Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why the war was lost

On a smaller but no less detrimental scale, the failure of Wyoming political leaders to expand Medicaid is our Flint, Michigan.

Legislators voting “no” live in a post-factual world. They have health insurance. They can afford to fabricate information to justify denying insurance to 18,000 Wyomingites who’ll get sicker quicker and die earlier than if our legislators had more concern for people than politics.

There’s not much left to say about Wyoming’s refusal to provide healthcare for low- income families. The battle is over. Small-government mindlessness won. The people lost. Legislators like Rep. Tim Stubson and Senator Drew Perkins have their stories. They’re sticking to them. Facts won’t change their minds.

Wyoming’s constitution requires legislators to balance the budget. These “fiscal conservatives” use that to persuade us how smart they are. Mr. Stubson is running for Congress. Can’t you hear him? “I know how to balance a budget. Elect me!” Stubson and his colleagues have a dirty little secret.

They can’t print money like folks in DC. Neither can they balance the state’s budget without palming millions of federal dollars. They take the money from Washington and contribute more than their fair share to federal deficits while smugly claiming to have balanced Wyoming’s budget. They hide their reliance on federal dollars, using them to pay 20 percent of the costs of state government. They call that “balancing the budget.”

After relying on the federal government to pay for many programs, suddenly they say, “We can’t count on the feds to pay what they promise for Medicaid expansion.”

It’s a phony argument. It has been from the beginning but, as I said, it’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

Equally irrational and unsupportable is their assertion that in some states, Medicaid expansion has actually cost more than it saved. Tom Forslund, the Director of the Wyoming Department of Health has repeatedly provided sound evidence to prove to anyone with ears that this is not the case in Wyoming.

Without Medicaid expansion, Wyoming will continue spending millions on healthcare for the uninsured. Hospitals face closure with unsustainable levels of uncompensated care. Medicaid expansion solves those problems while investing hundreds of millions into our state’s medical infrastructure and economy.

Governor Mead offered a budget proposal, precariously balanced on the $33 million net savings that Medicaid expansion will produce in our state. Constituents might ask, “Where are these bright bulbs in the legislature going to come up with that $33 million now?”
For starters they cut $4 million from tax rebates for elderly and disabled citizens. Then they slashed $11.4 million intended for mental health services for people found to be a danger to themselves or others while giving $8 million to UW athletics. Nice, huh? At the end of the day Wyoming will likely have neither a winning football team nor the satisfaction of helping the least of these. We will have to answer only for the latter.

There’s a second reason there isn’t much more to be said. The voters. I’m about done caring more about the well being of people who don’t vote than they care for themselves.

On January 20 the Appropriations Committee voted on the question of whether to provide healthcare for low income working people. But it was decided last November. It’s a coalition of voters that elect politicians like Misters Stubson and Perkins. Some members of that coalition go to the polls believing the Liberty Group-Tea Party line. Most members of that coalition, however, don’t bother to go to the polls at all.

Wyoming is teetering dangerously close to a voter participation precipice. If the trend continues, soon there will be less than a majority of those who are eligible even bothering to register to vote.

Your guess is as good as mine about who they are but I’m betting many of them are people whose lives are most at stake when the legislature makes these choices. It’s time they decide whether their own lives matter enough for them to actually vote.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Does charity = Compassion?

What does the word “compassion” mean? Since last summer a small but growing circle of Cheyenne people representing diverse faith communities have been meeting regularly to discuss that question.

The question is not only defining “compassion” but perhaps more poignantly, defining what is a “compassionate community.” There is a difference of significance.

Compassionate people demonstrate sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Compassion is a characteristic that fuels acts of kindness and mercy. But compassion should also be the way in which the community addresses the needs of all who suffer.

Cheyenne is filled with compassionate people. If only there was a way to quantify the value of the acts of compassion demonstrated here daily by the faith community, non-profit and civic organizations, businesses, and individuals. These entities selflessly feed many of the hungry, house many of the homeless, provide medical care for some of the ill, visit some of the lonely, care for some of the neglected and abused children and elderly, teach and mentor.

The sum total of all these acts of compassion would rival the budgets of government agencies. The good they do and the impact they have on the lives of our neighbors is, unfortunately, incalculable.

The next question is tougher. Does the sum total of all the acts of compassion of these folks equal a “compassionate community”?

That question stirred my thinking recently when a Laramie County District Court Judge sentenced an 86 year-old man. The elderly man, whose attorney said was nearing senility, was charged with a nonviolent offense. He allegedly forced a hotel worker to touch his genitals through his clothing and kissed her against her will, a third degree sexual assault.

For that, this 86 year-old Korean War veteran is going to prison. He is going to prison, not because he is a danger to the community, nor because the nature of his crime requires it. He is going to prison because our community has no other resource to care for such a person.

Recently a candidate in next year’s city council election visited the offices of Recover Wyoming (RW). It is a non-profit organization helping hundreds of addicts get and maintain their recovery from addiction. RW is nationally recognized for its effectiveness. Cheyenne is fortunate to have people doing this kind of compassionate work.  The city council candidate doesn’t agree.

Uninvited and with no authority but his own self-righteousness, this man walked into RW’s office and told them they didn’t belong in downtown Cheyenne.  He asked that RW move out of its downtown location because he thinks they attract “the wrong kind of people” to that part of the city. RW does the work of compassion. People like this candidate build walls that prevent Cheyenne from being a compassionate community.

It is compassionate work when the community supports a homeless shelter but only when it works to provide affordable housing for everyone does the community become compassionate.

To the extent it can Cheyenne Regional Medical Center and the Cheyenne Health and Wellness Center, among others, provide compassionate care for low-income people. But a compassionate community doesn’t elect legislators who ignore the suffering of thousands and refuse to expand Medicaid so that all these folks may have adequate health care. A compassionate community doesn’t simply donate to the food bank while ignoring employers who pay less than minimum wages.

These are examples of what Cheyenne must overcome if it is to be a compassionate community. Yes, it’s true. Others can write much longer lists of the good work being done here. Thousands of hours are being given, tens of thousands of dollars are donated to compassionate causes. The suffering would be much greater without all of that.

That kind of good work may make certain individuals, faith communities, or organizations compassionate. It doesn’t necessarily make our community compassionate. Compassion is more than charity. Compassion requires a community to examine its social, political, and economic systems to determine whether they are designed to alleviate suffering.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What's up with Laramie County's DA?

When Jeremiah Sandburg ran for Laramie County District Attorney, there were concerns. Laramie County was fortunate to have been served by a long string of experienced prosecutors. But many raised concerns that Sandburg lacked the necessary experience. Nonetheless, he defeated incumbent Scott Homar, a much more experienced prosecutor, by a scant 249 votes in the 2014 GOP primary. No Democrat filed. Sandburg took office by default.

Sandburg had been a member of the Wyoming Bar for only six years. Although he had brief stints with the Goshen and Platte County attorney’s offices, it seemed to some that the Laramie County DA’s Office required more. Not only was his brief time as a lawyer of concern, so was his lack of knowledge about Laramie County. But, the voters spoke. The relatively inexperienced candidate who called for more transparency in that office won the job.

Two recent cases have resurfaced those earlier concerns and raise troubling concerns about both whether the DA has sufficient experience and whether he is as concerned about transparency as an officeholder as he was as a candidate.

Thoughtful people believe animal abuse is an egregious offense. The legislature thought it so much so that they made it a felony punishable by two years in prison. The law says “a person commits aggravated animal cruelty if he or she owns, possesses, keeps or trains fowl or dogs with the intent to allow the dog or fowl to engage in an exhibition of fighting with another dog or fowl, causes or allows any dog or fowl to fight with another dog or fowl for gain or knowingly permits or promotes those acts.”

