June 22, 2017

High water everywhere?

It's kind of a creepy coincidence that we might get more heavy rains on the anniversary of the storm that flooded parts of West Virginia last year  and killed 24 people. What's left of Tropical Storm Cindy is going to be plowing north from the gulf and parts of the state could get hit pretty hard.

I remember being in southern WV the day the storms hit. The sky got really weird and then it was on. We just dodged the bullet on the farm because of dumb luck. Others weren't so lucky.

No doubt about it, the skies are getting scarier. Good thing climate change is a hoax, right? Otherwise we'd be up the (flooded) creek.

Stay dry!

June 20, 2017

Happy birthday, West Virginia

I've used this poem before to celebrate the day, but it still seems to fit:

By Muriel Miller Dressler
I am Appalachia. In my veins
Runs fierce mountain pride; the hill-fed streams
Of passion; and, stranger, you don’t know me!
You’ve analyzed my every move–you still
Go away shaking your head. I remain
Enigmatic. How can you find rapport with me–
You, who never stood in the bowels of hell,
Never felt a mountain shake and open its jaws
To partake of human sacrifice?
You, who never stood on a high mountain
Watching the sun unwind its spiral rays:
Who never searched the glens for wild flowers,
Never picked mayapples or black walnuts; never ran
Wildly through the woods in pure delight,
Nor dangled your feet in a lazy creek?
You, who never danced to wild sweet notes,
Outpouring of nimble-fingered fiddlers;
Who never just “sat a spell,” on a porch,
Chewing and whittling; or hearing in pastime
The deep-throated bay of chasing hounds
And hunters shouting with joy, “He’s treed!”
You, who never once carried a coffin
To a family plot high up on a ridge
Because mountain folk know it’s best to lie
Where breezes from the hills whisper, “You’re home”;
You, who never saw from the valley that graves on a hill
Bring easement of pain to those below?
I tell you, stranger, hill folk know
What life is all about; they don’t need pills
To tranquilize the sorrow and joy of living.
I am Appalachia: and, stranger,
Though you’ve studied me, you still don’t know.

June 19, 2017

Bare bones

Well, West Virginia finally has a state budget, assuming the governor doesn't veto it, which I doubt will happen. It's pretty bare bones.

Most disturbing is the $16 million cut in higher education in a state that desperately needs to raise its educational attainment level, which will raise costs for students. After spending half a mill on the special session.

Here are some facts about higher ed and the state budget from the WV Center on Budget and Policy:

*Average tuition at West Virginia’s public colleges and universities has increased by $4,200 since 2002, a 147 percent increase, and far outpacing inflation.
*Tuition increases, in large part, have been fueled by falling public support for higher education. Since 2008, state spending in higher education has declined by $130 million, adjusting for inflation.
*As tuitions have increased, so has student debt. The average debt of a college graduate in West Virginia has increased by 70 percent since 2005. West Virginia also has the second highest student loan default rate in the country.
*Tuition increases have eroded the value of the state’s financial aid programs. The share of tuition covered by the PROMISE scholarship has fallen from 100 percent to 70 percent.

This was the second year in a row the state skated to the edge of a government shutdown. Back in what I didn't realize were the good old days, the legislative session was 60 days with maybe a  mostly drama-free week right after to nail down the budget. I'm hoping this doesn't turn into Groundhog Day.

On the bright side, the budget doesn't include tax changes that would make the bottom 80 percent pay more while giving a big break to the wealthy, a measure that would have also cost the state hundreds of millions in lost revenue in future years. One bad year is betting than signing up for a bunch of them.

Here are two views on the budget process by two veteran reporters, Phil Kabler from the Gazette-Mail and Brad McElhenny from WV Metro-News.

June 14, 2017

A polite word for crash

West Virginia is a state that benefited more than just about any other from the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Thanks largely to it, our rate of uninsured West Virginians has plummeted. By 2016, it fell from 14 to 6 percent.

In a 12-month period, it covers 200,000 West Virginians. At any given moment, it covers around 175,000, nearly one in 10.

According to DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, it made treatment for opioid addiction available to 50,000 people in desperate need of recovery.

It’s also been a boon to rural health care providers and helped preserve and create thousands of jobs in the health care sector.

In 2014, its first year of implementation alone, it reduced the cost of uncompensated care at 24 West Virginia hospitals by $264,829,374. Those are costs that weren’t be passed on to consumers in the form of higher costs.

The Republican-supported American Health Care Act, which passed the U.S. House in May, would phase out Medicaid expansion and mean a loss of Medicaid coverage to around 14 million Americans by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that these cuts would be a severe blow to our economy and could result in the loss of 23,000 jobs in West Virginia by 2022.

Given all this, it’s been a good thing that a few moderate Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, have spoken up in support of preserving Medicaid expansion.

Unfortunately, that might be changing.

According to The Hill, “GOP moderates in the Senate are open to ending federal funding for ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, but want a longer deadline for ending the additional funding than their leadership has proposed.”

These senators say they want “a significant glidepath” to end the coverage.

With all respect, I think glidepath is a polite way of saying plane crash.

Aviva Avon-Dine, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argues, “That approach would not preserve anyone’s coverage in the long run. It also would do next to nothing to preserve Medicaid expansion in the short run.”

According to one May poll, the House version is a little more popular than bubonic plague, with about one in five Americans supporting it. A more recent poll found that only 8 percent think the Senate should pass the House version.

But even a slower Senate version isn’t much more likely to receive public support.

According to the Kaiser Family Fund, “The vast majority of the public — including a majority of Democrats (93 percent), independents (83 percent), and Republicans (71 percent) — say it is important that states that received federal funds to expand Medicaid continue to receive those funds.”

The fate of a lot of people here and around the country is going to rest in the hands of a very small group of people. I hope that the lives and well-being of millions of Americans will outweigh political pressures and ideology.

(This ran as an op-ed in today's Gazette-Mail.)

June 09, 2017

G(r)eeking out

The ancient Greek writer Herodotus has been called “the father of history.” And “the father of lies.”

He is remembered today for his Histories, a sprawling account of the origins and outcome of the clash between the Greek city-states and the mighty Persian Empire in the fifth-century B.C.

It’s also stuffed with moral instruction, folklore, palace gossip, wild speculations and incredible tales of floating islands, giant gold-digging ants and flying serpents.

It also has some dark wisdom about happiness and the changeability of human fortunes.

One story involves two people whose names have become words, Solon and Croesus. Solon was an Athenian lawgiver who laid the foundation for that city’s democracy, while Croesus was the wealthy king of Lydia, in what is now Turkey.

A solon is a wise legislator, although you don’t hear the term around West Virginia much these days for some reason. Someone who is fabulously wealthy can be said to be “as rich as Croesus.”

The story goes that after Solon reformed Athenian laws, he left the city for 10 years after making the citizens swear an oath to abide by his measures for that period of time.

He visited Lydia, said to be the first country to mint coins, and stayed with Croesus. Eager to impress his guest, who was reputed to be wise, Croesus showed Solon his many treasures and asked him who he thought was the happiest man.

As my wife would say, he was fishing for a compliment.

He didn’t get one.

To Croesus’ surprise, Solon’s answer was someone he’d never heard of, an apparent Athenian nobody named Tellus, who had a decent life, a good family and who died fighting for his city and was honored with a funeral at public expense.

Croesus then asked who was next happiest. Once again, the answer wasn’t what he was looking for. Solon gave the names of two brothers from Argos named Kleobus and Biton.

They were the sons of a priestess of the goddess Hera. When the time came for her to go to the temple, the oxen who drew the cart had wandered off. Her sons put the yoke around themselves and pulled her several miles to the temple, where they were praised for their devotion to their mother and the gods who protected their city.

When the exhausted boys fell asleep, their proud mother prayed that they would receive whatever was best.

They never woke up. Let’s just say they went out on a high note.

Solon went on to explain to an angry Croesus that, since human life is subject to major reversals, he made it a practice not to say a person had a happy one until he saw how it ended. He said, “Until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. Till then, he is not happy, but only lucky.”

Croesus wasn’t having it. Solon soon left, while he continued to pursue wealth and power. He sent fabulous gifts to the major temples and oracles, including the famous oracle of the god Apollo, at Delphi.

As if you could buy the favor of the gods.

Croesus became concerned about the rise to power on his eastern frontier of the Medo- Persians under Cyrus. He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war with Cyrus.

He was told that, if he did, a mighty empire would fall. Another oracle told him that he had nothing to fear until a mule, a cross between a donkey and a horse, ruled over the Medes and Persians empire.

He did go to war with Cyrus, but the empire that fell was his own. The mule, it turned out, was Cyrus himself, whose mother was a Mede and father was a Persian.

Apollo’s oracle was pretty funny that way, but the blame for the disaster belonged to Croesus and not the god.

After losing everything, Croesus was about to be burned alive as Cyrus watched. He cried out “Solon, Solon, Solon” as the flames burned higher. Cyrus, who was a pretty nice guy as world conquerors go, asked through an interpreter what he was saying and spared his life when Croesus told the story.

As he put it later, “Human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same man to continue long in prosperity.”

The point Herodotus and the Greek tragic poets were trying to make was that power, wealth and pride can lead to arrogance (Hubris) and moral blindness (Ate), which, in turn, can invite disaster, often personified as the vengeance of Nemesis, goddess of justice and retribution, who renders that which is due.

The biblical Book of Proverbs makes a similar point, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Meanwhile, the wheel still turns.

(This appeared as an op-ed in today's Gazette-Mail.)

June 08, 2017

A close one

According to The Hill, WV Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who has previously supported retaining Medicaid expansion, is now open to phasing it out. This would be a disaster to the Mountain State, where 175,000 people have gained coverage. According to WV DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, that includes 50,000 people getting treatment for opioid addiction in a state that leads the nation in overdose deaths.

The House plan, according to the CBO, would over time cut Medicaid coverage for 14 million people. Even a kinder, gentler, slower Senate phaseout could end coverage for millions.

Just another reason why it's important for West Virginians to contact Senator Capito's office and urge her to preserve this lifeline for so many West Virginians. To find out how to do that, click here.

June 05, 2017

Nothing like the real thing

During the worst crisis in American history, President Abraham Lincoln made time regularly to talk with and listen to all varieties of ordinary citizens. He understood that success in leading a democracy required an understanding of public opinion and the only way to get that was unfiltered contact with the public.

That meant spending time with uninvited visitors, singly or in groups and ranging from office seekers to petitioners to ordinary people to cranks. Lincoln called these occasions his "public-opinion baths" and viewed them as critical to his ability to govern.

As he told a Union officer, "I feel, though the tax on my time is heavy, no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity."

Lincoln admitted that many of the concerns brought to him were utterly frivolous and others were more or less important, but he believed that "all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which I must return."

It was his way of keeping it real.

Unfortunately in today's political climate it's all too easy for political leaders to insulate themselves from their constituents, just as it's easy for us ordinary citizens to live in media bubbles where we stay in our political comfort zones.

For a democracy to work well, there's no substitute for direct contact. That's the only way that real connections can be made between citizens and their representatives. And it's the only way for representatives to understand the concerns of real people. And there's no more direct way for that to happen than by open and unscripted public meetings.

In this day and age, that may take a little political courage. But that's what leadership is all about.

There's no partisan monopoly on this. In March, after some occasionally tense pressure from citizens, Sen. Joe Manchin held four wide-open events from the eastern panhandle to Huntington. It wasn't always a love feast. He took heat from those who disagreed with some of his votes, but there was also a chance for honest give and take on the issues.

New Jersey Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur recently endured a mostly hostile five hour meeting with constituents, many of whom were angered by his vote to replace the Affordable Care Act with the Trump supported replacement.

Love him or not, at least he had the courage to show up and take it.

These days, you get points for showing up.

Whatever their political views, West Virginians deserve representatives and candidates who have the willingness and courage to show up for face-to-face meetings with those they represent.

Everybody needs a good bath every now and then.

(This appeared as an op-ed in Sunday's Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)

June 01, 2017

The quality of mercy

A suspect has been detained in the case of the murder of Mama-san and six of her chicks, whose story was celebrated here before the crime took place.

I seriously considered the ultimate penalty against the offender, although I guess technically by the rules of evidence I would need further proof that it was this raccoon and not another one who did the crime.

At this point, I'm leaning towards telling it to "go (far away) and sin no more."

However, none of this would have happened if Arpad the Magnificent was still alive.

It's a sad fact that when the good guys go, the predators move in.

May 31, 2017

It's still on

I hate to say it but it's still on. If you live in WV and care about things like schools, teachers, school service personnel, parks, higher education and such now and for years to come, please let your legislators know about it. Here's a quick link to help you do just that. It helps if you personalize your message.

Time is running out on avoiding a state shutdown, which could affect health, public safety, education, and basic services. We need a fair and simple solution to the budget woes, and one that won't come back to haunt us in the years to come.

Believe me, I'm as tired of all this as anyone is and want the mess to be over, but over in a way we can live with.

May 27, 2017

How to pick up (literal) chicks

A great deal of time spent on the farm has to do with what I call animal politics, which is the intricate web of relationships between the (four legged or feathered) animals and between animals and humans.

One example is the Darwin game which we play with the indeterminate number of chickens. In this game, the humans want the eggs to eat them, while the hens hide them to reproduce. I'm not sure how much of that is conscious on either of our parts.

The latest winner of the Darwin game is a gray hen who laid her eggs in a niche in our garage. She sat on them long enough for them to be viable, which meant I couldn't use the punching bag in the garage for three weeks so as not to disturb her.

