Saturday, November 29, 2014

Wyo Liberty Group is Neither

For a state whose voters don’t like outsiders telling them what to do, Wyoming has given dangerously little attention to a Texan with deep pockets who wants to alter the social and political landscape.

Perhaps that’s because of the misleading name she gave her organization.  Who is the Wyoming Liberty Group (WLG). Why has it targeted public employee retirement benefits?

WLG is a front-organization for the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and others determined to lower their personal taxes even if senior citizens lose.

ALEC is a collection of large corporations that establishes ties with legislators by funding their trips to exotic resorts, paying for their meals, booze, and entertainment. Between the merrymaking, corporate lobbyists fill legislators full of their version of the “facts.” When the party’s over, legislators return packing so-called “Model Legislation” to introduce in the Wyoming legislature.

One of those “model” bills is called “pension reform.” It’s a pension disaster for public employees. It begins, “The Legislature finds that the defined-benefit model of retirement benefits for state and municipal employees is not fiscally sustainable. It is the intent of the Legislature, therefore, to direct the [state retirement board] to create and maintain a defined-contribution program in which all state and municipal employees hired on or after [date], 2011 will automatically enroll after [X] months of employment to become eligible to accrue retirement benefits.”

ALEC wrote the bill, legislators fill in the blanks and toss the bill into the hopper, and WLG does the lobbying.

WLG cares little about Wyoming. Texan Susan Gore, heiress of the Gore-Tex fortune, created the organization. Her interest in our state is using it as a laboratory to prove that millions of out-of-state dollars can buy public policy victories supported by her rightwing friends.

Who are those “friends”? reports WLG is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN). The Center for Media and Democracy conducted an in-depth investigation. "EXPOSED: The State Policy Network -- The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government," reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders.”

SPN and ALEC direct members like WLG to conduct assaults on public pension plans. Enter the “Reason Foundation.” They’re funded by Koch Family Foundations. David Koch is one of their trustees. Reason Foundation has ties to ALEC.

Reason Foundation published a guidebook for WLG’s use in attacking state pension funds. The “Pension Reform Handbook” tells local hayseeds how to identify key leaders, framing the issue so that even some state employees might find “pension reform” attractive. They warn supporters to be prepared for “all kinds of union chicanery and intimidation tactics.”

WLG uses “Wyoming” in its name. That’s where their understanding of Wyoming ends. In addition to the Texan who funds them, their spokespersons attacking Wyoming’s pension program are Canadian Maureen Bader and Texan Jason Gay. He’s written an article entitled, “State Pensions: Will Wyoming Wait Until It’s Too Late.”

The basis of the “Model” bill is a so-called “finding” that the defined-benefit model of retirement benefits for state and municipal employees is not fiscally sustainable.” That “finding” may have a factual basis somewhere but it doesn’t in Wyoming. Gay and Bader use horror stories that have no application to Wyoming.

WLG has marching orders from national partners but no facts justifying use of the ALEC-SPN-WLG cookie cutter approach in Wyoming. Wyoming’s retirement system is actuarially targeted to be funded at a rate above 114% of the benefits obligations in the near future.

Additionally, benefits earned by retirees over their careers are a significant part of the Wyoming economy. The National Institute on Retirement Security, documents that 28,500 Wyoming pensioners received 510 million benefit dollars in 2012. Retiree spending supports 4300 Wyoming jobs.

Legislators need to think about who elected them. It wasn’t a group of wealthy, selfish outsiders.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Regrettable Fb Postings

In the wake of last night's Ferguson announcement I posted some ill-conceived comments on Facebook that I regret. Some folks for whom I have a great deal of respect have, appropriately, called me to task. I apologize for the tone as well as the content of some of my comments.

To the question about whether I condone the violence in Ferguson and elsewhere, I regrettably responded that I did. I do not condone the violence. I understand it. I expected it. But I do not condone it.

I understood it when it happened in places like Detroit and Watts. That was half a century ago and conditions still exist that make it understandable, predictable, and inevitable in 2014. 

I do wish those who were so quick to condemn the violence last night would spend some time condemning the violence that white people have perpetrated on people of color for centuries. Their violence is not so much an action as it is a reaction. 

I continue to believe that the justice system has not moved far enough beyond Jim Crow. There was never a doubt in my mind that an indictment would not be returned. The prosecutor chose to convene a Grand Jury quickly. He then did something I have never seen a prosecutor do. He put on the defense case. That is unheard of a sure signal of the outcome. 

It is my hope that Americans can find some way to restore the trust that people of color have lost in the criminal justice system. Part of that will require a genuine response to the numbers and circumstances involved in police shootings. Not all of them can possibly be as justified as the gatekeepers would have us believe.

