Friday, June 29, 2007

My thoughts on the mayor's race

People often ask me what I think will happen in the Macon mayor's race. The short answer is: I don't know.

It's still too early (even 19 days before the primary) to predict anything, especially with so many candidates involved. I'm waiting to see the fundraising results, and for someone to go negative. Kudos to the candidates for not doing that... yet... publicly.

I will share some thoughts on the candidates, though, based on the five debates (it seems like a lot more) I've been to so far. Nothing here is an endorsement. And I suggest you visit our elections website, which has a lot of stuff on it already and is going to absolutely explode in the next two weeks.

You should also attend at least one function where you can meet the candidates you're interested in face-to-face.

Henry Ficklin - As a 28-year councilman and longtime chair of the council's appropriations committee, Ficklin continues to be the most knowledgeable candidate when it comes to city business. I don't think the other candidates would argue that. He's got a lot of long-term relationships with city employees that could affect his administration, but lately he seems to be more than nodding toward a willingness to make the hard decisions needed to keep spending in check. He may also be the most quick-witted. I told him the other day that if clever retorts were votes, he'd have already won.

Lance Randall - For a guy who seemed short on details when he ran for commission chairman in 2004, Randall sure does knock a lot of questions out of the park these days. He's giving very thoughtful, detailed answers - though I should note that another Telegraph reporter caught him plagiarizing his vision statement earlier this year. He also said Friday that, if elected, he won't leave the state for his first year in office. That's a double-edged sword, but given Mayor Jack Ellis travel habits, it should play well with voters. He's also promising local businesses that the city will pay it's bills faster if he's elected. That sounds good - except the reason it sometimes pays late now is because the city doesn't have any money.

Arlan Gibson - Probably the most conservative candidate and, since he's an outsider, might be the most willing to cut jobs to control the budget. I wonder if a Republican stands a chance in this thing, though. Still, if you want change, this is the most change you can get.

Robert Reichert - He's doing a lot of frank talking and is more knowledgeable about the details of city operations than I expected, given the time that's passed since he was on council. Having Sam Henderson, who once served in Ellis' administration, run his campaign may be part of that. The guy's running strong and has the best gimmick by far: Giving out Nu-Way hot dog coupons and promising a "New Way" forward.

Anita Ponder - Kind of the every-person candidate in the race. She's inside because of her years on council and time as a higher-up at the Tubman museum. She's a single black woman who's well-known and liked by the movers and shakers (aka "rich white folks") in town. (UPDATE: Didn't mean to imply there aren't black movers and shakers in town. Certainly there are. Just meant that Ponder crosses racial lines with relative ease.) She's an attorney. She hangs with the hip (for Macon) downtown crowd. She does a lot of charity work, including a yearly holiday dinner for the poor and homeless that prominently bears her name (Anita Ponder and Friends). That's a lot of voting blocks to draw from.

David Cousino - An idealist. Sometimes he gives thoughtful and relatively detailed answers to questions, sometimes he seems to ignore the question to talk about religion and voting with your heart. I might have been wrong above. Perhaps this is the most change you can get.

Thelma Dillard - Continually calls on her years as an activist, teacher and councilwoman as reasons to vote for her — and her resume in that department is long and distinguished. Her debate answers tend to be broad and idealistic, with few details about implementation.

Tom Baxter is outta here

As part of The AJC's restructuring and all the buyouts, Tom Baxter (one half of the political insiders team) is leaving the paper. He's headed to the staff of Southern Political Report, which is one of Matt Towery's family of insider-type political Websites.

Those sites cost money, but the guys know their stuff. Dick Pettys runs one of them. 'Nuff said.

I once said I'd like to knock those damn glasses off Tom Baxter's face (not to his face, of course - sorry Tom), but the man has been the man for many years. Time to recognize a long and distinguished career at the state's biggest, and usually best, newspaper.

Can't say I'm happy about what's happening at The AJC and at newspapers in general, but I'd like to wish Mr. Baxter the best.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Download the state water plan

I haven't read it yet. I will.

Here.

And now for some gratuitous Widespread Panic lyrics. I'll go ahead and name "Chilly Water" the official theme song of the coming water wars.

Venus light is rising
I lay my buckets inside the shed
And there's a man I see - a stranger
Leaning on the gate outside my fence

Said "I'm riding out from the city
Where they started holding water back last night
I was hoping I could get a drink from your well
Before I ride on to another city tonight"

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Staff change at DHR

FRIDAY UPDATE: I spoke to Ms. Kaltenecker and she wouldn't say why she's leaving. She doesn't have another job, but does have some options, she said. She gave the higher-ups at DHR kudos for splitting drug treatment services off from the mental health division and giving them more attention.
"When I go away this office is going to be there. ..." she said. "This was foresight and leadership by our agency."

Neil Kaltenecker, the state's director of addictive diseases services, is leaving the Georgia Department of Human Resources as of Friday, according to the DHR. Kaltenecker has been the director while some major overhauls were made to the state's addictive disease treatment policies.

Most controversial has probably been the push to a more outpatient based treatment program for addicts, which I've written about several times. Last week I did a piece about a girl that died after the state shut down the residential program she'd been in.

The DHR won't say officially why Kaltenecker is leaving, and I have no reason to believe the two are related or that this signals a shift in DHR policy on this issue. But I have no reason to believe otherwise, either.

Basically, what I don't know could fill a warehouse.

Interestingly, though, I found this while looking on the DHR Website for something else. It's from their FAQ section on drug addiction:
4. How long does drug addiction treatment usually last?
Individuals progress through drug addiction treatment at various speeds, so there is no predetermined length of treatment. However, research has shown unequivocally that good outcomes are contingent on adequate lengths of treatment. Generally, for residential or outpatient treatment, participation for less than 90 days is of limited or no effectiveness, and treatments lasting significantly longer often are indicated.

It seems to me that the DHR is acknowledging that it takes time and intense treatment to treat drug problems, while at the same time cutting back on long-term residential treatment programs and expanding less-intense outpatient ones.

The state's reserves

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute put out a report today suggesting that the state's revenue shortfall reserve be increased by quite a bit. This is in line with some of the plans state Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Warner Robins, and other Republicans have.