The eggs hatched night before last, which meant I had to get Mama-san and chicks into a safe chicken tractor. I tried shutting them up in the garage but the little Houdinis got out. Then I looked for them to no avail with a flashlight after dark.

In the morning I found Mama-san sitting on the babies. I thought I'd put a box over the lot and then get them in the tractor somehow. She did not concur.

Instead, she flew at my face several times while the chicks scattered. Which led to plan B. I put the chicks I could find into the tractor and waited for their peeps to attract the mother. Then I rounded up the stragglers.

All but one. I heard some peeping underneath a huge BMT (big metal thing) in the garage. Too heavy to lift and not enough space underneath

That's when my long past fire department training kicked in. I remembered when we were practicing auto extrication how we used pieces of wood for cribbing to stabilize the vehicle so you could get the people out. A pry bar and some scraps of 2x4 later and the mother and child reunion had occurred.

I think there are eight of the little buggers now with Mama-san in a fairly safe place. Haven't gotten a lot of gratitude from her though.

I realize that crows and other tool-using animals perform more complicated feats every day, but this was pretty good for me.

May 25, 2017

Messing with Medicaid could hurt veterans

With the fate of America’s health care system up in the air, it might be prudent to think about how changes to it might impact different sectors of the population. This is especially true of the Medicaid program, which in any given month provides coverage to nearly 75 million Americans of all stripes.

Among that population are children, the elderly, people with disabilities, workers, people in recovery and one group you may not have expected: veterans.

This is a big deal in a state with one of the highest percentages of veterans in the population. According to Ballotopedia, veterans make up slightly over 9 percent of our population. I can’t figure out how to do the math, but I’m pretty sure that most families in the state, including my own, have members who served in the military.

According to a new report by FamiliesUSA and VoteVets.org, 1.75 million veterans — around one in 10 — receive Medicaid coverage. This includes but isn’t limited to 340,000 who gained coverage due to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and who may lose care if it is repealed.

Contrary to popular belief, not all veterans receive care from the VA. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2014 only about 42 percent of the total veteran population was enrolled by the VA.

Eligibility for VA programs can depend on a number of factors, such as minimum service requirements and disability and discharge status.

In addition, not all eligible veterans can take advantage of VA services. For example, one-third of enrolled veterans didn’t use VA services in 2014. Transportation issues and distance from VA facilities can be a bar to access.

Finally, the VA isn’t set up to provide for the health care needs of veteran’s families.

By contrast, Medicaid provides care that can fill gaps not covered by other programs or complement the services they offer. In some cases, Medicaid is a supplement for VA or Medicare for veterans over age 65.

However, the report notes that about half of veterans covered by Medicaid were between 18-64 years of age and were ineligible for Medicare. Of these, 40 percent had no other form of coverage than Medicaid. In 2015, Medicaid provided coverage for 660,000 veteran’s spouses.

The number of veterans receiving health care has gone up since passage of the Affordable Care Act. In West Virginia, the total number of veterans covered by Medicaid was around 15,000, not counting family members in 2015. The number of veterans aged 18-64 enrolled in Medicaid increased by 45 percent here between 2013 and 2015.

Undoing the Affordable Care Act isn’t the only threat to veteran’s health care. Some in Congress have proposed structural changes to the traditional program, such as block granting, budget cutting and capping benefits.

As the report notes that veterans are at a higher risk than most other people for “unique and sometimes serious or complicated health care issues as a result of their service. These health conditions might include musculoskeletal conditions, traumatic brain injuries, and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

It concludes that “Congress should be taking steps to make it easier, not harder, for veterans to access the health care they need when they need it. Voting to end the Medicaid expansion or to cap or cut Medicaid is a vote against veterans and their families.”

(This ran as an op-ed in today's Gazette-Mail.)

May 24, 2017

Happy 76, Bob!

Image by way of Wikipedia.

In case you didn't notice, today is Bob Dylan's birthday. His 76th to be exact. If I had to pick one person who provided the soundtrack of my life it would him. My favorite Dylan isn't the young idealistic one singing political songs. It's the inspired vessel of the Muses with the power of the word. I really  wonder sometimes if even he knows where his songs come from.

I remember being at an Arlo Guthrie concert where Arlo explained his theory about where the songs came from. He said that writing songs was like catching fish and that Bob just fished upstream of everybody else. Sounds about right to me.

Anyhow, I hope he doesn't start knocking on Heaven's door anytime soon.

May 23, 2017

"Slash and burn"

When people outside West Virginia ask me about Senator Joe Manchin, I usually say that some days are better than others. (My wife says that about me most days.) Today is one of his better days.

In response to the Trump administration's proposed budget, which slashes programs that help working people and hits Appalachia the hardest while cutting taxes for the very rich, Manchin criticized a "slash and burn" approach that "lacks compassion."

From MetroNews,

“It’s just very demoralizing to see this type of budget being out,” Manchin said. “Every state is going to be affected, there’s not one state that’s going to be spared on this.”
West Virginia, he said, would take an especially hard hit since so many Mountain State residents depend on federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women-Infants-Children (WIC), Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and student loans...
 “You name it and, by golly, we get hit because there’s so much of this that affects every part of our state,” Manchin said.
The budget would also zero out funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has had a huge positive impact on the region, as independent research by WVU and others have shown. Given its record of accomplishment, it's no surprise that the ARC has some pretty powerful Republican supporters, including senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Some other reactions to the proposed federal budget have warned that, if implemented, it would increase hunger, poverty and ill-health and lead to a new gilded age.

Considering the support candidate Trump received from this region, there doesn't seem to be a lot of gratitude in evidence.

May 19, 2017

Groundhog Day, WV style

In Bill Murray’s classic movie, “Groundhog Day,” the main character winds up having to live through the same day over and over.

West Virginia’s ongoing budget crisis and standoff is starting to remind me of that ... minus the personal growth, romance and happy ending.

The twisted path to our current mess goes back several years, beginning with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts first enacted around 10 years ago. We were told that the business tax cuts “would pay for themselves,” something which has never happened anywhere.

They didn’t.

We were also told the cuts would lead to the creation of many new jobs.

They didn’t.

We have several thousand fewer private sector jobs in the state now than 10 years ago.

Take those ingredients, shake, and throw in market-driven declines in the coal and gas industries, and that’s the recipe for how we got here.

Over the past several years, around $600 million has been cut from the state budget, including higher-education spending, which has declined in absolute and relative terms. There’s not a lot of fat left to trim. Further cuts would likely harm kids, college students of all ages, seniors, veterans and working people, not to mention everyone else.

Many of the current crop of legislators are opposed to tax increases to make up the difference. Last year, the budget controversy nearly led to a partial state shutdown. And things aren’t all that rosy this year.

One idea for a resolution to this problem is a “compromise” proposal supported by the Senate and Gov. Jim Justice, all for the best of reasons.

