Friday, November 22, 2013

Reflections on 50 years ago, a loss and a win

I was four years old that Friday afternoon a half-century ago, and my mother had As The World Turns on TV when Walter Cronkite broke in with the news that President Kennedy had been shot, and he stayed on the air for hours, announcing the President's death.  My mother cried and cried, as she and my grandparents had worked for Kennedy's campaign in my hometown of Dixon, Illinois.  A picture of John F. Kennedy stayed in my grandparents and parents' house in Dixon and in Trumann, Arkansas until I sold it after their death.

In many ways, the US has not recovered from that assassination, which ended a bubble of good feelings that had begun after the end of World War II.  The Warren Commission reports, rather than clarify the situation, created more confusion and doubt than it solved, and we may never know what really happened.  It started the distrust of government that leads to where we are as a people today, fueled by 30 plus years of right-wing propaganda that began with the end of the Fairness Doctrine, which would have kept right-wing hacks like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News off the air.  Because of this, real government problem solving, which can and has happened (NEW DEAL, FAIR DEAL, etc.) is no longer considered to be an option.

All of this means that when you DO propose a governmental solution to a problem, such as the supporters of the Pre-K Initiative, you had damned well better do it right.  That is NOT what happened, and that's why it went down to defeat last night despite a campaign funded primarily by the Chamber of Commerce and retired AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde.

Reverend Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr. led the campaign against the initiative, not because he was against pre-K, but because he correctly pointed out that this would be funded by raising the SALES TAX option one half cent, essentially maxing it out under state law.  Sales Taxes are clearly the most regressive, because on a percentage basis, the poorer you are, the higher percentage of your income is paid out for basic necessities that cannot be avoided.  In short, the benefit would be paid by the people supposedly benefiting from this the most but WHO COULD AFFORD IT THE LEAST.  Reverend Whalum had little or no money behind him, but he didn't need much help to defeat this measure; the way this campaign went about its business did most of the work for him.

As Reverend Whalum pointed out, NO ONE is opposed to Universal Pre-K; it was against the funding mechanism, for the reasons listed above.  So, where did the supporters make their mistake(s)?  Where DIDN'T they make a mistake?

Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn are good people and I respect and admire them.  Truth be told, it was Shea Flinn who finally convinced me to vote for it yesterday after having lots of questions about it.  I appreciate Jim Strickland listening to my concerns and trying to answer those concerns, many of which can be found in my comments here at the Smart City Memphis blog a week ago.

Strickland has pointed out, quite correctly, that you pay property taxes whether you own or rent your residence, and that Memphis has the highest property taxes in the state. However, what is not mentioned here is that when property tax relief is given to property owners, the landlords, rarely, if ever, pass those savings to their tenants; they put the money in their pockets.  And the RENTERS are the very people who were being asked to subsidize this relief for their landlords under the guise that the money would go to PreK. Given that ANY tax increase at this time faces an uphill battle with voters, is it any wonder why this went down to defeat?

So, tying this vote to property tax relief (even if I personally believe that Pre-K would have taken ALL the money raised and then some, but we'll get to that in a minute) was a HUGE mistake. However, it was not the only one, as we will see.

Drinking Liberally Memphis hosted Strickland, Kathy Buckman Gibson and Steven Reid in October to discuss the matter, and we all agreed that the concept of Universal Pre-K was unassailable as a benefit for the city's 4-year-olds.  However, I noticed that when I asked what would happen if the money raised by the sales-tax increase was not sufficient, since there would be no way to raise that tax any higher, I was told that would be a great problem to have, but not how it would be solved.

Also, as my Smart City questions noted, while a Pre-K commission was created by the Mayor and appointed by him, there was no public accountability to anyone OTHER than the Mayor.  I don't care how great these people were and are, you cannot ask the citizens of the city to appropriate funds without direct accountability.

I asked Kathy Gibson that night what the criteria for selecting the vendors for Pre-K, and if I remember correctly, she said that there were criteria but that it had not been written down.  Further questioning revealed that while they had established the NEED for Pre-K, they did not have many of the details on how it would be operated or WHO would be operating the Pre-K centers.  The general response that I received was that they would take care of that AFTER they got the money.

This approach reminds me of an old Memphis recording term: "We'll fix it in the mix!" That may work great when you're recording an album, if if you are asking the citizens to spend money, you had damned well better have your plans up front and center.  As my wife Susan noted, it was like asking for a business loan without having a BUSINESS PLAN to show your funders.  How'd that work out, eh?

Next, in campaigning for the measure, Steven Reid said that they wanted a low turnout, as it was the voters who voted most often (which, frankly, are usually higher-income people) who would be more likely to vote for this measure.  Well, hell yeah, as it was THEIR property taxes being reduced!  Notice that the very people who were supposed to be benefiting from this measure (lower-income people with young children) were NOT being targeted and were NOT being encouraged to vote for this proposal.   Can you see now how that led credence to the idea that this was more about tax relief for the wealthy and less about Pre-K for  poorer children?  They couldn't have sabotaged their own campaign any better if they had PLANNED it that way.

Personally, I truly believe that Flinn and Strickland deeply wanted Universal Pre-K for our city and perhaps thought this was the only way it could be done; I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Now that we are here, with the referendum having gone down in flames, where do we go from here?  Even Reverend Whalum supports Universal Pre-K, so, I am issuing a call to him, as well as to the erstwhile Pre-K Commission and the City Council, to sit down and figure this out.  I want ground rules.  First, to the Pre-K supporters, you need to go out and LISTEN to the people that you want to help and spend more time among people unlike yourselves and your social circles, and listen to Reverend Whalum, too.

Reverend Whalum, two things: NO GLOATING, and do not mention the $57 million, because that is in the courts, and they will take care of it.  And ALL of you, bring SPECIFICS to the table, and realize that while Universal Pre-K is a terrific idea, it is only a BEGINNING for what needs to be done to address poverty in this city.

Also, understand that until the day comes when we have a new legislature that will blow up our tax system and institute a state income tax, we are going to have high property taxes.  PERIOD.

I want to end by offering my congratulations to newly elected State Representative Raumesh Akbari, who succeeeds the late, incomparable Lois Deberry in House 91.  She defeated Libertarian Jim Tomasik with 89 percent of the vote.  Great work, folks!

UPDATE: Stop what you are doing and go read Steve Ross at VIBINC; you can thank me later!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I still don't know how I will vote for pre-K

While I agree with the concept of universal Pre-K, I don't like the way the Memphis Pre-K initiative is going about it, there no accountability for this commission, it's elitist as hell and they insist if we don't give them the half-cent sales tax increase, Pre-K will NEVER happen in Memphis. Their website is here, but they sound to me like this:

 The Anti-Sales Tax website is here, and I agree with a lot of what they say, except for the bogus $57 million argument (and yes, Reverend, I am talking to YOU here). I think the Antis are on point when they say that the most important time in a child's life is from birth to 3, before the time Pre-K would exist. Also, the Pre-K side conveniently neglects how important environment is to a child, so even if they get the full benefits of Pre-K, if their homelife is unstable, how long can it last? Even if we do this, it is not the game-changer that it is made out to be. We have to address poverty from birth to adulthood, and if we as a city, a county, a state, a region or a nation are not willing to do this on the massive scale that it needs to succeed, this is just a way to say "SEE, WE TRIED, BUT THEY ARE INCORRIGIBLE, LET'S JUST LET THEM DIE" if it fails. I feel like I am being guilt-tripped into voting for this, I won't know until I get off the bus at my polling place at 5:40 tonight how I am going to vote. Check out both sites and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

One Hundred Fifty Years Ago Today

The greatest President this country has ever known gave a brief, two-minute address at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on this date in 1863.  If you have never been to Gettysburg, I urge you to visit.

He noted in the address that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here"; how wrong he was. Here, featuring all living Presidents, among others, is that address: