Mar 142011
 

To say the states of the Union are facing fiscal problems would be an understatement. With nearly every state in the country facing serious budget deficits as the recession takes its toll and stimulus funds drying up states are doing whatever they can to stay above water. Whether through steep cuts in spending in Texas, structural reforms in California, or weakening public unions in the Midwest all are united in their search for an answer. Nowhere is a more radical effort being waged than in the state of Michigan.

 

The Republican-controlled Michigan State Senate recently passed a highly controversial bill to address the fiscal crises facing state. In the name of fiscal responsibility a group of state officials appointed by the governor known as emergency financial maangers would gain virtually unchecked power over all aspects of the local government in their charge. Some argue thesepowers are necessary to address the multitude of fiscal problems in Michigan by giving the emergency managers the extra leverage needed to get the job done. As they see it emergency managers are necessary to clean up the state’s problems and they have been used successfully in Michigan previously. This does not answer the question of if the new powers, or the changes to process, go too far.

 

The first line crossed is in the process of declaring a state of fiscal emergency. The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act grants a considerable amount of unchecked power to the governor’s office. In the new bill the governor would have the final say on if a local government is in a state of fiscal emergencyi. The governor have the sole power to appoint the emergency manager with no outside review or confirmationii. The new manager, once appointed, could only be removed by the governor or impeachmentiii. The law goes further by giving emergency managers full immunity from any legal liabilityiv.

 

So why would the emergency managers need protection from legal sanction? The Fiscal Accountability Act gives the emergency managers unprecedented authority over their municipalities. The list of powers given to the managers is staggering in its breadth and scope. Once in place there is little the emergency managers cannot do. From the outset they completely control the process being given the sole responsibility of developing the financial plan for the municipalityv. The plan does not need any outside approval of any kind; the public has no opportunity to vote on the issue. The state fiscal emergency remains until the emergency manager declares the crisis has been resolvedvi.

 

During this time the manager is charged to issue “all orders necessary” to make the plan happenvii. This is backed up by substantial authority explicitly spelled out in the bill. The manager is given the power to create the budgetviii, sell or transfer local government assetsix, and remove non-elected local officialsx at their sole discretion. They handle all contract negotiations and, at their discretion, can unilaterally terminate themxi. If a manager is put in charge of a school district they are given the power to set their educational planxii. Any municipal official deemed by the emergency manager to have “not reasonably” carried out an order can be barred from access to municipal facilities, mail, and internal informationxiii. In spite of being in a state of fiscal emergency the municipality is required to foot the bill for the emergency manager’s pay, expenses, and staff for the durationxiv.

 

These powers, while staggering in their totality, are not the most potent they receive. With the approval of the state treasurer they can waive any need for competitive bidding on any contract over $50,000xv. Based on their sole discretion and judgment they can recommend the municipality be declared a debtor and placed under their complete controlxvi or worse yet be legally dissolvedxvii. The governor alone makes the final call. Most astonishingly the law makes legal appeal of any of these actions impossible. The only chance given to the local government is during the investigation process which requires the municipality to request appeal with a 2/3rds majority votexviii. Once an emergency manager is appointed the locals have no legal recourse between the manager’s legal immunity and the law’s restrictions.

 

What is happening in Michigan could be waved away as unique, radical measure born of an economically devastated and desperate state. It could be argued given Michigan’s genuinely terrible situation extreme action might be justified. This all assumes that what happens in one state will remain in one state. Currently 44 of the 50 states of the Union are facing serious fiscal problems. While Michigan’s situation is especially grim they are not the only state with local governments facing serious deficits. We have already seen how Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin has been copied in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, and is being seriously considered in Maine. Public outcry proved, in the short term, to be in vain in Wisconsin and other governors press ahead in spite of the lack of popular support. If Michigan puts this law into effect what would stop other states from considering their own version of the Michigan solution?

