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Posts published in June 2015

First take

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When Donald Trump emerged to announce his run for president, the song playing in the background was Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World". That was probably a good indicator of the judgement he'll be using in the rest of his campaign: Young released a statement saying "Donald Trump was not authorized to use Rockin' In The Free World in his presidential candidacy announcement. Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America." (A nice little boost for Sanders there.) Not to mention that Trump must not have paid attention to anything about the song beyond its title, since it is actually a protest against practically everything Trump stands for. A minor glitch? Practically everything in his announcement speech was a glitch, from his reference to himself as "the best jobs president god [lower case] ever created," to his self-delighted proclamation, "I'm really rich." This act will not take him to the White House, certainly, and almost certainly not to the nomination: Such an overt expression of raw ego may sell to a sliver of a fan base but not to enough to get very far. He won't necessarily flame out quickly, though. He's a celeb, which is a real advantage in today's America. He also has enough money to self-fund his campaign, well into primary season anyway, if he really wants to; he doesn't need to court a billionaire, and he can fire shots at his competitors who do. A lot of other Republicans may desperately want him out of the race, but with his ego finally on the line - after talking about running twice but backing away - he may not be able to let it go. For quite a while.

Union of last resort?

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This year’s legislature has been good to lower paid workers.

Sick leave? check.

Enhanced retirement options for workers who don’t have retirement plan through work? Almost check.

And now Democratic House leaders are introducing a bill that will increase the minimum wage incrementally to $13.00 hour by 2018. (inevitable check)

And lets not forget the Affordable Care Act, assuring that low income workers are able to afford health insurance.

With this increases in minimum wage, paid sick leave, more retirement options, and health insurance guaranteed, the State of Oregon, along with the feds who are supplying the subsidies for health insurance, have “negotiated” some pretty solid contracts with America’s workers.

The 2014 union rate for the US was 11.1%. In Oregon it was quite a bit better at 15.6%. But still…..15.6% is pretty low historically.

Is there correlation between the shift of income from the middle to the top a and the shift of power between capital and labor because of the reduction in the power of private labor unions? And if so, will the enhanced employment requirements passed by the State Legislature help boost the middle class workers situation? Or will the enhanced benefits required by law now remove the reason for lower income workplaces unionize in the first place?

It’s an interesting development, Oregon State is legislating compensation packages for lower paid workers that are substantially better than the typical compensation packages available in other States. It’s acting like a union of last resort. The consequences could be positive – historically higher unionization meant more for the middle class. And it’s certainly better for the lower paid worker. More income to spend in the community. Better protections for workers. Healthier workforce. More incentive to work and save for retirement.

Or could it backfire? Perhaps, besides the obvious danger of a loss of jobs as employers find ways to trim operating expenses, it could also mean that the lower paid less skilled workforce, the one that could arguably benefit most from a strong private union, no longer has a reason to unionize. Of course, unions had been struggling to unionize low wage workers for some time.

Now, if we can just elect some responsible “union” leaders in 2016.

First take

Would the Rachel Dolezal thing - she being the (biologically at least) caucasian woman who led the Spokane chapter of the NAACP - have happened in a part of the country where the racial mix was a little deeper? For a city of its size, Spokane is pretty white, and it's next door to a part of the country that's renowned for its whiteness.

It's a strange sorta scandal matter, logically of little interest to anyone outside of Spokane, and logically not of much interest to any there much outside of the NAACO community.

Mike Kennedy of Coeur d'Alene posted on Facebook this morning about national news reports on the subject, quoting one as saying, "...as the country reeled over the news that the former NAACP leader had resigned...". Kennedy: "Reeled? Are you serious? No one "reeled" over this for God's sake. A self-promoting local lady (with whom many of us are acquainted) created some kind of alternate reality, appears to be quite deceptive, and was publicly called to task over it. She was in her position for a mere 5 months, and the locals in her Spokane chapter seemed quite happy to have her move on. No one "reeled"."

It's early summer doldrums, and the news week is relatively quiet.

Is there anything here that might prompt a reasonable discussion? Well, sure. Why not a white leader of an NAACP chapter (other other organizations like it0, if that's who the membership wants to elect? What does race mean in many cases in this country, when we have a president who is biracial but who is widely identified, and largely self-identifies, as black - and ever-growing numbers of people are multi-racial?

Not crisis-level front-burner questions, perhaps, but legitimate ones. Maybe something to ponder in a quiet season.

Missed opportunities

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A new White House report details the economic impact of Medicaid expansion and is sharply critical of the 22 states that have not done so. The report is titled, “Missed Opportunities: The Consequences of State Decisions Not to Expand Medicaid.”

I like that: Missed opportunities. Why? Because this Council of Economic Advisers’ 44-page report fails to include any calculation of Indian Country as one of those missed opportunities.

I get that the population of American Indian and Alaska Natives is small, one percent or so. But you cannot build an economic case for Medicaid in Alaska, Oklahoma, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico (and even Washington and Oregon) without at least back of the envelope estimates. This is important because of the way Medicaid is structured; it’s a shared partnership between the states and the federal government. However American Indians and Alaska Natives are eligible for a 100 percent federal match, so the money spent by a state Medicaid program is fully reimbursed by the federal government.

This system, of course, makes no sense. And it’s probably why the White House failed or forgot to include Indian Country. A much sounder approach would be for the Indian health system — whether federal, tribal, urban or nonprofit — to get funding and administrative rules directly from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Then Alaska, Oklahoma, or the other states that are currently rejecting Medicaid expansion would lose their say about what happens to American Indian and Alaska Native patients.

Let’s dig deeper into the White House report — then I’ll add numbers and context.

The administration is quite right to hail the Affordable Care Act’s economic success story. “Since the law’s major coverage provisions took effect at the start of 2014, the nation has seen the sharpest reduction in the uninsured rate since the decade following the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, and … the nation’s uninsured rate now stands at its lowest level ever.”

However 22 States—including many of the states that would benefit most—have not yet expanded Medicaid (although Montana has passed legislation to expand Medicaid and is working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to determine the structure of its expansion). These 22 States have seen sharply slower
progress in reducing the number of uninsured over the last year and a half, and researchers at the Urban Institute estimate that, if these States do not change course, 4.3 million of their citizens will be deprived of health insurance coverage in 2016.”

In Indian Country, the big three non-expansion states are Alaska, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The Alaska Legislature recently adjourned without a vote on Medicaid expansion (a measure was proposed by Gov. Bill Walker). But an expansion may be still possible if the governor acts without legislative approval.

The White House report estimates Alaska would gain some $90 million in federal funds by expanding Medicaid. But that number, I believe, misses out the intersection between Medicaid and the Indian health system. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium estimated that 41,500 Alaskans would be eligible for Medicaid — including 15,700 Alaska Natives and American Indians. In other words, more than a third of potential enrollees are eligible for a 100 percent federal reimbursement. Forever.

The numbers are similar and striking in South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The White House report says health insurance also reduces the risk of death. “This analysis estimates that if the 22 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid did so, 5,200 deaths would be avoided annually once expanded coverage was fully in effect. States that have already expanded Medicaid will avoid 5,000 deaths per year,” the report says.

This is a bit complicated, but I doubt if that number includes American Indians and Alaska Natives who are at risk of death because of funding shortages in the Indian health system. What’s now called Purchased and Referred Care is better funded than it has been in recent years, but that budget line still runs out of money for some patients needing specialty care outside of the Indian health system.

But the key point is that the Indian health system is underfunded and as the Kaiser Family Foundation noted “not equally distributed across facilities and they remain insufficient to meet health care needs.”

That unevenness is dangerous for the Indian health system — and it’s states that are limiting dollars by refusing to expand Medicaid.

We are seeing the evidence about how the Indian health system is picking up additional resources in states where there has been Medicaid expansion. In Washington, for example, I recently reported that tribal health facilities have increased their Medicaid funding by nearly 40 percent since expansion. This is new money in an era of austerity and it’s automatic funding that does not require appropriation from Congress.

Of course it would be ideal if the White House was making this case with hard numbers. The Indian health system is a federal obligation,— a Treaty right — that does not cost states. Yet states are setting the rules, so at the very least our advocate ought to be chronicling the impact. A missed opportunity.

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

First take

Think about it and it seems increasingly remarkable, and indicative: The first major Spanish-language radio station in the Magic Valley is celebrating its first year in business, and it held a celebratory event at the Jerome County Fair. Okay, fine; no big deal. Except, according to the Twin Falls Times News, "thousands of people" showed up for it. How many businesses, or much of anything else, would draw people by the thousands in an area of that size? (Jerome itself only has but so many thousands of people.) This is speaking pretty strongly both to the numbers of Hispanic people in the Magic Valley, and in Idaho. It also speaks to the culture taking hold there in a serious way.

What people in other countries think of us ought to always be of interest - not by way of telling us what to do, but by way of giving us an alternate lens for how we look at ourselves. Foreign Policy has an amusing article on what other governments tell their citizens about what to watch out for when they visit the United States. It's definitely a different way of looking at the country than most of us here have (and say a lot about those counties too).

Energizing Vista?

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I have been a resident and home owner of the Vista Neighborhood for nearly 50 years. Over that half century I have watched as Boise’s city fathers and mothers–past and present–have dumped house trailers, low cost housing, sex offenders, skinny houses, refugees, and assorted “assistance programs” in our neighborhood.

To be fair, for the most part these deals were probably well intended. The latest plan is a high dollar deal to “Energize Vista.” To be realistic, most of the deals have flaws. To be cynical, there is probably little hope of any true “improvement.”

Boise City in cooperation with the Farmer’s Market downtown has begun to compete directly with Lowe in an effort to “bring nutrition” to the poor folks living in the Oak Park apartments near Cherry Lane and Vista. The City is subsidizing a refrigerated trailer stocked with fresh produce that makes stops at the apartment complex–much like the Schwan’s frozen food guy. We think a free taxi or shuttle to Lowe’s market would be cheaper.

“The city never contacted me and I will have trouble staying open if these guys from downtown come into my area with subsidized competition,” lamented Lowe.

Pointing across the street to a rental property and a pair of skinny houses he added, “Those houses have never had anyone in them more than a year. We establish a customer base and they all move away.”

There in lies the problem. Skinny houses are allowed with multiple tenants–usually college students. Granted, the structures are probably visual improvements over the original structures, but cars are parked helter-skelter along the street and the occupants are transient in nature. The houses don’t attract upscale occupants.

Meanwhile, Boise planners and politicos proudly tout their efforts at creating upscale housing in the downtown area where taxes on improvements are all diverted away from all local governments and schools to benefit CCDC and developers. - from Boise Guardian

First take

What the Oregonian pointed out today about pot sold in dispensaries, that traces of pesticides have been found in it, is not surprising and actually one of the arguments for legalizing it. Up to now, with pot grows being illegal, the operating principle had to have been that the fewer eyes on it, the better. Now reviews can be undertaken in sunlight, and cannabis likely to be a great deal safer.

On another pot front, that House bill barring the U.S. Department of Justice from messing with state laws allowing legalized marijuana, which passed that chamber, now has passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, placing it in a budget bill. Chances of passage into law are now . . . high. This would be the first significant rollback in federal law against pot ever, really, and may turn out to be a very big deal when the history of this prohibition is written down the road.

New chair

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A miracle of sorts is developing among Idaho’s Democrats: A three-way contest for the position of party chair.

Call that a small but real mark in the plus column for the Democrats, along with the fact that, unlike the last state Republican chair contest, this one has foregone bitterness or battles. But then, this isn’t a job most people would want. It doesn’t pay, but it can be time consuming and intensely absorbing. The end results of those efforts are likely to be – however adept and hard-working the chair may be – crushing defeat and blame, generally undeserved.

The Idaho Democratic chair has attracted some highly skilled political people over the years, but it has limited authority and is commonly thought to be something much closer to “powerful” than it actually is. (Same goes for the Republicans.)

Still, the chair can influence politics in the state to a degree. This is written before the vote electing the new chair, so I don’t know who it will be, but the advice that follows would apply to any.

Party chairs (any party) have two basic useful functions: Building and strengthening the organization, and serving as its spokesman to the public. (They sometimes play a role too in candidate recruitment, which Democrats in recent cycles have done relatively well.) With that in mind, three ideas suggest themselves for the incoming Democratic leader.

1. The top organizational priority should be filling precinct spots. Form a special task force and chair it, with the specific goal of filling as many of those precinct vacancies as possible around the state. And then give those precinct people some specific and visible work to do.

With focused attention, more can be done in this area than most Idaho political people think. In the 2014 election the Republican candidate for governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, won by a big margin. Care to guess in how many out of about 1,000 precincts his Democratic opponent, A.J. Balukoff, got no votes at all? I counted only three. There were lonely Democrats casting their defiant votes in very nearly every precinct and in every county in Idaho. The chair should be setting out finding those scattered seeds, carefully planting and watering them.

2. Use such bully pulpit as you have first and foremost to describe what the Democrats are about. Not, that is, about what this or that individual Democrat is proposing: Your job should involve defining the party and what it wants, as distinct from the Republicans, and spreading the word. A whole lot of Idahoans have been given to think Democrats are the spawn of Satan, and that’s not much exaggerated. Democrats in Idaho will continue to lose until this starts to change.

3. Use your position to talk about the Republican Party and what (in your view) it’s all about. Not just the latest bum headline, not just this office holder or that one, but the party itself. And not the fact that it controls all the political levers in Idaho – that just sounds whiny. And certainly not that “we need two parties.” (That offers no help about why anyone should choose yours.) Talk about why you think Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong. And you should be just that blunt.

Whoever you, the next chair, turns out to be, you’ll probably get more blame than you deserve whatever you do. But there is some potential for at least making the job count.

First take

What's your demonym - for your community, that is? Subject came up at the Salem Statesman Journal, where a write pointed out that few people seemed to know what to call a resident of Salem. Salemite? That seemed to be the closest to a consensus, but it's not commonly used there. It doesn't trip off the mind the way Portlander or Seattleite or even Boisean do. Could have something to do, the article seemed to suggest, with the way people look at the community: Demonyms probably come up more easily when people like to talk about themselves as community residents, and while Salem is a nice community (underrated, I think), there is an in-the-shadow-of feeling there. No, they're not Portland, but then they don't have to be. Our town here, Carlton, is far smaller than either Salem or Portland, but the self-description of Carltonian flows easily.