Nonetheless, my postings were thoughtless, literally. Now that I have had a day to consider them, I admit that. Social media allows us all to share all too quickly those thoughts that should be allowed to percolate. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Fictional characters CAN win

A headline in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle the day before this month’s general election brought a smile. “Fictional characters can’t win Wyoming elections.”

The smile disappeared the next day next day when voters actually elected a fictional character to the state House of Representatives. Harlan Edmunds is now a state legislator. Only a “fictional character” makes his living off the government while moonlighting as an anti-government activist and publicly trashes legislators prior to running for the office himself.

The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle endorsed Lee Filer, Edmunds opponent, because the editorial board found it “hard to consider Mr. Edmonds a serious candidate.”

We’ll soon learn whether Edmunds is a serious legislator. 

Harlan is a state employee who openly expresses disdain for government. He is equally clear in his disdain for more than a few of those fellow Republicans he now joins in the legislature.

As the founder of CROW (Conservative Republicans of Wyoming) Edmunds solicited others to provide “evidence of Republican misconduct, from deliberate efforts to undermine conservative persons, principles, organizations, or legislation, to violations of trust or law, or other ethical problems” so that he might investigate them.

On his website, the Republican legislator-elect crowed, “As a part of CROW’s mission to recruit and elect conservative Republican leaders, it may become necessary to identify liberal Republican officials for removal, either for purposes of rehabilitation or permanent retirement from any position of trust within the Republican Party.”

He made no bones that among those “liberal Republicans” are Governor Mead, state senator Charlie Scott, and others with whom he will uneasily caucus.  Edmunds claimed on the WyWatch website that we “are engaged in a great civil war” and that Matt Mead and other GOP elected officials are on the wrong side of the battle line.

He calls the Republican-dominated state capitol “a RINO (Republican-in-name-only) petting zoo.”

Edmunds pounced on Wyoming’s all-GOP congressional delegation, citing their “reluctance to fight as often and as visibly as the rising conservative fire-eaters. For Edmunds, the latter are folks like Ted Cruz.

It’s not only legislative colleagues on the receiving end of Edmund’s rhetorical strafing. He viciously shelled the lobbyists with whom he’ll now have to work.

In a WyWatch website editorial, Edmunds called the Capitol Club “a sort of subterranean scupper-hole” where a “hive of lobbyists” meet to “begin their quest to cajole legislators either to ‘fence-in’ their employer’s interests or to ‘fence-out’ their employer’s competition.”

Capitol Club members are professionals who lobby the legislature. Their mission, per their website, is “to promote, among its membership, the highest standards of responsible, professional lobbying before the Wyoming State Legislature in order to affect timely and beneficial public policy for the state of Wyoming, its businesses and citizens.” Most responsible observers believe they fulfill that mission.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve never used the term “scupper-hole.” Google defines “scupper holes” as foot and tank wells in the beds of kayaks, which allow water coming over the deck of the kayak to automatically drain out.

Hopefully at least one member of the Capitol Club, the vast majority of whom are Republicans, will inquire. What the heck did Edmunds mean comparing them to a “subterranean scupper-hole?” Context makes clear the term wasn’t intended to compliment these men and women for the contributions they make to the legislative process.

It’ll be entertaining to watch Edmunds rubbing shoulders with people he disdains. Those who elected him may get a lesson on the importance of their vote if they watch him advance his extreme personal agenda, not as a commentator, but as a legislator.

Edmonds is a Wyoming Department of Transportation employee but believes Wyoming should become self-sufficient, rejecting all federal funding. He’ll have an opportunity to propose replacing WDOT federal funds with state dollars.

Edmunds can either throw CROW-bombs from the cheap seats or do the hard work of representing all of his constituents, but he cannot do both.

We’ll know by the end of the coming session whether Harlan Edmunds is a serious legislator or just another fictional character.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Life w/o possibility

The coming session of the Wyoming legislature will debate whether and how the state should take the lives of people convicted by a flawed criminal justice system. They should also consider the morality and value of sentencing people to “life without possibility of parole.”

People of good faith, whether supporting or opposing the death penalty, acknowledge our criminal justice system doesn’t always get it right. Innocent people are convicted. Some die at the hands of a government unable to insure that the person is guilty as charged.

Recently Texas's highest court threw out another death sentence, finding the prosecutor withheld material evidence favorable to the defendant. Death sentences of another 144 defendants have been found to be wrongly issued since 1973 according to a study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” Sometimes it’s an unethical prosecutor hiding exculpatory evidence, other times it’s incompetent defense attorneys. Sometimes it is inaccurate but persuasive  “eye-witness” testimony.

One Oregon prosecutor took a novel approach, appointing a veteran prosecutor in his office to guard against wrongful convictions. Sadly not many other prosecutors are so interested in such cautionary steps.

Despite the system’s efforts, it cannot always produce a death verdict beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, it cannot even assure the methods used by the state to kill the accused are humane.

That should create enough reasonable doubt in legislators’ minds to warrant a lengthy inquiry into the practice. One of the problems with the debate is that many of those who oppose the death penalty are willing to exchange it for something nearly as bad; life in prison without possibility of parole.

Pope Francis recently raised this issue, saying not only should the death penalty be abolished but civilized societies should also end the practice of imposing life sentences with no possibility of parole. He called the latter “hidden death sentences.” He’s right.

Courts have long used life sentences to penalize some crimes. But previously there was a possibility of parole. A couple of decades ago death penalty reformers began suggesting that adding no possibility of parole to the end of those sentence would somehow be more humane.

That view demands a second look. The original idea was that life without parole would result in less use of the death penalty. Not so according to researchers.  The numbers of death row inmates continue to grow even as greater numbers of inmates wait to die in a prison cell under a law that prohibits the state from determining whether the person has atoned and changed.
When Moses went to the mountaintop to receive the tablets, the people left behind committed a capital crime. They created and worshipped an idol. Under God’s law, that was punishable by death. "Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 20:22) And God sentenced the people according to God’s law. (Exodus 32)

Moses pleads for them. “Turn from thy fierce wrath,” Moses said to God. God, the Bible says, “repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.”

In a state where most people give at least lip service to something they hail as “Judeo-Christian” ethics, should it not be thought possible that the God we worship has the potential to change the hearts of these men and women?

Practical reasons exist for reconsidering the use of life sentences without parole. Prison cells are expensive. They should be reserved for those we are afraid of and not used for aging men and women who no longer pose a threat. What more than vengeance is to be gained by locking up a young person and throwing away the key? What is served by denying there is ever a possibility that hearts change?

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19).  The story of our relationship with God is filled with redeemed lives and new hope.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Wyoming: All alone again

There’s a map of the United States on the US Office of Refugee Settlement website. ( It shows 49 of the 50 states have agreements with the federal office to assist in relocating refugees.

Not only blue states like California and Oregon but red states as well. Utah and all states surrounding Wyoming, as well as Texas, Arizona, Mississippi. Every state except Wyoming.

One might conclude Wyoming is the only state that understands the issue. If you attended the rally of Citizens to Protect Wyoming last Saturday at the Capitol Building, you’d know that’s not the case.

Not many showed up to protest against Wyoming signing on. There were more counter-protesters urging the governor to make it even 50 states.

As is the case with far-right fear mongering, the per capita use of falsehoods to was quite high. Some of the anti-refugee protesters wore surgical masks with “Ebola” imprinted on them. It’s hard to blame them for being afraid when it’s virtually all they hear on radio talk shows.

Marc Thiessen, a right-wing commentator, described a scenario in which “suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place – say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta – spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids.”

Many of Saturday’s protesters connected Ebola to their disdain for foreigners. A fringe-party candidate for Secretary of State said that if the governor allows refugees to enter Wyoming, judges would allow them and their many wives to receive welfare benefits, bankrupting the state.

These neo-isolationists spent more time denouncing Wyoming’s Republican congressional delegation and our Republican governor than criticizing Barack Obama. By far the most time was expended espousing untruths.

They conflated feelings about undocumented workers with the altogether different question of refugees. There’s a critical policy difference, one that should lead people of faith to a compassionate approach. Refugees are not in the United States illegally.

The story of these refugees is as old as the Old Testament story of the Exodus. The Citizen to Protect Wyoming aligned themselves with Pharaoh, not Moses.

Refugees are men, women, and children who cannot return to their home country because of documented threats to their safety and their lives. Their governments are either unable or unwilling to protect them. Importantly, they cannot receive refugees’ status unless these facts are demonstrated and they pass a health and background check.

Refugees are in every state now, not just those 49 states that have agreements for assistance with the federal government. A handful of protesters gathering around the Capitol Building cannot change that.

As a friend of mine pointed out, one of the great ironies of the day was to see these anti-refugee protesters gathered at the base of the statue of Chief Washakie. Other than him, there was no one there that day on either side of the street that could claim native status. Chief Washakie should be the only one questioning whether allowing foreigners into Wyoming is a good idea. The rest of us lost that right when we intruded.

Yet there was one greater irony. Charlie Hardy was invited to speak at the gathering. Odd, because Charlie was a Democratic candidate for the US Senate whose parents emigrated here from Austria. Odd as well because Charlie, a former priest, knows the Bible. And so he used his time to read scripture, specifically Matthew 25.

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.”

The reaction? Silence. The protesters didn’t hear Jesus’ words. They just loved that a candidate for public office read the Bible. Like too many people, what matters was the Bible and not what it says, things such as “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." Leviticus