Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Good Guys Win One

Well, partly anyway. Republican Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown has backed off his proposed legislation to override local ordinances and allow digital billboards every 1,500 feet on major state highways. He's dropped that entirely, but is keeping language in the bill which will allow the billboard industry greater latitude in cutting trees to allow a passing motorist, or a visitor from outer space, more time to read the small print.

The NC Senate Transportation Committee endorsed the new language yesterday, but not without some spectacular whining from Republican Sen. Don East, whose district used to include Watauga:
...East, R-Surry, complained that vegetation had obscured advertising he'd purchased some years ago on a billboard near Boone, within three or four weeks of its having gone up.

East said he responded by asking the billboard's owner for a partial refund. "I wasn't getting what I paid for there," he said.

The only remedy for such injustice, evidently, is a new state-wide law on clear-cutting the roadside.

The Republican Vision for NC: Dead Last in Public Education

The proposed budget put out by the new Republican majority in the NC House will reduce spending on public education. North Carolina already ranks 46th out of 50 states in per-pupil spending. The new proposed budget in the House would put us dead last -- 50th of 50.

Way to go, GOP!

Their own Republican U.S. Senator Dick Burr sent the House leadership a quiet warning last week to lay off the mischief of defunding education: "When we talk about the things that work," Burr said, "let's not overlook what most employers in the 21st century are looking for -- that's an educated workforce."

Laura Leslie of WRAL in Raleigh reports that it's mighty difficult to discern just how many jobs are at stake because of budget legerdemain -- job cuts are hidden. But the Department of Public Instruction has calculated that the House budget will cut over 18,532 jobs in its K-12 spending plan. And this is what the NCAE projects in job losses:
4,056 classroom teachers
11,086 teacher assistants
640 principals and assistant principals
870 instructional support jobs
1,190 bus drivers and custodians
690 administrative and clerical jobs

These are just the jobs we stand to lose in K-12 schools. The House budget also proposes cutting the university system by a whopping 15.5 percent, which will mean thousands more jobs lost.

That's apparently what the Republicans meant when they said they would focus on "jobs, jobs, jobs" ... that is, eliminating them.

The Raleigh Bunch is taking us into a new Depression.

While they're proposing to dis-employ thousands of good and honest laborers in the vineyards of the Lord, they're simultanously proposing to cut corporate taxes even further. Rob Schofield:
The central, overriding, inexcusable sin of the new Republican leaders thus far in 2011 has been their pig-headed commitment to cutting taxes at a moment in which state revenues are severely depressed. Under the Republican plan, state taxes in FY 2012 will be more than a $1.6 billion lower than they were in FY 2011. Not only will they permit so-called “temporary” taxes to expire, Republicans will cut taxes on corporate profits even further.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The NC Budget from Hell

Laura Leslie is the only General Assembly reporter that we've seen (so far) who is doing detailed reporting on what's in the new proposed Republican state budget released by the NC House.

Leslie says that of the 333 pages in the total budget, 63 of those deal with the dismantling of environmental protections through the dissolution of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR).

And here is Part 2 of her analysis, with more to come.

It's quite clear that the new Republican majority intends to use the budgeting process to rewrite the long-range vision of what North Carolina can and should be as an enlightened state in the Union. We used to be the most enlightened state in the Old South. Those days are over, at least for the next year and a half, unless Bev Perdue keeps that VETO stamp handy.

Birthers Pounce on Obama Birth Certificate

Now that it's official, the Right Wing is humming over the news that President Barack Obama is the documented son of an (alleged) white woman and a velociraptor which once ate a Muslim in Kenya.

Let the exegesis begin!

The Latest Assault on Voting in NC

A proposed new law (Senate Bill 657) would limit early voting in North Carolina to a week, eliminate "same day registration," and generally knee-cap the kind of ballot access that North Carolinians have come to enjoy.

And that's the problem, folks! All this delight in early voting has GOT TO END!

And this "same day registration" ... clearly a Communist plot!

Some 60% of the total vote cast in 2008 was cast during early voting. In the 2010 mid-terms, the early voting was again enthusiastic, but dominated by Republican voters. It can work for both parties, depending on who's best-organized and who has public opinion behind them. The Republican honorables in Raleigh might want to consider that. But they won't.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When Is a New Tax NOT a Tax?

In Raleigh, in the Clown College ... when it's a FEE:

"The House Finance committee has signed off on a package of about $100 million in fee increases for the upcoming budget year."

Many of those new and higher fees will land on people trying to get justice in the courts, but as we know, in the New America of the Republican Majority, justice belongs to people with plenty of money.

Deeper Into the Rabbit Hole

Franklin Graham, interviewed by Christianity Today, denying that he ever said what we watched him say and doubling down in a few other political areas.

He intends to talk, because he's a very important and pious man, and people need to understand that.

Foxx Morphs Into Joe Isuzu

You remember Joe Isuzu, don't you? The pathological liar who made outrageous and overinflated claims about Isuzu’s cars?

In support of her hero Paul Ryan, Virginia Foxx has now decided to go all in for the privatization of Medicare.

It's gonna be the best thing since sliced bread!

The insurance companies are gonna love this, even if you don't!

One hundred percent of my constitutents think my feces don't stink!

April Is the Pharisee's Month

When asked by Christianity Today back in January if there was anything he regretted, Billy Graham said he should have studied more and preached less, and then this:
"I also would have steered clear of politics. I'm grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now."

