Monday, April 28, 2014

Looking through Diane Rauner, the Koch Brothers and Dark Money

Citizens United and McCutcheon:  What You and I Can Do to Make It Right

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court poured another tanker truck of gasoline on the already disastrous conflagration known as Citizens United.  In McCutcheon v. the FEC, the 5-4 decision once again affirms the earlier decision that money is speech, but this pronouncement goes a bit further by providing for any wealthy individual to influence unlimited numbers of political characters rather than follow earlier law (1974) limiting the number of candidates to whom one could give money as well as capping the amount given to each.

In other words, to Mitt Romney’s famous, “Corporations are people too, my friend,”  he could add “and wealthy individuals can be unshackled lobbyists, my friend.”

According to On the Media, the McCutcheon decision raises the limits able to be spent by an individual for individual donations from $123,000 to $3.6 million – or  nearly 30 times the amount limited by earlier campaign finance laws of 1974.

Shaun McCutcheon is a conservative businessman from the state of Alabama who enjoys giving money to his favorite political candidates and committees.  His suit, supported by the Republican National Committee, argued that his right to free speech was unfairly and illegally constrained by the FEC’s Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 – the result of concerns raised initially during the Watergate scandal and a Congressional attempt to halt the possible corruptive influence of money in politics.

The Roberts Court and the usual suspect judges merged around the previous Citizens United argument that money is speech and speech must remain free and without constriction. 

Stock Tip:  Citizens United has proven a huge monetary boon to the corporate media in 2012.  According to Take Part,  “Nearly $6 billion was spent during the record-breaking 2012 election cycle…” Indeed, nearly $1 billion of that money was from donations made privately by anonymous contributors. 

Reporter Meredith McGehee from Commonblog notes that CBS Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves reported CBS profits will climb $180 million this year due to political advertising.  “’Super PACS may be bad for America,’ Moonves said, ‘but they’re very good for CBS.’”

As we roll into 2014, the McCutcheon decision will likewise boost eaernings; moreover, the amounts of cash headed to major affiliates in 2016 may become absolutely mind-boggling.  CBS may be trading a bit down this week and last, but just wait until late summer and early fall.

If there is an answer to this judicial scandal and our national dilemma, some method to at least shed some light on all this dark money, the solution may exist in the very words of the decision makers on the Supreme Court and the most unlikely and least exertive commission in Washington. 

Within the 30 page majority opinion paper by Justice Kennedy in the Citizens United case is the sentence, “Disclosure is the less-restrictive alternative to more comprehensive speech regulations.”   In other words, money may be used to influence, but those who influence can and should be identified.

Michael J. Copps, former head of the Federal Communication Commission is quick to support disclosure as an important and immediate answer to Citizens United and, now, McCutcheon.    And he reminds us and anyone else willing to listen – the law is already there to do this.  It just needs be enforced.

Section 317 of the Federal Communications Act (47 USC § 317) requires identification of any on-air commercial – political or otherwise.   Any advertisement  – even one with Diane Rauner in a blue house dress promising she is a Democrat – must also “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, or committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” paying for them.

Copps asserts, “If a special interest group calling itself Citizens for Purple Mountain Majesty and Amber Waves of Grain is a front group for a chemical company refusing to clean up a toxic dump or an energy company looking to buy friendships on Capitol Hill, the law says we need to know that.”   

All that is necessary is the enforcement of a legal statute already on the books.  So, how does this happen?  Mr. Copps explains that such enforcement could take place in 90 days or less if necessary.  It just takes some push by people interested in forcing the FCC to do something about it.  And no time is better than right now.

Recently Obama appointed venture capitalist Tom Wheeler, whom Obama dubbed the “Bo Jackson” of the communication world as leader of the FCC.  Recent decisions indicate a leader of the FCC interested in assisting internet providers with increasing fees.  Another appointee, Michael O’Rielly is a former Republican Senate staffer.  But Common Cause has been supportive in hoping these two new commissioners will invigorate the Commission to do more than rubber stamp communication industry transactions.  Perhaps we can assist in this?

