Monday, March 31, 2008

I *heart* government

I was at a couple of Macon City Council meetings this evening. Three things out of that to fill your soul with confidence in government:

Example one: Macon City Councilman Charles Jones, who I occasionally have to remind to pay his property taxes, is on the council sub-committee researching how to write an ethics ordinance for the council.

Of the various "Charles Jones hasn't paid his property taxes" stories I've written, I think this one had the best excuse. It's from 2007:
Jones owed back taxes on two properties, one on Curd Street and another on Thorpe Street, according to tax commissioner records. The Thorpe Street bills totaled $2,514.42, but Jones said the amount he actually owes should be less than that. A building that was once on the property was knocked down two or three years ago by order of the city's Municipal Court, he said.

I don't owe property taxes on that building because it was in such bad condition that the city ordered me to knock it down. Nice. By the way - the number of people that ran against Rev. Jones in last year's city elections: Zero.

Example two: The city is going to pay the Macon-Bibb County Transit Authority $14,000 over two months to hire off-duty city cops to provide security in the Terminal Station, a city- owned building the transit authority is headquartered in.

So you've got the city government paying another government entity city money to hire city cops to protect a city building.

Why not just have the city cops protect the city building and cut out the middle man? Apparently it's cheaper to do it this way because, due to manpower shortages, the department would have to pay cops overtime to patrol the building, city CAO Mike Anthony said.

Example three: The chief of police gave me different numbers for the cost of housing city prisoners at the county jail than the sheriff quoted me last week. And he did this as he was asking the council for more money to cover the costs.

So who's wrong and was the chief's budget request, which passed committee and goes to the full council tomorrow, accurate? That's tomorrow's question. I'm going home and starting my "Travis for Dictator" campaign.

UPDATE: I haven't heard back from the chief yet.

UPDATE 2: It's 4:30 p.m. and still no telephone call. No response to my follow-up email, either. I think Chief Burns and I have different definitions of the phrase "first thing in the morning."

UPDATE 3: Sigh. I continue to await an answer from the police department, which has really effectively provided me with little to no new information since Monday night. The city is also doing a fantastic job of passing the buck on another issue: How we managed to sign a contract for gas and diesel fuel price lock ins that we thought would last for one year, but was really only for six months. Having seen the contracts myself, I don't see how that's possible, and I await an explanation.

UPDATE 4 on April 8: In case anyone is still paying attention to this, Chief Burns answered my last question today. He made an error and plans to correct it at the next meeting. Still waiting on final resolution on the gas contract thing.

My only point is this: City of Macon employees sometimes play a little fast and loose with the facts, even when talking to council members. And you can get the run-around when you try to figure out just what the truth is.

$2.1 million for freedom

Outside of the editorial page, it's not our job here in the media to tell people how to spend their tax money. But it is our job to show people what they get for that money, or what they don't.

$22 billion in state spending affects a lot of people, and this is a good example of how.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Fair taxation and the Sheriff's department

With all the talk about annexation and consolidation here, and the upcoming negotiations to revisit the sales tax revenue split and service delivery agreement between the city and county governments, I'm starting to take a closer look at what services are offered and how they benefit taxpayers.

Particularly how county services benefit city taxpayers, who pay both city and county taxes.

I started with the Bibb County Sheriff's Office, which is funded through taxes collected countywide, but only actively patrols in the unincorporated area. My assumption was that city residents were subsidizing these patrols in the unincorporated area. This differs from fire service, for example, where unincorporated residents pay an additional millage for the service.

But it turns out the sheriff's department (above and beyond its duties of running the jail and serving warrants and subpeonas) answers a lot of calls inside the city limits. The city is not one of the department's official patrol zones, but the courthouse is in Macon, as is the jail and the department's gas pumps. So, logistically, sheriff's cars are inside the city limits a lot.

And, according to numbers provided by the department, deputies answered more than 8,800 calls in the city in 2007. This map shows the spread of calls for the department over the year. Click on it to enlarge:



The numbers break down like this:
Calls in Patrol Zone A: 13,797
Calls in Patrol Zone B: 17,107
Calls in Patrol Zone C: 14,945
Calls inside the city: 8,811

Sheriff Jerry Modena said the in-the-city calls are typically routine things - a deputy sees a Macon officer working a call and backs him up, or sees someone run a red light and pulls them over. The more serious crimes are seldom investigated by the sheriff's department inside the city limits.

In fact, when it comes to the 10 most serious crime categories included in federal "Uniform Crime Report" figures, the sheriff's office investigated more than 700 of them in each patrol zone in 2007. Inside the city, the number was 49.

But Modena also said some city residents call 911 and specifically ask for a sheriff's deputy, not a Macon police officer. I've asked him to provide me some solid figures on that.

By these numbers, it seems clear city residents get less work out of sheriff's deputies than unincorporated residents. But any argument that city residents don't get any patrol benefit from their county tax dollars isn't supported by these numbers. And Modena argues that, since more than 50 percent of the people processed at the jail are arrested by the city, that should counteract any difference in service level.

Just how many of those arrestees the city pays the county a nightly fee to house, and how that affects the numbers, is something I need to do more work on.

By the way, nearly 50 percent of the office's budget funds the jail. Patrol makes up 19.5 percent of the budget. Other sections of the budget (investigations, communications, forensics, etc.) would probably also be best allocated, for the most part, to benefiting the unincorporated area. But it's difficult to say how much.

Any way, this is just one of several potential issues of tax equity between Macon residents and unincorporated Bibb County residents. By the way, I asked the mayor's office for any double taxation studies that have been done here. Apparently there's nothing recent, but something may be commissioned.

Who's left to support the House tax plan?

Because the lieutenant governor's office just sent me letters from just about everybody and their brother supporting the Senate's version of tax reform, which cuts income taxes as opposed to doing away with the property tax on automobiles.

I'm not going to quote the letters, but I will link you to the organizations themselves:
National Taxpayers Union
Americans for Tax Reform
The Georgia Municipal Association
Association County Commissioners of Georgia

First off, I wish the ACCG would add a second "of" to their name. Seriously, it's freaking ridiculous, and I have to look it up EVERY time to remember which "of" they've randomly deleted.

Second, both GMA and the ACCG are dead-set against the House tax plan, because it messes with local property taxes. So their support may be more about blocking that plan than having really strong feelings about the Senate version.

By the way, it's worth noting that the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute remains concerned that the Senate tax cut will rip a big hole in the state budget. You can read their methodology here.

Oh, and this guy ain't too happy about either tax cut.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Shoeless hicks for Modena

I don't know that I'd have gone this way, but since Sheriff Jerry Modena has been elected twice here in Bibb County, I'm just gonna say you gotta know your electorate.


Don't let Zell Miller catch wind of this.

Back it up: More on Richardson, Keen and "absolutely" funding state museums

I mentioned this morning that Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson and Majority Leader Jerry Keen, while at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame for a fundraiser earlier this year, were very complimentary of the facility.

Back then, there was none of this "our intent is for each hall of fame to be self-sufficient" by 2010 that came out of the Speaker's office yesterday when The Telegraph asked about potential state budget cuts for the sports and music halls of fame.

Well, I just realized that I do have more detail to offer on their exact words, because I blogged about it back in December:
"I have always supported the investment of state resources in these types (of endeavors)," Keen said at the time.

"It's so easy for people to say we shouldn't be doing that, that it's 'pork.' ... Museums and areas that recognize and lift up people that are connected (to Georgia) are good for Georgia," Richardson said.

The speaker specifically said that the state should "absolutely" help fund museum operations.

"Absolutely"... as long as there's no state money involved by 2010.

UPDATE: From Clelia, the speaker's spokeswoman:
"We have invested significant funding in both the Sports Hall of Fame and the Music Hall of Fame and have continued that investment for this coming fiscal year. However, at some point, they need to stand on their own."

Good luck with that, because every time I've been at the sports hall of fame it was pretty much a ghost town. And it's hard to imagine any set of circumstances that would make a 43,000 square foot museum in Macon, dedicated to Georgia sporting figures (about 20 you've heard of and another 344 you haven't) self sufficient.

