Thursday, February 26, 2009

How bad is it? Bad!

It may be time to panic. The state budget crisis is so bad, apparently, that Sen. Marc Basnight, powerful president pro tem of the Senate, may go along with cuts to a signature cultural attraction in his district.

Gov. Bev Perdue has asked agencies for spending cuts of 9 percent for 2009-2011 and released a list of specific cuts she is recommending. On the list is funding for The Lost Colony, the outdoor drama in Manteo that began in 1937.

Basnight is notorious for protecting his turf. But he said it was fair to consider "The Lost Colony" along with other state programs.

Holy cow! This is serious.

- posted by Mary Schulken

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hope 'in unikely places'

After the lecturing and the to-do list, we finally got to the rousing inspirational part.

"Hope is found in unlikely places," President Obama said. And then he talked about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, from J.V. Martin Middle School in Dillon, S.C., which he visited during his campaign, "a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless," Obama said.

"But the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room [Congress]. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp."

And while Obama was recounting this, the camera showed Ty'Sheoma, sitting next to Michelle Obama and dressed up in lavender satin, looking shy but happy to be one of the stars of the evening.

The president continued, "The letter asks us for help, and says, 'We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. 'We are not quitters.' "

And in his closing, Obama again alluded to her letter, in his call to "summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit."

Those $2 trillion cuts

President Obama says he has identified $2 trillion in federal budget savings, to help reduce the deficit. He mentioned:

– Ending education programs "that don't work."
– Ending payments to large agribusiness companies "that don't need it."
– Ending no-bid contracts in Iraq.
– Reforming the defense budget, to get rid of unneeded Cold War-era weapons.
– Rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare.
– Ending tax breaks for corporations that "ship our jobs overseas."

There was much applause for each of those proposals. We think most of them would be excellent ideas. Call us cynical if you will. Call us jaded. But we are not holding our breath.

Who invented the automobile?

"We invented the automobile," Obama just said, making the point about the need to reinvigorate the U.S. auto industry.

We agree about the importance of our auto industry, and we're as patriotic as the next guy, BUT Karl Benz of Germany is generally considered the inventor of the automobile. (Wikipedia page here.)

Help banks? It's not such a horrible idea

"I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now," President Obama just said. "It's not about helping banks, it's about helping people."

That may play well in Peoria or Paducah, but here in Bank Town, where bankers are losing jobs left and right, we are not quite so averse to helping banks.

After all, when you help the banks, you are helping people.

Mr. Prez, we KNOW what the problem is

OK, this opening part is not telling us anything we didn't already know. We heard about taking responsibility at the inauguration speech. And goodness knows, doesn't everyone now understand that "that day of reckoning has arrrived"? I mean, if you haven't figured that out you've been under a rock.

We want to know what he's going to do, not more professorial lecturing about the causes of this financial swamp we've gotten ourselves into.

But at least our insurance is secure. (Oh, really?)

Waiting for Obama

We're perched in front of the tube, waiting, waiting, waiting ...

And remembering President Obama's first news conference two weeks ago. We were so pleased to be – again – listening to a president who was cogent, coherent, up to speed on the issues, not afraid to talk about complexities. That was after five minutes.

After 10 minutes, we were still glad to have a president who was cogent, coherent, up to speed on the issues and not afraid to talk about complexities, although we began to wonder whether it was – after all – really necessary to talk quite so much about all those complexities.

After 15 minutes, we began to think about the really under-rated quality of succinctness.

After 20 minutes, we were fading, our attention drifting amid the complex syntax, the oh-so-lengthy answers.

Wonder if his aides took him to task for tediousness. Wonder if, by tonight, he'll have learned to reel himself in a bit.

Humility breaks out in Charlotte?

Monday night, for the first time in recent memory, Charlotte's City Council debated what face the city ought to offer to Raleigh.

The issue was whether Charlotte should push the legislature to pass a bill changing the equity formula for allocating transportation money.

That formula puts urban areas, where the scope of need is great, in a ditch. Yet such a bill is very unlikely to pass, which makes this a symbolic fight.

For the first time we can recall, there was dissent on City Council about adopting a posture and taking a position that will be preceived as arrogant and self-serving in Raleigh.