On the positive side, the compromise would avoid the possibility of a partial shutdown and would provide a temporary increase in revenue.

On the downside, proposed cuts to the state income tax would cost the state more over time than any increases in revenue from consumption taxes.

This would mean an ongoing budget crisis every year, with more and more painful cuts to things we need, like schools, higher and vocation education, public safety, health care, etc.

That would be the bad “Groundhog Day” part.

On top of that, the kinds of taxes that would increase are regressive, meaning they would hit people with low incomes hardest. Those with higher incomes would get a big break, since income taxes are progressive, in that they are the only state tax actually based on ability to pay: The rate goes up a bit as income grows.

It’s been argued that this shift from income to consumption taxes would be the biggest tax cut for the rich in West Virginia history, which is saying something.

Think Robin Hood in reverse.

There is a better way. A number of citizen groups, as well as political leaders, have proposed a simple solution to the mess that would avoid cuts to education, public broadcasting, higher ed, the Promise Scholarship, health and human services, etc. It would avert a shutdown. It would not blow a huge hole into future state budgets. It would also avoid the “Groundhog Day” effect of repeated annual crises.

The proposal:

1. A modest increase in the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent.

2. Expand sales taxes to cover services and industries that have so far avoided taxation.

3. Enact a fair-share tax of 1 percent on incomes over $200,000.

4. Offset the impact of higher sales taxes on low income families by enacting a 5 percent Earned Income Tax Credit.

Taken together, these measures would provide around $270 million in revenue.

It’s not a silver bullet, but it could point the way to a fair solution, or at least shift the conversation to a more productive direction.

If we don’t come up with a better solution, on the order of this one, West Virginia is likely to share the fate of Kansas, where ill-advised tax cuts once again failed to deliver and left things in shambles.

In baseball, that would be called an unforced error.

You could also call it a series of really bad Groundhog Days.

(Note: this appeared in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

May 16, 2017

A better way to deal with WV's budget woes

There's a lot at stake in the current debate over the state budget. It could affect kids, seniors, students, veterans and working families for years to come. Below, by way of friends at the WV Center on Budget and Policy and other allies, are some simple suggestions for fixing the problem and easy action steps you can take:

The state budget fight is a complicated mess. It's time to simplify.

Right now, we have no actual bill, but the last version we saw would have included the greatest tax cut for the rich in recent West Virginia history. To pay for it, lawmakers are talking about a wide range of bad ideas: a $94 million cut to public education, complicated tax increases, and even a food tax. Even with all these maneuvers, one lawmaker told us that we should still expect to see a deficit of over $200 million as soon as next year.

There is another way. We call it the Better Budget Framework for West Virginia. For the last 3 weeks, we have been talking to citizen leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle - including members of Democratic and Republican leadership.  The budget framework below represents a simple way to get out of this mess.

It includes just 4 steps:

Increase the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent.

Do what other states have done and close sales tax loopholes, by expanding the sales tax to industries that have been exempt (telecommunications, digital downloads, personal services, electronic data processing,  personalized health fitness, contracting services, technical evaluations).

Institute a fair share tax of 1 percent on income over $200,000.

Institute a refundable 5 percent Earned Income Tax Credit, for working families - to incentivize work and make the plan less regressive.

This plan would generate roughly $270 million in revenue, on par with the targets set by other plans. Here are 10 benefits of the simple, better budget plan:

1. No cuts to K-12 education.
2. No tax cuts for the rich.
3. Fewer tax increases on working families, then the latest "compromise" plan.
4. No cuts to the Promise scholarship, and no new cuts to Higher Education.
5. No cuts to public broadcasting, the Women's Commission, or the arts.
6. No government shutdown.
7. No big new deficit in 2019.
8. No complicated triggers.
9. No food tax increase or other complicated tax increases.
10. No cuts to hospitals and health care.

To be clear, this budget framework is not perfect.  It's pragmatic. When we talked with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, these were the priorities they listed. Like any good compromise, everyone will find something not to like in it -- including our own organizations and partners. We call it a framework, because some of the details could be tweaked (for instance, we'd be happy to see a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in exchange for a lower sales tax) and you would still get the same 10 core benefits.

Please click here to ask your lawmakers to sign-on to the Better Budget Framework, and help stop us from going the way of Kansas. Now is not the time for the greatest tax cut for the rich in West Virginia history.  It is not the time for complicated maneuvers.  It is not the time to subject ourselves to a decade of budget deficits.

Please encourage lawmakers to sign on to the Simple Plan.

It is up to us to Protect West Virginia!

Protect West Virginia is a grassroots coalition of more than 300 individuals and 30 organizations who oppose further budget cuts that harm our communities and who want to connect West Virginia values to state budget priorities.

May 15, 2017

Lucky for us that would never happen

At least the one in mythology was harmless.

All kinds of things wind up in my inbox, most of which are unsolicited and quickly deleted. Still, I take a look every now and then. This weekend, I received a post from writer and public speaker Linda Arnold titled "You Just Can’t Reason With Some People – Here’s Why."

Among other things, she discusses narcissistic personality disorder, a mental disorder identified in the DSM-5 manual of the American Psychiatric Association. 

Arnold presents the following checklist and asks if it rings any bells with anyone in our lives:

Has a grandiose sense of self importance
Is unwilling to identify with the needs and feelings of others
Has a sense of entitlement – unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment
or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
Believes he or she is unique and special
Requires excessive admiration
Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty or ideal love
Takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
Often acts in an arrogant fashion
After checking that list, I thought, golly gee, wouldn't it be unfortunate if such a person were in a position of global responsibility? Like, you know....sad!

May 11, 2017

Mother's Day action to protect health care

With the fate of millions up in the air with the attempted repeal of the Affordable  Care Act, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and allies are organizing Mother's Day Medicaid Awareness events around the state:

Facebook Event Pages:

Morgantown: https://www.facebook.com/events/777671539066178/?ti=icl
Beckley: https://www.facebook.com/events/174088976449675/?ti=icl

Shepherdstown: https://www.facebook.com/events/641000152769584/?ti=icl

There are also postcards (here and here) addressed to Senator Capito (R-WV. If you can't make it, feel free to print and send to these office locations (DC and local recommended) or just send an email.

Senator Capito's vote and influence will be critical to preserving and protecting Medicaid and other health care gains. Please be respectful but clear about your opposition to efforts to weaken health care coverage for West Virginians.

(Note: it's fitting that WV should act at this time since the Mother's Day holiday was born right here.)

May 09, 2017

A birthday to remember

I have long been fascinated by the life and death of John Brown, who was like a monkey wrench thrown by God into the machinery of a sinful slave-holding society. He was a man who lost every battle and major effort of his life yet succeeded after his death in his greatest objective.

I've blogged about Brown here over and over through the years, usually around the time of his raid (October) or his hanging (December).