The music hall of fame might stand a slightly better chance, but I wouldn't hold my breath on either count. It just ain't easy going from about $800,000 a year apiece in state subsidies to, you know, $0.

But, hey, we needed two more gargantuan empty buildings in the heart of downtown Macon, so it's probably a good thing that the state built them here and now plans to stop funding operations. Maybe the legislature will appropriate $30 for a couple of padlocks and we can just use the buildings as really, really expensive warehouses.

Blissfully, the end will come soon

Billips says the General Assembly has tentatively has set it's 40th and final day for Friday April 4.

Unless budget arguments delay it. Who wants to set the odds on that?

By the way, the transportation penny tax thing passed today. There are plenty of better places to read about how that went down. But I'm betting Lucid Idiocy is the ONLY place to hear about my re-ignited reporter's crush on Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson:
Republicans weren't completely united on the bill. Some - like Rep. Steve Davis - said that allowing a tax increase, even an optional one, violated Republican principles.

Richardson had some words for them: "Some of my colleagues say, 'Okay, this is a tax increase.' If that's where you want to run and hide, go hide. But you got elected to lead ..."

So. Very. Quotable.

In fact, I'm inventing a new tag: "Glenn Richardson says you can get to hell."

Perdue: No Sunday sales on my watch

UPDATE: From a colleague of mine:
And oh yeah, they DID ban alcohol sales every day at one point, and I don’t remember that having a great effect on public safety.

---
How often does a sitting governor feel strongly enough about something to send out an editorial on it? From Gov. Sonny Perdue's office today:
Do no harm. It may sound like a simple concept, but it is one that I am afraid supporters of Sunday alcohol sales may have forgotten.

Above all else, I believe it is the responsibility of the Governor and the General Assembly to reject a piece of legislation that hurts more people than it helps. Allowing the sale of alcohol in grocery stores as well as liquor stores on Sundays will do far more harm than good. In fact, other than those who profit from those sales, it will not help anyone.

In the 1990’s, the citizens of New Mexico debated the issue of Sunday alcohol sales. On July 1, 1995, most counties in New Mexico began allowing the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, to uncover the legislation’s long-term effects using data from the first five years that alcohol sales on Sunday were allowed. The study found that legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales “exacts a significant price that is paid by crash victims and their loved ones, health care providers, insurers, law enforcement and the judicial systems.”

The sponsors of the New Mexico legislation hoped that allowing sales for off-premise consumption might encourage more people to buy alcohol and drink at home, thus reducing accidents and deaths. This argument was a tempting trap for the state’s legislators, and many of our own elected officials are chasing the same carrot without seeing the stick.

Now, I have always been a data-driven decision maker, so let me share the numbers with you. The study found that alcohol-related crashes increased by 29 percent on Sundays in counties that allowed sales. Those additional crashes led to a 42 percent increase in alcohol-related fatalities on Sundays. If we apply these same percentages to Georgia’s highways, using 2006 data from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, we can expect approximate increases of 371 alcohol-related crashes and six alcohol-related fatalities per year.

No other day of the week saw a statistically significant change in the percentage of alcohol-related crashes and fatalities after the enacted legislation, according to the study. Counties that chose not to participate saw their Sunday accident and fatality statistics remain similar to before.

The Republican principle of individual freedom is just as important to me as it is to my colleagues in the legislature, but so is the principle of protecting innocent Georgians. If you have ever comforted the parents or grandparents of a young person lost in a DUI crash, then you know that the cost of this proposal is too great and the damage it stands to inflict is too heavy a burden for innocent families to bear.

I know that Georgians expect me as their Governor to do all that I can to make the people of this state as safe as possible. That’s why I have made creating a Safe Georgia one of the cornerstones of my administration, and that’s why I will continue to argue against this legislation out of concern for the safety of every Georgian.

I urge the members of the General Assembly to heed the warning conveyed in the final sentence of the New Mexico study, “State legislators should consider [the] consequences when deciding on policy that is intended to serve the public well-being.” We owe it to the citizens of this state to consider the cause-and-effect of our actions. There is no doubt that this legislation will make Georgia roads more dangerous. We cannot afford to jeopardize people’s lives, nor can we stick our heads in the sand pretending that our actions will have no consequences, even under the guise of letting the people choose.

Governor Sonny Perdue is Georgia’s 81st Governor.

Ellis: I'm not running for Congress

I don't think it's a shock, but I was speaking to former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis a moment ago and he said he won't be making his pondered run for Congress. He's about to get on a plane, in fact, headed to Washington D.C., North Carolina and Pennsylvania, partly to campaign for Sen. Barack Obama.

If Ellis was going to run for Congress (either against Macon Congressman Jim Marshall or for Cynthia McKinney's old seat) he'd already have that campaign up and running, he said.

"Timing is everything in politics and it wasn't my time for that," he said.

Sports and Music halls of fame funding

UPDATE: Most of the money was put back in. And The Big House got some money too. A ways to go, though, before the budget is finalized. From Mike Billips at the Capitol:
The Georgia Senate's budget-writing committee restored most of the funding recommended by the governor for the Georgia music and sports halls of fame, but agreed with the House of Representatives that the institutions must begin to support themselves.

The Senate panel voted today to cut $100,000 from the sports hall's $811,230 state subsidy, and $75,000 from the $793,944 given last year to the music museum. The Senate also added $100,000 in new funds for the restoration of the Big House, historic home of the Allman Brothers Band during their Macon years, and $150,000 for the music hall's induction ceremony.

The Senate budget calls for both museums to lose state funding by 2013, compared to 2010 in the House version.

---
I'm not sure how concerned locals really ought to be about potential cuts to the Georgia Sports and Music halls of fame. It seems like these things come in and out of the budget every year, but the funding ends up in the budget when it's all said and done.

Still, there sure are a lot of people saying the halls of fame should be self sufficient, sooner rather than later. Having seen the foot traffic they generate, it's hard to believe that's possible.

The sports hall director, Jackie Decell said there was "no hope" for self-sufficiency by 2010. Lisa Love, the music hall director, didn't put that fine a point on it, but back in February, when legislators were peppering her with questions about self-sufficiency, she made it clear there are challenges generating visitation here in Macon.

But the Speaker's office said yesterday that the intent is for them to be self sufficient by 2010. Funny, I don't remember Speaker Richardson mentioning that when I spoke to him at the Music Hall of Fame in December, when he attended a fundraiser for state Rep. Allen Freeman.

In fact, whatever he and House Majority Leader Jerry Keen did say led me to write this for our Political Notebook feature:
Richardson and Keen basically gushed about the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Neither promised more state funding for the museum, whose officials have complained of budget cuts from the state, but they were friendly enough to the cause that museum officials might want to knock on the powerful legislators' doors during the coming session of the General Assembly.

Wish I'd kept the notes.

The state built these museums in Macon. Can you imagine how having a cavernous, empty museum building in downtown Macon would affect the city? Oh, wait.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The red light bill, revisited

Normally I'd just update this post, but it's slipped down the page and Rep. Loudermilk took the time to write an lengthy and thoughtful response, so I'm publishing it here at the top.

Rep. Loudermilk is the primary sponsor of HB 77, which seeks to limit the usage of red light cameras by requiring local governments to make their case to the DOT before they can install them.
House Bill 77 in its current form is far short of what I and the co-sponsors had hoped when we introduced the legislation early last year. The original language simply repealed the code section that allows local governments to install and operate red light cameras in Georgia. While the current version will allow cameras to be operated, I believe it will ensure that the cameras will be only used for safety purposes not as a revenue generator for the local governments.

Why would I introduce legislation to get rid of red light cameras to start with? The answer, the Constitution of the United States. The operation of red light cameras violate the "Right of Due Process" as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Current Georgia law allows for the camera to take a picture of the license plate of an automobile that it senses has violated a red traffic light. The tag number is referenced through the state's DMV data base to determine who the registered owner is. The only evidence the government has is that an automobile registered to a particular person allegedly ran a red light.

There is a significant lack of evidence to bring charges on an individual for an offense; however, Georgia law states that "...the trier of fact in its discretion to infer that such owner of the vehicle was the driver of the vehicle at the time of the alleged violation." That is translated as a presumption of guilt. The Fifth Amendment guarantees a presumption of innocence.

Unfortunately, we were not able to gain enough support in the House and Senate for a complete repeal, but the bill was changed into its current form to address the growing number of red light cameras that are being primarily operated for revenue purposes.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has conducted extensive research into intersection safety improvements, and has guidelines on design and operational changes for dangerous intersections. These include improving the visibility of the red light by installing strobes, increasing the duration of the yellow light, reducing the approach speed, installing dedicated turn lanes as well as several others. The current language of HB 77, would require local governments to conduct an engineering study and assessment to determine if other design or operational changes can be made to improve safety prior to requesting a permit for a red light camera.

Currently, a local government that wishes to install and operate a traffic signal must get a permit from the DOT before installing the signal. The fact that DOT is already involved in the permitting of traffic lights and that they would be the best qualified to review the engineering study provided b the city makes DOT the best office to administer the red light camera permit process.

- State Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville

Kick the door down

I went through some training last Friday where we learned how to look up earmarks in the federal budget, match them up with members of Congress, and follow the fundraising and lobbying dollars that flow to Congressional members.

I learned two basic things:

1. There is a ton of information available online, and various open government groups have done much of the heavy lifting for you.

2. It can still be difficult to put all the pieces together, so you'd better send people to Congress that you trust.

Here's a crash course. And you may notice a new section of links called "Kick Down the Door." I'm going to put links for various watchdog and information Web sites there.

If you learn something cool, let me know at tfain@macon.com.

Earmarks are kept in some great databases at Taxpayers for Common Sense. Click on the orange button here for the "Big Kahuna" database of earmarks. If you want it in smaller bites, scroll down a bit and you'll see various subsets (such as defense or transportation spending).

You can find out which members of Congress requested an earmark and where the money went. You'll need Excel and some (but not much) knowledge of how to navigate a database.

When it comes to campaign finance and lawmaking, you can get all kinds of financial disclosure information directly from the Federal Elections Commission. And you can look up legislation and floor debate online from The Library of Congress.

But those sites can be difficult to use, and there are alternatives.

Project Vote Smart compiles Congressional biographies and voting records. You can see how your representative or senator voted on various bills related to one issue, such as abortion, if you like.

Open Secrets just has a brutal amount of information, including a lobbyist database, fund raising information on presidential candidates and members of Congress. You can also look at The Revolving Door, which covers people who go from politician to lobbyist, etc.

You can look up how much Congressional staffers make at LegiStorm. It also has an awful lot of past employment information that can help you make connections between staff members and industries. You can even make connections based on a Congressperson's spouse's job.

FedSpending.org is just what it says it is: "A searchable database of approximately $16.8 trillion in Federal government spending." I haven't really begun to use it, but you should be able to figure out what entities got what contracts and grants by clicking on the tabs in the upper-left corner of the home page. You can also pull up top contractor lists. For example, these are the top federal contract recipients in Georgia for fiscal 2006.

There are a few other things, but that seems like enough for now.

Tax cuts coming down to the wire

This should get interesting.

I think the list of conferees is interesting, though I don't really know enough about it to know why. From the insiders:
Negotiators for the House are House Ways and Means Chairman Larry O’Neal (R-Perry), and state Reps. James Mills (R-Gainesville) and Greg Morris (R-Vidalia). On the Senate side, the trio consists of Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), and state Sens. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and David Shafer (R-Duluth).

Rep. O'Neal is very interested in funding trauma care. He co-chaired the study committee on it.

Sen. Rogers was the only senator I know of (though there surely could have been more) who traveled the state last year to pitch the Speaker's tax reform plan. To be clear, though, he was in favor of having the conversation, not married to the plan itself.

Sen. Shafer I've met many times. He's been heavily involved in reforming Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, but I really don't know where he stands on tax reform.

The same really goes for the other three, though of course these guys aren't just going to be representing themselves, but the House and Senate at large. I know Sen. Williams was involved in negotiating last year's House-Senate budget deal, and that he kind of scares me.

Because he seems really tough. Not because he's some kind of knife-wielding maniac or anything.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The IRS doesn't just make money, it spends it

You probably saw some of this coverage, about how the IRS spent $42 million to send letters to folks about their coming economic stimulus checks.

But that's not the best part. I got my letter this weekend, and it ends with this paragraph:
All individuals receiving payments will receive a notice and additional information shortly before the payment is made. In the meantime, for additional information, please visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov.

So we sent out a letter to let you know you'll get a letter to let you know you're getting a check. Awesome.

Can I assume that the second round of letters will also cost taxpayers about $42 million?

Seniors and some veterans, who often do not have to file a tax return, are going to get a separate letter. In discussing this whole situation with an IRS spokesman, he mentioned that there have already been some scams with people calling senior citizens and fishing for bank account information so they could allegedly deposit the stimulus payment.

Of course, my version of the $42 million letter made no mention of this. Perhaps the next $42 million letter will.

At any rate, it might be a good idea to call your grandmother and make sure she knows not to give out any personal financial information over the phone. All she has to do is file a tax return to get the stimulus check.

In case you were wondering about the definition of irony...

Seriously, when I heard this last night, I thought it was made up. But apparently Pres. Bush actually said this to American troops in Afghanistan about two weeks ago:
"I must say, I'm a little envious," Bush said. "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed."

"It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks," Bush said.

423 miles a gallon

CSX railroads is running radio ads now saying a train can "move a ton of freight 423 miles on a single gallon of fuel." That's diesel fuel, by the way.

Comparing this to hybrid cars, the commercial concludes with "too bad we can't all drive a train." You can listen to it here if you like.

That's pretty wild, so I asked the company for more information. This is from Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman:
On average, railroads can move one ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of fuel. This is a rail industry statistic calculated by dividing the 2006 annual revenue ton miles (1.772 trillion) by the fuel consumed (4.192 billion), which equates to the industry average of one ton of freight 423 miles on one gallon of fuel. (The 2006 data was the last full year for which total industry data are available.)
Revenue ton miles are those miles for which railroads are compensated for moving freight. (We move empty cars to reposition them, and we move company materials for which we are not compensated). The industry did not include fuel consumed by passenger trains -- just freight trains.

I asked a few follow ups:
What's the formula for figuring revenue ton miles?
A revenue ton-mile is the movement of one ton of freight, for revenue, one mile. A ton of a railroad's own ballast, moved in work trains, would not be counted because the railroad is not getting any revenue for moving the ballast.

Has an outside group (whether government or watchdog) backed this up, so that it's not just an industry calculation?

The (Association of American Railroads) 423 miles per gallon can be verified by anyone that retrieves the data from the Annual Report R-1 that each Class I railroad files with the Surface Transportation Board. Gallons of fuel are in Schedule 750 of the R-1, and revenue ton-miles are in Schedule 755. If the gallons of fuel used for empty freight cars were known and excluded, the 423 would be even higher.

Many railroads use gross ton-miles per gallon instead of revenue ton-miles per gallon. This is appropriate for their purpose, but the AAR's purpose is to measure efficiency in hauling freight -- so revenue ton-miles are used. GTMs per gallon will be higher because the weight of the freight car is included.

There you go. Sounds reasonable. But I'm unlikely to retrieve CSX's annual report R-I from the Surface Transportation Board today.

Monday, March 24, 2008

DWL: Worse than DUI?

Am I reading this wrong, or are we really further along in making a fourth time driving without a license a felony than we are in making a fourth DUI a felony?

I guess illegal immigrants don't drive drunk.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Various companies: Also doing well

A list of companies that get the most federal contracts.

The internet is pretty fantastic. And not just for porn.