From at large representative Anthony Foxx (and a candidate for mayor)

"We need to unclench our fist."
"We are moonwalking. We are making it look like we are fighting something on behalf of the city when in reality we are hurting the city"
"We have fought this with a smashmouth approach."
"This is not a bill that's being presented to be passed, it's being presented to make a
point. We have to advocate in a different way."

From Michael Barnes, District 4:

"This arrogant, big-headed, "I'm gonna tell you what we want' is
not working."

John Lassiter, an at-large representative who's also
running for mayor, feels differently. Here's what he had this to say:

"I'm not overly concerned that we would step on some toes if all we're going to get
is nothing."

Get outside the shadow of it's skyscrapers, and the view of North Carolina's largest city changes.

We see ourselves as a city of need and outright neglect when it comes to state dollars. But many others - particularly lawmakers and policy-makers in Raleigh, see us as parochial, arrogant and preoccupied with our own needs while remaining blind to the needs of other places.

The irony? Charlotte has an important story to tell. But it's been unable to get that message across because of years of me-first, take-no-prisoners rhetoric from local leaders about what Charlotte needs from the state. That's a character flaw of this fine place.

Changing that strategy and posture would be a shrewd and productive step for both Charlotte - whose future is tied to North Carolina's future - and for North Carolina, whose prosperity is directly rooted in many ways to Charlotte.

- posted by Mary Schulken

Monday, February 23, 2009

Can illegals be screened?

An editorial in the Observer about illegal immigrants getting stimulus jobs drew criticism for saying E-Verify, a government program that employers can use to confirm citizenship, had a high error rate.
One reader wrote:

"I demand that you retract the lead editorial on today's Opinion page. You
stated "...E Verify, the system companies use to confirm legal status, has an
error rate that has limited its usefulness."
Since when is an accuracy rate
of 99.6 not good enough? Nothing else in our government works nearly as

We think the error rate is closer to 5 or 6 percent, based on what's been reported. But what is considered an error is controversial.
The Department of Homeland Security defends its program, and explains the error rate cited above. (But please note there's a "non-comfirmation" rate as well that DHS does not consider error, and others do.)
The U.S. Chamber says E-Verify doesn't work, and points to reporting by the Wall Street Journal.
The Christian Science Monitor reports on its flaws.
The national association for public universities says its error rate hinders its use.

- Posted by Mary Schulken

Friday, February 20, 2009

GOP goes after hip-hoppers and midgets?

New Republican National Chairman Michael Steele is launching a grand re-branding program for the Grand Old Party but it's not clear how some of his reaching out will sit with the GOP conservative base. For instance, he told the Washington Times newspaper this week that: "We want to convey that the modern-day G.O.P. looks like the conservative party that stands on principles, but we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings."

The GOP wants its message to appeal to young people, moms of all shapes - "soccer moms, hockey moms" - and even "one-armed midgets." The "one-armed midgets" was said jokingly, although some pundits say even that could get him in trouble. "Little people" is the preferred, more up-to-date term, they say.

Steele says this GOP makeover "will be avant garde, technically. It will come to table with things that will surprise everyone - off the hook."

Off the hook? Clearly Steele is trying to give the GOP a hipper, modern, more-in-touch image. But this sounds a lot like pandering to us - and pretty lame pandering at that.

What do you think? Does the GOP need re-branding?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Obama, Jesus, King, Reagan top 'hero' list

A new Harris Poll asked a cross-section of 2,634 adult Americans who they admire enough to call their heroes, and President Barack Obama topped the list of most mentioned persons. He's followed by Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Abraham Lincoln, John McCain, John F. Kennedy, Chesley Sullenberger and Mother Teresa.
These heroes were named spontaneously. Those surveyed were not shown or read a list of people to choose from.

In 2001, the first year the Harris Poll asked the question, Jesus Christ was most mentioned, followed by Martin Luther King, Colin Powell, John F. Kennedy and Mother Teresa. George W. Bush has moved up since that survey, from 19th to 5th.

So, what makes a hero in the public's mind? Here are characteristics most of those surveyed listed: 1.Doing what's right regardless of personal consequences. 2. Not giving up until the goal is accomplished. 3. Doing more than what other people expect of them. 4. Overcoming adversity. 5. Staying level-headed in a crisis.

Some former heroes no longer get hero status in some folks' eyes. Most mentioned as fallen heroes? Colin Powell, George W. Bush, John McCain, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy. In 2001, Bill Clinton topped this list.

So, who would be on your list of heroes among public officials or well-known leaders?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't get mad, get Madoff

A toy company is marketing "Smash-Me Bernie" -- a model of Bernie Madoff and a hammer, the New York Times reports. For only $99.95 plus shipping and handling, you get a 7-inch miniature of the New York financier whose mammoth Ponzi scheme swindled an estimated $50 BILLION from investors. You use the hammer to pound the little guy.

The doll is made by Mini-Me ModelWorks of Phoenix, which custom-makes dolls, the Times reports. And, it says, the company just got an order for 50 dolls that look like John Thain, the former Merrill Lynch chief executive who got canned last month.

We can think of a few other folks who might make good Smash-Me targets. Bet you can, too. One of them might be named Ken. Or maybe Alan? Or ... Actually, Time magazine has come up with its list of 25 people to blame for the crisis. Ken Lewis and Ken Thompson aren't on it, but the founders of Golden West, Marion and Herb Sandler, are. So are Angelo Mozilo, founder of Countrywide (now owned by B of A), and the CEO of Beazer homes (with a tip of the hat to the Observer's investigations of Beazer). But Time isn't offering dolls and hammers.
- Posted by Mary Newsom

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Whitewater boondoggle? No, visionary.

Is it foolish for Mecklenburg County to try and make the non-profit U.S. Whitewater Center a county park?

No. It's visionary. But it will require a regional approach - and require that the county drive a hard bargain with the money.
Why should county officials paddle into this turbulence?

For starters the 307-acre site sits on public land. It's the world's largest artifical whitewater river for rafting and kayaking ­ - and more. There's long-term value in having that as a regional resource.

The park is in a large, lovely natural area in a relentlessly urban region (1.5 million people) that has a large outdoor recreation-oriented population - and few places to practice it.
Given those things, rescuing the center from default on loans would be a shrewd move.

But it will take a shrewd deal to do so without putting taxpayers at risk. If the mountain of debt the developers of this non-profit acquired could be retired at a bargain price with regional effort, the center could be self-supporting. So we don't quite buy what the county's general manager said: That absorbing the park is out of the question without cuts to other county parks.

One key point: The development of the U.S. Whitewater Center, to date, has suffered from a lack of attention to details and follow-through. It has not suffered from a lack of vision, nor a lack of enthusiasm from paddlers, climbers, hikers and mountain bikers.

Mecklenburg County ought to protect taxpayers, yes. But taxpayers own the land. They are in this deal to the tune of $7 million in "service" payments already. This ought to be seen as an opportunity.

- posted by Mary Schulken

Friday, February 13, 2009

Judge, it's time for a decision

Let's see. Judges are supposed to render decisions. But newly elected District Court Judge Bill Belk doesn't seem to want to do that.

Judge Belk has known since at least December that the N.C. Code of Judicial Conduct bars state judges from serving on corporate boards, because it could be a conflict of interest. Yet Belk still hasn't resigned from the board of Sonic Automotive.

Not only is he thumbing his nose at the Judicial Commission rules, recently Belk tried to get permission from the chief district court judge to be excused from court Wednesday so he could attend a Sonic board meeting.

When Chief District Judge Lisa Bell said no, Belk reportedly raised his voice in a confrontation outside the judges' offices.

The Judicial Standards Commission, which investigates allegations of ethical violations by judges, meets today. Executive director Paul Ross is aware Belk sits on the Sonic board. What can Belk be thinking?

To be sure, there'd be some financial advantage to staying on the Sonic board. In 2008, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Sonic awarded Belk nearly 3,000 shares of restricted stock, redeemable if he stays on the board until the annual meeting in April. The stock was worth $60,000 when awarded but now is worth only about $5,100.

