Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Prop 200 forum: Fear mongering and guilt vs fiscal responsibility

Monday night's Proposition 200 forum was a rousing-- and a bit contentious-- political debate.

Three local news media celebrities--Bill Buckmaster from KUAT, Ann Brown from the Arizona Daily Star, and Jim Nintzel from the Tucson Weekly--asked questions of four Proposition 200 supporters and opponents. Brain Delfs of the Tucson Firefighters Association and Jon Justice, a local right-wing radio host, spoke in favor of Prop 200. Brandon Patrick, organizer of Don't Hand Cuff Tucson, and Jeff Rogers, Pima Democratic Party chair, spoke against Prop 200.

For the most part, the players stuck to their media messages with Patrick and Rogers beating the unfunded mandate drum, while Delfs and Justice ducked the funding issue and tugged at audience heart strings with crime stories.

Currently, public safety is the largest part of the city's budget, with 64% of the funding. Prop 200 calls for a change in the city's charter which would mandate automatic funding of police and fire at a rate proportional to the population. According to Rogers, the only city in the country to enact such a charter change is Aurora, Colorado, and they are now bankrupt. Patrick and Rogers contend that this would be Tucson's fate if Prop 200 were adopted. They made it clear that they support funding for police and fire departments but take issue with the mechanism of funding, particularly when the city and the country are in a recession.

Delfs refused to address the funding issue, saying that "with growth, the funds will be there." Justice rattled off a list of city expenditures that he would cut completely or reduce--including Access Tucson, funding for the arts, children's programs, and the zoo-- in the name of public safety.

Justice also called Prop 200 opponents hypocrites because the Democratic Party supports the school funding propositions on the ballot but not Prop 200. Opponents in the audience chuckled when Delfs said that the school initiatives were not needed because "the state legislature has taken care of education." (Ironically, recreational programs, after-school activities, and education have been shown to reduce crime, anti-social youth behavior, and future incarcerations, but neither side mentioned these initiatives as a long-term prevention strategies.)

Justice made the most inflammatory statements of the evening. He repeatedly said that the Tucson City Council's priorities were "screwed up" and that Prop 200 was a way to hold them accountable. Specific funding of public safety via a charter change forces the City Council's hand, but I don't see how it "holds them accountable." He also tried to paint the Prop 200 opposition as a partisan battle. These statements appeared to be primarily hyperbole. The only specific example he gave of "screwed up priorities" was giving away city buildings to arts organizations for little or no rent (as if viable businesses would occupy some of these rundown dumps the artists now occupy). Judging from his website, Justice is using Prop 200 and Tucson City Coucil bashing to boost his popularity among right-wing radio listeners.

Patrick and Rogers said that the cuts outlined by Justice would be like "chipping away at an iceberg with a pick" because they would account for only $1-2 million.

After an hour, the forum ended abruptly with several audience members still waiting in line to ask questions. Nothing was resolved by the debate, but it was a worthwhile forum to discuss specifics and hammer out details. Thanks to Arizona Public Media and Cox Communications for their sponsorship.

This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column. To view the accompanying slide show, check out this link.

Friday, October 16, 2009

John McCain, Your Constituents Want the Public Option

Wednesday afternoon Move On organized a healthcare reform rally in front of Senator John McCain's office in downtown Tucson.

Fifty or so people waived signs and chanted as commuters headed out of downtown in evening traffic. The protesters were looking for their senator and wondering what happened to that "maverick" and his straight talk express. You know-- that guy who talked about campaign finance reform years ago? What happened to him? He seems to have forgotten his constituency and dissolved into the mainstream, ultra-conservative Republican Party (along with his partner in crime, Senator Jon Kyl).

A few speakers told their personal horror stories about health insurance problems, and State Representative Phil Lopes urged everyone to keep fighting for the simplest public option solution-- extension of Medicare to all. (After all, Medicare is working well for US seniors, why can't the rest of us have that as an option?)

After the chanting, sign-waving, and speeches, the group went to the door of McCain's office to present him with a $3.4 million dollar check-- representing the amount of money he has received from the healthcare insurance industry over the years. You see, John McCain has received more campaign contributions from the healthcare industry in his career than anyone else in the US Senate.

Protesters politely knocked on McCain's office door, but no one answered. McCain's constituents were locked out--again-- a symbolic gesture given the differences between his stance on reform and the opinions of many in Southern Arizona.

There will be more rallies. McCain and Kyl, we're not giving up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Feel Our Pain: Uninsure Congress

The US Congress is moving at its usual glacial speed on health care reform. Proponents of reform are working hard-- organizing, rallying, phone-banking, and canvasing-- to ensure grassroots support for a meaningful resolution to the debate. Unfortunately, lobbyists are working just as hard to keep the status quo, and they have millions of dollars behind them.

Given the overwhelming data, it's hard to believe that the US Senate seems to be frozen in time. Here are a few facts:
- The US pays more for health insurance coverage than any other country in the world.
- And yet millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured.
- The cost for health insurance coverage continues to rise exponentially.
- Most bankruptcies in the US are caused by astronomical medical bills.
- Most citizens-- including most physicians-- support healthcare reform (1, 2) that includes a public option or a single payer system.

So, why don't we have healthcare reform legislation yet? Follow the money.
- Top insurers are spending millions of dollars to keep the status quo.
- Big Pharma is also spending millions to fight lower cost drugs.
- Who's the beneficiary of all of this monetary largesse? You guessed it-- our Congress-- including Chuck Grassley and Max Baucus, two influential members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Here are just a few links regarding campaign contributions 1, 2, 3, 4.

Robert Reich summed up the insurance industry's position up nicely in a recent blog post entitled The Audacity of Greed.

So, to sum up: we know there is a need for reform, we know the status quo stakeholders are spending millions to keep the current system, and we know our weak-kneed Congress has been receiving millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Given these conditions, how can we impress Congress with the need for reform?

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times had a great idea in his opinion piece entitled Let Congress Go without Insurance. Kristof postulates that to truly understand the problems that uninsured and underinsured Americans are facing Congress should be divested of their Cadillac insurance at a rate proportional to the national rates of insurance. He suggests that if they fail to pass meaningful reform, 15% of them should lose their healthcare insurance entirely and another 8% should receive inadequate insurance.

Sounds like a plan to me. Direct experience is a wonderful tutor.

Originally published on Muse Views, October 13, 2009