A lengthy law enforcement investigation supported a criminal complaint charging Louisa Carlos with “knowingly being present where roosters were engaged in an exhibition of fighting with other roosters for amusement or gain.” Cockfighting is an atrocious act at odds with the values of any civilized community. It may be acceptable in limited parts of the third world but not here, which is why the legislature specifically included this form of animal abuse among those deserving a felony conviction.

There appeared to be more than sufficient evidence support a felony conviction. That didn’t happen. First, a “clerical error” in the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office resulted in the crime being misclassified as a misdemeanor. Upon discovering the error, the charge was amended to a felony consistent with state law. But then, instead of trying the felony charge, the Laramie County DA plea-bargained the case. The alleged animal abuser was, alas, charged with a mere misdemeanor.

The second case calling the DA’s experience and judgment into question was recently reported under the front page headline: “$250K theft nets misdemeanor.” On Halloween day, we learned a local woman had been charged with a felony, accused of embezzling a quarter of a million dollars from her employers who happened to be her uncle and brother.

Now the alleged embezzler has received a feint slap on the wrist from Sandburg. The District Attorney valued the theft of more than 250,000 dollars as worthy of no more than a misdemeanor. After admitting to the crime, the defendant received six months probation and unsupervised at that.

Sandburg is proud that he forced the defendant to make restitution. His philosophy is “no harm, no foul.” The embezzler took a great amount of money out of the till but only when caught and charged did she put it back. All was mostly forgiven. Restitution is important but it isn’t a substitute for punishing the crime.

When she applies to be the bookkeeper for another employer somewhere down the line and the job application asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony,” she can say honestly  “No.” Potential employers will never know the extent of how misleading that answer will be.

Next year Jeremiah Sandburg may submit a job application for reelection as DA. Voters should take notice of how many felons he returned to the community without fair and just punishment.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

GOP on a psychiatrist's couch

“Good evening Doctor. Good of you to see me late at night. No one should ever know I was here.”

“Hello. I think we’ve met before. Oh yes, I remember. Surely you’re Dr. Repub Goper, the scientist who created Trumpenstein, are you not?”

“Please Doctor, do not call me Shirley and don’t call me a scientist. I’m not one of THEM.”

“Very well. Please lie down on my couch. Why are you here?”

“I’m filled with anger these days. I’m angry about everything from Muslims, gays, women, and the idea that black lives matter. Don’t know whether I’m really angry or whether the anger is just Trumped up. Can’t help myself.

“It’s not how I was raised.”

“How you were raised. What was your family like?”

“I came from a fine family. My great-great grandfather’s great-great grandfather was Abraham Lincoln. He started the family line, kept the family together. He was a uniter, not a divider. He freed the coloreds, or to be “politically correct” the African-Americans. You know, I hate political correctness, seems we must walk around on egg shells to keep from offending one group or the other.”

“Do you find it difficult to speak freely without using despicably offensive language about women and minorities?”

“It’s like Trumpenstein said, we don’t have time for political correctness. But let me tell you more about my family.

“There was Teddy Roosevelt. Spoke softly, carried a big stick. That man knew how to pick his battles. But there was an uncle we don’t talk much about. I think his name was Herbert. Yes, Herbert Hoover. And then there was old Uncle Ike. Everybody loved Ike and they loved Uncle Ronnie, though he spent taxpayer money like a drunken sailor. That’s about it.”

“Why do I think you’re leaving someone out?”

“There was crazy Uncle Richard. How Tricky Dick stayed out of jail, nobody knows. The family’s problems started with him. He knew how to divide, how to play people against one another. He called it his “Southern Strategy.” Uncle Richard thought that if he said offensive things about black people, white people would love him more.”

“Did they?”

