Friday, September 16, 2016

Snake Oil and Trump University

On the radio I recently heard that the for profit technical school ITT Technical Institute has closed its doors; blaming the shutdown on a recent move by the U.S. Education Department to ban the company from enrolling new students who use federal financial aid. In another statement , they called it over-regulation. That’s a claim I often hear from conservatives, too much regulation is what they say prevents job creation.

I’m fairly sure that old time snake oil salesmen said the same thing when the FDA was given enforcement powers putting many of them out of business. Of course that claim is true in the strictest sense, because when our government regulates health and safety causing a business to stop selling its unsafe or ineffective product someone does lose a job but then those who aren’t harmed or defrauded benefit and reputable businesses prosper.

In the case of ITT Technical Institute the Department of Education has been under pressure to reduce student loan defaults. The Department of Education investigated and found that a high percentage of those who graduated from such schools were unable to find employment and that the placement assistance promised was either inadequate or non-existent. This led to those graduates either being unemployed or going back to the same kind of low paying burger flipper job they had borrowed $30,000 or more to try to escape.

ITT Technical Institute like so many other for profit education companies were modern day snake oil salesmen and like their earlier counterparts will complain loudly that have been unfairly maligned and that their employees have been put out of work. Sadly the students will have no one to advocate for them as they attempt to carry on with their lives many still owing tens of thousands of dollars and for the current students not even a worthless diploma to show for it.

This ITT Technical Institute debacle is remarkably similar to the Trump University scam wherein prospective students were promised they would learn from real estate investment experts hand picked by Donald Trump and materials prepared or at least reviewed by him. What they got were people hired to present material many of whom had no familiarity with real estate investing prior to reading the material in preparation to give the class. Donald Trump has been sued in numerous states as well as being investigated by the attorneys general of several others. Trump famously or infamously called the presiding judge in one of the pending cases biased because he’s a Mexican, which is a lie.

The Trump University scandal doesn’t just involve the presidential candidate. It also includes our own Governor Greg Abbot, then Attorney General of Texas, who took a $35,000 campaign contribution and Pam Bondi, currently Attorney General of Florida, who took a $25,000 contribution from Trump at around the times each decided to drop their respective investigations into fraud at Trump University.

There’s apparently plenty of tar to go around yet we don’t hear much of this in the media. This is exactly the same kind of crony capitalism that rank and file members of both parties are so frustrated with. So message to Republicans: Trump is not the answer!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A "miracle" that never really was

The “Texas Miracle” is no more, in fact it never really was. Texas women are suffering high rates of death in child birth or shortly thereafter and our economy has soured with the downturn in oil and natural gas prices.

Recent reports show maternal death rates have doubled in recent years making Texas the most deadly state in which to give birth. In fact if we were a stand alone nation we’d be worse than every other developed country. There is as yet no definitive answer to why more Texas women die in child birth or for associated reasons but it’s not hard to imagine that the fact that Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation might have something to do with it. You can thank our Republican leadership for that since our governor and state legislature have refused to accept Medicaid expansion even though the federal government will cover 90% of the cost.

There is also a likely connection to our Republican led government cutting funding to Planned Parenthood and other providers of women’s health care. There is certainly a connection to the increased number of births covered by Medicaid.  

When running for governor in 2014 Greg Abbott promised continued growth of the economy and that we would be number one in the United States. He has failed miserably; Texas has fallen from third in the nation to twenty first. Republicans have taken credit for a strong economy in Texas for the last 20 years which they claimed was due to a “business friendly” read low tax, low service government. No change in either taxes or services have occurred, the rest of the country continues to recover from the 2007 Wall Street implosion and yet Texas’ economy is well on its way to the bottom.

When Greg Abbott sought the governorship in 2014 he said he didn’t want Texas to be like California, well he got is wish. MassachusettsOregon, Delaware, Colorado and California are ranked as the top five economies in the nation by Governing magazine. The one thing they all have in common is Democratic leadership in the governor’s mansion and the legislature. Some of those states have raised the minimum wage, some have increased spending on infrastructure, they’ve all accepted Medicaid expansion. Remember that expanding Medicaid not only means more people get health care it also means more people are employed providing health care and those people spend money and buy houses.

In short our Republican leadership has taken the wrong road and all of Texas is suffering for it. We have an opportunity in November to start cleaning house. The only way that happens if we all vote so take a family member, take a neighbor or take a friend and if anyone tells you that their vote doesn’t make a difference or they’re all alike remind them that we could be growing like California instead of tanking like Kansas.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Republicans should know you can't have it both ways

As traffic and the number of school age children increase cities all over Texas struggle to address the needs of their citizens. Down the road in Cibolo the elected leaders believe that in order for the city to develop in an economically sustainable way it needs extend FM 1103 which currently runs from I-35 to FM 78 so it goes all the way to I-10. In fact this idea has been around since at least 2006 but state funding hasn’t been available and city leaders have been told it will be at least another 20 years if then before money might be available.

