Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The coming fight for NC school funding

I will be amazed if the governor and state legislature can cut $3.5 billion or so from the state budget without hitting teacher salaries through some very noticeable combination of furloughs, layoffs and attrition.

And that is why the looming push to greatly increase the number of charter schools in North Carolina is so interesting. Charter schools are run by non-profits through a charter with the state. The state requires them to hit education goals contained in that charter, but they have more leeway in how they go about that than a traditional public school.

State law currently caps the number of schools at 100, but the new GOP majority is all but certain to eliminate, or at least raise, that cap. Outright elimination was a campaign promise, re-iterated after this month's election, though some GOP legislators are interested in more incremental changes.

Charter school advocates will argue that the new schools don't have a negative effect on the old ones, because the public funding they take from a given school is offset by that student's changing schools. You don't have to spend money to educate a student if someone else is doing it, right?

Regular K-12 school officials beg to differ, and you can expect them to turn up the heat on legislators as the session begins. This is from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Superintendent Don Martin, though it arrived to late for inclusion in this piece:
When we lose students to charter schools, it reduces some operational costs. However, it doesn't reduce a lot of infrastructure costs. For example, if 25 students leave a school we don't save a teaching position unless all of them are in the same grade, and we don't save any utilities unless we are able to close down a portion of a building.
That is why fundamental shifts in money and strategy — and that's what the charter school movement is — cost more at the outset, regardless of whether they end up saving money or improving results in the long run.

So what I'll be watching when the legislative session starts Jan. 26 is whether GOP legislators maintain the political will to radically increase charter school funding at the expense — whether it's perceived, real, or somewhere in the middle — of traditional schools and their political base. It will also be interesting to see what Democratic legislators do if they feel Republicans over-extend on the issue.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

That we still had a flag

I wonder whether I'm the only person who finds it genuinely patriotic to sing The Star Spangled Banner poorly, and to change some of the words.

Rest in peace, Enrico Pallazzo.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New NC pro tem: budget cuts, gay marriage amendment coming; redistricting to be "fair and legal"

To me, the headline of this interview is confirmation from the incoming House speaker pro tem that the new GOP majority will push for immigration reform, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and new abortion legislation over the next two years.

Only time will tell whether they will truly go for "singles and doubles" on those issues, as new Pro Tem Dale Folwell predicts, or try to hit a "grand slam."

When it comes to everyone's first question, on the budget, it was tough to pin Folwell down on how much the education budget will be cut, and how that will affect teacher jobs and class sizes. Of course, I spoke to him Monday, less than 48 hours after he was elected pro tem Saturday, so that's fair. But these comments, which I didn't use in the piece for The Winston-Salem Journal, speak to his mindset on education:
Q: Will we need to increase school class sizes and, if so, will that mean teacher layoffs?

A: What I try to do is focus on priorities. I think it's ridiculous that, for the six years that I've been there we do a budget where we don't show what the previous (year's) expenditures is. And then when it comes time to raise taxes we always say, 'But this is for education,' If we're really serious about education in this state, why isn't that our first priority, not our last? Secondly, 70 percent of your readers have at least one thing in common: They don't have any direct involvement in public education, except that they're asked to pay for it. ... They're seeing more money being spent and less results. And we have to do a better job of prioritizing where public education rests in this whole equation which in my opinion is No. 1 and communicate to the voters exactly how that money is being spent.

Q: But in the end education makes up something like 60 percent of the budget. So, if you're going to balance it to the tune of (cutting) $3.5 billion, something's got to give. And I don't see how you make it give without increasing class sizes.

A: Anyone across North Carolina understands that we have a huge mess on our hands, and we don't know all the answers. And I got to where I am in life by surrounding myself with people who are smarter than I am. But I do know this: If we are not willing to push the power away from ourselves and away from Raleigh ... all the way back down to the local level ... we're never going to get ourselves out of this. ... I don't know what it's going to take to bend the curve, except that we have to start out with a basic premise. ... We may buy more fuel than Southwest Airlines does, but they do a lot better job of managing their fuel costs. We are the largest purchaser of health care in North Carolina and yet we can't look into the eyes of a school teacher, a highway patrolman or a DOT worker and answer one fundamental question: How can the largest purchaser of something not do it better and cheaper on behalf of participants than anyone else?
Finally, file the following under promises you should try to hold folks to:
Q: Are there any obvious targets yet for redistricting, particularly in the Winston-Salem area?