How's this for historical irony: his trial and execution took part in a part of the state of Virginia that would soon become West Virginia, in large part as a result of a chain of events Brown started.

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I realized that he was born on this date 217 years ago.

So once again, here's an excerpt from his last speech, given while on trial for his life:

Had I interfered in the manner which I admit...in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, — either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all thing whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further, to “remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.” I endeavored to act upon that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of his despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, — I submit; so let it be done!

May 07, 2017

Making sense where there isn't a lot

If you've been trying to make sense of the budget mess in the state capitol, good luck. Here are a couple of news articles that lay out the basics, one from MetroNews and one from the Gazette-Mail. Short version: it's a mess and there's a lot at stake.

Here's my take on it, as published in a Gazette op-ed this week: 

Gov. Jim Justice seems confident that a deal on the state budget is within reach, having told those attending a news conference, “I think we’re on a pathway to pass a budget that’s going to be really special.”

Of course, things could be “special” in all kinds of ways.

I really appreciate the governor’s sustained effort on behalf of a budget that benefits all West Virginians and doesn’t throw any of us under the bus (not to mention the fact that he raised the bar significantly on any and all future news conferences involving visual props).

While I understand the desire to reach a deal with the Republican Legislature, I hope the result isn’t a “compromise” that would hurt working families while giving a tax cut to the wealthy and causing more serious fiscal problems down the road.

Some elements of a proposed “compromise” proposal now being discussed are pretty ominous. These include major cuts to the state’s income tax, which is the only tax based on the ability to pay; increases in regressive consumer taxes; and the promise of long-term and ongoing budget deficits that could further slash the things we need to thrive in the years to come.

As Brad McElhinny reported for Metro News, the proposed compromise would “raise revenue up to $50 million for the coming fiscal year but cut revenue by $170 million each of the following two years, an analysis says.”

An assessment by Mark Muchow, deputy secretary of the Department of Revenue, estimates that, by 2020, this will cause a revenue decline of $220 million due to income tax cuts. This would come on top of year after year of major budget cuts.

On top of that, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that the proposed compromise would raise taxes for the bottom 80 percent of West Virginia households, while cutting them for the wealthiest 20. The biggest winners would be the wealthiest 1 percent, who would see a cut of over $3,700.

This comes at a time when revenue increases are needed for the things we value most: schools, higher education, infrastructure, kids, seniors, veterans, parks, recreation, etc.

It’s one thing to raise revenue to maintain our quality of life, but making the tax system more unfair to low-income families in order to give yet another break to those who don’t need it is just wrong.

As Sean O’Leary, from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, recently tweeted, “If WV is going to increase taxes on working families, it should be for investing in schools, roads. Not to pay for tax cuts on the wealthy.”

What West Virginia needs is a compromise that doesn’t compromise our future.


May 04, 2017

Thanks for nothing

It's hard to think of a (printable) word to describe my disgust at the fact that all three of WV's US representatives voted today to take health care away from around 225,000 West Virginians. Hardest hit of these are:

*the 175,000 people from working families who gained coverage from Medicaid expansion;

*the 24,000 or so of those who are getting  help for mental  health or addiction from the expansion; and

*the nearly 300,000 children who had coverage from either CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) or Medicaid at some point during 2016. Up till now, WV was a national leader in covering kids. With the whole health care system now in chaos, we may soon be leading the nation in throwing kids under the bus.

If you want to contact your representative to tell them (OK, their staff) how you feel, you can call:

Congressman David McKinley 1st district, Phone: (202) 225-4172

Congressman Alex Mooney, 2nd district, Phone: (202) 225-2711

Congressman Evan Jenkins, 3rd district, Phone (202) 225-3452

Meanwhile, the action will head to the senate, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito will be a crucial swing vote. You can call her office at 202-224-6472.

To his credit, Senator Joe Manchin is the only member of WV's delegation who has come out in favor of preserving the gains of the Affordable Care Act.

May 01, 2017

Born in the USA

Around the world but not here so much (yet), May 1 is celebrated as International Workers' Day. Ironically the roots of this observance began right here in the USA. A major struggle in much of the 19th and 20th century has been to reduce the hours of the working day, which could run as long as 14 hours or more in the early days of the industrial revolution.

A slogan of the movement was "eight hours for work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours for what we will."

Trade unionists in Chicago declared a strike for the eight hour day on May 1, 1886. One May 4, as police attempted to disperse a protesting crowd of workers at Haymarket Square, an unknown person threw a bomb which killed several police officers. The remaining police in turn fired at the crowd, killing four.

The bomber was never brought to justice. The only thing most historians agree on is that the eight people arrested and sentenced for the bombing weren't the guilty parties, several of whom weren't even there at the time. Of these, four were eventually executed. They are known as the "Haymarket martyrs."

The struggle to limit the working day didn't end there and was eventually won for many US workers by trade union organization and by the political reforms in the New Deal era and beyond, although some laws exempted protections for some of the most exploited workers, such as farm and domestic laborers.

Like everything else in the history of the struggle of working people for basic human justice, the fight goes on. In fact, as new forms of automation enter the traditional workplace, it may take new forms, such as limiting reducing working hours in order to share the available work.

The fight has always been about more than wages, hours and working conditions, as important as these are. It's also been about the need for culture, rest, leisure, education and dignity.

Lately, this hasn't been going so well, as you may have noticed. But it's not over yet.

April 29, 2017

Solidarity forever. And now

Lots of people in and out of West Virginia may not realize that the song "Solidarity Forever," the international anthem of the labor movement, was inspired by labor struggles right here. Specifically, Ralph Chaplin, journalist and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World was inspired to write it after witnessing union miners in Kanawha County during the 1912-1923 Paint Creek strike.