Rather than give up and wait a generation or more for the state to find the money Cibolo’s city council decided to investigate the possibility of partnering with a toll road operation to build the extension. Now some members of the community are up in arms over the idea of tolls and spurious claims of using eminent domain to allow an outside company to as they claim “take property a bargain basement prices”.

I was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission that reviewed the cities options for financing the extension and recommended that working with a toll operator be explored. I was one of the skeptics on the committee and while I’m no fan of toll roads we agreed that there aren’t many options to finance this project. I reluctantly agreed that the city council should explore a toll road so it can be built.

Now here’s what I have trouble making sense out of, many of the folks objecting the loudest to the idea of a toll road are also staunch low tax Republican voters. When you are a low tax state you must also be a low service state in order to balance the budget. In Texas the city can’t even legally raise taxes to the level necessary to pay for the road and still maintain its other responsibilities. Rather than blaming city council members for taking an action they don’t like; these folks ought to be calling our state representative John Kuempel and state senator Donna Campbell to tell them to raise taxes enough to do the job that state governments are supposed to do.

While they’re at it they should also remind our state legislators that funding public education is required by the Texas constitution and they’re doing a pitiful job of that too. The legislature still hasn’t fully restored the funding cuts from they made in 2011 when thousands of Texas teachers were fired and more kids were jammed into each classroom.

Republicans are funny; they don’t want to pay taxes but they expect to get high quality services like good roads and great teachers. Most of us know that you get what you pay for; I just wish Republicans understood that.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Trump's Ethical Dilemna

"Every Republican nominee since Richard Nixon, who at one time was under an audit, has released their tax returns" according to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. No major party nominee has failed to release tax returns since at least 1976 so what’s holding up Donald Trump? Perhaps it’s because they’ll show he isn’t the billionaire he claims to be. Perhaps it will simply show Trump has not made the millions of dollars of charitable contributions he claims to have made. Or more troubling it may be due to the connections to various Russian oligarchs whose wealth Trump relies on to fund his many ventures since no U.S. bank will lend to him. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets, we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump adviser Carter Page has extensive dealings with Gazprom, the Russian state-run energy company with strong ties to Putin and his inner circle. Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort consulted for former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, a key Putin ally, until his ouster in February 2014. There’s even a ledger, recently found in Ukraine, that was maintained by Yanukovich’s staff listing $12 million as fees to Manafort.

What will Trump do if Putin makes it known that he wants to complete the annexation of Crimea or perhaps all of Ukraine and if Trump protests Putin’s buddies will cutoff funding for Trump’s projects? That’s a question that concerns ethics lawyers who worked for President George W. Bush, presidential candidates Bob Dole, John Kerry, and Mitt Romney, among others. They all agree Trump would have more potential business conflicts than any prior president.

Trump’s conflicts of interest aren’t limited to Russian investors, he’s invested in 500+ companies around the world. Many are limited liability corporations related to real estate holdings, including properties in Panama, Istanbul, Mumbai, Puerto Rico and Dubai. How would Trump behave if one of those countries says they’ll nationalize his local assets if the U.S. doesn’t relent on some issue or give them preferential trade treatment?

Trump has said many times that his children and executives would manage his businesses instead of selling them off. "This is certainly going to present an unprecedented ethical dilemma if Trump wins," said Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, who provided legal assistance to several presidential candidates during their campaigns. "He can't just get amnesia. He's stuck with the knowledge of what he owns."

The Donald has waffled when describing his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump claims he's never spoken to Putin yet in 2014 Trump said he did. According to Trump, Putin "could not have been nicer" and has praised him as a canny leader who he respects. In the last week his daughter Ivanka posted on social media a photo of her and Putin’s girlfriend out sightseeing together.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Execution of Wood unjustified

Supporters of the death penalty usually claim that it’s OK because only the worst killers are executed. In Texas that isn’t always the case and I’m not even considering the questionable convictions using tainted evidence or prosecutorial misconduct. No, I’m talking about what will happen in about two weeks. On August 24th Texas is scheduled to execute a man who even the prosecution says didn’t kill anyone. If you think he’s guilty of some other heinous crime you’d be wrong.

How is that legal, you might ask. Texas criminal code includes something referred to as the “law of parties” wherein all those party to a crime are guilty to the same degree for whatever happens even if they didn’t actually participate in the act. In this case Jeff Wood was the getaway driver for a convenience store robbery in which the robber shot and killed the clerk. Wood wasn’t even in the building at the time of the crime. The actual shooter was executed more than a decade ago and Wood has been in prison for the last 18 years.

In addition to the question of culpability, there’s also the question of Wood’s competence to stand trial. The trial was initially postponed because a jury deemed Wood incompetent to stand trial. Wood has borderline intellectual functioning and a history of emotional issues. 

And then there’s the wildly speculative and inflammatory testimony of Dr. James Grigson, the infamous forensic psychiatrist known by many, including his peers, as “Dr. Death,” for testifying in nearly every death penalty case he appeared in that the defendant would present a future menace unless executed. It’s amazing that Grigson was even allowed to testify given that he’d been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and its Texas counterpart for his unethical behavior long before he testified against Wood.

