mr. Obama agreed. He had promised I could keep my doctor. But he said I shouldn’t have taken him so literally that I would hold him responsible for Dr. Davis’ retirement, something about the nature of the pavement on the road to hell. He was busy figuring out what to do about another promise he made. At the same time he told me I could keep my doctor, he was telling others that if they liked their insurance policy they could keep it.

But thousands of those folks were learning that their insurance companies were canceling policies they liked. It wasn’t clear who liked them the most, the people or the companies. Those policies didn’t protect families from cancelation if they actually got sick. Nor did they allow children to remain on the policy until their 26th birthday. The policies they “liked” allowed insurance companies to reject claims if the insurance company’s doctors thought the policyholder might have had a “pre-existing condition.”

Their old policies didn’t cover preventive medicine, mental illness or substance abuse, and had outrageously high deductibles and co-pays. Their old policies allowed the insurance company to spend whatever amount they choose on executive salaries, advertising, and lawyers working to deny their claims.

Even so, I wondered why these people weren’t more concerned about why thousands of low-income people weren’t receiving health care through the optional expansion of Medicaid because GOP politicians would rather oppose Obamacare than help the uninsured.

Since Obama was busy answering for his other promise, I called my congressmen even though they had not kept their promises (or should we say ‘distortions’) about “death-panels” and “government takeover of healthcare.” They were planning legislation requiring Obama to keep that promise about keeping your policy if you like it. I said, “Hey, what about those who were told we could keep our doctors? A little help please!”

If Republicans who claim to be free-market supporters of capitalism and laissez-faire economics can help people keep their non-assuring insurance polices, couldn’t they help me keep my doctor?

Well, to my great surprise, they all said no. In a free market, they said Dr. Davis couldn’t be required to keep doctoring. Despite Obama’s promise, Dr. Davis was free to retire and leave me behind.

But even Bill Clinton said the president should keep his Obamacare promises. Whether a promise is a promise apparently depends on the definition of “is.”

Speaker of the House John Boehner said Clinton was absolutely right and introduced legislation requiring private insurance companies to keep President Obama’s promise.

It seemed odd that a Republican would do that. Don’t Republicans believe that private businesses have inalienable rights to offer whatever policies they choose to offer, and consumers then have the right to either buy the product or shift their unpaid healthcare costs to the rest of us?

Well, those folks who were first told they could keep their insurance policies and were then told they couldn’t have now been told again that they can. Problem solved….at least for them. President Obama issued an executive order allowing them to keep canceled policies for a year as everyone adjusts to the new law.

Mr. President, you waved a magic wand and fixed their problem. Now it’s my turn. Will you issue an executive order giving Dr. Davis back to me or will I have to get the Republicans to complain first?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ding Dong…the filibuster is (almost) dead

They call it “the nuclear option.” The term refers to the proposal to change those rules of the Senate allowing 40 of 100 members to determine whether legislation is enacted or critical appointees confirmed. Both parties have used and abused the filibuster over the years by to nullify elections and to ignore the clear will of a majority of Americans.

Changing that rule should not be termed “the nuclear option.” It’s “the democratic option.” Senators who are often elected by a slim majority of not much more than 50% use an anachronistic rule to require 60% of the senate to tear down political roadblocks to doing the people’s business.

The filibuster is an equal opportunity, bipartisan affront to democracy. According to USA Today, members of both parties have set filibuster records.

Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Democrat, who later switched parties set the record with a 24 hours, 18 minute filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. New Your Republican Alfonse D'Amato used 23 hours, 30 minutes of the people’s time to protest an amendment to a defense bill that would have blocked funding for a jet fighter built in his state.
Wayne Morse, a Democrat who entered the Senate as a Republican, talked for 22 hours, 26 minutes against a bill giving states control over oil leases. Wisconsin Republican Robert LaFollette halted efforts to allow the U.S. Treasury to lend money to banks during the fiscal crisis of 1908 by filibustering for 18 hours, 23 minutes. William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat occupied the floor for 16 hours, 12 minutes in 1981, giving a speech against raising the nation's debt limit.
The current Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who now leads the way to limit the filibuster, is not without sin. He used the procedure when the Republicans had the majority in 2003, talking for more than eight hours to stop some of George Bush’s judicial nominees.
But the case is clear that the abuses of the last few years are without precedent. One half of all filibusters used by the minority to block judicial appointments in the entire history of the United States have come during the four-and-a-half years of Barack Obama’s administration.