Of course, they're also suggesting massive tax reforms, but increasing the state's reserve fund seems to have pretty widespread appeal.

Anyway, here are some details from the GBPI:
(GBPI) has released a report that recommends increasing the size of the Revenue Shortfall Reserve (RSR) from the current $792 million to $1.8 billion and assuring the integrity of the Revenue Shortfall Reserve through the creation of a separate constitutionally dedicated RSR account. The ... current level of reserves and surplus are at historically low levels. During FY 2001 the RSR plus additional surplus totaled 11.2 percent of previous year revenues. The FY 2006 RSR totals only 4.6 percent of previous year revenues. ...

Under current law, the state auditor reserves from surplus a minimum of 4 percent of previous year net revenues for the RSR. The General Assembly may appropriate out of the RSR up to 1 percent of prior year net revenues to fund K-12 needs in the supplemental budget (mid-term adjustment). The first 4 percent of the RSR can only be used to cover state funded deficits and to fund increased K-12 needs. The Governor may release for appropriation funds from the RSR that are in excess of 4 percent of prior year net revenues. The RSR cannot exceed a maximum of 10 percent of prior year net revenues. ...

Georgia should approve legislation that would require the RSR to be an amount equal to a minimum of 10 percent of the previous year net revenues (total general funds) with a maximum RSR equal to 15 percent of previous year net revenues. The Governor would only be able to release for appropriation RSR funds that are in excess of 10 percent of previous year net revenues.


If all that didn't make your eyes glaze over, you can access the full report (and a ton more stuff) here. If it did, the basic crux of this whole thing is that state law sets out a maximum amount that can go into the reserve fund at the end of each year. According to O'Neal and other advocates for increasing or doing away with that maximum, this leads to wasteful spending in strong economic times. If you can't save it, spend it, you know.

By the way, the GBPI has been a really good resource for me as I've learned about state government. They're officially non-partisan, but seem to lean a little to the left. I asked O'Neal about them once, though, and he said their information has always been accurate to him.

The death penalty

The state executed a murderer last night. John Hightower was 63 and spent the last 20 years on death row. He was convicted of killing his wife and her two daughters in 1987.

I watched a bit of 13WMAZ's coverage last night. They gave a quote from a man identified as Hightower's son that kind of socked me in the mouth.

"We forgive the state," he said. "They're murderers too."

You can argue with the word "murderers." But I killed a man last night and, if you live in Georgia, so did you. Be for the death penalty or against it, but don't hide behind the state.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Privatizing mental health and drug treatment

Good Morning America did a strong piece on the privatization of traditionally public sectors of healthcare, including some efforts underway in Georgia. The piece also breaks down the profits one company made while turning away the sickest patients.

This is the central question from the story:
Critics, like Flanagan, question whether for-profit companies can provide quality care at the same time they try to meet or exceed shareholder expectations.

Gov. Sonny Perdue's administration has made a real push toward the privatized model in an effort to find efficiencies in mental health and drug treatment and ease over crowding in mental facilities. A lot of folks in the industry say it simply won't work, but then a lot of them also stand to lose money as private competition for state dollars shows up.

Illinois is ahead of us in this effort. And, according to the ABC story, the government there ended up suing a provider for doing exactly what many mental health advocates fear will happen here: Looking to serve only customers who can make them money, and shutting out the sickest of the sick. From the story:
In the lawsuit, the government argued that between 2000 and 2004 Amerigroup received $232 million in taxes to pay for Medicaid health care benefits but spent little more than half of the money it received on patient care.

The lawsuit was filed by a former Amerigroup employee named Cleveland Tyson. Tyson's attorneys, Frederick H. Cohen and David Chizewer, told the court that Amerigroup Illinois selectively enrolled healthy patients in its HMO in order to receive payments from the state for each new enrollee. At the same time, Amerigroup allegedly avoided signing up patients who would need care.

Attorneys said one of the most damning moments in the trial came when the government played a portion of a videotaped deposition of Amerigroup's former Chief Marketing Officer Herman Wright.

On the tape, Wright told attorneys his "growth strategy was to bring in all the, all the folks out there who were 'healthies,' which were basically the majority of your population."

When asked if he focused on patients who were sick or already in the medical system, Wright replied, "Well, I'm from the health insurance industry. From day one I think one of the, if I had told anyone I was going to go out and enroll as many sick people as I could in health insurance I would be fired."

Many thanks to Kristina Simms, a local mental health advocate, for calling my attention to this story.

Pay attention to this

I know Paris Hilton just got out of jail and roughly 35 percent of the entire Macon population is running for mayor and we've got to argue over immigration, but it just doesn't get much bigger than what we do with our water.

And the state's water plan is going to be unveiled this week.

This issue, more than any other, makes me hope we've got smart, honest people running this state.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Barbara Wells, rest in peace


I wrote a story for today's paper that I hope people will read. It's about an 18-year-old girl named Barbara Wells that apparently drank herself to death a couple of months after the state shutdown a drug treatment program she was in. This is essentially what people who'd been through this program said would happen if the program shut down and was replaced by more out-patient type services.

Barbara was old enough to know better. Maybe her family should have taken better care of her. Maybe taxpayers shouldn't be forced to treat anyone with an addiction. Maybe that can be handled in the private sector and with charity.

It is so hard to keep people from hurting each other in this world, and it's even harder to stop them from hurting themselves.

But I look at the picture Barbara's mother sent us for the story I just think: "That girl needed help."

I hope that people, and particularly our elected decision makers, see people when they look at numbers. Every budget cut affects a real person. Every increase takes money from a real person's pocket. Government doesn't need to be abstract. It needs to be understood as a very real and very pervasive force in everyone's life, and the consequences of political decisions have to be acknowledged.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

State Sen. Robert Brown

Not much to report on Sen. Brown, who has had health problems. But his chief of staff did put out a statement after I called him the other day for an interview request. I was going to check in with Gewolb again and put something in Saturday's political notebook, but folks are curious so here it is in full:

Matt Gewolb, Chief of Staff in the Office of the Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon), released the following statement Sunday:

"Sen. Brown is grateful for all the prayers and good wishes he has received over the past several weeks. He is currently focused on his recovery, which is progressing well, and the affairs of the Senate Democratic Caucus. As he continues to concentrate his full energies on his health and the affairs of the caucus, Senator Brown will not be making any statements or endorsements with regard to any political campaigns taking place in Macon at this time.

Send lawyers, guns and money (aka the $@&% hotel)

The Macon City Council approved a contract for a convention center hotel last night, but I doubt the issue has been put to rest.

The most frustrating thing about the hotel issue has been how hard it is to report the facts. I am not a bond attorney. I feel that I, and other reporters, haven't been able to lay bare the facts of the two competing proposals side by side so people could say "That's the best deal."

We've quoted "experts" on both sides. And they disagree. I can tell you, though, that the National Ventures proposal (the one that lost) could easily be filed under "sounds too good to be true" because it promises bond funding that the city would not be liable for.

Some very well thought of attorneys say that can be done. Others question the rationale. In the end council members went with the Noble deal, which they felt more comfortable with, despite admitting that they preferred National Venture's site location.

I take facts seriously, and have to tell you they've been slippery on this issue. I think a lot of that is because high finance and government bonding is complicated, and perhaps overly so.

Government, it seems to me, should be simple enough for the average informed person to understand. Let me tell you, it's not.

Also complicating things has been the great passion the hotel issue has spawned, which is hard to understand. Councilman Alveno Ross gave a thoughtful (if long-winded) speech at last night's meeting, essentially upbraiding people for paying so little attention to most government issues, then coming out en masse over this hotel issue.

It seemed a fair point to me. Why are public hearings on a $100-million-plus city budget empty year after year?

Ross openly wondered why there wasn't a similar public outcry years ago when people's homes were taken to make way for the coliseum and convention center that the hotel will connect to. And why other bonding deals, such as the one that brought Bass Pro to town, haven't gotten this much scrutiny.

Let me go ahead and translate those comments: All of a sudden white people from north Macon are interested in east Macon because there's money to be made.

How much money? That's hard to say. But when National Ventures' head man Bob Schwartz filed a federal lawsuit over the hotel deal, he listed his requested damages (and hence predicted profit) at $20 million.

On the other side, let me assure you that Noble isn't getting into this thing to lose money. Kind of makes you wonder why any government funding is needed, doesn't it?

My point is this: Any time there's a lobbying campaign it's important to ask: Whose interests are at heart here, the public's or the individuals?

I'm not offering an answer - I won't pretend to know people's hearts and minds. I'm saying ask the question when someone asks for your support on this issue, and on every issue.

By the way, Lawyers, Guns and Money is a Warren Zevon song.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Guess who paid their taxes

Every now and then we check up on various public officials here at the paper - make sure they're paying their taxes, make sure they're not awaiting trial for murder, that kind of stuff.

There's a great database that lists delinquent taxpayers in the state. You can access it at the Georgia Department of Revenue's home page.

Now, I didn't run anyone's business, and I didn't check to see if something might be owed in a spouse's name. And I suppose there are other ways to hide things if people really try. But I am happy to report that, best I can tell, all of Middle Georgia's legislators (and the governor, speaker of the house and lieutenant governor) are paid up on their state taxes.

It's the kind of thing that we'd pretty much only put in the newspaper if one of them wasn't paid up, but I wanted to recognize them here.

By the way, if anyone gets bored and does some more extensive searches on the database, feel free to email me at tfain@macontel.com if you find something.

Here's the full list I ran through the database: Sonny Perdue, Glenn Richardson, Casey Cagle, George Hooks, Ronnie Chance, Cecil Staton, Ross Tolleson, Robert Brown, Johnny Grant, Jim Cole, Lynmore James, Tony Sellier, Allen Peake, Nikki Randall, David Lucas Sr., Allen Freeman, Bobby Parham, DuBose Porter, Jimmy Pruett, Willie Talton, Larry O'Neal and Johnny Floyd.

Spanish at the ATM

Georgia Head Football Coach Mark Richt is on a mission trip right now in Honduras. He's actually visiting a good friend of mine who is a missionary down there, but that's a little off point.

Coach Richt is doing an online diary, and this struck me:
The interesting part of that whole funny situation for us was something my son Jon noticed. For the first time, we were the immigrants or the aliens. We got in that line, didn't know what we were doing or the language, and really just felt out of place. That was something good already for my family to see. ...

I knew the first thing I (had) to do was get to an ATM. We found one and I was happy that it asked as an option if I wanted "English". I'm going through the procedure and pulled out what I thought was $200. As the money came out though, it was obviously not dollars. Todd informed me that I pulled out 200 Lempiras (Honduran currency) which amounted to about $10. I had to try that all over again.

I wonder if, in Honduras, some local guy gets pissed every time he has to tell the ATM he wants instructions in his native language?

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Website formerly known as NRCC.org

UPDATE: www.NRCC.org is www.NRCC.org again. We'll just pretend like they read this blog and thought: "Yeah, that is kind of dumb." Since this post makes no sense without explanation now, let me note that, on Monday, if you typed www.nrcc.org into your browser, it went straight to here.
---

So I just went to the National Republican Congressional Committee's Website to get a contact number for the Collins story mentioned below. Check out what happens when you type www.nrcc.org into your browser.

What does it say about an organization that it's home page is essentially named "the other guys are bad?"

Collins for Congress and immigration

It looks like former Congressman Mac Collins will make another run for the 8th District next year. He's not announcing yet, but you don't have to read too far between the lines to see he's planning on it.

That would put him against retired Air Force Major General Rick Goddard, and presumably one of those guys would face incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., in the general election.

There was a lot of hullabaloo and back-slapping among D.C. (and local) Republican types when Goddard was recruited as a candidate. (At least that's what the pundits say.) So I've got to wonder how they'll feel about this potential upsetting of the apple cart.

But, then, Collins did come close to beating Marshall last year (so close that he never, to my knowledge, actually conceded the race). I'll be calling all the usual suspects for analysis, etc., for tomorrow's paper, but I doubt the Republican strategy folks in D.C. will be too forthcoming about how a Collins run would affect the race.