Further, his pay from Sonic – $150,765 in stock and fees last year – is better than his beginning judge's pay of $106,445.

But come on. Belk is a wealthy man, an heir in the Belk department store family. The Sonic money has to be pocket change for him.

The only conclusion we can draw is that Judge Belk thinks rules shouldn't apply to him. That's not a comforting thought for those who must appear before him in court.

Or maybe he can't decide which post to resign. If he can't – or won't – decide, the Judicial Standards Commission needs to decide for him. A judge who knowingly flouts judicial ethics rules has no place in our state's justice system.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Those geese were cooked

Raise your hand if you're surprised that the bird remains found in the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 were -- ta da! -- Canada geese.
The National Transportation Safety Board released those findings in a statement today in Washington.
The majestic migratory waterfowl have become a nuisance in urban and suburban areas all over the country, including parks, golf courses and even small, grassy islands in parking lots. Their poop coats sidewalks and grass, and they can be aggressive in protecting their nests. In some instances they no longer even bother to migrate.
The birds are -- for now -- federally protected, and a variety of not-always-successful techniques for running them off are tried, such as oiling their eggs or using dogs to chase them away.
No word on whether anyone in D.C. is pondering allowing goose-hunting season. Maybe in time for Christmas dinner?
- Posted by Mary Newsom

Friday, February 6, 2009

Absurd, Ken? Not really.

Ken Lewis, Bank of America's chief executive officer, swears talk of bank "nationalization" is absurd.

There's no chance, he says, Bank of America will be "nationalized," or taken over by the government.
Watch the video here.
Really? Absurd? That's not what others are saying. An article in Time makes a persuasive case that nationalization may be the inevitable path out of the nation's banking crisis. Check it out here.

- posted by Mary Schulken

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Yikes! Look-alikes

News flash! Here's the real reason Gov. Bev Perdue and state superintendent June Atkinson have squared off at each other over who's in charge of public schools.

It's not about policy. It's because they look so much alike.
See for yourself.
Can you tell these two women apart?
Do you know which one is the governor and which one is not?
See? That's the real reason for this rumble.

- posted by Mary Schulken

One change we believe in

"This was a mistake. I screwed up."

That's what President Obama said Tuesday about having pushed for former Sen. Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services despite Daschle's not having paid some $140,000 in income taxes and some other ethically challenged actions.

"I've got to own up to my mistake, which is that ultimately it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules," Obama said. "You know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes."


Remember that April 2004 news conference in which then-President Bush said he couldn't think of any mistakes he had made in combating terrorism or conducting war in Iraq?

At least, with Obama -- the guy who promised probably more change than he can deliver -- one thing has changed. The man will 'fess up now and again.

Let us hope this attitude lasts. Voters are more likely to respect someone who will honestly say, "I goofed," than someone who insists he was right all along. Note: In his final news conference Bush did admit to numerous errors. It probably didn't cost him any respect and may well have gained him some. After all, any president is going to make mistakes along the way, and most of us understand that. Just be big enough, when you make one, to admit it and move on.

-- Posted by Mary Newsom

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tom Daschle, the early years

My, how Washington changes a guy, as this early campaign ad demonstrates (courtesy of Politico):

posted by Kevin Siers

Beazer, schmeezer, no breaks!

Giving businesses a free ride on income taxes they'd owe on canceled debt is a good point to debate as Washington mulls how to get the biggest bang for the buck jumpstarting a moribund economy.

But stop right there. Beazer Homes USA, which is being investigated by the FBI, the IRS, HUD and the N.C. Real Estate Commission for its shady lending practices, would be eligible?
No! No! A thousand times no!

This policy may be sound. But not if it puts money in the hands of irresponsible companies who caused so much of the current pain.

The company has admitted its employees violated federal lending rules, including funny business with down payments. Its tactics left 10 neighborhoods in Mecklenburg County with foreclosure rates of 20 percent or higher. Know what that means? Unstable neighborhoods that drag down everyone's investments and quality of life.

Before we give breaks to scoundrels who admitted they violated fed rules we ought to put dollars in the hands of people who were their victims, and who are at risk of losing their homes.

- posted by Mary Schulken