Senators: Now rich

I'm doing some training today on congressional records. According to this, the average United States senator is worth about $11 million.

You can also look up the most popular investments for members of Congress. You and I should probably buy some of that stuff.

And here's a list of Vice President Dick Cheney's investment transactions in 2006.

UPDATE: To be fair, guys like Sen. John Kerry really skew that average.

Jeremiah Wright, Socrates and Bob Reichert

Or, the classic bumper sticker: I love my country, but fear my government...

It's not entirely clear to me what Sen. Barack Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright says about him as a man, or as a presidential candidate. But what is clear to me, as a white kid from the Atlanta suburbs, is that there's still an awful lot of anger out there.

Anyway, I'm sure this story will be popular:
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a religious mentor of presidential hopeful Barack Obama and the source of racial controversy over some of his remarks, gave two sermons in Macon last fall and is scheduled to return here in October.

In fact, Wright's sermons, at St. Paul AME Church in east Macon, so inspired visiting mayoral candidate Robert Reichert at the time that Reichert drew upon their themes in his inaugural address. In that speech, which many lauded as an attempt to bridge gaps between blacks and whites in the city, Reichert mentioned Wright by name and said the Chicago pastor's messages "have given me courage to share with you some of my innermost thoughts and recent revelations."

Thursday, Reichert said some elements of Wright's Macon sermons "could be construed as racially sensitive" and that circulating video of sermons at Wright's home church are certainly "inflammatory." But Reichert said he'd happily hear Wright speak again, and that "I would urge you to go hear him with an open mind ... and see if he pricks your conscience."

By the way, I need to check the dates, but I believe there's an unfortunate error in the second paragraph. Reichert was probably mayor-elect when Wright came here in November.

The red light camera bill

The General Assembly has been after red light camera tickets for a while now, based on citizen complaints and concerns about several issues; including the appropriateness of using them at all. Now legislators have passed a bill (at least, the House bill passed the Senate - I'm not clear if any changes were made to send back to the House) that brings the DOT in as a permitting agent.

That may be a great idea, particularly since it's no secret that some communities use these cameras to generate revenue as opposed to putting them in place to improve public safety.

But is there anyone out there saying "Yeah, the Georgia Department of Transportation - they've got their act together. Let's give them more responsibility."

Will the DOT have to hire any one new to handle this? And how do you determine the intention of a red light camera? Doesn't keeping people from running red lights kind of improve safety, you know, period?

These are the relevant sections of House Bill 77. The DOT would have 3 months to review applications for permits:
(c) The Department of Transportation is authorized to prescribe by appropriate rules and regulations the manner and procedure in which applications shall be made for traffic-control signal monitoring device permits and to prescribe the required information to be submitted by an applicant consistent with the requirements of this title. The Department of Transportation may deny an application or suspend or revoke a permit for failure of the governing authority to provide requested information or documentation or for any other violation of this article or violation of the rules and regulations of the department.

(d) An application for the operation of a traffic-control signal monitoring device by a governing authority shall name the intersection at which the device is to be used and provide demonstrable evidence that there is a genuine safety need for the use of such device at the designated intersection. The documented safety need for each designated intersection shall be approved by the Department of Transportation in accordance with nationally recognized safety standards. For each designated intersection, the governing authority shall conduct a traffic engineering study to determine whether, in addition to or as an alternative to the traffic-control signal monitoring device, there are other possible design or operational changes likely to reduce the number of accidents or red light violations at that intersection. This report shall be submitted with the application for an operation permit required under these provisions and any request to amend the operation permit to include an additional intersection.

(e) The revenue generated by the use of a traffic-control signal monitoring device shall not be considered when determining whether to issue a permit for the operation of such devices at a designated intersection. The only consideration shall be the increased life-saving safety value by the use of such a device at the designated intersection.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

We all move up a rung

Because the best is stepping aside.

Presumably the vote on SR 1199 will be unanimous.
WHEREAS, during his tenure with Associated Press and InsiderAdvantageGeorgia, he has been responsible for keeping politicians honest, and no one has greater depth of knowledge about what goes on in the political and corporate communities in our state, a knowledge he used to keep the public well informed and give public servants the ability to make better policy; and ...

WHEREAS, his significant organizational and leadership talents, his remarkable patience and diplomacy, his keen sense of vision, his knowledge of where to go and how to get the story first, and his ability to work alongside the members of the General Assembly, gaining their trust while remaining an honest critic, have earned him the respect and admiration of his colleagues, associates, and the members of this body; and ...

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE SENATE that the members of this body commend Mr. Richard "Dick" Pettys for his many decades of efficient, effective, unselfish, and dedicated public service to the citizens of his state and extend to him their most sincere best wishes for continued health and happiness.

UPDATE: The lieutenant governor's office sent me this picture, of Pettys heading to the front of the Senate chamber to be honored.









Notepad and pen in pocket.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

There's always more than one reason to to judge someone

This is an incredibly lucid (no idiocy needed) comment on the whole Obama's preacher issue:
Isn't it interesting how quickly he went from possible radical Muslim to crazy Christian?

Strip away everything else this whole controversy has brought forth, and that's just a fantastic observation.

Actual ways to improve race relations

I've been meaning to post this half the day. A local group came up with some real ways people can learn to get along a little better. The findings just happened to coincide with Sen. Obama's speech on race.

The top two:
Don't allow racist comments to go unchallenged.

Establish a community-wide Sunday once a month to visit a church of different racial makeup.

Sounds like good advice to me. And the second one is not too different from this idea.

Jim Martin makes it official

UPDATE: The campaign emailed me a pdf of Mr. Martin's statement of candidacy. Looks official to me. I didn't know his middle name was Francis.
---
In a move that surprises, well, basically no one, Jim Martin is running for Senate.

I mean, presumably this all happened. I got an emailed news release from someone I've never met, and there's a Web site on the Internet. There's no FEC filing for his committee yet, but Mr. Martin's spokesman says that's being filed today:
ATLANTA, March 19, 2008 – Jim Martin, former state legislator and Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, officially entered the race for U.S. Senate against Saxby Chambliss today.

In announcing his candidacy for the race, Martin, a Vietnam War veteran, said, “Today, on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, it’s clear that the current administration is on the wrong track. We need a Senator in Washington who answers to Georgians and not to George Bush and Dick Cheney 92% of the time. Senator Chambliss’s uncritical advocacy of the Iraq war has been matched only by his disregard for the soldiers fighting it and their families. I believe we should respect our troops by using them more effectively and taking better care of them when they come home.”

That makes an even half dozen Democrats (Dale Cardwell, Vernon Jones, Rand Knight, Josh Lanier and Maggie Martinez are the others) running for the office. But I would think Martin is easily the best known. I know Amy loves him.

The campaign news release also lists former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, former Gov. Roy Barnes and House Minority Leader DuBose Porter as Martin supporters.

In the early handicapping, another reporter asked me: "Do you think Martin's going to be able to do it?"

Incumbent Republicans with millions of dollars in predominantly red states are tough to beat, you know. I answered with a shrug of the shoulders and said "It depends on whether Obama's the nominee or not."

Sen. Obama's ability to pull in new Democratic voters has been pretty well documented and could change a lot of the election math. So, too, could any statewide referendums the General Assembly ends up putting on the November ballot.

Long way to go. Let's see how his candidacy shakes up the Democratic primary, first. Surely they can't all stay in the race, can they?

(Sigh). I guess we'll talk about tax reform

With the House and Senate at odds over just what type of tax cut to OK, and the governor basically calling them both a bunch of pandering morons who couldn't balance a budget with... some... sort... of balancing machine (those are my words, not his) I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that serious tax reform/cuts fall by the wayside this year.

Though perhaps some kind of much smaller compromise is found so everyone can save face.

That said, Flackattack over at Tondee's Tavern has done some interesting math on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's plan to cut income taxes. I haven't checked his math, but the post is really complicated and boring, so it must be true.

The bottom line for Flack: The plan helps rich people more. That wouldn't exactly be a shock from a Republican controlled Senate. Particularly in a year when the ideas of trickle down economics have been a key part of the reform discussion.