A: I have one of the most split districts in North Carolina. Our approach to redistricting, as well as so many other issues, is fair and legal. ... (In my district) when you go up Miller street I rep both sides until top of the hill at Queen. And when I get to the top of the hill at Queen I only represent a certain side of Miller Street, until I get to Hawthorne Road. And then when I get to Hawthorne Road, I represent another side of Miller Street until I get to Silas Creek Parkway, and then I represent both sides of the street. That's ridiculous. ... When politicians pick the voters instead of the voters hiring the politicians, then we have problems.

Q: Can you say though that there won't be any attempt to gerrymander certain Democrats out of office?

A: I'm saying that we need to have districts that do not split neighborhoods and split people simply because their party affiliation, their gender or the color of their skin. So our complete focus, is on fair and legal.

$2.3 million poured into NC legislative races, much of it from Art Pope

The N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation has done some heavy lifting to break down outside group spending in state legislative races this year. Turns out there was a lot of it.

From the full report:
Based on our review of the public data currently available, the NCFEF has determined that well over $2.3 million was spent by outside groups in state legislative races during 2010. ...

These funds were spread among 34 legislative campaigns, and the bulk of it (over 90 percent) was spent to the benefit of Republican candidates. ...

Six groups in particular utilized electioneering communications or independent expenditures in North Carolina legislative contests: Real Jobs NC, Real Facts NC, Civitas Action, Americans for Prosperity, Driving NC Forward (NC Automobile Dealers Association), and NC Homeowners Alliance (NC Realtors Association). The investment of these groups ranged from just over $80,000, spent by the NC Homeowners Alliance, to approximately $1.5 million, spent by Real Jobs NC.
Real Jobs NC is the now-well-known Art Pope vehicle, which generated quite a few stories in the waning days of this election season, and in the weeks that followed.

The Rob Christensen piece linked above was the most thorough, but I think my favorite piece was a bit of a hit-job from the liberal Independent Weekly in Raleigh:
Pope, of course, did not have to look to the government for his job. He looked to his daddy, the late John William Pope, who in 1949 was put in charge of five family-owned dime stores in eastern North Carolina. John William Pope turned that modest grubstake into a retailing empire spanning 14 southeastern states. He hired Art as a vice president. Now Art's the CEO! ...

The company makes no secret that its target demographic is low-income communities with large minority populations. ... Using the profits he makes from selling to the less fortunate, Art Pope pours millions into conservative and right-wing organizations that advance his anti-government, I-made-it-why-can't-you? agenda.
Lots of anger in that writing. But you do have to appreciate what it takes for an unabashedly conservative multi-millionaire to make it perfectly clear that he wants to build stores near poor black people. The screen shot below is from Variety Wholesalers website, and it describes the types of locations where Pope's company will consider locating new stores.

Click the image to enlarge, and focus on bullet points 3 and 4.

One thing to be clear about: This post is a mash up of sorts. The N.C. FreeEnterprise report didn't mention Pope by name, or at least didn't do so in the portions I read. Their report was a news peg for me to mention something I found interesting a few weeks ago, when I first saw The Independent's piece.

N&O streaming Easley hearing

Former Gov. Mike Easley's plea bargain hearing is being broadcast online now by The Raleigh News & Observer.

Watch live streaming video from newsobserver at livestream.com

Thursday, November 18, 2010

As California moves to citizen redistricting, all should pay attention

It seems to me that one of the problems in modern American politics is that we are governed by a series of over-reaches. Election results get over-interpreted, and power swings back and forth like a pendulum.

Gallup will tell you that 42 percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, compared to 35 percent who identify themselves as moderate. But, given the way the mid-term elections went, and what we can infer from that about the mood of the country, I'd argue this is probably skewed a bit to the right. People are inclined to self-identify with a winning movement, or distance themselves from a party that has angered them.

So I think most Americans are moderates. But we aren't governed by moderates, and we certainly don't pay attention to them on television, a very serious issue that I won't get into here, because Jon Stewart has already described it beautifully.

Back in 2006 I wrote what could have been a throw-away piece about U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall speaking to high school students. But I thought he made a good point. This is from the article, which isn't free online anymore, but Sid Cottingham quoted at the time:
The extremes of party politics have sapped the middle-of-the-road leadership out of American politics, and the partisan process behind the drawing of congressional voting districts is to blame, U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall said Monday.

The redistricting process - handled in Georgia by the General Assembly - should be nonpartisan, Marshall, D-Ga., said. Currently there are so many "safe" Republican and Democrat districts designed to protect one party or the other that candidates cater to voters in the extremes of their own party instead of the electorate as a whole, he said.