Meanwhile, his son Franklin got the Graham ego but not the message. He said on Sunday, on This Week with Christiane Amanpour, that Donald Trump might be The One, the Great White Hope, and he dropped a couple of two-ton tablets of The Law on Obama's "Muslim-seed" head, ruling him out of the Kingdom where Franklin Graham is B.M.O.C., because hey! Franklin Graham knows how to assess everyone's level of Christianity down to the finest points.

Watauga County's most famous citizen at the moment. Has no regrets. For the moment.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good Question!

"Busted Flush" starts a question thread on GoWilkes:

"Does anyone know when and where Ms Foxx will meet with her constituents. I've got some questions for the lady."

One thing The Madam is not accustomed to doing ... meeting the public in town-hall settings where the audience isn't guaranteed to be smooching her butt and where the questions can't be controlled.

Don't look for her to come out from behind her Twitter feed any time soon.

Soucek & Jordan to Watauga County Schools: Sponging Works Both Ways

At a sit-down with the Ashe County School Board, which is justifiably freaking out about Republican cuts to education funding in Raleigh, Sen. Dan Soucek and Rep. Jonathan Jordan patted the school board's collective hand ('There! There!") and assured them that Their Eminences are open to questions and concerns. The senator and the rep. also sympathized with a small school system like Ashe's, comparing it to a large system, like Watauga's:

"Jordan and Soucek explained that they realize larger school systems, such as Watauga and Wilkes counties, can absorb cuts better than what Ashe County could."

Good to know. Watauga schools are absorbent.

Friday, April 22, 2011

News From the Clown College

As always since January, it's difficult to keep up with the ludicrous jokes pouring out of the new Republican majority in Raleigh. Here are just a few of the most recent:

1. Harry Payne writes in the N&O about the craven attempt to let businesses off the hook for employees permanently injured on the job. He starts by observing how this New Bunch in Raleigh has jumped on the old Washington Republican habit of naming a new law in the most misleading way possible:
House bill 709, "Protect and Put NC Back to Work," is a shining example of the latest in that dark art where the bill title says one thing and the text of the bill does the opposite. A more accurate title would be "House Bill 709, An Act Pushed by Insurance Companies to Reduce Payments to Workers Permanently Disabled on the Job and to Tilt a Delicately Balanced Legal System Against the Interests of Every Injured Worker."

2. Rob Schofield calls our attention to a bill introduced in the NC Senate, the “School Violence Protection Act.” Among other things, the bill would require the expulsion of kids who have been twice alleged to be delinquent or undisciplined. Shadows of the 16th Century, when all it took for torture was someone's saying he saw you reading the Geneva rather than the Douay translation of the Bible. Plus the proposed new law specifies that “No school employee shall be reprimanded or dismissed for acting or failing to act to stop or intervene in an altercation between students.” May I hold your jacket, chum, while you beat the crap out of that gay kid?

3. Laura Leslie reported on perhaps our favorite head-scratcher of the week. Representative George Cleveland has decided that North Carolina can be -- and should be -- as ignorant as Oklahoma, so he's pushing our own anti-Sharia-law bill. Rep. Cleveland could offer no rational reason for why such a law is needed, other than the possibility that he heard something about it on right-wing talk radio.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tea Partiers to Congressman Ryan: Keep Your Cotton-Pickin' Hands Off Our Hoverounds!

And who said the Tea Party was irrational?

Raleigh GOP Intends to Force Off-Shore Drilling

Way to observe the anniversary of the worst off-shore oil disaster in history!

Yesterday NC Senate Republicans unveiled their scheme to force Gov. Perdue into a three-state "compact" with those other towering edifices of backward thinking, Virginia and South Carolina, to drill for fossil energy off the coast of North Carolina.

Too late, apparently, did the Honorables realize that the date also happened to be the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which led to some really lame rationalization and this piece of stunning logic. Said one of the bill's chief sponsors, Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, “But what we did learn from this disaster is we learned from our mistakes.”

"What we learned is ... we learned."

Well okay then. Proceed with your proceeding!

You shouldn't pass Freshman English with such reasoning, let alone get control of the reins of government.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Virginia Foxx, Out of the Closet

She's been coy at times about privatizing (a.k.a., eliminating) Medicare, but with her vote last Friday she's fully on record (with all her Republican pals except for four brave souls) in support of Congressman Ryan's Big Scheme to defund Medicare. Not one Democratic Rep voted for this Black Frost of a budget plan.

No need for Death Panels, eh, Congresswoman? Every old, poor person can get to their dirt couch without delay under your vision of the future.

The Republican non-believers? David McKinley of West Virginia (sudden heart palpitations in the Kingdom of Coal?), Walter Jones of North Carolina (!), Ron Paul of Texas (!!), and Denny Rehberg of Montana.

Hidden Agendas

Sarah Ovaska has up a must-read investigation into the push for Charter schools in North Carolina, with particular emphasis on what's been going on in nearby Rutherford County.

What could possibly be wrong with a school receiving tax-payer money while offering fully integrated support for a Christian anti-abortion group and while providing only one political club option for students — a Young Republican’s Club – whose stated mission is to “shape the future of Republican politics in North Carolina by recruiting, engaging, training and mobilizing a new generation of conservative leaders”?