 

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

iSenate copy of Michigan HB 4214, Sec. 15(1)

iiIbid Sec. 15(4)

iiiIbid Sec. 15(5d)

ivIbid Sec. 25(1)

vIbid Sec. 18(1)

viIbid Sec. 24

viiIbid Sec. 17(1)

viiiIbid Sec. 19(1b)

ixIbid Sec. 19(1r)

xIbid Sec. 19(1n)

xiIbid Sec. 18(1c)

xiiIbid Sec. 17(1)

xiiiIbid Sec. 17(2)

xivIbid Sec. 15(5e)

xvIbid Sec. 19(3)

xviIbid Sec. 23(1)

xviiIbid Sec. 19(1cc)

xviiiIbid Sec. 15(3)

 

Mar 042011
 

Just over a year ago, I (and several others) made my first post on PAGAN+politics.  I was excited beyond belief and so honored to have been contacted by Jason Pitzl-Waters to participate in a blog project whose objective was to feature Pagan voices from across the political spectrum and encourage civil discussion.  An additional hope what that this would help end the stigmatization of minority voices in our community and show non-Pagans (and Pagans) that we are as diverse politically as we are in other ways.

I think PAGAN+politics has made a good start on those goals, but it has also shown just how far we have to go.

In my first post, I wrote:  “Carrying that over to politics, I think that most people and political Parties want the same outcome; a happy, healthy, open and caring populace. Just because we disagree on how to accomplish that outcome, why should we denounce one another as evil and hateful? Our unity and harmony should derive from the goal, not the method. Many paths can lead to the same destination.” I still believe that.  One of the more frustrating things about participating in this project is the realization that many people don’t believe that and never will.  They will always see ‘the other side’ as inherently evil, operating from either ignorance or base motives.  Even within such a diverse umbrella group like Paganism.

I love writing for this blog.  I enjoy talking about politics in general and have found it fascinating to delve into how religion affects our political views.  And how it doesn’t. I enjoy our differences and appreciate even more how alike we are.  I have made many new friends, many of whom don’t agree with me on a single thing in politics and it doesn’t matter.  We respect one another.  I have been given new opportunities.  I am an editor for PNC-Minnesota.  It’s wild being back in the news business, never thought that would happen again.  I’ve been able to write for Patheos.  And I’m chairing Pagan Coming Out Day, which is starting to take off.  That was born right here on this blog.

And yet…because of some of those opportunities and changes in my professional life, I don’t have the time needed to write for PAGAN+politics on a weekly basis.  I’ve been struggling with this for a few months, but I’ve come to the decision that I need to pare down what projects I am involved in so I can do them justice.  I will no longer be a regular contributor to P+p.  I’m not sure if this is goodbye or see you later, but I do thank you for all the fish.  Perhaps my addiction to P+p will overcome me and I won’t be able to stay away.  Don’t celebrate too much just yet!

(Tangent – one of the reasons why I wrote “Wisconsin, it’s none of our business” is because while outsiders concentrated their time, energy, and money on Wisconsin…look what is happening in Ohio. This has taken some Ohio union supporting people I know by surprise.  It shouldn’t have.)

In keeping with the nature of this project, I wanted to leave you with this video.  Let me explain a bit about what you will see and why I felt it perfectly encapsulated both political bipartisanship and the nature of this blog project.

The video is of the rally in Wisconsin.  The protesters there, many of them, have been spending hours or days standing out in the reallyfuckingcold weather.  They are tired.  They are cold.  They are also determined.  Some are getting frustrated, feeling like those in power aren’t listening to them.  Worried they will lose and how that will affect their lives.  (My opinion – they will lose, for now.  The Democrats will come back and the Bill will pass)

In the first minute of the video, the crowd sees Sen. Grothman(R) walking to enter the capital building.  They follow him and chant “shame” at him.  It’s pretty loud.  I don’t mind these kinds of displays by voters as I feel our elected officials need to buck up and understand that sometimes the electorate is going to angry with them and their actions.  But then again, I wasn’t all shocked, horrified, and offended by the Health Care town hall meetings that Democrats faced last year.

Then something changes in the dynamic of the crowd.  The crowd corners him up against the side of the building at about 1 minute into the video.  The media make a corridor and he presses forward.  At about 2 minutes int the video, someone starts yelling “Fuck You” at the Senator.  There’s always one, right?  The crowd starts to turn ugly. Watching it, you can see things start to shift and when you have crowds, things can go south on you quickly.   If you’ve been in crowds (or are a police officer) you know its when the crowd stops a unified chant, but increases its intensity, that you have to watch out for.  The mob, no longer just a crowd, presses in at the Senator.

