Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I'm back

Since I have no readers, I'm not sure who I'm explaining to, but my intentions are to begin posting again. Between the crush of the election and a broken leg, I was a little tied up.

I'll start with this link to a Jan. 10 editorial I wrote for the Lewiston Sun Journal about the phony crisis that's being drummed up by President Bush and the Social Security haters. It didn't take long for them to respond, either. People who have an ideological aversion to Social Security are lining up for the fight, hopeful they'll be able to erase one of the pillars of the New Deal.

No crisis in Social Security

Social Security is not in a crisis today.
It won't face a true crisis in 2042, and it's hard to say with any level of certainty what will happen 75 years from now.

But politicians, in this case President Bush and his supporters, are intent on creating the impression of a crisis to spur the country into a discussion - and a choice - it would likely not make otherwise.

Like the supposed threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which didn't exist, or the threat of legalized same-sex marriage in Maine, smart politicians and their allies are manipulating public thought. They are creating a crisis where none exists with the intention of imposing an ideological solution that's not necessary. ...

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

No room at the Republican Convention

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 31:

Maybe we're too sensitive, or see slight where none exists.

But we believe that Maine's two popular U.S. senators should have a place speaking at the Republican National Convention in New York. As of Monday, both Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins were left off the schedule.

The decision doesn't track with everything else we know. Maine, we're told, is a swing state, especially in the 2nd Congressional District. President Bush has dispatched numerous surrogates to the state to make his case, and political ads are common on television here.

Republicans are putting some of their biggest moderates forward. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was scheduled to speak Monday night in prime time, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the card for tonight and New York Gov. George Pataki is scheduled right before the president on Thursday. Even Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia gets his chance at the podium Wednesday night.

There's TV personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck, made famous by "Survivor" and married to a third-string NFL quarterback, Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill and Miss America 2003 Erika Harold.

Nowhere, however, do Maine's two senators appear on the schedule.Snowe has run afoul of the president on several issues, including environmental regulations, but she is a pivotal player in Congress, often one of the swing votes who can carry the day in a closely divided Senate. She's a respected member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a prominent moderate.

Collins is the chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and one of the leading players in the efforts to reform the U.S. intelligence community. She penned an Op-Ed in Monday's Boston Globe that offered a strong endorsement of President Bush's actions to fight terrorism. In it, she called terrorism the defining issue of this election and "the defining issue of our time." But she won't make the case at the convention.

Neither Snowe nor Collins are up for re-election this year, and Republicans are likely trying to showcase candidates who will face voters in the fall. But it seems a little time could be made somewhere for Maine's two senators.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Dirigo: Italian? I don't think so

Watching the roll call of states from the Republican Convention on PBS. Peter Cianchette, the former Republican candidate for governor and the chairman of Bush's Maine campaign, said that George Bush embodies the spirt of Maine's motto, Dirigo.

"I lead in Italian."
"Uh, I mean Latin."

Funny little slip. Means nothing. What does mean something, however, is that Maine's two moderate, Republican women senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, have no official role in the convention. Cianchette mentioned both women, taking pride in them.

The snub has been noticed. More on this in tomorrow's editorial from the Sun Journal.

Fighting the wrong war

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 30:

The United States passed a troubling milestone last week in Iraq.

More GIs have been killed so far in 2004 than died in 2003. The United States is averaging about two deaths a day. Through Friday, 59 U.S. soldiers were killed in August. In July, the number was 54. In June, it was 50.While the world's attention has been focused on Najaf for most of August, violence has continued around Iraq. Soldiers have been killed in Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit, Samarra and Baghdad - all in the last 10 days.

While debate continues to rage over the actions, or inaction, of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry during the Vietnam War, there's a modern day conflict that's slipped from the conversation.

If this year's trend continues, tomorrow there will be two fewer U.S. soldiers alive than there are today. Their war deserves more attention than one fought three decades ago.

A chance to outline what a 2nd term would look like

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 30:

For John Kerry, the Democratic National Convention was a chance to introduce himself to voters.

The task that awaits President Bush is significantly different. Voters already know George W. Bush. The Republican National Convention, which begins in earnest tonight, is an opportunity for the president to define the course he would steer for a second term.

Already, a broad theme of creating an "ownership" society has worked its way into Republican talking points, but it's a slippery concept that will need some detail. Whether it means enhancing homeownership, expanding personalized, tax-exempt savings accounts for health care, retirement and education costs or privatizing Social Security, the president has four days to make his case.Democrats spent much of their time looking back, examining the events and times that transformed Kerry into a candidate for president. They also spent a good amount of time dissecting President Bush's record during the last three and a half years.