In that spirit, I'd like to share a blog post by my friend and co-worker Arnie Alpert, aka New Hampshire Slim, who works on social justice issues for the American Friends Service Committee in that state. The post is from his blog InZaneTimes and is adapted from a talk he gave in observation of Worker's Memorial Day:
An Injury to One is Still an Injury to All
Four years ago, this past Monday a building in Bangladesh called “Rana Plaza” collapsed and came crashing down.
The building housed five garment factories which employed 5000 people.
Brands that were sourcing from the factories in Rana Plaza building include Benetton, Bon Marche, Cato Fashions, The Children’s Place, Walmart, and JC Penney.
The owners ignored warnings about the building’s structural flaws.
The workers did not have a union.
The laws were weak and unenforced.
When the building collapsed, one thousand one hundred and thirty-four workers lost their lives. Thousands more were injured.
The scale of the disaster was so large, and the capacity of NGOs like the International Labor Rights Forum and the Clean Clothes Campaign was strong enough, that even though the workers were unorganized it became possible to pressure the companies and the government to reach agreements for inspections, compensation for affected workers and families, and renovating factories to make them safer.
But workers in Bangladesh still face repression when they try to organize.
That makes reforms hard to defend, especially when workers are inter-changeable pieces in a global supply chain, thousands of miles away from the consumers of the products they make, and several corporate intermediaries away from the firms whose logos they sew onto the apparel they make.
That’s one reason why we need to stand together, as workers, as consumers, as citizens.
One hundred and thirty-one years ago next Monday, hundreds of thousands of American workers went on strike calling for an eight-hour day. (The eight-hour movement followed the earlier ten-hour movement, which was led largely by young women like New Hampshire’s Sara Bagley and conducted in places like Dover, Manchester, Exeter, and Lowell.)
In Chicago, at the same time, a strike was going on at the McCormick Reaper plant, whose owner was trying to replace workers with machines. Several days of protest followed the May Day strike. Police killed 2 strikers on May 3. During a rally the next day protesting killings by police, a bomb went off. No one ever knew who was responsible. Several police officers and strikers lost their lives in the violence.
To be brief, Albert Parsons and August Spies, leaders of the eight-hour movement, were blamed, tried, convicted, and executed, despite the lack of any evidence tying them to the violence. (Hanging, not injection of toxic chemicals, was the method used back then.)
The following year, May Day was observed in their honor throughout the world and became known as International Workers Day.
In this country, over the past decade or so, International Workers Day has become associated with protests, rallies, strikes, and marches led by immigrant workers. That includes this coming Monday in Manchester, 5 to 7 pm, in Veterans Park.
Why does this matter?
When immigrants are afraid to complain about the toxic chemicals they use to clean our schools or the excessive heat in bakeries, factories, and laundries, the rights of all workers to a safe workplace is threatened.
When immigrants can be scapegoated and threatened with loss of jobs, the rights of all workers are weakened.
When capital can cross borders with barely any restriction, but workers face walls and troops, we have to stand together.
When workers are so desperately poor that they will take jobs that put their lives at risk, we have to stand together.
When the number of people forced to flee their homes dues to violence, climate disruption, and economic desperation is at an all-time high, we have to stand together.
When xenophobic and nativist movements are on the rise the world over, we have to stand together.
When workers anywhere are afraid to organize, we have to stand together.
And when workers do organize, despite the fear, despite the risks, despite the threats, despite the scapegoating, we have to stand with them.
During Workers Memorial Week, we say, injustice anywhere is still a threat to justice everywhere.
We still say, an injury to one is an injury to all.
We still say, Solidarity forever.
(I wish I'd said that. Thanks, Arnie!)

April 27, 2017

Act now to protect West Virginia's future

WV Governor Jim Justice has issued a call for a special session of the legislature to start on May 4 to work on the state budget. The governor seems confident that a deal is within reach, having told those attending a press conference that “I think we’re on a pathway to pass a budget that’s going to be really special,”

Of course things could be "special" in all kinds of ways. While I appreciate the governor's attempt to reach a deal with the Republican legislature, I hope he doesn't reach a "compromise" that would hurt working families while giving a tax cut to the wealthy and causing more serious fiscal problems down the road. You can read more on that here and here.

This is a time when revenue increases are needed to preserve the things we value most: schools, higher education, infrastructure, kids, seniors, veterans, parks, recreation, etc. That's one thing. But making the tax system more unfair to low income families while giving a break to the well off is just wrong.

As my friend Sean O'Leary from the WV Center on Budget and Policy recently tweeted, "If WV is going to increase taxes on working families, it should be for investing in schools, roads. Not to pay for tax cuts on the wealthy."

If the Republicans want to force the issue--and they have the votes--then so be it. Let them own it. All of it.

So what can you do about it? Several things, including:

*Call the governor's office and say something like, "Thank Gov. Justice for fighting for a budget that's good for all West Virginians. But please don't accept a compromise that hurts working West Virginians and makes our problems worse in the future."

*Contact your legislators. You can find out who they are here. The legislative website is here.

*Learn more by watching this Facebook Live presentation by Sean Monday, May 1 at 5:30.

*Show up at the capitol on Thursday, May 4 at 9:00 to stand up for The People's Budget.

Game on. And for real.

April 20, 2017

A new motto?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about how the website WalletHub came up with a list of the best and worst places for millennials to live.

It’s no surprise that West Virginia came out on the bottom. But, as my friend Stephen Smith wrote with Pastor Mason Ballard in a Gazette-Mail op-ed online, it’s the best state to come to, if you want to make a difference.

And God knows we need that.

One of the reasons West Virginia might be unattractive to younger newcomers is the fact that it’s kind of falling apart, and the Republican majority in the Legislature apparently wants to pass a poverty budget that keeps things that way, by cutting K-12 and higher education, slashing social services and neglecting to invest in our people and infrastructure.Gazette-Mail reporter

Phil Kabler had a great riff on that theme in a recent column in which he envisioned the state as a shabby and unmaintained apartment for rent in a run-down neighborhood where schools are neglected and teachers laid off. Who would want to live in a place like that unless they had to?

One thing that could make things better in the short term is a budget that invests in people and infrastructure, along the lines that Gov. Jim Justice has proposed. Before a certain memorable news conference, lots of people I know were hoping he would veto the Legislature’s proposed budget. And some of us, including me, sounded the alarm and urged people to contact the governor in support of a veto.

I guess that’s something we can scratch off the list. And that’s no (metaphorical) BS.

It’s hard to tell how the budget battle will go, but there’s a lot riding on it. And a lot depends on whether and how much ordinary West Virginians are willing to stand up in support of the kind of budget that protects our people and gets us back on the road.

I do hope that, if and when a budget deal is sealed, it won’t involve a “compromise” that shifts the weight of taxes to those who can least afford it and sets up another fiscal crisis down the road.

Meanwhile, recent events have convinced me that I should devote my remaining days to updating the state motto to bring it up (or down) to date. “Mountaineers are always free” was great, but more suited to the days when our appetite for fighting for ordinary working people was more apparent.

My suggested replacement is: “You can’t make this **** up.” At least until such time as the other one fits again.

(Note: I even started looking for how to say this in Latin, until I was reminded that, as of 2016, the Legislature made English the state’s official language. I guess I can scratch that off the list, too.)

(This op-ed ran in today's Gazette-Mail)

April 17, 2017

Hands up

One argument often made in defense of slashing programs for low income and working people is that these discourage or "disincentivize" work. However, as Neil Irwin makes clear in this New York Times article, it's often the other way around.

According to Irwin, "Certain social welfare policies, according to an emerging body of research, may actually encourage more people to work and enable them to do so more productively."

For example the Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable credit for workers with low and moderate (by WV standards), is a huge boon to millions of families. Studies suggest that the EITC encourages workforce participation by rewarding work. One study found that by 1999, 460,000 more women heads of household were working that would have been the case without the EITC.

(There's been an effort in WV for several years to create a state version, but that hasn't happened yet.)