Speaking of that, way back when, when economic theory held sway and we were going to turn Georgia into a business paradise by revolutionizing the tax system here, a man named Arthur Laffer did the prep work for Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson's proposal to do away with property taxes.

I did a Q&A with Dr. Laffer, and was always upset with myself that I didn't make more of this:
QUESTION: What would be the effect if we cut income taxes as opposed to property taxes?

ANSWER: You know, my personal guess as an economist ... I think an income tax (reduction) would be probably a little bit better than a property tax reduction. But when you look at the politics of it, you swing very sharply toward property taxes. They're very close, by the way. But ... politically (property tax cuts are) far more popular. ... The second thing is the property tax issue in Georgia is a constitutional issue. And therefore it has to be handled by a constitutional amendment. And you might as well let the people have a say.

So there you go. The speaker's own expert said an income tax cut would be better for the state's economy, if only by a bit.

UPDATE: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle just finished a conference call with reporters. He said the Senate's tax cut plan is "fair to all" in that it gives a tax cut to a broad swath of Georgians. But he stopped short of saying the House's car tax cut is dead.

"It's still being debated," he said.

As for potential spending cuts to fund the tax cut, Cagle's plan cuts $215 million from the 2009 budget, he said. But he said lower taxes will stimulate the economy, meaning sales tax revenue increases will offset at least some of that decrease in income tax revenues.

Even so "it will require some very difficult cuts" to the state budget if the House, Senate and governor agree, Cagle said.

(By the way - the Senate plan needs the governor's signature. The House plan does not, because it requires a statewide referendum. The governor has already said he doesn't like either of these cuts. If somehow the Senate plan passes, but Gov. Perdue vetoes it, would the Senate override? If only there was some one I could ask...)

"It's too early to speculate on that," Cagle said. "I think the governor has concerns, he's voiced those concerns. ... This is a process and we're not at the end of the process we're at the beginning of the process. ... If we can make our case I'm hopeful that the governor will sign it."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

DUDE: Which legislator has been wearing a wire?

After spending the whole day ignoring developments in the state tax reform debate in a conscious effort to talk about race, I no longer care about taxes, U.S. senate campaigns, a meaningful dialogue on race or anything else but this:
BULLETIN: Corruption investigation wider than thought. InsiderAdvantageGeorgia has learned from a highly placed source in the legal community that at least one state legislator has “been wearing a wire for the past year” in an on-going and potentially widespread investigation of public corruption in Georgia. This suggests that the federal government may have been involved in an investigation of corruption under the Gold Dome prior to the December, 2007 date suggested in stories related to the resignation and guilty plea by Rep. Ron Sailor. The investigation may reach across both aisles of the House and potentially the Senate according to the source. Updates to come.

Dick. Pettys. Rocks.

UPDATE: Doesn't look like there's any new news on this out there. U.S. Attorneys and FBI agents are notoriously tight lipped. Damn it.

Georgia's senators (and a congressional hopeful) on race

My cheap shot joke from below aside, it's not every day you get to speak to two United States senators. And with Sen. Barack Obama giving his speech on race today, I took the chance to ask senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss what they think about the state of race relations today in America and Georgia.

Both were gracious enough to discuss it, as was Rick Goddard, the retired Air Force general looking to unseat Congressman Jim Marshall here in the 8th District.

Sen. Isakson, R-Ga.:
I was born in the 40s, went to school in the public schools of Atlanta following Brown vs. the Board of Education, attended the first integrated schools in Atlanta's history, watched Ivan Allen be a great leader. When there was lots of strife all over the United States, Atlanta never had violent strife. We were the home of Dr. Martin Luther King. ... Atlanta was peaceful. I think that's because our state has got a mutual respect in terms of race. ...

We've worked hard to make a transition from the Georgia of the 1860s to the Georgia of the 21st century. ... As far as the issue, what's being talked about today, that's race being used in a political context. And I don't think that's right either way. ...

I quote (Dr. King's "I have a Dream") speech quite frequently and many of the individual things that he illuminated or identified as a dream — that every man would be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin — are we perfect to that regard? No. Are we light years ahead? Absolutely. You know prejudice takes many forms... but we're moving in the right direction.

Sen. Chambliss, R-Ga.:
You can always improve on all of our social issues. But I think we've made great strides in this country. And as I get around the state, I have the opportunity to dialogue with folks of all backgrounds, from a race and ethnic standpoint. And we look forward to getting people from every economic strata, every race involved in our campaign. My staff is representative of that and we're going to have that in our campaign, also.

Gen. Goddard (R):
From a perspective of someone who wasn't grown and raised in the south, My perspective is Georgia has made huge, huge advances. Are we always where we should be? Probably not. ...

Every kind of person, whether it be Hispanic, whether it be African American, whether it be Caucasian, we all have to work together to make sure we are making this country as best as it can possibly be. Because, you know, we're all in this together. This is something we can't do individually. ...

It's vitally important that we understand each others' needs, each others' issues and work them together. ...

We need to be willing to understand that sense, what motivates a sense of people who feel like the American flag doesn't represent them? I want to really understand why people feel that way. Because they do. There are some people who feel that way. And so we can't be a country that is cohesive and works together if we don't understand the other side. ...

We're a better people when we sit down and work together and talk together. Often times we end up in camps, split. ... And we've got a lot of work to do.

I told Gen. Goddard I liked his answer, which obviously strayed off of the issue of race and into some of the other differences that divide us, the best.

And, as I typed this out, I was a surprised I let Sen. Chambliss off the hook so easily on his answer. But I had several other questions for him about his campaign and other issues, so the blame is mine.

Isakson: I "know" my good friend Saxby

If you've ever been to an event that U.S. senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss spoke at (and, seriously, it's not like they ever go anywhere separately) you know the two are close friends. They went to UGA together, and now they're in the Senate together.

Just how close? Well, this quote from Sen. Isakson today, at the Macon stop of Chambliss' campaign kickoff, sure caught my attention:
"I've known Saxby in every way you can know an individual. As a friend. As one I've played golf with. As one I've worked hard with. As one I've served with in the legislature. I know him inside and out."

I feel certain Sen. Isakson didn't mean "know" in the Biblical sense. Or, for that matter, the Minnesota Airport sense, which would be unheard of from a United States senator.

For the record, as the senators will often note, they are both married to ladies they met at the Phi Mu sorority at the University of Georgia.

Nothing more, and nothing less: Race in America

I live in a city that has a race problem. Maybe you do, too. So I don't think it's such a bad idea to stop and talk about race from time to time, and to imagine what it's like to walk a mile in another person's shoes. Even if you think that person has said ridiculous things.

Why do I believe what I believe? How have the things that have happened in my life shaped me? How have the circumstances of race, geography and class, and the way other members of society have treated me because of those circumstances, colored my ideals?

Honestly, I have no idea. It is too complicated an equation. So we all look for a compass.

Excerpts from Sen. Barack Obama's speech today, which has been posted on his campaign Web site:
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their world view in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism. ...

But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny. ...

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

Can't be your brother's keeper if you never talk to him, by the way.

Jeremiah Wright and the man who might be president

Sen. Barack Obama's is speaking right now about Pastor Jeremiah Wright's comments, which have gotten so much coverage recently. But I, at least, needed some context on just what was said and where it was coming from.

I'm a white kid from Atlanta. And if I know anything about race, it's that I don't have much chance knowing where a 60-plus black man in Chicago is coming from, or whether what he believes is reasonable given his own personal experiences, and the role that American racism has played in developing his beliefs.

Anyway, I thought this New York Times story gave a good description of Obama's pastor. It starts, though, with a description of Obama's family's religious beliefs.

This story, and others, says Mr. Wright presided over Obama's wedding ceremony, baptized his two daughters and gave sermon. I've read from other reliable sources that one of Pastor Wright's sermons provided the title for Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope."

