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Monthly Archives: June 2012

What Are You Gonna Do About It?

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled today to uphold The Affordable Care Act.  The court has ruled not on the wisdom of the law, but on the constitutionality, and found it to be so.  The deciding vote and majority opinion author was Chief Justice John Roberts.  If you want to read the whole 193-page opinion, published today, here’s the link: National Federation of Independent Business, ET AL., vs. Sibelius Secretary of Health and Human Services, ET AL.

I was not in favor of this law as it stood by the time it got around to passage, but I figured that this half a loaf was better than none, and I’d bet a lot of people felt the same way.  There were some provisions I really liked, including keep your kids on until age 26, no preexisting condition exceptions, no annual or lifetime limits on care, and the health exchanges for those that can’t get coverage any other way.  I also like the gradual closing of the Medicare “donut hole”, but I would have liked that to be immediate.

I wasn’t too sure about the individual mandate, though.  I knew it was first proposed by an adviser to George H.W. Bush in 1989, and was promoted by Republicans in Congress during 1993’s furor over Hillary Clinton’s health plan.  It seemed like a giveaway to the insurance companies, to me.

What has followed since this morning’s announcement has been what you might expect.  A lot of cheering on one side, a lot of booing on the other, and plenty of politicking right out of the gate.  John Boehner and Eric Cantor said that before the announcement came today, they agreed to hold a symbolic and pointless vote in the House of Representatives on July 11 if the decision did not go their way.  They have promised to waste taxpayer time and money on this.  A 13-year-old might say, “Oh, real mature!”, but that’s just a concise way of pointing out that the 13-year-old displays more understanding of and perspective on the situation than these two “Leaders” in the House.  FOX is barking, MSNBC is crowing, and the Republican candidate for President is saying that the Supreme Court is wrong, and now he has to fix it.  Like I say, just about what you’d expect.

Just about, but I didn’t expect this in the Daily Freeman today “HEALTH LAW: Rep. Chris Gibson calls for bipartisan compromise on reforms“.  Here is a quote from his press release.  “I respect that the Supreme Court has spoken, and the solution now must be legislative.  We should begin substantive, bipartisan discussion on commonsense reforms – a number of which I have cosponsored or voted on already.  I’m confident our replacement solutions can include insurance reform for wider access to options and choices, including coverage until 26 and beyond, medical liability reform, coverage for preexisting conditions and an assurance that coverage can’t be dropped when you get sick.”

Understanding that Representative Gibson missed the negotiation opportunities in the passage of this bill, I thought that the Congressman was bypassing House superiors, calling for reasoned compromise where there had been none before.  I thought I was seeing the beginnings of a “bipartisan discussion”, a thing that has been sorely lacking between the parties in Washington and here in our area.  If that’s what you want to see, don’t read the other paragraph in the same statement.  In short, Gibson wants to wipe out the Affordable Care Act, using the same polarizing rhetoric as appears in the talking points.  According to this,  we’ll kill it, and we’ll replace it with something else, sometime.  That’s a shame, because what he calls for above is already in the law.  In the end, about what you’d expect.

We need to insure more than 300 million people in this country.  How do we do that?  We don’t want employers to pay for it.  That puts the brakes on hiring.  We don’t want the government to pay for it.  We label that socialism.  We don’t want the individual mandate, as that has been defined as a tax.  Ninety-five percent of all Republicans in congress have knuckled under and promised Grover Norquist not to ever raise taxes for any reason, ever.  If you ever break your promise to him, or refuse to sign in the first place, Norquist promises to crush you in the next election. I am not even sure what makes this kind of extortion legal.  Norquist said in an August 2009 Washington Post interview, “When I became 21, I decided that nobody learned anything about politics after the age of 21”.  He has proven to us all that he believes that.

The Constitution’s Article VI guarantees we pay for what we, as a nation, want.  We have to pay for the roads and bridges, even if we don’t drive on them.  We have to pay for our public schools, even if we don’t have kids in them.  We have to pay for police, fire, military, the common defense, and on and on, even if we do not perceive that we use them.  Right now, we here in Kingston are going through a crisis with our hospital coverage, due in part to poor reimbursement rates, and people with little to no coverage using the emergency room as their only form of health care.  Somehow we have to pay for that, or we will be in a real pickle, whether each individual uses the hospital or not.

The real trick is deciding what we want.  Whomever we elect this Fall to represent us in Congress will be doing us a disservice if they refuse to reach out and discuss, with everybody there, the problems that face us.  You are not obligated to Grover Norquist.  You are obligated to us.  You should be able to learn, and grow, and reasonably work on our issues.  This is the real shame of what we have come to.  People in congress, on all sides, are serving only the people that agree with them; the lobbyists, the donors, the talking heads, the others in their caucuses, and the people that voted for them.  Our representatives are acting as though they are playing for the Red Team or the Blue Team.  We can do better.