Maybe you’d like to consider contacting the members of the FCC to request they put some teeth back into a law that has remained silently on the books.  You can bet that the Koch brothers and everyone else at Purple Mountain Majesty will provide a not-so-gentle downpour of lawyers and arguments, but the Supreme Court has already indicated the direction for disclosure as acceptable.  Let’s get started now. 

Email and phone your Senator or Representative now.  Contact the current members of the FCC and ask them to grow some fortitude and put the law 317 into effect before November 2014, and certainly before 2016.

Email to Tom Wheeler, Chairman FCC:

Email to Mignon Clyburn, Commissioner FCC:

Email to Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner FCC:

Email Ajit Pai, Commissioner FCC:

Email Michael O’Rielly, Commissioner FCC:

Even as a very young reader, I knew something was dreadfully wrong with Alice in Lewis Carroll’s book about falling through the looking glass. 

Chief among them was the lack of struggle Alice seemed to have in drinking an unidentified liqueur or in snacking on a small morsel of obviously tainted bread.  In each case, these offerings included invitations to imbibe or snack. 

Quite honestly, as a kid I ate most everything I found – even while hiking with other kids in landfills, but we knew better to ingest anything marked “eat me.”  And we’d have smashed any bottle inscribed with “drink me.”  Even in my dreams, I was never so compliant. 

Not so today.  In America, we swallow almost anything anyone gives us.  Especially not-so-subtle electronic messages from cloaked and shadowy characters who promote political candidates.  And, like in Alice, we don’t know who they are and -  thanks to the Supreme Court -  how much they’re giving to promote the candidate.  Let’s start enforcing Rule 317 in the FCC code of laws.   Make the call.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Revenue Neutral" and the Proposed Fair Tax Amendment

The Fair Tax in Illinois and the “Revenue Neutral” Position

Two Joint Resolutions are still alive in the House and the Senate of the General Assembly despite the extremely short time and the seeming difficulty to raise enough votes – especially in the House – to keep the movement for a Fair Tax succeeding.  In a worst-case scenario, Speaker Madigan, the master of vote collection, will fall short of collecting the necessary votes in the House and the Resolution may disappear in another week and a half. 

Senator Don Harmon
If that were sadly to happen, the discussion could re-appear in 2016.  And would.  The appeal to a fair tax is worth a Joint Resolution now, and the emphatic discussion presented by A Better Illinois and sponsor Senator Don Harmon is as important economically as it will be twice as important if it must be reborn in 2016.

By the way, in case you agree, you can contact your Representative and Senator regarding HJRCA 49 or SJRCA40 NOW.

Of course “taxes” have become the overworked term of the last few months.  Governor Quinn, in his budget speech of March, has called for the fiscal necessity of a continuation of the “temporary” tax increase of 2011, and the Republicans have called foul.  Speaker Madigan, for reasons only comprehensible to the Speaker, piled on with a declaration to consider a millionaire tax, while providing a tax break for major businesses.  Perhaps this was cover for the Governor’s proposal, but only the Speaker would know.  One of those ideas has been withdrawn, and the other – the business relief tax cut – is part of the walking dead at this point.  Would-be Governor Bruce Rauner has yet to offer his promised budget (the pace of the 30 Committee Big Business group on Illinois Economics he promised?), but he too has been strident in denouncing the Governor’s appeal to maintain the current tax increase.

And, of course, lost in all of this was the most sensible and most enduring fix possible for the State of Illinois: The Fair Tax.

I noted the other day that the latest epithet connected to the radio ads for a fair tax is calling it a “Fair Tax Cut.”  Nice idea for good reasons.

One of the most bloviated and blustering opponents of the Fair Tax” has been Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills.  If the antiquated flat tax were an old, rusting and misfiring car, McSweeney would drive that inefficient piece of metal until , well, until forever.  Forget inventive ideas of safety or mileage.  Anything new-fangled like key start or radio.  For Rep. McSweeney innovation is the enemy.  Fairness is Satan.