There's Bad, and Then There's Stoopid

Another bill in the NC House, set to be voted on today (we just heard about it last night, and there's been no mention of it in any public press that we can find), would remove a valuable planning instrument from all local governments in North Carolina. House Bill 332 would insert language into existing law to prohibit temporary moratoria "for the purpose of developing or adopting new or amended plans or ordinances."

Talk about a Trojan horse!

Counties and towns adopt moratoria when threatened by something new, unforeseen, something especially threatening to public health and safety, not to mention detrimental to any local vision for what a community wants to be in the future. This bill would take away that instrument of government.

Watauga County has adopted at least three moratoria in recent years to deal with serious threats to its sense of community and its public health. It took about 30 minutes for a Republican County Commission to pass a moratorium on sexually oriented businesses when a titty bar wanted to open up in Deep Gap (what year was that? Mid-'90s). The moratorium stayed in effect until the Planning Board could study, write, and vote on a county-wide ordinance regulating the placement of such businesses.

Other moratoria were passed under the threat of new, unregulated asphalt plants (and other "high-impact" land uses, a.k.a., "polluting industries") and most recently to deal with the increasing visual blight and distraction of digital billboards.

The intent behind this proposed change to the law couldn't be clearer: when it comes to unleashing predatory business, local ordinances be damned! From the boys who say they oppose "big government" we get the repeated over-riding of local control in favor of wide-open, unregulated strafing of our state by whatever corporate interests might take an interest.

To their credit, most of our Watauga County Commissioners were alarmed last night by the implications of this proposed law ... even David Blust (bless his heart). But not so much Commission Chair Nathan Miller, who was immediately suspicious because professional planners are also opposed to the law. Apparently, anything that smacks of planning to Mr. Miller is tainted.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Clear the Roads: Madam Foxx Is in Town

Intercepted e-mail:
"Virginia Foxx is also a bat shit crazy driver. Earlier this evening (around 7:50 p.m.) I was driving on the 105 extension going toward Blowing Rock Road, in the left lane. Someone began tailgating me in an aggressive manner. It seemed especially aggravating because the tailgater could have switched to the other lane and gone around me. No one was in that other lane. Oddly there weren't many cars on the road.

"I did not want to speed up because I was going the speed limit. The tailgater kept harassing me, getting even closer. So I slowed down (yes, foolish on my part). She nearly ran into me and had to swerve into the other lane. At last the horrible car passed me.

"Much to my surprise it was Virginia Foxx, driving her minivan with the congressional plates, and she was talking on a cell phone.

"When we got to the light at 105, the both of us had to stop in order to turn left. HA! Of course she then went speeding down Blowing Rock Road, still talking on the phone."

New Executive Director of the NCDP?

Jay Parmley appears to have gotten the job of leading the daily operations of the North Carolina Democratic Party, moving north slightly from his previous job as Executive Director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. He has an impressive resume. He was not too long ago the youngest state party chair in the nation, in Oklahoma.

It's not lost on us that he was also an early supporter of Howard Dean for chair of the DNC.

Parmley's hiring at the moment is mainly unconfirmed rumor. He reportedly announced the move on his Facebook page on Saturday.

Gov. Perdue, Pumping Iron

Perdue refused to negotiate over hostages. Fifth veto late, late Saturday night, and she looks five times stronger for it!

Republicans in the General Assembly look like most hostage-takers do ... weak and ruthless.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mid-Terms at the Clown College

The new Republican majority in the General Assembly has passed Day 77 of their attempt to remake North Carolina to 1920 standards (or 1880). Trying to stay up with The Outrage of the Day has been exhausting, the official mainstream media press corps in Raleigh sprints to stay up, the rest of us regular citizens find our mouths permanently agape at the spectacle of over-reach, extremism, and iron-heartedness.

Bob Geary, in the Independent Weekly, does a more-than-adequate job of summing up the first 77 days:
Taken as a whole, the Republican agenda thus far is a mix of short-term program cuts, longer-term ideas for dismantling the public sector, sops to corporate backers and series of bills aimed at putting minority groups down.

Jobs? Not so much. Public education? The new Republican majority has shown its hostility in any number of ways. Geary's assessment is pointed:
...many Republican legislators are at odds with the whole idea of traditional public schools—of a free, K–12 system, that is, which enrolls most school-age children and offers them roughly the same educational opportunities.

That's been clear throughout the debate over charter schools, with Republicans voting on party lines for a bill to ditch the "cap" of 100 such schools (SB 8) and open the gates to many more with few restrictions about who they must enroll. The bill, different versions of which have passed the House and Senate, infuriates Democrats, especially African-American Democrats like Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, who denounced it Monday night on the House floor as "a pure racist move."

Democrats believe that if charters are permitted to recruit just the "gifted and talented" students, for example—as the GOP bill would allow—and are not required to have diverse student bodies or provide transportation to kids who live miles away, the upshot will be a proliferation of schools that are private in nature but receive public funds (supplemented by parents' contributions).

Such schools will be cheaper to operate than the traditional public schools while "creaming" the better students from them, they argue; the traditional schools will see their support dwindle and their budgets cut, even as they're left to educate heavily low-income and special-needs student populations. "These schools will become more and more segregated," an angry Michaux declared. "Your wish of doing away with the traditional public schools will come true." ...

There's more to shake the head over in Geary's report.

Watauga, Rude with Health

Watauga County is ranked the 4th healtiest county in the state of North Carolina.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Shortsighted, Special-Interest Lawmaking"

The new Republican majority in the NC General Assembly released its proposed budget cuts yesterday. Business as usual, so far as extreme conservatism is concerned ... make the kids, the poor, the sick shoulder all the burden. Laura Leslie has a couple of analytic posts up about specific cuts, here and here.

But more to the point of what's really afoot here (an extreme ideology that's still positively giddy and reckless at finally being in charge, after all these years!) is this morning's editorial, "Slash and Burn," in the Raleigh News and Observer:
Now we know. Now we know what happens when shortsighted, special-interest lawmaking confronts a major budget crisis and brinksmanship trumps statesmanship.

Given the chance to show their mettle in that crisis, to prove they were right all these years when they criticized a Democratic majority's governing, Republicans in the state House have failed. They have failed the state and its people. They are presenting budget proposals that will eviscerate state government and the public education system in a way that would set back North Carolina to a point from which it might never recover....

In the name of closing a budget gap estimated at between $1.9 billion and $2.6 billion, House Republicans, led by Speaker Thom Tillis (although "led" is hardly the word for it), propose to cut funding for public education, environmental protection and public safety. They would do this while recklessly allowing a temporary state sales tax to expire. Under Gov. Beverly Perdue's proposed budget, three-fourths of that 1-cent tax would be kept on the books, bringing in an additional $800 million-plus to ease the pain.

Thousands of jobs will be lost with the House plan, and with them, services that most North Carolinians take for granted as part of the state's covenant with its citizens.The numbers are astonishing. But there will be human consequences....

"Human consequences"? Seems like the last thing any Republican law-maker in the NC General Assembly considers. They don't even seem to acknowledge that such things exist, let alone matter.

Two More Vetoes by Gov. Perdue

We were on the road yesterday to and from Raleigh while The Guv was stamping these new vetoes on bad bills, but we'll echo the praise today for Perdue's decision to stand up and fight back against the extreme agenda of the new Republican majority in the General Assembly.

Talking to other progressives at the protest rally in Raleigh yesterday, I heard again what we have all heard before, that Gov. Perdue has warned Democratic activists that "I won't veto everything that the Republicans pass." All of us were asking the same question: "Why the hell not?" So far those vetoes are holding. If there are any good ideas in those bills, let the majority delete the bullshit and bring back the okay stuff without the dross.

And by the way ... just wondering where the NC Democratic Party was yesterday. They weren't where anyone could see them on this voter ID law.

The Progressive Pulse has a round-up of other reactions to the two new vetoes here.

Stop Photo ID: Respect Our Vote!

Part of the crowd on West Jones Street yesterday in Raleigh protesting at the General Assembly the Republican majority's plan to suppress votes through a new voter photo ID law.

Speakers included two college students who talked about the disproportionate impact on young voters whose existing photo IDs will probably not have their college addresses. Senior citizens who've given up their driving privileges and who do not have birth certificates spoke, along with a representative of the American Assoc. of Retired Persons. A homeless veteran spoke against the law, along with representatives of North Carolina Fair Share. Chris Kromm of the Institute of Southern Studies spoke as did several members of the General Assembly. Rep. Alma Adams asked rhetorically, "If you look like me, do you need a voter ID? Hell no!"

Rep. Larry Hall, one of the leaders of the opposition in the General Assembly, summed up the conclusion of many of the speakers ... that the supposed "need" for this proposed law only emerged after the Republicans took control of the General Assembly. "They want us to be stuck with them forever," Rep. Hall said, and the way to do that is to suppress the votes of groups not naturally aligned with the extreme conservative views of those now running the General Assembly.

Rev. William Barber of the NC NAACP thundered for all of us: "Tell it like it is! This is a voter-suppression, voter-intimidation law. But we won't go back! Too many have cried, too many have died for the right to vote!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Obama's Mama's Uncle

No, seriously. You never know who'll show up at a protest in Raleigh, but here was Jon Payne, the baby brother of the woman who raised Barack Obama in Hawaii, right there with the rest of us in Raleigh today for the rally to "STOP the Voter Photo ID" law.

He lives in North Carolina now. He thinks the proposed voter ID bill is a law proposed primarily to "get the jump" on voter turn-out in 2012, to disenfranchise as many black people as possible in a Southern state where black voters will be key next year, but a law that will also impact disproportionately elderly people and college-age voters, whose photo IDs at college will not have their college addresses on them.

Beautiful day in Raleigh, and what a nice man for any president's family!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mammon in America

I've been reading the 40-lb. Volume One of the Mark Twain Autobiography and can not avoid the comparison between our Age of Koch-suckers and Pope-lickers and the Gilded Age of robber barons that Mark Twain witnessed up close. Prophetic, this passage on Jay Gould, composed in 1906 (Jay Gould's unscrupulous financial speculation made his name a byword for ruthless greed. He looted the assets of the Erie Railroad and in his attempt to corner the gold market in 1869, he triggered the panic of Black Friday by which thousands of people lost their life savings):
Jay Gould had just then reversed the commercial morals of the United States. He had put a blight upon them from which they have never recovered, and from which they will not recover for as much as a century to come. Gay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country. The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it. They had respected men of means before his day, but along with this respect was joined the respect due to the character and industry which had accumulated it. But Jay Gould taught the entire nation to make a god of the money and the man, no matter how the money might have been acquired. In my youth there was nothing resembling a worship of money or of its possessor, in our region. And in our region no well-to-do man was ever charged with having acquired his money by shady methods.

The gospel left behind by Jay Gould is doing giant work in our days. Its message is "Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must."

What would Mark Twain have said about Goldman Sachs? About 21st century corporate greed? About Citizens United?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ken McKinney, Rest in Peace

I received the essay below from Ken McKinney on April 4th with an apology for its length. Neither of us knew that Ken would pass away five days later, with this wonderful piece of writing existing as one of his last testimonies.

He explained in that April 4th email his reason for writing at length about his father:
I was railing to our daughter, Rachel, about the Maine governor having the mural celebrating Maine laborers stripped from the Maine Department of Labor building. She suggested that I get it off my chest by writing something for my sister to post on her Facebook page. (I don't have or want a Facebook account.) The attached file is it; I got a little carried away.

A tribute to my Father, Frank Gene McKinney
(June 27, 1917 - January 16, 1997)

My father was born into a working-class family during the first World War, in the small town of Waverley, Alabama, the first-born of eight siblings (seven brothers and one sister). He had a great deal of responsibility within the family, began working at an early age with a paper route that was passed down to his brothers in turn, and was mentor to his brothers in a close-knit family.

His birth coincided with the 1917 opening of the huge steel mill in Fairfield, Alabama, the new (1910) company town of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), which was by then a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation.

Fairly soon after my father was born, the growing family moved from Waverley to Fairfield (essentially an extension of Birmingham, Alabama), where my Grandfather, Bernard, labored in the sheet mill of the new TCI operation. Eventually my father, most of his brothers, and some uncles on my mother’s side of the family worked as laborers for TCI or for Birmingham Southern Railroad, a short-line railroad largely serving TCI. Some of my uncles worked as laborers for TCI or the Railroad for a fairly short time before moving on to desk jobs in the companies or working through university educations. One uncle on each side of the family spent his working career working in the mills of TCI, but in the mid-1950s my father took a job in maintenance at Lloyd Noland Hospital in Fairfield, a hospital formerly part of TCI to serve its employees, but an independent community-based hospital since 1949.

My father was an honorable, hard-working man who lived his life with complete integrity. Even times when income was token, 10% came off the top as tithe to the church. Later, when most of his siblings were grown and earning incomes, they taxed themselves to support their mother with a dependable income (she pre-dated Social Security) and later upped that family tax for her final years among fellow Methodists in a nursing home. The 15 cents was there every week for the life insurance collector to come by, the amount growing as he could afford to add yet another small policy with my mother as beneficiary.

As a teenager I had to go along with him as he moonlighted as electrician in the neighborhood most weekends; if my yawning and lack of attention as gopher and flashlight-holder irritated him too much, he would remind me that all the money he was making by moonlighting was going to me, the dollar or two that I got as helper and all the rest into my college fund.

That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a product of his times or of the segregated South; we all accept some things about the context in which we live that future generations will judge to have been wrong. My sister had more native intelligence than I did; but that appeared not to carry much weight in our parents’ plans for us: it would be a heavy financial burden to send just one of us through college; I was the boy and would therefore be educated. My sister would need to make her way through life by marriage. Our parents also struggled – only partially successfully – later in life to accept racial integration. But there’s a profoundly unfair temporal sense to Robert Burns’ line, “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

My early memories are relatively few, except that they collectively convey a remarkably happy childhood, not affluent by any stretch of the imagination but full of the essence of life: discovery, play, imagination, extended family outings. But there were serious things too that cut through. One of them, perhaps a reason that I have been a reader all my life, was having to keep the house quiet all day for a week each month while my father slept in a darkened room because of working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift as part of a continuous rotation of two weeks day shift (7-3), a week of evening (3-11), and a week of night (11-7). Equally clear are discussions between my father and uncles of rumors that communists might be trying to infiltrate the union at TCI, obligations to man the picket lines, my father having to go away to distant places (Kentucky!) to find work during long strikes, the need to comb the neighborhood and collect sacks full of poke weed in summer and especially during strikes.

(One thing is pretty funny. Like most little kids, I wanted to be like my father and so mimicked what he did. When just a few years old I convinced him to let me drink milky coffee and asked for sugar in it. He said that he didn’t have any sugar in his coffee, and I didn’t need it either. OK, I learned to drink and prefer coffee – now black – with no sugar. Decades later, I saw him ladling sugar into his coffee. “What’s up with the sugar?!?” “I always liked sugar in my coffee. We just didn’t have the money to buy it.”)

You see, my father was a union man. Although a paternalistic company during the earliest part of the 20th century, TCI had had a firmly union-prohibiting policy. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 caused them not so much to lay off workers but to cut them back to part time, even to a few hours per month, causing large numbers of them to become heavily indebted to the company commissaries and to owe back rent if in company housing. At the same time, the paternalistic programs such as recreational activities, health care, safety measures, support of local schools were severely curtailed or eliminated.

However, in 1935 Franklin Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act gave unions the right to organize and to engage in collective bargaining, and two years later U. S. Steel and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee signed a deal that brought in unions, eventually affiliating with the United Steelworkers of America.

Birmingham’s reason for existence was the realization during the 19th century that here, within just a few miles' radius, were substantial quantities of the raw ingredients required for producing steel: iron ore, coal, and (for flux) limestone. In fact, during my early childhood while all three products were still being produced locally, the men in our neighborhood mostly worked in one or other of the types of mines or in the steel mills themselves. The miners were color-coded when they came home from their shifts, the limestone miners less so because they worked in an open-cast rather than underground mine. Occasional roof collapses in an underground mine would keep the entire community awake and on edge until all the men were accounted for. The men weren’t well protected from the dust that they raised as they worked. One uncle by marriage on my mother’s side of the family began working in the coal mines at age seven, and early in his adulthood his lungs were in such sorry state that he couldn’t work any more. Ignorant of silicosis or black lung disease, the family censored him as a malingerer, but after moving to an area of dry, clean air in the American West, he never recovered fully but was able to work part time. Exploitative child labor within industry doesn’t seem very far in the past to me.

All the industrial jobs in Birmingham needed union representation and collective bargaining for their safety on the job as well as for improved living standards for the men and their families. Serious injuries and even deaths occurred in the TCI steel mills when body parts got in the way of rapidly moving red hot sheets.

Why was he a union man? That’s simple. The company was making profits hand-over-fist, the top executives were living well, the office workers were paid relatively well, the laborers were barely getting by and had no financial safety net. Collective bargaining meant slowly achieving a more livable wage, worker input into safety of the work environment, plus gradual addition and growth of non-wage benefits such as medical attention for the family.

When my father was born, the top 10% of income earners made 40% of the share of the country’s annual income. Twelve years later when the Great Depression began and in fact all through the Great Depression (1929-1941), that top 10% garnered about 45% of the country’s annual income. When the Great Depression ended and labor unions began to have a voice, that degree of inequity plummeted to roughly 33% of the country’s total income to the top 10% and stayed at that level until 1981. That was the year that President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ union, which emboldened a variety of industries “plagued” by sharing with the workforce what otherwise could be enriching shareholders. There has been an essentially straight-line increase in proportional income for the top 10%, back to the just over 45% that it was in 1929.1

But that’s not all. The Congressional Budget Office's “Average Household After-Tax Income” tells the horrifying story in graphic terms.2

In 1979 Marg and I were probably in the middle 20% after-tax household income group, gradually moving into the Fourth 20% toward the end of our work life and now back comfortably at just about the boundary, which means that our after-tax income puts us a little above the average in the US. We have such a comfortable income because my father worked and saved like crazy to be able to put me through college, Marg and I did well enough in undergraduate school to continue on our own into graduate school, and I only had to have one offer of employment (at a far higher salary) in the oil industry to know that I wanted to teach instead of being income-driven, whether it be salary in a large company or percentage override of production if working as an independent or small company.

Enough about where I fit in on the scale, except that my father made it possible by hard work and sacrificing a lot of Saturdays. But the genuinely disturbing thing about that CBO graph is the contrast between the four bars on the left and the four bars on the right. The better off your income group was in 1979, the much MUCH better off you are now. The top 20% have a quantum jump of about three times income increase relative even to the 60-80% (Fourth 20%). Keep breaking down that top 20% group into even smaller high-end slices (the three bars on the right end), and the proportional increase in annual income is staggering, which means that the actual increase is immorally obscene. Take it on to the richest 400 individuals (the Forbes 400), and together the 400 of them now own as much wealth as 50% (155 million) of the rest of us. And some of the richest among them provided most of the funds to get the tea party movement established as a political force, to ensure that their federal tax rate doesn’t increase to the same rate that the lower 90% of us pay and their business operating expenses don’t rise to compensate for trivial things such as environmental and human damage.

What would my father make of the current assault on the state, county, and municipal unions? Or the Governor of Maine removing the mural portraying the labor history of Maine from its Department of Labor building because it sends the wrong message to potential business investment? I really don’t know.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who set the stage for the labor movement to grow, was my father’s all-time political hero. Curiously, Ronald Reagan, who along with outsourcing initiated the post-1979 decline of unions, was also high on the list. But by the time Ronald Reagan was in office my father was deeply influenced by conservative rhetoric, which he found very compelling. Because of that rhetoric he thought that the unions had over-reached. Political rhetoric often, especially agenda-driven rhetoric, commonly is supported only by hot air. My father had no access to actual comprehensive data, just rhetoric and carefully chosen examples to support the point of the rhetoric. (Neither “conservatives” nor “liberals” have a corner on that.) Would he have felt the same if he had known that income inequality had been flattened with the growth of unions and the onset of WWII and remained unchanged at that level until Ronald Reagan squashed the air traffic controllers’ union, which unleashed the outmaneuvering and destruction of unions, and started the trend right back up to the income inequality level at the onset of the Great Depression? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that, if he had access to comprehensive data rather than just to persuasive rhetoric, would he countenance the present attempt to polish off unions in the US by crippling the largest of the remaining unions.

Whether he would or wouldn’t have understood what has been and is currently happening to unions and economic disparity in the US, I blew a gasket when the Governor of Maine had the labor-honoring mural removed (which celebrated the collective Rosie the Riveters’ contributions to WWII!!). To me that is a personal insult to my father, and I don’t like it one whit. It’s bad enough to set things up so that the wealth of the nation flows ever faster into the hands of a few. There are no words strong enough to condemn someone who so blatantly insults my father and everybody else who worked to get decent working conditions and a living wage available to the common man.

Frank K. (Ken) McKinney
April 4, 2011

1 Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, "Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003. Updated to 2007.

2 Congressional Budget Office, “Average Household After-Tax Income,” Data on the Distribution of Federal Taxes and Household Income, April, 2009.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

NC House Passes Voter ID

On a strictly party-line vote. Which perhaps means that Gov. Perdue's veto will stand ... when it comes to that ... and it will come to that.

After hedging a couple of weeks ago on this turd of a law, the Republicans first changed the language to allow Board of Elections-issued cards as valid identification but went back on that this week. What else has been changed is something of a mystery, since the new version of the bill is not available on the Gen'l Assembly's website.

By their own grudging admission, Republicans know this law could cost up to $3.5 million a year in supplying free IDs to the almost 1 million North Carolinians who lack a photo ID. One bright bulb among the Rs said, “Nobody really knows” how much it's going to cost. Duh.

These are the people who were screaming two minutes ago about how much money is wasted by state government.

Once we can get a look at the new version, we'll be able to suggest just how many college students, elderly people, and minorities will be disenfranchised.

Here's the text of the substitute bill voted on today.

The Dangers of Water-for-Profit

For-profit companies getting control of a natural resource -- in this instance, water -- and then selling that water to citizens at a profit is the purest example of where "privatization" can lead.

Aqua North Carolina Inc., which sells water to some 72,000 customers in North Carolina (and sewer service to 15,000) must pass rate increases through a mostly compliant NC Utilities Commission. Aqua NC Inc. asked for a rate increase in 2008 and got it. No prob. It's asking again, and citizens in Lewisville, northern Davidson County, and Clemmons are beginning to wake up to the clear downside of a for-profit monopoly holding their right to a drop of water.

Municipalities sell water, too, of course, but not for profit. They set their rates to cover the costs of supplying the water. Private water companies set their rates according to what the traffic will bear, and what a go-along Utilities Commission will permit.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Aide to Jonathan Jordan Did It

An unsigned "poison pen" letter with nasty racist overtones was surreptitiously placed on the desks of NC Senate members on the day they were to vote on an otherwise non-controversial act to symbolically pardon Gov. William Woods Holden for his 1870 impeachment.

Holden was a Republican who called out the militia to put down Ku Klux Klan thuggery. He was impeached by a Democratic General Assembly as a n****er-lover, the first governor ever removed from office in the United States.

The act this year to pardon him, albeit symbolically, would have been a line-drive hit for the new Republican majority in the General Assembly, finally doing the right thing for one of their own party who was unfairly and maliciously driven from office by backward, racist Democrats.

Then the unsigned letter appeared on Senate members desks quoting an un-reconstructed pro-slavery UNC history professor, from almost a century ago, who accused Gov. Holden of "corruption." Spooked, the Republican leadership in the Senate immediately suspended action on the bill.

NC Senate rules forbid unsigned pieces of paper that advocate for or against legislative action. Mysteriously, the several thousand cameras in the Senate chamber weren't working the morning the letters were distributed. No one in the Senate claimed responsibility.

Apparently, it was WRAL's Laura Leslie that got the scoop, tweeting yesterday afternoon that the culprit was a 27-year-old legislative assistant to NC House member Jonathan Jordan, one Carlton Huffman, who is now unemployed at the General Assembly. Rep. Jordan, for his part, is playing Sergeant Schultz: "I know nuth-think!"

The Progressive Pulse's Sarah Ovaska got hold of Mr. Huffman and interviewed him. According to Huffman, his only concern was "corruption." White racial superiority? Never crossed his mind.

During 2009 Carlton Huffman had a blog page on ConservativeNC, where he paraded his hard-right cred for that particular crowd (sample: "This is no time to listen to Colin Powell and the voices of moderation in our party"). He's been featured as a guest blogger on Katy's Conservative Corner, where Katy offered this bio of him:
Originally from Granite Falls, North Carolina, Carlton Huffman is a conservative activist who recently relocated to Raleigh from the Northern Virginia area. He’s happy be back in the land of Jesse Helms. He graduated from Campbell University where he studied Government and History.

He's also a former assistant to Pat Buchanan. He wrote on a slavery revisionism site for Confederate History Month that the Old South (Massa on the plantation, blacks in their subservient place) was the closest to a "second Eden" that Americans had ever come.

While Jonathan Jordan was not saying why Huffman was no longer in his employ, he did volunteer that Huffman was "an excellent legislative assistant." Right! It's not every employee on the House side of the General Assembly who'll take the initiative to cross over to the Senate side to pass out anonymously materials meant to slime a 19th-century opponent of the Ku Klux Klan.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Knee-Capping the Town of Boone

At their meeting this morning, the Republican majority of the Watauga County Commission made their intent clear, as far as the Town of Boone is concerned: ill will and open warfare.

The Commission has statutory right to appoint Extra Territorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) members to both the Boone Area Planning Board and the Board of Adjustments (BOA), a quasi-judicial board that rules on certain zoning requests and complaints.

The Commission this morning appointed Jeff Templeton to the Planning Board.

And despite three qualified nominations made by the Town of Boone for a regular and an alternate seat on the Board of Adjustments, the Commission chose to appoint two men who had (1) not applied and (2) whose sole qualifications appear to be their conservative politics and open hostility to the town's land-use planning.

But there's more. The alternate appointment for the ETJ position to the Board of Adjustments is a man who lives in the town of Boone, not in the ETJ. To make that appointment legal, the three Republicans on the Commission had to make a "finding" that there were no qualified applicants in the ETJ, when all three of the people recommended for the positions by the Town of Boone are not only obviously qualified but very qualified, with experience on various planning taskforces or with higher education in that or related fields.

So what disqualified them from appointment to the Board of Adjustment? With regard to Harvard Ayers, nominated to the regular ETJ seat on the BOA, Nathan Miller said, My problem with Ayers is that he agrees with the town's planning ordinances.

Commissioner Vince Gable chimed in that the other two applicants, Robert Goddard (who has previous experience on a planning board, a zoning board, and a board of adjustment) and Cameron Lippard (who has considerable college work in rural and urban development) were disqualified too because they agree with Boone's zoning and development regs.

The men who were appointed (including obviously the alternate ETJ member of the BOA put in place because there were no "qualified" applicants), were chosen for their politics.

(For the record, Commissioner Jim Deal argued that the appointment of a resident of Boone to an ETJ seat violated the spirit of the statute, and he did vote against it. The vote was 3-1, with Futrelle absent.)

There you have it. Boone is to have Tea Party obstructionists appointed to any body that does any land-use planning.

Meanwhile, these same Republican commissioners are angling to get Boone taxpayers to cough up water it doesn't currently have, but may have in the future, in order to do massive development in Deep Gap, which is likely to make a handful of people rich, though not including the general citizens of Boone, who are disdained because they have zoning but whose resources are coveted openly and without embarrassment by men who never pass up an opportunity to sneer at the town and complain about its style of self-government.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Putting the Political Strong-Arm on Republican County Commissioners

A public records request was made on March 23 for emails to and from Watauga County Commissioners and any other documents related to the discussion of and decision about the March 15 rescinding of the resolution to hold a public referendum in Watauga County on the question of a quarter-cent sales tax increase

To recap:

1. Feb. 25-26, 2011 – at their “pre-budget retreat,” Watauga County Commission gets a good look at funding pressures for the 2012 budget

2. March 1, 2011 – less than 70 hours after the “pre-budget retreat,” the Republican majority on the Watauga County Commission adopt a resolution to hold a public referendum on a quarter-cent sales tax increase, on a vote of 3-1, with Democratic Commissioner Tim Futrelle dissenting (Democratic Commissioner Jim Deal was absent). The Commission notifies the Watauga County Board of Elections to prepare for a referendum and schedules
a public hearing on the resolution for March 15 (though a public hearing is not required, especially as the Commission has already passed its resolution)

3. March 7, 2011 – the Boone Tea Party, in an e-mail to 200+ members, endorses the tax increase, which is followed by some significant dissent within the group

4. March 9, 2011 – the Media Committee of the Watauga County Republican Party writes and submits a column supporting the sales tax increase to the Watauga Democrat, which is published, after the Committee has run the text by Commission Chair Nathan Miller. The column makes a strong case for the need for a tax increase to save 69-plus teacher positions due to anticipated state budget cuts.

5. March 15, 2011 – following the public hearing, where a lop-sided majority spoke in favor of a sales tax increase “to save public education,” and after the public had mainly exited the meeting, the Republican commissioners completely reversed course and voted to rescind the resolution they had voted on just two weeks prior ... on a vote of 3-2, with both Democratic commissioners dissenting.

Email traffic to and from the Republican members of the County Commission reveal what also happened between March 1 and March 15.

GASP! Some Actual (Blog) Journalism Trumps WBTV Sensationalism

WBTV was just doing its part to trump up fear of The Gay. Its sensationalistic and totally erroneous TV coverage is then vetted by a 20-something blogger with jouralistic chops.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Making NC Higher Education a Safe Haven for the Rich

Long article in today's Charlotte Observer RE the attack on higher education funding in North Carolina. The new Republican majority in the General Assembly seem more determined than ever to shift the burden of college-funding onto the backs of students. With this trend continuing with promised budget cuts this year (ranging in predictions from 15 - 30 percent), pretty soon only the children of bank executives will be able to afford college.

"We shouldn't go down a road like that without significant debate," said UNC system President Tom Ross, "because it has huge implications for the future of the state and the health of its economy."

Some hard numbers (from the Observer article):
◘ In 1990, the state provided 81 percent of the money used to teach undergraduate students in the UNC system, according to system data. By last year, that share had fallen to 63.8 percent.

◘ Meanwhile, tuition has risen steadily - up about 175 percent since 2000. At N.C. State, for example, in-state undergrads paid $1,861 in tuition in 2000-01; this year, they're paying $5,153.

◘ A year ago, the cost of public higher education went up twice, first in the UNC system's regular process, and then again in late summer after the legislature signed off on it as a stopgap measure to help plug a massive budget hole.

◘ The dual increases drove rates as much as 18 percent higher on some campuses.

The article points out that so far students have mainly "acquiesced" in this shifting of the burden on paying for college. Maybe that's coming to an end? A protest walk-out last Thursday on the ASU campus might be indicative of students beginning to wake up a bit to what's going on with their futures.

It happens that the sole student member of the UNC system's Board of Governors is an ASU graduate student, Atul Bhula. He is quoted in the Charlotte Observer article: "I'm afraid of this General Assembly moving tuition from a secondary source to a primary source of revenue. I think the General Assembly needs to be reminded of its constitutional mandate."

"Constitutional mandate"? Why, yes, the NC Constitution actually demands "an affordable public university."

The current bunch in control of the General Assembly seem to be unfamiliar with that concept.