Potentially more interesting than all of this is an op-ed Collins sent The Telegraph today, which is what led me to ask if he's planning another run. Basically he says that Congress should stop worrying about immigration reform and start enforcing the laws already on the books. Particularly, that the federal government should start deporting folks.

The op-ed also conatains this, which will probably be hard to run to the right of:

"The Congress should repeal the law giving citizenship to a child born to an illegal alien in our country. It is not required within our constitution to grant this citizenship. It is wrong and it is costly."

Oaky Woods

I am beginning to wonder just how much of Gov. Sonny Perdue's legacy will center on Oaky Woods, the Houston County wildlife preserve the state leases as a wildlife management area.

I'm also beginning to wonder: If the state has been leasing this thing since the 1960's, could the state simply have bought it cheaper than the total rent taxpayers have doled out?

Any way, this is required reading if you haven't seen it yet.


And just to recap the saga so far:

Lumber company wants to sell popular hunting area and wildlife preserve Oaky Woods -> state declines to buy, governor says it doesn't have the money -> governor buys some land nearby -> developers buy Oaky Woods and announce plans to build massive town there -> land values (including the governor's) shoot up -> governor gets a retroactive tax break on land dealings -> developers say the state can still buy Oaky Woods, but it'll cost taxpayers about 9 times what the developers paid for it -> developer gets caught hunting over bait -> developer threatens DNR agent that, if he gets a ticket, the price the state pays to keep Oaky Woods as a wildlife management area might go up -> developer gets ticket -> the price the state pays to keep Oaky Woods as a wildlife management area goes up.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Race and politics... again

Boy, for a run-of-the-mill white guy I sure seem to write a lot about race. But I saw this over on Peach Pundit and wanted to call attention to it. It was written by Erick Erickson, the Macon attorney, city council candidate and (in)famous blogger with the oddly spelled (and oddly repetitive) name.
Macon will never advance until both the black voters and the white voters choose the best candidate instead of the [insert color choice here] candidate. I was absolutely gobsmacked recently when I was criticized for actively supporting several black candidates in town. It completely floored me.

Maybe all the candidates should go around in town during campaign season in hermetically sealed opaque costumes so we can’t see what race they are. Then put their resumes on pink paper with purple ink to totally keep the black and white issues out of the campaign.

I actually kind of wish we could do that - have the candidates wear those suits. If I never had to write ", who is black" or ", who is white" in a political story again, that'd be a happy day.

Anyway, if there actually is anyone who reads this blog and not Peach Pundit (unlikely), Erick's full post is here.

The David Lucas for mayor rumor

What's a blog without a little rumor-mongering?

Long-time Macon state Rep. David Lucas, who considered running for mayor earlier this year, may be thinking about it again — this time as an independent.

Please note that the word "may" has the exact same meaning as the phrase "may not."

At any rate, the rumor is he'll file to run as an independent, which would send him straight past the coming (and likely to be bloody) primaries, which are already loaded down with five Democrats and two Republicans. You do have to collect about 2,000 signatures on a petition by July 10 to qualify as an independent. That's awful soon, but surely the Lucas political machine is effective enough to make that happen quickly.

Lucas was non-committal about all of this, which is unusual. I find him to be straightforward most of the time, even in controversial situations.

"I don't know what I'm gonna do," he said. "I said I wasn't running."

I asked if that meant he's considering a run.

"I look at all kinds of things," he replied.

So take that for what it's worth. Another Telegraph reporter, Matt Barnwell, talked to Lucas' wife, Macon City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas, about the rumor.

"I've heard that from other people," she said. "I have not heard it from my husband, though."

By the way - Lucas said he's in Atlanta this afternoon, lobbying the governor's office for money to bring a long-term drug rehabilitation center to Macon. He's also getting into the Genarlow Wilson case, though it's not clear how deeply.

If you've been living under a rock on Mars and haven't heard of this kid, here's the latest AP story on his case.

"Just trying to talk to folks to see whether a good sound resolution can be found," Lucas said this afternoon.

Be interesting to see what comes of those conversations.

The "one-stop" shop

The Telegraph has been writing this story for at least 7 years.

I know, because I've been writing it.

Why is it we can all agree in this town that simple things are a great idea... then not do them?

Someone, somewhere please explain to me what's so hard about this.

Actually, don't. Just do it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How your money gets spent

I don't think a lot of people know this, but there is a legislative committee that has the power to shift money around in the state budget after it's been voted on by the General Assembly and approved by the governor.

It's called the Senate-House Fiscal Affairs Committee or Legislative Fiscal Affairs Committee. See if you can find a mention of it, or a list of its members, on the General Assembly's Web site.

It met this morning. With all the arguments between the House, Senate and governor, I thought there might be some fireworks, but it looks like the meeting was a little more mundane than I expected.

Thanks to Shannon McCaffrey and The Associated Press for covering it, by the way.

Still, they moved $2.6 million away from the academic coaches program, which has been a big priority for Gov. Sonny Perdue. And Georgia Military College in Milledgeville made out well, getting an extra $314,000 for increased enrollment.

But the larger point is this: There are about 9.4 million people in Georgia. They elect 236 representatives and senators, plus a governor and lieutenant governor, to represent them and decide how to spend $20.2 billion in state tax money.

But when it comes down to it, very few of those people have the power. There are bureaucrats (on both the executive and legislative sides) and budget committees that do most of the heavy lifting in building the budget. Then there's a Green Door Committee, made up of the top folks in the House, that tweaks the budget before it hits the House floor.

Then there's a conference committee made up of six people - three from the House and three from the Senate - that finalizes the budget that the two bodies vote on.

As freshman state Rep. Allen Peake told me earlier this year: "You better have some influence with those six people."

Then the governor has his say again, and this year he changed a lot of things - so much so that some have wondered whether he over-stepped his Constitutional bounds.

But then there's this fiscal affairs committee, which I'd never heard of until recently. It has the power to change things outside of the session, and did so today. And these changes were made to the 2007 amended budget - so it's an adjustment to an adjustment made less than two months ago.

My only point is this: Keep an eye on your tax dollars. Keep an eye on your newspapers. Keep an eye on your elected leaders.

Reichert: A little ahead of the game?

Last night there was a Macon mayoral debate at City Hall. So most of the candidates set up a table in the lobby. With so many candidates, space was at a premium.

Still, this image struck me as mildly interesting. That's the front door to the mayor's office.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

State revenue figures: Wow

UPDATE: Just spoke to Bart Graham, commissioner at the Georgia Department of Revenue. He was kind enough to call the paper from out of town. His comments are sprinkled into the original post, which I have also edited. I've also added a link to the revenue figures at issue, as provided by the governor's press office.

If you haven't already seen it, check out this potential bombshell, which appears in an AJC story today by James Salzer and Jim Galloway:

Perdue used slow revenue collections in April as one of his reasons for vetoing the tax cut. However, some lawmakers say the governor's administration manipulated the April figures by delaying the cashing of income tax checks that month. Income tax collections were down 24 percent in April over April 2006. They jumped 45 percent in May.


The whole story is here.

I knew May's total revenue figures were way up compared to last year, which was interesting. But that jump in income tax revenue is a jaw slacker.

Bert Brantley, the governor's press secretary, had this to say: "Any charge or accusation that there's been instruction from the governor to not report revenues as they come in is out of touch with reality."

The thing to remember about statistics is they can be hard to understand and easy to manipulate — particularly when you compare just one month to another. And taxes were due two days later than usual this year, which means some of the collections that would otherwise have come in April showed up in May, according to the revenue department.

In fact, Graham said the department got about 107,000 fewer state tax returns in for the first three weeks of April this year compared to last. And the fourth week brought about 110,000 more this year compared to last.

Still, as the AJC has reported, legislators, already wary of Gov. Sonny Perdue and his budget positions, are grumbling.

Even State Rep. Larry O'Neal, a Warner Robins tax attorney, head of the Ways and Means Committee, a brilliant numbers guy and a close friend of the governor's, called the May numbers unusual.

"It certainly draws that question into the forefront," he said. "I don't see that there's necessarily any slight of hand, but it is very, very conveinant."

By the way, the total revenue increase (not just the income tax numbers) for May 2007 compared to May 2006 was 27.9 percent. That, O'Neal said, is "just unheard of." Graham said that the jump is indeed an anomaly compared to past years.

Brantley pointed to the year-to-date numbers as more relevant. They paint a positive picture of Georgia's revenue this year compared to last, which is up 7.6 percent. But if you look at the sales tax figures we're up 3.7 percent in that category so far this year. And gross sales tax collections were down a bit in May.

These numbers are available here.

Plus, Graham noted that the sales tax figures relevant to the housing market — lumber sales, etc. — were particularly weak. Housing, obviously, is major economic indicator.

"There are mixed signals out there," Graham said.

Indeed. These revenue reports and their relevance to all the governor-House-Senate budget issues looks like an issue that's going to bounce around for a while. It will probably be another wedge between the governor and Republican leaders in the House. The question is, will this lead the Senate to revolt against the governor, too?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Statesmanship, not gamesmanship

Reading the Towery column referenced below reminded me of something I wrote after a particularly disappointing day covering the state legislature this year.

Being that it's campaign season in Macon, and since it's been a slow day, I thought I'd post it:

I've been covering politics for 7 years and I tried to think the other night how many politicians I've met that I can describe as statesmen.

It's a pretty short list. And I had to expand the definition pretty liberally. But then I'm naive and have high expectations. And I won't complain if you add presumptious.

So my advice to politicians:

Stop caring about who gets the credit for things that go right. Things are supposed to go right.

Stop playing political games. Don't worry about gamesmanship, worry about statesmanship.

Remember that it's the taxpayer's money. Just because you decided how to spend it doesn't mean you did anything great.

Stop thinking about yourself in general.

Pattern yourself after true heroes.

Find that often narrow ground between sticking to your principles and compromise. And when a compromise is wrong, say so.

As a matter of fact, tell the truth all the time. Or hold your tongue.

Admit when you are wrong.

When you do the right thing, do the right thing. Don't do the right thing because it's going to be on T.V.

Don't be too impressed with yourself. Don't run your opponents or your critics down. Don't do things that feel wrong.

Return phone calls and value other people's time over your own.

Find things that are wrong and boldly try to change them.

Don't be afraid to fall on your face once in a while. Remind us all that people can pick themselves up.

Learn when to be discreet and when to yell at the top of your lungs.

Do one great thing in your life.

Treat the people who work for you well.

Remember the Bible: Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Animal House: The 2007 session revisited

Matt Towery, who runs Insider Advantage and James Magazine, wrote a hilarious column for the magazine's April edition. I'm behind on my reading, and just saw it today.

He compares the 2007 General Assembly session to the classic movie Animal House.

I don't think the column is available online. But the premise is that Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson and his cohorts are the Deltas (lovable drunks who fight authority), Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and his crew are the Omegas (masochistic young members of the establishment) and Gov. Sonny Perdue is Dean Wormer (who puts the Deltas on "double secret probation," but gets his in the end).

Based on what I saw at the Capitol this year, the satire is right on. And Towery is definately an in-the-know guy.

By they way — it's worth noting that, by the end of the movie, the Deltas had won.

Below is from another section of the April issue of James, written by Chuck Clay:

"Seems like many have forgotten where political theater ends and the people's business begins. Many of our self styled leaders of today simply don't seem to be able to differentiate between politics and governance."

I said, more than once this year, that watching the budget wranglings was like watching my sisters argue over the easy bake oven. You know they're both going to end up playing with the easy bake oven, so why can't they just share it from the start?

The mayor's race

Man, there are a LOT of people running for mayor. I went to a mayoral forum sponsored by a local minister's association Saturday morning. Trying to listen to seven people answer every question is pretty rough.

We're putting the final touches on an elections web site, which you can visit at www.macon.com/elections. Basically it's one-stop shopping for more than you'll ever want to know about council and mayoral candidates. It includes video interviews, some of which I shot this weekend.

Something that Henry Ficklin (current council appropriations chairman, now running for mayor) said struck me as I was going through the video, and I'm transcribing it here:

"We need to rebuild our city finances. We need to restore the kind of good name that Macon has experienced over the years. We need to rebuild in our people the kind of love they have for Macon. And we need to re-establish in our young people a good success perspective so they can reduce crime. ... Good government is the thing that underscores any kind of development."

The other candidates have good things to say, too, and please don't read into the fact that I'm posting this. It's not an endorsement of any kind. The quote just struck me.

There are several forums planned (the next is Tuesday at City Hall, 6 p.m.). Go to at least one. We're going to provide a ton of coverage, but you need to meet these people and hear them for yourselves.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Blacks, whites, religion and "the last inch"

Some of us at The Telegraph have talked about putting together an essay contest. The idea is to ask people to write about what the community needs to do to reach its full potential.

Wise people and school children would be consulted.

I titled this project "The last inch," based on a metaphor a local preacher has used from time to time. His idea is that the city seems constantly an inch from reaching its potential, only to fall back.

I hope to get the essay project off the ground this year. But today (Friday) a group of community leaders is huddling in a conference room at The Telegraph, trying to come up with a list of priorities for the city. I posted the invitees' names here.

This got me thinking about my own "last inch" essay, which I wrote last year. I planned to call out what is arguably the most powerful, yet most segregated, element of this town: The churches.

It went like this:

What if 50 years from now the history books had this to say about us: The seeds of a movement that all but wiped out racism in America were planted in 2006, in Macon, Georgia.

What if Macon leaders in 2026 pointed to this moment in time as the community's turning point toward greatness? In short, what if 2006 was the year of change for Macon?

Race is an all-too-pervading factor in this town. Our schools are still over-ridden by the lingering spectre of segregation, and the outfalls of de-segregation. We cannot consolidate our governments — something seemingly everyone agrees is a good idea — largely because blacks don't trust whites and whites don't trust blacks and there's not enough leadership to bring us together.

And why is that? Is it because we have not that ilk of men and women? I doubt it. More likely people are focused on holding power.

And we're all to blame for that, because the electorate should be trustworthy in its decision making. Great leadership should be rewarded by a color-blind response. And, if you judge a person by skin color, I judge you back: You're a fool.

So where do we go from here? Well, I'm calling out the churches today.

I'm not asking people to give up their religious traditions for some homogenious blend. I grew up Methodist, and Lord knows that if we didn't get to Sizzler by 12:15 each Sunday, there was hell to pay. So I'm ulikely to spend three hours in a black church.

But what I'm suggesting is this: One month a year, every year, black and white churches unite. They partner up, big churches with big churches, small churches with small churches. They partner up and split their congregations down the middle.

And for four Sundays a year, they meet together. Half stay at their own church, the other half carpools over for a taste of another race's religion. A half-white, half black crowd at both churches. The preachers and choirs do things just like they always have.

You spend two weeks in an unfamiliar setting, and two weeks shaking hands with people who are trying to understand you. Can you still fear a person you've worshipped with, sat in a pew with, eaten Sunday dinner with?

Maybe. But I bet it's a whole lot harder. I bet even the most stubborn among us, dragged to this effort by the fear of public shame, would find a place in his heart for new brothers and sisters.

---
That's the essay. Now, let me add some caveats:

Though I'm a Christian, I don't go to church. Mostly because I'm lazy and I tend to drink too much on Saturday nights.
I'm not calling anyone a racist.
It's just a suggestion.
I think race relations here are usually pretty good, considering how hard that can be. At least we can discuss racial issues pretty openly.
Try as I do, some times I'm prejudiced, too.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Mission: Possibly Quiet

A group of Macon big-wigs and activists are meeting right now with a facilitator from the University of Georgia. My understanding is that they're discussing community priorities and problems, and the facilitator will put together some sort of report that will be made public next week.

They're called the "Mission Possible Force." I didn't make that up. See the sign below.

Initially I was going to sit in and The Telegraph was going to cover this brainstorming session as a news story. But early this morning I got a call from my editor who asked me not to attend, at the group's request. Apparently there was some concern that frank discussion would not ensue if the newspaper was listening and repeating things.

I can understand that. But there are several things I find hilarious about this:

1. The Telegraph helped put this together. The group is meeting at The Telegraph. We're usually not big on keeping secrets.
2. Several of the participants are long-time sources of mine. I imagine that, should I become curious, I can find a couple to tell me what happened.
3. You're going to solve the community's problems but don't want the community to listen in? OK....

Vic Jones - one of the biggest burr's in the establishment's side around here - had this to say about it:

"Tell them I said: 'Their fear of putting problems on the table and addressing them in a public forum is over half the problem around here.'"

Ficklin: I'm running for mayor

Macon City Councilman Henry Ficklin, who announced a run for mayor a while back, then sowed a seed of doubt last week when he pondered seeking re-election as well, just told me he'll file to run for mayor tomorrow.

Ficklin said that a lot of people from a lot of political camps have been asking him to stay on the council as Appropriations Chairman, but he feels like it's time to jump to the executive branch.

I filed a story, which should be up shortly on macon.com.

There are some rumors flying about Friday surprises in the city elections, but we'll just have to wait and see who makes their candidacy official tomorrow, the last day of GOP and Democratic Party qualifying in the city elections.

Mission: Possible

The Telegraph is holding a think-tank kind of excercise tomorrow. Basically some of Macon's movers and shakers will sit in a room for the day and talk about community priorities with facilitators from the Fanning Institute at UGA.

I'm going to sit in and cover it for the paper, so look for something in Saturday's editions. And here's the list of contributors that was emailed to me:

Confirmed for Mission Possible Force:

1. Lynn Cass
2. Melvin Kruger
3. Billy Pitts
4. James Bumpus
5. Beverly Blake
6. Pearlie Toliver
7. Juanita Jordan
8. John Hiscox
9. Lindsay Holliday
10. Kathryn Dennis
11. Roy Fickling
12. Brian Mink
13. Albert Billingslea
14. Cass Hatcher
15. Gene Dunwoody
16. Mike Ford
17. Sam Hart
18. Horace Fleming
19. Lynn Murphey

The Telegraph:
20. P.J. Browning
21. Charles E. Richardson

Fanning Institute:
22. John Jeffreys
23. Brenda Hayes
24. Dionne Rosser-Mims

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Porter: Lower the gas tax

UPDATE: Gov's office says no special session — at least not yet. More coverage in tomorrow's paper and at www.macon.com.

State Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, has sent us a copy of the letter he sent Gov. Sonny Perdue, calling for a special legislative session to lower the state's gas tax. You might remember Perdue called one of those for a similar reason in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I've got a call into the governor's office to see if there's a chance this will happen. The gas tax has recently gone up, though it's obviously not the only reason you're seeing high prices at the pumps. That, of course, comes from some combination of supply and demand / an evil liberal conspiracy / an evil conservative conspiracy / aliens.

Hard to say if this is just a publicity stunt. I mean, who wouldn't be for lower gas prices? But I'm excerpting the letter below. Expect to see some coverage of this in tomorrow's papers.

June 1, 2007

Dear Governor Perdue:

As I know you are all aware, Georgia‚s gasoline tax was automatically raised today. Beginning today, Georgians will have to pay an additional 2.1 cents per gallon, and that tax may rise again in less than one month.

We are not doing our job as public servants if we allow this to continue unaddressed. Too many Georgians are already feeling the sting of high gas prices. More gas tax increases will only hurt our working families. ...

I am writing to you to let you know that I am instructing the members of the House Democratic Caucus to stand ready to return to the Capitol for a special session to address this issue. We must act decisively and we must act now. Democrats are ready to act. I suspect Republicans would be too. We must make this a true bipartisan effort, for the good of all Georgians. ...

The House Democrats stand ready to return to our posts and work across party lines to resolve this growing gas crisis. We await only your decision and call.

Sincerely,

DuBose Porter
Minority Leader

Alleged liberals and the 8th Congressional District

Retired Air Force Major General Rick Goddard officially announced his candidacy in the 8th District yesterday. He'll run as a Republican against U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, who has fended off several attempts to knock him off the post despite committing the sin of being a Democrat in Georgia.

Most recently, Marshall defeated former Congressman Mac Collins, who repeatedly bashed the Democratic Party and generally made Marshall out to be too liberal for the district. It was a tight race (in fact I don't think Collins has conceded in the 7 months since the election), but Marshall pulled it out.

It will be interesting to see if Republicans go to the "Jim Marshall is too liberal and he likes Nancy Pelosi" well again in this race, since it didn't work last time.

Marshall has built a reputation as a moderate, and a pretty conservative one at that. He also dropped out of college to be an Army Ranger in Vietnam, so it's kind of hard to paint him as some kind of hippie.

Any way, keep an eye on the evolving Goddard / Republican Party strategy, but a couple of quotes nod in the "bash liberals" direction:

Said Goddard in May: "When I see the leadership in charge of Congress, the vision the liberal left has for the country is not the vision I have had for many years and it is not the vision that most men have fought and died for."

And yesterday: "Our nation was founded on Christian faith. It's the core of what we do. Our Constitution does not say we can't witness to our faith in public places. We must take our country back from the ACLU."

Election fatigue in Bibb?

I was talking to Steve Allen a little while ago (the chairman of the Democratic Party of Bibb County, not the Tonight Show guy, who is dead).

He made a good point: We have a lot of elections coming up in Macon and Bibb County. When you throw in potential — and, really, likely — runoffs, folks here could be voting every month from July through Decemember.

Check this out:

July - city primaries
August - primary runoffs (likely because there are a lot of Democrats running for mayor)
September - special election to replace Bibb County Commissioner Sam Hart
October - possible runnoff for the Hart election (hard to say how many people will run, but probably a few)
November - general city elections
December - general city runoffs (a stretch - but an independent or third-party candidate could help force one)

Said Allen: "I'm wondering if this is unprecedented."

In February, Georgia holds its presidential primary. The legislature moved that date up this year. I was working on a post about how that's so early I think it was last week, but I've decided that's not actually funny.

The last date to register to vote in the July 17 primaries, by the way, is June 18.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Cuba trip "revisited."

At my request the Georgia Department of Agriculture provided a list of folks who went on the Cuba trip that I mentioned here.

The list is in the order the Ag Dept had it in. Some of the names I know, and I've included their political titles. Some of them I believe I know from their involvement in various agri-businesses.

That would make sense, given that the trip coincided with the CUBA-US Agribusiness Trade Fair. But I haven't identified them beyond the name provided by the Ag Dept just in case there's another person with the same name who was actually in Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston is not on the list, but he was also in Cuba last week. His office says he was the only Georgia Congressman to attend.

By the way, The AJC's political insiders have also put a post up on the Cuba trip. Read it here.

The list:
1. Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson
2. Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter
3. Majority Leader Jerry Keen
4. State Rep. Johnny Floyd
5. State Rep. Jay Roberts
6. State Rep. Lynmore James
7. State Rep. Ellis Black
8. State Rep. Jay Shaw
9. Zippy Duval
10. Clark Fain (no relation to yours truly)
11. Randall Rollins
12. Allen Conger
13. Harold Conger
14. Mike Giles
15. Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin
16. Deputy Commissioner Terry Coleman
17. David Bryant
18. Jerry Lane
19. Sean Register
20. Bobby Rowan
21. Terry Mathews
22. Scott Maxwell
23. Phillip Jennings
24. Ned Young

Why is this law so broad?

I'm working on an article that led me to file an open records request with the Georgia Department of Corrections. An attorney at the department is working with me, and it's been a relatively positive experience.

But check out this section of Georgia state code:

§ 42-8-40.  Confidentiality of papers; exemption from subpoena; declassification :
All reports, files, records, and papers of whatever kind relative to the state-wide probation system are declared to be confidential and shall be available only to the probation system officials and to the judge handling a particular case. They shall not be subject to process of subpoena. However, the commissioner may by written order declassify any such records.


That's not from the open records law, which is in a different chapter, but from a section that deals specifically with the Department of Corrections. Even so, it's essentially a large exemption in Georgia Open Records law.

In fact, in 9 years as a reporter, I don't know that I've ever seen such a broadly written code section. The use of both the word "all" and the phrase "of whatever kind" in one sentence makes the section's intent pretty clear.

Now, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, what I don't know could fill a warehouse. For good or ill, there is a reason for this law, but I don't know what it is. The attorney at the department, Rhoda McCabe, told me it predates Georgia open records laws.