And, this brings us back to Senator Harmon’s example of how a Fair Tax might actually work in Illinois.  It is important to note that Harmon’s example is just that, not an actual design that is in any way part of the proposal within the Joint Resolutions.  In fact, if an Amendment were to be acceptable to the voting public of Illinois, it would ultimately require a specialized group of legislators from both houses to actually determine an agreed-upon “Fair Tax” schedule.  Senator Harmon’s proposal is just that – a PROPOSAL.

More than one Luddite
Of course, once you roll out a new vehicle out in front of a Luddite like Rep. McSweeney, he’ll have plenty of sudden-conjured reasons to go berserk.  And, of course, he does…nonsensically.  Following rule 1 – 10 in the ALEC playbook, McSweeney denounces the proposal as being “bad for taxpayers because.”  These vehement protests, often delivered with the same scoffing and authoritative emptiness of a Rush Limbaugh monologue, “It’s a tax increase, It’s a tax increase, It’s a tax increase, It’s a tax increase, It’s a tax increase, etc.”

Not surprisingly, Senator Harmon’s plan actually demonstrates that the “Fair Tax” will instead help by providing monetary relief to 94% of Illinoisans, and many services due to be cut in 2016 might be saved. (click here to learn about the proposal)

And for some of us, the plan may seem too moderate, but we also need to remember it is a starting point, a proposal.  In fact, the plan as proposed by the Senator does not deliver on the many millions and even billions that were once provided in comparable charts run by the CTBA (Chicago Tax & Budget Accountability) on the desirous effects of a graduated tax for Illinois.  Comparisons states like Iowa provided billions more in potential tax revenue. 

This unassertive proposal brings in about $23 million less than a current flat tax rate.  Why the lesser amount?

Senator Harmon, when asked, explained his main reasons for the modest proposal were at least two-fold.  First, it quite simply demonstrated and provided the kind of help a financially strapped citizen in Illinois could receive unless he was making well over $200,000 annually (a bit more than even an extremely argumentative opponent like McSweeney can use to call Middle Class).   Likewise, a modest proposal was more “Revenue Neutral,” or it came closest to what might be earned under a current flat tax structure, but it would still demonstrate significantly the benefits to the greater percentage of Illinois workers who would benefit from such a change.  And, let’s not forget the greater amount of spending that would come with such a windfall in the pockets of those who must spend (not invest) to survive.  We all would benefit.

Let’s not forget that a fair or graduated tax system also remains more responsive to increased wages and growth over time.  Just one more reasons we should be having this conversation now, even if perhaps Speaker Madigan may want us to have it instead in 2016. 

Drives fine…why change it?
Regardless, the conversation is an important one, and even if it is put on ice by the subterranean powers in the General Assembly who have pre-determined what will and what will not be on this year’s schedule, it is one we all should have with our elected legislators. 

If they’re not thinking about it now, they’re going to need to very soon.  There’s only so much money in Springfield – and only so much time.  The old vehicle is dying.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Laesch on Proposed Charter School Legislation

John Laesch on Proposed Charter School Legislation

Breaking (4/17/14):  This just in from Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice.
"Our efforts and those of State Senator Linda Chapa LaVia  have  helped to slow the reckless proliferation of charter schools in Illinois.  Your phone calls, emails, and witness slips helped enormously.

The bill to dissolve the charter commission  ( HB 3754 & SB 2627 ) not only made it out of committee, but it passed the full House.  And the  Charter School  Accountability  Act (HB 6005) passed safely out of committee and is still alive in both houses. ( Please note:  it has a new bill number (SB 588 )in the Senate.)  

Please call your State Representative and your State Senator today and ask them to support  both those bills. There may be some negotiation about each of them.  Be sure to tell your State Senator to stand firm for local control in charter school decisions.  Tell all your lawmakers that any entity that gets public funds must be accountable to the public.  Click on this  link  to find contact information for  these lawmakers."   

Note: Representative Linda Chapa LaVia and other legislators have drafted more than one bill seeking changes in the operations of charter schools and the Illinois Charter School Commission.  John Laesch, activist for Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice, has outlined his own position below regarding these efforts.  John would urge all of us to take an active part by calling our legislators to validate these bills and others.