In turn, national leadership "is elected from the extremes," Marshall said.
I find that very difficult to argue, which is why I'll watch with interest as California tries to move from a partisan redistricting process to one governed by randomly selected volunteers. This is from The L.A. Times today:
Disappointed at seeing state lawmakers gerrymandering their own districts behind closed doors in ways that protect them from challengers, California voters approved an initiative in 2008 that transfers the job to the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Using bingo balls and a hand-cranked bingo cage, State Auditor Elaine Howle conducted random drawings of names from three pools of applicants to select three Democrats, three Republicans and two people who don't belong to the either of those parties.
Will it work? I don't know. But history has shown us that the best way to remain in power and advance a society is not to abuse that power, not to over-reach. And since human nature makes this a difficult impulse to overcome, and because our media elevates extremists, and because "let's be reasonable and moderate" doesn't make much of a rallying cry, it makes sense to look for procedural ways to limit this phenomenon.

The U.S. Capitol on Nov. 18, 2010

I wanted to watch a live stream from the U.S. Senate this afternoon for a follow up to this story, about a food safety bill being debated this week.

I didn't find what I was looking for, but discovered a live stream of the Capitol itself.

Not sure how useful this is, but it's pretty.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The power of the bureaucracy

I think a lot of people assume nearly all of a government's power, at least in the United States, is held by elected officials. But the truth is much more complicated than that, and you often find department heads and other staffers who are able to defy the will of state legislators and, more rarely, the governor.

You have to remember, some of these folks have have been in government for decades, and they know how to play the game. There was a good example in this budget story Sunday in The News & Observer:
Gov. Bev Perdue's office hasn't gotten many solid suggestions from state agencies on how to fill a $3.5 billion budget hole.

The agencies were asked to cut their budgets by 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent by either dumping or consolidating programs and cutting management, and given an Oct.29 deadline. So far, it appears that most are ignoring the guidelines. ...

"Agencies have traditionally picked their programs that are the most popular and put them on the chopping block," (state Rep. Jim Crawford) said. The resulting public outcry usually helps spare popular programs.

It would be better if agencies made practical suggestions, especially this year, Crawford said. "If I were the agencies, I'd really look at the programs and see what they can live without and what they can't," he said.
There you go. Human nature leads to a game of budgetary chicken, with the public in the middle.

I hadn't thought of it at the time, but this is another example of the push and pull between elected leaders and appointed state officials:
Rep. Verla Insko, a co-chairman of the state's legislative oversight committee for mental health, was removed from a tour of Dorothea Dix Hospital last week because the visit had not been preapproved by top administrators at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The socialist mop

The quote below is from October 2009, but I hadn't seen it until today, on a friend of mine's blog. I don't have any comment on it, other than it's clever as hell.

From Reuters:
"Lately I feel like somebody made a big mess and I've got my mop and I'm mopping the floor and the folks who made the mess are there (saying) 'you're not mopping fast enough. You're not mopping the right way. It's a socialist mop.'"

- Barack Obama

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tales of their demise

From The New York Times on Saturday, via Political Insider:
“The Democratic Party as we know it in Alabama is dead,” boasted Philip Bryan, the spokesman for the state’s Republican Party, which gained control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century. “We just killed it.”
And this is dated May 2009:

A fairly quick recovery, wouldn't you say?

Update: I think we have our first potential evidence of the Republican overreach in the wake of this election, which follows the Democratic overreach under Pres. Obama and Speaker Pelosi, which followed the Republican overreach under Pres. Bush ...

From CBS News:
Issa's election to chair the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform would herald a significant increase in the committee's activity, and not just from the past two years. California Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee's Democratic chair during the final two years of the Bush administration, held 203 hearings over the course of two years. With a goal of about 280 hearings each year, Issa hopes to more than double that.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Not $200 million a day, but not cheap

It's pretty clear that, despite what U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and one anonymous Indian official say, President Barack Obama's visit to India and Malaysia will not cost $200 million a day.

See factcheck.org's explanation if you doubt that. The trip will be massively expensive, but it's silly to just rattle off numbers as if they're facts.

The White House's response, though, may be sillier. Basically, they're saying that's not true, but we can't tell you the right number. White House policy, under this and past presidents, is that revealing how much presidential security costs is a security risk.

The government accountability office tackled this issue several years ago, and even it was unable to come up with a total cost of moving the president of the United States around the planet. But it was able to layout the Department of Defense's costs for aircraft in this downloadable report:
On the basis of the best available data, we estimate that DOD spent at least $292 million to provide fixed-wing airlift and air refueling support for 159 White House foreign trips from January 1, 1997, through March 31, 2000. These costs are somewhat understated because DOD could not provide historical data on some aerial refueling missions and could not assure us that its information systems had captured complete mission data for some of the trips.
Of course that doesn't include the costs of security, in-country travel, hotel rooms and a host of other things, but you get the idea. It ain't cheap, but it ain't $200 million a day.