I should also note that Ms. McCabe sent me some (but not all) of what I asked for, despite the fact that she probably could have denied my request in full based on 42-8-40.

Any attorneys/government types reading who are familiar with this section of Georgia code?

Is charity good politics?

I was talking to David Cousino the other day. He's the less publicized Republican candidate for mayor of Macon.

And "less publicized Republican" is saying something in a Macon city election. For the record, the general-wisdom front runner in that race is Arlan Gibson.

Any way, Cousino says he doesn't want to raise money to for his campaign. In the past it's taken more than $100,000 to run a successful citywide campaign in this town, and I imagine the winner will spend a good bit more than that this year.

"That big money should be going into the city," he said. "Taking care of the poor, taking care of the sick, taking care of the homeless. It should be used to recruit new business."

His plan instead? "The word of mouth can spread faster than any amount of money that's out there."

I don't think that's true, but I'd like it to be.

I told him that reminds me of an idea I had a few years back. The national presidential nominating conventions are little more than television events these days. We already know who the nominee is, and you can't really say that the candidates won't get enough TV time without a convention.

So instead of spending tens of millions on a p.r. event, one of the big parties should just make an announcement:

"This year, instead of holding a convention, we the will be donating the cost of holding a convention to (insert charity). We will also make a donation toward economic development in (insert name of city the convention was to be held in). We call on (insert name of other party) to follow suit, and hope the American people will understand that charity must sometimes come before politics."

Said Cousino: "They would win my vote."

Monday, June 4, 2007

But what if they pull a switch?

Lonnie Miley, a former Macon City Councilman looking to get back on the council this year, has a twin brother named Ronnie Miley.

Yeah, it's confusing.

Both have been active in politics for years, and Ronnie has been on the Bibb County Board of Elections for some time.

Now, there's a 23-year-old guy named Virgil Watkins who is also running for council this year. He was on the board of elections, but resigned to qualify this week to run for council. That's to do away with a pretty obvious conflict of interest.

But Ronnie Miley says he has no plans to step down from the board, and both he and Steve Allen (chairman of the Bibb County Democratic Party) both say there is no conflict of interest.

(NOTE: I edited a mistake out of the above paragraph. I had Allen as a current member of the elections board. He's a former member, but his picture is still up at the board of elections office).

"The way everything is handled here, I don't think there's a way any of us (board members) would manipulate (the election)," Allen said this morning.

Rinda Wilson, a Republican and chairwoman of the elections board, agrees, as does state law.

To be sure, the board has a limited role in running an election, much of which is handled by paid elections workers, plus all those voting computers and the tech guys who make them run. And there are competing interests on the board, with a split of two Republicans and two Democrats, plus one non-partisan member making up the 5-person board.

State elections law doesn't address the issue of siblings, said Whitney Halterman, spokeswoman for the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, which oversees elections.

"There is a provision however that no member of an election board can be involved in any campaign activities," Halterman said. "He can't go to any of his brother's fundraisers... he can't give out bumper stickers."

At the moment Miley doesn't have any announced competition in his Ward I Post 2 race. If he gets some, you can be sure the competing campaign will be looking out for any improperly handed out bumper stickers.

Today, by the way, is the first day of qualifying for Macon city elections. We'll be updating throughout the day as people qualify. Check the home page: www.macon.com.

The Loch Ness monster lives in Lake Tobesofkee

Over the years, a crack reporter like myself learns a few things that, for one reason or another, he just can't print.

That changes today. Because, to be a famous blogger, you have to say something controversial, and be first with news.

So, to start with, the Loch Ness monster lives in Lake Tobesofkee. If I was at all Internet savvy, I'd link you to the youtube video that proves it. Or possibly to wikipedia, the repository of all human knowledge.

Also - did you hear that Georgia quarterback Matt Stafford cavorts with Auburn girls in Talladega? Of course you did. It was on the Internet.

But I'm blowing the lid off of something much bigger today.

Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt is known to consort with a certain young lady from Tallahassee.

Also:
- Pizza dough is made largely of dead mouse.
- Sources say Fred Thompson, who may run for president as a Republican, is gay, or something else that bothers you.
- Reportedly, Gov. Sonny Perdue shot Aaron Burr. Apparently Burr made a passing mention of Oaky Woods to a reporter.

Abortion! Illegal immigrants! Paris Hilton!

And welcome to Lucid Idiocy, where after this post, everything will be true.

You know, pretty much.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

At least bring me a cigar.

So about 25 Georgia politicians, Department of Agriculture folks and business people went to Cuba this week.

Apparently we send groups there pretty regularly, and the Department of Agriculture has a license to travel there. You need one of those from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to get around federal travel restrictions.

That's according to the U. S. State Department's Web site.

Tourist travel "is not possible under U.S. law," according to the site. Business travel is "restricted to persons engaging in or arranging for permitted export sales, such as the sale of medicines or medical equipment, or for food or agricultural goods to non-governmental entities."

I know very little about Cuba. I know the state department lists it as a country that aides terrorists. It's got a Communist dictator we don't like too much, and there are economic sanctions in place. I learned last week that several Georgia companies sell stuff there. Mostly chicken, according to Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin, whose department coordinated the trip.

Apparently this is a multi-million-dollar a year business for Georgia companies. Obviously the people of Cuba need chicken, and they're probably not the reason our government doesn't like their dictator.

Beyond that, the tide is obviously changing in Cuba, and Fidel Castro is getting old and sick, and the powers that be are clearly getting more than a foothold so they'll be ready when he dies and U.S.-Cuba relations open up.

But I still think this is a reasonable question: If it's OK for Irvin and the Speaker of the Georgia House and most of the Republican leadership from the Georgia House of Representatives and Montezuma state Rep. Lynmore James and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston to go to Cuba, how come you and I can't?

To put it another way: Is this a case of "Do as we say, not as we do?"

By the way, state Rep. Jay Roberts reports that Cuba seems frozen in time since Castro came to power in 1959. The motel the group stayed in was built in the 1930s, he said, and there are no casinos in Havana.

"So it's not like Godfather II?" I asked.

No, he replied. It's not like Godfather II.