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Entries for December 2012

31
While Republicans in Washington take their party and the country over the fiscal cliff, North Carolina waits to see if Republicans can govern.
 
We’ve heard the cut-taxes/cut-spending mantra before. First from Ronald Reagan. He cut taxes, but never cut spending. Then he raised taxes.
 
George W. Bush cut taxes. And raised spending. And raised spending again.
 
Republicans, clearly, can cut taxes. Now they’ve taken a blood oath to never, never raise taxes – on nobody, no time, no way, no how.
 
But can they really cut spending? We’ll see.
 
Their plans here are vague. Clearly, they want to cut income taxes. And they talk of “tax reform,” which means raising sales taxes on goods and services.
 
But will they really do Step Two – especially when the special interests affected start howling?
 
If they choose instead to slash spending – on education and health care – will they go over a political cliff here?
 
That will be the big story of 2013.

 

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28
A brawl followed by an outbreak of brawls erupted Sunday morning in the small insular world of politics;--it started on Meet the Press when Wayne LaPierre of the NRA said, 'The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun' -- David Gregory nodded politely, said, 'That might work,' then added, 'But don't you agree banning thirty bullet clips in semi-automatic rifles might do some good too?'
 
At first blush LaPierre's suggestion -- putting policemen in elementary schools -- sounded shocking. But, if you stop and think about it, for over 200 years we've been doing pretty much just that -- sending 'a good guy with a gun' to stop villains from George III to Tojo.
 
Anyhow, Gregory had LaPierre in a tight spot -- arguing a twenty-year-old holding a Bushmaster wasn't more deadly than a twenty year old holding a machete was going to be a tall order. So, instead, LaPierre started explaining what to do to stop the dark forces (which he described as 'madness and culture') that had turned Adam Lanza into a matricide. When he finished Gregory shot back, But what about banning thirty bullet clips?
 
By noon there was hardly a network talk show without a brawl.
 
Now, overall, Democrats and Republicans didn't really disagree much. Republicans said creating more mental health programs made more sense than banning thirty bullet clips, and Democrats were more than happy to create more government programs. Democrats and Republicans didn't disagree much about 'culture' either -- almost everyone said violent video games were villains.
 
But the brawling didn't shed much light at all on one question: When Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School, why wasn't there a tiny voice of conscience whispering in his ear, Stop. These are children.
 
With the light they have to see with in their small insular world, the politicians have decided video games and missing government programs are the answer -- that's their antidote to the dark powers that destroyed Adam Lanza's conscience.
 
Years ago, back home in Virginia, my grandmother had a cousin who was a bootlegger. One night his wife caught him red-handed with another woman and threw him out of the house then called the sheriff and told him where her philandering husband had hidden his still. The bootlegger had landed in a fix, so one Sunday morning he went to the local parson to unburden himself and said, Ole' temptation just got to whispering in my ear and my brains flew right out the window.
 
The country parson chewed that over awhile and said, I'd say what was whispering in your ear was a lot meaner than temptation and what flew out the window was your conscience not your brains. A fellow in a mess like you're in ought to be ready to try prayer.

 

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27
Carter wrote (“The Real Reason”) that “Democrats are having apoplexy” over Art Pope as Budget Czar because “Pope is dead serious about cutting government spending.”
 
Well, that’s part of the story. The rest is that Democrats wonder whether he can cut government spending without hurting education (public schools, community colleges and universities), jeopardizing public safety and shredding the safety net for people who need help.
 
Pope himself set up the yardstick for measuring him and Governor-elect McCrory.
 
Pope said there are three budget challenges: “how to pay for increasing enrollment in schools and improve the quality of education, how to deal with burgeoning health and human services costs without protecting core needs such as courts and public safety, how to pay for needed building renovations and keep a rainy-day fund.”
 
If Pope can cut spending and meet all three of those challenges, he’ll deserve a laurel and hearty handshake.
 
It’s up to the media and the Democrats will have to hold him, McCrory and the legislature accountable to that standard.
 
By the way, note that the quote (which, in fairness, is the N&O’s paraphrase, not a quote from Pope) said “protecting core needs such as courts and public safety.” Not protecting health care or mental health care.
 

 

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24
This Christmas, we have much to celebrate. To start with, the world didn’t end.
 
Except for Washington, where the fiscal cliff and a bruising battle over guns loom.
 
And in Raleigh, where it has ended for Democrats.
 
Blessedly, for one day all will be peaceful – or mostly so. We celebrate according to our faith. We welcome the return of the light with the passing of the solstice. We reunite with our families.
 
So to blue and red America alike, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives all, Merry Christmas.
 
As our President advised, drink eggnog, eat cookies and sing carols. After New Year’s, we’ll fight again.

 

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21
Pat McCrory called reporters down to the Albemarle building for a press conference and said two words and near about gave liberals from Murphy to Manteo apoplexy.
 
He said, Art Pope.
 
 And five minutes later ole Chris Fitzsimmons was howling on Twitter, The Pope Administration begins...and about an hour later the Democratic Party 'Tweeted,' claiming Pat McCrory appointing Art Pope Budget Director was pure 'pay to play.'
 
Now there's no doubt Art Pope is serious about Republican politics, but he's also unfailingly polite and, more to the point, when it comes to 'pay to play' he may be the most innocent man in North Carolina.
 
After all, can anyone name one single government subsidy, one appropriation, or one government contract Art Pope's ever sought? He's even serving as Budget Director for free. So how on earth can the Democrats howl his appointment is 'pay to play?'
 
The real reason the Democrats are having apoplexy isn't that they'd developed a sudden abhorrence to 'pay to play' politics - it's that Art Pope is dead serious about cutting government spending.

 

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21
Art Pope is both a good target for Democrats and a good choice for Governor-elect McCrory.
 
Democrats get to skewer him as a rich, right-wing puppet master who will pull McCrory’s strings while running and ruining North Carolina.
 
McCrory gets three things: Pope knows the budget in and out. He knows how Raleigh works. And Republican legislators know that he has taken out apostates before, so they’ll be less likely to defy the Governor.
 
Democrats, of course, decry what Pope’s role will mean for the state. But elections have consequences, and one is that the Governor gets to pick the people he wants to push his agenda.
 
One question remains. Pope says he will sever all ties with his vast right-wing conspiracy, but he didn’t say whether he, his family and their foundations will keep funding it. It doesn’t matter that he’s off the boards but still controls the cash.

 

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20
Two years ago as businesses were struggling through the recession, a family business in eastern North Carolina that cares for shut-ins and older people in their homes received a letter from PCG Corporation of Boston saying, We’re coming to audit the payments you’ve received from Medicaid.
 
Earlier, PCG (the ‘Public Consulting Group’) had told the Perdue Administration it had a way to save state government millions of dollars by rooting out Medicaid ‘overpayments’ – and all the state had to do to in return was pay a fee of $250,000 (monthly), plus a bonus based on how many millions of dollars in overpayments PCG identified.
 
Now, that word identified turned out to be a problem. Because back in 2010 PCG’s bonus was based on the amount in overpayments it identified – and not on the actual cash the state received in refunds for the 'overpayments.’ It was a prescription for a train wreck but the Perdue Administration bought it 'hook, line and sinker' and set the gears in motion that led PCG to the family business’s doorstep.
 
Right off, it was clear PCG had an unusual definition of ‘overpayments’ – for instance, when the family business had provided all the healthcare and all the services it was paid for by Medicaid, if it failed to check a box correctly on a government form – that was identified as an ‘overpayment.’ And the business had to repay the money.
 
In addition, PCG didn’t audit all the Medicaid payments the business received – instead it audited a fraction of the payments then extrapolated to estimate how much the business owed for all the payments. In other words, PCG may have audited, say, 100 payments – then extrapolated to determine how much was owed for all of its payments. It sounded reasonable but didn't turn out that way.
 
Two years after the business received the first letter from PCG it received another letter saying, Our audit is complete. We identified $650 in ‘overpayments.’ By extrapolation you owe the state $133,000 in refunds.
 
The business had landed in a fight for its life.
 
It appealed PCG’s findings, hired lawyers, had a hearing, and here’s the result:
 
It didn’t owe $650.
 
It didn’t owe $133,000.
 
It owed $7.50.
 
Another business PCG audited and extrapolated received a letter saying it owed $500,000 – it appealed and paid $0. PCG said still another business owed the state $3 million for overpayments – that business appealed too and paid $700.
 
And the Perdue Administration is still paying PCG $250,000 a month.