Mr. Laesch’s letter:

After the UNO Charter School scandal and most recently, pay-to-play schemes connected to Rahm Emanuel and two Concept charter schools, I am blown away that the Chicago Tribune is still editorializing in favor of publicly funded private charter schools that overpay their CEO’s and underperform academically. 
The charter school commission is far from “independent.”  In fact, the law that created the charter school commission stipulates that all nine members of the commission will be charter school advocates.  Secondly, the commission that has been around for less than two years is sucking 2.75% in fees out of charter school classrooms as a means of maintaining their staff, and they have found their way into an early conflict of interest (I’m being polite and not calling it a scandal yet).  
This “independent” commission has voted on three charter school appeals and approved two of those three.  It should come as no surprise that the two Concept schools that were approved by the commission were connected to one of the “independent” commissioners, Glen Barton.  Barton was one of the nine commissioners who voted to approve Concept’s appeal, and he is also the board president for the Peoria Concept Charter School.  Since this conflict of interest was discovered by a Chicago Sun Times investigative reporter, Glen Barton has since resigned from the commission – shocking, I know. 
And even if there was no conflict of interest/scandal, voters should still be asking Springfield lawmakers why there should be a super-power “independent” commission that can override the will of their elected school board.  Why do we need that?  When did it become OK to do away with democracy and simply appoint supreme, “independent” commissions over them?  The entire idea of the charter commission was created by the Illinois Commission Chairman, Greg Richmond, who states clearly in his point paper to ALEC that the purpose of the commission is to override the decisions of local school boards.  He calls elected school boards “road blocks.”  Imagine that: elected school board members protecting the taxpayers from school privatizers like Richmond, Andrew Broy and Ron Packard. 
Moving beyond the commission, I think it is important to talk about some of the regulatory reforms being discussed in Springfield that address some of the “secret sauce” issues surrounding these taxpayer funded, privately run charter schools.   
The data continues to show, and credible news agencies continue to report that charter schools are underperforming or performing at the same level as their neighborhood public school counterparts.  The only school that seems to perform any better is Noble Street, a privately run charter school that administers excessive fines and bullies kids who don’t seem to be cutting the mustard (that is, the underperforming students).  It is a selective retention process used by Noble Street to make a student’s life a living hell if he fails a test or two.  Eventually the kid is begging his parents to get him out of the charter, or Noble eventually expels the kid.  Either way, Noble keeps the kids who pass tests, and the rest end up back in the public school.  One important law being discussed in Springfield requires the receiving public school to document why the child left the private charter school.  Another proposed law requires the taxpayers’ money to “follow the child” when the child returns to the public school. 
While the Tribune and most of the charter school privatizers continue to advocate for “innovation,” they never really expand beyond that one word.  I have learned that charter school advocates are not talking about innovative teaching techniques.; rather, they are talking about innovative management strategies like selective retention or salary structures that allow the CEO of each charter to make $250,000 per year (common in Chicago) or $5 million per year like Ron Packard (K12 Inc.).  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do the math and figure out that this money is being siphoned from the classroom.  Rupert Murdoch recently described the education “emerging market” by saying, “when it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone.”  For this one line sentence alone, I strongly support another law being pushed in Springfield that seeks to curb the profiteering and CEO extortion by making sure that at least 80% of the taxpayers’ money is spent in the classroom.
Furthermore, research of Illinois charter schools shows that charters are excluding children with disabilities (IEP’s) and English language learners (ELL).  This is another form of selective retention or “innovation” that is designed to reduce charter business costs and academic challenges like language barriers.  Another proposed law in Springfield aims to correct this inequality by requiring charter schools to accept equal numbers of IEP and ELL students.
And yes, to go back to the issue of democracy, another very important bill seeks to get rid of the super-power charter commission that exists to override elected school boards, invites scandal, and answers to nobody.  
Finally, let me make my final point with a question. Why are Springfield lawmakers and editorial papers like the Chicago Tribune not advocating for an elected school board in Chicago?  Quit trying to stick the rest of the state with this undemocratic garbage that doesn’t seem to be working very well in your own city.

John Laesch
Aurora, Illinois

Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice