Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lead, follow, or get out of the way

I have a dissenting view in the debate over Wyoming Highway Patrol performance standards, what was too easily dismissed as “quotas.”

Members of the Wyoming legislature quickly pounced on the Patrol’s plan to hold officers accountable for enforcing traffic laws. The Wyoming legislature has seldom been a reliable partner in highway safety. It’s obviously better politics to provide cover for dangerous drivers than to protect the safety of others.

I first experienced the reticence of legislators to make highways safer as a freshman member of the House of Representatives. It was 1971. The issue then was “implied consent.” In those days drunk drivers simply refused to take a breathalyzer test. Their refusal often deprived law enforcement the critical evidence needed to convict.

Highway safety advocates addressed the game playing with the concept of “implied consent.” An application for a driver’s license “implied” your consent to take a breathalyzer test if the officer had cause to think you were driving drunk. A huge loophole that served the interests of drunk drivers was closed. It seemed apparent that allowing drunk drivers to play that game was not in the best interests of the safety of the public.

Not so fast in Wyoming. Our legislature was among the last in the nation to take this important highway safety step. There were cries of “personal liberties” as though driving drunk was a part of the Bill of Rights.

The Wyoming legislature stood in the way of every major highway safety reform from seat belts to child restraints and open container laws. Legislators still refuse to permit the use of cameras to catch drivers who dangerously ignore red lights and cause innumerable serious accidents. On many occasions, they fought the reasonable efforts of Patrolmen to enforce speed limits. They even made it impossible for insurance companies to deem a chronic speeder a higher risk.

They allow “cat and mouse” games to be used by risky drivers to the detriment of the rest of us.

No amount of hard data demonstrating the number of lives that could be saved with the passages of these measures made any difference. Legislators were prepared to allow those deaths to darken Wyoming highways in order to stand by some ill-conceived, libertarian notion of personal freedom.

Increasing numbers of deaths and severe injuries mattered not. It was the ultimate congressional threat to take away Wyoming’s share of federal highway dollars that always brought legislators to the table, albeit belatedly.

Accordingly, it’s business as usual when the head of the Wyoming Highway Patrol is openly threatened by influential legislators because of efforts to improve highway safety. State Representative Eli Bebout, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, delivered the message that if Col. John Butler persisted in his plan for officer accountability, the legislature would write a new law telling him how to run his department.

The shame is that “never is heard a discouraging word” about the death toll on Wyoming highways. Not a single member of the legislature has championed doing something meaningful to reduce the unnecessary carnage.

More than half of this year’s deaths resulted from a failure to wear seatbelts. Yet the legislature insists on making the enforcement of seatbelt laws as difficult as possible. As usual, a high number of deaths are related to alcohol abuse. Even though this is a chronic Wyoming problem the legislature will not even consider roadside sobriety checks, a strategy that has significantly reduced drunk driving in state after state where legislators are more a part of the solution.

Col. Butler has the responsibility to keep Wyoming highways safe, but the politicians don’t want him to have the authority. The legislature has no such responsibility but they have the ability to interfere with those who have the responsibility.

Now that legislators have forced the WHP to rescind the policy, they should come forward with their own proposals to make Wyoming highways safer.

As the old saying goes, legislators “should either lead, follow or get out of the way.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Divine Season of Hope

It’s been a tough year. Daily headlines bring new fears. There’s the growing threat of the Islamic State and its brutality, Syria, Ukraine, Ferguson, and the torture report, not to mention Ebola and weekly school shootings.

We’re in the midst of what we call “the Season of Hope.” As our center of attention becomes more about our fears, our hopes become complicated.

Yet the celebration of the Prince of Peace comes around each year at this time. The image of hope is the newborn in that manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the barnyard animals all under a bright star. For Christians, that’s been true for two millennia.

But the hopes of the world might be better tied to an inclusive image of the birth of Jesus. As such, his birth could serve as a cause for hope for all humankind rather than simply a way to prove the exclusivity of the Christian message.

The birth of Jesus is the hope of all the world. The Gospel of Luke records that on that night, “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”

Hear that? “Good news” and “great joy” for “all the people.”

In Matthew, we learn “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." Two centuries of faulty scriptural interpretation have greatly complicated the relationship between Christians and Jews. Even so there is no questioning that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew, teaching from the Bible he read, the Hebrew Scripture.
Christians often cite Hebrew Scripture, what they call the Old Testament, as foretelling the birth. "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Isaiah 9:6.

The Old Testament is the source of Jesus’s most fundamental teachings. Love God and love one another (Luke 10:27). Deuteronomy says, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” From Leviticus,  “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In our times, the hopes for God’s world are complicated by relationships between people of different faiths. It ‘s been too easy to complicate our hopes by focusing on the behavior of “their” radical fundamentalists while ignoring our own. To do so diverts us from the actual teachings of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Those teachings each put great hope in the birth of Jesus and his teachings.

"Behold,” says the Quran 3:45-48, “the angels said, 'Oh Mary! God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter, and in (the company of) those nearest to God. He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. He shall be (in the company) of the righteous. God will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel.”

There are those who focus not on the birth of hope in that manger but on theological differences. It’s those differences that have, over the centuries, complicated our hopes. The hope for the world, through the birth of this child, requires sitting aside exclusive claims on him, while finding the universal truths in his teachings.  Then all will be guided by his Star.

That would be a divine source of hope.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Time to open presents

How exciting is this time of the year? Christmas is the season of gift giving. The time has come to gather round the proverbial Christmas tree and hand out the gifts. This year’s tree is a beautiful blue spruce. Oops, maybe not. I see now it’s a beetle kill tree from the Medicine Bow National Forest painted over. How nice of someone to keep us from thinking about that nasty climate change at this festive time of the year.

Well let’s get right to the presents. 

Ah look. The first one is for the Wyoming legislature. They say good things come in small packages. It’s a small bit of compassion. How wonderful. Legislators can certainly use it.

There are approximately 18,000 low-income people in this state who have been denied health insurance and access to healthcare only because they found themselves collateral damage in a partisan contest between Republicans and President Obama. With this little gift of compassion, perhaps enough legislators will be able to rise above all of that and actually take care of their constituents. I do hope the package is big enough.

Oh and here’s a gift for the taxpayers of Wyoming. It’s a gift from the Wyoming Department of Health. But the tag says, “Do not open until Medicaid is expanded.” If Medicaid is expanded, the taxpayers of Wyoming will receive a gift of ten-of-millions of dollars in health care, cost savings, and new jobs.

And who is this gift for? Oh, The Wyoming Liberty Group. It’s a beautiful new custom fly rod. Too bad most of them won’t be able to buy a resident fishing license for a while. But then with all that Texas money, they can afford the non-resident license. Good fishing. By the way, I hear some folks are actually taking your bait.

Did anybody get anything for WyWatch? These are the folks who use the Bible to foist their narrow religious views on everyone else. The problem is that their “views” come from a self-serving and erroneous reading of the Old Testament.

So this gift is perfect for my “Old-Testament-Christian” friends. It’s a Bible that includes the New Testament. That will certainly come in handy. I know they’re more comfortable using misinterpreted judgments of the Old Testament to lobby on behalf of inequality and discrimination. This gift will bring them out of their comfort zone.

Now that they have a Bible that includes the New Testament, they’ll be able to read the words of Jesus. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for example.

Ah, here’s a package for State Senator Charlie Scott. It feels like a framed picture. Ah it is! Look. It is a photo of Charlie with his boyhood friend Methuselah. It says the photo was taken on Methuselah’s 969th birthday, shortly before the Great Flood and a few weeks before Charlie was elected to his first term in the legislature. What a keepsake. The inscription reads, “Term limits are for sissies! Love, Methuselah.”

Here’s a package for CROW, the Conservative Republicans of Wyoming. Listen. Do you hear a ticking sound? Oh my. I see now. It’s not for CROW. It’s FROM CROW. Maybe we ought to have the bomb squad open this one.

Wait just a minute. Didn’t anyone get anything for the Governor? I thought about it but figured he’d already gotten his present on Election Day. Getting another four years to finally do something is gift enough. Wait there is one more present under the tree. It is for the Governor.

Shake it. Oh my. There are a couple of round things rolling around in the package. What could they be? Let’s read the note. Oh, it’s not what I thought. The note says, “For Governor Mead, two lumps of coal. You deserved a whole sack but EPA regulations allowed only for these two small chunks.”

I’d have bought a present for the voters of Wyoming but decided they have all they’re going to get and deserve whatever it is.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Serving Two Masters