How can we do better?  Well, for one, everybody who has signed Norquist’s letter can renounce it.  You can not negotiate with a boot on your neck.  You can only capitulate.  This would be a real act of political courage.  It would be even more courageous if it was just one or two representatives started the ball rolling, but all of these people claim to be leaders.  It shouldn’t be too hard to find someone to lead.  They claim not to be in the thrall of any special interest, or even their own party.  They claim that their first interest is the work, and not re-election.  My dad used to say, “You dance with the one what brung ya.”  Well, your constituents brung ya, all of them, and not the K Street bullies with the checkbooks.  If you do well for your constituents, they will send you back.

Another thing we can do as constituents:  We can go to meetings, town hall events, discussions, appearances, etc., and TALK to your candidates and representatives.  Don’t yell, don’t threaten, and don’t cheer the people who do.  They are people, too, and I don’t suppose they respond well to berating.  That will surely drive them into the arms of people who tell them what they want to hear.  Honestly tell your representative or candidate what you want, suggest ways to achieve what you want, and engage people at these events.  Call or write or email your congressman, President, State or local representative, even those you disagree with, and calmly lay out your position.  One example is the relationship I have with my Alderman.  He and I are not in the same party, we don’t really know each other, but he is my Alderman.  When I have an issue I feel strongly about, I will call and write him.  He always calls back, we talk, and he adds the input to his consideration.  Does he vote exactly as I’d like?  Not always, but you can’t always get what you want.  All I ask for is honest representation.  Even with that, our participation can not end at the ballot box.

You can tell your candidates to meet with the opposition.  I understand that there is a pecking order in any elected body, but it is OK for rookies to make friends with their opposite numbers.  As they rise through the ranks, they will be more likely to reach across to friends on the other side than enemies in another trench.

We’ve been hearing this week from former Secretary of State and retired General Colin Powell.  He’s out with a new book about what he’s learned, called It Worked for Me.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you I haven’t read the book yet.  But he’s an interesting guy, and I like listening to him.  One thing he said during an interview broadcast on WAMC really struck me.  He said that, “we must be careful not to turn our adversaries into our enemies.”

In a short while, talk of this decision will die down, people will move on to the other things that matter, and we are going to be left with the problems that still need fixing, at all levels of government and life.  Our hospital group will be in trouble, we will be absorbing job losses there and in the schools, taxes will be high, and we will still need to fix Washington Avenue and Washington, D.C.  None of this can get done if we don’t work together.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Schooling Blood From a Stone

It’s another big blowout at Kingston Schools, according to the Daily Freeman story.

Kingston school board formalizes elimination of 89 jobs (video)

We have been in tough times, and it’s clear we are facing more.  Kingston’s tax base continues to shrink, as does our student population.  Our budget and tax levy continue to grow.  We have just passed another bond for essential repairs and improvements.  In the recent past, we have cut programs, services, schools, and jobs.  The job cuts have been considered, by some, draconian.  Facing mounting costs and dwindling choices, newly hired Superintendent Paul Padalino has come to the jarring conclusion that we need to eliminate another 89 jobs.  The school board we elected, considering the budget we passed, has agreed.  We are running out of options.

What is left to cut?  I don’t think we can take anything else away from the students.  As of this writing, the Kingston Teachers’ Federation and the Kingston School District have not reached agreement on a new contract to replace the last one, which expired almost one year ago.  Transportation contracts will need to be re-worked with new district lines, and we may have other closings, but little savings can be realized from those in the near or long terms.  The Superintendent’s contract just began in January, so nothing can be done there until that one is up.

If the teachers want to save jobs within their own union, their negotiators could agree, for the benefit of their members, to require participants pay for 15%-20% of their health insurance premiums on a sliding scale based on income.  Employees making up to $50,000 annually would pay 15%, $50,001-$70,000 contribute 17.5%, and earners $70,001 and up pay the top rate of 20% of the premium to the KTF Trust.  Also, eliminate the $2500 annual opt-out payment to those that don’t take the health insurance benefit.  Like any benefit, it should be a “use-it-or-lose-it” proposition.  These two measures alone would save well over $5,000,000 based on the current budget.

It is axiomatic that increasing the number of members in an insurance class increases the income and decreases the risk, so opening up the KTF self-insured Trust to all administrative employees of the district at the same rates should benefit both the Trust and the District.

Pensions are great, and for those hired already, they are in the contract.  We have made that deal with the teachers and administrative staff, and any decent society should honor that agreement.  The problem here is that future pension obligations are rapidly outpacing our ability to pay for them, and the whole system will collapse on itself.  For new administrative and union hires, however, we could phase out straight pensions, and move to a more affordable 403b plan, say, TIAA/CREF.  Pre-tax contributions by the employee, and a matching contribution of up to 10% of base salary would supplement retirement incomes nicely, and the employees of the district could do very well over a working lifetime.  Once you have a 403b, you can always contribute to it, even if you are not in the same business.

Obviously, we would not realize vast pension liability savings immediately, but over time, this would add up as people leave the system, and others are hired in.

In the current contract, sick days can be “saved”, accruing up to 215 days.  Upon separation, the employee is allowed to cash out those remaining accrued days at $60 per day.  If the maximum number of days were cut to 50, we could save a potential of over $9,000 per employee.

We can eliminate vacation carry-overs, replace car allowances with mileage reimbursements at IRS rates, and cut longevity pay.  Time on the job is already covered under step increases.

