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America Leaves Future Generations with Massive Debts, Obligations

The Free Press WV

The United States is heading down the path to becoming an insurance company with a really big army.

Let’s start with Medicaid.  The most recent report shows that federal and state spending on health care for lower income Americans rose nearly sixteen percent from 2014 to 2016, to $576 billion. Much of the rapid rise is attributable to the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

If nothing changes—and we don’t know yet what, if anything, Congress will do—Medicaid spending will approach $1 trillion by 2025.  Congressional Republicans are trying to curb the rise in Medicaid spending, but that’s politically difficult.

Nearly lost in the healthcare debate is a new release on the status of Social Security and Medicare programs. The annual report quantifies the worsening threat to the long-term fiscal soundness of both programs.

“Both Social Security and Medicare will experience cost growth substantially in excess of GDP growth through the mid-2030s due to rapid population aging caused by the large baby-boom generation entering retirement and lower birth rate generations entering employment,” the report said.

That’s the essential problem for all three of the programs; they are growing faster than the economy. If no changes are made, they will swamp the country in debt and generate an even larger drag on the economy.

The report says the combined retirement and disability programs under Social Security are okay for now, but by 2034 the trust funds will be depleted. At that point, benefits will need to be reduced or taxes will have to be raised.

(One additional note: Trust fund is a misnomer. The federal government has already spent that money and replaced it with special treasury bonds that amount to I.O.U.s from Uncle Sam.)

Investor’s Business Daily reports, “Waiting only makes the problem worse.  Putting off fixes would require a payroll tax hike of nearly 4 percentage points or across-the-board benefit cuts of 23 percent.”

Medicare is also in trouble.  The report says the hospital insurance trust fund portion of the program will be depleted in 2029. “At that time, dedicated revenues will be sufficient to pay 88 percent of HI costs.”

Our policy makers have willingly indebted future generations, and Americans have been complicit because we recoil against more taxes, benefit cuts and increases in retirement age—anything we fear will impact our quality of life.

Future generations will not look back fondly on us. They will wonder why, for all the talk from us about wanting a better life for our children and grandchildren, we spent their retirement and burdened them with debt that made it harder for them to achieve their dreams.

Justice Company Debts Damage Governor’s Credibility

The Free Press WV

When it comes to money, Jim Justice is a paradox.

He is incredibly wealthy. Forbes estimates his net worth at nearly $1.6 billion dollars. Justice is often generous with his money.  He saved the historic Greenbrier Resort from imminent closure, protecting hundreds of jobs.  Lord knows how much it cost to rebuild the Old White TPC for the PGA Tour event earlier this month.

Yet Justice can also be miserly. Stories abound of vendors and tax collectors who have had difficulty getting Justice companies to pay their bills.  National Public Radio reported last October, “His mining companies owe $15 million in six states, including property and mineral taxes, state coal severance and withholding taxes, federal income, excise and employment taxes, as well as mine safety penalties, according to county, state and federal records.”

Just last week, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that the state Tax Department has four liens against the Justice family owned Tams Management Inc. for nearly $1 million unpaid taxes, mostly coal severance taxes. MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny also reported on the story. 

The Justice family owns and operates dozens of companies.  They employ a lot of people and no doubt write huge checks to governments and vendors.  If I was Justice and I was questioned about taxes, my first response would be, “Do you want to hear how much I do pay?” That has to be a huge number.

We probably wouldn’t hear much about the bill and tax-paying habits of some of Justice’s companies were he not Governor. The court system is kept busy with disputes over debts, while private business owners often have issues with the state tax department or the IRS over tax liabilities.

However, Justice is a public figure now, so the additional scrutiny should be expected.  But more importantly, the still-new Governor’s credibility is damaged by the tax debts.  The political juxtaposition is too obvious to ignore: How can he ask West Virginians to pay additional taxes or criticize the Legislature for not putting more money toward drug treatment when his companies have outstanding tax liabilities?

That’s a trump card too easy for his critics to play.  Just last week Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who was in a tiff with the Governor over planned upgrades to eight Capitol bathrooms, said, “Pay your taxes–$4.5 million in taxes for drug treatment.”

Ask people who know Justice why he has a history of foot-dragging on his bills and they say the same thing; they don’t know, but naturally there is speculation.

Perhaps he has cash flow problems, especially given the difficulties in the coal industry and the expense of keeping the Greenbrier open and operating. Or maybe it’s just a way of doing business; hold back on payment and then settle for a lesser amount on the dollar.

Yes, since becoming Governor Justice has turned his companies’ operations over to others, but these payment issues will continue to be linked to him, especially if they are nonpayment of state taxes or fees.  They erode his ability to ask other West Virginians to do their fair share.

Nicholas County Consolidation Issue Tests Local vs. State Authority

The Free Press WV

School consolidation is almost always controversial and emotional.  Proponents see the benefits of new facilities and economies of scale.  Opponents lament losing their community school and long bus rides for their children.

Nicholas County is currently in the throes of just such a debate. Richwood High and Middle School and Summersville Middle were destroyed in last year’s flood. The local school board has approved a plan to combine five schools at one campus near Summersville.

Nicholas County and Richwood High Schools would be merged, as would Richwood and Summersville Middle Schools. The county’s vocational school would also be on the new campus.

Most of the consolidation opponents are Richwood residents who want to preserve the schools in their community.  They believe the schools are important linchpins as they rebuild following the flood.  The Nicholas County School Board believes their consolidation plan makes the most sense because of the declining student population and the cost of replacing the damaged schools.

The State Board of Education has twice rejected the plan with some members contending the local board did not give full consideration to the views of consolidation opponents. The local board went to court, claiming the state board has no justification for rejecting its consolidation plan.

Both sides spent all day Tuesday in front of Kanawha Court Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom making their cases. The question Bloom has to decide is whether the local board or the state board has final say.  The answer is not immediately clear.

The State Supreme Court took up a similar case in 1990.  In Kanawha County Board of Education v. The West Virginia Board of Education, the State Supreme Court ruled that the State Board is empowered to approve or disapprove a county school consolidation plan.

However, that power is not unlimited.  Justice Tom Miller, writing for the majority, referenced the Handbook on Planning School Facilities that said the State Board cannot overrule the county board “unless the proposal does not comply with the education and facility standards established by the State Board, or the county board has not complied with procedural requirements.”

So according to the late Justice Miller, the State Board does trump the local board, but it cannot act in an arbitrary manner.

Governor Jim Justice has injected himself into the controversy, starting with his statement during the State of the State address last February.  “I hope and pray that we end up with a school in Richwood,” he said.  Additionally, former State School Board nominee Barbara Whitecotton believes her name was withdrawn because she appeared to favor the Nicholas County School Board’s plan.

It’s understandable that Richwood wants to keep its schools. However, voters elected the local school board to act in the best interest of the community.  If the State Board can arbitrarily supersede the local board, then the concept of local control for schools is just an illusion.

If Nicholas County strongly objects to their school board’s decisions, the voters can send them on their way in the next election. The voters have no such option with the State Board.

What the Gutting of Sears Tells Us About America

The Free Press WV

Sears is fading. Fast. The 124-year-old retailer — the place where all America once shopped — is tumbling into a shopping horror.

At some Sears stores, recent news accounts report, ceilings are collapsing, rats are racing, and toilets aren’t working “for weeks on end.” Job cutbacks and a decade of under-investment have left store shelves bare — and customers on their own.

“You could fire a cannon in any direction and not hit one salesperson,” Michael Looney, a former Sears employee in California, recently told Business Insider.

Lampert’s Way

Meanwhile, the hedge-fund billionaire who’s been running Sears the last dozen years is keeping up a brave front. Eddie Lampert is sticking to his story that Sears is wondrously transforming itself into a “member”-oriented retailer for the online age.

But business analysts have been ridiculing these claims ever since Lampert started making them. They see the Ayn Rand acolyte as an ideologue who’s left Sears “ravaged by infighting.” In 2014, one business media survey found that Lampert had more negative ratings from employees than any other major top exec in America.

By standard bottom-line yardsticks, Lampert’s reign at Sears has been one of the biggest disasters in modern business history. Between 2011 and 2016, the giant retailer’s revenues plummeted by almost half. The company lost $8.2 billion over that span. Over the last decade, meanwhile, Sears stock price has sunk from nearly $200 per share to under $10.

Lampert’s colossal failure at Sears, some observers believe, simply reflects a broader trend, the epochal economic shift from bricks-and-mortar to online retail. Few major enterprises built for success in one business epoch, the argument goes, have ever been able to prosper in another.

But Sears as an enterprise has, ironically, already pulled off an epochal transformation. That epochal shift came in the middle of the 20th century under Robert E. Wood, the West Point-trained, former Army general who led Sears from just before the Great Depression into the 1950s.

What Wood Would Do

Wood understood early on that the automobile had changed the retail landscape. Before the auto age, average Americans had shopped by mail-order catalog, a retail category Sears dominated. With cars a mass phenomenon, Wood realized, shoppers could now drive to shop. The future belonged to general merchandise department stores, and Sears, under Wood, would open up hundreds of them. By Wood’s 1954 retirement, Sears towered over American retail.

Why did Wood succeed where Lampert fails? Sheer genius on Wood’s part? Hardly. The more important factor: Wood understood a basic element of enterprise effectiveness. Successful enterprises share, he believed, both credit and rewards.

Wood didn’t prance about Sears as a self-styled savior. Nor did he tolerate pomposity from anyone else in Sears management. During Wood’s tenure, editors at the Sears employee newspaper regularly ran articles that irreverently teased top Sears execs.

Sears execs would also receive no special perks. Seniority at Sears, not corporate rank, determined benefits like vacation and sick days. General Wood also kept management salaries below their level at other retailers. Wood wanted Sears known as the “workingman’s friend.”

The Sears profit-sharing plan bolstered that reputation. The plan applied to Sears workers who stuck with the company more than a year. Those who worked 15 years would see the company put into the “Savings and Profit Sharing Pension Fund of Sears, Roebuck and Co.” a sum that equaled five times the employee contribution.

These dollars would be invested in various assets, mostly Sears stock, and the assets would pay dividends than went to profit-sharing participants. Veteran employees would routinely receive more from profit-sharing payouts than their wages. Janitors making $40 a week could waltz into retirement with $2,500 in savings.

During Wood’s tenure, current and retired Sears employees would end up holding a third of the company’s shares, the highest employee-share percentage anywhere in Corporate America.

What explains Wood’s readiness to share? Did he grow up in abject poverty? Did he come from a family of progressive political activists? None of the above.

Wood had a conventional, conservative business political outlook. By 1938, he had emerged as a strong critic of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. After World War II, he moved into America’s right-wing fringes.

Unions and Taxes Matter

So why did this right-winger share the wealth at Sears? He had little choice. Robert E. Wood operated in an America where two major institutions — the tax system and the labor market — were combining to make a sharing of sorts the national default.

The federal income tax throughout the mid-century Sears golden years subjected individual income over $200,000 to a tax rate that hovered around 90 percent. That left top executives like Wood with little incentive to feather their own nests. Why bother? They had little personally to gain from squeezing workers or cooking corporate books.

Trade unions, meanwhile, dominated the labor market. In major metro areas outside the South, most private-sector workers carried union cards. But not at Sears. Unions in the mid-century United States represented less than 8 percent of the Sears domestic workforce.

Wood liked things that way. He kept unions away, notes historian James Worthy, by having Sears match the gains unions at other companies were bargaining to win. Sears offered life and health insurance, sick pay, vacations, and separation allowances “long before they became common practice in American industry.”

Sears would be an outlier in the nonunion private sector. Few nonunion concerns worked as hard as Sears to provide economic security to their employees. But most all major nonunion companies — outside the South — made some effort to ratchet up worker pay and benefits. With unions representing such a significant share of the workforce, nonunion concerns had to try to approximate union-level wages and fringes or go without workers.

The result? The bottom 90 percent of American families would see their incomes soar in the post-war years, from a $10,513 average — in current dollars — in 1940 to $20,036 in 1950 to $26,665 in 1960.

Fast Forward

Sears chief Eddie Lampert, by contrast, is operating today in an entirely different economic environment. In huge swatches of the private sector, unions have no presence at all. Lampert has been able to shortchange workers left and right and not worry about any consequences.

And the tax system? The top federal tax rate on income has, over the past three decades, bounced around between 28 and 39.6 percent, less than half the top rate that Wood faced.

In other words, power suits like Lampert can keep, after taxes, the vast bulk of whatever income they can grab. That gives them a powerful incentive to grab, by any means necessary, as much as they can. Lampert has been free, in effect, to run Sears into the ground — and enrich himself in the process.

The most arrogant instance of this enriching? Two years ago, with Sears already on the ropes, Lampert and the hedge fund he also runs created a real-estate investment trust, then engineered a deal that had Sears sell to the trust over 200 of its best brick-and-mortar stores.

Lampert’s real-estate trust then rented space in the stores back to Sears, retaining the right to rent to other retailers as well. The deal guaranteed Lampert’s trust $135 million in rent money the first year and 2 percent annual hikes starting in the second.

Sears does get to cut the lease short on stores that prove “unprofitable,” but only if the Lampert-run retailer pays the Lampert-run trust an extra year’s rent and a year’s worth of operating expenses.

This maneuvering understandably outraged a good many Sears shareholders. They subsequently filed a lawsuit charging that Lampert was stripping Sears of its most valuable assets for his own personal gain.

The Lampert-friendly Sears board of directors vigorously denied that charge, then, this past February, agreed to pay out $40 million to settle the shareholder lawsuit.

Various other shifty moves have left Lampert well-positioned to survive any Sears bankruptcy and continue his lush luxury life. Should Sears go under, Lampert figures to be able to spend more time at his $40-million waterfront getaway on South Florida’s ultra-exclusive Indian Creek Island, a 32-home enclave that has its own mayor and full-time police force.

The Trump Connection

Eddie Lampert, living large at the expense of hard-working men and women of modest means, may just personify almost everything wrong with the modern American economy. He seems like just the kind of “swamp” creature Donald Trump once railed against.

But Eddie Lampert isn’t worrying about anybody draining his particular chunk of swampland, and he has some excellent reasons to feel confident.

Here’s one: Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin didn’t just room with Lampert at Yale and didn’t just get his wheeling and dealing start in life, like Lampert, as a mover and shaker at Goldman Sachs. Mnuchin, before stepping down this past December to join the Trump cabinet, had spent the last 12 years sitting on the Sears board of directors.

~~  Sam Pizzigati ~~

Manchin Embracing 2018 Challenge

The Free Press WV

When asked about what is expected to be a brutal 2018 re-election battle, a wide smile spread over Joe Manchin’s face.  “I love campaigning,” Manchin said, showing no hint of sarcasm or falsity.

The West Virginia Democrat is a relentless retail campaigner, perhaps the best the state has seen since Arch Moore.  Manchin can talk policy, but he’s hardly a wonk.  His strengths are personality and likeability, which still make a difference in the minds of voters.

His 2018 re-election effort, however, will provide one of the biggest tests of his political career.

Since arriving in Washington, Manchin has sought to avoid the extreme partisanship that forces elected officials into camps with hard boundaries. The middle ground is his preferred space, which he seeks to reinforce at every opportunity.

The Great Middle, once the safe zone for many politicians, is now a political no-man’s land. The country and its leaders have migrated away from each other to areas where the ideology is more rigid and, more importantly, the generous donors abound.

The middle ground leaves Manchin with problems on his flanks.  Paula Jean Swearengin, who is backed by Brand New Congress, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders supporters, is challenging him in the Primary Election next year.

Manchin has always had issues with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party in West Virginia, but other than his 1996 loss to Charlotte Pritt in the Democratic Primary for Governor, Manchin has been able to avoid a first round defeat.

The real challenge for Manchin will come in the General Election.  Two Republicans are already in the race—3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins and former coal miner Bo Copley, who famously confronted Hillary Clinton to explain her comments about putting coal out of business.  West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is also expected to enter the race.

All three are part of the conservative Republican wave that has swept over West Virginia in the last generation.  The state has voted for the Republican nominee for President every election since 2000 and Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 42 points last November.

Manchin strongly supported Clinton, but he quickly embraced Trump after the election and was even briefly considered for a position within the administration. He has tried to set himself up as a potential bridge in Congress between Democrats and Republicans.

In my conversation with him last week, Manchin dismissed the expected opposition attacks linking him to Clinton, noting that opponent attempts to connect him at the hip with Barack Obama didn’t work.  Those failed efforts give him confidence that his personal brand is strong enough to withstand the hyper-partisan antagonists.

“My brand is to be Joe Manchin—common sense, centrist,” he told me on Talkline last week.

The Cook Political Report agrees, rating Manchin as “likely” to hold the seat.  But to do so, Manchin has to buck the trend in West Virginia, and that’s still new territory for Democrats here.

Graceless President Betrays Nation’s Heritage

The Free Press WV

For leaders as well as friends, spouses and colleagues, grace is a precious characteristic. Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s policy choices, our nation has never had a president more lacking in grace.

Whether or not Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president, he was certainly its most gracious. Here’s the close of his brief Second Inaugural, delivered toward the end of the Civil War, when the nation was a house divided:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.“

On the eve of victory, Lincoln avoided triumphalism or crowing. Instead he rejected malice and called for charity. He backed his firmness with both humility (“as God gives us to see the right”) and tenderness (“to care for him who shall have borne the battle”).

Ronald Reagan was usually a model of grace, with a strong preference for gentle humor and a touch of indirection. Asked at 73 if he was too old to be president, Reagan responded: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.“

At critical moments, Reagan chose understatement and humility, which are part and parcel of grace. A former Democrat, he liked to say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.“ In his final speech at a Republican convention, in 1988, he began: “[B]eing only human, there’s a part of me that would like to take credit for what we’ve achieved. But tonight, before we do anything else, let us remember that tribute really belongs to the 245 million citizens who make up the greatest – and the first – three words in our Constitution: ‘We the People.‘ “

In any competitive activity, gracious losers are easy to identify: They give credit to their opponent and never make excuses or blame referees. Because vanquished opponents (and their supporters) often feel horrible, it’s even more important to be a gracious winner, showing respect and admiration after victory, and emphasizing that things could have gone the other way.

Grace breeds reciprocity. If a friend, a colleague or a spouse is gracious to you, you feel like a creep if you don’t respond in kind. That’s one reason that Reagan was such an effective debater: He disarmed his opponents. Reagan’s grace also helped him to work with committed political adversaries, most notably House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Gracelessness shows bad character, but it is also an obstacle to success and often a recipe for failure. Humiliating people is a terrific way to reduce the likelihood of cooperation. Graceless leaders produce graceless followers and graceless opponents. Gracelessness is stupid, because those who lack grace inflame their adversaries – and turn potential friends into enemies.

Gracelessness is an absence of grace, but the English language lacks a word for the opposite of grace. One candidate is “ugliness”; another is “cruelty.“ Every human heart is drawn, on occasion, to what is ugly and cruel, and even rejoices in them. Prominent Democrats are fully capable of displaying both. Of course, politics is a dirty business, and, as both Lincoln and Reagan knew, you sometimes have to hit back.

But in modern history, no White House has ever been more graceless. Put political differences to one side. That’s a betrayal of our nation’s heritage, and an insult to our deepest traditions.

~~  Cass R. Sunstein ~~

True Confessions of A Stand-In Priest

The Free Press WV

Maybe I’ve been retired long enough. (Except from this part-time job, that is.) I’m thinking of offering myself up for another academic gig. To all you university presidents out there, I say: “Put me in. Name me as your academic vice president. I can make your university a world-class center for Jerry Springer studies.”

Frankly, I think Springer is ripe for re-evaluation. In case you didn’t catch it, just last Sunday, on MSNBC, Springer repudiated Trump over his vulgar ad hominem tweet attacks on Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough. What kind of country have we become when Donald Trump — the President of the United States and leader of the free world — can out-sleaze “the ringmaster,” Jerry Springer? To fall back on one of Trump’s favorite adjectives and his favorite adverb — sad, very sad!

But enough about our existential hero of a president who wanders around creating his own reality. Last week, I alluded to my complicated history with the Catholic Church. I complained that priests seem to have a targeted sixth sense, enabling them to identify a lapsed Catholic at a glance.

Back in West Virginia, where I was on the faculty of Glenville State College, I spent the better part of eight years assiduously avoiding the local priest. One day, however, I was out walking and encountered him walking directly toward me. An acknowledgement and an exchange of pleasantries were unavoidable. “You’re a Catholic, aren’t you?” he asked. When I admitted it, he demanded, “Why then don’t we see you at mass?“ “The Church and I have some differences, father,” I replied and wished him a good day before beating a hasty retreat.

