Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wisconsin's partisan attack on (some) unions

Attempts by Wisconsin's governor and legislature to emasculate their teachers unions have ignited a firestorm of controversy well outside the state's borders. Gov. Scott Walker has claimed that the unions must be stripped of collective bargaining rights in order to solve the state's budget gap. Copycat efforts are now underway in Ohio and Indiana.

A few problems... first, Wiscoinsin's budget is presently in balance. The gap is expected to occur later in the fiscal year but is not yet here. Second, the state had no fiscal crisis until the Republicans pushed through a large package of tax breaks. Third, it's pretty well-documented that the state could fill the budget gap without stripping unions of collective bargaining. Walker has made his intransigence clear by categorically refusing to negotiate, even though teachers have agreed to concessions that would fill the budget gap.

Both supporters and critics alike acknowledge that the real objective of the bill is to emasculate the power of public sector unions. But even that analysis is only partly on the mark.

The bill's attack on collective bargaining rights exempts police, firefighters and prison guards, three groups generally favorable to the GOP.

If union-busting were truly necessary to ensure the state's short- or long-term fiscal future, then the Republicans would try to bust all unions. Instead, they are only going after union whose members are seen as more liberal and doing favors for those seen as more conservative. They are punishing 'the other guy's' public servants and protecting 'their' public servants.

What Republicans are doing is not necessary and not even solely ideological. It's partisan and punitive and must be stopped. They may have awoken a sleeping giant.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Taxpayer funded local government group misrepresents its members, exceeds its mandate

The Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board (LGRB) is a taxpayer funded group whose statuatory objective is to provide oversight of and feedback to the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), purportedly as the voice of the Park's local governments.

In reality, the LGRB's main objective is to lobby on behalf of development interests and against conservation efforts. A look at the Board's Our Issues webpage looks more like the writings of a private advocacy group than a public oversight board. Except private advocacy groups aren't funded by taxpayers.

The Board is chaired by the rabidly anti-conservation Fred Monroe, who is also the town supervisor in Chester and was, until recently, the chairman of the Warren County Board of Supervisors.

The LGRB recently passed a resolution urging the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to not go ahead with the planned purchase from the Nature Conservancy of Follensby Pond and the former Finch Pruyn lands in the Adirondacks. The Board argued that with the state facing dire financial circumstnaces, this was not the time for it to keep its promise to the Nature Conservency.

The resolution caused quite a stir for two reasons.

First, the LGRB was created by the legislature to provide oversight to the APA (which acts as a Park-wide zoning board for private land). As the LGRB's own website describes its mission: We work to insure that the interests of the people of the Adirondack Park and their local governments are protected as the Adirondack Park Agency carries out its duties set forth in the Adirondack Park Agency Act, the Freshwater Wetlands Act and the Wild Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act.

And yet this taxpayer funded board was trying to block the actions of the DEC (which manages state-owned land), which is outside of its mandate.

As North Country Public Radio investigation pointed out, the way state law on land purchases is written, any town can single-handedly nix a land purchase paid for by the Environmental Protection Fund. All the towns involved okayed the deal, including Fred Monroe's town of Chester.

So how did the LGRB pass a resolution opposing the Finch and Follensby land deals?

The NCPR investigation explained: But an investigation by North Country Public Radio found that in fact no local government leaders from any of the towns affected by the Finch deal voted on the Review Board’s new resolution.

What’s more, Monroe now acknowledges that most town leaders involved in the Finch project weren’t consulted about the resolution before it was passed.

Monroe said, “Did I specifically go to all the towns that voted to approve these deals? No, that’s a valid criticism," but then went on to suggest that the opinions of the towns involved don't matter because he personally thinks it's the wrong time to be expanding the Forest Preserve.

NCPR also spoke with the town supervisors of Minerva and Indian Lake about the LGRB's resolution. They both re-iterated their towns' support for the deal.

Monroe dubiously claimed that the all the towns involved agreed to the deals under duress. A rather flimsy explanation was offered by member of the Saranac town board, though one wonders if such 'duress' was complained about at the time. But numerous other local elected officials quoted by NCPR involved disagree and cite the process as a model for how such deals should be done.

The Nature Conservancy, for its part, pointed out that that they also canceled plans to expand the forest preserve in two communities, Fort Ann and Long Lake, because town boards there objected. Even Monroe doesn't deny this.

Fred Monroe has some explaining to do. Why is the LGRB not only ignoring the wishes of its elected government members but to openly campaign against them? Why is Monroe having the LGRB using tax money to agitate on an issue outside its legal mandate?

If Fred Monroe wants to advance his personal anti-conservation agenda, that's his prerogative. But he ought not to falsely claim he speaks for town governments who actually oppose his position and he ought not to use taxpayer money to do so.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NYS moves to minimize judicial campaign corruption

Whenever they don't like a judicial decision, many conservatives rant against 'unelected judges'... except of course, for US Supreme Court justices Scalia and Thomas. Calling a judge unelected is suppose to delegitimize his or her authority, even though our sainted Founding Fathers structured the judiciary this way intentionally to give it a degree of independence.

However, electing judges, as most states do to varying degrees, has its own problems. In a system where money is fraudulently equated to speech, elected judges are subject to the same corrupting influence of legalized campaign bribes as elected politicians.

New York's top judge has recognized this and made the state the first in the nation to implement a policy on the financing of judicial campaigns. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced new rules that would bar judges in the state from hearing any case in which the lawyers or participants donated $2,500 or more to the judge's electoral campaign.

This is a very welcome move by the chief judge to help ensure the integrity of the courts. The move also recognizes the corrupting influence of money on electoral campaigns in a way that should give lie to the 'money equals speech' fraud.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Homeowners sue hydrofracker over poisoned drinking water

There is plenty of debate in New York about hydraulic fracturing (known as hydrofracking) in the southern part of the state. Fracking is a form of drilling which fractures the rock underneath the surface of the Earth to release natural gas. Supporters say that the hydrofracking industry would create countless jobs in southern New York. Opponents claim that the procedure has been shown to be a several threat to clean drinking water.

The non-partisan, non-profit journalism organization Pro Publica has covered this issue quite well (its excellent articles on the topic can be accessed here). It includes some pieces of the hydrofracking industry’s strident opposition to any sort of transparency.

Recently, the city of Buffalo became the first municipality in the state to ban the procedure. The vote was more symbolic than anything, given the city’s location, but opponents hope it triggers a loud wave of opposition to the dangerous procedure.

Many newspapers such as the Watertown Daily Times and Glens Falls Post-Star have editorialized for a ban on hydrofracking.

Nine homeowners in Elmira, near New York’s border with Pennsylvania (where fracking has been pursued with reckless abandon), have filed a lawsuit against a Colorado-based company claiming it was negligent in its drilling, construction and operation of two [hydrofracking] gas wells in Big Flats and that the company’s actions resulted in contamination to nearby water wells.

As government officials in Albany consider how to deal with the industry, they should remember that jobs and easy money are of little use if it destroys something as basic and fundamental as drinking water.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Corporate media hides Obama envoy’s ties to Mubarak regime

The Independent had a revealing article on Pres. Obama’s envoy to Cairo, who came out strongly in favor of Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak remaining in power despite a popular revolt against his autocracy. The British paper pointed out that the retired diplomat, Frank Wisner, works for a New York and Washington law firm which works with none other than the Mubarak regime, the Egyptian military and some of the country’s leading oligarchs.

The paper added that The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Mr Wisner in its pages two weeks ago – but mysteriously did not mention his ties to Egypt.

It’s worth noting that when this sort of thing happened during the Bush regime, liberals bayed for blood...