But when both parties point fingers at one another to prove each wrongfully used the filibuster when it served their interests, they are simply demonstrating how much the rule needs changed. Regardless of which party holds the majority, elections have consequences. In a democracy, the majority rules.

The fact is that in many ways, the US Senate has always been a decidedly undemocratic institution. While members of the US House of representatives and both houses of every state legislature are required by the US Constitution to be elected on the basis of population, the Senate was established as a means of circumventing the popular will. The 38 million Californians have the same number of senators as the half a million people who live in Wyoming.

Senators serve six-year terms as opposed to two-year house terms, further removing senators from accountability to voters. They have to have celebrated more birthdays, and have more years as US citizens than house members. They alone confirm cabinet and court appointees, and ratify treaties.  

But those rules, which have effectively created an American “House of Lords,” are in the Constitution. The filibuster isn’t.

Doubters should consider James Madison’s views about creating super-majority requirements. "[Requiring a supermajority] would mean,” Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 58, “the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority."

The day will come when Democrats will wish they still had the filibuster to stop a Republican president’s judicial appointments. The new rule didn’t go far enough and should have included votes on legislation as well as appointments. Even so, if it’s any longer possible in America to view anything through non-partisan eyes, this reform is long overdue for the good of the nation.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why does the GOP support discrimination?

A Republican Facebook-friend recently chastised me saying, “Neither political party has the monopoly on bigotry.” The Senate vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) proved him wrong, at least on the cause of ending job-related discrimination against gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons.

Every Senate Democrat supported ENDA. All nay votes came from Republicans including Mike Enzi. John Barrasso didn’t vote on final passage but earlier opposed ending the filibuster.

Enzi and Barrasso listened to extremists who supported the government shutdown and urged default on the national debt. Heritage Action issued a statement as devoid of facts as their attacks on Obamacare. “America has no… history of society-wide legal prohibitions on employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which makes this legislation unnecessary. Conversely, it would actually do harm to many Americans’ civil liberties and religious freedom.”

Republicans rejected pleas of the National Interfaith Alliance. “As a national organization whose more than 185,000 members are committed to religious freedom, championing individual rights, and promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, ENDA is a crucial part of our work protecting faith and freedom.”

Unless one backs blatant discrimination, there is no reasonable argument against giving GLBT people protections others have against job-related discrimination. It’s not as though we’re talking about “traditional marriage.” Mormons who oppose same-sex marriage supported ENDA. This is about basic human rights to economic security.

Current law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; protects people from sex-based wage discrimination; protects individuals 40 years-of-age or older from age discrimination; and prohibits employment discrimination against those with disabilities.

Another Republican friend pointed out it was mostly Democrats in Congress who opposed the civil rights legislation of the 60s. He’s right. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 80% of the House Republicans and 82% of the Senate Republicans supported the bill while it received the support of only 61% of House Democrats and 66% of those in the Senate.
After he singed the bill into law, Lyndon Johnson told Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come," he said.
He underestimated the length of time by a couple of generations. Among the Democrats who opposed civil rights for African-Americans was Senator Strom Thurmond who led an unsuccessful filibuster to stop the bill from passing. One by one other Southern Democrats became Republicans and the solid South was soon how we referred to Republican control.
Shamefully, the cause of the shift was civil rights for blacks. White Southerners attacked the law with much the same arguments their political heirs made against ENDA, claiming it violates states' rights, interferes with religious freedoms, interferes with employer rights, and will result in unnecessary lawsuits. When segregation was outlawed Southern Democratic governors led Orval Faubus of Arkansas, Lester Maddox of Georgia, and George Wallace of Alabama appealed to a less-educated, blue-collar electorate and opposed segregation.
Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”
Republicans like Wyoming’s senators are claiming the mantle of those Southern Democrats. Neither has the courage to reject the dark angels of their party. There was a time when the religious right courted the Republican Party. Now the Party courts evangelicals even as they use Congress to pursue a theology that long ago failed in their pews.
Most segregationist Democrats eventually found a home in the GOP. Those who opposed civil rights for blacks are almost universally considered to have been on the wrong side of history. Even so, today most Democrats are embarrassed by a history that included those like Wallace and Thurmond who were willing to sell out the constitutional rights of marginalized Americans for a few extra votes.
Mike Enzi and John Barrasso are on the wrong side of history on this issue. Like Democrats looking back to the 60s, the day will come when Republicans become equally embarrassed by their politicians who voted to protect those who seek to discriminate.