Actually, I’m not an anti-cleric. There are some things I respect about the priesthood — especially the lifelong commitment to remain celibate and, in the case of ordered priests, the vows of poverty and obedience. Also, one of the men I admired most when I was in high school was my French teacher, Father Daniel Gambet of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He had earned his PhD in classics from the University of Pennsylvania and would go on to found DeSales University in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I still remember an ironic comment he made one day in class: “Boys, celibacy is tough. But there’s one consolation. You never have to hear a woman saying, ‘I told you so.’”

And, confession being good for the soul, I admit that I’ve twice been called upon to take Holy Orders.

Back when I was trying to become a tenured full professor, I embarked on a course of research into three prominent Cold Warriors who had helped to cheerlead us into Vietnam — Edward Lansdale, William Lederer and Tom Dooley. Sadly, Dooley is largely forgotten today, but in the late 1950s he was one of the most admired men in the country. I don’t have space here to give an account of how these three were allied and what they did. I urge you to Google them.

Suffice it to say that I received a small grant to travel to St. Louis University, where most of Dooley’s papers are held. When I called the special collections librarian to make sure the papers would be available, he told me that Jesuit House, adjacent to the campus, rented rooms to visiting scholars for $16 a day, meals included. Of course, I jumped at that deal.

What I discovered staying at Jesuit House was that Jesuits don’t wear their clerical garb when they’re not on duty. Hence, the support staff assumed that I was a Jesuit visiting from another province and kept addressing me as “Father.” So I gave some blessings and heard a few confessions.

Seriously, I didn’t do that. There are limits even to my irreverence.

But long before my stint at Jesuit House, when I was still a reserve officer, I spent three summers teaching English in a commissioning prep program for enlisted Marines selected to attend college at the Corps’ expense. My BOQ roommate and fellow instructor that first summer was a wild and crazy divorcé I’ll call “Dan.” He befriended me even though his wife had run off with her English professor.

Early in the program, Dan began a fling with a needy young Catholic woman I’ll call “Cecilia.” In the last week, Dan tried to break it off, but Cecilia was clinging. His last ditch effort was to tell Cecilia that their affair was sinful and that she should call his chaplain roommate, “Father Palm,” for counseling.

It would have been nice if Dan had confided in me before I got the call, and it was some time before I could break into Cecilia’s weepy lament and explain that I wasn’t a priest.

Wherever you are, Dan, I assume God got you for that.

~~  Ed Palm ~~

The Great Healthcare Condundrum

The Free Press WV

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders brings his national tour against the Senate health care bill to Morgantown Sunday. At some point, the Vermont independent and former presidential candidate will likely say, “If you cut Medicaid by over $800 billion, there is no question but that thousands of Americans will die.”

It’s a money line that helps galvanize the opposition.  It puts the incredibly complicated system of healthcare delivery in this country into a simple life or death choice, a moral decision where one can only reasonably choose to preserve life.

Sanders, and others who make similar arguments, do have facts to back them up. For example, the 2009 study by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that “Lack of health insurance is associated with as many as 44,789 deaths per year in the United States.”  The study found that people without insurance still get care at places like community health clinics, but it’s not as good as the protections provided by private insurance.

But, as I said, healthcare is more complicated than that. Few among us would disagree with the statement that all Americans should have access to quality health care.  The question then becomes how to pay for it.

Consider our predicament in West Virginia. We’re a poor state and only half of the working age population actually has a job where employer insurance might be available.   Should everyone else be on Medicaid?  Is coverage under Medicaid as good as private insurance? Should people who are working and a little better off pay for their own insurance as well as everyone else’s coverage?

The insurance exchanges were created under Obamacare to give coverage options to those who don’t have employer insurance and don’t qualify for Medicaid, but they’re not working the way they were intended.  Young healthy people are opting out, and without them, the premiums and out-of-pocket costs are skyrocketing.  In some instances, people have insurance, but cannot afford to use it.

The exchanges would work a lot better if everyone who does not have coverage through another means had to participate. That would broaden the pool, spread the risk and lower the costs.  But remember the outcry when people thought Obamacare was forcing people to buy “government health insurance.”

Obamacare’s coverage of those with pre-existing conditions at an affordable rate is popular, and the only way to keep those costs down and avoid bankrupting really sick people is to have others help pay for it.  Here’s where the argument again is both moral and economic.  You have cancer and I don’t.  I’m willing to be in the pool that helps you pay for your healthcare if others will do the same if/when I get cancer.

A listener told me recently that argument made me a socialist.  I disagree.  Call me a capitalist who believes its smart to hedge his bets.

Inevitably, any debate about healthcare eventually gets to a single-payer system.  But remember that one-size fits all doesn’t actually fit all, at least not the same.

Medicare is a single-payer system, yet those who can afford it buy supplemental insurance to fill in the gaps.  And in the U.S., which already has a private/employer based insurance model, insurance companies are not going to disappear under a single-payer system; the survivors will pivot to provide boutique coverage and care for those who can afford it.

We would still have a two-tiered system, and one would undoubtedly be better than the other.  Studies would be done and politicians would glom on to the findings which, predictably, would say the inferior delivery system is associated with thousands of deaths per year.

G-OpEd™:Limiting Pay for Lawmakers

The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Legislature is in its regular session for 60 days, a time in which our elected representatives are expected to address matters of importance to the state and its citizens.

During the session, lawmakers in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates are compensated for their time. But a bill, introduced by House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, which stalled during the session, proposed limiting the amount of compensation legislators would receive during extended sessions.