It also includes some context for Mr. Wright's more controversial statements, which I've transcribed below from the YouTube clips. From the Times story:
Still, Mr. Obama was entranced by Mr. Wright, whose sermons fused analysis of the Bible with outrage at what he saw as the racism of everything from daily life in Chicago to American foreign policy. Mr. Obama had never met a minister who made pilgrimages to Africa, welcomed women leaders and gay members and crooned Teddy Pendergrass rhythm and blues from the pulpit. Mr. Wright was making Trinity a social force, initiating day care, drug counseling, legal aid and tutoring. He was also interested in the world beyond his own; in 1984, he traveled to Cuba to teach Christians about the value of nonviolent protest and to Libya to visit Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, along with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Wright said his visits implied no endorsement of their views. ...

Mr. Wright preached black liberation theology, which interprets the Bible as the story of the struggles of black people, who by virtue of their oppression are better able to understand Scripture than those who have suffered less. That message can sound different to white audiences, said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at University of Chicago Divinity School and a Trinity member. “Some white people hear it as racism in reverse,” Dr. Hopkins said, while blacks hear, “Yes, we are somebody, we’re also made in God’s image.” ...

While Mr. Obama stated his opposition to the Iraq war in conventional terms, Mr. Wright issued a “War on Iraq I.Q. Test,” with questions like, “Which country do you think poses the greatest threat to global peace: Iraq or the U.S.?”

Now, these are the three Wright comments I've heard people get the most concerned about. I transcribed them off of Fox News video available on Youtube.

From Wright's sermon the Sunday after Sep. 11:
"We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye. ... We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans and now we are indignent because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards."

Hillary ain't never been called a ...
"(Obama) ain't white. He ain't rich. He ain't priveleged. Hillary fits the mold. Europeans fit the mold... Hillary never had a cab whiz past her and not pick her up because here skin was the wrong color... Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home. Barack was. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that . Hillary ain't never been called a n-----. Hillary has never had here peopole defined as non-persons."

Oh I am so glad that I've got a God who knows what it is to be a poor black man in a country that is controlled by and run by rich white people. He taught me, Jesus did, how to love my enemies. Jesus taught me how to love the hell out of my enemies... Hillary hasn't ever had her own people say he ain't white enough."

This last one I actually got from ABC News. It's the ---damn America quote:
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," he said in a 2003 sermon. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Promise perfection so no one can be disappointed

The Democratic National Convention Committee just send me a "MUST READ" press release to let me know that, despite what I may have heard about Sen. Barack Obama's former preacher dragging his campaign into a race discussion, or Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign... dragging Obama into a race discussion, or the fact that, you know, the party doesn't have a nominee yet, everything is fine, just fine.

In fact, the convention is expected to be "flawless."
MUST READ: DNCC POISED TO PULL OFF A FLAWLESS DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION, PLANNING ON PACE OR AHEAD OF SCHEDULE ON ALL FRONTS

DENVER - Five months before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Roll Call this morning shows planning for the event continues to be, "on pace or ahead of pace" on all fronts with Convention organizers confident they will, "walk into Denver unified and knowing who our nominee is."

Cue Nipsey Russell in Wildcats: "Riiiiigghhhhht."

Congressman Marshall's dad died

And, judging by his obituary, he was quite the man.
Marshall was in one of two classes at West Point that graduated in three years, the rush made necessary by World War II. He received the Purple Heart for his service in France, where he was struck in the chest by a sniper's bullet.

Other honors bestowed during his career included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, and the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster.

Marshall was commander of the Corps of Engineers' Mobile district office from 1964 to 1967.

He left Mobile for Vietnam and, following his return to the States, served four years as commander of the SAFEGUARD Systems Command at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., near Huntsville. That was the original name for the anti-ballistic missile system later referred to as the "Star Wars" program.

Damn.

UPDATE: Doug Moore, Cong. Marshall's press secretary, sent me some pictures of Maj. Gen. Robert Marshall. I liked this one best. The general is the stern looking gentleman in the middle.

Capping property value growth would hit Bibb governments harder

From the "unintended consequences of government actions" and "all whammies are self whammies" files...

Julie Hubbard wrote this for political notebook last week. Sometimes one little example tells the story better than drawn out analysis. Bottom line: If the state caps property tax revaluation growth, and the "base year" is 2008, Bibb County's base year will really be 2001. Mostly because we've been morons on this issue:
LOSING PUBLIC SCHOOL MONEY

This is how a faulty Bibb County tax revaluation affects county governments.

This is an example from Bibb County school board member Tommy Barnes.

Barnes said his house, which was built after 2001, has for the past three years been valued for tax purposes at $189. (Not thousand.)

At the time assessors valued his property, there was no structure on it to tax. Barnes said he went to the county tax assessors office and asked them to update it.

"You can look at home sales in some neighborhoods that are $400,000 to $500,000" in current value, he said. "But tax assessors estimate them at $150,000."

The county reverted to 2001 property values after the previous board of assessors voted to abandon a 2006 revaluation because it brought thousands of appeals from homeowners.

Tax assessors are currently working on new revals, expected to be complete in March 2009.

Until then, homes are valued at 2001 rates.

The Bibb County school board could collect more taxes if homes were valued correctly.

"We are collecting 50 percent of what we should at our current rate," Barnes noted.

And by the way, the state House of Representatives approved a plan earlier this week, part of which caps the amount local governments can annually increase their property taxes at 2 percent for homes and 3 percent for commercial property. Tax levels would be set using a "base year" of 2008, which means Bibb's values would still be based on the 2001 values.

"Our community is in a unique situation with this revaluation," board President Lynn Farmer said. "I think it's important for our community to understand as well."

"That's been part of our concern," Superintendent Sharon Patterson added. "There's been no impact study done."

Ron Collier, Bibb County schools chief financial officer, also noted the system could lose about $6 million from county automobile tag taxes each year if the House's proposal to eliminate the tax statewide sticks. At the moment, though, that prospect is dicey. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have come out against the tax cut.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The cost of indigent defense vs. the cost of prosecutions

With all the hubbub about the cost of providing poor people accused of crimes an attorney, I decided to compare that cost with the cost of prosecutions.

People are far less likely to complain about the cost of prosecution, it seems, for fairly obvious reasons. I figured it'd be easy. You take two numbers: The total budget for indigent defense and the total number of cases, and divide. Do the same for prosecution and your done.

Three months, and really quite a bit of math later, it ain't so simple. Bottom line, I came up with a range:
The average prosecution costs $602 to $683 per case

The average indigent defense costs $607 to $639 per case

I can explain how I arrived at these figures if you like. It all depends whether you back out the cost of running grand juries and victim witness notification, or if you divide by the number of cases or the number of defendants in those cases, etc.

But it's kind of a long-winded explanation, so, for the moment, trust me. And if you want my best guess on which is the most fair number to use for comparison, I'd put the average prosecution at about $635 and the average indigent defense at about $615.

A few other interesting things:
The Macon Judicial Circuit district attorney had 6,386 active cases in FY 2007.

The Macon Judicial Circuit Public Defender had 4,697.

That includes the death penalty cases, which are actually handled and funded out of a separate office in Atlanta for the public defender, which I will discuss in a moment. And obviously the DA handles other cases the public defender doesn't, because some people hire their own attorney.

But look how close the actual case numbers are. There are either a lot of poor people getting arrested, or we're not doing a good enough job making sure non-indigent people pay for their own lawyers.

Of course, there's another caveat: One case for the prosecution can be several for the defense, because each defendant needs their own lawyer. Sometimes three guys charged with an armed robbery will testify against each other.

As for death penalty cases, the Brian Nichols trial in Atlanta has shown that these cases lead to large costs for the system. For the Macon circuit, the cost of running 6 death penalty cases in 2007 was an estimated $389,000. That's an estimate based on the average cost of defending an indigent death penalty case across the state, but the point is this:
The Macon circuit's public defender costs, if you add in the estimated death penalty costs actually born by the state Capitol Defender's Office, is just over $3 million.

Death penalty case costs make up about 13 percent of that cost, but .001 percent of the cases.