“Suppose they did. They elected him President twice. I must say, the family followed his blueprint ever since. Lee Atwater and Karl Rove come to mind as do Ann Coulter and Rush. Those folks knew how to follow the blueprint. Lee created the famous Willie Horton ad you know? Boy, did that ever scare those white folks into voting right.”

“I’m confused. If all those folks in your family tree knew how to win elections, what brings you to my couch?”

“Well Doc, it’s like this. There was a time when there weren’t as many of those people we pitted white folks against as there were white folks willing to be pitted against them. Today there are fewer white people willing to be pitted against people who are different and there are more people who are different. Get It? We’re between a rock and a hard place. Winning has become complicated.”

“Why not just change with the times?”

“Easier said than done Doc. You see, we have all those cousins and nephews and nieces who actually thought we meant it when we pitted people against one another. They took it to heart. They drank the Kool-Aid, all of it. After Uncle McCain and Uncle Romney lost, we tried to change. But those cousins and nephews and nieces just keep dragging us back. Oh, they love it when Trumpenstein talks about Muslims and Mexicans and women the way he does. You’ve heard ‘em cheer.”

“Can’t you explain to the cousins and nephews and nieces that the times and the demographics have changed?”

“You kidding? That’d be politically disastrous. That would just make them as angry about us as they are about that secretly-Muslim President who was born in Kenya.”

“Well Dr. Goper, I don’t think a psychiatrist can help you. I can refer you to an exorcist if you’d like.”

How much authority does scripture have?

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It was simple when we were children. As a youngster I heard our preacher say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." But, as the Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

Emerging from childhood requires engaging in critical thinking. Thinking like a child gives way to thinking theologically if we’re serious about answering the question, “What authority does the Bible have?”

The word “authority” requires a definition in this context. Defined by the common dictionary, authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” The Bible doesn’t have that kind of authority. It has only the authority its readers choose to give it.

If the Bible exercised independent authority, there would be no poor among us, as God suggested would be the case if we “obeyed the voice of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 15: 4-5). If the Bible were self-executing, there would be no killing, stealing, or coveting. But there is.

The Creator’s decision to grant humans free will was, at its core, God’s act of sharing authority with us. As a result “authority” is the freedom to decide and to act or refuse to act without hindrance.

As a liberal Christian, I don’t find it helpful to simply quote scripture as the means of conveying scriptural authority. Suggesting the Bible is authoritative because “the Bible tells me so,” diminishes the Bible and God as well as the Spirit of God.

Determining what authority we will give the Bible demands an acknowledgment that neither God nor scripture is timeless. Our relationship with God is dynamic enough to recognize that it changes over the course of time. Serious consideration of scriptural authority begins with the admission that the Bible discloses God’s unique relationship to a particular time and culture far different from ours. Scriptural laws needed thousands of years ago to maintain cohesive communities aren’t necessarily relevant today.

N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop, believes, “There is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.” Where then is scriptural authority to be found? Wright says it is found in God’s authority and, “God’s authority is designed to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human.”  

The primary source of authority for liberal Christians is the scriptural revelation of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and God’s continuing revelations through the Spirit of the God who promised, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

Some evangelical Christians claim liberals employ an “anything goes” attitude toward scriptural authority. Far from it, we see the long arc of God’s authority bent, as Bishop Wright said, toward becoming fully human as we apply both the ancient and the revealed truths to contemporary problems. The authority of scripture, applied over centuries of faith tradition, coupled with our God-given ability to reason, opens our understanding of historic as well as contemporary experiences, which is how the God’s Spirit acts in our lives to achieve justice.

That doesn’t fit so easily on a bumper sticker as "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." God didn’t mean it to be that simple. Determining the authority God has in our lives is a wrestling match. Just as Jacob wrestled with God, so it is that we wrestle with the authority we’ll choose to give scripture in light of our experiences and the knowledge that God calls us to create a just world.

Rodger McDaniel is the Pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church. He has a law degree from the University of Wyoming and a master of divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.