In total, failure to reach a budget agreement during the regular session by Gov. Jim Justice and both chambers of the Legislature meant that there were 20 extra days our lawmakers spent in session.

Their shortcomings as a legislative body will fall back on the already-strapped taxpayers of West Virginia.

Miley’s bill would have limited their “extra session” compensation to five days. According to Miley, each extra day the Legislature is in session costs taxpayers $35,000.

For his part, Miley says he is writing a check to the State Treasury to “reimburse the taxpayers of West Virginia for this special-session nonsense.”

Good for him.

Perhaps if our elected officials knew they’d be working without pay after a certain point, they would make more of an effort to do their jobs in the time frame provided.

Really, while Miley’s move is honorable, it should be the standard.

Our local lawmakers should follow suit. We should not pay for the childish antics which have become a regular occurrence in Charleston.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison

Why We Need to Know What Trump Says Behind Closed Doors

When I’m not writing for OurFuture, I host a weekly news and opinion program on syndicated radio and cable TV called The Zero Hour. My team there recently faced a major challenge  when we received a secret recording of Donald Trump’s remarks to a closed-door, $35,000-a-head fundraiser.

We decided to release this audio at The Intercept, which also published my analysis of Trump’s remarks. Here’s why.

Trump’s fundraiser was held June 28th at his own Washington, D.C. hotel, which is steps down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House in the historic Old Post Office Pavilion. The Trump Organization leases the building from the federal government, in open violation of long-standing regulations.

The building features a five-story atrium, a restaurant called BLT Prime, and “The Spa by Ivanka Trump™.” In this luxurious setting, Trump held forth for more than forty minutes, mocking his enemies, humiliating his friends, and committing at least one major diplomatic gaffe.

The Free Press WV

Why Journalism Matters

We released this recording for several reasons. First, it offers important insights into the unusual – some might say “aberrant” – personality of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office. Secondly, as I laid out in my analysis for The Intercept, the president’s remarks have significant political and diplomatic implications.

The third reason cuts to the heart of journalism’s purpose in a democratic society. Too many mainstream journalists become close to the powerful people they cover. Whether they are attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner or chatting over hors d’oeuvres at an embassy cocktail party, they sometimes forget that as truth-tellers, their relationship with world leaders must be at times adversarial.

These journalists often defend their compliant behavior by claiming that they “can’t take sides,” and they fall back on “he said/she said” reporting.

But facts will almost always favor one side over the other. It is a journalist’s job to present the facts, whatever the consequences; not to maintain the balance of power between two well-funded political parties.

True Objectivity

The corporate media has an unfortunate tendency to confuse objectivity with neutrality. Journalists must always be objective, telling the truth no matter what the consequences. But they should not be “neutral” toward the rich and powerful. The journalist’s role is to challenge the powerful few, who already have an extraordinary ability to shape public thinking, on behalf of the many.

In the case of the audio from Trump’s fundraiser, the “powerful few” includes not only the president, but the wealthy individuals who came to his hotel to pay him both money and tribute. The assembled patrons laughed at his jokes, applauded his boasts, and opened their checkbooks for his reelection campaign. They showed their support, not only for Trump’s extreme and erratic behavior, but for the brutal policies he and his party now represent.

Keep Your Friends Close

Trump spoke almost contemptuously at the fundraiser about some of his fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. Since his election, Ryan has kowtowed to a man he once said “sickened” him, because of Trump’s sexist comments. The old Ryan also once said Trump made “the textbook definition of a racist comment” when he attacked a federal judge because of his Mexican heritage.

The public deserves to hear Trump’s relishing the opportunity, as he does at this event, to further humiliate Paul Ryan, because it reveals a great deal about both men.

Trump’s remarks about the Middle East at the fundraiser were especially important. The heated dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has implications for regional stability, global terrorism, and the world economy. At the very moment that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reportedly attempting to mediate this dispute, Trump weighed in vehemently on Saudi Arabia’s side.

What We Think

An old political science adage says that the media “can’t affect what we think, but it can affect what we think about.”  While journalists and politicians have fixated on Trump’s relationship with Russia, they haven’t drawn nearly as much attention to his deep web of financial relationships with the Saudis.

Saudi money has been funding an extremist version of Islam around the world, exacerbating the terror problem Trump claims to be so concerned about. But Trump’s remarks at the fundraiser placed all the blame on Qatar, and did so mockingly, while ignoring the role of his Saudi friends and possible business partners.

Trump  reportedly registered eight companies with Saudi ties during the course of his presidential campaign.  Now, the Saudi government is hiring lobbyists with close ties to Trump to strengthen its influence with his administration.

Trump’s Muslim ban, disgraceful as it is, pointedly excluded Saudi Arabia from the list of banned countries. That’s striking, since 15 of the 20 hijackers behind the 9/11 attack originated there. What are the Saudis getting for their money?  We have a right to know.

Hopefully the audio will lead to further investigation. There is a deeper question here, too: Is it possible to reinvigorate “activist journalism,” in the tradition of great muckrakers like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens?

New Relationships

In my recent interview with Washington State Rep. Pramila Jayapal, she talked about the importance of forging a new relationship between movement activists and elected officials. We also need to explore new kinds of relationships between journalists and activists.  Journalists must tell the truth at all costs, and activists want to create change. But that doesn’t need to create tension. After all, change built on falsehoods cannot last. A new kind of partnership should be possible.

We released the Trump audio because the public deserved to hear it, whether the president thinks so or not. More reporting about events like this is needed – about who attends them, about Trump’s relationship with fellow Republicans, and about his financial ties around the world.

We need activism, too: against Trump and the powerful interests he represents, and against a political system that gives too much power to wealthy corporate donors and too little power to the people.

~~  Richard Eskow ~~

Clerks, Secretary of State Clean Up Voter Rolls

The Free Press WV

West Virginia has a sordid history of election fraud.  State Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry filled 532 pages in his book “Don’t Buy Another Vote. I Won’t Pay For A Landslide” with the many tales of political scofflaws.

State elections have come a long way from the days when cash and liquor fueled the “dollar-and-a-swallow” campaigns. Still, there’s work to be done and the county clerks, along with Secretary of State Mac Warner, are making progress.

Most of their work since the last election has been focused on simple housekeeping—cleaning up the registration lists of individuals who cannot or should not be voting. For example, Warner’s office teamed with the clerks to strike 6,300 names of deceased voters from the books.

There’s no evidence the dead were actually voting, but it is still important to keep the rolls up-to-date.

The county and state election officials also cross-referenced for voters who were registered in more than one county (meaning they could potentially vote twice), had moved away or were convicted felons who had not yet had their voting rights restored.

So far, the clerks have canceled 63,346 improper or outdated voter registrations since January 16th, and there’s more to come.  Next, Warner’s office and the county clerks are going to turn their attention to individuals who may be registered in more than one state.

For example, a West Virginian retires to Florida and registers to vote there, but never cancels their registration here.  It’s not illegal to be registered in more than one state, but it is, of course, against the law to vote more than once in an election. Warner’s office is currently investigating to see if anyone has voted twice.

On the flip side, another 16,951 new voters have registered since mid-January. Warner’s office says that’s an unusually high number considering this is not an election year. Overall, however, the number of registered voters has declined from 1,276,785 last November to 1,224,623 as of last May.

The purging has hurt Democratic registration more than Republican, which is to be expected since the Democratic Party has more members. Democratic registration has fallen from 571,267 last November to 537,791 as of May 2017.  Republican registration has dropped from 398,547 to 388,703 over the same period.

Warner has heard some grumbling from a few Democratic county clerks who believe the Republican Secretary of State is trying to target Democrats, but the purge has been non-partisan.  The numbers are the numbers.

As of the end of May, 44 percent of voters were Democrats, 32 percent Republican, 21 percent independent/no party and three percent were Mountain, Libertarian or other.

Maintaining accurate voting rolls is not as easy as it might seem.  Election officials have to strike a balance between updating information while ensuring that a properly registered voter isn’t turned away at the polls, and all-the-while protecting the privacy of every voter.

The effort so far by the 55 county clerks and Warner’s office has been impressive. Keep it up!

~~  Hoppy Kercheval ~~

G-OpEd™: House Leader Responds To Comments Made About Tuition Increases

Budget Bashing, Tuition Hikes, and Fake News
By Delegate John D. O’Neal IV, R-Raleigh

The Free Press WV

This year the West Virginia Legislature passed a fiscally responsible budget requiring our government to live within its means. In fact, we passed two budgets that did this.

The first budget passed during the regular session was vetoed by the governor, which then required an expensive special session to pass a second budget. The governor allowed the second budget to become law without his signature.

You may have seen headlines recently about state universities raising tuition. Some university leaders and politicians are blaming these tuition increases on the Legislature, citing reductions in state budget allocations for higher education. One university leader even claimed the Legislature has “raised taxes on every parent and every student who comes to our university because we have to raise tuition.”

These well-coordinated talking points are “fake news.” Let’s put this in perspective.

West Virginia University received $184.4 million in state support last year – roughly 17.6 percent of the school’s overall budget. The $8.7 million reduction in state support they received in this year’s budget represents less than 1 percent of a reduction in their overall $1.07 billion budget. And the majority of that cut was not proposed by the Legislature.

Some of it came from the 2-percent mid-year budget cut implemented by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year. The current governor proposed a 4.4-percent cut in WVU and Marshall University’s budget this year, which he said they could absorb.

The Legislature then added on an additional 2-percent cut when other ideas, such as the elimination of greyhound subsidies, casino modernization funds, and the Department of Education and the Arts, failed to pass or were vetoed earlier this year.

One would think the tuition increases passed by universities this year would match the cuts these institutions received. If you thought that, you would be wrong.

According to WVU’s five-year financial plan, posted on their website, their 5-percent increase this year is expected to bring in roughly $23 million. So officials in Morgantown enacted a $23 million tuition hike to close the gap for an $8.7 million cut.

The reality is WVU and other schools have been planning these tuition hikes all along. Even that five-year plan I just referred to was from last year – meaning WVU was already planning a 5-percent tuition hike regardless of what budget was passed this year.

If you check the record for the last several years, most universities have raised tuition every single year. They raise tuition when state funding increases. They raise tuition when state funding is flat. They raise tuition when state funding is reduced.

Unfortunately, this pattern of excessive tuition increases is an ongoing trend in higher education, one that state Higher Education Policy Commission Chairman Bruce Berry noted in a recent Daily Mail opinion piece.

Berry said: “At WVU and its campuses, state budget reductions between 2013-16 total $21.8 million, but revenues from tuition increases during that time total $52.4 million.

“At Marshall, budget reductions for that same period were $8.5 million, while tuition increase revenues were nearly $22 million,” he said.

So you can see that, despite how much they blame the Legislature, these schools have been raising tuition significantly every year, regardless of what the state budget looks like.

One exception has been Glenville State, which recently said it would commit to cutting its expenses and harnessing efficiencies to deal with state budget cuts, instead of passing the buck onto students.

Hopefully, the governing boards of other schools can take note of the Glenville State model before considering tuition increases in the future.

Obamacare Repeal and Replace Harder Than GOP Thought

The Free Press WV

For over seven years, Republicans criticized Obamacare.  The words “repeal and replace” were part of the conservative mantra, and one that contributed to their election successes.  But like the barking dog that caught the car, the GOP’s next step is uncertain.

That became painfully evident this week when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the vote on the Republican replacement for Obamacare until after the July 4th recess. McConnell risked a defeat if he had gone ahead now with the Senate plan as an increasing number of Republican Senators came out in opposition.

Among the “no” votes is Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.  While a member of the House, Capito voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare, but when given the opportunity in the Senate to actually vote for a replacement she couldn’t do it.

During an appearance on Talkline Wednesday, Capito said she found the Senate bill lacking. “Repeal and replace and fixing Obamacare is important, but it’s got to be done the right way,” she said. Capito added that she was never even close to supporting the bill.

Capito, like several of her fellow Republicans, has issues with how the Senate bill changes Medicaid.  The expansion program, which is funded by a 90-10 federal match, would phase out and by 2024 the match would revert to the current state rate for traditional Medicaid, which is 72-28.

West Virginia has nearly 173,000 people in the expansion.  It’s estimated that the state will have to pay $50 million under the 90-10 match, so a 72-28 split could push the state share to nearly $150 million just for the expansion.

If the state could not afford the additional cost the expanded coverage would be at risk. Supporters of the Senate plan believe those individuals could be shifted to private insurance, but there’s a question whether they could afford it, even with the proposed tax credits.

Capito, along with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, also object to how the Senate plan would impact drug treatment programs, since both come from states battling the opioid epidemic. Phasing out Medicaid expansion would make it harder for addicts to get treatment and the $2 billion included in the Senate plan for drug treatment would be woefully short when spread among all 50 states.

West Virginia has the trifecta of health care problems; we are older, sicker and poorer than most states. Our costs are higher, while a large share of our population can barely pay for day-to-day needs, much less an unexpected medical bill or long-term care.

These are complicated issues.  Obamacare’s overreach triggered the “repeal and replace” movement. That still plays with many, especially those who have seen their premiums and out-of-pocket costs skyrocket.

But the question now is “replace it with what?”  Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul said, “It’s worse to pass a bad bill than to pass no bill.”  That should be the new mantra until lawmakers figure out how to make the Affordable Care Act better.

Governor Jim Justice’s Learning Curve

The Free Press WV

Candidate Jim Justice promised he would be a different kind of Governor, and he has been so far. What is unclear after five months is whether his style and method of governing will be successful.

The early results are mixed.

Justice did manage to win approval for a massive highway plan that, at minimum, will generate another $130 million annually for road construction. The total new spending on roads could reach between $2.5 billion and $2.8 billion if voters approve a bond issue on Saturday, October 07.

The Governor already deserves credit for making the state’s decaying infrastructure a priority.  If he can help win approval for the bond issue then he will have a signature accomplishment for the first year of his administration.

However, the Governor’s budget plan flopped.  He initially proposed $450 million in tax increases to avoid cuts as well as pay for new spending on a classroom teacher pay raise and a Save Our State investment fund.  By the time the regular session and a three week long special session ended, the tax increases were gone, as were his spending initiatives.

The Legislature settled on a $4.2 billion budget. Justice decided to let it become law without his signature. “I can’t possibly put my name on it,” Justice said during a press conference last week.

Okay, but the Governor could not resist parting shots at lawmakers whom he battled with. “I don’t know if Jesus himself could bring this bunch together,” he said. Justice questioned the House leadership, both Republican and Democrat. “I’m really, really disappointed with the Democrats because they were family.”

House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison) fumed.  “I could be personal, but I’m not going to be.  I know it’s his first time as Governor,” Miley said on Talkline.  “But for him to blame everyone but himself is a problem that’s going to follow him the next three years.”

“Every time I hear the Governor blame everybody but himself I feel like I’m in junior high school,” Miley said.

Justice operates without a filter, and that is often refreshing. The last election on both the state and national level showed voters were worn out with politics as usual and political correctness. They wanted a shake-up in the political establishment, and they got it.

But being forthright does not mean one has to abandon discretion.  Justice’s outspokenness, while often novel, sometimes makes his job more difficult.  It is possible for him to temper his insults without kowtowing to those who have differing views, or even those he sees as obstinate.

It’s worth noting that the longer the budget debate continued, the less the Governor got of what he wanted. It’s naïve for Justice to not accept some responsibility for that.

Justice’s relentless optimism and willingness to abandon past political narratives still hold promise. The people elected him because he gave them hope of a different path forward and a vision for what West Virginia could be, not a continuation of what it has been.

However, there is a learning curve to governing; the success of the Justice administration and ultimately the state for the next three-and-a-half years will depend on whether the Governor is willing to make an accurate accounting of his successes and failures and apply that knowledge going forward.

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