No one, not even his family, is suggesting that Wood wasn’t involved in the commission of a crime but if your support for the death penalty is due to your need for retribution how does executing Jeff Wood satisfy that need? If you consider yourself Christian; how does “an eye for an eye” square with the Christ’s teaching on forgiveness? If your view is that “it’s the law”; just remember that slavery was once the law of the land and in 1940’s Germany gassing Jews was legal.

Recent research shows that the victim’s families don’t feel the closure so often imagined when the culprit is executed. So the questions are: Why are we executing this man? What purpose does it serve?

To quote Gov. Greg Abbott: “Human life is not a commodity or an inconvenience. It is our most basic right. Without it, we have no other rights.”

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Textbook Peddling Nonsense

"Mexican American Heritage," is the first textbook on Mexican Americans ever included in a list of pre-approved instructional materials for Texas public schools. The authors must have been fans of Donald Trump before it was cool because they attribute poverty, drugs, crime, non-assimilation, and exploitation to Mexican Americans and link the ethnic group to illegal immigration. Apparently the history books’ authors don’t understand enough history to realize that many Mexican American families can trace their roots in Texas to a time when it was part of Mexico. In case I’m not being the clear, the border moved not the people.

In another part of the book they claim “Studies have shown that the Mexican American community suffers from a significant gap in education levels, employment, wages, housing, and other issues relating to poverty that persist through the second, third, and fourth generations". These are the same insults used against every other ethnic group that has ever set foot on this continent since the 1700s. Irish Catholics, Italians and Poles are just a few of the groups who have suffered such ethnic slurs over the last 300 or so years.

As it turns out the publisher of this travesty of a textbook is owned in part by Republican activist and former State Board of Education (SBOE) member Cynthia Dunbar. This is the same woman who questioned whether public education was even constitutional. Apparently she shares Donald Trump’s aversion to reading our founding documents since the Texas Constitution states: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

There are numerous like minded members of the SBOE still in office, one of them represents our district. Ken Mercer has supported textbooks and curricula that even other conservative groups like the Fordham Institute consider bad. Here’s what they had to say “Indeed, both in public hearings and press interviews, the leaders of the State Board of Education made no secret of their evangelical Christian-right agenda, promising to inculcate biblical principles, patriotic values, and American exceptionalism. And politics do figure heavily in the resulting TEKS. . . . Complex historical issues are obscured with blatant politicizing throughout the document. Biblical influences on America’s founding are exaggerated, if not invented. The complicated but undeniable history of separation between church and state is flatly dismissed.”

Mercer also claims that evolution is a hoax. Even the conservative Catholic Church has accepted the science of evolution since the 1950s and Pope Francis has reiterated that position recently. I spent 12 years in Catholic schools and well remember the high school biology lessons including evolution.

Now here’s the good part, you have an opportunity this November to retire Ken Mercer by voting for Rebecca Bell-Metereau. She’s a professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, her daughters went to public schools here in Texas. Bell-Metereau knows education and what we can do to make it better for all Texas children. If you don’t have a single other reason to vote in November improving the education of the next generation of Texans by replacing a reactionary with a professional educator should be more than enough.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Contrast Between Two Candidates

As of Tuesday both major parties have officially nominated their candidates for President of the United States. There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two people. The Republican Party has nominated a man who has handed a millions by his father and used it to build immense wealth including interests in over 500 companies. The Democratic Party selected a woman who grew up middle class and upon entering law school began a life in which public service has always been a part.

While still in law school Hillary Clinton gathered the information and provided the reports that led to legislation requiring that disabled children get equal access to public education. While still in law school she documented segregated academies in the south that were illegally getting public funds and tax breaks which led Richard Nixon’s administration to stop the practice.

Hillary Clinton has not only been a law school professor and a successful lawyer but she’s also been an advocate for public education, improving access to health care in rural areas and for children of low income families to name a few of her accomplishments. As Secretary of State she was able to triple the number of poor Africans able to get AIDS drugs through programs paid for by our tax dollars without spending any additional money by arranging to buy generic drugs at one third the price.

While Trump has thrown a few parties and donated some money to worthy causes, all indications are that it wasn’t nearly as much as he pretends. Since he won’t release his tax returns like every other presidential candidate for over a generation we don’t know what he has really done or even if he’s really the billionaire he claims to be.

Hillary Clinton has succeeded in working with people who had no reason to want to work with her by finding common ground as exemplified by her work to pass legislation by working with Tom Delay. She recognized that he was an adoptive parent and might be sensitive to the needs of children in foster care. They worked together to pass legislation that significantly increased the number of children adopted out of the foster care system which has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of young people over the last 20 years.

Donald Trump divorced two wives during that time and now wants you to believe he’ll never let you down.

Hillary Clinton's lifelong dedication to public service is absolutely astounding. As Bill Clinton said in his speech at the DNC convention in Philadelphia, “Very few politicians have ever made as much positive change in their entire political career as she did before she was 30”. I’m anxious to see the positive change she can bring about as President of the United States.