Finally, here in Macon, prosecution costs are higher mostly because of salary differences. The DA has been in business a long time, and has a lot of 20-year-plus veterans who are maxed out on salary. The public defender's office was created in 2005.
The DA's office has 54 employees, with an average salary of $57,121. Its 20 attorneys make an average of $84,866.

The public defender's office has 30 employees with an average salary of about $47,900. Its 17 attorney's make an average of about $56,500.

Those numbers are based on figures provided by the two offices. I backed out the salaries of the district attorney himself (Howards Simms) and the public defender himself (Lee Robinson).

What does all this mean? Depends on who you ask. Several people told me this comparison was a waste of my time. Seems to me, though, if you're trying to figure out how much to spend on indigent defense, you'd want to know how much you're spending on prosecutions.

Many thanks the District Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office for their help and patience on this. And I'll close with comments from them, and from state Sen. Preston Smith, who has been the leading legislative advocate for reform of the indigent defense system:
DA Simms: The average costs need "to be close. But I don't necessarily think it needs to be one-to-one."

Pub. Def. Robinson: "Fundamental fairness says the scales of justice should be balanced. And if you're spending more money to prosecute than to defend, then clearly the scales are not balanced."

State Sen. Smith: "I don't know where that presupposition comes from — that they are linked together in costs. The strategies are very different. And the costs of those strategies are very different."

Finding $700 million

Once upon a time, when the GREAT Plan still roamed the Capitol and struck fear into the hearts of local governments with it's not particularly clever acronymical title, it addressed an issue legislators have been up in arms about for years.

And, by up in arms, I mean they say they have problems with these things, but vote for more of them pretty much every year. I speak, of course, of sales tax exemptions.

There are more than 100 of them in state code, everything from not taxing sales between government entities, to rent on your apartment, to equipment purchased to expand the Georgia Aquarium, to an exemption for Gulfstream to repair private planes here in Georgia, to the sale of sod grass.

Yep, sod grass.

According to the Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University, these exemptions "cost" the state about $10 billion in tax revenue in 2006. It's more now. The aquarium thing, for example, was approved in 2007.

There are two ways to find the $700 million or so a year it would take to get rid of the car tax: Cut spending or increase taxes somewhere else.

Far be it from me to suggest that, somewhere in the state's nearly $41 billion annual budget (when you add in the federal money) there's room to cut $700 million in spending. Or to suggest that there might be $700 million worth cutting in local government budgets across the state, which is where this property tax money actually goes.

We all know that our governments are as efficient as they could possibly be and never waste any money.

So let's look at some of the things that folks don't pay sales taxes on, and see if there's $700 million more we can soak them on.

Annual cost of exemptions, from FRC report 170 and other estimates:
Film production and digital broadcasting $5.4
Gross revenues from coin-operated amusement machines $2.6
Rental of films when admission is charged $4.9
Sales of replacement parts for machinery $23.1
Certain sales or leases computer equipment $17.5
Exemption on jet fuel at Hartsfield-Jackson airport - $43.9* AJC estimate
Exemption for the Georgia Aquarium expansion $18.8* AJC estimate
Exemption on airplane parts for private airplane repair $11.6* AJC estimate
The annual sales tax holiday - $8.2
Sales of tickets to school athletic events - $2.5
Sale of raw materials used in farming and ranching $39.7
Sale of equipment used in harvesting lumber $1.9
Sales to private colleges and universities $9.7
Sale of school lunches in private schools $1.1

That's about $191 million. This is taking forever. But wait:
Sale of food for home consumption - $500 million
Sales to hospitals $64.6 million
Sale of lottery tickets $136.8 million

Now we're getting somewhere. Or, you could just take it all in one chunk:
Credit allowances for trade-ins on property $1 billion
Transportation charges for interstate and intrastate commerce $670.8 million

Legislators who approved these sales tax exemptions will tell you they're good for business. Gulfstream, for example, could take it's plane maintenance facility elsewhere, and the jobs would go with it, without the tax exemption. I didn't list it, but we don't tax the sale of goods used in manufacturing, partly because those goods are going to be taxed when the final product is sold. So there's, you know, logic to some of these things.

I don't know what I'm trying to prove here, other than it's just all about how you want to pay taxes. The $700 million is there.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

State Rep. Tony Sellier doing "much better."

I just spoke to Judye Sellier, state Rep. Tony Sellier's wife. He's been home from the hospital a couple of weeks now, though he does go to Macon each day for therapy, she said.

"He's getting stronger every day and he's getting so much better," Judye said.

My tax relief plan can beat up your tax relief plan

Whew, that was close. For a second there I didn't think the House and Senate were going to fight over who's got the better tax relief plan. From Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's office:
The House has passed a plan that needlessly delays tax relief for over a year, and doesn’t provide the full amount of relief for two years. Georgia workers are at risk of losing their jobs right now due to the economic downturn. Why are we waiting two years to cut taxes instead of having the courage to do it right now?

I am interested in working with the House on a broad economic stimulus plan that will create jobs today. I believe we can develop a plan that cuts taxes for every Georgian, regardless of whether they drive an old Ford truck or a shiny new Porsche. The Senate also strongly believes in capping property tax assessments, and we have already passed two constitutional amendments doing exactly that. These are the issues that truly matter to Georgia families, and it is time to get serious about the business of creating jobs for Georgia by providing broad tax relief to all of our working citizens.

By the way, I'm pretty sure state Rep. Mark Burkhalter — who has long pitched a plan to do away with the property tax on cars — drives a Porsche. No doubt, though, any reference to said German sports car is entirely coincidental.

Also, the governor has called the House plan "irresponsible," according to a story that moved recently on the AP wire:
Gov. Sonny Perdue on Thursday called the $672 million plan to eliminate the tax an ‘‘irresponsible’’ proposal and compared its hasty creation to the ‘‘Wright brothers jumping off of Kitty Hawk and designing an airplane on the way down.’’

That's nice rhetoric. To be fair, though, I don't think the Wright brothers jumped "off" Kitty Hawk. It's not a cliff. It's just a really windy flat place they went to test their new plane.

Assembly close on new transportation tax?

It looks like the House and Senate have agreed, generally, to allow counties and cities to join together to raise an extra penny sales tax to help pay for transportation projects.

There are going to be a lot of questions to answer before this is actually authorized. But for the moment I'm most interested in how the voting process would start in those counties.

There have been concerns that smaller counties could get dragged into the tax by larger ones, since they wouldn't have the voting population to stand up against larger counties. But, according to Senate Resolution 845, which Dick Pettys says is the basis for whatever actual legislation is moving forward at the moment, that concern is lessened by the method for calling for the referendum itself.

The way I read it: County Commissioners and city councils of all the counties and cities involved would have to call for the referendum, which presumably would include some sort of pre-vote intergovernmental agreement stating who gets what money from the tax if it passes.

So, though a smaller county like Crawford County here in the mid-state wouldn't have the votes to stop Bibb and Houston voters from approving a multi-county tax, they would be able to, through their elected officials, opt out from the word go.

However, since most people in Crawford County do most of their shopping in Bibb, Peach and Houston counties (something that probably holds true in most small population, rural counties) it might not make much sense to opt out. Because then you're just paying the extra tax when you travel into another county. You get the benefit of new roads there, to enhance your shopping experience, but no help back in your own neighborhood.

The relevant resolution language:
The board of commissioners of each county and the governing authority of each municipality located therein which desire to participate in a regional transportation sales and use tax shall adopt a resolution by majority vote calling for such tax. The combined geographic boundaries of those counties shall constitute the boundary of the single regional transportation special district. The adoption of such resolution shall be binding upon the county´s participation in the regional transportation district referendum and tax in the regional special district if the referendum is approved in a regional vote. The tax shall be imposed, levied, and collected throughout the entire regional special district upon approval by a majority vote of the qualified voters residing in the limits of the regional special district voting in a referendum thereon.