2:45 in the video – enter Rep. Hulsey(D), wearing his bright orange union shirt.  He goes to the assistance of his colleague.  Shielding him and physically holding the mob back from him.  Putting his arm around him.  At first the crowd is still pushing against Hulsey, trying to get to Grothman.  A man who appears to be an aid or assistant to Hulsey helps push the crowd back, then holds his fingers up in a ‘peace’ sign and yells PEACE to the mob.  He puts his back to the mob, spreads his arms out,  and continues to push back at them.  After a while, the crowd, no longer a mob, takes up the chant of “peaceful” and hold up fingers in the sign for peace.  The Senator is kept safe, but it was a very near thing.  You can then skip to about 5 minutes into the video. Hurley addresses the crowd, trying to calm them down.  Hurley:  “I know you’re angry.” Protestor:  “Damn right!” Hurley asks that the protests remain peaceful and respectful.  He claims Grothman as his friend.  “Glenn Grothman and I probably could not disagree on more things and yet he is my friend.  He is my friend and he is a good person.”

I bolded that last part because Hurley also appears to believe what I believe and sums up what this blog project stands for – people can be good, decent, intelligent and still have a point of view different from our own.  And we can passionately oppose their view without losing sight of that.

Conservative commentators have been playing these videos as signs that the protest in Wisconsin isn’t all that peaceful.  I understand that, but it’s been pretty good for that large a crowd for that long a time.  I’m shocked (but not surprised – if this was a Tea Party rally the media would be all over this) that more isn’t being shown of the signs and what people are saying at the rally.  And please note  – the National Jewish Democratic Council would like people to stop the Hitler signs, quotes, and references no matter what party you belong to. However, when I look at the video I see a Republican is safe because a Democrat protected him with his body and his words. If THAT isn’t reaching across the aisle, I don’t know what is.  Even though the two are in opposite political parties during a time of very heated disagreement, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Wisconsin in decades, Hurley still went to the aid of Grothman.  The mob, seeing only an enemy and getting ready to become violent, turns back into a crowd of people exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

That, my friends, is bipartisanship when it mattered most.  That is also the spirit of this blog project.  The contributors to this project should strive to be like Hurley.  And in our discourse, we should all seek to be the crowd, not the mob.  We need more chants of “peaceful” and less of “fuck you!”

Feb 232011
 

The clash over Governor Scott Walker’s effort to strip Wisconsin’s public unions of the right to collectively bargain has reached a new level of intensity. This morning Governor Walker gave his ultimatum to the absent Senate Democrats: return to Madison or state workers will receive layoff notices. In the latest of a string of escalations Walker’s stubborn refusal to compromise or negotiate has inflamed passions on all sides of the debate. The governor insists that his actions are backed by the people of Wisconsin riding the political wave that swept him into office. In spite of this his claims of popular mandate as justification are running aground of growing grassroots opposition to his radical agenda.

Scott Walker has advanced his union-busting bill under the cover of his recent election as vindication of his platform. Walker has insisted from the beginning his plan is in line with his platform of fiscal responsibility. Walker’s unsupported spending aside it is highly unlikely that most voters think of rolling back labor rights as necessary for fiscal responsibility. The elimination of the right of public employee unions to collectively bargain was something Walker never argued for while on the campaign trail. Far from being a major element of his message Scott Walker never discussed the possibility of breaking the backs of the public unions of Wisconsin. It would make sense for him to cite the public’s backing for an issue he actually discussed unless being successfully elected to state office allows the officeholder to campaign retroactively.

All of this assumes Walker has the public at his back. If anything Walker’s plan is running headlong into strong political winds. Before being sworn in the governor only enjoyed a 41% approval rating. His hardball tactics, far from inspiring the public with his resolve, have largely succeeded in solidifying public support for the unions. The growing opposition is not limited to college students, unions, and Democratic activists. The President of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce recently released a statement declaring that while they support pushing for a balanced budget, “That support ends at the adversarial way elected officials are approaching it.” She goes on to say that with Wisconsin’s long history of collective bargaining, “policy changes of this magnitude should be thoroughly debated for an adequate period of time, in good faith by both sides, with all potential consequences considered.”