Below I'm pasting charts from the report to give an idea of some costs for individual trips, including a 10 day trip to India and other countries in March 2000.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Are politics still local?

Update: Leave it to an Alabama sheriff to sum this up colorfully:
To quote Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely: “Alabama Coach Nick Saban running on the Democratic ticket could not have beaten a one-legged child molester running as a Republican.”
Update: Longer story on this, and other issues, in The Winston-Salem Journal.
I spoke to Gary Pearce today as part of a follow up on last night's historic GOP takeover in the North Carolina legislature. And he said something interesting, paraphrasing a friend of his:
"All politics is national. The old adage, all politics is local, is dead."
That takes things a little too far, but good soundbites usually do. The kernel of truth there, though ... I keep coming back to it.

Mr. Pearce feels that North Carolina Democrats didn't lose the legislature because they were bad legislators. And, having come from Georgia, where many of the Republican legislators look and act an awful lot like the Democrats in North Carolina's legislature, I've wondered myself how much of party politics owes to semantics that vary by geography.

Democrats lost the legislature, Pearce said, because they got caught in the crossfire.

The dramatic turnover in the North Carolina legislature had nothing to do with North Carolina," he said. "Democrats here were collateral damage from the bunker buster that hit the White House."

Again, he's a Democrat, he goes too far. But perhaps not by much.

Consider this comment today from Tom Fetzer, head of the N.C. Republican Party. Fetzer was adamant that the GOP would take over the N.C. House and Senate, even though most pundits said only the Senate was within reach.

"It was not a series of small elections," Fetzer said."It was one big one. It was a referendum on the president. It was a referendum on unemployment. It was a referendum on the deficit. It was a referendum on health care."

Now, I don't know that this is a new phenomenon. I suspect it's not. But the ramifications of this kind of election - one where no matter what you've done, no matter what you say, you're going to win or lose because of who the president is and what Nancy Pelosi has done ... I guess life's not fair, huh?

GOP tsunami washes state legislatures

Update: Ben Smith at Politico has this chart, laying out who controls what in redistricting. That's a lot of red.
From the National Conference of State Legislatures this morning:
Republicans are on track to add over 500 seats, surpassing 1994 gains, and bringing them close to their 1928 high water mark. This number could go even higher. This could give the GOP a dramatic advantage in the redistricting cycle that will start in just a few short months. The census bureau will deliver data to legislatures in early February.

All legislative chamber switches in the 2010 election are going from a Democratic majority to a new Republican majority. That includes an historic win in the Minnesota Senate where Republicans will be in the majority for the first time ever. In addition, Republicans now control the Alabama Legislature for the first time since reconstruction and the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time since 1870. As of now, Republicans appear to have added at least 19 chambers, and that number could grow. The GOP gained 20 chambers in the 1994 election, and it’s not out of the question that they will reach that milepost again this year with control of several chambers still up in the air.

Across the country, Republicans now control 54 chambers, Democrats have 38 and one is tied.

History in North Carolina

For today's Winston-Salem Journal:
RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans made history Tuesday, winning majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time since 1870.

Final numbers were in flux as The Winston-Salem Journal went to press. But Republicans held leads in at least 30 of North Carolina's 50 state senate seats. Republicans, including House Minority Leader Paul Stam, the Wake County Republican who will likely become the state's speaker of the house, said they'd won at least 68 seats in the 120-seat House.

That is a massive shift, exceeding all but the most optimistic GOP expectations

Images: Likely Speaker of the House to be Paul Stam, the Craig Woolard Band, likely Senate President Pro Tem** to be Phil Berger Tuesday night at the Republican victory party in Raleigh.

** CORRECTION: Initially said likely Senate Majority Leader. Apologies.

And two more of Stam, because this blog's editorial position has always been that speaker of the house is a cool job.

Republicans voted state Rep. Thom Tillis Speaker of the House, not Stam. That's Tillis on the cell phone above.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Happy election day

I found this picture at Overseen in Athens, and it seems as good a thought provoker as any on the eve of an election.

Sonny Perdue: You can never be sure whether he's in on the joke.

Now, I'm not entirely sure what was going on here, which is a fine metaphor for election season in its own right. But I think the "M" over there on the end, played by this crazy son of a bitch, might be out of position.