Jekyll Island accounting: some fuzzy math

I haven't followed the Jekyll Island redevelopment project like I should, but, generally speaking, if you're wondering who's telling the truth about conflicting sets of numbers, a good first question is this: Who stands to make a bunch of money?

From The AJC:
In its 2006 annual report, the Authority stated it was $210,575 in the red. But the Authority actually turned a profit of $1,950,081 that year, according to the state auditor's office.

In all, the Authority's annual statements under-reported revenues by $11.3 million since fiscal 1997, according to a state auditor, John Thornton.

Nobody accuses the Authority of misappropriating the money. The Authority didn't include federal grants for historic preservation, or local sales tax revenues used for sewer projects, as overall earnings, according to Eric Garvey, the Authority's marketing and business development director. Instead, the money went into capital reserve accounts not listed in annual reports.

Chapman said the reserve account kept the information from being easily available to the public.

"The JIA Annual Reports are not prepared in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles," Thornton wrote to Chapman on Feb. 14. "As such, we do not believe the JIA Annual Reports from 1997 through 2007 provide an accurate picture of JIA's annual revenues or expenditures."

All whammies are self whammies

I picked this up from peach pundit. If you've got 5 minutes, go listen to the NPR story about the financial monitoring software used to catch now former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Apparently Spitzer pushed for this increased bank transaction monitoring when he was New York attorney general.

Oh, by the way, Big Brother is watching every time you use your ATM card.

If Richard Nixon hadn't been white, he wouldn't have been president

I happen to know Democrats who like Sen. Barack Obama and like Sen. Hillary Clinton. But they're voting for Sen. Obama because they not only think he is qualified, but they want to be part of electing the first black man to the presidency.

So I'm not sure Geraldine Ferraro is all that wrong. But I do like this column saying she is. Except for the Archie Bunker part. That's a little ridiculous.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of course we should apologize for slavery

Well here's a can of worms from out in left field. And by left field, I mean last year's session of the General Assembly.

This is an essay I wrote while legislators were pushing the state to formally apologize for slavery. I always liked it, never printed it, and don't want to work on what I'm supposed to be working on today:
Of course we should apologize for slavery. Every human being should.

We should be sorry that we don't love our fellow men like we should. That we let fear and hatred hold us back in this advanced age.

Martin Luther King Jr. was quoting Matthew most of the time. Who was, of course, quoting Jesus.

Love your neighbor.

I'm sorry slavery happened. I'm sorry it happened on my own soil, in my country. I'm sorrier still that so much of it, and so badly, happened in my beloved home state.

Down below that, I wrote this:
If you say "we" when you say "America," I think that's proof you owe an apology.

There was also a section about honoring Confederate soldiers, but it never quite worked. Except for this paragraph:
I honor all dead. Every man has good in him and is to be missed, and those who sacrifice for others most of all.

By the way, this post carries the cop-out caveat: I don't really care whether state government passes a resolution apologizing for slavery. I'm saying I'm sorry slavery happened, and you should be too.

Chainsaw for Senate

A buddy of mine sent me this. Apparently this guy is running a brilliant campaign for Senate in Oregon.


After watching that video, I noticed this one.


Try this at home if you're a moron.

Winning spin depends on the size of your audience

... and there are more Republicans in this state.

Does the speaker get to say he presided over the largest tax cut vote in state history, and that he was strong enough to hold his caucus together in support of even more tax reform, but those damn Democrats just wouldn't go along with it?

I believe he does.

Does he also get to spin this that he's learned to be a big enough man to compromise, even with Democrats, despite his all-or-nothing rhetoric earlier in the session?

Yeah. I give it til the end of the session before he actually does it, though.

By the way, anyone got any idea what this "targeted tax relief that stimulates the economy and creates jobs" that Cagle is talking about might be?

I can't keep all of the tax plans floating around out there straight.

By the way, Tondee's Tavern is full of a bunch of LIBERALS!, but it's a damn entertaining read.

UPDATE: Also getting a W... big oil. Wait, not that kind of W. A victory. State Rep. Mark Burkhalter, who, according to various media reports that predate my knowledge on all of this, has been pushing for some time to get rid of the car property tax.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Let me see if I can put this in a nutshell: What?

UPDATE 2: To say the insiders have a little more insight than me on how this all went down is like saying the sun is brighter than... a much smaller sun.
---
I tell you what, you turn your back on the Georgia House of Representatives for an afternoon and they cut your taxes, come up with a way to fund trauma care upgrades and generally start to pass the things they promised to work on before the session even started.

Is nothing sacred?

And Senate leaders are hinting, strongly, in the direction of passing this thing, or something similar?

What's next? Will Gov. Sonny Perdue, who just yesterday lowered revenue estimates and called for budgetary belt tightening, give the OK as well?
---
CORRECTION: I think this is the third time I've made this mistake, but at least it only lasted a few minutes this time. It's a referendum, so the governor doesn't have to sign off on it. Supporters would probably like to have his support, though.
---
Surely GOP leaders at the Capitol aren't going to work together on this thing. Are they?

UPDATE: Seriously, my mind is blown, and I'm going home. I'm sure a bunch of other stuff passed today that will slip through the cracks. The BRIDGE program is probably a big enough deal that it won't be one of them, but I wanted to note it here. It's an education program that a lot of people think makes a lot of sense.

I've seen some blog spin congratulating Democrats for standing up to Speaker Glenn Richardson and getting him to change his tax proposal. But, it's hard to slice today any way but a big victory for the Speaker.

At least, that's the way it looks from Macon.

When lust and hate are the candy, again

All the things going on in this community, and in this world, and these are the 10 most popular stories on our web site right now:
* Meth lab busted in Monroe County, woman arrested
* Macon officers to be disciplined for drawing guns on man
* Disgruntled employee calls in bomb threat to Perry restaurant, police say
* Police still unsure what led to fatal gunfight outside Macon hospital
* Macon pastor found guilty of bank fraud, money laundering
* Man tells police he shot woman in self defense
* Franklin man dies in I-75 car wreck in Monroe County
* Bibb man accused of metal theft arrested
* Shots fired at Macon house
* Man talks about woman found in dry ice

And people wonder why newspapers have so many "negative" stories in them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Good ideas in journalism

I'm speaking to a journalism class tomorrow. That's always a train wreck, so I decided to prepare for a change. And I went through a little file I've kept for years called "good ideas in journalism."

For what it's worth, and with not near enough explanation, this is how I try to go about my job:
Accuracy. Fairness. Objectivity. Timeliness. Context.

You are not in the business of making friends and winning influence. Writing about other people should make you feel terrible quite often.

Go see people in person.

Ask the same question of different people. You may have to ask them more than once

A swamp of facts is only useful if you answer the question on everybody's lips.

It's not always about details. Make sure you understand the core of a thing so you can explain it to your friends with complete accuracy.

Ask yourself: Am I comfortable with this being written in a history book?

Put little trust in facts. Re-examine their veracity from time to time.

Pretty much at least one fact per noun, verb and adjective. Think: What do I know, and how do I know it. Ask your sources how they know things.

Get as close as you can.
- The photographer's creed

If you're sitting there with nothing to do, call some people and find out what they want to talk about. Or go see them. Or go look at some public documents. Or buildings. Or watch an intersection work.

File open records requests routinely. You don't have to suspect something.

Don't be overly impressed with power. Or yourself.

There's a thin line between authoritative reporting and editorializing.

Be smart, listen and study. Be difficult to lie to.

No matter how high you get, remember what it's like on the lower levels.

The last 5 percent between 95 percent and 100 percent is the hardest.
- Brian Melton

We're not in the business of keeping secrets.
- Bernie O'Donnell

It is said that great artists steal. This ain't art.

Use a page in your notebook for texture: Sounds, sights, smells. Things that aren't quotes.
- I can't remember whose idea this was

Experiment and technique are fine. But the reader has to come with you.

This job is not about being a great writer.

You want to be criticized by idiots on both sides.

Dimly lit is good. Illuminated by a single bulb is better.

If you don't think you've got a public service job, get another one.