Child care subsidies are another case in point. Costs for this can easily exceed college expenses. And they usually hit families at a time when their earnings haven't peaked. We've had several scrapes in West Virginia aimed at holding the line on these subsidies.

It only makes sense in a state with the lowest workforce participation rates to do what we can to make work affordable.

Research also supports the long term benefit of SNAP (formerly food stamps). A study of the early days of food stamps, a program that was rolled out at different times around. the country, found that those children who received this kind of nutritional support were more likely to be working decades later than those who didn't.

Specifically, a study titled "Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net" by
Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach  and Douglas Almond concluded that 

access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, income, and decreases in welfare participation).
This is another reason why expanding access to free school breakfasts and lunches to everyone is so important. This is one area in which West Virginia is a national leader.

Another intervention that pays huge dividends is early childhood education. Nobel economics laureate James Heckman assets that "Evidence shows that supplementing the family environments of disadvantaged children with educational resources is an effective and cost-efficient way to provide equal opportunity, achievement, and economic success."

These kinds of investments offer more promise of promoting shared prosperity than the current slash and burn approach to federal and state budgets.

April 15, 2017

You really can't make this **** up

The website WalletHub recently came up with a list of the best and worst places for millennials to live. It's no surprise that West Virginia came out on the bottom. But, as my friend Stephen Smith wrote with Pastor Mason Ballard, it's the best state to come to if you want to make a difference. And God knows we need that.

One of the reasons WV is unattractive to newcomers is the fact that it's kind of falling apart and the Republican majority in the legislature wants to pass a poverty budget that keeps things that way. Gazette-Mail reporter Phil Kabler had a great riff on that theme in the first part of this column.

One thing that could make things better is a budget that invests in people and infrastructure, as Gov. Jim Justice has proposed. Some of us were hoping he would veto the  legislature's proposed budget. And some of us, including me, sounded the  alarm and urged people to contact the governor in support of a veto.

I guess that's something to scratch off the list. And that's no (metaphorical) BS.

Two last thoughts:

*first, this really is the year of political props; and

*second, as I've argued before, we really should change the state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up" At least until we deserve the old motto again.

April 12, 2017

Easy action alert to protect WV

If you live in WV and want to do a good deed for the day, here's your chance. Call Gov. Jim Justice's office at 304-558-2000 and tell whoever answers that you want the governor to veto the bad budget passed by the legislature and fight for one good for WV kids, families and seniors. Don't forget to thank him for his work on this so far.

Also, if you're around Charleston, which I won't be, show up to support a decent budget tomorrow (Thursday, April 13) at 2:00 in the lower rotunda of the capitol. The governor is expected to make an important announcement about the budget at that time.

You can read more here,

April 11, 2017

Poverty pays if you aren't poor

“Poverty pays unless you’re poor.”

So said Don West, a rebellious Appalachian poet and educator and friend of mine who devoted his life to the struggle against it.

The evidence suggests he’s right.

Way back in 1971, sociologist Herbert Gans enumerated the different ways poverty benefits the non-poor in an essay titled “The Uses of Poverty: the Poor Pay All.” His findings hold up pretty well.

Then as now, it turns out that those who benefit the most from it are the wealthy.

Among the functions of poverty are these:

*Poverty ensures that the “dirty work” of society gets done in the form of the many jobs that are low-pay low-trust and low-status but are absolutely necessary for a society to work.

A pool unemployed and underemployed people also imposes “discipline” in the labor market and helps drive down wages for all workers. A bad job looks pretty good when you step over homeless people or drive past people holding “Will work for food” signs on your way to work. When hundreds apply for a handful of living wage jobs, it sends a strong message to the lucky few that they can be easily replaced.

This population can also be mobilized by the powerful and wealthy as strike-breakers or cannon fodder in war time or even as angry mobs that can be used to target other vulnerable populations.

*Because the poor work at low wages, they can perform the tasks (cleaning, child care, etc.) that make the leisure of the affluent possible. They also pay a higher proportion of their income in sales and consumption taxes, something likely to get worse if some in the Legislature get their way.

*Poverty creates a lot of jobs and economic opportunities for people, businesses and organizations which “service” the poor, from pawn shops to plasma centers to professionals to prisons.

*Poor people can be counted on to buy or otherwise consume the goods that others don’t want, whether it’s old food, second hand goods, or used cars. In a twist Gans couldn’t have imagined, huge corporations now get major breaks for dumping unwanted and often unhealthy food products to pantries and charities.

*Poor people are an ideal group to punish in order to uphold social norms. As Gans put it,
“To justify the desirability of hard work, thrift, honest, and monogamy, for example, the defenders of these norms must be able to find people who can be accused of being lazy, spendthrift, dishonest, and promiscuous. Although there is some evidence that the poor are about as moral and law-abiding as anyone else, they are more likely to be caught and punished when they participate in deviant acts.”

They are also less able to defend themselves against stereotypes and legal punishments.

*Speaking of deviance and social norms, the non-poor can derive a vicarious thrill from contemplating the real or imagined moral laxity of the poor.

*The affluent also have a long history of what I call cultural strip-mining, which consists of finding, commodifying, and profiting from the cultural creations of the non-wealthy. Think blues music, mountain ballads, folk art, etc. To paraphrase the Clash, the spice of poverty adds life where there isn’t any.

*A poor population helps boost the status and self-esteem of those who aren’t poor. It also gives the aristocracy a chance to display its generosity on the “worthy poor,” which presumably helps justify its existence.

*Because of their relative powerlessness, Gans noted that poor people can absorb the costs of change. If you need to wipe out a neighborhood for a new highway or development project, close down a school or locate a toxic dump, poor communities are a ready target.

There are also a lot of ways the affluent can use the poor for political purposes, some of which Gans couldn’t have anticipated.

He noted that “An economy based on the ideology of laissez-faire requires a deprived population that is allegedly unwilling to work or that can be considered inferior because it must accept charity or welfare in order to survive.”

An “unworthy” population is a powerful argument against working for a more just social order, since presumably such people would benefit the most from such an arrangement.

Politicians such as Ronald Reagan and many others elevated this process to an art by stirring racially-charged resentments against mythical “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying steaks with food stamps. Wealthy people and corporations are still reaping the benefits of that strategy.
Tapping such resentment served to further enrich the already wealthy and contribute to a level of inequality unprecedented in recent history.

Finally, and this is just me talking, it seems like some people in positions of power and influence derive some kind of gratification by proposing and imposing laws and policies that impose humiliation, surveillance and degradation on poor people. The pleasure seems to be enhanced when masked as compassion. To me it’s the political equivalent of bullying or cruelty to animals.

Considering all the benefits the poor convey to the wealthy, there doesn’t seem to be much gratitude. But I guess that would defeat the purpose.

I’m reminded of some lines by the English poet William Blake:

“Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.”

April 10, 2017

It's over. Ish.

The WV legislative session, one of the weirder ones in recent memory, officially ended this weekend. Sort of. There's the teeny tiny issue of the budget, where major disagreements remain between Democratic Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican legislature.

Specifically, the budget has no new revenue and deep cuts to programs like Medicaid. When you figure in the federal match, this could mean a cut of $200 million. The governor hasn't vetoed the budget yet as far as I can tell, but it seems likely to me that this will happen and the games will begin. The deadline to state shutdown is July 1.

On the bright side, the budget passed isn't as awful as some that were proposed during the session. More work is needed to pass a decent one.

On the brighter side, I'm especially happy about two victories, one of which involved killing a bill and the other involved passing one.

I'm actually gladdest about the bill that died, a mean-spirited SNAP bill that would have taken away food assistance from the poorest West Virginians while also taking millions out of the state economy.

The one that passed will give people with felony convictions the chance to petition the courts to have the offence reduced to a misdemeanor after several years. It's weaker than what we would have liked but it's way better than it was before.

Mulling over that and other limited victories has led me to formulate a maxim which I plan to copyright:

"Those who minimize hard won but limited victories for social justice tend not to be the people who worked their ass off to win them."

And you can quote me on that.

April 03, 2017

Time to clear the palate?

There's a big dust up going on at the WV capitol right now over a medical marijuana bill. So far it's generating a lot of heat. (Did you notice I resisted the temptation to make a cheesy smoke joke?)

 Earlier today, there was a public hearing on nasty changes to the SNAP program. I was one of around 20 people who opposed it. The only one who spoke in favor was a paid lobbyist.

There are several bad budget bills floating around. Here's just one example from the senate.

I mostly just want things to be over.

If you just want a change from all that, in the most recent Front Porch program/podcast from WV Pubic Broadcasting, we talk about such burning issues as:

*Is it cool for public schools to teach little kids that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs?; and

*What we think about Mike Pence's rules for having dinner or drinks with someone of the opposite sex.

WV Public Broadcasting also re-released a popular Front Porch program in which I attempt to teach the uninitiated how to speak Appalachian.

(The Spousal Unit noted an error I made in  the podcast while discussing cool forms of Spanish profanity in which I called a verb a noun. I usually don't make mistakes where profanity is concerned.)

April 01, 2017

Holy trifecta, Batman!

One of the meaner bills going through the state legislature in WV is SB 60, which would punish poor people in need of food assistance, take millions away from local businesses and the state's economy, and cost taxpayers money.

The Gazette had a great editorial about it, which is worth a look. The paper also ran this op-ed of mine this week, recycled from blog posts here.

The bill is now before the House Judiciary Committee (contact information here). If you're from WV, please contact the committee's leaders, particularly Chairman John Shott. You can take make up your own message or recycle the first paragraph of this post.

For local folks, there will be a public hearing in House Chambers Monday April 3 at 10:00. Please go if you can. Sign up the hour before the hearing.

(As a bonus, here are some old Goat Rope reflections on the art of the public hearing in WV politics.)


March 28, 2017

Back in play

Who knows what will happen with the fate of the Affordable Care Act, but I think it's pretty cool that less than a week after the "replacement" bill failed, the Kansas legislature voted to expand Medicaid to low income working families. Kansas Governor Brownback, who has a history of wrecking things, is likely to veto it, but this is still pretty major.

Medicaid expansion is once again being talked about in other holdout states. The more the merrier. It's been a life saver in WV. Literally.

March 26, 2017

A kick in the assets

There are a lot of bad bills making their way through the WV legislature, but one that particularly gets under my skin is aimed at making life harder for people who need to rely on SNAP (formerly food stamps) for food assistance.

Senate Bill 60, linked above, isn't as bad as it used to be, thanks to amendments by rational legislators. But it's still pretty bad.

Let's start with the math. At a committee meeting last week, it came out that the proposed legislation would cost around a million per year in state tax dollars to pay private corporations to profit at public expense in "verifying" eligibility for benefits--in order to remove $5 million in federal dollars from the WV economy. That's money spent at local stores and farmers markets supporting local jobs.

One more time: we'd be paying corporations to take away money from WV. Really.

In chess, this would be like sacrificing a rook to take a pawn.

Even worse is a mean spirited asset limit which would knock people off the rolls and make it harder for low income families to get back on their feet. Most states, 34 in all, including not just West Virginia but some of the most politically conservative southern states, have eliminated the asset limit because it's expensive to implement, useless and just plain mean.

As the folks at the WV Center on Budget and Policy note,
The reason most states have removed their asset test from SNAP is that they recognized that it was counter-productive and punishes families for saving money for emergencies or for their children’s future while they are temporarily enrolled in SNAP.  By removing the asset test or limit, it simplifies the application process, reduces errors associated with assets and vehicle information.
Asset limits would hit older adults particularly hard, potentially wiping out retirement savings. But it could also eat away family savings for emergency or for college education...so that people could get the equivalent of $4 a day for food.

Like unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits are counter-cyclical, which means they kick in more when times are bad, helping to keep families and communities going. Most people receiving SNAP only do so for a limited time. Here's more from my policy wonk friends:
Because SNAP works as a temporary stopgap – with 58 percent of new receipts leaving the program within a year – it is vital for them to retain their savings as they get back on their feet. Studies have also shown that asset limits (and more stringent vehicles asset tests) have no impact on the length of stay in SNAP.
A study by the Urban Institute found that states with relaxed asset limits make it easier for low income people to bounce back and participate in the mainstream economy (such as having bank accounts):
Taken together, relaxed asset limits increase households’ financial security and stability by increasing savings and reducing benefit fluctuations, and they can decrease administrative program costs when fewer people cycle on and off the program. The findings suggest that states with SNAP asset limits can improve family financial well-being by relaxing them and that reinstating federal SNAP asset limits will harm family financial stability.
Finally, I hope that decision makers take a minute to check out this great letter to the editor in today's Gazette-Mail by the Rev. Kay Albright, outreach coordinator at Manna Meal, which serves two hot meals a day to anyone who shows up at St. John's Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Here are some of my favorite parts:
I have sat in committee meetings, met with various legislators, and called even more of them regarding SNAP benefits. I believe it is easy to sit in the capitol complex and make decisions about issues that do not affect you. Poverty is something our legislators may not have experienced.... 
Come and eat. Talk to those most affected by your decisions regarding SNAP before you make them. Come and see it is about food, a basic human need. We do not need to create more bureaucracy for those in West Virginia who are in the grip of poverty.
SB 60 is on second reading in the senate and is likely to be up for amendments tomorrow (Monday).

If you haven't already, please consider contacting your legislator. You can find out who and how here.

March 25, 2017

SNAP crackle pop

The latest Front Porch includes  a pretty brisk debate on  (food stamps), poverty and the current budget showdown in WV politics. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, re: ACA. Damn.