Scott Walker’s most recent escalation, the threat of layoff notices, has exposed how weak his hand is. By Walker’s own statement no layoffs will happen yet. In Wisconsin public employees receive early notices of being laid off as prior warning. A layoff notice does not put anyone in the unemployment line. The actual layoffs are scheduled for July. This is not to say the threat of people losing their jobs over the budget fight is not serious but the details take a lot of the wind out of it. If anything it comes across as more of a desperate bluff than a genuine threat. That Walker’s ploy sounds more like hostage taking than negotiation undermines the credibility of his claims of seeking a fiscally responsible budget.

Scott Walker’s union busting campaign has been disguised as fixing a fiscal emergency. His claims of enjoying the public’s mandate to act so radically are adrift. For all his bravado in public Walker is sitting on a ticking time bomb. In Wisconsin any public official can be recalled if they have been in office for a year. With the budget bill only needing three votes to be defeated eight of the Republicans who supported it are in danger of facing a recall. One of the most popular chants is to recall Walker himself. While he will not be vulnerable until 2012 his allies in the state legislature are not so lucky. As the public’s anger rises Scott Walker and his party will reap the whirlwind sown by their ruthless campaign against a century of workers’ rights.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

Feb 182011
 

The political situation in Wisconsin has come to a head following the proposal of a budget bill by newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker which would for all intents and purposes strip public employees with the exception of police, firefighters, and state troopers of the right to collectively bargain. Governor Walker has claimed this radical measure is necessary to avert a deficit crisis for the state of Wisconsin. The situation has rapidly escalated with Walker threatening to call out the National Guard shortly after introducing the bill. Demonstrations broke out almost immediately with Wisconsin State Senate Democrats leaving the state to prevent a vote on the bill. The conservative media has advanced in full force unconditionally supporting the Governor’s union-busting measure claiming the state is on the edge of total chaos. Glenn Beck has taken to the airwaves claiming the city of Madison is rioting as has the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Voices like Rush Limbaugh and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan have repeated this assertion of chaos in the street. Above all they have consistently advanced the argument that gutting the rights of workers is necessary to balance Wisconsin’s budget.

All of these arguments and claims by the conservative movement are bald-faced lies.

This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. These claims of civil disorder in the streets and a deficit crisis are completely at odds with the facts. Contrary to the fear-mongering claims of Glenn Beck the demonstrators in Madison have remained orderly and peaceful. The Madison Police Department released a statement today saying they are proud of the way the protestors have conducted themselves. The only advisory from the Madison Police to the public is a notice to motorists of greater congestion in the vicinity of the Capitol. If you don’t believe the police there are the photos submitted by people in Madison showing large, energetic, and perfectly peaceful crowds. Hardly what one could seriously call a riot.

The next falsehood being circulated is the claims of a deficit crisis. The line of reasoning goes that it is only possible to balance the budget by completely destroying the right of public workers to collectively bargain. It skips straight past negotiations, furloughs, and other austerity measures to one of the most extreme solutions possible. 44 states are currently facing serious budget problems and yet the only other state considering such a radical tactic is Ohio. With such an extraordinary measure being advanced and the National Guard being readied in case of strikes it sounds like the deficit in Wisconsin must be insurmountable. This again is wrong. The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau issued a report on January 31st asserting the bulk of the budget shortfall of $202 million was caused by a series bills supported by Governor Walker. Quite contrary to his claims of union benefits and salaries being the cause it was his own deficit spending that created the alleged crisis.

Governor Scott Walker has created a crisis and rapidly escalated it in a bid to crush the public employee unions of the state of Wisconsin. There wouldn’t be a budget crisis of Walker genuinely practiced what he preached on the campaign trail. There are no facts supporting any of the claims of civil disorder or a deficit crisis. Walker’s attempt to ramrod a rollback of the rights of workers by a century has nothing to do with fiscal conservatism and everything to do with political opportunism. His readying of the National Guard over budget negotiations is extraordinary overkill. If Governor Walker was genuinely interested in serving the people and balancing the state budget he should sit down with the state workers and negotiate not threaten them with an unnecessary and malicious attack on their most basic rights.

Also published at Ryan’s Desk