We expect that President Bush and his surrogates will also spend some time explaining his actions during his time in the White House, and cheering his accomplishments, which include radical changes in the tax code, an expansion of Medicare entitlements and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

Elements of each of these have given us heartburn, but there's no denying that they are things the president can check off his to-do list.

According to national and state polls, President Bush is in a tight race and many voters have already made up their minds. A majority of Americans say the country is on the wrong track and the president's approval rating is hovering around 50 percent, dangerous territory for an incumbent.

Voters are hungry for details about what they can expect if the president is re-elected. The goal for the Republicans gathering in New York should be to present a road map for a second term.

Democrats, during their convention, spent little time talking about the future, despite having detailed proposals that deserve discussion. Republicans have an opportunity to do better

Dirigo protects the status quo

Maine is attempting to launch a unique partnership with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The basic idea of the plan is to subsidize health insurance premiums for workers making up to three times the poverty level, or about $28,000 for an individual. The plan has incentives for business to participate, which means picking up 60 percent of individual premiums for at least 75 percent of employees.

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 29:

The system that ties health insurance to employment is failing.

The Dirigo health reform plan, which formally linked up with Anthem Thursday to create DirigoChoice, is an attempt to save the system that dominates the way Mainers obtain insurance.

Call it "raging incrementalism."

Those are the words Trish Riley, Gov. Baldacci's point person on Dirigo, used to describe DirigoChoice, the state program to help employees who work for small businesses buy insurance coverage.

DirigoChoice does not radically alter the way people will buy insurance in Maine. It relies on a private insurance company, Anthem, to offer a new policy that meets certain state requirements. The state, then, will subsidize the premiums for workers who earn less than three times the poverty level and offer incentives for small businesses that help employees get coverage.

Census figures released Thursday point to the problems with health insurance in this country. The number of people without coverage increased for the third year in a row. Nationally, 45 million people were without health insurance for some part of 2003. In Maine, the number is about 133,000.

While the census figures show that median income fell in Maine, from $39,815 to $37,619, in 2003, cost for health insurance was up six percent for the year, according to Riley. That six percent increase follows years of double-digit increases. In the last five years, health insurance costs are up 77 percent.

The stress is showing in the workplace. Employers are transferring more of the cost of insurance onto workers, while others are dropping coverage altogether. The cost to insure new hires is acting as an anchor on job creation, and pushes businesses to create temporary and part-time jobs that do not come with health care benefits.DirigoChoice is a finger in the health insurance dam. The goal is to restrain rising costs, improve access and maintain high quality. Whether it can accomplish all of these goals remains to be seen. The deck certainly looks stacked against it.The plan would allow an individual to purchase insurance for about $310 a month. That's not a huge savings over insurance already available, but the plan does include no-cost preventative care - uncommon in comparably priced private plans - and subsidies for low-income workers. For example, a person making up to $28,000 a year would be eligible for help with premiums. A family of four with income of $56,500 would also qualify.

The state hopes to insure about 31,000 people in the first year of DirigoChoice, with most of those coming from participating businesses. About 5,000 slots will be open for individuals seeking coverage without sponsorship from their employer.We would have liked for the plan to be cheaper and for it to be open to more people. But "raging incrementalism," by definition, requires going slow, and the state has an obligation to make sure the plan is sustainable before growing it too quickly. Anthem, legitimately, also has to make money on DirigoChoice or the partnership with the state will fail.

There is a general reluctance by many to support a plan that further entangles the government in providing health care coverage. But already the government makes private health insurance possible. Through Medicare and Medicaid, state and federal governments accept responsibility for high-cost populations - senior citizens and the poor.

Dirigo doesn't tear apart the status quo. But even incremental changes are expensive, and Dirigo is no exception. The state costs will be high, and the political costs for the governor could be even higher if the plan is unsuccessful

Friday, August 27, 2004

Sting stings police

It's not everyday I get to work a "Simpsons" reference into an editorial, but in this case it was perfect. No doubt, if the police plan had worked, I would have been advising criminals to check out cartoons on TV for the latest in police procedures.

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 27:

Police were too cute by half to catch any real criminals with a dubious sting operation that went down Wednesday.

Twenty cops from 13 police agencies set up a sweepstakes scam in an attempt to catch 472 people wanted on outstanding property crime warrants in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.

A Rumford detective spent more than a year organizing the sting, which netted exactly zero criminals.

Police sent out a mailing to the wanted individuals announcing an "End of Summer Giveaway" by Sting Sweepstakes Control Center of Boston. Sting Sweepstakes, a tip-off perhaps?

Maybe police were auditioning their targets for a new episode of "America's Dumbest Criminals." They even used other police jargon as part of their promotional material. The gambit backfired, and it's the police who look foolish. ... http://www.sunjournal.com/opinion/ourview/20040827081.php

Grading attitude

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 27:

Middle and high school students in Poland will find a new grade on report cards this year. Teachers will be giving students marks for effort and attitude.

At first blush, we were put off by the idea of grading students for their effort and attitude. We didn't like the idea that a sour disposition could hurt an otherwise bright student's grades or be used as a blunt tool to get students to march in lock step.

But ultimately the idea has merit. ... http://www.sunjournal.com/opinion/ourview/20040827082.php

If you've been watching the Olympics

If you've been watching the Olympics in the U.S., you've probably seen the VW Touareg commercial where the young couple carry an old lady's camera to a beautiful vista.

The name of the song is "Ariel Ramirez" by Richard Buckner. It's off his 1997 album "Since."

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Overtime confusion

You can bet someone knows what's going to happen. The guy who works for an hourly wage is in trouble. Does anyone believe that an initiative supported by the U.S. Chamber really works in the best interest of the worker? It just doesn't pass the smell test.

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 26:

New overtime rules went into effect for millions of American workers on Monday.

Described by the Bush administration and the Department of Labor as a much needed update to workplace rules that will end costly litigation over who is entitled to time-and-a-half pay and when, so far the results have just added to the confusion.

According to Labor Department estimates, 107,000 people are no longer eligible for overtime pay, while thousands of low-paid and previously titled "managers" now are covered. Liberal activists, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Economic Policy Institute, say 6 million workers are losing OT. That's a huge difference, and the truth will be sorted as the rules are challenged in court. Many businesses are taking a wait-and-see attitude. We envision more litigation, not less.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which hasn't been revised in more than 50 years and was passed in 1938, needed modernization. But we fear the changes in the law will take money out of the pockets of men and women who are paid by the hour.

Overtime is meant to accomplish two things: compensate workers who put in more than 40 hours a week and to encourage employers to hire more workers when they are busy.

Both goals are worthwhile, and both are threatened.

When Congress returns from recess, it should examine the new overtime rules, considering the impact on workers who depend on the extra pay to make ends meet and the effects the changes could have on employment.

Pentagon faulted in abuse

The buck continues to stay on the low-level soldiers caught up in this mess. No doubt, their actions deserve punishment, but at some point accountability must move up the chain of command. Whatever happened to the captain going down with the ship?

Editorial, Sun Journal, Aug. 26:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did not directly order the abuse of prisoners that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But his policies led to confusion and indirectly contributed to the beatings, humiliation and torture of prisoners in U.S. military custody.A damaging report released Tuesday by a group of independent civilian defense experts tasked by the Pentagon to investigate Abu Ghraib found that the soldiers running the prison and their commanding officers were mostly to blame for the abuse.The report, however, goes further. It traces the root of the problem up the chain of command and back to Washington."The abuses were not just the failure of some individuals to follow known standards, and they are more than the failure of a few leaders to enforce proper discipline. There is both institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels," the report says.Meanwhile, the soldiers involved in this disgusting affair face criminal proceedings. Already, seven have been charged, and reports suggest more than 20 others - including doctors and medics, who may have violated their professional oath and helped cover up abuse and falsify death certificates, and civilian contractors - will be prosecuted. Yet no senior military officer has been held accountable.What happened at Abu Ghraib goes beyond the soldiers who are facing court-martial. According to James Schlesinger, the former secretary of defense who heads the four-person panel, there are more than 300 cases of abuse being investigated, including events that happened in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.Schlesinger said that senior officials, including Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded operations in Iraq, shouldn't be punished or forced to resign.We disagree. If fault can be traced up the chain of command, and Schlesinger says it can, punishment should follow.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Hamm's achievement

Editorial, Lewiston Sun Journal, Aug. 25:


U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm won Olympic gold last week for his performance in the all-around gymnastics competition.

It was an amazing comeback after a fall seemed to knock Hamm out of the running for the gold medal.

But a mistake by three judges has sunk the achievement in controversy, and now the president of the International Gymnastics Federation has suggested that Hamm voluntarily give up his gold medal.Three judges erred in scoring the performance of Korean gymnast Yang Tae Young, who won the bronze medal. The mistake likely cost Yang the gold. The three judges have been punished. But the results can't be changed because the Korean team did not correctly protest the scores.

Judges are human, prone to mistakes like the rest of us. Scoring in gymnastics is subjective. Those facts are part of the sport.Corruption can not be tolerated in the Olympics. But there's no indication the all-around competition was fixed. As it stands, it was an honest mistake made by some of the best judges in the world, who have now been suspended.

Hamm shouldn't be pressured to turn in his gold for the mistakes of three judges and the Korean coaches, who let their athlete down. Hamm did nothing wrong. The medal is his.

Changes needed in Maine Revenue Service hiring

Editorial, Lewiston Sun Journal, Aug. 25:

This is a folo to a column that appeared Sunday, Aug. 22.

Merit should always be the most important factor when state government looks to hire.

Sadly, that's not always the case.Already having a government job can push some applicants ahead of others with better qualifications.

The Maine Revenue Service is in the midst of filling 20 new jobs, including revenue agents, to beef up enforcement of the state's tax laws. Behind the new hiring is the need to catch enough cheats to raise about $5 million in the first year alone in additional state revenue.

Success is unlikely. First, even well-qualified agents take between two and three years to learn the nuance of tax enforcement. Less-qualified revenue agents will take even longer to get up to speed. It remains to be seen whether the state will realize the promise of the new revenue used to justify the hiring.

As it stands, job candidate scoring in the state's Bureau of Human Resources skews jobs toward people who already work for the government. Such patronage makes it harder for new faces - even highly skilled ones - to get into the Maine Revenue Service.Since only the applicants with the top six scores are passed on for interviews, the higher grades for government workers shut out quality people.

Additionally, Revenue Service employees receive a 10 percent stipend, which boosts their pay above other civil servants on the same pay grade, making the posts attractive to transfers.Several things should happen.An applicant's skills, education and training should carry more weight during the screening process than years of government service, and supervisors in charge of hiring should have access to more than six applications.

The decision to award Revenue Service employees an extra salary stipend should be revisited. Originally, the idea was to help the Revenue Service compete for the talent with the private sector. If most applicants for M.R.S. jobs come from within the government, the program isn't working as designed.

A quiz, just now being created, will be given to test an applicant's basic accounting skills. That's a solid improvement, but we question why the test has been missing until now and why it's being rushed when hiring has already begun.

Investigating taxpayers is a serious business. The people entrusted by the state to do that job should meet the highest qualifications. Current hiring procedures undermine that goal.


Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Najaf and U.S. history

Editorial, Lewiston Sun Journal, Aug. 23:

Victory may not be possible for the United States in Najaf.Certainly, the United States is vastly superior militarily to the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which has been occupying the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf's old city.Political, cultural and religious considerations are preventing a purely military victory, and there doesn't appear to be a good outcome.

If the United States destroys the Mahdi Army, the victory could turn al-Sadr into a martyr, uniting disparate factions throughout Iraq in opposition to the United States and the interim government it supports.

If the United States doesn't destroy the militants, the possibility for future clashes is high. This is the second time U.S. forces have faced off with al-Sadr's followers. The current confrontation began Aug. 5, and signs of a possible resolution are mixed even as the fighting has intensified.

There is a striking parallel to the siege of Najaf and a battle in America's own history. We are certain some readers will find the comparison distasteful, but we believe it points to the conundrum faced by the U.S. military.

In 1836, a small band of mostly volunteers held a mission in Texas against an assault by a large Mexican force. The names from that fight are legendary: Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and the infamous Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.More than 160 years later, the battle still lives in American lore.We still remember the Alamo even though it was a complete defeat. Between 189 and 257 defenders were killed at a huge cost to the Mexican army. The slaughter became a rallying cry for Texans battling for their independence. Movies, songs and plays have retold the story countless times, recalling the bravery and sacrifice of the volunteers.

Al-Sadr and his militia hold the center of the old city of Najaf and the Imam Ali Shrine, which is one of the holiest sites in the Shia Islam. The majority of Iraqis are Shiite and any assault on the shrine likely would come with a stiff price.

To damage the mosque, to kill al-Sadr, to drive him from the holy place could well create a Shiite call for rebellion heard throughout Iraq.To leave al-Sadr in place would be no better. His willingness to use violence and his resistance to the interim government and to the United States make it impossible to integrate his most committed followers into a legitimate political process.

Ideally, Iraqis should lead the confrontation with al-Sadr or find a political solution that would end the standoff. So far, they have been unable or unwilling to do either.

As U.S. soldiers and Marines continue their struggle with al-Sadr, military and political leaders would be well-advised to hear the battle cry from 1836: "Remember the Alamo."