Not to dwell on the Wyoming Liberty Group but when an influential state senator admitted he’s a member of their board of directors, my ears perked again. Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, Senate chair of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee is a WLG board member.
In light of formal legal opinions issued by the Wyoming Attorney General, that’s a conflict of interest. But the curious part about Case’s acknowledgement it it ripped the veil of secrecy WLG maintains about board members. Click on the web page of most non-profit organizations and you find their board members. Not so with WLG.
They list staff members. There’s founder and Texan Susan Gore and a group of other Texans, a Canadian, and a Swede who is now a Wyoming resident. There’s a sprinkling of Wyoming folks including former legislator Amy Edmunds whose husband Harlan is a recently elected legislator.
But not the names of their board members. Under federal tax law, an organization’s board plays critical roles. The board governs the organization, establishing broad policies and objectives, assigning priorities. Boards acquire resources for financing operations. They’re expected to find the money.
Board members determine organizational mission and monitor programs and services. In other words, it’s the WLG board that decided to attack Wyoming’s state employee pension program, fight Medicaid expansion, and oppose legislation requiring certain political action committees to report contributors and expenditures.
WLG board membership of any state legislator problematic. At a recent session of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, state elections director Peggy Nighswonger expressed concern that organizations raising and spending money supporting or opposing candidates found a way around laws requiring reporting because they didn’t use specific words saying a candidate should or should not be elected.
A proposed bill would require these groups disclose their donors if they “directly or indirectly” advocated for the election or against candidates. Supporters included the League of Women Voters. Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, said she supports the change.
“Our group supports as much attribution as possible to get information out there to voters,” she said. “They want to know where (the ads) are coming from and who is paying for them so the voters can decide how to place that in their decision-making.”
There was one influential opponent. The Wyoming Liberty Group. One organization running these types of ads during the past election was Republic Free Choice, a conservative group coincidentally staffed by people who happen to be part of the Wyoming Liberty Group.
Like WLG, the Republic Free Choice (RFC) website doesn’t name its board but lists a Cheyenne address and allows for email requests. I submitted one asking for the names of their board members. I received no response.
Case acknowledged membership on the WLG board and involvement of RFC in the questioned campaign tactics, but then used his authority as committee chair to lay the bill back for “an interim study,” the graveyard for many good ideas.
Is Case’s WLG board membership a conflict of interest? In 1997, then Attorney General Bill Hill answered that question, finding a paramount consideration is “the need to maintain public confidence in the integrity of elected representatives.” Hill said legislators must avoid even an appearance of impropriety.
The AG simply paraphrased Jesus who said long ago we cannot serve two masters.
Conflicts of interest occur, the AG said, whenever a legislator finds difficulty in “devoting himself with complete energy, loyalty, and singleness of purpose to the general public interest.”
Case will find it difficult to do that. WLG priorities, established by its board, include fighting efforts to require shadow organizations to report contributions and expenditures to defeat candidates.
The League of Women Voters believes, "People need to know where the money is coming from.” WLG believes people shouldn’t know. As chair of the committee writing election law, Case cannot fully devote himself to the public interest while serving the mission of WLG. He must choose which master he’ll serve.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"What is truth"

The only truth coming out of what happened in Ferguson on that August day and every day since is that not one of us will ever know the truth. Perhaps Americans would just as soon live with that as have their views altered by the truth.

Out of this tragedy, the only possible good comes if Americans, at long last, look into the mirror and admit that we like a perception-based world more than we want a truth-based existence.

As ferociously as many of us argued our opinions about the matter, that is all we had. Not one of us knows what happened that day when Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown’s paths crossed. Maybe, as some say, Brown attacked Wilson tried to take away his gun. Maybe Brown intended to harm or even kill the officer.

Perhaps, the officer initiated the conflict. He admits asking himself, curiously, whether it would be “legal” to kill the kid. Maybe he asked himself that question before it became necessary or relevant. Please don’t believe the truth can be found anywhere near the prosecutor’s office.

The prosecutor designed a process giving some a basis to claim they knew the facts. The Grand Jury proceeding was anything but a search for truth. It was tainted by a biased prosecutor who got what he wanted. His office even advised jurors to apply a law allowing officers to shoot fleeing suspects.  That statute was declared unconstitutional years earlier.

Defense lawyers who studied the Grand Jury transcripts concluded prosecutors asked Wilson the same questions a good defense lawyer would have asked in an effort to get him off.

Likewise, Brown’s family and attorneys worked to impose their “truth.” We were left to reconcile the boy they described with the one we saw on video, strong-arm-robbing a store clerk. That “boy” was not likeable, even violent, though muscling a store clerk differs in kind from the allegations that he did the same to an armed policeman minutes later.

Everyone with access to the truth had a stake in it not being revealed. We’ve been there too often, from the assassinations of the 60s, to Viet Nam and Watergate, Iran-gate, and Iraq. Those who know the truth are always the gatekeepers. We learn only what they want us to know.

At this moment, gatekeepers in at least two of the three branches of government sit on a report about whether the United States engaged in systematic torture following 9/11. It’s not difficult to understand why many of them would want the truth to remain in a locked file drawer. So much for the old civics class notion of “check and balances.”

But, what about us? Why have run-of-the-mill citizens not demanded to know?

As with Ferguson and all the other opportunities we’ve had to demand the truth, I suspect we don’t really want to know. The truth would heartily interfere with our perception-based worlds. We sound like Jack Nicholson, Col. Jessep, in “A Few Good Men.”

Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth!

How can people who can’t handle the truth sustain a democracy? Can a free nation survive voters who cling to ideological forces that support their notions rather than seeking the truth? That is not to say it’s easy to get the truth. It’s hidden and often confused in a 24/7 news cycle filled with noise.

Think about the “water-cooler conversation you have. Where would we be if it were not for CNN, FOX, and MSNBC telling us what to think? What would happen if we listened to the president speak and there was no talking-head following up to tell us what to think? Where would we come up with the words to express our opinions?

One of the most dramatic scenes in the Bible is the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate when Jesus is asked by the Roman, “What is truth?”

Don’t you wish Jesus had answered the question? Maybe Jesus IS the answer.