 

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20
A TAPster offers a creative solution to gun violence:
 
“The eventual outcome of the approaching debate about gun control – regardless of that outcome – is unlikely to satisfy anybody. Gun owners will chafe at new restrictions, control advocates will cry that more should be done, and people will continue to be shot.
 
“So, let’s try another idea: Tax the hell out of bullets.
 
“The tax on every bullet should be at least triple the tax on every cigarette since death by bullet is quicker than death by deliberately and joyfully inhaling toxic smoke. We’ll never outlaw guns, so we might as well stuff the government coffers with easy money.
 
“A bullet tax won’t hurt folks who want a weapon for self-defense and need only a few dozen bullets to do that job.
 
“Who needs thousands of rounds of ammo unless you're invading a small country or fighting off an invasion of your own?
 
“And, seriously, who will suffer from a bullet tax? Only hunters who are so inept they need an automatic weapon and a 100-bullet magazine to gun down unarmed wildlife. It also might hurt the folks who enjoy mindless target practice at a shooting range.
 
“And yeah, it might slow down crazy people with murder on their minds.”

 

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19
Even if he doesn’t (as is rumored) become Governor-elect McCrory’s budget director, Art Pope will be a power.
 
So – despite its disclaimers – let’s assume the Civitas Institute channels Pope’s thinking when it proposes doing away with the state income tax and replacing it with a broader sales tax.
 
And let’s assume that McCrory and the Republican legislature have the votes to pass whatever they want.
 
The question is whether they will pave the way for a Democratic revival.
 
Yes, McCrory looks strong today. And, yes, the Republicans artfully and ruthless gerrymandered the districts.
 
But public opinion is a powerful thing. And politics is an unpredictable thing.
 
Last week, Senator Josh Stein of Raleigh spelled out the Democratic response in a speech to NC FREE.
 
Noting that the personal income tax generates half of the state’s revenue, or $10 billion, he said:
 
“If the legislature abolishes, or even cuts in half, the personal income tax, either way, the resulting state sales tax rate required to replace that revenue would be the highest in the nation….
 
 
“To pay for the elimination of the personal income tax, the amount of taxes paid by the bottom half would go up whereas the amount paid by the top half would go down, with the greatest savings reserved for the top 1 percent….
 
“All you have to do is ask yourself whether you believe that the General Assembly (or any other representative body for that matter) would have the stomach to impose $5-10 billion in new taxes to offset the income tax cuts in order to make the plan revenue neutral.”
 
What might happen instead, Stein said, is “the further defunding of public education” – preschool, public school and the university system.
 
A similar message worked well for President Obama this year. And Romney wasn’t proposing to raise sales taxes or slash education.
 
Given gerrymandering, GOP legislators might survive politically. Unhappy voters’ only recourse would be to elect a new Governor in four years.

 

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18
Back in the old days there was a breed of Congressman, rugged individualists, who, whenever he (or she) had to cast an unpopular vote, would shrug and say, Let the chips fall where they may.
 
That political animal is now all but extinct.
           
In the place of a troublesome conscience (when it comes to unpopular votes) our average modern Congressman has a finely tuned set of political antennae so sensitive he can detect a political threat from miles away and take evasive action.
 
But, now, the ‘fiscal cliff’ is giving our archetypical Congressman fits.
 
According to a poll last week, 78% of the voters don’t like the idea of going over the cliff one bit – a political bombshell our Congressman's antennae clearly have in focus. He also has in focus voters agree with President Obama about raising taxes – but from there his life gets more complex.
 
Because voters also oppose cutting Medicare spending.
 
Oppose cutting Medicaid.
 
Oppose cutting Social Security.
 
Oppose raising the Medicare or Social Security retirement age.
 
And oppose increasing debt.
 
That leaves our Congressman in a fix – suddenly his antennae are sending a hurricane of storm warnings to his frazzled brain and he can’t see a single vote he can cast to reduce the deficit (unless he’s a Democrat voting to raise taxes) that won’t blow him to smithereens.
 
And to ‘pile Pelion on Ossa’ he faces one more threat: If he votes the way his constituents want today and the economy tanks in two years, when he's stumping for re-election, voters will be asking, Where were you when we needed a Congressman who had the guts to cast the tough votes?
 
Nature has played a cruel trick on him. He’s trapped.

 

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