Except for extreme or extraordinary circumstances, any employee resigning before the expiration of his or her contract should be considered in breach of that contract, and all pay and benefits should cease immediately.  While we cannot recoup past losses, we can prevent some of them in the future

Finally, for all contracts; freeze them upon expiration.  If pay or benefits are not increased until a new contract is in place, negotiating parties will be much more motivated to meet at the table and work out a new agreement.

Superintendent Padalino is trying to make the tough cuts where he can, but now is not the time to put even more of our friends and neighbors out of work.  That is very bad for the students, the teachers, and for all of Kingston.  If we can avoid future job cuts, I say we make the moves.

These are some of my thoughts for positive, possible moves forward.  What are yours?

-Andrew Champ-Doran

*All KTF and Superintendent contract information was found at SeeThroughNY  

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Landlords and Tenants and Laws; Oh My!

Wall St. at Main St. Panorama 1916

It seems that Kingston’s Tenant Accountability Act is going back to Committee.

Tenant law likely to head back to Kingston Common Council Committee (video added)

In my brief experience with matters legislative, “back to Committee” is often synonymous with “Hasn’t got a snowball’s chance,” so there is not too much to worry about there.  I can only hope that the landlord legislation of earlier this year makes a comeback, even in some modified form.  Some provisions of that bill are worthwhile, even if the landlords that showed up en mass at that Laws and Rules Committee meeting could not see the benefits.

But, debating the relative merits of these tandem laws is not why I write today.  What I have a problem with is the public discussion that has taken place so far.  Some of the argument has been appalling, and would not be tolerated in a high school debate room, let alone employed in a committee meeting room.

First, a small thing, but irritating, none the less.  At the packed public meeting of the Laws and Rules Committee earlier this year, a woman identifying herself as a landlord, complained that tenants “take the batteries out of the smoke detectors in the apartment, and use them in their TV remote.”  She claimed that “it happens all the time.”  “I know’, she said, ‘because I’ve seen it.”  This was immediately picked up and quoted as fact by at least one legislator on the committee, and was asserted again in last night’s meeting by the committee chair.  The problem with the statement is that it’s unlikely.  Most modern wireless smoke detectors run on disposable 9-volt or non-replaceable 10 year Lithium/Ion batteries, while television, VCR, and DVD remotes take AA or AAA batteries.  A small issue, maybe, but it represents a larger pattern of deception.

Another unsupported statement thrown about as fact by some members of the Common Council is this “85% of all landlords in Kingston are good, and you want to punish them for the 15% that aren’t.”  I would question the validity of the numbers.  Where do the figures comes from?  Is the evidence anecdotal, or do you have some solid data to back up the claim?  If we are going by anecdotal evidence, I can tell you that I can see 4 rental properties from my yard, and three of them have awful absentee landlords that do not take care of their properties.  Those same three seem to not care about criminal activity that goes on with their tenants at their units.  Am I to conclude by that information alone that 75% of all landlords in Kingston are terrible?  At the same meeting described above, every “good landlord” that spoke there of at least one or two they personally knew of that were bad.  Others nodded in assent.  So, from that, 50%-67% are not fulfilling their obligations.  Just because someone uses percentages and statistics to support claims does not make either the claim true or the statistic accurate.  83% of all statistics are made up, as far as you know.

“Everybody knows”, or “everybody says” should carry no weight in a rational discussion.  Nor should the phrase “You can’t legislate behavior.”  For an Alderman to say, as in last night’s meeting, that her violation of fire code is excusable because everyone on her street does it is just puzzling.  I would think taking the Common Council’s oath of office precluded such action.

All of this might win an argument, but these techniques accomplish little else.  They produce heat, but not results.  This is not practice worthy of our elected representatives.

Working together, you can make sensible legislation.  That is, after all, part of the job for members of the Common Council.  While few proposals will come before you in perfect form, a serious and thoughtful discussion, work, and compromise can craft decent bills to be sent to the Council for a vote.  We don’t have to throw the whole thing out or bury it just because we don’t like a provision or two.  We seem to have come to an all-or-nothing approach in relatively short order, and that will get precious little done.

Something must be done. In the case I’ve been using as an example, changes in the marketplace demand changes in the law.

During his Sunday WKNY radio appearance this week, Mayor Shayne Gallo said the latest census data show Kingston with 53% of our residential population as renters.  Mayor Gallo has already offered the city pay for quarterly inspections of the rental properties.  Why don’t we make it annual inspections, inside and out; City absorbs the cost, thereby lifting the bi-annual fee the landlords have to pay under current law.  We let the landlords do the proper maintenance as provided for under state and local codes already in place.  If a complaint is made against a landlord or tenant, the City inspection is paid for by the complainant if no deficiency is found, and the party against if deficiency exists.  If the problem is fixed before the inspection takes place, the complainant can call off the inspection.  Reasonable time to fix problems is provided with any citation, and reasonable fines suiting the violation are levied after that grace period until the problems are solved.

These are positive steps that can be taken to improve living and business conditions here in Kingston, and they do not unfairly single out renters or owners.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

 
 
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